The only generation we know intimately, viscerally, organically is our own. As a child of the ‘60s, I always have felt a little sorry for the offspring of any other time.
That thought arises often. Today it conjures the power and sweep of anti-war marches in Washington, D.C. as well as that army of youth putting their feet in the street and their hands all over a changing America.
I’ll quickly say some U.S. places and days have seen larger demonstrations than any against the war in Vietnam. Admirable marches in favor of this or against that have hit a million or more. Our largest, in 1969, saw half a million; five others in D.C. drew more. But there is a difference, a critical one. With few exceptions, hundreds of thousands of war protesters made their way to Washington’s wide streets each and every spring and each and every fall from 1965 until 1974, near the war’s end. We forged a powerful voice as well as a leading role in turning Americans against the conflict.
[A rarely noted historical note: In 1945, U.S. Merchant Marine sailors were first to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Four crews drew up a resolution condemning our government for employing their ships to transport European troops deployed to “subjugate the native population” of Vietnam. (Who knew?)]
Back to the ‘60s. Just what colliding comets of the universe spirited tens and then hundreds of thousands of American youth to gather all those springs and all those autumns? Whatever mix of politics and culture made the moment we came to believe we must change our native land? Even more quizzical, how did we think we had the wherewithal to do so?
What Really Happened to the Class of ’65 is a book by David Wallechinsky, son of author Irving Wallace, and Michael Medved, a conservative film critic. (I am of that class of ‘65 from Hononegah High in Rockton, Illinois.) The authors emphasize that parents of this graduating class had lived through the Great Depression and World War II, and that generation had suffered greatly so its offspring would not have to experience deprivation or global warfare. Influential Time magazine ran a cover article on the same class. It carried the subtitle: “on the fringe of a golden era.”
We were, in short, those very children of The Golden Age. Even the Cold War had gotten cooler. Our path was primrose. Our future was so bright we needed shades. Or was it? Just one month after graduation, Watts in L.A. went up in flames in what the book authors called “America’s first season of urban unrest,” proof some fringes were far from golden. President Lyndon Johnson began ratcheting up the war in Vietnam, doubling 1965’s draft to almost a quarter million and adding another 150,000 in ‘66. Not so golden, after all.
There’s something happening here / But what it is ain’t exactly clear—Buffalo Springfield (a band named for a steamroller) sang in 1967. Indeed.
Any assessment of my generation, what we dreamed or what we did, must start with simple demographics. Youth of the ‘60s were—and still are in some ways—the 900-pound gorilla (or guerrilla) in the census, only recently eclipsed by Millennials. That sheer size combined with parents who worked to free us from their own decades of hardship meant baby boomers basked in hopeful societal attention. Those numbers and that focus engendered a real sense of both identity and power. Not that we knew squat about what to do with it. Yet.
In a 2021 New Yorker piece on the New Left, that youth-led search for a third way outside communism and capitalism, author Louis Menand chronicles its decade of vibrance starting in the early ‘60s. He writes about this modern awakening, this mobilizing of critical opinion on race, poverty, arms and war. Menand speaks of the push to reject existing systems and begin anew.
“If this was a fantasy,” he notes slyly, “then so was the Declaration of Independence.”
Understanding the anti-war movement requires revisiting this New Left awakening. As northern mostly white college students became aware of southern civil rights activism, they saw it included purposeful illegal activity well exemplified by Black college students refusing to leave a Woolworth’s lunch counter on February 1, 1960. From such actions they began to glimpse all-in investment, dedicating their own lives to altering life for everybody. So what were at first parochial protests on campuses about college rules soon blossomed into nationwide marches against the war and other issues.
And then they came, spring after spring, fall after fall, living that all-in investment. In 2020, real passion brought millions out to stand with George Floyd or against gun violence in 2018, but these anti-war protesters are better understood in terms akin to religious devotion. Like a daily rosary or five-times-a-day prayers or grace before meals, many youth of the ‘60s were that constantly immersed in their politics.
A comparison with our Korean Conflict is useful. It’s a country in South Asia and had a civil war between north and south, just like Vietnam. Almost as many young men were drafted for Korea in 1950s as were inducted for Vietnam, and about 36,000 of them died there. But public protest was scarce even though the war was pretty unpopular. What a difference a decade makes.
