The counter-culture of the 1960s is steeped in myth, half-truths and legend.
Those were the days of peace, love, protest, hate, exploration, great music and interesting drugs, while retaining the base of conservative, pro-military, pro-war, Nixon-voting kids. Indeed, it was a split culture from around 1964 until 1972.
Some say the 60s didn’t start until Kennedy was shot. The disillusionment that resulted in the youth was one impetus for the next eight years.
It is hard to pinpoint a cultural ground zero for the Boomer generation. Yet the conservatives of today gleefully point to that time as the direct cause for the alleged downfall of our society and its assorted ills. Those darn hippies and that free love and get high mentality surely was the cause for the breakdown in our culture.
Like many things in life, appearances aren’t what they seem. Just why did the `60s occur? Hard to cover in just one column; you need a semester really.
So here it goes. What was the culture they were revolting against?
We need to go back to 1945. America has emerged from World War II triumphant and unscathed; the new world power. Our industry had no competition and we basically ruled the day with a Pax America.
The men returned home horny and ready to get to the job of making babies.
That they did, leading to the boom of the Baby Boom, a sharp increase in births that ran until 1964.
But the thrill of victory was soon clouded by the emergence of Soviet Communism and it’s expansion globally as a direct challenge to America. War broke out on the Korean peninsula and we were back at it again.
Truman gave way to Ike and an era of conservatism set in upon the people, like locusts on a field. Even with the threat of the Commies lurking like rats under the bed, for most white, Protestant males, these were the days.
You could get a job and with a college degree – a darn good job. Women stayed at home to raise all of those new babies and to play house for you. Blacks were still in their proper place, basically as second-class citizens and subservient to white America.
Homosexuals? You must be kidding. The love that dare not speak its name was so far in the closet, it was buried under a pile of leisure suits.
Teen pregnancy? Ship them off to Aunt Sally’s farm. On the surface, it was a great time to be alive and white.
But cracks in the illusion were occurring even as the Beaver went on with his business. Sen. Joe McCarthy was an obscure man until he came across the brilliant idea of going on an anti-Communist crusade. McCarthyism was a dark stain on our democracy and it ruined many a life.
Then, in the South, you had the rise of a civil rights movement. Blacks were organizing to fight the Jim Crow laws and the horrible bigotry to which they were subjected daily.
Meanwhile, back in white suburbia, those who were making money were also buying lots of material goods. The boomer kids had all the material things that previous generations never could have.
So the boomers grew up in this atmosphere. You had lots of toys and things but still had to duck and cover at school. You never knew when a nuke would visit your classroom.
So a kind of cultural schizophrenia set in with many of these youth. This set the stage for the rebellion of the `60s. After the blandness of the late `50s and early `60s, these kids were champing at the bit for something new and different. In 1964, the invasion came from across the ocean.
No, not the Russians but for parents something even more pernicious, the Beatles. We have no concept today of the impact the Fab Four made on the youth culture of 1964. Britney Spears, N’Sync, Eminem, none of them can touch the popularity and influence of the Beatles.
Also at this time, you had the Civil Rights movement finally coming to fruition with the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965.
Under the law, no more separate water fountains, schools, cafeterias and so on.
Vietnam was just getting cranked up and the manned space race was still in its infancy. Television was also saturating homes giving the youth a common experience to share and relate with each other along with music. The generation gap was showing the split that was to occur.
Many of the excesses of the youth in the `60s were a reaction to the repression, fear and mass consumerism of the 1950s. These kids were the first jaded generation with time and money to burn. They had the numbers to make a statement and so they did. It was not a monolithic group.
The Boomers were a diverse tribe in those days. Many proudly signed up for military service, even as Vietnam progressed on its very publicized road to hell. Conservative kids abounded but were naturally not as open as those more radical. Not everyone did drugs or slept with someone named Moonbeam.
But the `60s did raise political awareness and brought the youth into the political process. Music showed it’s serious side and the potential to shape public opinion and debate. Minorities were taken seriously with the rise of black, women’s and gay rights groups. These kids also saw the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy and Malcolm X. The times, they were changing.
So what happened when the Boomers grew up, got jobs and had kids? This is where many were assimilated into the very culture they had opposed as youth.
They wanted money, jobs and a good materialistic life. Sure, some of the hippies hung on to their dreams of utopia on earth, but they were a minority. Seems like capitalism won the day.
The jury is still out on the impact of the Boomers and how their parenting and stewardship changed the course of our culture. Many more divorces occurred with this generation, giving rise to single parent households. The open attitudes about sex made them vulnerable to herpes and then the AIDS epidemic. The use and abuse of drugs probably explains why anyone would have voted for Reagan.
But it is an error to ascribe all of our problems of today to the Boomers’ behavior back in the `60s. History is not a single event but the ebb and flow of human behavior over time. World War II led to the `60s, which gave us the conservative `80s and, perhaps, we’ll swing back during the `00s. We can learn lessons from the `60s.
Never go to war without a clear plan for victory; love the planet and care for it; prejudice is really stupid; radiation and chemicals just might be bad; Star Trek was best with Captain Kirk; let Nixon go to China; diversity is strength; a space program needs a set mandate to succeed and foremost, all you need is love.