The summer of 1969 was host to a pair of historic events — the moon landing and the Woodstock festival — that seemed to define the ’60s. As we revisit those events this summer, it is fair to ask: What did they mean, what did they accomplish and what parts of the ’60s have meaning today?
With the moon landing, there was a sense of America fulfilling the challenge made by President Kennedy at the start of the decade to put a man on the moon — and a sense that the United States had the brainpower, the talent, the technology and the will to do the impossible.
At the same time, Woodstock spoke for a counterculture that rejected the status quo to create a Woodstock Nation of peace, love and flower power, of music and arts — an anti-war, back-to-the-earth, non-materialistic tribe that would feed and care for one another.
A few years ago, I went to a reading Robert Stone did for his memoir of the ’60s, “Prime Green” (Ecco, 2007). What Stone said during the Q-and-A, and I am paraphrasing from memory, is that what he missed about the ’60s was the tremendous sense of possibility.
It has been argued that the excesses of the 1960s evolved into the narcissism of the following decade, which allowed a culture of self-interest and greed to flourish and dominate in recent times even as the majority culture attempted to repudiate the ’60s. That may be true. However, that does not mean that the idealism that inspired both the establishment and counterculture had no value or impact.
Recently, I read Mark Rudd’s “Underground: My Life With SDS and the Weathermen” (William Morrow, 2009). Rudd was the chairman of the Columbia University chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), who in 1968 led a protest against the university’s government and military funding as well as its alleged racism in wanting to build a gym in Harlem that featured separate entrances for local black residents and white university affiliates, after which Rudd was expelled. He became a leader of the radical Weathermen organization, which decided, wrongly he now admits, to embrace armed revolution and to splinter off from student mobilization against the Vietnam War. Following the accidental explosion of a bomb meant for a dance at a military base, which killed several of his comrades in a New York townhouse, Rudd spent the next seven years — the greater part of the 1970s — living “underground,” which meant doing construction jobs and watching as an outsider as the anti-war movement succeeded and the Vietnam War ended. He surrendered to authorities in 1978, settling the charges against him for two years probation and a $2,000 fine.
Although my description above makes Rudd seem undistinguished, it is his account of the times, the passions, the mistakes, even the infighting and settling of petty rivalries that make Rudd’s book worth reading. (As a side note, Rudd’s memoir makes frequent reference to his Jewish background and upbringing as well as those of several fellow radicals.)
Throughout history there have been hinge moments, times when society experienced seismic shifts and convulsions. Certainly one might think of the second half of the 18th century with the American and French Revolutions as precedents — a time when citizens held forth embracing revolutionary ideals, and the establishment was toppled.
Yet the revolution in France was followed by the Reign of Terror and then the rule of Napoleon. In our own country, the revolutions of 1969 were followed by the election of Richard Nixon.
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin described the struggle for progress as “one step forward, two steps back.” In some ways that summarizes the progress made since the ’60s.
A few years ago, Howard Zinn issued “Readings From Voices of a People’s History of the United States” (Seven Stories Press, 2006), an audio companion to “The People’s History of the United States.” I recommend listening to the segments on the civil rights movement.
It is hard to grasp that little more than 40 years ago, policemen set dogs on African Americans protesting to end segregation, and that beatings, lynchings and bombings occurred over the rights of African Americans not only to register to vote, but to attend public school, state colleges and universities, sit at lunch counters, and yes, ride in the front of the bus.
The violence of passions inflamed by the movement against the Vietnam War is also hard to appreciate today.
I remember the day in 1970 when, as a teenager, I heard that National Guardsmen had shot four student protesters on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio. “Now they’re shooting students,” someone said to me. It felt like we were in a state of war — it was “us” (students/anti-war demonstrators) versus “them” (the government/the “establishment”). Although the protesters were right to fear that the government was spying on them, there was a great deal of paranoia, which only heightened the rancor on both sides, escalating a sense of civil war and provoking violence.
The battles of the ’60s were the start of a growing divide, a polarization that grew until it seemed the whole nation had become a patchwork quilt rather than a melting pot, a collection of different interest groups rather than a United States.
Yet that is where the ’60s took us, not what inspired them or where they began. The sense of possibility, the resolve to stand up to the status quo caused change. If we compare the beginning of the ’60s to today — the battles fought for the civil rights of minorities, women, gays and lesbians — they may not be over, they may not be done, but they certainly have taken many steps forward (even if occasionally it seems like we are taking a step back).
We are again fighting a foreign war, but this time there is no disrespect for the soldiers and this time we elected a president who campaigned against the war.
Which brings me to our current president. Could Obama have even considered being president if not for the ’60s? Could we even consider a President Barack Hussein Obama if not for the ’60s? There is certainly an echo of the ’60s in his idealism and his calls to reject the status quo as well as to heal our nation and the world. Counterculture ideals have morphed into mainstream goals.
Forty years ago this summer, man walked on the moon, and for three days the Woodstock Nation convened to show the world American ideals worth remembering.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week and his Tommywood (the blog) appears daily, pretty much.