Then and Now: New Examinations of the Sixties

By Hewitt, Steve | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview
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Then and Now: New Examinations of the Sixties

Hewitt, Steve, Labour/Le Travail

John A. Andrew III, The Other Side of the Sixties: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of Conservative Politics (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press 1997).

Doug Dowd, Blues for America: A Critique, A Lament, and Some Memories (New York: Monthly Review Press 1997).

Ron Jacobs, The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground (New York: Verso 1997).

Staughton Lynd, Living Inside Our Hope: A Steadfast Radical's Thoughts on Rebuilding the Movement (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1997).

James Tracy, Direct Action: Radical Pacifism from the Union Eight to the Chicago Seven (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1996).

THE DECADE HAUNTS US STILL. The 1960s -- a time of change, hope, happiness, repression, violence, and death -- is beginning to collect biographers. The variety of both those writing about the period and what they have to say demonstrates that the meanings of the era are being constantly contested. Since 1980 it has been the American right that has dominated public interpretations of the period. Thus the 1960s have been dismissed as a period of excess that spawned a wide variety of social problems over the last three decades. Even prominent participants in some of the movements now under fire have joined the chores of critics.(1) These assaults have been given a public prominence because of the ability of the political right to win majority support from the 50 per cent of the United States' electorate that bother to vote.

Despite the right's domination of the public forum, alternative voices and accounts of the period are appearing. These works represent a mixture of memoirs and histories by academics, participants, and interested observers. Although the exclusive focus of these books is not on the 1960s, it dominates in some way all of the accounts. Some cover the same territory in different ways. Others provide new insight into different areas. One of the best to appear in all respects is former member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Todd Gitlin's The Sixties, an excellent blend of politics, culture, memoir, and social history.(2) Less successful is Charles Kaiser's popular history, 1968 in America, which despite its claim to the contrary, is primarily a history of the American political elite.(3)

The crop of books being reviewed here is divided between the work of historians looking back and the memories of actual participants. In the latter category are James Tracy's Direct Action, John A. Andrew III's The Other Side of the Sixties, and Ron Jacobs' The Way the Wind Blew. All three target very different aspects of the 1960s. Jacobs and Tracy chronicle protest opposites on the left. The latter looks at the work of pacifists, especially in the first half of the 1960s, whereas Jacobs's study begins at the end of the 1960s and continues into the subsequent two decades and quite different dynamics. Andrew's study examines those at the opposite end of the political spectrum from the first two groups, specifically the American right-wing youth organization Young Americans for Freedom.

Pacifism and violence represent polar opposites to countering the power of the American state. Studies of these two approaches are similarly diverse. By far the more successful of the two is the work of academic historian James Tracy. In fact, Tracy's work is important for several reasons. First, he demonstrates that the 1960s was not the era of isolation that many have portrayed it in the past. He meticulously traces the roots of some of the radical pacifists who came by their values through religion and who would be involved in the anti-Vietnam war movement in the 1960s. The best example of such a person is Dave Dellinger, who found himself as a defendant in the famous trial of the "Chicago Seven" in 1969, but who had also served time in prison in the 1940s as one of the less well-known "Union Eight," a group opposed on the basis of religious principles to the American military draft.

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