The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s

The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s

by David Farber

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In this book, David Farber grounds our understanding of the extraordinary history of the 1960s by linking the events of that era to our country's grand projects of previous decades. Farber's important study, based on years of research in archives and oral histories as well as in historical literature, explores Vietnam, the Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty, the


In this book, David Farber grounds our understanding of the extraordinary history of the 1960s by linking the events of that era to our country's grand projects of previous decades. Farber's important study, based on years of research in archives and oral histories as well as in historical literature, explores Vietnam, the Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty, the entertainment business, the drug culture, and much more.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In this reasoned and readable survey of the momentous social and political events of the 1960s, historian Farber sympathetically looks at this period without rose-colored glasses, critically analyzing it without assigning blame. He treats the decade as a critical period of change--of creativity and chaos--that grew out of an increasingly consumer-oriented post-World War II, society reaching out to absorb all Americans. The civil rights revolution, the Vietnam War, the urban riots, the rise of rock music, the decade's rise and fall of the Great Society, and the assassinations are all woven together masterfully in a historical narrative that successfully communicates the era's zeitgeist. Especially interesting is Farber's final chapter explaning how the 1970s and the beginning of the Reagan era evolved from the burned-out fragments of the 1960s. A synthesis of late 20th-century American political and social history against which future books on the decade will be measured.-- Jack Forman, Mesa Coll. Lib., San Diego
From the Publisher

“The best single volume we have on America in the 1960s. For those who came of age during those years . . . Farber's powerfully written book will resonate, sending chills of recognition. For those too young to know the 1960s, [it] will instruct.” —William M. Tuttle, University of Kansas

“The Sixties in a finely crafted nutshell; David Farber's is the best synthesis yet to appear.” —Jonathan Alter, Newsweek

“Quite simply, the history of America in the 1960s that we have long awaited. Persuasively argued and elegantly written, it illuminates the intersection of political, social, cultural, economic, diplomatic, and military dynamics during this tumultuous decade, Once again David Farber demonstrates that good history makes for good reading. I couldn't put the book down.” —Richard H. Immerman, Temple University

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The Age of Great Dreams

America in the 1960s

By David Farber

Hill and Wang

Copyright © 1994 David Farber
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3126-7



THREE HUNDRED THOUSAND Americans stood shoulder to shoulder. They had been waiting in the cold for hours. Liquor was passed from hand to hand, but the crowd remained good-natured. At last the countdown began: 10 ... 9 ... 8 ... High above Times Square the illuminated globe began its descent. 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... The crowd roared. The 1960s had begun.

Throughout the nation, millions watched the scene on American-made television sets. They sang along with Guy Lombardo: "Should auld acquaintance be forgot ..." They drank, kissed, and banged on pots and pans, a rite whose meaning few knew: the noise was meant to scare off evil spirits.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, member of the West Point class of 1915, made no public statement to welcome the new decade. The general celebrated the New Year privately at his favorite retreat, the whites-only, men-only Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. There he laughed at the "nigger jokes" commonly told at places like that. One might imagine that the way the President celebrated the New Year spoke louder than any official words he might have uttered, but few Americans were looking to the President as the clock struck midnight and ended the 1950s.

Francis Cardinal Spellman, the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church in America, was out of the country when the 1950s came to a close. He was touring U.S. military bases in the Middle East, and took advantage of the opportunity to broadcast a New Year's message over Radio Free Europe to the hundreds of millions of people who lived behind the Iron Curtain. "By your fortitude in a dark and desperate time," he told them, "you are cautioning the lukewarm of the free world not to take liberty for granted." The nation's leading theologians, like its politicians, saw the world cast in terms of the Cold War.

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who had recently given up his pulpit in Montgomery, Alabama, to concentrate on the growing but still unfocused civil rights movement, spent New Year's Day leading a march on the state capitol in Richmond, Virginia. The Virginia government had elected to close down the entire public school system in Prince Edward County rather than obey federal court orders to integrate the schools. King's actions in Richmond went unnoticed by the mass media, the White House, and the overwhelming majority of Americans.

