by ProfDave, ©2022
(Jul. 12, 2022) — These notes will venture where angels fear to tread, guessing at the broader picture. If you do not disagree with anything I say, you probably are not thinking at all. Remember that I warned you: I am a conservative, a Christian, and a cold war veteran. By reading my perspective, hopefully you will be better able to develop your own.
Something happened in Western culture and society during the 1960’s. That much seems to be agreed. A lot of things happened, of course, but to discern the overall cultural significance of these developments is still acutely controversial. For example, terms like “culture wars,” “political correctness,” and “social conservative” remind us in the USA of conflicts beginning then which – if anything – are even more heated now. Bear in mind that, for me, current events began in 1956 and formal history (the “Twentieth Century Europe” course) ended with 1968. What follows is a synthesis of recent textbooks, interpretive studies, and my own observations.
Some of us who lived through it are surprised to read writers like William Strauss and Neil Howe (Generations) calling the 1960’s a decade of spiritual awakening and a cultural watershed [Strauss & Howe, 295 ff. This book is not particularly good history, but a very stimulating look at the significance of age-cohorts in social history]. We (50’s folks) thought it was just us – nostalgia for the good old days that every generation feels. And it looked more sexual than spiritual to us – an anti-awakening.
Remember what we discussed in Unit 16? How early modern Europe combined modern ways of thinking with Medieval ways of living until the whole thing blew up in the French Revolution? Cultural change is like that. Ways of thinking and ways of living are related, but not synchronized. Further, cultural change is never unanimous. The ideas of the French Revolution and its opponents were a source of bloodshed for half a century afterward, and alive and well in the political arena to this day. So, the upheaval of the sixties is a reflection of intellectual currents going back a century before, of the physical and social devastation of two world wars, and of material and demographic changes. So, also, we do not know when or where the pendulum will stop swinging. Let’s look at 1) the post-war boom; 2) the “baby boom” generation; and 3) take a look at where “post modernism” and “post industrialism” may be taking us.
1. The Post-War Boom
In both Europe and America, the mid-sixties saw the end of a prolonged post-war boom. That there was a boom is remarkable when you look back at 1918 – 23 when discharged soldiers returned home to unemployment and economic collapse, at least in Europe. As we have seen, conditions on the continent were indeed extremely grim in 1946, but there was money to rebuild and pent-up demand enough to put everyone back to work. Industry swollen by war production shifted to reconstruction and consumer goods. These were years of full employment, consumer acquisition, life styles patterned on middle class America (the “American dream”), and political consensus. Consumers, who had not been able to buy during the war because of rationing, now shopped till they dropped. Refrigerators, vacuums, washers, telephones became common, and there were eight times as many automobiles in 1965 as in 1948. Agricultural productivity soared (700% in West Germany), leading to cheap food, but depressed farm income. Labor unions, stifled by patriotism or wartime restrictions, now struck for higher wages – that industry now had the profits to grant – a shorter work week, and paid vacations [Coffin 885-88]. In fact, in reaction to wartime grievances, Labor and democratic socialist parties won elections, formed governments, and nationalized key industries. Public education and social services expanded all over Europe and in North America, too, as governments bid for working class support [Sherman & Salisbury 767-68].
At the same time, class distinctions (never clear in America) were blurred by mass consumption and mass culture. Mass production, marketing, advertising, and credit (debt became respectable) thrust many of the same goods and services into the hands of all classes. Mass culture had begun to displace class-based entertainment in the 1890’s: the popular press, music halls, sports events followed later by motion-picture theater, radio, phonograph and television. All classes hummed the same tunes and followed the same stars [Coffin 888-89].
1945 Dresden 1990
The rebuilding of Eastern Europe would also have been a remarkable story, were it not for the spectacular recovery of the West. The East bloc followed the pattern of Stalinist five-year plans, emphasizing heavy industry, and contributing to the benefit of the Soviet economy. Education advanced greatly, seeking to produce a homogenous socialist culture. However, this very homogeneity tended to discourage innovation and specialization of skills. Labor enjoyed relatively high wages and job security, but low status and motivation. The new bureaucrats gained in privilege but did not constitute an effective substitute for an entrepreneurial middle class [Coffin 887].
