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Say “the Sixties” and the images start coming, images of a time when all authority was defied and millions of young Americans thought they could change the world—either through music, drugs, and universal love or by “putting their bodies on the line” against injustice and war.
Todd Gitlin, the highly regarded writer, media critic, and professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, has written an authoritative and compelling account of this supercharged decade—a decade he helped shape as an early president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and an organizer of the first national demonstration against the Vietnam war. Part critical history, part personal memoir, part celebration, and part meditation, this critically acclaimed work resurrects a generation on all its glory and tragedy.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from The Sixties
On New Year’s Eve, as 1958 slipped into 1959, I wasn’t especially aware I was living in the dead, dreary Fifties. I was a high school senior about to turn sixteen. I had little sense of living in any kind of “Fifties” at all; I wasn’t old enough to think in decades. I was simply living my life: striving for grades, wondering about sex, matching my exploits against those—real and imagined—of my rivals, watching the tides of adolescence rip through me. The only threshold I thought about was the one I would cross later that year, on the way to college. I was not living in history, but in biography.
Which is not to say I was devoid of political interests. I read The New York Times and my parents were liberal. I stayed up late on election nights and rooted for Democrats almost as passionately as I followed the New York Giants baseball team (until they broke my heart by running off to San Francisco in 1958). I thought President Dwight David Eisenhower was a genial deadhead, a semiliterate fuddy-duddy who deserved to be chastised almost as much for excessive golfing and tangled sentences as for embracing Generalísimo Franco. I thought Richard Nixon was sinister. I delighted in Jules Feiffer’s worldly spoofs of Eisenhower’s syntax, the phone company’s arrogance, and the middle class’s clichés. I liked Herblock’s liberal cartoons, including one in which Bernard Baruch said that Eisenhower’s stinginess with the military budget would make the United States “the richest man in the graveyard.” A friend introduced me to H. L. Mencken’s tilts at the philistine American “booboisie,” and when I wrote the valedictory speech at the Bronx High School of Science later that year, the only quotation was from Mencken: “We live in a land of abounding quackeries.”
My closest friends, the children of Jewish civil servants and skilled workers, held similar opinions. As we celebrated the coming of 1959, around midnight, in a fragment of news squeezed into Guy Lombardo’s orchestral schmaltz, we saw the black-and-white footage of bearded Cubans wearing fatigues, smoking big cigars, grinning big grins to the cheers of throngs deliriously happy at the news that Batista had fled; and we cheered too. The overthrow of a brutal dictator, yes. But more, on the faces of the striding, strutting barbudos surrounded by adoring crowds we read redemption—a revolt of young people, underdogs, who might just cleanse one scrap of earth of the bloodletting and misery we had heard about all our lives. From a living room in the Bronx we saluted our unruly champions.
I was studious and clean-cut. I won scholarships and mathematics awards. In three years I cut one day of classes. At the Sputnik-era Bronx High School of Science, one of the alumni held up to us as a model was a physicist named Harold Brown, then a rising star among President Eisenhower’s scientific advisers, later secretary of defense under President Jimmy Carter. I went off to Harvard that fall wearing a blue blazer. What was I doing cheering a bunch of bearded revolutionaries? What were ten thousand Americans doing in Harvard Stadium that April, chanting “Viva! Viva!” to the same Fidel Castro?
So much of America in the Fifties seemed content, so many of the old promises redeemed; why were middle-class children of the Fifties looking in such strange places for heroes? I was far from the only one, as it turned out, and my next ten years, if hardly typical of a whole generation’s, belonged to a larger drama. In my sophomore year, 1960, I was swept up in a Harvard-Radcliffe peace group called Tocsin. I identified with a scatter of campus organizer-intellectuals who called themselves the New Left. In 1963, at twenty, I was elected president of their organizational center, Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, which numbered a grand total of six hundred paid members and harbored the modest ambition of shaking America to its roots. In the spring of 1965 I helped organize a Wall Street sit-in at the Chase Manhattan Bank against loans to South Africa, then the first sizable demonstration at the White House against the war in Vietnam—and soon thereafter smoked my first marijuana (which I had previously thought to be a demon “narcotic”). I was moved by the idea that “people should make the decisions that affect their lives,” knocked on doors trying to organize Appalachian white migrants to Chicago into an “interracial movement of the poor,” wrote for and sometimes edited “underground” newspapers, gave speeches against the war, went to interminable conferences, walked innumerable picket lines, visited Cuba and was stirred by it late in 1967, scampered through clouds of tear gas to get away from billy clubs and bayonets (and get near the action) at the Democratic Convention in 1968, then again at San Francisco State College and Berkeley’s People’s Park in 1968 and 1969. I started growing my first beard the day I came to California in the fall of 1967, then shaved it off aiming to ease my way past customs to and from Cuba. I saw a comrade gashed by a chunk of concrete as we integrated an amusement park in 1963, heard a racist mob scream itself shrill surrounding our nonviolent group, until we were rescued—and arrested—by the police. A few years later, I watched police destroy my camera after I snapped them illegally searching my car in Chicago; I saw our organizing office reduced to rubble when Chicago police turned it upside down in a raid for planted drugs. I sat through the conspiracy trials of my friends, watched others try to overturn a police van in the Chicago streets, knew still others were planting stink bombs in the Democratic delegates’ hotel—and admired their courage. I dreaded guns, refused to smash windows—and at the same time learned to scorn nonviolence, which seemed helpless against the juggernaut of the war and the police. From mildly socialist I became “radical,” “anti-imperialist,” a partisan of “resistance,” a half-serious advocate of “destroying America,” and then, gingerly, ambivalently, found myself caught up in the collective hallucination (or was it?) of “the revolution.”
