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David Burner's panoramic history of the 1960s conveys the ferocity of debate and the testing of visionary hopes that still require us to make sense of the decade. He begins with the civil rights and black power movements and then turns to nuanced descriptions of Kennedy and the Cold War, the counterculture and its antecedents in the Beat Generation, the student rebellion, the poverty wars, and the liberals' war in Vietnam. As he considers each topic, Burner advances a provocative argument about how liberalism self-destructed in the 1960s. In his view, the civil rights movement took a wrong turn as it gradually came to emphasize the identity politics of race and ethnicity at the expense of the vastly more important politics of class and distribution of wealth. The expansion of the Vietnam War did force radicals to confront the most terrible mistake of American liberalism, but that they also turned against the social goals of the New Deal was destructive to all concerned.
Liberals seemed to rule in politics and in the media, Burner points out, yet they failed to make adequate use of their power to advance the purposes that both liberalism and the left endorsed. And forces for social amelioration splintered into pairs of enemies, such as integrationists and black separatists, the social left and mainline liberalism, and advocates of peace and supporters of a totalitarian Hanoi.
Making Peace with the 60s will fascinate baby boomers and their elders, who either joined, denounced, or tried to ignore the counterculture. It will also inform a broad audience of younger people about the famous political and literary figures of the time, the salient moments, and, above all, the powerful ideas that spawned events from the civil rights era to the Vietnam War. Finally, it will help to explain why Americans failed to make full use of the energies unleashed by one of the most remarkable decades of our history.
"A sane, reasoned, civil book on the 1960s by a liberal academic: Who says the age of miracles is over? . . . Making Peace with the 60s is a fine book."--Philip Gold, Washington Times
"Burner has mastered the large volume of recent historical writing on the period, has thought carefully about the major issues, and makes some fascinating connections among the civil rights movement, the Beats, and the student rebellions in the middle of the decade. . . . Burner is balanced and fair-minded, especially on such controversial topics as the origins of black power, the social contributions of the Great Society, and the political mistakes of liberalism during the Kennedy and Johnson years."--Lewis L. Gould, Book World
"Burner offers a keen-sighted, comprehensive analysis of a fascinating era.... Readers searching for an admirable explanation of the cross-connections in this mythic decade can find them here."--Publishers Weekly
This is thematic, not narrative, history, by an academic firmly situated not far left of center. Burner carefully delineates what he considers the lamentable decline of the civil rights movement of the early '60s into the black separatism of later years; of the Beats' quest for the self-knowledge that comes from new experiences into the mere self-indulgence of the counterculture; and of a vocal sector of the peace movement into admiration for leftist authoritarianism in Vietnam and elsewhere. He locates the wellspring of liberalism's fall in its deference to constituencies seen as historically oppressed, such as women, blacks, and gays; he argues persuasively that this shift culminated in a narrow politics of group identity at odds with liberalism's historic task of democratically altering power relations for the common good. Burner's focus on the rift between New Deal liberalism and New Left radicalism has serious flaws: It leads him to overestimate the power of ideology in shaping actions, while at the same time smothering consideration of the ultimately more influential conservatism that emerged from the '60s with neoconservative intellectuals, most of them disillusioned liberals, as its handmaidens. This political historian is, oddly, more acute and original in his approaches to cultural than to political currents; his analysis of the Beat writers is perceptive and eloquent, while he has little to add to conventional liberal wisdom on such subjects as Black Power and the Cold War. Still, the book is lucid, and Burner's tone throughout is as measured and reasonable as the creed whose redemption he seeks.
This volume does little to achieve the goal of its title, but it should be a valuable contribution for those still trying to make sense of the '60s.