The Seventies: The Great Shift in American culture, Society, and Politicsby Bruce J. Schulman
Most of us think of the 1970s as an "in-between" decade, the uninspiring years that happened to fall between the excitement of the 1960s and the Reagan Revolution. A kitschy period summed up as the "Me Decade," it was the time of Watergate and the end of Vietnam, of malaise and gas lines, but of nothing revolutionary, nothing with long-lasting significance.
In the first full history of the period, Bruce Schulman, a rising young cultural and political historian, sweeps away misconception after misconception about the 1970s. In a fast-paced, wide-ranging, and brilliant reexamination of the decade's politics, culture, and social and religious upheaval, he argues that the Seventies were one of the most important of the postwar twentieth-century decades. The Seventies witnessed a profound shift in the balance of power in American politics, economics, and culture, all driven by the vast growth of the Sunbelt. Country music, a southern silent majority, a boom in "enthusiastic" religion, and southern California New Age movements were just a few of the products of the new demographics. Others were even more profound: among them, public life as we knew it died a swift death.
The Seventies offers a masterly reconstruction of high and low culture, of public events and private lives, of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Evel Knievel, est, Nixon, Carter, and Reagan. From The Godfather and Network to the Ramones and Jimmy Buffett; from Billie jean King and Bobby Riggs to Phyllis Schlafly and NOW; from Proposition 13 to the Energy Crisis; here are all the names, faces, and movements that once filled our airwaves, and now live again. The Seventies is powerfully argued, compulsively readable, and deeply provocative.
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The Sixties and the Postwar Legacy
The Seventies began, of course, in the wake of "the Sixties" and have remained ever since in their shadow -- the sickly, neglected, disappointing stepsister to that brash, bruising blockbuster of a decade. "The sober, gloomy seventies," as one journalist put it, "seemed like little more than just a prolonged anticlimax to the manic excitements of the sixties." Sure, pundits constantly debate the era's parameters, suggesting that the "real Sixties" did not begin until the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the riots in Watts, or the Summer of Love, or that they lasted until Nixon's resignation, the fall of Saigon, the breakup of the Beatles or release of "The Hustle." But they agree on a common portrait -- the same mug shot of the Sixties as a time of radical protest and flower power, polarization, experimentation, and upheaval. Depending on one's point of view, they are the source of everything good or everything evil in contemporary life.
If one date delineated the end of the Sixties and the beginning of the Seventies, it was the year 1968. It struck many observers, then and now, as a revolutionary moment. Nineteen sixty-eight marked simultaneously an annus mirabilis and an annus horribilus, a year of miracles and a year of horrors. For many it seemed to be the Year of the Barricades, to quote the title of one book on the tumultuous events of 1968. Certainly, violent confrontations between the generations erupted around the world. In France, left-wing students occupied the University of Paris. Led by a man known simply as Danny the Red, students seized parts of the Sorbonne and clashed with police on the streets of the Latin Quarter. On May 13, huge crowds marched in protest against the sitting government, against university regulations, against the distribution of wealth and power in French society. Prime Minister Georges Pompidou warned that "our civilization is being questioned -- not the government, not the institutions, not even France, but the materialistic and soulless modern society." He compared the chaotic scene to the "hopeless days of the 15th century, where the structures of the Middle Ages were collapsing."
Rebels manned a different sort of barricade a few hundred miles to the east. In Prague, the capital of communist-dominated Czechoslovakia, student protests in late 1967 had blossomed into the Prague Spring -- a buoyant, defiant, just plain ballsy challenging of the Soviet-backed regime. The Prague Spring offered a small dose of political opening and a cultural renaissance, inspired by rock music and avant-garde poetry. And then, horribly, Soviet tanks trampled those hopes, rumbling into Czechoslovakia to re-install a hard-line communist dictatorship.
Across the Atlantic, the United States would not prove immune to violent confrontation. An explosion of racial outrage after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., brought smashed windows and tense confrontations between police and protesters within a few blocks of the White House. A few weeks later, radical students at Columbia University in New York City brought the barricades into the ivory tower. The Columbia unrest unfolded at a time of growing student protest across the country -- against the war in Vietnam, against restrictive campus policies, and against traditional curricula and courses. At Columbia, violent protests led to the cancellation of final exams and an early end to spring semester. The campus revolt also convinced many Americans that revolution was at hand -- that young radicals had moved from mere protest toward power. They would seize control of "the machine," if it would not cease to pursue inhumane ends.
The Sixties appeared as a historical divide, a decade of turmoil with the future hanging in the balance. But the era, and its climactic twelve months, have also been recalled, as "the Year the Dream Died" -- the year, to quote one journalist, "when for so many, the dream of a nobler, optimistic America died, and the reality of a skeptical conservative America began to fill the void."
In April, an assassin murdered Martin Luther King, Jr., the man most closely associated with such noble dreams. After King's death, his vision of racial harmony -- even the modest hope of the races living side by side in peace -- evaporated. 1968 marked the fourth consecutive year of massive racial violence in America's cities. The end was nowhere in sight, and indeed a race war on the nation's streets seemed a real possibility.
