Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Two Journeys To Truth: The Promise And The Heartbreak Of American Culture, 1960-1980

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe the disappointed utopian dreams of 1960s American culture.

Both the liberal political establishment, represented by the Kennedy administration, and the youth counterculture that arose in its wake started the period from 1960 to 1980 with a broader sense of purpose than the narcissistic pursuit of self-fulfillment. The administrators of Kennedy’s New Frontier, filled with hubris, saw their mission as saving the world from communism. The more idealistic members of the Kennedy administration hoped to usher in an America freed from segregation and poverty.

Meanwhile, counterculture youths saw a world poisoned with militarism and corrupted by the undemocratic dominance of wealthy, straight, Protestant, English-speaking Anglo men. They fought to create a world in which African Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, women, gays and the poor would have a voice. Both sets of idealists looked outward to make the world a better place rather then inward for self-justification.

Two overlapping journeys in the summer of 1969 illustrate these separate, Homeric quests for a better world: the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969 and the staging of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in upstate New York, August 15-18. For millions of Americans the manned moon landing marked the emotional highlight of a difficult, often depressing decade, a rare moment of unity in a divisive time. A party atmosphere surrounded Cape Kennedy in Brevard County on Florida’s east coast on the morning of July 16. About 1 million visitors flocked to the launch site. Counterculture youths had dubbed as “happenings” their large gatherings to share emotional experiences stimulated by mood-altering chemicals. The Apollo launch was a “happening” for the older generation.

“From Titusville to Melbourne, thousands of cars converged on huge regions stretching as far west as Orlando,” author Dan Parry wrote. “With the freeways blocked by the worst jams in Florida’s history, some drivers used the wrong side of the road since no-one was headed in the opposite direction. Only the wealthy, or well-connected, managed to avoid the crowds by arriving in private aircraft, and then boarding one of the hundreds of boats choking the Banana River.

Thousands of people, who were settled among their barbecues, beer coolers and bottles of pop, were either lounging around or else trying out their cameras, telescopes and binoculars.” Elsewhere, space tourists set up tents and camper vans or cooled off at the local bars where a “‘lift-off martini’ would set you back $1.25, while for those who really wanted to live it up there was the ‘moonlander’ consisting of crème de menthe, crème de cacao, vodka, soda, and a squeeze of lime, topped with an American flag.”

Inside the space center, officials set up bleachers for establishment celebrities and important officials including former President Johnson, the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic, Charles Lindbergh, and “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson. NASA set up a “press enclosure” for 3,500 reporters from around the world.

Many African Americans were offended that all the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts had been white, but even more by the fact that black school children lived in crumbling urban neighborhoods with deteriorating schools while the federal government wasted money on what they saw as space tourism and the terrible misadventure in Vietnam. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, who became president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., led 100 protestors to the gates of the Kennedy Space Center, to protest what he saw as badly misplaced priorities. The money spent on Moon landings, he said, should instead be used to feed the poor. NASA officials invited Abernathy into the VIP section to watch the liftoff. But even Abernathy, there to protest, found himself overwhelmed by the drama.

He considered himself “one of the proudest Americans as I stood on this soil.” Later, after a moment of reflection, his ambivalence returned. “There’s a great deal of joy and pride,” he said, “For that particular moment and second I really forgot the fact that we have so many hungry people in the United States of America . . . This is really holy ground. And it will be more holy once we feed the hungry, care for the sick, and provide for those who do not have houses.”

About 600 million people around the world, 20 percent of the Earth’s population, watched on television or listened on the radio when Armstrong announced at 4:18 p.m. EST on July 20 that “The Eagle has landed.” When an announcer at Yankee Stadium in New York informed the crowd of the Eagle’s touchdown, the crowd of 16,0000 let out a whoop of celebration, belting out “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In Britain, television networks provided their first all-night broadcast, allowing audiences there to see the landing live.

Apollo lunar modules would land on the Moon five more times between November 14, 1969 and December 19, 1972 (because of dangerous mechanical problems, the Apollo 13 mission had to be cut short before it reached the moon). By this point television audiences had grown bored with the moonwalks and few paid attention to the last lunar voyage, Apollo 17. The last mission in the series, Apollo 18, was scrubbed due to objections to the Moon program’s continuing high costs.

