THE 1960s MARKED a critical breaking point, a cultural divide that would shape American politics and culture for the rest of the century and beyond. Many young protestors took to the streets to demonstrate their frustration with the slow pace of civil rights reform, the growing fear of nuclear war, and the widening commitment to Vietnam. The clashes between protestors and police in the streets of Berkeley, Chicago, and Detroit were far less violent than the bloody battles between Union and Confederate armies that took in place at Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg. Both civil wars, however, produced a generation that was scarred by the memory of the struggle, deeply divided over its meaning, and determined to win a longterm fight for the hearts and minds of the American people.
The standard narrative of the 1960s tells the story of a monolithic generation of young people rising up to stamp out racism, end the Vietnam War, and expand opportunities for women. It is true that many in the generation who came of age in the prosperous postwar years rejected the moderation and conformity of their parents’ world, focused their attention on a new set of social and cultural questions, and shared a sense of impatience. Unprecedented prosperity served as the midwife of cultural revolution. The generation coming of age in the 1960s was the first in history where a large percentage of its members were able to focus their energies on enjoying the benefits of abundance. According to the pollster Daniel Yankelovich, the ‘60s generation replaced an ethic of “self-denial,” forged during the Great Depression, with an ethic of “self-fulfillment.” Instead of asking, “Will I be able to make a living?” they wanted to know, “How can I find self-fulfillment?”1