Certainly African Americans displayed growing frustration at the slow pace of reform. Militance bubbled through the nation's black neighborhoods, fueled by the radical black nationalism of organizations such as the Black Panther party and leaders like Stokely Carmichael. "When white America killed Dr. King," Carmichael warned after the shooting in Memphis, "she declared war on black America and there could be no alternative to retribution....Black people have to survive and the only way they will survive is by getting guns."
At the same time, white backlash mounted in the nation's cities and suburbs, a seething resentment most powerfully revealed in the enthusiasm for the independent campaign of George C. Wallace. In 1968, the Alabama governor famous for his stand-off with Martin Luther King during the Selma marches launched a third-party campaign for president. Wallace combined his hostility to civil rights with a populist contempt for the high and mighty. Champion of the little guy, he denounced "briefcase totin' bureaucrats," pointy-headed intellectuals, and federal judges who wouldn't mind their own business. Crowds roared approval as the governor mocked "Yale Ph.D.s who can't tie their own shoelaces, hypocrites who if you opened their briefcases you'll find nothing in them but a peanut butter sandwich."
In September 1968, national polls showed Wallace with the support of nearly 25 percent of American voters; the Alabama governor was running strong not only in the white South, where his defense of racial segregation had made him a hero, but also in the urban North. In Rustbelt cities, Wallace's advocacy of law and order, contempt for antiwar protesters, and opposition to further civil rights advances won him the admiration of many working-class white ethnics. The early Sixties vision of peaceful, nonviolent reform -- of ending poverty and racism -- evaporated.
In their distress, many Americans looked to a leader who could heal the nation's wounds. They found their man in Senator Robert F. Kennedy, out on the campaign trail for president. On the night of King's assassination, Bobby Kennedy rejected his wife's advice to cancel his scheduled appearance in Indianapolis and instead addressed the crowd. Kennedy paid tribute to King's life and work and then appealed directly to his audience. "For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed." But, the candidate pleaded, "we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times....What we need in the United States is not division," Bobby concluded. "What we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black."
Kennedy resuscitated the hopes for peaceful, meaningful reform. His campaign, after tough fights across the country, faced its decisive test in the June California primary -- the contest that would likely decide whether he could win his party's nomination for president. Kennedy won the primary, addressed the cheering crowd in his campaign hotel, and headed toward the press room for interviews. On the way, a young man fired a snub-nosed revolver at Bobby from point-blank range. He collapsed onto his back. Five others fell in the hail of bullets. All of them would survive. But the next day, after three hours of surgery and other heroic efforts to revive him, Robert Kennedy died.
If those assassinations did not extinguish the extravagant hopes of the era, one small, historically insignificant event in the fall of 1968 signaled the end of the optimistic, liberal 1960s. On October 20, thirty-nine-year-old Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of the martyred president, married a sixty-two-year-old Greek shipping magnate, Aristotle Socrates Onassis. The mystery of this event -- why would she? how could she? -- shocked the nation for weeks. Comedian Bob Hope made light of it. Referring to Spiro Agnew, the Greek-American governor of Maryland running for vice president on the Republican ticket, Hope jested, "Nixon has a Greek running mate and now everyone wants one." For most, it was no laughing matter but the tawdry end of Camelot. The shining knight had died, and now the swarthy villain carried off his noble lady. The dream that was the 1960s, it seemed, had died. The stormy, uncertain Seventies had begun.
The End of "The Great American Ride"
Its drama aside, 1968 should not be torn from the fibers and wrappings of history; its real significance lay as a cultural divide. The last days of the Sixties signaled the end of the post-World War II era, with its baby boom and economic boom, its anticommunist hysteria and expansive government, and the beginning of another age, the long 1970s, which defined the terms of contemporary American life. After two decades of postwar prosperity, Seventies Americans took for granted a set of political assumptions, economic achievements, and cultural prejudices. But after 1969 Americans entered a disturbing new world. The experiences of the postwar generation would offer little guidance.
During the postwar era America enjoyed unchallenged international hegemony and unprecedented affluence. The boom ushered ordinary working Americans into a comfortable middle-class lifestyle; millions of blue-collar workers owned their own homes, garaged late-model cars, and sent their children to college. The economy hummed so smoothly that the nation had enough left over to fund a massive war on poverty. A series of federal programs essentially eliminated want among previously hard-hit populations, like the elderly, and reduced the overall poverty rate from more than 20 percent in the late 1950s to 12 percent by the early 1970s.
The postwar years also established a pattern of expansive government. The national government provided Americans with subsidized home mortgages and easy terms on student loans. Strong federal support for unions offered high wages and job security for industrial workers, not to mention lucrative employment in defense and aerospace plants. Washington built a system of interstate highways, opening previously isolated areas to travel and commerce. The federal government permeated nearly every aspect of American life in the 1950s and 1960s -- guaranteeing civil rights and voting rights for African Americans, sending astronauts to the moon, subsidizing farmers, regulating air travel, and uncovering the dangers of smoking.
The continuous expansion of the federal establishment, even under Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower, pointed to a key element of the postwar era: the liberal consensus that made big government possible. From the mid-1940s through the mid-1960s, little disagreement emerged over the fundamental principles for organizing American life. Most Americans accepted the activist state, with its commitments to the protection of individual rights, the promotion of economic prosperity, and the establishment of some rudimentary form of political equality and social justice for all Americans. Few real conservatives and only a handful of genuine radicals exerted influence in the 1950s and 1960s.
