Rebellion and Reaction in the 1960s and 1970s
Document Overview

During the decade and a half after John Kennedy entered the White House, the fabric of American society unraveled. A variety of social groups—middle-class white youth, racial and ethnic minorities, feminists, and others—challenged the consensus that had governed American society since the end of World War II. The tragic shootings of public figures—John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., George Wallace—heightened the sense of chaos. Racial violence and the war in Vietnam fueled social tensions. Intense debates over the volatile issue of abortion further fragmented the nation. To be sure, the end of American involvement in Vietnam in 1973 removed a major source of controversy. But revelations of the Watergate scandal provided another wound to the body politic. The fact that American society survived such prolonged tensions and trauma testifies to the resilience of the Republic.

The civil rights and antiwar movements drew their energies from a youth revolt that began in the 1950s and blossomed in the 1960s and early 1970s. During the Eisenhower years, the baby boom generation began to enter high school. By the sixties they were enrolled in colleges in record numbers. While the vast majority of these young Americans entered the mainstream of social life, a growing minority grew alienated from the conformity and materialism they saw corrupting middle-class culture. Generational unrest appeared early in the 1950s with the emergence of the Beat poets and alienated teenagers personified by actor James Dean in films such as Rebel Without a Cause and by Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger's best-selling novel Catcher in the Rye.

By the late 1960s a full-fledged cultural rebellion was underway, and all forms of authority were being questioned. The so-called counterculture celebrated personal freedom at the expense of traditional social mores. Youthful rebels—dubbed hippies—defied parental authority and college officials. In "dropping out" of conventional society, they grew long hair, wore eccentric clothes, gathered in urban or rural communes, used mind-altering drugs, relished "hard" rock music, and engaged in casual sex.

Other young rebels chose to change society rather than abandon it. During the late 1950s small groups of college students began to explore the promise of radical politics, and people began to refer to the emergence of a "New Left." Unlike the Old Left of the 1930s that had relied upon Marxist theory and presumed that the contradictions inherent in capitalism would eventually bring about its own collapse, the leaders of the New Left asserted that fundamental social and political changes had to be initiated by well-organized young intellectuals.

The most prominent of the groups representing the New Left was the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Technically, SDS was the new name (adopted January 1, 1960) for the Student League for Industrial Democracy, whose own roots led back to the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, founded by the muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair in 1905. In 1962 the organization distributed the Port Huron Statement, a manifesto that promoted "participatory democracy"—rather than the traditional political parties as the vehicle for social change—and envisioned universities as the locus of the new movement. SDS was not willing to wait decades for the dialectic of materialism to run its course. They wanted to effect changes immediately. The Port Huron Statement thus decried the apathy on college campuses and urged young people to take collective action against racism, poverty, and the military-industrial complex. Thereafter members of SDS and other like-minded college students fanned out across the country, seeking to organize poor people into political action groups and to help southern blacks register to vote.

During the mid-1960s the youth revolt spread from the inner cities and rural South to college campuses across the nation. As student activists returned from working as volunteers in the civil rights movement or in anti-poverty programs, they brought with them a militant idealism that initially manifested itself in protests against university regulations and later focused its energies on opposition to the Vietnam War and the draft.

Beginning with the start of the American bombing campaign in 1965 and fueled by the rising numbers of ground forces fighting and dying in Vietnam, organized antiwar protests and teach-ins occurred at hundreds of universities across the country. Such domestic dissent seemed only to harden the commitment of the Johnson and Nixon Administrations to the war in Vietnam and produced a social backlash against the protesters. By the end of the 1960s militants were resorting to violence to draw attention to their cause. Dozens of bombings rocked college campuses in 1969–70. One such explosion killed a student at the University of Wisconsin.

President Nixon's announcement of the "incursion" of South Vietnamese and American troops into Cambodia in the spring of 1970 unleashed dozens of antiwar demonstrations on college campuses. At Kent State University in Ohio, students set fire to the ROTC building. The governor dispatched National Guard units to quell the unrest, and the next day a confrontation occurred at the commons in the center of the campus. As demonstrators hurled rocks and epithets at the troops, the Guardsmen panicked and opened fire, killing four students and wounding many others.

After the American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, the antiwar movement subsided. But youthful activism persisted and quickly found new causes to promote. The idealism and energy generated by the civil rights movement and antiwar activities helped inspire organized efforts to gain equality and benefit for other groups: women, Native Americans, gays and lesbians, migrant workers, and the elderly. Still other idealists focused their attention on the degradation of the environment and sought to promote an ecological consciousness.

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