The Kids of America:

An Analysis of the Social and Political Rebellion of the Youth of the 1960s

By Tatum

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Counterculture Youth




Abstract


My article will examine the tumultuous events of the 1960s and their effect on the decade’s youth. The hypocrisy of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War as well as the disappointing administrative decisions of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson will be discussed. Also, the reasons behind the youth’s volatile reaction to the hypocrisy found in their government will be compared to the reserved actions of the older generation and the emergence of a counterculture in response to social and political frustration will be explored.






In the wake of World War II, Western Humanity found itself plunged into a conservative political and social outlook. 1950s America was affluent and triumphant; the War had sufficiently stimulated economic growth so that the United States was able to pull itself from the claws of the Great Depression. On the surface, all seemed well. Yet the nation’s youth were unsatisfied. The rates of student unlawfulness nearly doubled from the 24,000 reports of juvenile crimes in 1955 to the 45,000 reports in 1959. By the early 1960s, America had involved itself in another country’s civil war and its students were organizing themselves in protests against their government and the choices it had made on their behalf. Unique only in their expression of generational identity and political views, the youth of the 1960s were by no means the first generation unsatisfied with the decisions of the prior generation. Yet it was in response to the hypocrisy found in 1960s politics, that the youth of the decade rebelled against what they felt may have been unjust authoritative actions.


The longest conflict in the nation’s history, America’s involvement in the Vietnam War cost the lives of over 58,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese. Most often explained as a way for America to prove its “credibility” or influence on the global community, Vietnam served as the biggest social and political conflict of the 1960s, dividing the nation between those who were antiwar and those who were pro-war and pitting the more volatile younger generation against a conservative older generation, all for a vague sense of political authority. Rather than rousing nationalism, America’s involvement in Vietnam caused internal conflict and planted the seeds for the social rebellion of the nation’s youth.


As the war escalated in Vietnam, so did the polarization of American Society. Inspired by civil rights protests including the Freedom Summer and the events at Berkley, the youth of America examined the morality behind America’s decision to partake in another country’s civil war and questions were raised as to whether it was appropriate for America to act as a self-appointed global policeman. The nation’s youth felt that America’s involvement in Vietnam was nothing more than an exercise of power, a demonstration of America’s global influence, as well as a reversion of cold war fear. In retaliation to their country’s involvement in Vietnam, the youth and others opposed to the war attempted to build an antiwar majority. In 1967 ten thousand volunteers, most of whom were students, went door to door in an attempt to spread the antiwar message in an event called the “Vietnam Summer.” The nation had been led to believe by the triumphs of the civil rights movement that confrontation was successful in achieving political and social change. Yet the war protesters failed to realize that the successful civil rights confrontations stemmed from careful planning and organization. As a result, war protesters relied of media coverage and sensationalism rather than the tactics and consideration for the long term exhibited by civil rights leaders. Radical outbursts and dramatic political protests further alienated the younger generation from their more conservative parents, hindering the effectiveness of the youth’s political statements.


The gap between generations was further widened when Lyndon B. Johnson instated a draft in 1969. Rather than relying on the National Guard, Johnson used the nation’s young men as soldiers, the majority of who were just nineteen and chosen at random from a lottery. In addition to their opposition to fighting in a war their parents had begun, the youth also recognized the hypocrisy in the draft conditions which stated that a young man could defer from the draft if he was enrolled in college. As a result, those who were obligated to fight in the war were generally uneducated and, some argued, targeted for their race or class. While later findings proved that the draft for Vietnam held no racist agenda, especially when the college deference was repealed for its injustice, early reports led many to believe that minorities were being singled out in the draft. This was unacceptable, especially in light of America’s progress on the civil rights front as well as Johnson’s endorsement of racial equality. In retaliation, many young men fled the country to avoid the Vietnam draft, an act which was deemed unpatriotic by the older generation and cowardly by “new left” political leaders.


