James A. Cox
The causes, consequences, and follies of the sixties revolt.
James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
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Campus Wars and Culture Wars
Student protest in the 1960s, which began as a rejection of parental authority and the Vietnam War, rapidly evolved into a social movement. The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the chief organization of the campus-based New Left, gained strength as Democratic politicians lost control of the war in Vietnam and the unrest in America's inner cities. SDS, which began the 1960s with just a few members, ended the decade 100,000 strong. By then it had committed itself to violent confrontation with university and government officials.
More than three hundred of the nation's two thousand campuses experienced sit-ins, building takeovers, riots, and strikes in the sixties. In a period of a year and a halfbetween January 1969 and April 1970young radicals bombed five thousand police stations, corporate offices, military facilities, and campus buildings set aside for the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). Twenty-six thousand studentsof a campus population of ten millionwere arrested and thousands injured or expelled while engaged in protest activities. (Fifty-seven thousand youths, many of whom lacked the financial means to attend college and secure draft deferments [II-S], died in Vietnam.) Against a backdrop of student protest, the campus drug culture blossomed. The proportion of' college students who had smoked marijuana jumped from 4 percent in the early 1960s to 60 percent by 1972.
At the same time many American cities became combat zones.Violentcrime, which was largely concentrated in America's poorest urban precincts, in the sixties rose 126 percent. In 1968, 125 cities experienced riots that left 225 dead and caused $112 billion in property damage. While politicians such as Alabama governor George Wallace blamed social unrest on "lawless" blacks and students, leftist intellectuals justified rioting as revolutionary acts against "white racism." Sadly for the Democratic partywhich since the era of Franklin Roosevelt had dominated national politicsdivisions over Vietnam, sexual liberation, recreational drug use, and urban crime spelled its decline. As social conflict grew, Southern whites, union members, and Northern Catholics parted ways with their former black, Jewish, and professorial allies.
Although these developments are ample reasons for the importance of the 1960s, another force is at work to ensure that the era does not fade into the mists of time. Manufacturers of America's popular culture have found that the events of the 1960s offer compelling plots around which to construct films and television shows. For example, in Wild in the Streets (1968), a young rock-and-roll star becomes President of the United States when the voting age is lowered to fourteen. He immediately establishes a dictatorship of "love," sending citizens over the age of thirty to concentration camps where they are fed LSD. A decade later Animal House (1978) created "Faber College," a fictional 1960s-era campus. At Faber, students smoke dope, sleep around, fail their classes, and gleefully destroy property.
In contrast to Animal House, Forrest Gump (1994) depicts the 1960s as an era of class and cultural polarization. While young working-class men like the title character fight in the Vietnam War, college students take drugs, denounce the military, and embrace the Black Panthers. In one of the most vivid scenes of this film, Gump punches out the abusive, weasel-like president of the Berkeley SDS during the 1967 march on the Pentagon. Perhaps unknown to the scriptwriters, the president of the Berkeley SDS in 1967, Michael Lerner, had become, by the date of the film's release, an adviser to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
If films on the 1960s span the ideological spectrum, network television series and specials more consistently support Baby Boomer activists. (An unprecedented U.S. population boom occurred in the fifteen years following the end of World War II. The millions of American children born in those years soon became known as Baby Boomers.) In 1998 the NBC series "Law and Order" aired a fictional, retrospective account of the 1968 SDS takeover of Columbia University. Police investigators, working on the case of a militant who had been murdered in 1968, discover that the radical had been an undercover New York police officer. Then the investigators, and a district attorney who had himself been an anti-war demonstrator, learn that nearly all of the most outspoken radicals at "Kensington College" were police spies sent to provoke violence and discredit the SDS. While such agent provocateurs did exist in real life, "Law and Order" suggested that the violence of the New Left was nothing more than the work of a manipulative Establishment.
Despite television series and films, most Americans' memories of the 1960s are evoked by rock songs. Jefferson Airplane's lively 1967 song "Somebody to Love" has endured as an anthem of countercultural liberation. Whenever Hollywood scriptwriters want to conjure among viewers images of free love and psychedelicswithout having to create fully realized charactersthey turn to singer Grace Slick.
Equally evocative, the Rolling Stones' 1968 hit "Street-fighting Man" celebrated "violent revolution" against cops and "compromised solutions." After the Stones released "Street-fighting Man," no campus riot was complete without this tune being blasted over the stereo speakers. Finally there was Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's 1970 dirge "Ohio," commemorating the slaying of four students at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard. To this day, as soon as a disc jockey plays "Ohio" in a student bar, conversation turns to the song's origins in the Kent State tragedy.
