Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

citizens, however, and certainly the intellectual classes did not share these feelings. But in the 1960s, especially after the death of John F. Kennedy, millions came to feel entrapped in a system of power whose choices they did not endorse, whose operations they did not see or understand and could not control. On the right, angry people rallied behind George Wallace of Alabama or Vice-President Spiro Agnew in a continuing revolt at being manipulated by what they saw as an Eastern liberal establishment. But the most explosive development of social hostility and frustration was on the left, where a diverse mass of young people, liberal and radical intellectuals, housewives, clergymen, and ethnic minorities found equally diverse ways to express either outrage or despair at what they saw as the unresponsive domination of American life by a conservative and soulless web of economic and political institutions.

In the 1960s one saw evidence on all sides of rising social protest associated with feelings of powerlessness. Our music expressed it, our politics, our theatre. But historians of the future will not have to rely upon indirect expressions of this protest. In the 1960s there appeared a staggering number of books which indignantly explored the institutions that control the public, increasingly in defiance of its objections. These institutions were described as including a huge, clumsy, and now widely suspected national government; a massive military establishment; local governments gerrymandered to be responsive only to smug rural constituencies whose views have not changed for generations; stubborn, uncomprehending police; oligarchic and selfish unions without a trace of the social vision of the 1930s; opulent, lifeless churches; a mind-controlling advertising industry; schools operating in the spirit of factories, devoid of the excitement of exploration. Since the muckraking era we have not seen so many critical examinations directed toward America's primary institutions as we saw in the 1960s. The mood of these studies reflects desperation, but not outright despair. Social critics of the 1960s assail our institutions not simply out of anger but also out of hope. They assume, almost uniformly, that there is a chance that the unorganized, exploited public may yet arise and either reform or tear down the structures that insistently refuse to consult them. In this we see, despite the nihilism that controls or colors the work of many contemporary poets and playwrights, a vigorous survival of the Enlightenment faith that if the truth is told often enough and long enough, men will revolt against whatever crushes them.

One could mention many authors who have written to criticize the undemocratic and insensitive set of interlocking bureaucracies that preside over a public both despondent and seething: Drew Pearson and Senator Joseph Clark have written on the Congress; Ralph Nader on the regulatory agencies and the automobile industry; Richard J. Barnet, Seymour Melman, and Senators William Fulbright and William Proxmire on the military-industrial complex; Betty Friedan on the institution of marriage; Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X on the jails and the slums; Paul Goodman and John Holt on the schools -- one could go on almost endlessly. But one can think of no critic with the unerring instinct for the power centers of society, the brilliant grasp of the essentials of modern industrial systems, and the lively prose style of John Kenneth Galbraith, professor of economics at Harvard University.

In the following essay, Galbraith analyzes "the Military Power," a confederation of the armed services, defense industries, intelligence agencies, and captive Congressional committees which has emerged as the most awesome power in the modern world. Galbraith describes the historic steps by which

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