America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s

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America Divided

Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin. America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s 3rd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. 374 ISBN: 9780195319866


America Divided is a broad study of the “movements and issues that arose soon after the end of World War II and were partially resolved by the time Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency.”(ix) The authors seek to weave together the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, the Great Society, the New Left, the rise of a counter culture, and the conservative revival. None of these topics are covered in great depth or with remarkable insight. However, the book does provide a significant amount of information and helps with background for any further study of the time period.

As the subtitle “The Civil War of the 1960s” suggests, Isserman and Kazin see the 1960s as a time of conflict reminiscent of the 1860s. The divisions of the ‘60s addressed in America Divided can be broken into three categories: black vs. white, liberal vs. conservative, and old vs. young. There are, of course, overlaps between the groups and within each group there are different issues. Together, the conflicting groups prevented President Johnson from implementing his Great Society. Isserman and Kazin make it clear in their introduction that the 1960s was a complex period that defies any attempt at neat categorization.

The largest source of conflict during the broad 1960s was race. During World War II hundreds of thousands of African Americans left the farms and plantations of the South for the urban north. The belief that the North was more receptive to them was quickly proven ill-founded. In cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Boston, African Americans faced just as much, if not more, discrimination. In many urban areas, whites fled to the suburban areas, leaving the cities rotting for African Americans. It was not long before people were referring to these as the ghettos. Lyndon Johnson believed that it was the duty of every American to reach out and help those who are suffering. Nobody was suffering more than the poor blacks. Johnson truly believed that the Voting Rights Act and other parts of his Great Society would help lift African Americans out of poverty. Events proved him wrong.

Since the 1950s, African Americans had been quietly organizing resistance groups. They led successful non-violent demonstrations that forced the desegregation of busses and lunch counters. By the middle of the 1960s, the civil rights movement could look back on a number of accomplishments. But a younger generation of blacks was coming to power and they were not content with small progress. In 1965 a riot broke out in Watts, Los Angeles. A few months later, more riots broke out. By 1966 Stokey Carmichael, chairman of the SNCC was demanding “black power.” Poor blacks lashed out at whites. Whites reacted with horror and fear. Violence ran rampant. The progress made towards a peaceful coexistence was quickly burned down. Johnson was left virtually powerless as a major part of his Great Society tore itself down.

By 1966, Johnson’s Great Society was also under attack from conservatives of both parties. The Vietnam War, which was sucking money from Johnson’s domestic program, continued to escalate. Liberal Democrats began to disaffect and attack the President. Conservative Democrats begged the President to stop spending money without raising taxes and threatened to stop supporting new legislation. All this from the President’s own party. Across the aisle, Republicans were gaining strength. The 1964 elections had swept in the most liberal Congress in decades but that did not mean the Republicans had lost faith. Conservatives led by William Buckley seized on the left over momentum from Barry Goldwater’s campaign to launch a new era in American politics. They began to portray Democrats as out-of touch with the common man, obsessed with helps African Americans, and too smart for their own good. In light of the domestic unrest, their arguments gained traction. In 1966, Republicans gained back many of the seats they had lost. Ronald Regan captured California’s highest office and Richard Nixon suddenly seemed like a viable candidate in 1968. In short, Johnson’s few remaining friends on the defensive.

There were also growing tensions between the young and the old. The 1960s is often remembered for its counter-culture. Teenagers took traditional rebellion from their parents to new heights. Sex, drugs, and Rock and Roll was their motto. LSD and Marijuana were ways to open the mind and free oneself from the confines of modern America. Members of the New Left challenged the war on Vietnam and traditional sources of power (especially Lyndon Johnson). To the older generation it seemed as though these kids had lost their minds. Born into the wealthiest country in a time of peace, these kids did not even know what it was like to suffer. Their open rejection of traditional morals scared many into believing that the entire society was doomed. A religious revival spread across the country. Though some chose to worship Eastern religions such as Buddhism, the majority of Americans found comfort in the traditional Christian church. In short, there was a wide gap between the world of the young and that of the old.


David Houpt, Fall 2008

Because America Divided covers such a wide range of subject, the authors never really have time to go into any great detail. It reads more like a text book, than one that is attempting to make an argument. This being said, there is a tremendous amount of information crammed into its 370 pages. This book is a great starting point for anyone looking to do research on a particular topic in the 1960s. Even without going into great detail, Isserman and Kazin are able to show how the various different movements and ideas of the 60s tied together.

Kazin and Isserman seemed at their best when discussing the Youth Culture. Particularly when read alongside Joseph Califano’s book, the argument that there was much more to the drug culture than just getting high is quite interesting. After working for Johnson, Califano would go on to found a center for drug addiction and wage a personal war on drugs. Kain and Isserman argue that LSD is a legitimate topic to discuss and that the argument that it expanded one’s mind should not simply be dismissed. Johnson (and Califano) made no secret that they did not understand the counter-culture. Isserman and Kazin, who pride themselves as having been part of the culture, have insight into the movement that is completely lacking in other histories. This same insight makes for some really enjoyable sections on the music and poetry of the 1960s. The authors are able to discuss and explain with personal knowledge what drew young people to the Beats and Bob Dylan. All this is not to say that they are glorifying drug use or that they are just offering their own opinions. The book is well researched and includes a bibliographic essay.

A final criticism I have stems from their numerous allusions to the Civil War. For no other discernable reason than to justify the book's subtitle, Isserman and Kazin go to great lengths to relate the 1960s and 1860s. Some of their points are valid. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. did end a speech in Montgomery, AL with lines from the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and a group defending African Americans from a threatening mob referred to themselves as the Union Army. But the comparisons really end with race. When the authors take the comparison into other parts of the 60s they go too far. Without going into detail I will leave it at this: culturally, the 1860s was nothing like the 1960s.

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