Friday, August 03, 2007

1967 - The Year That Changed the World

I graduated from high school in 1967, from a conservative and nearly all-Republican Pennsylvania community, having grown up in a small, 5,000 population town. My beliefs, like so many, had been shaped by that environment, but in that seminal and watershed year, all of that changed. Within a week of turning 18, I was joining the March on the Pentagon, to "levitate it". I then moved - or, escaped - to the East Village in New York City, earning an education that forever would impact my life. As 1967 all so quickly blended and merged into 1968, I was an active war-resister and straddled the fence between the peace and love hippies (the chosen self-description and epithet my friends and compatriots preferred was "freaks", for it's what we felt we had been painted as) and the political radical style of the yippies, and even of the Columbia University students who stripped away the "establishment's" invincibility which was further galvanized when Martin Luther King was assassinated in April of 1968. At that juncture, I left NYC, and hitchhiked across the US to California, where I continued my own Odyssey to Los Angeles and later, to San Francisco, living in the epi-center of the ever growing counter-culture, the Haight Asbury. Joining the many thousands who were likewise on the search for meaning, purpose, direction, and riven by the Vietnam War and the counter-culture that was erupting in fits and starts all over the world. I was on a path to Canada and as a draft-resistor, not, as a draft-dodger, for I was willing to confront and pay the cost of refusing to be used by a discredited government and policy, and not be killed, or kill others. I campaigned for Eugene McCarthy, and was living in LA, and recall the fateful night when Bobby Kennedy was killed, moments after his electoral victory in the Democratic primary. I quickly moved to the Bay Area. The whole world was watching, alright. Here's a new examination of that period. 40 years, ago. It still feels like it just happened, still vivid and powerful. I'm not nostalgic, despite this reminiscence. This is history. Has our culture learned, or rather, what has our culture and society learned? - MS

New year's eve, San Francisco. Country Joe and the Fish play the final set at the Avalon Ballroom, ushering in 1967. That same night, Big Brother and the Holding Company, fronted by Janis Joplin, perform nearby in Golden Gate Park. Two weeks later, 20,000 people pack the park for the first Human Be-In - a foretaste of the Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury. Timothy Leary, in a phrase of his own invention, tells the assembled tribe to "turn on, tune in, drop out."'
The Age of Aquarius is dawning in 1967 - but so is another, very different age. A hundred miles from San Francisco, less than twenty-four hours after the last chord dies at the Avalon, governor-elect Ronald Reagan takes the oath of office in Sacramento at the stroke of midnight. Reagan, who has won the election by telling lurid, fanciful tales of college orgies and promising to root out communists at Berkeley, declares that universities must transmit "accepted moral and ethical standards."'

A dozen years earlier, Reagan was a washed-up B-movie actor, presiding over the official opening of Disneyland. Now he is the hard-line conservative governor of the nation's most populous state--with his inauguration festivities staged by the Walt Disney Company.
The stock images of 1967- hippies and free love, political dissent and upheaval - are strong and enduring. The year brought important breakthroughs in what historian Theodore Roszak later described as "the making of a counter culture." By the decade's end, civil rights protests, having formally destroyed Jim Crow, also inspired new egalitarian movements for the rights of women, gays and other denigrated groups. Anti-war protests forced a fresh reckoning with the conventional wisdom about America's role in global affairs. Concerns about the environment grew to the point where even government bureaucrats were forced to take notice. A sexual frankness mixed with both communal adhesiveness and insistent individualism - the long- suppressed tradition of Walt Whitman - washed over American culture.

Yet, as the contrasting scenes from that New Year's Eve suggest, the stock images are also incomplete. Even as the counterculture was helping to transform America into a nation of greater tolerance and freedom, the country was beginning a long-term political shift to the right. The Republican Party was back in force, swearing in forty-seven new congressmen--including a transplanted Connecticut Yankee from Texas named George H.W. Bush. Like Reagan, Bush had endorsed Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. Together, the two men would play a prominent role in the conservative resurgence that has reshaped America's political landscape just as surely as the Summer of Love reshaped the cultural landscape. We should remember 1967 not as the time the nation turned on and tuned in but as the moment the United States began hurtling toward a nervous breakdown, riven by conflict that would change the country and the world forever. It was the beginning of an era of intense polarization - one in which, arguably, we are still living. More than a momentous year, 1967 was a seedbed for our own times.

The Vietnam War, and the rising opposition to it, dominated the nation's politics in 1967. The U.S. military presence inside the tiny country had skyrocketed from 12,000 "advisers" five years earlier to nearly 500,000 troops, and Operation Rolling Thunder continued to rain millions of tons of bombs on North Vietnam. The U.S. death toll in 1967, computed at 11,153, was nearly double the figure for the previous year - and far surpassed the total number of U.S. personnel killed in Vietnam in the previous eleven years.
In 1967, the protests that had been building against the war became a genuine mass movement. On April 4th, at Riverside Church in New York, Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed that "the madness of Vietnam" disclosed "a far deeper malady in the American spirit." Over the weekend of October 21st, in the first truly national anti-war demonstration, 50,000 protesters marched across the Potomac to confront the war-makers at the Pentagon. And in late November, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara resigned in a dispute with President Johnson over escalating troop levels and the bombing of North Vietnam.

Although the war would drag on for another eight years, the anti-war movement that mobilized in 1967 left a lasting mark on the nation. Not since the Mexican War more than a century earlier had so many Americans repudiated a U.S. military effort. The alienation contributed enormously to the broader rift between patriotic traditionalists and the emerging counterculture. The Johnson administration's deployment of what one historian has called "a policy of minimum candor" about the war also bred widespread cynicism about politics and politicians. The cynicism deepened when Nixon's attempts to silence his critics over the war led to the Watergate scandal and his resignation in 1974.

That lost trust has never completely been regained, especially among the baby boom generation that came of age in the 1960s. Many of those who could still stomach politics would always be on the lookout for candidates who presented themselves as uncompromised outsiders. Even the two Bush presidents, recognizing the shift in the electorate, campaigned as down-home, straight-shooting Texans. The latter, George W., went to the trouble of buying a stage set of a ranch in Crawford, where he could wear bluejeans, clear a little brush and look, on television at least, like a real cowboy.

Vietnam also caused a lasting breach on the left over foreign affairs. For a radical minority, the war proved once and for all the essential malevolence of U.S. military involvement abroad. Ever since, the hard left has regarded virtually every U.S. intervention, from Bosnia to Iraq, as imperialist misadventures. But mainstream liberals - Bill Clinton and Al Gore being the best examples - have perceived a clear role for American military might in a dangerous world, preferably in alliance with other like-minded powers. The divide has been one reason why the Democratic Party has spent much of the past forty years wandering in the political wilderness. The Vietnam experience also sharpened the willingness of Americans to turn against military operations when the government's credibility slips--as it has over the continuing war in Iraq.
Will we learn from these mistakes? Can we? -MS