Wherever Axis control had been exerted, nearly everyone had been compromised in some way. One Czech writer recalls, “Sometimes a bedraggled and barefoot concentration camp survivor plucked up his courage and knocked on the door of prewar friends to ask, ‘Excuse me, do you by any chance still have some of the stuff we left with you for safekeeping?’ and the friends would say, ‘You must be mistaken, you didn’t leave anything with us, but come in anyway!’ And they would seat him in their parlor where his carpet lay on the floor and pour herb tea into antique cups that had belonged to his grandmother . . . . He would say to himself, ‘What does it matter? As long as we’re alive? What does it matter?” [Heda Margolis Kovaly, Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968, trans Franci Epstein and Helen Epstein (Cambridge, MA, 1986) 45-46 as cited in Coffin 880]
A collective amnesia settled over Europe. Soldiers and survivors from World War II sought to put their lives back together, make up for lost time, and – especially in Europe – put the war behind them. Perhaps that generation can be pardoned for a decade of materialism and domesticity. In the United States, a sudden increase in births and family formation followed the war which came to be known as “the baby boom” and gave rise to a distinct generational phenomenon. Similar patterns are visible elsewhere.
2. The Baby Boom and the Age of Aquarius
Although post-war parents were anxious to return to a status quo, enhanced by the modern conveniences of “the American Dream,” the philosophical and educational underpinnings of culture were shifting. The names Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud come to mind. Man was no longer a creature of God, but a product of material forces and inner drives. The Cosmos was no longer a predictable machine, but an evolving jungle. John Dewey shifted the center of education from the authority of the teacher and the subject to the curiosity of the child. Dr. Benjamin Spock changed the nature of child rearing from discipline to self-esteem. Not every baby boom parent and teacher bought in to the new and abandoned the old but, suffice it to say, never had there been a generation of young people so empowered to critique their parents’ heritage and set a new course than that of the 60’s.
And critique they did, with a vengeance. “Don’t trust anyone over 30!” their leaders proclaimed. The generations that endured the depression, fought World War II, built the post-war prosperity, and pampered them were stigmatized as hypocrites, imperialists, and moral bankrupts. Those who defeated fascism were called fascists! Behold the breathtaking self-esteem!
No great upheaval in history is unanimous, all one thing, or the product of a single cause. Great ideas (like evolution, existentialism, and psychoanalysis), great inventions (like radio, television, psychoactive drugs, and oral contraceptives), and coincidental events (like the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King and the Vietnam War) all came together with a great disillusionment with the heritage of Christian America. Or perhaps not so great.
One of those coincidental events was certainly the “youth revolution.” Adolescence in itself is a novel concept of the 20th century: a long economically dependent and irresponsible interlude between childhood and adult responsibility. Postwar industry and entertainment recognized this segment as a distinct and lucrative market. Education and parenting did the rest. The transistor radio and the record industry became iconic. No longer were young people socialized to the world of their parents, but to a brave new age where the new was valued, the old discarded and the present was an end in itself. Children were esteemed wiser than their parents.
This was not just an American phenomenon. Student movements sprang up globally as the world adopted the American idea of universal, free secondary education – often compulsory and/or co-educational (!) – and the universities opened their doors to the masses as well. Hordes of middle- and working-class young people swamped the facilities and the traditions of elitist educational institutions – 600% increase in France 1949-65. Demonstrations broke out over crowded facilities, academic policies, and patriarchal rules. Jerry Farber published a book entitled Student as Nigger in 1967.
Boundless self-esteem, youthful enthusiasm, and a few anti-establishment professors spilled over into political and social issues. Campuses became fountains of radical movements and causes. Latin American students took over their universities, hired and fired faculty and more. Racial issues in the United States, the Vietnam war, bureaucracy, arms reduction were favorite causes; bureaucracy, authoritarianism and militarism in the East. The University of Paris was shut down in protests against De Gaulle’s Algerian policy, leading to bloody repression and strikes by ten million workers in 1968. In West Berlin, it was the Shah of Iran. In Italy, 26 universities were closed in protest over overcrowding. In Mexico City hundreds died [Coffin 899-900].
The most important social issue in the United States was the civil rights movement. Post-war children, black and white, started every school day with the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. They memorized the preamble of the Declaration of Independence and studied the Civil War. Some saw hypocrisy in the words “all men are created equal” and “liberty and justice for all.” “WASP” (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) America had grudgingly assimilated Irish and Italian Catholics by the 30’s but had shown reluctance to accept the full humanity and citizenship of African Americans. The promise of Christian and American values had been unfulfilled in a century of racial discrimination. Migration of black workers to northern cities during the war and the return of black servicemen after the war exposed this as a national – not just southern – social and moral issue. “Separate but equal” was not really equal “justice for all” – at all.
