Will the Center Hold? 1963-1979
Americans sometimes confuse their Sixties with the Sixties. This is not entirely unreasonable. Certainly, the American 1960s had many dramatic moments, tragic and not, that drew world attention--the civil rights march on Washington, John Kennedy's assassination, Malcolm X's, the Black Power revolts, Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King's assassination, Robert Kennedy's, the student rebellions at Berkeley and Columbia, Bob Dylan, People's Park, the Chicago conspiracy trial, the antiwar movement, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, early feminist rebellions in homes and in public, Woodstock, the Stonewall rebellion, Altamont, Kent State, and so on. These were events worthy of world attention.
But if one is to speak of "the Sixties," as if to condense a long and complex series of disjointed events into something "everyone understands," then it is necessary to speak of a world event. Because the United States was the virtual center of the world at the time of these disruptions, "the Sixties" were American in the sense that the disjointing of America was a phenomenon of world importance. This is why the whole world was watching. The world was affecting what it was watching, and being affected. When all was said and done, this is what underlay the question of the period.
Will the Center hold? The question was drawn from a line in William Butler Yeats "The Second Coming." It may have been Joan Didion's widely read essay, 'Slouching Toward Bethlehem," that brought new meaning to this famous poem. In any case, by the spring and summer of 1968, Yeats's words expressed what many (perhaps most) people, nearly everywhere, felt:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Those closest to the Center, either by devotion or dependence, were most struck. It was not, of course, the West's first encounter with a world spinning out of control. But for reasons then not at all obvious, the spin of political events wrenched moral culture against its grain. This time, Euro-American innocence was lost. And of all that happened, nothing disturbed the West's long dreams as much as Vietnam. Startled, people awoke confused, angry, frightened.