What do historians and journalists say about politics and the "culture wars" since the Vietnam era?
How do they agree and disagree -- with each other and with the primary sources?
Which account(s) are most persuasive?
The following articles and books offer historical analysis of the events of May 1970 and/or the more general issues of political and cultural conflict in the U.S. from the 1960s to the present.
Christian Appy, Working-Class War : American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993)
Appy notes that the "hardhat" riot of May, 1970 led many people to believe American workers were "prowar." He finds the media responsible for creating an image of blue-collar workers as "superpatriotic hawks whose political views could be understood simply by reading the bumper stickers on some of their cars and pickups: 'America; Love it or Leave it.'" The image was vastly distorted, he argues. He cites public opinion surveys on the war that found little or no difference between the responses of the working class and those of the middle and upper classes. Appy suggests that working-class anger at the antiwar movement-primarily a middle-class movement-reflected class resentment, not support for the war. Specifically, workers were resentful because they and their sons were going to Vietnam in disproportionate numbers, while protesters obtained student deferments.
Appy relates these issues to larger political events: the 1968 and 1972 presidential campaigns of George Wallace, who lashed out at "pointy-headed intellectuals" and defended the values of the "average man on the street"; and attempts by President Richard Nixon to identify a "great silent majority" who supported his Vietnam policies. Appy also offers an unusually clear and concise summary of the events of the Vietnam era.
Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary Edsall, Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics (Norton, 1991)
In this highly influential bestseller (Bill Clinton's presidential campaign team is said to have paid attention), the Edsalls suggest that the Democrats alienated "key voters" (northern ethnics, Southern "populists") over the politics of race, rights, and taxes, thus sending them into the arms of Republicans who oppose their true economic interests.
Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989)
Ehrenreich argues that the stereotype of the reactionary, racist, blue-collar worker was a middle-class invention; the late sixties and early seventies was in fact a time of labor militancy. Indeed, it was the "professional middle-class" that made a "right turn" away from liberalism, and took the working class with it by exploiting the concepts of the New Class and the "Liberal Establishment."
She argues that the "professional middle-class" "discovered" the "blue-collar worker" to be racist and reactionary rather than militant because it suited their needs as a class. Promoted by the news media, sociologists, and Hollywood, this middle class stereotype of the working class helped ensure that radical students and insurgent workers "would not get together."
David Farber, "The Silent Majority and Talk About Revolution," in David Farber, ed., The Sixties: From Memory to History (1994)
Farber views the United States in the late 1960s as an advanced capitalist society where controlling the "code" (the means of shaping public perception) had become as important a source of power as controlling the means of production. He argues that working class resentment of student protesters was rooted in a tension between producer and consumer values -- between the work ethic and leisure -- and was aimed at those who "controlled the code." The student protesters exacerbated this conflict by failing to acknowledge the hard work and hard-won material gains of the working class. The tension between producer and consumer values (a tension which did not emerge for the first time in the 1960s) was both a cultural and a material change: this period saw the beginnings of the "de-unionization" of the American workforce and the replacement of industrial production jobs with service- and information-based jobs.
Farber argues that 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater attempted to highlight these working class anxieties and resentments in 1964 but was ahead of his time. By 1968, though, Richard Nixon and George Wallace successfully tapped these fears, winning 57% of the presidential vote between them.
Philip S. Foner, U.S. Labor and the Vietnam War (New York: International Publishers, 1989)
Foner's account covers the varied responses of organized labor unions and their members to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, emphasizing the many labor unions which opposed the war. In his description of the hard hat protests of May, 1970, he cites news acccounts from the time which questioned whether the demonstration on May 8 was in fact a spontaneous action by the workers, as building trades union leaders claimed. He quotes sources who maintained that the workers were paid for the time spent protesting, and some might even have been offered cash bonuses for participating in the protest. As part of his discussion of the hard hat protests, Foner describes the intransigience of building trades unions in hiring more African-American and Hispanic workers.
Ronald P. Formisano, Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s (1992)
Formisano argues that the antibusing movement in Boston was not just about race or racism; it was also about class and status. He sees antibusing as an example of "reactionary populism," one of a number of such movements throughout American history "which have been bundles of contradictory tendencies seeking greater democracy or opportunity, perhaps, while simultaneously expressing intolerance or denying the legitimacy of certain group interests." Like Christopher Lasch, he links the antibusing movement to the "anti-elitism and fierce class resentments" engendered in working class white communities by other battles over urban neighborhoods such as highway and airport building. Formisano also argues that the white antibusers were strongly influenced by the decline of civility and authority in the 1960s. Ironically, they used the same tactics as the civil rights and antiwar protesters to advance their cause. But the antibusers wanted it both ways; attempting to gain favorable media attention by using these tactics, they were also very bitter toward the "liberal media" (who they saw as outsiders) when coverage was critical.
