Editor’s Note (January 2000): This lecture drew on material contained in Mr. Frum’s book How We Got Here : The 70’s--The Decade that Brought You Modern Life--For Better or Worse, which is now available from Basic Books.
The comedian Howie Mandel begins his speeches by clutching this little desk here and shouting: "Hey, if I’d known there was going to be a podium, I wouldn’t have worn pants." It’s a well-worn joke, but I feel a certain proprietary claim to it. Howie Mandel is a fellow-Torontonian, and my father, in his first career as a dentist, fixed his teenage teeth.
The need to preface a speech with jokes always fills me with terror--and a keen wish to be chief justice of the United States. I happened a few months ago to hear on the radio an after-dinner speech given to a conference of appellate judges by Chief Justice William Rehnquist. He opened his speech with a barrage of jokes of such fantastic antiquity that his law clerks must have translated them from the original Sumerian. There was the one about the two men in the tent who hear the scratching of the bear. One man ties on his running shoes, and the second man says, "They won’t help you outrun the bear." And the first man says, "I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you."
Well exactly. You tell that joke in this room, and you can hear the chirping of the crickets outside. But tell it to a roomful of judges and they’ll all gamely summon up, well maybe not a belly laugh, but certainly a polite chortle. If you’re the chief justice at least.
One of my favorite bumper stickers, still spotted around town, declares "The joke’s over: bring back President Reagan." I’m afraid that’s exactly the point at which this speech has arrived. The jokes are over. It’s time now to exhume the past.
My talk today is titled, "Where Did the 1960s Come From?" That is a typographer’s abridgement of a longer question: "If the 1950s Were So Great, Where Did the 1960s Come From?"
Let me begin first by confessing to a bit of indirection. I am using the 1960s as a shorthand for the great dislocation of American institutions and values that occurred before, during, and after the Vietnam war--between let us say 1965 and 1982. Chronologically speaking, most of this dislocation happened in the 1970s, which is why I call the book I am writing on this subject a history of the 1970s, not the 1960s.
For when you think of the 1960s, it’s a great mistake to imagine them as represented by, say, Hillary Clinton. Two-thirds of the baby boomers never attended college. In 1966, almost all of the young men born in 1946--the year Hillary Clinton was born--were wearing their hair short, serving in the army or else taking jobs at the local plant, eating pork chops for dinner, and getting ready to marry the second girl they had ever slept with. The Berkeley Free Speech movement, the sit-ins at Columbia, the Harvard Strike of 1969--for most American young people, the protests and love-ins of the 1960s were as remote and alien as the Newport regatta, the deb balls in the Plaza Hotel, or the rituals of Skull & Bones. For older Americans, they were a good deal more exotic than that.
An influential book published in 1970, The Real Majority, observed that the typical American voter in 1968 was neither young, nor poor, nor black: she was a 47-year-old machinist’s wife living in Dayton, Ohio. And--as the authors of the book didn’t quite say--as far as she was concerned, the 1960s were the 1940s, except that frozen vegetables had replaced canned. It was only in the next decade, the supposedly anticlimactic 1970s, that her world and that of people like her was turned upside down as Cambridge, New Haven, Manhattan, and Northwest Washington were turned upside down by the 1960s. It was in the next decade that her husband dumped her, that she first tasted cappuccino, that her standard of living failed to rise for the first time in her adult life, and that she cast her first Republican ballot.
The 1960s, one-time Democratic activist Richard Goodwin later wrote, "contained a promise, an augury of possibilities, an eruption of confident energy." They were a Promethean moment when everything seemed possible: the abolition of poverty, the overnight elimination of prejudice, unending economic expansion. But Goodwin is constrained to admit candidly that the Sixties were "a failure." The liberal dreams of social reform with which the decade began begat impossible hopes; the disappointment of those hopes spawned the radical movements of the decade’s end; and the destructiveness and hatefulness of those radical movements in turn so shocked and offended the country’s voting majority that thirty years later the voters have neither forgiven nor forgotten. "This country’s going so far right you’re not going to be able to recognize it," predicted Attorney General John Mitchell in 1970, and at least from an electoral point of view he was absolutely correct. Indeed, I would argue--I do argue in my book--that the political turn to the right is an integral component of the social change that occurred between 1965 and 1982.