This was not the first occurrence of a leader disappointing the civil rights activists who had supported him during his campaigns. John F. Kennedy, the enigmatic 35th president, promised to support racial equality in America, saying in a nationally publicized address, “One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln free the slaves…This Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.” This support of the civil rights movement garnered Kennedy at least 70% of the black vote, without the support of which he could not have been elected president in 1961. Yet Kennedy failed to maintain the promises he had made to the black community. Fearing the alienation of the white south, Kennedy put off signing an executive order that would obliterate the discrimination in domestic housing until after the November 1962 midterm elections and even appointed several pro-segregation federal judges. The insincerity behind Kennedy’s promises estranged many influential black leaders, and thus the politically active youth of the decade. Yet during his last year of presidency, Kennedy improved his domestic policy and, just as he was beginning to live up to the hope his election to presidency had inspired amongst many politically unsatisfied Americans, Kennedy was assassinated. As vice president Lyndon B. Johnson assumed presidency in Kennedy’s place, he bore many of the political shortcomings of his predecessor. While Johnson fared better on the civil rights front then Kennedy had, the nation’s youth were distrustful of their new leader despite his liberal political views. Over the course of the war, Johnson lost his credibility when he misreported the events in Vietnam. Due to excess federal spending and heavy taxation, LBJ’s political standing slowly declined, causing America’s youth the further rebel against their leader. Johnson’s dispatch of 15,000 troops to the Dominican Republic in the spring of 1965 further added to feelings of distrust towards the leader as well and increased the number anti-war sentiments and by 1966, Johnson had a 50% approval rating.


The entire nation was aware of the hypocrisy present in the incumbent administration, yet it was only the youth who rebelled. Unequipped with their parent’s nostalgia for the rigorously structured 1950s, the youth of the sixties were only aware of the tumultuous political views of their own decade. Rather than attempting, as much of the older generation did, to reclaim the conservative social norms of ten years prior, the youth responded to the political hypocrisy by entirely disconnecting themselves from both the expectations of their society as well as the expectations of their government. In San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, a counterculture emerged that disconnected itself not only from the political agenda of the decade but the social norm as well.


Inspired by a burgeoning music scene, widespread experimentation in the newfound hallucinogenic LSD, as well as Far Left political movements, many of the counterculture youth abided by the teachings of Acid Guru and ex Harvard professor Timothy Leary who said, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Leary encouraged the youth to expand their mind and explore their consciousness through the use of LSD and to interact with the outside world, to become informed and knowledgeable in world events but not necessarily participate in them. In a final act of defiance of the incumbent seemingly corrupt establishment, Leary encouraged the counterculture to “drop out”, a call to become self reliant that many youth interpreted as abandoning their college educations or occupations and denying themselves the strict social system of their parents generation. Wearing flowers as a symbol for peace, growing their hair out and wearing the American Flag ironically, the counterculture used their radical image as both a way of rebellion and as a protest against the actions of their political leaders. Through their flamboyant displays of rebellion, the counterculture widened the gap between the youth and the older generation.


While immense social and political changes were achieved over the course of the decade, there were repercussions to the turbulence of the 1960s. Just as the nation’s political views shifted in response to a predominantly conservative outlook of the previous decade, there were cases of conservative backlash to the liberal changes in society towards the end of the 1960s. As Lyndon Johnson finished his term and chose not to run for re-election, Richard Nixon, a conservative republican whose political practices would make him infamous in the years to come, was elected president of the United States. Yet despite the repercussions, global views have changed irreversibly. America’s involvement in Vietnam, based on falsehood and serving little purpose other than as a way for America to exert its world power, serves as a haunting parallel to the nation’s current occupation of Iraq, and the civil rights movement paved the way for the fight for racial and social equality that has continued to make ground since the sixties. While America’s political outlook is constantly changing, the 1960s left an undeniable mark on almost all social and political aspects of American tradition and proved that it is under the stress of internal conflict that a nation can alter its sociopolitical structure.





Bibliography


Cynthia Gimbel and Alan Booth, “Who Fought in Vietnam?” Social Forces Vol 74, 1966.

DeKoven, Marianne. Utopia Limited: The Sixties and the Emergence of the Postmodern. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

Dewey W. Grantham, Recent America: The United States Since 1945. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1998.

Isserman , Maurice, and Michael Kazin. America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.