The Sixties Unplugged:
A Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade
by Gerard J. DeGroot
Harvard. 528 pp. $29.95
As the punning title of this book suggests, Gerard DeGroot would like to do for history what Barack Obama wants to do for politics—to lead people past the rancor and myth-making of a lightning-rod decade. If the presidential candidate insists that we ought to quit our obsession with a time when the majority of today’s voting-age Americans were either too young to consider inhaling or not yet even born, the historian insists that there was less to the battles of the age than may meet the eye.
DeGroot has some intriguing credentials for the job. An American-born professor of modern history at St. Andrews in Scotland, a little older than Obama but too young to have been draftable for Vietnam, he is the gimlet-eyed author of The Bomb: A Life (2004) and The Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest (2006). He also has an unusual idea about how to address the subject of the 60’s. Resisting the “temptation to impose order,” he wants to create a “kaleidoscope” rather than a conventional narrative. In other words, he means to write history, 60’s-style.
DeGroot’s kaleidoscope takes the form of several dozen brief essays, more or less chronologically arranged, on subjects ranging from iconic events like the two marches on Washington to almost forgotten episodes in Asia and Africa to frequently ignored countercurrents like William F. Buckley, Jr.’s creation of the Young Americans for Freedom. In an opening chapter titled “Premonitions,” for example, he includes not only the required essay on the birth-control pill but also one on the election and overthrow of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, another on the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial in England, and yet another on the invention of the transistor in 1947, which would soon put a radio, often playing music by obscure black artists, in every teen bedroom, thus fueling both a generation gap and sympathy for the soon-to-be-born American civil-rights movement.
In conventional histories, the 60’s begin with the hope-filled election of John F. Kennedy. Count DeGroot a skeptic. From the first, he argues, JFK’s youthful appeal was a carefully constructed myth. His family football games and “suntan,” a side-effect of the steroids he took for Addison’s disease, hid his poor health; his picture-perfect family disguised his sordid womanizing; his idealistic speechifying masked a hard-nosed militarism that led to the Bay of Pigs invasion and a futile expansion of the Vietnam war. Television helped to sell this handsome and charismatic man, as it would permanently freeze in the public mind the images of his 1963 assassination.
In fact, DeGroot spies the influence of visual media in many of the major events of the 1960’s. In the very early part of the decade, lunch-counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides testing a Supreme Court ban on segregation in interstate transportation got some public attention. But Southern blacks were frustrated with the slow pace of change. By 1963, when the struggle came to Birmingham, Alabama, black leaders had grasped the media potential of Bull Connor’s “billy clubs, snarling dogs, and water cannons.” Henceforth, writes DeGroot, protests were “carefully stage-managed in order to provoke the most violent response.”
The tactic worked. Public shock led some Southern cities to pass preemptive de-segregation laws, Northern whites to donate heavily to civil-rights organizations, and Kennedy to propose what would become the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. But, as Martin Luther King, Jr., worried, the presence of TV cameras would also incite darker, mob-like impulses. Already in 1963, when a quarter of a million protesters marched on Washington, D.C., radicals like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and the future Congressman John Lewis were muttering about having to kowtow to white liberals.
Within a year, King’s principle of nonviolence had become an ana-chronism as blacks rioted in New York, Rochester, and Philadelphia. King’s 1968 murder further fueled the thuggery that was corrupting black protest, as H. Rap Brown, Eldridge Cleaver, and the Black Panthers grabbed the microphones. “You better get a gun,” Brown taunted. “Violence is necessary—it is as American as cherry pie.”
DeGroot sees similar preening—and similarly destructive potential—at work in the American wing of the international student- protest movement. The inaugural Port Huron statement of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1962 revealed utter cluelessness about the country that the newly formed organization proclaimed it “had a right” to revolutionize. In an essay on Che Guevara, DeGroot excoriates student radicals for making up “a fairy tale starring Castro and Che,” turning a blind eye to the latter’s ineptitude and the former’s criminality. An essay on the Prague Spring of 1968 illustrates the monumental gap separating the 165,000 Soviet soldiers and 4,600 tanks that greeted Czech dissidents and the allegedly horrifying government “machine” conjured up by America’s homegrown rebels.
Although DeGroot is sympathetic to a number of student complaints, and draws a distinction between showboat radicals like Tom Hayden and serious activists like Mario Savio, the leader of the Free Speech movement at Berkeley, he writes with special harshness about the late-60’s American radicals who transmuted criticism into an incoherent urge to “smash the system.” Perhaps inevitably, their rejection of liberalism, reason, and middle-class respectability veered into nihilism and violence. The Hippies who poured into Haight Ashbury may have seemed harmless enough at first, but their carelessness eventually led to the immiseration of untold numbers of young runaways turned hookers and suicides. The SDS splinter group, the Weathermen, professed admiration for the psychopath Charles Manson; its experiments with bomb-making, which led to an infamous explosion in a New York townhouse in 1970, marked a fitting end to 60’s-style political revolutionism.