But whatever label we apply to this national convulsion--whether we call it "the Sixties," as we have grown used to doing, or as my book would argue is more correct, "the Seventies," the question remains: where did it come from?
Modern conservatives have tended to perceive a total disconnect between American society in the 35 years between 1930 and 1965 and the 35 years between 1965 and the present. In one era, Americans were heroes--"the greatest generation" Tom Brokaw calls them--who uncomplainingly toughed out the Depression, saved democracy from Nazism, rebuilt Europe, and secured the peace. Then as if by some freak genetic mutation, these admirable people passed away to be replaced by draft-dodging, pot-smoking, perjury-condoning, gender-bending, soft-rock-listening, standard-lowering, baseball-cap-backward wearing, Sub-Zero owning, ex-hippie-now-yuppie lowlifes. It’s like the extinction of the dinosaurs. One minute giants are walking the earth, then suddenly--CRASH--a comet smacks the planet, and the giants are replaced overnight by tiny rat-like creatures.
But this is not the way things work, is it?
Conservatives rightly scorn the liberal myth of the devilish 1950s, in which people who subscribed to magazines like the New Republic flinched every time the doorbell rang, fearing it was the FBI come to tell them they couldn’t write screenplays any more, when women popped Valium inside their nasty ticky-tack suburban homes, and you couldn’t buy a decent bottle of wine anywhere west of Sixth Avenue--a sexist, racist, homophobic nightmare from which America was woken by the brave chords of the Beatles. But the right is by no means without a myth of its own, in which the 1950s are represented as a cross between the Athens of Pericles and Mayberry, USA--a time when families stayed together, people meant it when they saluted the flag, teenagers were punished if they sassed teachers, and you could always find a parking spot on the side streets of the Upper West Side.
Now let me declare my own willing adherence to much of this myth. I too revere the 1950s--I love Dean Martin and big cars, gloves on women and three-inch porterhouses. I miss anticommunist zealotry and middlebrow bestsellers, smoking on television and the days when modern art was exciting, homburgs and the old University of Chicago.
But I do believe that we have to connect the dots, to open ourselves to the possibility that the period we dislike cannot so neatly be opposed to the immediately preceding period we admire.
I’d like to invite you to consider this hypothesis. Like them or loathe them, the middle decades of the twentieth century--and in particular the quarter century years from the end of World War II to January 1968, the month that public opinion turned against the Vietnam War, were an entirely anomalous period in American history. Cast your mind back, for instance, to the turn of the century--the last century. Many of us carry in our minds a Fourth of July picnic image of America in 1900, derived loosely from The Music Man and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Well, forget it. The United States in the first years of this century was a deeply troubled and anxious society, one in which old certainties had collapsed and new certainties--socialism, eugenics, imperialism, war--threatened to destroy what remained of the virtues of the old republic.
Nowhere on Earth was class conflict more violent: American labor relations were notoriously the most violent in the world, with dozens, even hundreds, killed in confrontations like the Pullman Railway Car and the Homestead Steel strikes. Sectional conflict still lingered: The American Civil War was the bloodiest conflict of the nineteenth century, and it was fresher in 1900 than the Kennedy presidency is today. When President McKinley ordered the army to Florida to invade Cuba, his cabinet worried whether resentful Southerners might sabotage the trains--one reason that they chose a former Confederate general as commander of the expeditionary force.
Racial tension pervaded the country: The decade ending in 1900 had suffered more lynchings of blacks than any before or since; the four-year-old decision in the Plessy v. Ferguson case had shackled segregation on the South apparently forever. As for the North, it was being remade. The old Yankee population was being dispossessed by a terrifying influx of non-Protestant immigrants. Never before had so many Americans been foreign-born; the streets of the great cities were a babble of foreign tongues.
Never had the rich been so rich, disgusting Americans with their showy consumption and raising real questions of how republican self-government could survive in a society where the many lived in tenements and the few lived in San Simeon and the Breakers. The rich meanwhile despaired of their society, turning with fascination to new racialist doctrines such as those taught by Madison Grant, a New York socialite who founded the Museum of National History and the American Sociological Association, to new religions like Christian Science and Freudianism, and to the pursuit of pleasure.
Family life seemed to be disintegrating, as the rise of great cities encouraged unhappy men to desert their families and the weakening of religion chipped away at traditional sexual norms.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? But it would not have to an American of midcentury.
