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“The Sixties” by Terry Anderson

The Sixties by Terry Anderson analyzes the impact the decade had on American society. The book does not simply summarize the events of the decade, but places them into a context that today’s readers can easily understand. It discusses major events such as the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the changing youth culture, and the women’s and environment movements that sprung up at the end of the decade. Anderson explains the background of these issues, describes the events thoroughly, and lays out his views of how these events changed American society.

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The author generally concludes that the events of the 1960’s had a positive effect on American society. Anderson does acknowledge excesses, particularly the violence committed by groups such as the Weathermen at the end of the decade. However, he argues that America is a fairer, more equal, more diverse country today than it was in the 1950’s due to the events of the 1960’s. Few women or minorities, he claims, would prefer living in 1960 to today’s society. Anderson also acknowledges the conservative backlash to the turmoil of the decade, but he concludes by noting that the changes of the 1960’s have been durable despite that backlash.

The Sixties contains several themes, which is understandable for a book with such a large scope. However, there are two themes diametrically opposed to one another that nonetheless run parallel throughout the book. These are the themes of optimism and alienation. Anderson’s portrayal of these themes goes beyond simply claiming that the 1960’s started in optimism and ended with alienation, as most portrayals of the decade do. While there is certainly some truth to this view, Anderson points out that the two themes co-existed uneasily throughout the decade.

The theme of optimism starts at the beginning of the decade, when the nation is happy and prosperous. This optimism is found in the steadfast purposefulness of Martin Luther King Jr. and the early civil rights movement, but is dashed by the assassination of President Kennedy. President Johnson’s support of the civil rights movement and the Great Society temporarily restores some of that optimism, but the escalation of the Vietnam War destroy any reservoir of goodwill for Johnson. Students and anti-war protesters are youthfully optimistic that their protests will persuade the country to end the war, but discover that they are only a small minority. And finally, groups such as women, Hispanics, gays, and environmentalists are inspired by the protest movements of the 1960’s to get organized and fight for their own rights.

The theme of alienation follows closely behind the theme of optimism in the book. Even at the start of the decade, some youths are dismayed by what they see as the vapid consumer culture of the United States. The early hopefulness of the civil rights movement turns into the alienation of the “black power” movement once the goals of African-Americans shift from equal rights to economic concerns. Idealistic students are crushed by the failure of the anti-war movement, which causes some to brand American society itself as hopelessly authoritarian. A few become alienated from all typical American ideas of “success,” drop out of society, and become hippies.

These are all somewhat simplistic examples, but fortunately the author is able to describe them all with great subtlety. Anderson is obviously a liberal, and clearly sympathizes with most of the main goals of the 1960’s movements, but is willing to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of the various movements. The chapter on the counterculture is especially moving. Anderson describes the alienation of the counterculture from American society, their optimism that they would be able to live a more rewarding life under their own values, and the trials and tribulations they faced. The author pulls no punches in criticizing police and government harassment of the counterculture, but gently points out the problems with aspects of their lifestyle, such as excessive drug use.

In analyzing Anderson’s theme of optimism, it is necessary to point out that much of the book seems to be written from the perspective of young, idealistic students. For example, Anderson points to the overwhelming response to the Peace Corps as a sign of youthful optimism during the Kennedy Administration. Students at the time are quoted in the book talking about how they genuinely felt that they could change the world. The discussion of the civil rights movement focuses on young Northern volunteers who travelled to the South to participate in the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides. And of course, discussion of the peace movement and campus protests involved the efforts of young people to make their voices heard.

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Some conservatives may criticize this focus on young people (who naturally were generally liberal) as being a sign of the author’s bias. After all, many older people had much different views of the turmoil and protests of the 1960’s. Anderson does spend some time discussing the older conservative backlash. He cites the visceral repulsion that many older Americans had towards the anti-war protests, as well as the approval of the Nixon Administration’s “law-and-order” approach to campus radicals. However, it is true that the main focus of the book (particularly the first half) is on younger people.

In a way, though, the book’s focus on the experiences of younger people throughout the decade is appropriate. The children coming of age in the 1960’s were the first of the “baby boom” generation to reach adulthood. The demographic explosion following World War II was unprecedented, and so was the era these children grew up in. The 1950’s were the height of the Cold War, and fears of nuclear war were widespread. No other generation of Americans grew up with a mushroom cloud hanging over their heads, so it probably is not surprising that the baby boom generation ended up with very different views than their parents.