And then the movement’s—and my—forward motion was broken: In 1969, SDS, at the peak of its size and militancy, with some hundred thousand members, hundreds of chapters, millions of supporters, and under the intense scrutiny (to say the least) of the White House and the FBI, broke into screaming factions, one of which, the Weathermen, began to build bombs. One movement friend was assaulted (probably by a right-wing lunatic) and nearly killed; others were blown up, went underground, or died by their own hands. History, as Czeslaw Milosz has said in a different connection, came off its leash. The student movement, having spawned a women’s movement which both denounced and continued it, marched into a cul-de-sac and disbanded. I was one of those old New Leftists, anathema to all factions, who was broken up by the movement’s whirling destruction and self-destruction as much as I had been inspired—even formed—by its birth. Reproached for “revisionism” and dangerously “liberal” tendencies, I ended up identifying with something Martin Buber said about his friend the German socialist Gustav Landauer, murdered by soldiers in 1919: He “fought in the revolution against the revolution for the sake of the revolution.”
By the early Seventies the upheaval was over—as mysteriously as it had appeared, and as worldwide. Neoconservatives wobbled between relief and vindication; old radicals felt mixtures of despair, regret, chagrin, pride, resolve, and got on with their lives. “The Sixties” receded into haze and myth: lingering images of nobility and violence, occasional news clips of Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy, Beatles and Bob Dylan retrospectives, the jumble of images this culture shares instead of a sense of continuous, lived history. “The Sixties”: a collage of fragments scooped together as if a whole decade took place in an instant. It is to reclaim the actual Sixties from “the Sixties,” from this big-bang theory of history, as well as to find out what I think, that I have written this book.
I have worked at the edge of history and autobiography, from inside and outside the Sixties, writing at different focal lengths, in first and third persons, hoping that by describing the texture of certain episodes I could gain in sharpness what I had to sacrifice in breadth, at other times backing off to expose a larger picture. So this is part historical reconstruction, part analysis, part memoir, part criticism, part celebration, part meditation. Pride, chagrin, embarrassment have their places, but beyond them, I hope to have evoked the spirit of the time from the interior, yet without succumbing to the hallucinatory giddiness of the late Sixties especially, whose sheer wildness, even now, seems the stuff of another century. At the hub is the youth movement, principally the white student part of it, and its self-conscious core, the New Left, which borrowed from the black movement the habit of calling itself “the movement.” For along with the black movement (and under the mighty pressure of the Pentagon) the New Left became the dynamic center of the decade, pushing the young forward, declaring that change was here, forming the template for the revolts of hippies, women, and gays. I have stressed the strips of history I knew firsthand, taking my experience as primary evidence, material to be fathomed for the sake of a larger understanding. (In a few cases I lacked more than passing acquaintance but the segments were too important to pass over: the beats, the southern civil rights movement, the hippie scene.) The American youth upheaval was but part of a worldwide surge which cannot be explained simply by the baby boom, the economic boom, the growth and bureaucratization of universities, civil rights, the Vietnam war, Dr. Spock, the Democratic Party’s defaults, the mass media, or any other single factor. It was partly a product of social structure—there had to be a critical mass of students, and enough economic fat to cushion them— but more, the upsurge was made from the living elements of a unique, unrepeatable history, under the spreading wings of the zeitgeist. A grander analysis would require painstaking international comparisons; I hope I have found at least a point of entry. The result is a kind of record of a conversation with myself, and with friends and comrades, teachers and students, colleagues and (sometimes) opponents, over the course of some twenty years of reflection about where the upheaval came from, how it developed, why it disbanded, what it did and did not accomplish, what was and was not possible, why apparently sensible people got swept into maelstroms, why solid landscapes dissolved into maelstroms, and what maelstroms are good and bad for.
Todd Gitlin, an American author of sixteen books, is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of The Whole World Is Watching and Inside Prime Time, and a novel, The Murder of Albert Einstein, as well as editor of Watching Television. His articles on politics and culture have appeared in the New York Times, Harper’s, The Nation, Mother Jones, The New Republic, Dissent, Tikkun, and many other periodicals and newspapers.