Read most pieces online, watch the majority of documentaries, and you’ll be faced with a constant refrain: The 50s was a decade of repression, conformity, and suburban boredom while the 60s was a time of freedom, excitement, and free expression.
No libel could be further from the truth. Let’s try it again, this time bereft of hippy horse manure and taking into account the record: the 50s was a time of innovation in literature, music, and film. It was a time when adults ran the world and the results showed it. It was a time when the Pax Americana held, but where the frontiers of liberty were constantly challenged. It was economically prosperous yet intellectually stimulating, as artists like John Ford, Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck, and Jack Kerouac pushed the envelope of expression. It was the fruition of the exertions of the generation who lived through the depression, fought WWII and Korea, came home and built a confident nation.
The 60s was simply America’s suicide attempt. It was a decade that saw the first serious blossoming of American masochism. The trauma of assassinations was only eclipsed by the abrogation of adult responsibility that permitted scruffy young middlebrows to stake their claim as America’s ruling intellectual class. It witnessed the poverty of the inner society made worse by the Great Society’s misguided efforts that resulted in multigenerational degradation and the breakdown of the concept of the intact minority family.
It was…a real kidney stone of a decade.
That is the opening argument. Let me make the case.
If a nation is to be defined by anything then it is defined by its culture. When we view The Searchers by Ford, read On the Road by Kerouac, listen to Bird with Strings by Parker, hear Take Five by Brubeck, we experience a zeitgeist. These artists pushed the limits of their craft in ways that showed maturity, but also an artistic need to create, not merely conform. Yes, there was good (even great) music, literature, and film in the 60s, especially the first four to five years of it. But when the counterculture raised its snout in the middle to latter part of the decade, all that was swept aside by the stench of self-righteous adolescence. People who had been through national crucibles were replaced in cultural leadership by children who had been through junior high school.
When I taught college I illustrated this point by showing a YouTube clip of American Bandstand from the late 50s and early 60s. In the dress and music you see young people who are emulating adults and, as such, recognize the better judgment of those who had come before them. They understood, something we have lost, that wisdom only comes from life experience, from trial and error. Thus it is rarely available to the young. I’m not saying that every 50s adult was perfect. What I am saying is that as a whole, experience will always trump inexperience.
Then I pulled up a Bandstand clip from the late 60s. What you predominantly see are children in age and demeanor conforming to the reigning orthodoxy. The clothes are garish. The music is avant garde only for the sake of being avant garde. The attitude is a resentment of adulthood and a rejection of its responsibilities.
Their childishness also had global repercussions.
In the 50s the U.S. fought the Korean War, successfully safeguarding the independence and territorial integrity of South Korea. Those men, many who had fought WWII, were likely not enthused to go. But they comprehended the duties of adulthood. They fought at hellish battles like the Pusan Perimeter and the Chosin Reservoir, where they held out. They landed at Inchon, where they conquered. Americans all over the world, on the seas, and in the air, stood sentinel so free peoples could sleep well at night. There were challenges in places like East Germany, Hungary, and Suez, where our enemies made their plays for repression and domination. At the helm from 1953 was Ike, General of the Armies Dwight David Eisenhower, a man who knew war and had led the free West to victory in WWII. He had no illusions. He knew the Cold War was a balancing act between deterrence and showdown. He met the challenge and kept us free, prosperous, and out of war.
The 60s brought at first the fumbled Bay of Pigs, where John Kennedy lost his nerve and a whole people paid for it. The Berlin Wall followed. Same loss of nerve, same humiliating loss to totalitarians. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was a public relations victory and strategic defeat, as the U.S. ran away from its duties under the Monroe Doctrine and the Rio Pact. In 1963 we botched the assassination of the South Vietnamese president and his brother. Then came more in Vietnam.
An interesting contrast here. While our actual best and brightest answered the call to a war badly led, ineptly fought by politicians, and with no thought of a strategic endgame, our worst and dimmest took to the streets to try and cover their physical and moral cowardice with political agitation. That’s if they didn’t hightail it to Canada. Some, like John Kerry, went to fight but then for personal gain, betrayed their comrades to launch their careers. Some, like Jim Webb, kept faith. At the helm now was the corrupt Texas ward heeler, racist and accidental President Lyndon Baines Johnson. He micromanaged the war from the White House and took glee in meaningless body counts as proof of victory. The results reflected his lack of sound leadership. The domestic turmoil his presidency engendered, denying him a full second term, and the debacle of his Great Society, makes him one of the worst presidents in American history, right behind Barack Obama and, always the leader in ineffectual mendacious administrations, Woodrow Wilson.
And we won’t even mention the Pueblo Incident.
What spawned the malodorous toddlers who took to the streets? Perhaps something I call Tarawa Syndrome.
As certain of you know, Tarawa was one of our toughest battles in the Pacific campaign of WWII. I’ve always wondered if that Marine infantryman, under unrelenting fire on that rock, promised God that if he got out of there in one piece his kids would not have to go through this. Well, he did. And in an effort to shield his kids from the hell of a place like Tarawa, he protected them and spared them the challenges of life to a point they became the spoiled brats of the 60s generation. He didn’t realize his struggles in the depression, war and otherwise gave himself and his nation the strength to overcome adversity. Inadvertently through love and overconcern he had nurtured vipers under his roof.
However, the 50s weren’t perfect, nor the 60s completely bereft. Women and minorities had a raw deal in the 50s and the 60s rightfully remedied some of it. There were brilliant films like Becket, beautiful music like Pet Sounds, and amazing lit like Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. There were some hideous B movies in the 50s that strained tolerance of the medium. The 50s had the boorish Honeymooners. The 60s had the charming Bewitched. And yes, the 60s had the glories of the U.S. space program.
But when push comes to shove the 50s should be defined as the last era when the grownups were in charge. The 60s began the tragic slide to sniveling pubescent mediocrity we see in our pop culture and the gray ponytail mentality we still see in our academic lounges, publishing houses, and newsrooms.
In the world, with the advent of Donald Trump, we now notice what we have not experienced in quite some time: a confident and respected America. Thirty years ago during another renaissance, Ronald Reagan himself had to contend with recovering from the lingering national effects of the 60s so prevalent in the disastrous 70s.
But don’t let this present time fool you. As we glean in the headlines every day, the malevolent bumblers of the 60s, Hillary Clinton to name one, remain committed to their twisted fantasy of multiculty authoritarian socialism. If they win two years from now or twenty years from now with the new crop of open socialists in the Democratic Party, it is because we forgot the look of the streets of Chicago in August of 1968, the feeling we had watching the logical consequence of the 60s in those last helicopters lifting off from our Saigon embassy in April of 1975, and the outrageously pernicious effects that 60s legislation had on minority families and on immigration policy.
If they succeed, if Ike is to be replaced in our pantheon by Hanoi Jane Fonda, it is because we failed to follow the right historical example. We owe our kids, and this country, more than that.