Photo courtesy of Bethel Woods Center for the Arts
Throw a dart at any year in the oversized target that is the 1960s and you will hit on something big in American history. Nineteen sixty-three has the March on Washington, the publication of The Feminine Mystique, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Inch over to 1964 for the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and the Civil Rights Act. Skip to 1967 to score both the hippies’ Summer of Love and the “long hot summer” of urban unrest.
Nineteen sixty-eight is the blood-red bull’s-eye, packed with the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the riotous Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Nineteen sixty-nine wins you Woodstock and the moonshot. Momentous in its own right, each of these events stands in for whole epoch-defining narratives, whether the end of innocence, or the advent of feminism, or the turning of the Vietnam War. (1)
Place the sixties in its golden anniversary, and America is primed for rolling seasons of commemoration. “It was fifty years ago today” tributes are fast accumulating. Two years ago there was a mass gathering on the National Mall to mark the March on Washington. Last fall’s anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination sparked days of media reflection on Kennedy’s presidency and legacy, as well as cable TV marathons focusing on the murder itself.
More inventively, Soundtrack ’63, taking 1963 as its anchor, tells the story of the civil rights and black power movements through image, song, and spoken word. Last June’s Freedom Summer 1964 50th Anniversary Conference, hosted by the University of Southern Mississippi, combined tributes to past struggles with attention to current ones, while the Full Disclosure: Toward an Honest Commemoration of the American War in Vietnam campaign offers a counter-narrative to statesponsored remembrances heavy with praise for the war’s veterans. And this year CNN rolled out its documentary series The Sixties. Coproduced by Tom Hanks and heavily marketed by the network, the program is the slickest, most ambitious historical treatment yet of the decade in mainstream culture, serving as something of an empirical coda to the hit show Mad Men.
This festival of memory holds something for most everyone. Baby boomers can relive their storied youths, while basking in testimonials of just how transformative their generation was. Their children (or grandchildren) can learn about their elders. Social justice activists of any age can lay deeper claim to protest legacies, while classic rock and roll fans can gorge on archival footage and new biographies of their musical heroes. Memory, of course, sells, especially when the main nostalgia market has matured into affluence.
For educators, the anniversary glut is both a boon and a bane. The benefit is affirmation of the importance of history itself, as well as easy access for students to capable, viewer-friendly summaries (such as CNN provides) of subjects including the Vietnam War and the women’s movement. The hazard is the reduction of history to misleading clichés (e.g., the Tet Offensive flipped the American public against the Vietnam War and the pill gave us the sexual revolution) and eye-rolling, sixties fatigue among the younger set. Popular memory, alas, must be both worked with and fought against.
As impressive as all the golden anniversary attention to the sixties is, the forty-year remembrances were nearly as robust. In 2007 the Whitney Museum of American Art staged a major exhibit on psychedelic art titled “The Summer of Love.” The same year, Rolling Stone magazine issued a thick tribute to its own history and the era that birthed it, and Tom Brokaw published Boom! Voices of the Sixties: Personal Reflections on the ’60s and Today, a “virtual reunion” comprising sympathetic profiles of sixties A-listers and lesser-known figures. The Museum at Bethel Woods, with its impressive exhibit on the Woodstock generation, opened its doors on the site of the famous music festival in 2008. Academics devoted at least a half dozen conferences to the study of 1968. Even with many baby boomers dead or in decline, anniversary treatments promise to hold strong at year sixty.
What this surfeit of cyclically renewed commemorations suggests is that American society is in a state of near-permanent memorialization of the sixties, dwarfing retrospection on other decades. Aside from a handful of durably commemorated events—the nation’s founding, peak moments of the Civil War, Pearl Harbor, D-day, and now 9/11—nothing before or since the 1960s comes close in terms of the public attention it inspires. (2)
Densely intertwined with how the era is remembered is the question of why it is such an intense and persisting site of memory. Each anniversary season is therefore occasion to ponder the very compulsion to remember the sixties, and what that compulsion says about the sixties themselves and the society remembering them. Generational dynamics are surely at play. The massive baby boom cohort asserted, in its own youth, inordinate influence on American society. That influence has persisted. For years now, boomers have been at the helm of major political, cultural, and media institutions, earning them the power to direct the gaze of memory—often to their own historical moment. With this perch comes also capacity to present their history as “our” history, defining all our lives, regardless of generation.
Here the imprimatur of Tom Hanks on CNN’s The Sixties is telling. In his most iconic roles, the beloved actor’s appeal is as an American Everyman (at least within restrictive racial norms), embodying a determination and innate decency that personifies the country at its best. In his starring role in Saving Private Ryan (1998) he offered a tribute to the quiet sacrifice of the nation’s grandfathers, famously dubbed “the greatest generation.” Affiliating Hanks, himself just shy of boomer age, with The Sixties confers greatness on another cohort. With this gesture—with the Everyman embracing the age of protest and flower power—the sixties lose their reputation for exoticism and scandal and more fully enter the fold of American experience.