One of our long-haired leaders, Abbie Hoffman, summed it all up thusly: “We were young, self-righteous, reckless, hypocritical, brave, silly, headstrong and scared half to death.
And we were right.”
Or as San Francisco’s Jefferson Airplane sang:
“We are all outlaws in the eyes of America
We are obscene, lawless, hideous, dangerous, dirty, violent and young
Everything they say we are, we are
And we are very
Proud of ourselves”
Today, at half a century’s remove and with climate change so prominent, we might ponder all that fossil fuel exhaust spewed from busses and cars crossing America carrying all those young feet itching to march through Washington year after year. Yes, quite the cloud. But there is this: eco-guilt is assuaged when we remember these were protests against Agent Orange and other defoliants that damaged 7.6 million acres of crops and other living things. That’s equal to half the farmland in the state of Indiana. As for napalm, also no friend to nature, we dropped about 350 million tons on Vietnam, more than 20 times the amount dropped on Japan in World War II.
To me the more intriguing seeming contradiction is how happy everybody looked much of the time while protesting horrors of war. Simply, we marched as a tribe; we inhaled both power and joy from our impressive numbers. This was youth culture in the flesh. These events shared some fun-loving spirit of communality easily seen at Woodstock. “Everybody get together,” sang The Youngbloods, “Try to love one another right now.” So, yes, fight against the war, but don’t forget to revel in a reworked trio from the Land of Oz: lie-ins and tie-dyes and sex, oh my!
This was, remember, the crowd that in 1967 sought to levitate the Pentagon, all 6.5 million square feet of it. About 40,000 hippies left that day’s march, crossed the Potomac and encircled the heart of U.S. military policy. Hoffman, Alan Ginsburg and others met with a General Services Administrator seeking a permit to raise the building 300 feet in the air. They planned to chant Aramaic exorcism rites thereby cleansing the edifice and “the war would end forthwith.” Negotiations went well, but the permit granted only a ten-foot levitation limit. OK, the building stayed grounded, but on every other level – joy, laughter and publicity – it could hardly have gone better.
The same can be said about another feature of this same October 21st protest march. Organizers arranged to have 200 pounds of flowers passed out so they could be stuck in the rifle barrels of the 503rd Military Police Battalion posted on duty at the march. (And a Pulitzer-nominated photo by newspaperman Bernie Boston made the moment famous.) Flower power indeed.
Was there civil disobedience? Certainly there was and not always as comical as the above examples. But I think another comparison is in order here. There are acts of folks refusing to obey a law for moral or philosophical reasons. They happen at segregated lunch counters, at men-only country clubs, at military induction ceremonies. In sharpest contrast, I believe what we witnessed on January 6, 2021, was precisely the opposite. When the then-president ginned up his minions to take brickbats to our democracy, I can think of no better term for their rampage than UN-civil O-bedience. May every one of them, demagogue to desecrator, pay for their national disgrace.
Back to the ‘60s. In Woodstock, the documentary of 1969’s seminal music festival in upstate New York, a young couple is asked why they have come, what they seek. They hem and haw and end up saying they are not sure. They manage to say they are just looking. Upon first viewing I was disappointed with their fumbling, wishing my generation had a more articulate response. But as years passed I grew respectful of that young couple admitting they were openly searching.
We were all searching. That is how my generation lived and grew. We searched for how to end the Vietnam War and all military conflict. We searched for how to live in harmony with one another and with capital “N” Nature. May we never stop.
In 1962’s Port Huron Statement, adopted at the first convention of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), main author Tom Hayden wrote: “If we appear to seek the unattainable, as it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”
The late Todd Gitlin turned a keen critical eye on the ‘60s generation. I’ll let him have a final say: “ . . something else was stirring. In the spreading cross-hatch where the student movement and the counterculture intersected, a youth identity said, in effect: To be young and American is to have been betrayed; to be alive is to be enraged. [Demonstrations were] insurgent youth culture’s way of strutting its stuff . . , staking out room to breathe in an alien land. What resulted was an unavailable channel . .”
So there you have it, Moxie readers, nostalgia for some of us and news to others. Our mothers and fathers imbued many of us with a guaranteed vision that our lives would be beautiful. And damned if we were going to stop marching until that was true.