A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America

By William H. Chafe; Harvard Sitkoff et al. | Go to book overview

Counterculture

Terry H. Anderson

In the middle years of the decade of “The Sixties,” it seemed that the Movement had two distinct branches. There were the politicos, serious young men and women who had worked for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. And then there were the hippies: long-haired boys and braless girls; sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. In fact, many of the men and women who devoted themselves to creating a counterculture were also people of great commitment and seriousness. As Terry Anderson argues below, they meant to overthrow the dominant Cold War culture, just as the New Left meant to challenge the political establishment. Many in the counterculture believed that mindblowing experiences with sex or drugs or music were much more likely to alter the world view of America’s young people than were all the earnest speeches and political exhortations in which the avowedly political strand of “the Movement” placed so much trust. As counterculture hero John Sinclair explained, “So you listen to the band … you just go crazy and have a good time…. Rather than go up there and make some speech about our moral commitment in Vietnam, you just make ’em so freaky they’d never want to go in the army in the first place….”

By the late 1960s, America’s youth culture had come to look very much like the counterculture, and the obvious distinction between the political and cultural radicals had faded. In this excerpt from his book, The Movement and the Sixties, historian Terry Anderson analyzes the rise—and fall—of the American counterculture and the polarization of American society. As you read this piece, consider the following: Did the spread of counterculture style into the general youth culture transform it from a true “counter” culture to little more than a “lifestyle”? Were the hippies and freaks who believed culture was a more powerful tool than politics right? Do you think this counterculture contained the seeds of its own destruction? Was “Middle America” right to fear this movement?

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