Anderson also attributes most of the optimism and idealism in the book to outside actors – primarily younger people – and not nearly as much to the United States government. There is some praise of President Johnson’s support for civil rights and Great Society anti-poverty programs. In general, though, Anderson portrays the federal government as taking positive action only when pushed by outside actors. On issues such as the Vietnam War, Anderson harshly criticizes what he sees as the mistakes of the Johnson and Nixon Administrations. State and local officials at the time, such as California’s Ronald Reagan and Chicago’s Mayor Daley, are portrayed as brutal reactionaries all-too-eager to club protestors into submission.

Obviously, there is much truth to Anderson’s view. It is nearly impossible to defend Johnson and Nixon’s Vietnam decisions in retrospect, and police did beat and club peaceful protestors much too often during the 1960’s. However, some analysis of their motives would have been more insightful than simply portraying them as blundering fools or craven politicians. Is it possible that Johnson and Nixon were sincerely motivated by a desire to stop communism from spreading? Did Reagan and other conservatives genuinely fear anarchy in the streets, or did they only wish to exploit the issue for political gain? Even if their views were mistaken, deeper analysis into why they felt the way they did would have been more insightful.

On the other hand, the success of the civil rights movement is rightly portrayed as the single greatest achievement during the decade. This is one issue where the optimism at the start of the decade did last (at least to some extent) throughout the decade and afterwards. Of course, there was some disappointment over the failure to achieve greater economic equality for African-Americans, and the book does discuss the rise of the “black power” movement as a result. However, Anderson points out that only a small percentage of blacks ever supported more radical leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.

The theme of alienation is also present throughout the book. The alienation for many Americans started with the assassination of President Kennedy, which many people believed (and still believe to this day) was a conspiracy covered up by the government. Up until this point, Americans had been conditioned to believe that the government was always honest. The alienation was especially profound following the optimism of the Kennedy years. This shock set the stage for the decade to come.

The escalation of the Vietnam War causes increased alienation among younger people. Anderson is careful not to go overboard in discussing the antiwar movement. He points out that most students either supported the war or were indifferent until 1968, and he acknowledges that many students were more concerned with their future careers than with participating in student protests. The discussion of the teach-ins is also insightful, and helps explain the alienation that students felt as they learned more about the war. Anderson quotes one student as stating that attending the teach-ins was her first educational experience at college.

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One criticism of the Vietnam War discussion is that Anderson spends less time on another reason for student opposition to the war – the desire to avoid getting drafted. Anderson does mention that getting drafted was a constant fear for students, and that professors often avoided flunking students simply so they could stay in school and continue to receive deferments. However, Anderson seems to spend much more time discussing the idealistic reasons students opposed the war, as opposed to the practical reasons. He does mention that antiwar protests subsided after the Nixon administration switched to an all-volunteer military force. However, pointing out that unpopular wars since the switch to a volunteer military (such as the war in Iraq) have not resulted in mass protest movements would have shed some light on why the 1960’s were so unique.

Anderson does do a good job in describing the alienation that ordinary Americans felt at the end of the decade. Many Americans were skeptical of the Vietnam War, but disliked scruffy antiwar protestors even more. Some people initially supportive of the civil rights movement became less supportive when the issues changed from segregation and the right to vote to affirmative action. Older Americans were unhappy with the drugs, sex, and long hair on college campuses. Anderson manages to discuss their viewpoints without portraying them as bigots or racists.

His portrayal of the 1972 election as the “demise” of the optimism of the 1960’s is less convincing. He cites the relative low voter turnout as evidence that much of the country was profoundly alienated from their government and institutions. However, it is not surprising that one of the most lopsided elections in American history produced low voter turnout. Whatever one thinks of Nixon, he did receive 60 percent of the vote in 1972. At least some of the people who voted for him had to be feeling upbeat about their choice.

Anderson’s selection of the 1972 election as the symbolic “end” of the 1960’s is debatable. Historians have discussed various symbolic “ends” of the decade, including Nixon’s election in 1968, his “silent majority” speech in 1969, and his resignation following the Watergate scandal in 1974 (this may say more about historians’ dislike of Nixon than anything else). Watergate is probably a good choice as the “end” of the 1960’s. The abuses in his administration were designed to combat what Nixon saw as the excesses of the 1960’s – campus radicals, Black Panthers, and antiwar groups. It is only fitting that his own excesses as a reaction to the excesses of the decade brought him down.

In conclusion, The Sixties is an excellent starting point for any serious study of the decade. All historians have their viewpoints, and Anderson makes no effort to hide his. However, his main thesis – that America is better as a result of the 1960’s – is convincing. Few Americans would return to the days of racial segregation, and women are now accepted in the workplace. The fact that even those who criticize the excesses of the 1960’s now welcome the most significant changes from the decade shows how significant those changes were.

References

Anderson, Terry H. The Sixties. New York, NY: Longman, 2007.

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