Most Americans celebrated the new decade very simply, taking the day off from work, sleeping late, watching TV, doing some work around the house, sharing a meal with family or friends. It is true that the fate of the nation was unclear, the changes of the past fifteen years immense. But it is also true that tens of millions of Americans, on New Year's Day 1960, did not expect or desire anything fundamental to change in the decade to come. Many believed they were living the American dream; they saw their lives swirling with possibilities. Some, far fewer in number, had already begun to nourish the seeds of change.

In 1960, most Americans old enough to remember looked back at the fifteen years since World War II with a sense of amazement. Given the Depression before that war, America had an extraordinary postwar era. Between 1946 and 1960 every indicator of national wealth and prosperity had soared. The stock market entered the new year more than twenty times higher than it had been in the Depression year of 1932. The gross national product had increased about 250 percent since the end of World War II, and the median family income, adjusted for inflation, had almost doubled. What those numbers meant for a majority of Americans was a material life, in world-historical terms, of incredible abundance. In 1960, America was the richest nation the world had ever seen. Americans, though not without some doubts, expected that boom times would just keep on rolling. Economic wealth — coupled with the faith that economic growth would continue and the fact that for many years it did — shaped the 1960s like no other single factor.

In 1960, in a nation of fewer than 50 million families almost 60 million automobiles were registered; big, flashy cars with powerful engines, chrome grilles, fabulous tail fins. The fact that between 1930 and 1948 the number of Americans who owned cars had not increased and that as late as 1950 most working-class families did not own a car made the new "auto-mania" a powerful indicator of 1950s prosperity. And in another sign of prosperity, by 1960 an overwhelming majority of Americans could sit back in their own homes and "push a button" (as ad after commercial after billboard accurately reminded them) and watch America's greatest entertainers on television, listen to a hi-fi record, or use any one of an arsenal of electrical appliances that few in the world could command. Few adult Americans who had weathered the Great Depression expected such luxury, much less expected it to become nationwide. But by 1960, telephones, televisions, refrigerators, and the electricity to power them were accepted as an American birthright, and fast cars and cheap gas were markers of the American way of life.

The locus of this new American affluence was undoubtedly suburbia. Well-to-do Americans had been living in suburbs for generations, but it was only after World War II that relatively inexpensive suburban housing boomed. The ranch-house bonanza was fostered by government subsidies and policies, builders' clever use of mass-production techniques, and middle-class prospective homeowners' faith in continued economic prosperity. Most of all, the postwar suburban boom was driven by the pent-up demand of millions of Americans whose dreams of owning a home had been frustrated by the economic turmoil and the social dislocations of the Great Depression and then World War II. As late as 1947, before new housing could catch up with demand, 6 million American families had lived doubled up with friends or family.

Between 1948 and 1958, 13 million homes were constructed; 11 million of them were built in the suburbs. By 1960, as many people lived in the suburbs as in America's central cities. These new suburban developments — in places like Glenview, Illinois; Beechwood, Ohio; and Levittown, New York — were often lambasted by contemporary critics for their "ticky-tacky" houses and their general ambience of bland conformity. The great urbanist Lewis Mumford wrote in 1961: "The archetypal suburban refuge: a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same pre-fabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold." Mumford's sharp words about suburban conformity were not inaccurate but they hid as much as they revealed about Americans' love affair with the tract home subdivision.

The new suburbs were in many ways a conformist's dream — but the 1950s conformists were of a new breed and represented a major change in the American social landscape. In the new suburbs, the "melting pot" was being reinvented. By 1960, massive legal immigration to the United States had been shut down for almost forty years. In the 1950s and into the 1960s the children of European-born immigrants — many of whom had grown up in relatively parochial and exclusive ethnic communities — recast themselves, at least partially, in the nascent communities of suburbia as just plain middle-class white Americans.

