The myth of the 1950s as a simpler, sweeter, more stable time as compared to the turbulent 1960s, began during the turbulent 1960s with Nixon’s “Silent Majority.” Such was the appetite from mainstream America for this era’s zeitgeist that television producer Gary Marshall launched Happy Days in 1974, a conflict-free, patriotic comedy series whose sole “dissident” was a biker named Arthur “the Fonz” Fonzarelli. As conceived, the Fonz was merely Establishment America clad in a leather jacket.
But there were conflicting voices, not just those fixated on the era’s blemishes. New Left historian Maurice Isserman searched for and found a radical pulse previously undetected between the death of the Old Left, owing to Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, which documented that what their foes said about the Soviet Union being a murderous tyranny as true, and a New Left that largely eschewed Soviet worship. The connecting link for Isserman was the Civil Rights movement launched by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Of a more mainstream variety was journalist and early Vietnam critic David Halberstam’s The Fifties, a book that viewed the 1950s as a cultural harbinger of the 1960s located not only in the Civil Rights movement but also in the Beatnik literary movement.
Christopher B. Strain is the latest in this school of thought. His book, The Long Sixties: America, 1953-1973, is a good (but marred in places—more on this later) study of the 1950s seguing into the 1960s.
Strain takes on and largely succeeds in dismantling the myth of the 1950s as devoid of any radicalism. As McCarthyism sought to “frighten into conformity critics, non-conformists and subversives,” these groups put up a fight that would blossom in the 1960s. In a period where nuclear power was deemed safe, even beneficial, and a necessary demonstration of peace through strength, Albert Schweitzer took to the radio urging “50 nations to terminate all nuclear tests.” Other concerned with a nuclear arms race formed SANE (Sane Nuclear Policy) which grew to 25,000 members by 1958. Berkeley students, in many ways the nucleus of the counter-culture, refused in the 1950s to “participate in civilian defense drills.”
In a pithy passage, Strain shows the radicalism running neck and neck with mainstream: at the same time that the McDonalds restaurants were appearing, and Walt Disney was creating Disneyland in Anaheim, California, the Supreme Court was toppling racial segregation in schools. A year later, Rosa Parks, refusing to sit at the back of the bus, which was the social norm for blacks, helped spark the Montgomery Bus boycott.
One of Strain’s strengths is a tough-minded refusal to be politically correct. Eschewing the “Camelot” myth, and its use by such writers as the former SDS activist Todd Gitlin as a rationalization for the New Left’s JFK-bereft descent into revolutionary terror, and by such latecomers to the movement as filmmaker Oliver Stone (who used it to attempt to end the Cold War), Strain sees the Kennedy era as conservatism from the top. He deems Kennedy’s civil rights record as “checkered at best” (after meeting with JFK, Martin Luther King stated that the President lacked any moral commitment to Civil Rights). He notes that Kennedy passed the first capital gains tax cut—a policy viewed as so extreme (Camelot spear-carrier Arthur Schlesinger denounced it as “McKinley dogma”) that even Barry Goldwater recoiled. Far from being a foe of the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned the country about, Kennedy, according to Strain, built it up.
His successor, LBJ, the object of the antiwar movement chant “LBJ! LBJ! How many kids have you killed today?”, is treated sympathetically and even as praiseworthy. Regarding liberal domestic policy, Strain asserts that what JFK promised, LBJ delivered. He even attempts to excuse Johnson’s putting combat troops in Vietnam: if Johnson was duped about Vietnam, he writes. so too were “America’s best strategists.” He even has kind words for Nixon, praising the President’s “impressive list” of liberal social policies.
But he also succumbs to viewing the 1960s through rose-colored glasses. For all its revolutionary terrorism, Strain lauds the 1960s by its own terms: for him, it was a decade when patriotic Americans tried to “give peace a chance.” I don’t know Strain’s politics—presumably, given his praise of the antiwar movement and defense of the Great Society, they are liberal—but he amazingly defends the Black Panthers’ gunplay in the language of the National Rifle Association as merely individuals exercising their “constitutional right to bear arms.”
Although he does note a rise of the Right in American politics, he shortchanges the movement by arguing that its leaders, Reagan and Goldwater, were seeking not a “conservative revolution” but a return to “a pre-1960s status quo, a return to the ‘good old days’ when things made sense.” In actuality, the conservative movement of the 1960s was both a return to Calvin Coolidge domestic, trickle-down policies, and a new, more confrontational approach to the Soviet Union. After all, the pre-1960s era the conservatives are alleged to have been trying to bring back was the very liberalism they hated. They decidedly were not yearning for the days when even Republicans like Eisenhower supported the continuation of New Deal domestic programs.
Taken all in all, though, The Long Sixties is an impressive book. What Halberstam outlined, Strain fills in.