The countries of the New World prospered after World War II because they were never attacked on the continent. In this entry* we shall see how the United States began to feel a grassroots new cultural, social and political current brought about by the first postwar generation.
The decade that in the United States is still remembered as simply "the Sixties" began with three symbolic starting points.
In late August 1963, an African-American civil rights march on Washington was led by Martin Luther King, Jr. President Kennedy was assassinated in November. Then in February 1964, on the very widely watched Ed Sullivan Show, a group of long-haired English musicians called The Beatles played their electric guitars amid deafening cheering from teenage girls.
John F. Kennedy, for a time regarded as almost an informal saint and martyr (until his rampant sexuality became known), was said to have advocated reforms the "liberal" wing (in the U.S. and non-European sense) of the Democratic Party sought to carry. To "honor Kennedy's memory," Lyndon Johnson, a Southern political genius, succeeded getting a broad range of socio-economic legislation approved.
The first triumph was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which remains the basis of all protections and guarantees of equal rights for minorities and women. As for women, conservative Southerners proposed adding "sex" as a joke, to the prohibition of discrimination by "color, creed or national origin"; the liberals took them at their word, knowing that their adversaries had made a tactical error. (U.S. liberals are not the European liberals who advocate a hands-free market and laissez faire policies, but reformers favoring substantial government intervention in the economy, albeit less so than the European left.)
Johnson also launched, the following year, when he won by a really overwhelming margin never seen again, the "War on Poverty. In less than 10 years, poverty was reduced from 19% to 11% (today it is 15%, to be explained later). LBJ also bequeathed a very broad socio-economic legislation, such as federal health insurance for the elderly and the poor, assistance for families and children in need, expansion of access to food stamps, subsidies for housing, etc.
The disadvantage for liberals, one from which the Democratic Party does has yet to recover, is that the South became Republican when the Democrats ended racial segregation. Nixon in 1968 called it "the southern strategy" to reverse the geographical alignment of the two parties.**
In economic terms, it was a moment of enormous prosperity. The average salary doubled between 1945 and 1965. African-Americans entered supervisory and professional occupations. By the end of 1970 women would join them (and soon surpass them).
There was also new music, a Dionysian sound of rock-and-roll that broke with the apolitical restraint of earlier popular music. To rock was added the rediscovery of British and Irish folk music, and its traditional forms of popular protest. Popular music stopped being so much about romantic love as Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Peter, Paul and Mary, among others, sang about rights, peace, humanity and, as Che Guevara put it, a deeper love of people.
The important topic of the era was freedom. Why more freedom? Looking back half a century later, I would say that prosperity made society more expansive and tolerant. There were protests (and I say this in the broad sense of the Latin protestare, which is "witnessing") of love, racial integration and peace. It all came from the conviction that the time had come to share prosperity, well-being, and happiness (often expressed as sexuality) as widely as possible. It began with the March in Washington singing "We Shall Overcome" reached its climax in Woodstock with the song of Country Joe & the Fish against the Vietnam war.
I left the United States in 1961 and returned in 1970. I left a country that thought itself essentially white, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon and orderly, whose average people showed little interest in the rest of the world. I returned to a country where people drank French wine with their meals, had been in Europe or planned to do so even if it was backpacking, had experimented with some recreational drug, was open (in theory at least) to sexual variety and racial integration, and talked about breaking with conventions an awful lot.
That was my generation, embedded in "the movement," which was a fuzzy mixture that had a hint of hippie, a bit of leftism and stylized anarchism, a general tendency to accept radical changes towards a new country where the important thing was to love a great love for all.
We launched a cultural revolution that expanded job opportunity for African-Americans and other minority groups, such as Hispanics, and the oppressed majority, women. It was done through changes in the way of thinking, dressing and talking; and without violence.
This was especially evident in what is now called the "second wave" of feminism, which began with the publication in 1970 of an anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement, the emergence of Ms. magazine and the song I Am Woman in 1973. Two words suddenly disappeared from everyday vocabulary: "boy" for black workers vanished overnight after the 1964, 1967 and 1968 riots, as did "girl," somewhat more slowly and reluctantly, for a woman.
Finally, there is the question of attire and the length of men's hair. The consensus of all with whom I have talked about it is that until about 1968 the Beatles haircut was only for the musicians and a few adventurers who were the real hippies of 1967. However, by 1971 or 1972, even adults, like presidential candidate George McGovern, had at least sideburns and no male under the age of 30 had hair that did not reach at least the bottom of the neck.
Adults, corporations and the de facto powers, that is, all those who felt threatened, opposed this amorphous movement.
Unlike the worker-student coalitions in Europe, working-class whites resisted the changes, resentful of new competition in employment and housing from blacks, whom some of these workers still hated; for the white worker, racial prejudice was like coming home and kicking the dog in lieu of kicking the unassailable boss. There was a long history on the part of the wealthy of skillfully using ethnic hatreds to divide workers. Yet it takes taking a good look at those who opposed the youthful rebellion carefully to understand.
Americans of the generation that had gone to fight in World War II and Korea, were shocked that their children chanted against going to Vietnam "Hell no, we will not go!" and even burned the stars and stripes. Those who married in church, had children and formed families now saw their offspring join in free love, which was possible first thanks to contraceptives then abortion, legalized in 1970. Older women felt mocked for being mere housewives without paid jobs or preofessions.
That generation felt ridiculed for being "squares" and "useful idiots" of the "system." As a political force, all these people who longed for the United States from "before" ( the black and white of the 1950s) became invisible after Barry Goldwater's wipeout defeat in the 1964 presidential election, and were briefly appeased by Nixon's Vice-President Spiro Agnew, who coined the phrase "the silent majority," a mass that resurfaced politically for revenge in 1980.
Notably, just as this era began with the unfinished presidency of Kennedy, it ended with another truncated presidency, Nixon's, which ended with his resignation in 1974 because of the Watergate scandal.
* This is the third in a short series of posts that attempt to sketch contemporary U.S.cultural and social history. I intend to present how the time and place felt from a personal perspective, and only in the background, the history whose first draft appeared in the newspapers. All this comes from an exchange with a French correspondent that I thought might be of interest to readers of my Spanish blog.
** The Democratic Party was founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1792, while the Republican Party was launched in 1854 by Abraham Lincoln. U.S. political parties do not represent distinct ideologies, but interests and opinions, rather than theories. Since the Civil War, Republicans represented industrial anti-slave interests (it's cheaper to pay a wage and let the worker figure out how to provide for himself with it, than to assume life-long responsibility for a slave's housing, food and clothing, however meager). The South became staunchly Democrat because it was unpalatable for whites to vote for "Lincoln's party" (former slaves in the South were effectively denied the vote until the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which conservatives are currently trying to undo). In the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was a personalist leader much like Argentina's Juan Perón or Brazil's Getulio Vargas, forged a unique coalition that comprised unions, white ethnics (meaning not of English origin) Blacks, liberals (including the tiny left and intellectuals) and Southerners for the historical reasons cited. This is how FDR became the only president elected four times (which led to a constitutional amendment, proposed by Republicans, to limit the presidency to two terms). That coalition was mortally wounded in the 1960s, as became clear in the 1970s and 1980s.