The liberal coalition in turn relied on northern regional ascendancy. The national policy establishment, the party elites, and the most potent political machines resided in the Northeast and industrial Midwest. The old manufacturing centers, what would be called the Rustbelt, still dominated American economic life, supplying the nation's most prominent business leaders and labor chieftains. New York City remained the undisputed cultural capital; Hollywood was just a place of crass upstarts, who earned money hand over fist but looked "back East" for legitimacy. The South barely occasioned a thought in the corridors of power, except to elicit smug head shaking over its economic backwardness, gothic politics, and barbaric racial caste system. The cotton fields of Alabama seemed scarcely less foreign than the jungles of Vietnam or the steppes of Russia -- and no less un-American.
By the end of the Sixties, all of these defining features of post-World War II America had broken down. The cold war had begun to thaw. True, tensions between the free world and the communist bloc remained high; the brutal crushing of the Prague Spring left no doubts in American policymaking circles about the ruthlessness of the Soviet Union. And a hot war still raged against communism in Vietnam. But the rigid, dangerous cold war -- the scary state of all but war that had existed in the 1940s and 1950s, when many Americans truly feared nuclear annihilation -- was giving way to a more stable form of co-existence.
In July 1968, U.S. president Lyndon Baines Johnson signed with the Soviets and more than fifty other nations the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, banning the spread of nuclear technology, materials, and knowledge. Such an agreement would have been unthinkable just ten years earlier, when it was widely accepted that Americans could never trust, could never negotiate with or even have normal contact with the reds. The treaty was but one of eight agreements LBJ signed with the Soviets, ranging from cutbacks in the production of nuclear materials to establishing commercial air service between the United States and the Soviet Union. The nation and the rest of the world were pointing toward what Richard Nixon would soon call the era of détente.
But if the relaxed international tensions offered some hope, the seeming loss of U.S. global hegemony remained deeply unsettling. The United States, the world's strongest nation with the most powerful, technologically sophisticated military, found itself locked in a confusing, bloody stalemate, half a world away in Vietnam. Victory was always around the corner the nation's leaders endlessly proclaimed, but the American people were growing restless.
Then, in the wee hours of January 30, 1968, during Tet, the celebration of the Vietnamese New Year, communist commandos blasted a hole in the protective wall surrounding the U.S. embassy in Saigon, the most visible symbol of the American presence in South Vietnam. For six hours, nineteen guerrillas fired mortars into the building. The audacious raid, captured by television cameras, formed only a tiny part of a simultaneous assault on every major region in South Vietnam. Enemy forces took the Americans by surprise, seized the city of Hue, and struck at more than one hundred targets throughout Vietnam. U.S. troops eventually beat back the offensive, recapturing the cities, inflicting horrific casualties on the Vietcong, and maintaining the South Vietnamese government's precarious hold on the country. Elated by the communists' breakout into open battle, U.S. commanding officer General William Westmoreland claimed a major victory.
Tet turned out to be a decisive engagement -- not on the battlefields of Vietnam as General Westmoreland hoped, but in the living rooms of America. The offensive made clear that there was plenty of fight left in the enemy, that it could attack at will; even the U.S. headquarters in Saigon were at risk. Support for the war drained away instantly; Tet vividly demonstrated that U.S. strategy had failed. Immediately before the offensive, despite years of antiwar protests, only 28 percent of Americans opposed the war effort. Twice as many, 56 percent, told Gallup pollsters that they supported it. One month later, hawks and doves each tallied 40 percent. Tet had changed millions of minds.
Other setbacks around the world highlighted the nation's frustration in Vietnam. The United States sat helpless while Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring. Meanwhile, North Korea seized the U.S.S. Pueblo, claiming it had violated their territorial waters. The crisis, and the sailors' captivity, dragged on for months. Despite its vast power, the United States could do little.
Disturbing as that was, the loss of global economic hegemony and the bursting of the postwar boom might have been even harder to accept. Since World War II, the dollar had been the world's currency, the global economic stabilizer. But by 1970, the all-powerful greenback faced sustained attack as foreign investors dumped dollars, driving down its value and forcing the United States to take extraordinary steps to preserve the international monetary system. In 1968, the Federal Reserve Board raised interest rates to 5 1/2 percent, their highest level since 1929, the eve of the Great Depression. Inflation accelerated; prices rose at the then-alarming rate of 4 percent per year. Sixty percent of Americans warned the Gallup organization that the high cost of living was the most urgent problem facing them and their families.
The shocking financial news hinted at the approaching end of that greatest of great rides, the long postwar boom. That phenomenal economic growth -- the nation's vaulting advances in productivity, output, and wages -- had allowed Americans to accomplish unprecedented achievements. The United States fought the cold war and rebuilt Europe and Japan. It incorporated millions of working Americans into a home-owning, college-educated middle class. And it still had enough left over to lift millions of Americans out of desperate poverty and to establish the social safety net for all citizens.