Joshua B. Freeman, "Hardhats: Construction Workers, Manliness, and the 1970 Pro-War Demonstrations," Journal of Social History (Summer, 1993), 725-739.
Freeman examines images of the "hardhat" construction worker (particularly the assumptions about masculinity associated with it) and how it became an emblem of blue-collar labor in the U.S. Tracing the changing images and working conditions of working men from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s, Freeman argues that in the years after World War II manhood became an important indicator of status among white male construction workers in response to the changing roles of women and non-whites in American society.
This article provides a thorough exploration of the social, economic, and cultural factors contributing to group identity among and public perceptions of construction workers in the post-WWII years, particularly the 1960s and 1970s. Regarding the hardhat riots of early May, 1970, Freeman argues that "It was the combination of class resentment and perceived threat to patriarchal notions of manliness that gave the hardhat demonstrations their explosive character" (735). He further argues that the media seized on the conflicts and the hard hat image as illustrations for the conflicts that were dividing American society in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He agrees with writers like Barbara Ehrenreich who attribute media fascination with the working-class masculinity represented by the hard hat figure to "a crisis in middle-class masculinity" (736).
Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics (Norton, 1989).
Like Barbara Ehrenreich, Lasch emphasizes that workers were not merely reactionary and racist, and that they faced economic trouble in the 1970s due to "de-industrialization" and inflation. However, in opposition to her, he does not see populist "backlash" as a product of right-wing propaganda. According to Lasch, Ehrenreich debunks one stereotype -- Archie Bunker the reactionary bigot -- only to create another: the "militant" worker who moved to the right as a result of a middle class media campaign. Rather, he points to a genuine cultural conflict between the educated classes and the "silent majority," arguing that "right-wing populism" in the 1960s and 1970s fits into a longer tradition defined by an "ethic of limits." He contrasts this with the and its ethic of competitive achievement and individualism, of unlimited personal freedom and expectation, linking this sensibility to dominant consumer culture.
According to Lasch, "law and order" was not just a racist code word; liberals failed to acknowledge the importance of a genuine breakdown in order and public safety in the cities-a breakdown they did not have to experience in the suburbs. The ethnic working classes experienced liberal policy as an invasion of their communities; here he refers not only to busing but to a longer history of urban renewal, especially in Boston.
Peter Levy, The New Left and Labor in the 1960s (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1994)
Levy opens his book by recounting "Bloody Friday": "Five minutes after noon on Friday 8 May 1970, about two hundred construction workers rampaged through New York City's financial district. Unlike workers of pervious eras, who had to come to Wall Street to attack the symbol of capitalism, this group directed its anger at the New Left and liberal politicians..." Summing up, he writes that "it is not an exaggeration to suggest that one of the most enduring images of the 1960s is that of construction workers assaulting antiwar demonstrators."
Like Barbara Ehrenreich, Levy argues that the popular conception of reactionary "hardhats" is distorted. Because of extensive news coverage of construction workers at the time, historians have focused on them in writings about the 1960s. Specifically, he cites Irwin Unger, The Movement, William Leuchtenberg, A Troubled Feast, and William Chafe and Harvard Sitkoff, A History of Our Time. Levy acknowledges that frictions between labor and the New Left did exist, but he emphasizes the diversity of each of those entities. He also claims we need to look at the early and mid-1960s when things were not so polarized, and to understand the polarization by analyzing three factors 1) the escalation of the Vietnam War 2) the rise of Black Power 3) the blossoming of the counterculture.
Jonathan Rieder, "The Rise of the "Silent Majority," in Steven Fraser and Gary Gerstle, The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1989)
Rieder traces the process by which working-class and lower middle-class whites left the Democratic party -- first for George Wallace, in 1968, then for Republicans Nixon and Reagan. He notes that this change can be traced in part to the New Deal Democratic coalition itself -- an unstable mixture in terms of race, region, class, and religion. At the same time, Rieder claims that Republican political strategists created and exploited the concept of "Middle America" (the term did not exist before the 1960s) in order to inflame the racial resentments of working-class Democratic voters. In voting Republican, workers sided with a party that did not always represent their economic interests.