Catholics and, with greater restrictions, Jews mixed with Protestants in these new communities. Farm-born people, many of whom had come to the cities during the factory labor shortages of World War II, moved next door to former city people. Even regional differences, once the greatest divide between white Americans, were moderated in the new communities, which looked nearly identical whether they were located in what had been cotton fields outside Smyrna, Georgia, or cornfields adjacent to Niles, Illinois. Many suburbanites did aim to blend in and to conform, but what the critics failed to note was that in their conformity they were inventing a new, even daring identity for themselves and their children. While many would rebel against this new identity in the 1960s, far more would find in it a sustaining vision of the good life.

In this new world, in which old differences of ethnicity and religion and region were often downplayed, the binding ties of national culture were magnified. The great events, World War II, the Korean War, and the Cold War military draft, contributed to this nationalization. So many of the dads in the new suburbia had served their country, mingling with white men of all kinds from all parts of the country. But even more, a national culture of prosperity had become the great common denominator. The car one drove, the cigarettes smoked, the TV shows watched, the products consumed became a common language signaling who one was and wanted to be.

This new identity, in which differences were deliberately submerged, depended on magnifying other differences. In forging the new identity of white middle-class suburbanites, black Americans became more surely outsiders. In 1960, 82,000 people lived in Long Island's Levittown, the most celebrated of the new suburban subdevelopments, and not one of them was African-American. Black families were told by the developers openly not to bother trying to buy a home — they were not welcome. Racial segregation, in the North and West, as well as in the South, was a well-accepted fact of life in the new suburbs.

The differences between men and women were also magnified in the new suburbia. Two factors threw gender difference into stark relief. One was military service. For the men who had fought in World War II and the Korean War, or even those millions of men who had been in the mandatory peacetime draft, military service was a powerful tie that marked them off as different from their wives. Secondly, and more obviously, men went off to work and most of their wives did not. Women kept house and watched over the children. In the suburban cultural landscape in which difference had become an unpleasant word, the obvious differences in experience between men and women loomed larger than ever.

These gender differences, in suburbia and out, were further heightened by the family patterns of most 1950s families. In the postwar era, American men and women married at an average age younger than ever before or since; the average woman married when she was twenty years old, and 70 percent of all women were married by the age of twenty-four. And reversing the declining birth rates of well over a century, fertility rates boomed, rivaling those in India. At the peak of the baby boom era, the average number of children per family reached 3.8 (it is less than 2 today).

Americans' rush to young marriage and child rearing is not easily explained. European countries had no similar long-term postwar urge to be fruitful and multiply, nor did Americans react to the end of World War I with the same rush to marriage and domesticity. Historian Elaine May argues that the combination of widespread abundance following years of social and economic dislocation, coupled with the uncertainties of the Cold War, led to the near-frenzied search for a private "haven in a heartless world." Whatever the causes of the marriage rush and baby boom, a great many Americans in 1960 saw the flight to suburbia and the widespread availability of consumer goods as sure signs that America was a nation both blessed and bountiful.

Not that America in 1960 had no poor people. About 20 percent of Americans were poor. But even America's poor, contemporary commentators noted, were different. In Harlan County, Kentucky, one of the poorest, most isolated places in the United States, 67 percent of the families owned a television and 59 percent owned a car; no populous country in the world could match that. Put another way, Harlem's per capita income would have ranked it among the five richest nations in the world. Compared to the turn of the century or to the still-vivid hard times of the 1930s, the 1950s were a time of shared abundance and it seemed that the number of poor would shrink steadily. The seeming indifference to the plight of the poor at the close of the 1950s was not just meanspiritedness (though racism and prejudice played powerful roles); it was also caused by a vague faith in the happy notion that "a rising tide would lift all boats."