By 1970, all that was fading into memory. The economic struggles of the postwar decades had centered around the problems of an affluent society -- around the tensions spawned by vast economic growth and pockets of poverty amid plenty. The Seventies would grapple with the problems of stagflation -- the crippling coupling of high rates of inflation and economic stagnation, the seemingly impossible combination of rising prices with high unemployment, slow growth, and declining increases in productivity. For the first time since the Great Depression, talk of limits and diminishing expectations filled presidential addresses and dinner table conversations.
This new economic regime drastically altered American attitudes about taxation. During the 1950s and 1960s, Americans not only experienced the most rapid advances in investment, productivity, income, and national wealth; they paid the highest taxes in U.S. history. The corporate income tax accounted for nearly double its current share of tax receipts. The steeply graduated personal income tax reached a top rate of more than 90 percent. The bite on wealthy taxpayers convinced some movie stars, like the young Ronald Reagan, that it was not worth making more than two movies a year. After 1969, Americans would resent these burdens and launch a sustained revolt against taxation.
Cracks in the Consensus
By 1970, the great American ride had stalled. Even more troubling, the dominant liberal consensus had started to crumble. White backlash against civil rights and taxes revealed mounting resentment among previously loyal members of the liberal Democratic party coalition. For years, urban white ethnics had expressed discontent with the changing faces of their neighborhoods -- the seeming encroachment of minority communities, the construction of housing projects and garbage dumps, the rising crime rates and disrespect for police. Often they had punished liberal politicians in local elections, gravitating toward law-and-order candidates who combined a conservative social agenda with a working-class touch. Still, they had remained loyal soldiers of the liberal coalition in state and national elections, supporting the Democratic party's stance on civil rights in the South and social spending in northern cities. By the end of the Sixties, many such voters had grown disaffected with national liberalism. Ready to abandon their old champions, they drifted unmoored through the currents, unwilling to hitch themselves to a conservatism many still found elitist or extremist.
In the wings a renascent conservative movement waited to make the most of that discontent. Still, conservatism remained weak, neither well organized nor well respected by ordinary voters. In the Sixties, the most potent attacks on the liberal consensus came not from the right but from the political left -- from radicals who assailed the liberal establishment. Young radicals, members of a self-described New Left, dismissed liberal reform and asserted the necessity of direct action. Liberals believed the political system gave voice to individuals; they just needed to vote, participate, stand up and make themselves heard. New Leftists bristled at the naiveté of that faith. Bureaucracy, corporate power, and the inhumane machine-like operations of American institutions, they asserted, stifled creativity and the expressive potential of individuals and groups. Liberals assisted the poor through paternalistic aid programs; radicals wanted to empower poor communities to reform themselves. While liberals had supported the war in Vietnam as a noble and necessary fight for freedom against tyranny, radicals increasingly saw it as an act of imperialist domination and repression.
In 1968, the radical challenge to liberalism crested around the world and across the United States, most pointedly at Columbia University in New York. Responding to the growing unrest, Grayson Kirk, the sixty-four-year-old president of Columbia, denounced the younger generation's disrespect for established authority. "Our young people," Kirk declared, "in disturbing numbers, appear to reject all forms of authority, from whatever source derived, and they have taken refuge in a turbulent and inchoate nihilism whose sole objectives are destructive. I know of no time in our history when the gap between the generations has been wider or more potentially dangerous."
Kirk soon received his response from Mark Rudd, leader of the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the principal radical students' organization. Already known as a firebrand, Rudd had taken time off from school to visit Cuba, had denounced the national leadership of SDS as too moderate, and had briefly taken over President Kirk's office in a protest against the university's participation in cold war arms research. Rudd responded to Kirk's speech in an open letter that clearly sketched the differences between radicals and liberals: "While you call for order and respect for authority, we call for justice and freedom." Demonstrating that the New Left placed liberation above formality, order, and due process, Rudd deliberately adopted the shocking vernacular of the emerging counterculture. "There is only one thing left to say," he concluded. "It may sound nihilistic to you, since it is the opening shot in a war of liberation....Up against the wall, motherfucker."
The words would soon seem prophetic. Columbia announced plans to construct a new gymnasium on nearby parkland, in the heart of Harlem, an African American neighborhood. Responding to what they perceived as a racist encroachment on traditionally black public space, Rudd and other student radicals occupied the administration building and seized the dean of the college. Eventually black students and neighborhood activists joined the protest, convincing the white students to leave the building and turn the demonstration over to them. But instead of disbanding, they marched into President Kirk's office. The protesters released the captured dean, but over the next few days students occupied several other campus buildings. As the crisis continued, the students broadened their focus. They demanded not only the cancellation of the gym project, but steps to combat racism and to terminate Columbia's ties to the military and the war in Vietnam. Finally, after lengthy negotiations failed, 1,000 New York City police officers poured onto the campus, bodily removing the protesters from five buildings. Some students resisted, sparking violent confrontations with the police. Columbia students launched a general strike; the administration canceled final exams and shut down the university.