Temporality is also a factor in the sixties’ prominent place in the national consciousness. For several decades, the sixties have been sufficiently in the past to have the aura of history, with all the reverence that may inspire. But the decade is also sufficiently close to still have abundant bearers of living memory, who keep the era more immediately present.
Moreover, as CNN’s The Sixties stresses, the sixties represented the advent of the electronic age. As a consequence, the period has left a beautifully preserved televisual and sonic inheritance. Any generation since— especially when coming of age with YouTube and iTunes—has extraordinary access to its look, sound, and feel. Overwhelmingly, the era’s enduringly popular music is the connective tissue that fires in countless young people curiosity about the period and gives them a near-intuitive familiarity with its basic grammar (even when ignorant of its signal events). (3) The sixties, in short, hover in the sweet spot of being both far and near.
Yet fixation on the sixties far exceeds nostalgia, generational conceit, or the good fortune of time, all of which will diminish as the baby boomers die out. Rather, the era is now situated as an elemental part of a multiphase narrative of the American becoming. The intense remembrance of the sixties, at bottom, reflects the place of the sixties in an ambiently popular national genealogy.
In brief, that narrative holds that the founding, as the moment of purest origin, established the American polity and consecrated its world-changing ideals. The Civil War permitted the American experiment to persist, while bringing the country into deeper alignment with its stated principles. The nation’s victory in World War II established an economic, military, technological, and cultural supremacy it has yet to relinquish. The sixties, as the fourth act in this origins story, “made us who we are” in palpable, immediate, and urgent ways.
Above all, the sixties marked the end of a hegemonic ideal of melting-pot pluralism, with white Christian men enjoying near-uncontested supremacy. Driven by the African American freedom struggle—but also by the activism of women, gays and lesbians, Latinos, Native Americans, and the panoply of groups making political claims with new force—the succeeding aspiration was multiculturalism. This ethos sought to expand the American family through the conferral of both formal rights and rights of recognition on diverse subjectivities. Conflicts over the boundaries of that family persist, of course, as do racialized codes for exclusion, moments of brazen backlash, and profound structural barriers to true equality. But few in public life directly contest the multicultural ideal.
The sixties dramatically expanded the terrain of democratic citizenship. It was the great era of democracy in the streets and at the grassroots, outside the bounds of parliamentary politics. For the post-sixties Left, this ferment has a dual legacy: first, as an unsurpassed standard of blood-and-sweat organizing and militant direct action, against which current mobilizations are still measured; and second, as an articulation of a polyvalent, unfulfilled dream of freedom, justice, and equality that continues to structure political longing. The political Right shares as well in this inheritance, as it builds its insurgent repertoire and works out its own understandings of freedom and equality.
The sixties were also the fount of never-ending culture wars. In such conflicts, claims of patriotic traditionalism square off against behaviors and sensibilities thought, depending on one’s perspective, either to expand or to exceed the tolerable limits of freedom. It is little matter if, as many have claimed, the culture wars are in truth over: that the morality of the Eisenhower era, or whatever golden age Ronald Reagan coveted, is irrevocably gone. The culture wars trope nonetheless persists, feeding on new idealizations (frontier libertarianism is the new conservative vogue) and having real consequences, whether with respect to drug sentencing, or school curricula, or access to abortion.
Somewhat paradoxically, the sixties also elevated rebellion into a cultural dominant, to which most everyone today aspires. Shocking in its own time, the era’s counterculture now appears mostly as innocuous (Wal-Mart outfits the country in tie-dye) or as part of the very fabric of American freedom, widely cherished irrespective of political ideology. Easy evidence of this is found in Rick Harrison, star of the History Channel hit show Pawn Stars. A lay curator of the American past, Harrison has avowed Tea Party sympathies. Yet he does a brisk trade in rock and roll memorabilia and his favorite rock and roll band is The Who, the quintessential rebel band famous for smashing instruments on stage. Conscious affinity for the counterculture is no measure of its influence. Sarah Palin is at once the gender-bending progeny of feminism and a rifle-toting matriarch of small-town piety and off-the-grid liberty.
The sixties, in addition, forever changed the meaning of youth in America, which reshaped the whole society. Prior to the sixties, youth commonly served as a threshold into the rewards and responsibilities of empowered adulthood. Since the sixties, youth is self-understood as a time to question authority, to buck convention (even if through participation in mass-marketed youth trends and commodified dissent), and to find oneself—often against the perceived expectations of an adult establishment. Young people are relied upon for innovation, dynamism, and to set the consumer tastes, technological sensibility, and entrepreneurial vision that fuel the economy. And since the sixties, youth has emerged as a free-floating ideal accessible to anyone, at any age, able to harness a spirit of self-discovery, or at least its trappings.
