The Sixties: from memory to history

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David Farber, Editor. The Sixties From Memory to History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 1994. 333 pages. $29.95



Mary S. Linhart

The Sixties contains 10 essays that ‘analyze the ways in which the great issues of the sixties…are shaped and contested through the changing nature of cultural authority and political legitimacy.’ (1) The words ‘shaped and contested’ give a clue to the general tone of the book. In general, the essays do not record a narrative sequence of events. There is an emphasis on the counter-culture rather than the culture.

In the early 1960’s, economic growth was fostered by notions of ‘growth liberalism’ in government activity. Robert Collins in “Growth Liberalism in the Sixties“ cites the Kennedy-Johnson tax cut, wage-price guidelines, liberalization of depreciation allowances, tax credits and a ‘host of manpower development, education and retraining programs’ (19) as well as efforts to hold down long-term interest rates for investments. Collins mentions a practice of “jawboning” business and labor. Califano (The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson The White House Years) describes Johnson’s personal efforts to persuade management and labor to hold down wage costs. Economic limitations did not constrain social programs or the peripheral war. Johnson was able to pursue both the Vietnam War and the War on Poverty. By 1968, ‘Johnson’s guns and butter policy had brought the economy to the verge of financial collapse.’ (33) Collins believes economic problems, coupled with the turn to the right evidenced by Nixon’s election caused the collapse of the liberal ‘ideological foundation on which it rested.’ (38)

Mary Shelia McMahon discusses changes in the American government in the twentieth century to explain how the executive branch was able to pursue an unpopular war. In the essay, “The American State and the Vietnam War“, McMahon contends that ‘elites’ like Dean Acheson wanted a strong role for the United States in the international arena. This view was reflected in NSC-68; ‘that the United States had to confront any further communist incursions–crucially, even if those occurred in areas of little direct economic or security interest to the country.’ (57) To achieve this, the United States needed ‘a permanent security bureaucracy--military, diplomatic, surveillance.’ (62) The long cold war this policy supported strengthened the presidency and the bureaucracy. Eventually, the ‘inherent tensions between elites and policy scientists became an additional structural difficulty. During the Vietnam War, ‘few elites dared to say that the war served no hard national interests and few advisers would admit that it could not be won.’ (73) As a consequence, Johnson continued support for the war.

In the article, “And That’s the Way It Was“, Chester J. Pach discusses television coverage of the Vietnam War. He points out the nature of nightly TV news. Shows typically allotted approximately 3 minutes to the War with no time for analysis. Pach contends television ‘showed the war as it was-–a confused, fragmented, and questionable endeavor.’ (91) Most encounters were small. By 1967, ’96 percent of the engagements involved an enemy force no larger than a company (150 soldiers).’ (93) Besides limitations of time, the networks, conscious of advertising and federal regulations were ‘wary of controversial programming.’ (100) Pach describes a report by Morley Safer that aroused the wrath of Lyndon Johnson who complained to CBS President Frank Stanton.

David R. Colburn and George E. Pozzetta discus black protest and ethnic revival movements in “Race, Ethnicity, and the Evolution of Political Legitimacy.“ Both African and ethnic Americans ‘turned inward to rediscover values that gave their lives meaning and that assisted them in formulating strategies to address their needs and concerns.’ (138) Besides urging by individuals like Malcolm X for black power, the promulgation of black culture, and teaching of black history there was a revival of interest in white ethnic cultural celebrations. Colburn and Pozzetta state that African and ethnic Americans rejected liberalism ‘with its emphasis in the centrality of individual self-interest.’ (140) Everyone in the United States is ethnic, but Colburn and Pozzetta seem to be thinking primarily of the urban working class. In the end, ‘the black power movement and the ethnic revival’ (141) went their separate ways and the Democratic New Deal coalition fell apart.

Alice Echols credits the women’s liberation movement for a ‘fundamental realignment of gender roles in this country through outrageous protest, tough minded polemics and an “ecstasy of discussion.”’ (167) In “Nothing Distant About It,“ Echols distinguishes (although not clearly) between liberal feminists and women’s liberationists. Betty Freidan and the National Organization for Women typify the former and disruptive activists at the 1968 Miss America Pageant represent the latter. The liberationists wanted to ‘render gender meaningless.’ (158) They hoped to go beyond institutional change and remake the personal world of family and male-female relationships. The only thing they seemed to favor was abortion.

In “The New American Revolution,” Terry H. Anderson describes the impact of the “movement” on American business. Anderson defines the movement as broad and amorphous. It ‘was a coalition of hundreds of groups that had been formed by thousands of organizers’. (176) Anderson links these activities to Populists, Progressives and New Dealers such as those described by Leuchtenburg (Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal 1932 – 1940) who ‘employed ‘economic and social planning in an attempt to achieve a better society and nation.’ (177) Much of the focus was on businesses profiting from the Vietnam War, e.g., Honeywell and Dow, and on environmental, consumer protection and workforce discrimination issues. Anderson claims the movement was not anti-capitalist or anti-big business. In fact, they created businesses ‘termed “hippie capitalism” (176) in such areas as natural foods, publications and food and clothing coops.

