Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-) recalls that during his boyhood his elders looked upon the cultural wreckage wrought by Soviet Communism and remarked, “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” In a like manner, many Americans today look at the best and worst aspects of the present day and explain, “All this got its start back in the 1960s.” Which was the era when, as certain intellectuals instructed us at the time, God was not only forgotten, but had in fact died.
As a time of social turmoil, the extraordinary 1960s cannot be marked off in a neat 10-year period. For in truth, our modern time of troubles lasted roughly from the outset of John F. Kennedy’s administration until April 1975 and the humiliating fall of Saigon to Communist North Vietnamese forces. Not surprisingly, then, the 1960s are remembered today as either the best or the worst of times, defensively so.
In “The Sixties Unplugged” Gerard DeGroot, professor of Modern History at St. Andrews University and the author of several books on Western cultural history, seeks to debunk the popular legend of the Sixties as a golden age of peace, love and understanding. He states his case in 68 short, thematically self-contained chapters covering the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Haight-Ashbury, Carnaby Street fashion, the Tonkin Gulf incident, Woodstock, the rise of conservatism as a force on college campuses and numerous other topics.
Mr. DeGroot’s book also looks at international goings-on, briefly essaying the bloody struggle for political power in Indonesia, the life and significance of the hate-filled, curiously over-praised Che Guevara, and much else besides. In doing so, he has written a book containing a little something to offend — and enlighten — just about everyone.
One myth, dear to the heart of many Americans, is that the Sixties was an era of sharing and brotherhood, and progress. But alas, this is buncombe, like perceptions of the shining legend of Woodstock Nation, the spotlessly noble character of Mohammed Ali, the simon-pure idealism of John F. Kennedy and a host of other cherished myths. Mr. DeGroot examines these topics and individuals with an unsparing eye, providing a warts-and-all perspective on each of them.
Mr. DeGroot notes that the Sixties youth movement was largely a response by the children of the Greatest Generation who saw no reason to share their parents, Depression-forged ethic of “Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do, or Do without.” In an affluent age, what was the point of that?
Instant gratification married to a sense of Pharisaic self-righteousness became the attitude of the hour. At one point Mr. DeGroot approvingly quotes Kirkpatrick Sale, whose assessment of the idealistic young people who formed Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) might well describe America,s largely white youth movement in general:
“They tend to feel guilty about the comfortable, privileged, often very rich homes from which they come, especially when they try to take their message into the mangled, oppressed and very desperate homes of the poor. They feel guilty about what they regard as their own inescapable middle-class racism and that of the society that has showered its benefits on their parents… . And they feel guilty that the society which has given them and their families so much, and which they have spent the better part of their adolescence trying to change, is obdurate in its basic iniquities.”
In light of this withering assessment, it is important to note that “The Sixties Unplugged” is not simply an exercise in downplaying everything about the decade, for Mr. DeGroot finds several persons to be genuine heroes, such as Cesar Chavez, soft-spoken founder of the United Farm Workers, and Rachel Carson, whose book “Silent Spring” essentially launched the modern environmental movement.
He also has words of admiration for those who bravely effected changes in American race relations through nonviolent direct action, a path that led sometimes to humiliation, physical assault, and death.
Nor will conservative readers of “The Sixties” come away entirely unscathed. For example, Mr. DeGroot’s description of Ronald Reagan as more a crafty political opportunist and populist than a conservative may raise eyebrows among many readers — who may be further surprised by the author’s spot-on assessment of Reagan’s significance: “The most successful political revolution of the 1960s was not conducted by students, nor was it left-wing. It was instead a populist revolution from the right, which had Ronald Reagan as its standard bearer.”
Mr. DeGroot strives to capture everything of note in the Sixties; and he admits from the outset that there are omissions, as it is impossible to tackle every key person and event of the era. Fair enough. Still, the reader may regret that there is no mention of mainline Protestant Christianity,s decline as a living faith in the West during the 1960s.
To his credit, Mr. DeGroot explores the impact of Vatican II and Pope Paul VI’s pronouncements against artificial birth control in the encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” but he is silent on the transformation of Protestantism into an uninspired and uninspiring forum for mere socializing, overseen largely by trend-seeking clerics.
It is possible that this development that flowered during the Sixties, along with the Catholic laity,s mixed response to “Humanae Vitae,” led many to embrace the ideologies Mr. DeGroot describes so well throughout his book, ideology being a secular substitute for religion. What Mr. Solzhenitsyn recalled from his youth in Russia may have been true, at least to some extent, for America and other Western nations during the Sixties, as well: “Men have forgotten God; that,s why all this has happened.”
Read alongside Tom Brokaw,s book “Boom! Voices of the Sixties,” Mr. DeGroot,s “The Sixties Unplugged” stands as an informative, well-researched, mostly on-the-mark response to the claims of graying Baby Boomers about the wall-to-wall wonderfulness of that long, strange trip of a decade.
James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House).