I'm reading Stephen Ambrose's Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972. What especially stood out to me in my latest reading was Ambrose's discussion of the 1960's anti-war movement, an issue that Richard Nixon exploited in appealing to middle-class Republicans.
Here are some
passages from pages 70-71. Something to keep in mind as you read them
is Ambrose's portrayal earlier in the book of the common
conceptualization of the United States soon after World War II: that the
U.S. was a force for good in the world.
"No generation was ever
worse prepared to accept the attitudes of the succeeding generation than
the World War II parents of the Baby Boom generation. To those
parents, it was my country right or wrong, unconditional surrender, crew
cuts, bobby sox, coats and ties, responsibility, hard work." Ambrose
then mentions the challenges to this post-World War II culture in the
1960's, such as co-ed dorms, rock-and-roll, the undermining of dress
codes, and long hair.
"To the parents of the students of 1965, it
was inconceivable that any American could fail to do his or her full
duty in a war. That being so, they were quite unable to deal with their
own children, many of whom not only said they would not do their duty
but denounced the war and insisted that America was fighting on the
wrong side. Their children questioned patriotism, even laughed at it."
1965, just as the World War II parents started turning over their kids
to the colleges for an education, the New Left began doing much of the
college teaching in the areas of politics and history...The New Left
taught that America was imperialist, that America had caused the Cold
War, that even in World War II American motives had been selfish and
centered on improving capitalist exploitation of the masses around the
world, that in Vietnam the Vietcong were freedom fighters while the GIs
were suppressing the legitimate desire for national independence."
question that I have is why the unrest even took place in the 1960's.
Ambrose says that "the draft for Vietnam was beginning to reach into the
colleges, provoking antiwar demonstrations" (page 70). Could that be
one contributing factor to the unrest: young people feared that they
would be drafted, and thus they became open to New Left rhetoric
condemning the Vietnam War? But Americans were drafted during World War
II, and there wasn't much unrest back then. What exactly made the Baby
Boom generation different?
On the World War II parents, broadly
speaking, I accept Ambrose's narrative. Yet, I question it, somewhat.
It reminds me of the narrative that I've heard about American attitudes
towards the President of the United States throughout history: that
Americans used to hold the President in awe and reverence, but Watergate
changed all that, making the President a target of criticism. I myself
don't think that the World War II parents had an uncritical view of
American government. Joe McCarthy won support by saying that the State
Department was infiltrated by Communists, and that was why our
foreign policy was so wrongheaded! That's quite a criticism of the
government, and many among the World War II parents bought it!
Republicans (including Nixon) attacked the Truman Administration as
corrupt, and they also criticized the New Deal and Truman's strategy for
the Korean War. There were people from among the World War II parents
who disagreed with their government, or at least aspects of it. They
And yet, there probably was a degree of
patriotism and trust in the government among the World War II parents
that was challenged by the Baby Boomers. The conservative elements of
the World War II parents most likely felt that, notwithstanding the
pesky government controls, the United States was still the freest nation
on earth and offered a significant number of economic opportunities.
Even if they thought that America was not as consistently tough on
Communism as it should be, they also may have still believed that
America did a lot of good in the world.
Here's a powerful scene from the TV series The Wonder Years.
This episode is set in the late 1960's. Jack Arnold (a Korea War
veteran) is debating his daughter and her boyfriend about the American
government and the Vietnam War. I have my doubts that Jack Arnold
agreed with everything that the U.S. government did. (In a later
episode, he expresses a realistic cynicism about the military when his
son Wayne enlists, after the military told Wayne that it wouldn't send
him to Vietnam. Jack said it would ship Wayne to Vietnam right off the
bat!) But Jack had a faith in America and its institutions, which his
daughter and her boyfriend were challenging.