The eminent economist and social commentator John Kenneth Galbraith titled his 1958 best-seller about postwar America The Affluent Society, half in praise and half in criticism. Only twenty years earlier the president of the American Economic Association had warned the nation to expect "sick recoveries which die in their infancy and depressions which feed upon themselves and leave a hard and seemingly immovable core of unemployment." How wonderfully dated such advice appeared to be. While the economy had slowed down in the last years of the 1950s and even dipped into mild recession, by current standards it was still growing robustly and Americans luxuriated in pondering the meaning and purpose of their material abundance.

America's riches stood in sharp contrast to almost all of the rest of the world, and Americans and the rest of the world knew it. In Japan in 1960, the ravages of the first atomic-bomb attacks were still being felt; bland rice porridge was still all most Japanese could rely on for nutrition. Many West Germans, much better off than their Communist-controlled sisters and brothers in the East, could not regularly afford to heat water for baths. The Chinese were in the middle of a brutal famine, caused in large part by the cruel stupidity of the Maoist state-sponsored Great Leap Forward; as many as 50 million would die. Much of Latin America was mired in poverty; and intellectuals as well as peasants wondered if the social and economic revolution in Cuba, which had resulted in the nationalization of hundreds of millions of dollars of United States-owned assets, was lodestar to their economic and political future.

Around the world people debated whether America's wealth was the cause of their problems or a symbol of what could be done. Most countries, in the eyes of the American government, were leaning the wrong way. Despite America's free-market success, few of the poor nations around the world fighting either the vestiges of European imperialism or the still-growing Western economic domination seemed convinced that the United States was or — more ominously — should be the model for their future. Few Americans had the historical knowledge to understand why they felt that way.

Richard Nixon, in one of those globe-hopping expeditions postwar Vice Presidents learned to endure, faced anti-American rage in its most visceral form while touring South America in 1958. He was taunted, jeered, and spit on by crowds who believed the United States' long-standing economic investment and political influence in their countries to be a major source of their troubles. In Caracas, a Communist-led mob broke through indifferent Venezuelan security and almost succeeded in pulling the Vice President out of his limousine. Nixon, who'd served in World War II, kept his cool. He also came to believe that few, if any, of the poorer countries were ready for American-style freedom and democracy.

Nixon, like the leading businessmen with whom both he and most of his Democratic counterparts worked, did believe that America's free-enterprise system could and should be sold to the rest of the world. It would be good for them, most political and economic leaders believed, and it was a necessity for American economic growth and prosperity. Just months before the 1960s began Vice President Nixon was given an unprecedented opportunity to sell America's free-market vision directly to America's great postwar enemy, the Soviet Union, and indirectly to the world via international mass media. In what became known as the "Kitchen Debate" many of the key issues the American people would themselves debate throughout the 1960s emerged in sometimes farcical, sometimes poignant terms.

For many among America's economic and political elites, the battle between Premier Khrushchev and Nixon during the Kitchen Debate marked the single most important public issue of their time — the confrontation with Communism. And while the Kitchen Debate was far more about symbols than substance it was an indicative marker in the battle between what theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called "the children of light" and "the children of darkness." For in the eyes of many Americans it could be painted that starkly and that simply. The Leninist-Stalinist terrors that had bloodied the Soviet people for some four decades, the Iron Curtain that had fallen over Eastern Europe and the Siberian gulags made such a picture, in part, a realistic one. Of course, some in America knew that the paint was laid on a little thick. Beneath the broad brushstrokes of the Cold War, new nations in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere were struggling to escape imperialist webs and the superpowers' spheres of influence. And in the United States domestic injustices and inequities made any claim to moral purity a highly dubious one.


Excerpted from The Age of Great Dreams by David Farber. Copyright © 1994 David Farber. Excerpted by permission of Hill and Wang.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

David Farber teaches history at the University of New Mexico and is the author of Chicago '68 and co-author, with Beth Bailey, of The First Strange Place: The Alchemy of Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii.

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