Looking past popular culture to the historical record, we can say that "The 1960s" began as myth and reality in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 196o, when a handful of black college students challenged local segregation ordinances. These religious pacifists asked to be served a cup of coffee at a Woolworth five-and-ten lunch counter. When they were refused service, they inspired thousands of other Southern black students to imitate their example. Soon black youths established a new civil rights organization to promote racial equality in Dixiethe Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, often pronounced as Snick).
At the same time young white radicals at the University of Michigan were founding the Students for a Democratic Society. SDSers condemned Washington's anti-Communist foreign policy and the "racism" of the Democratic and Republican parties. Often forgotten is that even as students were building a New Left, conservative white youths were laying the basis for a New Right, founding the anti-Communist, free-market-oriented Young Americans for Freedom (YAF).
The student-led phase of the civil rights movement peaked in 1964 during the Mississippi Freedom Summer campaign. As white and black students battled Southern racists, they also began to fall out among themselves. Returning to their campuses in the fall of 1964, young activists at Berkeley initiated their own freedom struggle against college administrators. The Berkeley Free Speech Movement (FSM) inaugurated a spiral of conflict that transformed many tranquil college campuses into battlefields over university regulations and a widening war in Indochina.
America's initial military involvement in Indochina dated from World War II. Determined to defeat Imperial Japan, the Roosevelt administration had sent weapons and military advisers to Ho Chi Minh and his Vietnamese Communist guerrillas. After World War II, when France insisted on reclaiming its Indochina empire and ousting Ho Chi Minh as the leader of Vietnam, the United States stood on the sidelines. President Harry Truman did not consider Ho Chi Minh to be a threat to American security interests in Asia. But Truman did not wish to alienate a needed European ally by trying to awaken France from its colonial dreams. After the Korean War began in 1950, and the United States found itself fighting hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers, Truman decided that France's Indochina war was part of a broader struggle against Communist expansion.
Although Washington ultimately underwrote 80 percent of France's doomed military effort in Vietnam, neither Truman nor President Dwight Eisenhower were eager to commit American combat troops to Indochina. The Korean War had turned into a wrenching stalemate. Eisenhower, though desirous of checking the Soviet-backed Vietnamese Communists, had no intention of getting involved in another Asian land war. Instead he supported the creation of an independent South Vietnamese government. He hoped that American financial and technical assistance to Saigon would buy President Ngo Dinh Diem the time he needed to consolidate his power and stabilize the economy. But South Vietnamese insurgents, with the backing of North Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union, launched a wave of political assassinations and terrorism at the end of the 1950s that rocked Diem's government. Diem responded ineptly to Communist terrorism, alienating peasants and Buddhist monks.
Most South Vietnamese tried to take a neutral stance, wanting nothing to do with the urban, Roman Catholic Diem or Ho Chi Minh. They knew that Ho Chi Minh had imprisoned or exterminated thousands of capitalist "class enemies" in 1954 upon taking power in Hanoi. Unfortunately for Diem, Communist terrorism escalated, and the thousands of American military advisers that President John F. Kennedy sent to assist Saigon were more than matched by the troops that infiltrated South Vietnam from the North.
When Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated Kennedy in November 1963, newly installed President Lyndon Johnson found the military situation in South Vietnam rapidly deteriorating. South Vietnamese military officers, with the tacit support of U.S. leaders, had killed Diem earlier in November 1963. The generals and their American patrons erroneously thought they were better equipped to impose order. Johnson ran for election in 1964 publicly proclaiming his unwillingness to send American combat troops to South Vietnam. Privately he was biding his time until the conclusion of his campaign against Republican challenger Barry Goldwater, whom he depicted as a wild-eyed, bomb-throwing extremist.
To the Democratic heirs of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, Johnson insisted that he, unlike Goldwater, was a responsible anti-Communist who would deploy force only as a last resort and then only in careful measure. The Stevenson-Eleanor Roosevelt Democrats believed that accommodation with China and the Soviet Union was possible. Such Democrats, most of whom came from suburban, white-collar Protestant and secular Jewish backgrounds, were also suspicious of politicians who wore their anti-communism on their sleeves.
The revolt of the white-collar Democrats began in February 1965 when President Johnson bombed military targets in North Vietnam. Hanoi responded by deploying more Communist troops to South Vietnam. Johnson's decision to introduce American combat troops into South Vietnam in March 1965 prompted thousands of college faculty and middle-class suburban students to hold teach-ins on the war. These special sessions served largely as forums for condemning U.S. military action against the North Vietnamese army and its southern guerrilla wing, the National Liberation Front (or Viet Cong). SDS president Carl Oglesby proclaimed that corporate-serving Democrats were behind the escalation of the Vietnam conflict.
