I’m reading Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972. What especially stood out to me in my latest reading was Ambrose’s discussion of the 1960’s anti-war movement, an issue that Richard Nixon exploited in appealing to middle-class Republicans.
Here are some passages from pages 70-71. Something to keep in mind as you read them is Ambrose’s portrayal earlier in the book of the common conceptualization of the United States soon after World War II: that the U.S. was a force for good in the world.
“No generation was ever worse prepared to accept the attitudes of the succeeding generation than the World War II parents of the Baby Boom generation. To those parents, it was my country right or wrong, unconditional surrender, crew cuts, bobby sox, coats and ties, responsibility, hard work.” Ambrose then mentions the challenges to this post-World War II culture in the 1960’s, such as co-ed dorms, rock-and-roll, the undermining of dress codes, and long hair.
“To the parents of the students of 1965, it was inconceivable that any American could fail to do his or her full duty in a war. That being so, they were quite unable to deal with their own children, many of whom not only said they would not do their duty but denounced the war and insisted that America was fighting on the wrong side. Their children questioned patriotism, even laughed at it.”
“By 1965, just as the World War II parents started turning over their kids to the colleges for an education, the New Left began doing much of the college teaching in the areas of politics and history…The New Left taught that America was imperialist, that America had caused the Cold War, that even in World War II American motives had been selfish and centered on improving capitalist exploitation of the masses around the world, that in Vietnam the Vietcong were freedom fighters while the GIs were suppressing the legitimate desire for national independence.”
A question that I have is why the unrest even took place in the 1960’s. Ambrose says that “the draft for Vietnam was beginning to reach into the colleges, provoking antiwar demonstrations” (page 70). Could that be one contributing factor to the unrest: young people feared that they would be drafted, and thus they became open to New Left rhetoric condemning the Vietnam War? But Americans were drafted during World War II, and there wasn’t much unrest back then. What exactly made the Baby Boom generation different?
On the World War II parents, broadly speaking, I accept Ambrose’s narrative. Yet, I question it, somewhat. It reminds me of the narrative that I’ve heard about American attitudes towards the President of the United States throughout history: that Americans used to hold the President in awe and reverence, but Watergate changed all that, making the President a target of criticism. I myself don’t think that the World War II parents had an uncritical view of American government. Joe McCarthy won support by saying that the State Department was infiltrated by Communists, and that was why our foreign policy was so wrongheaded! That’s quite a criticism of the government, and many among the World War II parents bought it! Republicans (including Nixon) attacked the Truman Administration as corrupt, and they also criticized the New Deal and Truman’s strategy for the Korean War. There were people from among the World War II parents who disagreed with their government, or at least aspects of it. They weren’t gullible.
And yet, there probably was a degree of patriotism and trust in the government among the World War II parents that was challenged by the Baby Boomers. The conservative elements of the World War II parents most likely felt that, notwithstanding the pesky government controls, the United States was still the freest nation on earth and offered a significant number of economic opportunities. Even if they thought that America was not as consistently tough on Communism as it should be, they also may have still believed that America did a lot of good in the world.
Here’s a powerful scene from the TV series The Wonder Years. This episode is set in the late 1960’s. Jack Arnold (a Korea War veteran) is debating his daughter and her boyfriend about the American government and the Vietnam War. I have my doubts that Jack Arnold agreed with everything that the U.S. government did. (In a later episode, he expresses a realistic cynicism about the military when his son Wayne enlists, after the military told Wayne that it wouldn’t send him to Vietnam. Jack said it would ship Wayne to Vietnam right off the bat!) But Jack had a faith in America and its institutions, which his daughter and her boyfriend were challenging.