Adrift in the Storm-Tossed ‘60s : THE SIXTIES Years of Hope, Days of Rage<i> by Todd Gitlin (Bantam Books: $17.95; 513 pp.) </i>
Reading Todd Gitlin’s history of the 1960s is like navigating in a blizzard. Details, rich, funny, tragic details, by the thousands. But it’s hard to see the big picture.
In part, the blizzard is a function of the scope of Gitlin’s effort, his attempt to embrace not just the politics of the ‘60s (which he is eminently qualified to write about), but also the counterculture in all its splendor.
In lesser hands, the details would be oppressive, but Gitlin is a wonderful writer, and he wins you with the realization that this is not the work of some aloof academic buried beneath stacks of 3x5 cards (though he is a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley). Gitlin was there. Gitlin was a leader, president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Lucky for us, Gitlin observed.
For most of the book, the swirling, thundering blizzard of detail left me frustrated. What’s the point? Get to the point! Then I realized that for better or worse, Gitlin was giving me the ‘60s just as I had experienced them myself, not in neat categories, but as a storm, with first sex, and first dope all mixed up with long hair, Vietnam and all-night meetings. So the frustration is not simply with Gitlin’s book, but with the decade itself. About the only orderly thing about the ‘60s was that they began remarkably on time with the student sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., and ended tragically a decade later with the town house explosion that killed several members of the Weatherman underground. In between, what a storm.
Was dropping acid as important as dropping bombs on Indochina? Was it as important to understand the lyrics of “Yellow Submarine” as it was to understand Camus, or SDS’s Port Huron manifesto? Was it possible to understand it all, to create a massive, cosmic order out of people and places and events that were so new?
History presented the generation of the ‘60s some walloping new realities to digest, more perhaps than any American generation has been asked to cope with before. The Depression and World War II were staggering, but they didn’t change the world view of an American teen-ager as much as birth control pills, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and a vicious Third World war that left our belief in American democracy in ruins.
Beneath all the chaos--suffering from it and contributing to it--were young people. The ‘60s celebrated youth, and the decade took on the exaggerated character of the young. What is most compelling about Gitlin’s memoir is the slow and almost grudging transformation of young idealists into desperate outlaws. Imagine Gitlin, shuttling from Harvard to Washington in 1962 to witness Kennedy’s Camelot. No alienated rebel here. Gitlin was a believer. The torch had been passed to a new generation, and he would be part of it. “At the highest levels of Camelot, the idea was that will and intelligence would be united and placed at the service of a reinvigorated superpower.” Gitlin was not attracted to SDS because the students were tough ideologues, or devoted “anti-imperialists,” but because they were “unabashed moralists” who “cared about one another.”
But will and intelligence both began to fail: in Mississippi and along the Mekong, at the Bay of Pigs and finally on the streets of Dallas. Will and intelligence could be corrupted, or they might simply not be enough. It wasn’t just events that created chaos. Betrayal created chaos. This was not a generation prepared for betrayal. These young idealists were not protected, emotionally or intellectually. They pushed hard for the truth, and when their pushing left them face-to-face with it, they were shocked by its mean profile, whether in the form of the FBI that spied on civil rights workers while it kept the secrets of the Klan, or a White House that promised peace and fanned the flames of war.
Here the storm begins: drugs and sex, and ruptures with your parents, and classes that seemed irrelevant, and romantic bearded revolutionaries, and always the feeling of betrayal, that the government had betrayed those who wanted most to serve it.
By 1968, the “Movement” had moved from hope to despair, from reform to resistance, from a faith that problems could be solved, or at least managed, to a rage that the Establishment had no interest in solving problems. And all the time, the war in Indochina dragged on.
It is revealing that Gitlin went to Chicago to protest the Democratic Party’s war policies in the summer of ’68 but didn’t want to go. His own rendezvous with destiny pushed him, but like most of the early SDS leaders, he already knew that the situation was out of control. Both the New Left and the Chicago police knew what was coming, considered it inevitable. The clubbings and the tear gas shocked everyone but surprised no one, and on the other end of the Convention lay a violent nightmare that the New Left was not prepared for. It is one of the more curious twists of the decade that an entire generation of political activists could talk revolution and somehow believe that no one would have to die to make it real.
When people did die, in the South, at Kent State, in the basement of the Army Math Research Center, in Madison, Wis., or in bed like Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton, the whole movement agonized, trembled, re-evaluated itself, and recognized the stakes for what they were. In the end, the stakes weren’t high enough for white, middle-class kids to keep it up. In the end, the government repression was tremendous. In the end, too, the view of America from the youth ghettos of a hundred college towns was just wrong.
Gitlin was part of the Old Guard of SDS, the founding generation. His heart was clearly with the “band of brothers standing in a circle of love.” But his most compelling chapters are about the late ‘60s, the aftermath of Chicago, the rage, and Days of Rage, the birth of the Weathermen, and the final destruction of SDS, partly at the hands of the Nixon Administration, but mostly because of its own sectarian infighting.
In a strange way, the New Left was right about the impending apocalypse. What they failed to anticipate was that they would be its first casualties.