It quickly became evident that winning the Vietnam War would not be easy. The first major clash between American and North Vietnamese army regulars took place in 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley. U.S. troops, despite being outnumbered seven to one, managed to kill three thousand Communist soldiers. Two hundred forty Americans died. The Hanoi regime realized that its army would have to pursue hit-and-run attacks, blend into the local population, and retreat to Cambodian and Laotian sanctuaries which the United States could not assault. Such a strategy, Hanoi anticipated, would lead Washington to bomb South Vietnam indiscriminately and, as a consequence, turn the South Vietnamese people against the United States and its Saigon ally. Hanoi's strategy made for a protracted war that frustrated the American electorate.
While the Vietnam War grew bloodier, campus protest against the draft, university research for the military, and related matters mounted. At the same time Northern black activistswho were not as religious or as committed to nonviolence as their Southern brethrenexpelled whites from SNCC. Black militants established organizations such as the Black Panthers in the San Francisco Bay Area. By 1967, confrontations escalated on the nation's college campuses and in the cities of the North. White and black radicals advocated "picking up the gun" to destroy "American imperialism."
1968, one of the most traumatic years in recent American history, began with the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong launching the Tet offensive. Despite the loss of several thousand American and South Vietnamese soldiers, the Communist forces were decimated. The U.S. army and air force eliminated the Viet Cong as a military threat to Saigon. Yet President Johnson and the elite media misread the results of the Tet offensive, regarding it as a devastating American defeat. (The Johnson administration had not believed the Communists were capable of launching such a massive attack. Many journalists felt they had been lied to, and Johnson himself felt deflated.) Weary of anti-war protest and unwilling to invade North Vietnam lest China intervene, Johnson announced that he would open peace negotiations with Hanoiand that he would not seek reelection.
With the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., in the spring of 1968, a new wave of rioting struck America's urban black neighborhoods. No sooner had the riots subsided when SDSers at Columbia University seized control of their campus in an effort to spark a student revolt across America. As the national SDS argued in 1968, "The whole education system nowfrom grade schools on upis used to tie the allegiance of youth to the capitalist system by building up an ideological army for the ruling class." Higher education, far from being an Ivory Tower, was, according to SDS, a citadel of U.S. imperialism that had to be liberated or destroyed.
In August 1968, ten thousand demonstrators gathered in Chicago to disrupt the Democratic National Convention. The violence that occurred in the streets of Chicago, much of it intentionally provoked by partisans of the New Left, shattered the Democratic electoral coalition and led to the party's capture by anti-war activists. Such Democrats rejected America's anti-Communist foreign policy and embraced abortion, racial hiring quotas, and gay rights, among other causes.
In 1969 campus protest in support of black power, and against defense contracting by the universities, accelerated. Where just one-quarter of the nation's campuses could claim a leftist student organization in 1965, four years later 46 percent had one. Bombings, building seizures, and assaults against faculty and students who did not embrace SDS and the Black Panthers became the norm at Berkeley, Cornell, and Kent State. One faction of SDS split off and dedicated itself to armed revolution. Meanwhile, "do-your-own-thing" libertarians in the Young Americans for Freedomwho accounted for a third of the organization's membershipdivided the conservative student movement. Boomer libertarians protested the draft and believed that government should not regulate the marketplace or the bedroom.
The wave of violence that hit hundreds of campuses in 1969 continued unabated into the early months of 1970. In April 1970, President Nixon announced that U.S. forces had invaded Cambodia. The Cambodian incursion sparked rioting at several campuses and led to the Ohio National Guard occupation of Kent State. After the Ohio Guard killed four Kent State students on May 4, 1970, America witnessed the greatest student strike in its history. Four million youths protested the slayings and the invasion of Cambodia.
Thinking that their campus had cooled down with the end of the spring quarter, University of Wisconsin administrators were not prepared when a bomb with the equivalent destructive power of 3,400 sticks of dynamite exploded outside the Army Mathematics Research Center. (Twenty-eight full-time mathematicians at the center helped develop infrared detection devices which the army deployed in Vietnam to root out Communist troops.) The blast killed Robert Fassnacht, a doctoral physics student, blinded a night watchman, and damaged 28 campus buildings. Paradoxically, "Army Math" emerged unscathed.
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