Tom Schachtman: Decade of Shocks: Dallas to Watergate, 1963-1974; Poseidon Press; New York.
Allen J. Matusow: The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960’s; Harper & Row; New York.
Pity the lot of the American radical of recent vintage. Never does the opportunity arise for him to spill his blood on the barricades and to die with the words vive la liberte (or whatever one says in English) on his lips. Uncooperative authorities refuse to drag him before a firing squad or even to immure him in a dank prison. He longs for a Dostoevskian world of steely-eyed inquisitors and brutal repression but finds instead, to his chagrin and embarrassment, that in America he suffers no ill consequences, bears no distinguishing marks of persecution, labors under no disabilities. Sometimes, as with Robert Lowell and Dwight MacDonald in the opera bouffe march on the Pentagon of 1967, he cannot even manage to get himself arrested. The radical races an exquisite rate: after hurling his (usually metaphorical) bombs into the crowded streets and growing bored with playing at revolution, he can retire from the field to enjoy with impunity the perquisites and privileges of the society he despises. How true the mordant quip of the 1960’s: Scratch a radical and find a Porsche owner! In America old radicals do not fade away — they become lawyers, journalists, government bureaucrats, professors, and, in the most piquant irony of all, highly successful Wall Street brokers.
Although yesterday’s hippies, yippies, and assorted protesters of every hue and color live prosperously and contentedly these days, they pine for the brio and zest that gave a razor’s edge to their lives in the 1960’s. For Thom Schachtman, author of Decade of Shocks, “it was the time in our lives when we felt the most alive. We had a cause, its name was freedom, and to fight in its service with like-minded comrades was ennobling and all-consuming; we knew the passion of life.” The demands and burdens of marriage, children, and career prevent these aging freedom fighters from reenacting the battles of their youth, but they can at least invest the 60’s with enough myth and legend to fill their reveries for the rest of their days. They will never completely recover from the virus they contracted 20 years ago; to quote Mr. Schachtman again, “The time remains a touchstone, a benchmark to which we compare all our later experiences and sensations.”
The left never tires of mocking conservatives for clinging to the gossamer glories of a past that never existed. To the contrary, the conservative loves the past for its quotidian reality, its concreteness and palpability, its practical wisdom that arises out of the experiences of countless men and women who have loved and hated, sorrowed and rejoiced, lived and died. The conservative needs no mythic or legendary past to sustain him, but his antagonists do; for all their prattle about the future, leftists prefer to escape the frustrations of the present by retreating imaginatively into a golden age of the past In the 1920’s beleaguered radicals cherished memories of those intoxicating days before World War I when Max Eastman, John Reed, Randolph Bourne, The Masses and the swirling excitement of Greenwich Village had seemed to herald the onset of an age of sexual liberation, cultural experimentation, and political innovation. Radicals of the 1950’s warded off the malaise induced by McCarthyism by recalling (with a wistful smile of half-remembered sin) the hope and ebullience of the 1930’s, an era that had promised the creation of a new man fit to inherit the secular. New Jerusalem that was fast abuilding. The 1960’s have now supplanted these earlier times as the favorite repository of leftist myth and legend; the decade is the new golden age, a time of idealism and good deeds that saw blacks freed, poverty rediscovered, women awakened, sexual inhibitions cast off, a war machine foiled, and an evil president toppled.
It profits one little to decry the mythmaking process; the left will have its myths and the flood of memoirs, novels, journalistic accounts, and pseudo-histories of the 60’s will not recede until the left has either exhausted itself in an orgy of nostalgia or a new era of radicalism arrives to supply fresh grist for the mythmaking mill. Nor is much accomplished by railing against the idiots and idiocies of the 60’s; it has been done so often that even the cleverest terms of abuse have degenerated into clichés. The best way to counter the mythmakers would seem to lie in a strategy that rejects the received wisdom of the left — and the right as well — and formulates new perspectives on the men, movements, and issues of the 60’s. By dint of his willingness to scorn worn platitudes and to violate prescribed ways of interpreting the decade, Allen J. Matusow provides in The Unraveling of America a start in this direction. Though himself a historian of left-of-center sympathies, Professor Matusow trenchantly exposes the failures of liberalism in the 60’sandscores those further to the left for their willingness during the decade to engage in cheap talk and mind less violence. In a turn of affairs rare among American historians, Professor Matusow admits the cogency of the conservatives’ attack on the liberal program of the 60’s.