Columbia seemed to mark, in one New Leftist's words, "a new tactical stage in the resistance movement." As protests closed campuses around the nation, radicals appeared ready to confront the establishment directly. Student radicals, SDS leader Tom Hayden asserted, had escalated from "the overnight occupation of buildings to permanent occupations, from mill-ins to the creation of revolutionary communities, from symbolic civil disobedience to barricaded resistance." Hayden foresaw the possibility of actions "too massive for the police to handle." We "are moving toward power," he concluded, "the power to stop the machine if it cannot be made to serve humane ends."
Writing in the Washington Post, Nicholas Von Hoffman concluded that "the condition of youth has changed in important ways. College is no longer a voluntary business. You go to college or you go to war; you get your degree or you resign yourself to a life of low-paying jobs." Students barely resembled "the rollicking adolescents of the old rah-rah collegiate culture." They might lack maturity, Von Hoffman conceded, "but they are serious people who take questions of war and peace, wealth and poverty, racism and emancipation personally and passionately. They do not agree with the way their universities deal with these questions. As a practical matter, they cannot leave the universities, so they are fighting for a part in the decision-making process."
But while students fought for various reforms, they primarily struggled against something: the established order. And, this new way of thinking, this countercultural ethos, extended well beyond the relatively small number of self-conscious radicals on the nation's campuses. As even professional men discarded their fedoras and gray flannel suits, the entire culture opened up. Curse words ceased to shock; many moved into the accepted lexicon. Legal restrictions on personal behavior softened as states relaxed or repealed obscenity laws, abortion restrictions, and regulations prohibiting the sale of contraceptives.
The new laws reflected broader, more informal shifts in sexual mores, living arrangements, dress, food, and social behavior. Young people shunned long-accepted routes to social and professional success. More and more young people chose to "live together without benefit of matrimony" or even just to share dwellings with groups of unrelated men and women on an entirely platonic basis. They challenged the parietal rules that governed the personal behavior of students on campuses -- single-sex dorms, curfews, prohibitions against single women living off-campus. In 1970, University of Kansas students initiated a plan for coed dorms. "I believe that segregation of the sexes is unnatural," one sophomore wrote in support of the new system. "I would like to associate with women on a basis other than dating roles." Another student argued that coed housing would encourage men and women to "meet and interact in a situation relatively free of sexual overtones; that is, the participating individuals would be free to encounter one another as human beings, rather than having to play the traditional stereotyped male and female roles." The students admitted that such arrangements allowed freer and more common premarital sex, but they called for policies that would allow liberated individuals to form their own relationships, sexual and otherwise, on their own terms.
The experiments in living arrangements pointed out broader changes in sex roles. Many women were demanding, as the newly formed National Organization for Women insisted, admittance to the rights and privileges of citizenship in truly equal partnership with men. Others sought an even more thoroughgoing reconstruction of American institutions along nonpatriarchal lines. These radical feminists burst onto the national scene in September 1968 with dramatic protests at the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City. Demonstrators crowned a live sheep Miss America and paraded her down the boardwalk to protest the ways contestants -- and all women -- "were judged like animals at a county fair." Some chained themselves to a giant Miss America puppet, mocking women's submission to conventional standards of beauty. Others hurled "instruments of torture to women" into a "Freedom Trash Can": high heels, girdles, bras, copies of Ladies Home Journal and Cosmopolitan, hair curlers, false eyelashes. (They had planned to burn the contents but never did.) Inside the convention hall protesters disrupted the pageant with cries of "Women's Liberation" and "Freedom for Women." These inspired acts of guerrilla theater won national attention for the emerging women's movement; they showed that even the nation's cherished assumptions about gender and the family might soon be up for reappraisal. The women also aroused considerable consternation in and hostility from the media because the demonstrators refused to speak with male reporters, forcing newspapers to reassign women reporters from the society pages and gossip columns.
No single event, however, so vividly showcased the smashed remains of the old consensus -- the sense that Americans, however much they might disagree on specifics, shared fundamental values and could solve disputes peaceably -- than did the disruptions at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. As thousands of demonstrators descended onto the streets and filled the parks of Chicago, the city's fabled boss, Mayor Richard Daley, girded for action. "As long as I am mayor of this city," Daley vowed, "there is going to be law and order in Chicago." To keep his promise, the Boss assembled a force of 12,000 Chicago police, 6,000 armed National Guardsmen, 6,000 U.S. Army troops, and 1,000 undercover intelligence agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the CIA (which was, according to its charter, forbidden from surveillance within the United States), the army, and the navy.
This imposing force determined to rein in a large phalanx of protesters. The motley crew of radicals included thousands of activists organized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. Led by SDS leaders such as Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, the MOBE, as it was known, planned a series of demonstrations. These New Leftists tried to keep order among the protesters and, at least initially, to deploy them in effective demonstrations against the Democratic party and American intervention in Vietnam.
Then there were the Yippies. Led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, the Yippies planned not a protest but a Festival of Life -- music, nakedness, drugs. They would not so much protest the war in Vietnam as dramatize a more fundamental internal conflict: the confrontation of a liberated, authentic culture with the phony, straitlaced, inhibited, greedy one that had brought on the war. The weekend before the convention started, the Yippies nominated their own presidential candidate -- a huge sow they named Pigasus -- and demanded that the porker receive Secret Service protection and a White House policy briefing. They filled Chicago's Lincoln Park and clashed repeatedly with police determined to uphold the city's regulations against camping in the parks and organizing without permits.