That American lived in a country of almost unbelievable consensus and homogeneity. The percentage of the population that was white hit its all-time peak in the 1940 census. The percentage of the native-born would peak in 1960. To hear a foreign language spoken on American soil, you had to venture into the emptying-out immigrant quarters of Little Italy or Chinatown or visit a border town like Brownsville. Los Angeles was known, with good reason, as Iowa by the sea.
He lived in a country of unprecedented economic equality. Depression and wartime taxation had crimped the rich; strong unions and the destruction of the factories of foreign competitors had forced the wages of skilled labor to new heights: American men with only a high-school diploma earn less today on average than they did in 1973. And America in midcentury was a much more socially equal country in ways that are hard to quantify but easy to see: one in four of the cars on the road was a Chevrolet.
And he lived in a country of astonishing social stability. Two-thirds of Americans said they trusted the government in Washington to do the right thing most or all of the time. 95 percent of children were born to married parents; through most years of the 1950s, there were twenty times as many marriages being recorded as divorces: today, the ratio of divorces to marriages is about two to five. Americans moved less than they do now and worked longer at the same jobs.
Now you can see why people pine for those days. But there are some other things ought also to be remembered. In the 1950s, the top rate of federal income tax was 95 percent. It was a very serious crime for a private citizen to own a gold coin. The attorney general could wiretap more or less anybody he wanted to, without a warrant, if he attested he was doing so for national security purposes. Every young man was obliged to serve in the military. The Secretary of State could prevent any American he considered a security risk from traveling abroad by refusing him a passport. When mayors and governors wanted to knock down existing neighborhoods to build highways, there was nothing that anybody could do to stop them; they even got to decide for themselves without much second-guessing what constituted adequate compensation. If you wanted to ship a crate of lettuce across the country, you needed permission from a federal regulatory agency. Almost one-third of the country’s best jobs were off-limits for anyone who refused to join a union.
What the kind of conservatives I was talking about before like about the 1950s was that it was a time of consensus and stability and respect for authority--a time when people ate what was put in front of them and were bloody grateful. But those virtues come at a price. Never before in American history had the political authorities enjoyed as much discretionary power as they did then. When you read the goings-on in the Kennedy administration, it jolts you: the president personally cancelling the broadcast licenses of radio stations that criticized him, ordering the deposal and assassination of foreign leaders--not just enemies, but wayward friends, like Ngo Dinh Diem of Vietnam--cavorting with girlfriends provided him by mob bosses as the press looked the other way.
The best way to understand the difference between the society of midcentury and the society of the century’s beginning and end was that it was a society formed by war. From 1898 through 1973, the United States was almost constantly at war or in imminent danger of war, and even when it was at peace, its leaders and elites believed that it should be governed in ways that mobilized its strength in readiness for war.
Now war, for the winners, is not always an unqualifiedly dreadful experience. It gives people a sense of purpose: suicide rates fell in most combatant nations during World War II. It inspires faith in the political leaders who bring victory. With millions of able-bodied men removed from the work force and the cooperation of union leaders absolutely indispensable to maintaining all-out production, the wages of labor rise, and the taxes that finance it constrain the wealth of the rich. War also gives rise to feelings of spiritual equality--the we’re-all-in-this-together spirit that led the British socialist and former Labor Party leader Michael Foot, when asked to give some idea of what his vision of the socialist Utopia would look like, to reply, simply, "1940."
The America of the 1950s still enjoyed those benefits of war. Americans trusted their leaders. How could you not trust General Eisenhower? They shared a sense of common endeavor. Any two men could strike up a comradely conversation with the question, "Where’d you serve?" Out of that colossal experience came a political consensus: however much Republicans and Democrats disagreed about the relatively petty issues of domestic politics, they were united on what then really mattered--the great issues of war and peace.
And American families were stable because the blue-collar utopia created by bombing Japan and Germany flat and granting broad union powers in exchange for labor peace enabled a high-school graduate to support a wife and family. War reinforces gender roles--men fight; women keep the home fires burning.
But war has its demands. It demands taxation, regulation, and control; hierarchy, centralization, and secrecy. And those demands are, I think, fundamentally out of keeping with the American constitutional idea and the American national character.
So here, I think, is the answer to our conundrum. The halcyon 1950s were the product of very unusual, even un-American, circumstances. They were the product of war and the fear of war and wartime discipline. They were impermanent and even unnatural. And they triggered a revolution.