Finally, the famous conflicts of the sixties inaugurated a seemingly chronic condition of irreconcilable national division, of which the culture wars are only a part. The sixties, put otherwise, were the original, traumatic break in a continuing age of fracture. Much of the fractiousness has been salutary. The era entailed the dissolution of all manner of establishments and orthodoxies and the crowding of the field of those empowered to shape both the American creed and reality. The dour side of the legacy is the testing of faith in the existence of a public will and the capacity to discern, let alone achieve, common goals. The sixties bequeathed us the sense of having a shared national “dream,” quintessentially defined by Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous, and now sanctified, words. But the reality of polarization on ideological, political, racial, ethnic, and geographic lines mitigates the genuine pursuit of common aspirations, save at the level of near-vacuous generality.
The presidency of Barack Obama is here instructive. Obama, as countless pundits have noted, is America’s first post–baby boom president. Yet he has hardly proven the page-turning champion of a new frontier, whatever his youthful persona and early promise. To the contrary, the preoccupations of his administration have been to expand the social welfare state in the face of bitter dissent, to combat terrorism as the new anticommunism, to reposition the United States globally in recognition of the limits of its power, to weather extraordinary racial backlash, and, recently, to contend with the outrage of African Americans at what they feel is predatory policing. These all have a Vietnam War–era vintage, gluing Obama’s presidency to a past from which it cannot escape.
For good and ill, our present stands in both the glow and in the long shadow of the sixties. To be sure, the thrall of history and the appeal of the sixties can be overstated. For countless conservatives, the sixties were largely dark times that threatened to salt away a national strength rooted in self-reliant liberty, religious faith, and basic moral propriety. More broadly, droves of younger Americans neither situate their own lives in relation to the sixties nor have any special curiosity about its silent shaping of their world. To feel oneself ahistorical, defined by an endless present, is a defining American attribute. The baby boom generation, with its grandiose self-regard and fever to make the world anew, itself participated in this mythos of immaculate birth. But such willful naiveté about the past neither negates the past’s significance nor silences the purveyors of memory who promote the enduring consequence of the sixties.
What are the implications of this continuity of experience for contemporary memory of the sixties, and for anniversaries especially? At root, the ubiquitous remembrances of the decade represent the ritual retelling of a story of national origins. Such recollections provide insight into, or at least simple affirmation of, who we believe we now are as a nation and a people. We flatter and focus on the sixties because we feel—with good reason—that they are still with us, that they are us.
The future of memory is difficult to predict. My suspicion is that so long as the sixties remain a template for America’s present, they will remain an ineradicable reference point, memorialized with the pomp, ceremony, and seriousness of both genuflection and introspection. Put more polemically, until the country arrives at a truly new horizon, it will remain fixed to the lodestars of the past.
With whatever irony, the very continuities that make the sixties so attractive for memory render formal appreciations of the decade somewhat superfluous. In each private saga of teen rebellion, with each cry of “no justice, no peace” in the face of police violence, with every bid for peace with honor in the wake of military defeat, in each new cris de coeur against capitalism, with each puff of newly licit pleasure, with the acceptance of dissident ideas about love and family, with fear of otherness unbound or of the volatility of a center that cannot hold—in all of these the sixties sing its haunting, beautiful song, rearranged for new times. The sixties live on equally as much by repetition compulsion as by overt tribute.
Yet the lure for memory of the sixties may be still greater. We cherish the era as a time when youth was still young—when mop-top, bushy-haired irreverence spoke truth to power, with a confidence and even abandon we covet in our own youths, whenever lived. Here the sixties shimmer as the collective youth of a still-young nation growing rapidly old. Their mystique lies precisely in the possibility they represented for a new, better, and open-ended future, before their intoxicating turbulence sedimented into stagnant division.
There is, therefore, an elegiac dimension to remembrance of the sixties, no matter how exuberant. We honor who we thought we might become. We mourn what we failed to be.
And we grow either older, or younger, depending what we remember and on how we choose to mourn.
(1) Some of the era’s storylines span nearly the entire decade, and thus can be summoned at most any point in the calendar. In 2012 President Obama announced and Congress funded a thirteen-year-long commemoration of the Vietnam War.
(2) Other recent decades and events within them are commemorated, but little threatens the sixties’ pride of place. The forty-year anniversary of the 1973–1974 Watergate scandal, for example, inspired only a smattering of public reflection, and rarely in high-profile media. Period movies on the 1970s and 1980s, such as American Hustle (2013) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), are proliferating. But as yet they mostly convey a sense of the times through aesthetic and psychological markers without engaging the decades’ historical significance.
(3) To my repeated amazement, students in the classes on the sixties I regularly teach are intimately familiar with the songbook of the Beatles, and know well the oeuvre of countless other period artists, including Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and the Velvet Underground.
Jeremy Varon is an associate professor of history at the New School. He is the co-founder and editor of The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture and the author of Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies (2004).