For an entire week, the protesters and the Chicago police skirmished, on national television, with the whole world watching. Finally, on Wednesday -- nomination day -- 15,000 people moved into Grant Park in the heart of downtown Chicago for a MOBE rally. During some speeches, a shirtless, long-haired man began to lower the American flag (planning, it was later reported, to turn it upside down in the international symbol of distress). But as he removed the flag, the police suddenly snapped. They charged into the crowd, swinging billy clubs indiscriminately, seizing demonstrators, clubbing them, and tossing them into paddy wagons.
Eventually the rally resumed, and demonstrators marched away from the park toward Michigan Avenue (Chicago's Main Street), specifically toward the Conrad Hilton Hotel, headquarters of many candidates and their supporters. What happened -- later called the police riot -- shocked bystanders. Television cameras broadcast the ugly scene directly into the convention hall and into living rooms around the country. For roughly half an hour, from 8:00 to 8:30 P.M., law and order disappeared entirely on Michigan Avenue. The police broke discipline and assaulted the marchers with clubs and tear gas; marchers fought back with rocks and insults. Someone hurled MOBE leader Tom Hayden through the picture window of the hotel bar. Tear gas drove Senator Eugene McCarthy, the leading antiwar candidate after the death of Bobby Kennedy, out of his hotel room. McCarthy rode the elevator to the fifteenth floor, where his staff had set up a rudimentary first aid station. McCarthy pitched in to help the injured and muttered, "It didn't have to be this way."
Even Patrick Buchanan had to shake his head in amazement. Sent by Richard Nixon to observe the convention, the young conservative firebrand conceded that "the police had had enough, and deliberately went down that street to deliver some street justice."
After Chicago, gloom descended onto the New Left. To be sure, opposition to the conflict in Vietnam did not flag after the battle of Michigan Avenue. Indeed, the antiwar movement mounted large protests in 1969 and 1970; many establishment figures, members of Congress, organizations of housewives, even veterans, joined a now-respectable opposition. But the New Left, the radical movement envisioning real change, fizzled after Chicago.28 Many activists embraced new concerns -- ecology, ethnicity, women's liberation. Others literally headed for the hills, building new communities and alternative institutions undefiled by the corrupt mainstream with its napalm and aerosol spray. Even those who remained active lost the optimism and sense of revolutionary potential they had brought to Chicago. In those heady days, the pop-rock quartet Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young had released a song about Chicago brimming with confidence about the possibilities for peaceful reform. But just two years later -- after Richard Nixon had faced down protesters and expanded the war into Cambodia, after National Guardsmen had killed four student protesters at Kent State, after the war dragged on despite ever larger and more successful demonstrations -- the prospects for remaking the world grew dim. Instead, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young sang about finding the "cost of freedom."
The Legacy of Woodstock
After the Chicago debacle, many young Americans, those politically active and those not, found both protest and going along with the system equally undesirable. The prospect of a genuine counterculture, a real alternative to the corrupt, violent, greedy, tactless mainstream, exerted powerful appeal. Only a small part of the Sixties generation had succumbed to the "hippie temptation"; during the fabled 1967 Summer of Love, the best estimates placed the number of hippies at roughly 100,000 young Americans. But that small, if rather boisterous, minority blossomed, in the words of one chronicler, into a "garden of millions of flower people by the early 1970s."
During autumn 1968, a Village Voice reporter asked Country Joe McDonald, lead singer of Country Joe and the Fish, to "rap about the revolution." Country Joe's most famous song, "Feels Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag," had directly attacked the war in Vietnam ("It's one, two, three, what are we fightin' for," the song demanded). But McDonald assured the interviewer that "there isn't going to be any revolution." To carry out a revolution, he explained, "you have to control things and most of the people I know aren't ready for that. They want a leaderless society."
The Voice reporter remained dissatisfied. "What about the guerrillas?" he demanded. "I don't know any," Country Joe explained. "I know a lot of people wearing Che Guevara stuff...a bunch of tripped-out freaks." Then Barry Melton, Country Joe's guitarist, chimed in: "The revolution is just another word for working within the community." But the interviewer wasn't having it; he wanted to write about honest-to-goodness revolutionaries. "Hell," he protested, "you are the Revolution." No, concluded Country Joe, shaking his head. "I'm just living my lifestyle. That's what you should be doing."
On the surface, Country Joe's renunciation of revolution and embrace of "lifestyle" sounded apolitical -- even antipolitical, as if it rejected political action altogether. Certainly, looking back to the mid-1960s, it would not have been farfetched to demarcate a firm split between the student radicals -- the New Left or antiwar movement -- on the one hand and the counterculture or flower children on the other. A lack of understanding divided the Berkeley radicals intent on shutting down the draft induction center in Oakland and the Haight-Ashbury hippies staging the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park. The same palpable tension separated the SDS radicals occupying the president's office at Columbia and the Yippies throwing dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. There was even something of a difference in style; mid-1960s New Lefties looked well scrubbed, with crewcuts, ties, and serious, even earnest demeanors. Certainly, they looked different from the emerging counterculture with its long hair, beads, psychedelic fashions, and experiments with mind-altering drugs.