An example: Until the Confederate States adopted conscription on April 16, 1862, no English-speaking society had ever known a draft. Although individual Englishmen might sometimes be sentenced or impressed into involuntary service on land or sea, the assertion by a government of the power to commandeer every able-bodied young man and send him away to fight and die far from home had seemed the very essence of French, German, or Russian despotism. Attempts to enforce a draft have almost invariably led to trouble in the English-speaking world: impressment of merchant sailors into the Royal Navy triggered the mutiny of 1797, the most dangerous in British history, and the Union draft triggered the New York riots of 1863, the deadliest in American history. Given that background, it was probably predictable that maintaining a draft in the United States in any circumstances except those of the most extreme urgency was likely to trigger resistance--as of course it did.
Another example: Modern America finds it humiliatingly difficult to get things built. The last important addition to New York City’s transportation system--the Verazzano Narrows Bridge--opened in 1964. The city’s most recent attempt to modernize itself, by opening a direct rail link from Manhattan to JFK airport, collapsed in humiliating failure: the train to the plane will terminate in Jamaica, Queens, instead. Nor is this dilatoriness a uniquely East Coast problem: Los Angeles International Airport did not manage to build a single new runway between 1970 and 2000, despite repeated tries. Looking back on the construction of the Hoover Dam or the George Washington Bridge or the Empire State Building, modern-day Americans must feel like a seventy-year-old athlete browsing through his old scrapbooks. Did we really spend the equivalent of $500 billion a year on foreign aid during the Marshall Plan? Did it only take us eight years from start to finish to land a man on the moon? Did urban school systems really manage to deliver a perfectly adequate education to hundreds of thousands of slum-dwellers? How? And then another thought follows almost instantly--What is wrong with us that we can no longer do as well?
But before succumbing completely to nostalgia, think of this: the energy and effectiveness of midcentury government was far from the normal state of affairs in the United States. For almost all of the century and a quarter from the Declaration of Independence to the accession of Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency, American government--federal, state, and local--was notorious for its incapacity. In 1900, Imperial Germany had a modest welfare state, Britain had a functioning income tax and a professional civil service, subways had been dug in London and Paris, and every major European capital all the way east to Vienna had regulated or even state-owned electric, gas, and streetcar utilities. America, meanwhile, still lacked a true national currency: most of the country’s paper money was issued by privately owned banks. These banks frequently miscalculated how much money was needed, triggering financial panics at regular intervals: in 1893, in 1907, and again in 1913. When a recession struck, the federal government could not even count the unemployed, much less aid them. American cities were filthy and mismanaged compared to English, Dutch, or German cities of similar size, their roads and ports a mess, their governments on the take. James Bryce, who served as British ambassador to the United States in the 1880s, observed in the introduction to the famous book he wrote when he got home that "No impression regarding American politics is more generally diffused in Europe than that contained in the question which the traveler who has returned from the United States becomes so weary of being asked, ‘Isn’t everybody corrupt there?’" (His answer, politely phrased, was "No--only the politicians.")
Think of political power as flowing water. The framers of the 1787 Constitution keenly perceived water’s potential dangerousness. They worried about floods and whirlpools and torrential rain. The system of political hydraulics they designed was intended to ensure that water was collected in discrete, small ponds where it would never harm anyone. This same system of hydraulics, however, equally prevented the water of power from generating any substantial benefit. The great idea of early twentieth century American politics--an idea shared by men otherwise as dissimilar as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt was for a new system of political hydraulics that gathered water within gigantic reservoirs under the control of a few very visible and accountable leaders, whence it could sluiced to irrigate the deserts and power the motors of industry.
What we now think of as the "rights revolution"--the willingness of courts to overturn the decisions of the elected branches of government--should I think be seen as a reaction to this great twentieth century idea. There is much to be said for a system of government that trusts a handful of experts chosen by politicians elected by a nationwide electorate to make quick judgments without second-guessing. But for good or ill, that is not the American way, and only the dire circumstances of midcentury could have made it seem like the American way for as long as it did.