"Who’ll Stop the Rain?" by George Lipsitz, "Sexual Revolution(s)" by Beth Bailey, and "The Politics of Civility" by Kenneth Cmiel focus primarily on changes that occurred because of the youth culture. Lipsitz is concerned primarily with music. Bailey discusses changes in attitudes towards sex, particularly outside marriage and Cmiel discusses how four letter words represented freedom of speech.

David Farber discusses “The Silent Majority and Talk about Revolution” mostly by consideration of the attitudes of the working class. He focuses on the appeal of Nixon, George Wallace and Mayor Dailey of Chicago. He also considers the attitudes of the laboring class who ‘hated the student protesters’ because they ‘could not stomach the idea of the nation not only being run by corporate elites but also listening so seriously to the clamorous claims of the corporate elites’ privileged children.’ (297) --Mlinhart 12:30, 7 Mar 2006 (EST)


Mary S. Linhart

The growth liberalism described by Collins could just as easily be termed growth conservatism. Kennedy and Johnson were millionaires who professed liberal views yet both were well aware of the importance of stability and order for the business and investment community. A large number of the programs of the Kennedy administration and the Great Society benefited the upper classes and educated professionals. NASA and the Vietnam War could easily be viewed as hand-outs to industry. Other programs provided jobs for social workers, analysts and the like. The meanings of liberal and conservative vary over time and everyone favors growth. Still, the Democratic leaders who supported growth preferred to be considered liberals.

McMahon’s notion of tensions between elites and bureaucrats is difficult to deal with since elites could be bureaucrats and vice versa. It is interesting to note however, that Califano relates that many of Johnson’s advisors, i.e., elites like McNamara, Ball, and Katzenbach eventually rued the continuation of the Vietnam War. Men in the military like Westmoreland, and Wheeler continued to press for more troops insisting the outcome would be positive. (The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson The White House Years, 263)

Pach’s comments about television news and his description of the reporting process confirm the obvious limitations of the medium. He sums up by saying rather hesitatingly in the end, ‘it does seem that nightly news coverage did contribute to popular dissatisfaction with the war.’ (112) Of course the end was years after the beginning and that fact, in itself, contributed heavily to popular dissatisfaction.

Colburn and Pozzetta do not stress racism sufficiently in the discussion of the ‘anger and alienation of white ethnics.’ (131) They admit tensions developed over ‘urban renewal projects, affirmative action and labor reforms.’ (130) By trying to put the best light on the feelings and attitudes of African and ethnic Americans, they minimize bigotry and hatred that had existed for years and affected cities, education, labor, housing and politics.

Echols over-emphasizes the importance of the extremist feminists and is led to say ‘sixties radicals succeeded both in reformulating politics, even mainstream politics, to include personal life.’ (167) It would be difficult to attach much credit for the changes in opportunity for women to extreme liberationists.

Anderson’s article gives too much credit for business changes to the “movement.” Anderson does not stress that many of the goals of the “movement” to improve big (and small) business practices were worthy goals supported by almost anyone. He includes Ralph Nader, Common Cause, and the Sierra Club along with underground publications and a radical feminist organization called WITCH that put a hex on sexist bosses. He overemphasizes the influence of extreme groups. Anderson also reports ‘drugs, naturally was a movement business.’ (194) One can only hope legitimate supporters of reform programs whom Anderson lumps into the “movement” would be shocked by this statement. Anderson supports this statement with examples of paraphernalia businesses not with examples of criminals in illegal and profitable drug trafficking.

The essays of Lipsitz, Bailey and Cmiel are concerned with young people and their impact on the culture. Not surprisingly, they are not interested in those who did not make headlines or support the mass media. Perhaps Turner was right; without the frontier there was no safety valve for excess energy. Drug-taking, permissive, foul-mouthed and often alienated young were more to be pitied than to be censured and hardly worthy of admiration. Given enough records of activity and verbosity, evidence can be found that might suggest the disenchanted, aimless and amoral have been influential. Measuring the actual extent and nature of influence is more difficult. Much of the influence of the counterculture resulted in antipathy and distaste for their activities and the causes they supported. Somehow these authors seem to be caught up in their nostalgic memories (especially Lipsitz).

Farber points out how Nixon and Wallace attracted support from Labor but he does not discuss the rest of the Silent Majority that included most of the South as well as the traditional Republican supporters. The book emphasizes the role of the vociferous and outrageous counterculture. There is little discussion of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. As Farber notes, this history like all histories, is a ‘cautionary tale.’ (5) He cannot resist adding that this history will help us in thinking ‘about who we were back then’. (Italics mine.)--Mlinhart 12:30, 7 Mar 2006 (EST)

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