A one reconsiders the decade, with Professor Matusow’s book as guide, a curious thing occurs: much of the animosity one formerly felt for that benighted era dissipates and in its place comes a piercing sadness over what happened to our nation in the 60’s. There is much to evoke this melancholy: that the idealism of the young flowed into often ignoble causes and fed the self- aggrandizing fantasies of mendacious leaders; that America wasted its substance on an ill-begotten Asian war; that the tumult and strife of the decade erected walls of incomprehension and rancor between young and old, black and white, blue-collar worker and college student; that the rampaging mobs of Watts, Newark, and Detroit betrayed the quest of blacks for equal rights under the law; that the capricious politics of the late 60’s destroyed such a decent and honorable man as Hubert Humphrey; that the old and distinguished Democratic party — the party of Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman — staggered into the 1970’s under the lash of fanatics; and finally and most tragically, that assassins’ bullets cut down three beloved leaders.
Out of a contemplation of all this chaos there arises one of those tantalizing ”what-if’ questions that students of history love to toy with: What if Robert Kennedy had eluded µis assassin and through the vicissitudes of democratic politics had swept on to the White House? Might it be possible that such an eventuality would have provided a more satisfactory denouement to that convulsive decade? Make no mistake: by 1968 Robert Kennedy had moved to the left of most American politicians; one does not essay to argue that Kennedy was a conservative matgre lui Still one wonders if he might not have been what America needed most at that decade’s end. Though his detractors denied it (and the number of Bobby-haters was — and is — multitudinous), the Robert Kennedy who died in Los Angeles was a different man from the brash, arrogant, abrasive, and (to concede his enemies’ favorite derogatory term) ruthless Attorney General of 1961. He had matured and had expanded his vision; he had discovered new depths within himself and new ways of viewing the world beyond himself He had come to understand the words of his favorite dramatist, Aeschylus: “He who learns must suffer.” Bobby Kennedy suffered much and learned much during the 1960’s; he died too young to attain the full wisdom that Aeschylus promised to those who suffer greatly.
What might Robert Kennedy have accomplished as president? Perhaps he could have mitigated the hostility between blacks and whites, for as he proved in the Indiana Democratic primary of 1968, no other politician — Democrat or Republican, black or white, liberal or conservative — could bestir both ghetto blacks and blue-collar workers to a pitch of political fervor. He most likely would have brought the war in Vietnam to a swift conclusion, an act that would have saved lives (both American and Vietnamese), averted the further alienation of the young, and calmed the boiling waters of national controversy. His unusual blend of tough mindedness and fierce compassion would have enabled him to aid the poor while sparing him (and us) the fatuity that often passes for social conscious ness among liberals. Because of his devout Roman Catholicism it is unlikely that he would have looked benignly upon the abortion rights movement or that he would have condoned the destructive political programs of homosexuals and feminists. Finally, a Kennedy Presidency would have spared us many of the most disquieting consequences of the 60’s: the triumph of the McGovemites within the Democratic party, the further ravaging of trust in public authority, Watergate and its attendant sordidness, the bootless and lackluster administrations of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. To speak favorably of Bobby Kennedy ranks among conservatives as a crime against nature; but before summoning the ideological constabulary, one should note President Reagan’s admiration for another man once hated by the right, Harry Truman. The pursuit of what is best for one’s country makes at times for strange bedfellows and surprising ironies. cc