A third example: I quote from a not atypical interview with the leader of an encounter group in New York, circa 1972. "We’re all so locked up in ourselves, we’ve got so many defenses going that we’ve forgotten how to feel. We’re physically tight and so emotionally tight that we don’t dare let go for fear of finding out what we really feel. The point is to get rid of those blocks, both emotional and physical, so we can start growing as human beings again." 3
Now this, as we all recognize, is the distinctive argot of our time. But even this "Oprah-ization" of public life is new only in the sense that it is the return of something antique. A hundred years ago, middle-class life in Britain and America was bathed in the gush of emotions. Reread the poetry of Swinburne or the orations of Daniel Webster, glance at the paintings of Frederick Leighton or old photographs of the obsequies of General Grant if you doubt it. The wry, laconic, anti-emotionalism of a Jimmy Stewart or a Prince Philip is a last relic of the early twentieth century reaction against the overwrought emotionalism of the Victorians. Bob Dole brought to his political speeches the same sensibility that Ernest Hemingway brought to his novels. The generation now passing from the scene is old, but it was young once. And when it was young, it learned from the fire and slaughter of the First World War to mistrust and despise the man who put his hand on his heart while wiping a tear from his eye. The historian Frederick Lewis Allen recalled the terse manners of his Generation of 1900 contemporaries: "During the whole three years and eight months that the United States fought [the Second World War], there was no antiwar faction, no organized pacifist element, no objection to huge appropriations, no noticeable opposition to the draft. Yet there was also a minimum of crusading spirit. . . . They"--the men and women of the 1940s--"didn’t want to be victims of ‘hysteria.’ They felt uncomfortable about flag-waving. They preferred to be matter-of-fact about the job ahead. . . . These people were unstintedly loyal, and went to battle--or saw their brothers and sons go--without reservation; yet they remained emotionally on guard . . . disillusioned and deadpan. . . ."
We think now of the dislike of emotional fuss and show as generically "old-fashioned," as if it originated in the distant past and had continued unmodified until the day before yesterday. It’s probably truer to say that the terse style we associate with the GI generation came into fashion in the 1920s and that it went out in the 1970s, to be replaced by a style reminiscent of the moist, voluptuous sentimentality of a hundred years ago--with the teary television interview replacing black crepe. This was the style of the two party conventions in 1996. It’s the style of the most talked-about mass movement of the 1990s, the evangelical Promise Keepers, who bring stadiums full of middle-aged husbands and fathers together to weep and hug. It is the style of contemporary American evangelicalism. And it is the style of the most successful politicians of the age--the Bill Clintons and the Tony Blairs--as they explain how this or that policy will "save the life of a child."
So here is my answer to the question of where the 1960s came from. They came, as most new things do, from the buried strains of the past. They were a reaction against a midcentury moment that was itself a reaction to extreme and unusual circumstances. When those circumstances passed, so did the moment.
In a room like this, full of fighting spirit, this all probably sounds excessively fatalistic. So let me forthrightly say: I am not saying that we should surrender to the unlovely aspects of our time as the inevitable spirit of the age. What I want to do is to caution against nostalgia, the most useless of emotions, and to recommend that people who want to change present-day society for the better abandon the idea that it can somehow be remade in the image of the society that waged World War II. Few of us really would be comfortable in a society as conformist, as statist, as dour as that one, and whether we would be comfortable in it or not, it is not returning.
There is a reactionary strain in much of today’s conservatism, and while God knows modern-day America could on its bad days make a reactionary out of Thomas Jefferson, reaction is both futile and irresponsible. The true spirit of conservative reform ought to avoid idealizing the past and despairing over the present. It ought to remember that if Americans are less patriotic today than they used to be, they are also more enterprising; if less dutiful, they are also more kind-hearted; if less stoic, they are also harder-working; if less moral, they are also more religious.
And it ought to remember something else. One of the things I have become convinced of through my work on this book over the past few years is that at least one bit of conservative wisdom is wrong: human nature is not fixed and immutable. It changes all the time. And it will continue to change. Some of the instrumentality of change lies beyond all conscious human control: wars, depressions, revolutions, inflation. But some is within our grasp--not in our capacity as political actors, but as writers, parents, moral agents. The median age in the United States today is 37. This is a middle-aged country, and there is an autumnal snap to the air: a mood of introspection, self-examination, self-criticism. The very fact that this mood exists is proof that your fellow-citizens feel that not all is well. And that feeling is the spur that will drive them--not backward, because the past never returns--but onward, away from the culture of the 1970s and toward something new: new vices, new virtues, new sins and new progress.