But the lines between the two always remained murky and amorphous, and after 1968, they vanished. Young radicals, even those most straightforwardly political -- in the sense of trying to stop the war or directly influence government policy -- had embraced the wider cultural critique of the counterculture. And the counterculture developed an essentially political edge -- a rejection of the values, beliefs, and priorities of mainstream America. At Woodstock, Country Joe introduced "Fixin' to Die" by leading the assembled mass in an obscene chant: "Give me an F, Give me a U, Give me a C, Give me a K, What's that spell!" The F-U-C-K chant, with its deliberate attempt to shock sensibilities by rejecting established, repressive standards of propriety, asked why Americans could find such language profane, but not the war in Vietnam. It suggested an alternative, more liberated, and supposedly more honest and authentic way of being. The obscene chant was as much a political protest as the antiwar song that followed; political protest and countercultural sensibilities went hand in hand.
In 1969, one SDS leader estimated that three-quarters of the organization's membership could be classified as hippies. "Now the talk has shifted to cultural revolution," pundits reflected. "Gentle grass is pushing up through the cement." Several broad forces fed into this widening of the counterculture after 1968. Frustration certainly contributed -- the growing sense that straightforward, organized political protest had failed. The war dragged on, Nixon became president, GIs invaded Cambodia, and students died at Kent State. "It was not that we disagreed with the radical interpretation of America," one antiwar protester explained after he dropped out and moved to a commune in New Mexico. "It was that by the Nixon era that message was irrelevant." Young people concluded that protest had to evolve, somehow become more fundamental. If you could not convince the older generation to change its beliefs, to stop the war, you could refuse to participate.
In fact, a general alienation from mainstream America, not just disillusionment with politics, fed the counterculture in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many young people grew disgusted with the nation and its basic values. This discontent filled both veterans of Sixties radicalism and millions of young Americans who had never demonstrated interest in political protest. "I learned to despise my countrymen, my government and the entire English speaking world, with its history of genocide and international conquest," one disgruntled New Leftist wrote after decamping to the Vermont woods. "I was a normal kid." "America," another young man reflected in 1969. "Listen to it. I love the sound. I love what it could mean. I hate what it is."
Polls revealed widespread disenchantment among American youth. In 19701971, one-third of America's college-age population felt that marriage had become obsolete and that having children was not very important. The number identifying religion, patriotism, and "living a clean, moral life" as "important values" plummeted. Fifty percent held no living American in high regard, and nearly half felt that America was "a sick society." In this setting, many young Americans no longer saw any reason to heed established conventions about sex, drugs, authority, clothing, living arrangements, food -- the fundamental ways of living their lives.
So what could you do if you found yourself in such a supposedly sick society? Country Joe had the answer: "You take drugs, you turn up the music very loud, you dance around, you build yourself a fantasy world where everything's beautiful." Frustration and alienation pushed Americans toward the counterculture, but also exerted a strong pull of its own: the conviction that it was possible to drop out of the polluted, corrupt mainstream and live according to one's values. Young Americans believed they could do it right, without the phoniness and hierarchy, the profit and power, the processed food and three-piece suits, the evening news and the suburban ranch house. They could build alternative institutions and create alternative families -- a separate, authentic, parallel universe. "We were setting up a new world," Barry Melton, the Country Joe guitarist, recalled -- "a new world that was going to run parallel to the old world but have as little to do with it as possible. We just weren't going to deal with straight people."
Fed by these diverse streams, the counterculture burgeoned in the early 1970s. The senior portraits in any high school or college yearbook display its broad influence. A 1966 edition, or even 1967 or 1968, shows clean-cut faces, ties, and demure dresses; they resemble stereotyped images of the 1950s. But the 1972 or 1974 yearbook reveals shaggy hair, beads, granny glasses. Of course, no one could precisely measure the counterculture, or distinguish the dedicated freak or head from the fellow traveler or counter-consumer, who simply adopted a style without much content. As one tie-dyed anthropologist put it, "There were no hippie organizations, no membership cards, no meetings, no age limits....One did not have to drop out to 'qualify' as a hippie, or have to take drugs, participate in sex orgies, live in a commune, listen to rock, grow long hair. No minimum requirements. No have to." The movement is "not a beard," a University of Utah student explained. "It is not a weird, colorful costume, it is not marijuana. The hippie movement is a philosophy, a way of life." It implied rejection of the dominant culture and a decision to practice alternate lifestyles.
Certainly the counterculture embraced several salient features: dope, as an entry way to expanded or altered consciousness, heightened awareness, and communal experience; freer sexual mores and living arrangements; a new relationship to nature; distinctive dress and foodways; and a commitment to communal living. Freaks rejected capitalist materialism, especially the grind of workaday jobs and the emphasis on property and acquisition. They constructed alternative institutions -- food co-ops, underground newspapers, free medical clinics. In most cities and university towns, hip neighborhoods emerged, with natural food restaurants, head shops, Zen bakeries, independent record stores.