We cannot do justice to the full story of the American civil rights movement here. Moral objections to slavery go back to colonial times, but the Constitution enshrined compromise between north and south. Christian perfectionists led the drive to abolish slavery, but southern Methodists and Baptists also led the defense of the South’s “special institution.” Christian Freedmen’s Bureaus attempted to help the ex-slaves but met with crippling resistance from other Christians. In 1865 the black scientist and educator, Booker T. Washington, promised that if Negroes would work hard and be good citizens, they would gradually gain acceptance in Christian America. Instead, Jim Crow laws, voter registration restrictions, and intimidation became institutionalized in the south. And those who emigrated to the north found themselves informally confined to the worst housing, the worst education, and the worst jobs.
Change began with the Supreme Court decision in 1954 making school segregation illegal [Sherman & Salisbury 777] and the growth of organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). In 1960 a campaign of civil disobedience and demonstrations began which culminated in the bipartisan Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-68) was the most articulate voice in this campaign. Christian clergy had been the default leadership of the African American community since slave days and King embodied this tradition in a Christian version of Gandhi’s nonviolent civil action. He appealed to the conscience of America by effective oratory and “turning the other cheek.” “I have a dream,” he thundered, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” [Duiker & Spielvogel 840 read it!]. Although there was bitter opposition throughout the sixties, King won the hearts of many – if not most – white Americans.
King advocated integration and assimilation, a color-blind America. Others, like Malcolm X (1925-65) and the black power movement, advocated independence and separation – even black racism – rejecting assimilation in the American melting pot. Both leaders were assassinated in the 60’s. Under Lyndon Johnson equality and integration were enforced by law, but racial prejudice remains. Integration is in tension with cultural diversity [Canon 895]. Minority distinctions, instead of going away, were institutionalized as protected classes. Discrimination became illegal and unpopular. Many African Americans, their music and their celebrities, were integrated into the American mainstream, but others remained concentrated in the inner cities and in the underclass of poverty and dependence.
The gap between the promise of democracy and the reality of prejudice was not just an American phenomenon. Racial issues emerged in Europe as immigrants and “guest workers” flooded into the industrial West from former colonies and the third world: South Asians in Britain, Algerians in France, Turks in Germany, religious Muslims in secular/Christian Europe in general. French attempts to assimilate its colonies as French departments (provinces) foundered over racism on the one hand and native nationalism on the other. What did it mean to be French or Dutch or Danish? This issue overlaps with legal and illegal immigration of Hispanics to the USA. National identity and values consensus are questioned by the international flow of peoples [See Duiker & Spielvogel 856, Canon 898].
It has been said that politics became personal during the sixties. I find it hard to write objectively about Vietnam and the anti-war movement. As a convinced anti-communist, I was willing to lay my life down for containment and Vietnamese freedom. In retrospect it appears the nationalist regime was probably a lost cause, unworthy of the sacrifices of thousands of Americans and/or American strategy was fatally flawed. Did American resolve prevent more blatant aggression in Southeast Asia and elsewhere? The consequences of South Vietnamese and American failure in Vietnam and Cambodia were appalling. Remember the baby lift? The boat people? The killing fields and the stacks of skulls?
The 1961 idealism of the Peace Corps and Kennedy’s commitment to fight communism and support freedom and free markets were forgotten in draft resistance and student protest. Young people resented being called upon to risk life and limb in a cause they had not chosen. Some fled to Canada. Others burned flags and insulted returning servicemen. Jane Fonda broadcast propaganda to the troops from Hanoi. There is a fine line between foreign policy disagreement and treason. The nadir was reached when National Guardsmen fired on protestors at Kent State University, Ohio, in 1970 and universities were shut down across the nation.
Coffin, Judith et al. Western Civilizations, 17th edn. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011.
Duiker, William L. and Spielvogel, Jackson J. World History, 6th edn., Boston:
Johnson, Philip. Reason in the Balance, Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1995.
Sherman, Dennis and Salisbury, Joyce. The West in the World, 3rd edn. Boston:
McGraw Hill, 2008.
Strauss, William and Howe, Neil. Generations. New York: William Morrow, 1991.
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.