By contrast, what tends to draw DeGroot’s tolerant approval is the cultural or “lifestyle” rebellions of the 60’s. He has an appreciative essay about the British designer Mary Quant for bringing a youthful sexiness to the gray, postwar British streets. He views criticisms of the sexual revolution as overwrought, contending that most boomer men and women were not especially promiscuous. And he is charmed by the “whimsy” of Amsterdam’s Provo movement whose antics nevertheless set the stage for Holland’s eventual legalization of drugs and prostitution.
Despite the decade’s drama, DeGroot finishes with something like a shrug. “The 60’s has been invested with far too much uniqueness,” he writes. The decade was “neither unfamiliar nor all that special.” Nor did it accomplish anything like what its latter-day celebrators claim for it. Defining the period through the prism of their own obsessions, people have singled out the wrong things about an era whose most notable political outcome, he concludes, was the ascendance of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
As this summary may suggest, The Sixties Unplugged is an uneven book, full of fresh insight and arresting detail on the one hand, afflicted by an evasive capriciousness on the other. The difficulty stems in large part from DeGroot’s experiment in history-telling. Traditionally, the historian tries to make order out of the flux of events, to impose meaning on the past’s apparent randomness. DeGroot, however, intends to mirror the disorder of history, so as to bring readers closer to the truth of a decade that “lacked coherent logic.”
This leads to the irony that The Sixties Unplugged best succeeds when, in its own terms, it most fails. DeGroot can be very good when he allows or encourages patterns to emerge. A case in point is his various forays into the student protest movement in Germany, France, Mexico, Holland, England, the U.S., and China. Even as these give a sense of global forces that transcend individual action and local politics, they also clarify crucial national distinctions.
Thus, DeGroot’s essay on the Cultural Revolution as it unfolded in Guangxi province exposes the viciousness of Red Guard students who poured boiling water over teachers, beat others with nail-spiked clubs, and murdered infants and the elderly. The mayhem alarmed even Mao, who tried to purge the madness by sending four million young people into the countryside to live among the peasantry, in the process insuring a generation of uneducated, de-moralized citizens. This is a well-told horror story on its own; set next to essays on American protesters prattling about the heroism of Mao and threatening their own elders with “Up against the wall, motherf___ers!,” it is revelatory.
For careful readers, DeGroot also evokes another, less widely discussed theme of the decade: the growing political and cultural power of mass media, especially in the U.S. If it has become a cliché that market capitalism transformed Che Guevara from a revolutionary into a face on a t-shirt, DeGroot’s essays imply something more subtle. This is that television and sophisticated advertising techniques encouraged tendencies toward superficiality and irrational hero worship.
The decade began with the selling of “the product named Ken-nedy.” Throughout the period, both venerable civil-rights leaders and unsavory radicals figured out how to make sure the whole world was watching. Increasingly, imagery and sensationalism drove politics, just as politics entwined itself with the aesthetics of mass culture. Che’s visage might have made some marketers rich; more striking is the fact that a Latin American revolutionary with, at best, an ambiguous legacy, who also happened to have died at a young, camera-friendly age, was embraced by the public because he “produced good posters.”
Unfortunately, DeGroot keeps this and other themes far too implicit. His decision to write “kaleidoscopic history” is not just frustrating to readers who naturally expect writers to synthesize and interpret their material. It is also an affectation. Inevitably, even while pretending he is letting randomness speak for itself, DeGroot edits and chooses.
His discussion of the June 1967 Six-Day war is a particularly egregious example. Yes, this was a history-making event, and it took place during the decade of the 1960’s. Yet DeGroot’s essay does not explain the war’s connection with any of the other global events in his book, including the two that bracket it: the famine in Biafra and the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Why Biafra? For that matter, why the war in the Middle East? Since DeGroot’s essay on the latter includes the bizarrely reflexive observation that Israel’s “embattled image was a carefully constructed myth,” and that the country “welcomed war,” the reader is left with the impression that this author’s kaleidoscope sometimes functions simply as a tool for expressing his otherwise undefended prejudices.
DeGroot concludes that the 60’s were not unique, that this was just “an era of magnificent futility.” Ironically, his book proves the opposite. If nothing else, the 60’s set out to undermine traditional forms of structure and order. Without it, no historian would ever have confused formlessness with scholarship.