The counterculture also relied on music as a means of communication, a communal ritual, a gathering of tribes. After the success of the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 (featuring the first major performances of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin), rock festivals spread around the country. They offered a potent mix of counterculture and capitalism, barefoot hippies and big-bucks event promoters. One hundred thousand people gathered for the Atlanta Pop Festival. In Seattle, helicopters dropped flowers on the assembled revelers.
But it was Woodstock that would transform the nature of the rock festival, create its mythology, raise its most extravagant hopes. Like all of the other festivals, Woodstock began as a commercial venture. Four producers offered farmer Max Yasgur $50,000 to use his farm near Bethel, New York. They hoped 50,000 rock fans would pay $18 each for three days of performances by more than twenty acts, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, John Sebastian, Sly and the Family Stone, Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe and the Fish, and Richie Havens.
Yet Woodstock became something much, much bigger. Before the first band came onstage, a massive pilgrimage of young people clogged the roads, forming the most massive traffic jam in U.S. history. They crashed the gates; eventually 400,000 people camped on the grounds, frolicking in the mud, listening to the music, cooking and eating together, even giving birth. The logistical problems were daunting: inadequate sanitation facilities, insufficient food and water, delivering medical supplies. But somehow it worked. Even the promoters, who took a financial bath, thought a new society had been born.
The real festival, organizers told one journalist, would not end with Woodstock. The concert marked "this generation and this culture's" departure from the old generation and the old culture. "You see how they function on their own -- without cops, without guns, without clubs, without hassles. Everybody pulls together and everybody helps each other and it works." No matter "what happens when they go back to the city, this thing has happened and it proves that it can happen." Singer-songwriter John Sebastian agreed. Mounting the stage, he called the scene "the biggest mindfucker of all time." Sebastian had "never seen anything like this. There was Newport," he remembered, referring to the annual folk festival in Rhode Island, "but they owned it. It was something different."
Woodstock fueled ecstatic hopes that a new generation had emerged, that an alternative to the corrupt mainstream could be, was being, constructed. A few months later, another massive outdoor concert opened at Altamont, California, with the Rolling Stones as featured act. Anxious for "Woodstock West," the audience of about 300,000 remained generally peaceful, the mood celebratory. But close to the stage, the scene grew ugly; brawls and bad acid trips led to a number of ugly scenes. In a particularly ill-advised move, the Stones offered the Hell's Angels $500 worth of beer to guard the stage. As the crowd pushed closer, the Angels began beating people, busting pool cues over their heads. Eventually, four people died at Altamont including a young black man, beaten and stabbed to death by the Angels as he danced too close to the stage.
If Woodstock seemed idyllic, the birthplace of a new culture, Altamont swept into the open all the ugly features of the counterculture -- "the greed, the hype, the hustle," to quote one observer. At Altamont, the Woodstock generation learned that its fondest hopes, its most ambitious objectives would not be easily met; it would have to confront the darker realities of the age.
Among those harsh truths was the concerted opposition of the establishment. The mainstream press attacked the hippies and the festivals as harbingers of dope, debauchery, and destruction. And the opposition fired more than harsh words. Vandals bombed Trans-Love Energies Commune in Detroit; others shot out the windows at the offices of the Street Journal, an underground newspaper in San Diego. When Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda made the cult classic Easy Rider (1969), they encountered violence while filming the movie in the South. They had expected the taunts: "Look at the Commies, the queers, is it a boy or a girl." But they were stunned by the stories they heard "of kids getting their heads broken with clubs or slashed with rusty razor blades." Patrons in one bar jumped the longhaired filmmakers themselves. "Don't be scared, go and try to change America," Hopper concluded, "but if you're going to wear a badge, whether it's long hair or, or black skin, learn to protect yourself."
The film itself dramatized this resistance, tracing the motorcycle journey of two drug-dealing hippies across the South. Persecuted by rednecks and hounded by police, the sojourners cannot get service at a restaurant or a room at a motel. Their brand of freedom, the alcoholic lawyer played by Jack Nicholson explains, threatens the complacency of ordinary Americans. The bikers' very existence mocks their constrained lives, dramatizing the compromises they have made and the shackles they endure.
Despite the resistance from outside and its own contradictions and difficulties, the counterculture expanded in the Seventies, spreading a less formal, more open and freewheeling way of life. But the real efforts at cultural revolution, at creating a sustainable alternative, collapsed or became diluted. Communes drifted apart; underground papers mainstreamed or failed; free clinics applied for government funding. Standing on a hill in the desert in 1971, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson recalled the feelings of imminent change he had experienced a few years earlier -- "that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail." But now, "with the right kind of eyes," he could almost see "the high-water mark -- that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
The wave seemed to crest at the end of the Sixties. The Democratic party left Chicago in turmoil. The broad liberal coalition that had been its foundation, forming the bedrock of American politics for a generation, lay in ruins. The nation was divided, confused, seemingly in uproar. In the winter of 19681969, the nation turned its longing eyes toward California. There, rested and ready, if never tanned like T-shirts and bumper stickers would one day proclaim, waited Richard Milhous Nixon. On Election Day, he promised to heal a wounded people. But he had other plans.
Copyright © 2001 by Bruce J. Schulman
Meet the Author
Bruce J. Schulman is Associate Professor of History and Director of American Studies at Boston University. A frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times and other publications, Professor Schulman lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.
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