Always controversial, when the Apollo program ended in 1972, it had cost the taxpayers $25.4 billion, or about $129 billion in 2011 dollars. That amounted to, when adjusted for inflation, $11.7 billion a mission at a cost of about $630 per person in the U.S. Many scientists believe that more information could have been obtained at less expense with unmanned craft. Nevertheless, lunar rocks and soil brought back to Earth by the astronauts have provided solid evidence supporting the “giant impact theory” concerning the Moon’s origins. According a Mars-sized object collided with the Earth early in its history and that scattered debris from this impact, through gravity, coalesced to create the Moon.

Technology developed for Apollo greatly accelerated the development of, as Sharon Guadin for “Computerworld” magazine wrote, robotics, the integrated circuit, laptop computers, nanotechnology, and technological advances in aeronautics, transportation and the health care industries. Micro-electromechanical systems, supercomputers and microcomputers, software and microprocessors are also technological spin-offs resulting from NASA’s lunar quests.

“Without the research and development that went into those space missions, top companies like Intel Corps may not have been founded,” reported Guadin, “and the population likely wouldn't be spending a big chunk of work and free time using laptops and Blackberries to post information on Facebook or Twitter.” Freeze-dried food, the credit card swiping devices used by retailers, and liquid-cooled clothing used by firefighters also trace their origins to the Apollo program.

To older Americans, the moon mission provided supposedly objective evidence that American capitalism was superior to Russian communism because the United States got to the moon first. It confirmed the power of rational thought, and that with determination and unity Americans could do anything. For some, like the poet Archibald MacLeish, the photos of the Earth taken by Apollo astronauts served as an eloquent warning to humanity of the loneliness and fragility of the planet and the consequent need for peace and understanding. “To see the earth as it truly is,” MacLeish wrote, “small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold – brothers who know now they are truly brothers.”

Many counterculture figures, by contrast, saw the space mission with its segregated all-male crew leaving garbage and planting an American flag on the surface meant that humans were just transporting racism, sexism, pollution and imperialism elsewhere in the cosmos. Apollo was an expensive diversion, a typical example of establishment excess. The truth lay in inner, not outer space. About 400,000 gathered in upstate New York for a journey of a different sort.

Promoters organizing the Woodstock Music and Art Fair had rented 600 acres of farm land from Max Yasgur to see one of the most storied music lineups in history, including longtime folk music legend Joan Baez, the English rock band The Who, blues-inspired, scorching Texas vocalist Janis Joplin, the band most associated with extended musical LSD raves (The Grateful Dead), and emerging guitar legends Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix.

On the surface, Woodstock was about the counterculture – the alternative values embraced by young people by the late 1960s that questioned aspects of mainstream society like capitalism, but at this festival, appearances were often deceiving and not just because of the mind-altering drugs gobbled there.

As historian David P. Szatmary documents, “Woodstock represented a well-calculated business venture. The planning and promotion of the festival has been masterminded by two astute businessmen – John Roberts, a young millionaire who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and Joel Rosenman, a Yale Law School graduate . . .” The festival organizers were out to make a buck and hoped to charge those in attendance $18 a head, but “the state police closed the New York Thruway [and] . . . long hairs from throughout the country parked their cars and walked miles to the site,” as historian John C. McWilliams observed. “As the crowd grew . . . promoters realized the futility of trying to collect a fee . . .” Many newspapers and television stations predicted a disaster and, as McWilliams argued, “it should have been.

With very little security and almost no police protection, severe food shortages, a limited medical staff, inadequate toilet facilities, drugs everywhere, and a fierce thunderstorm that turned the field into a swamp, a disaster did seem inevitable. Some people suffered from dehydration, and several experienced bad drug trips, but remarkably there was no rioting. At Woodstock, the hippies gave peace a chance . . . After three days of continuous music, three deaths were reported – two drug related and a third when a tractor accidentally ran over a person in a sleeping bag. A sense of community among the crowd fostered cooperation and civility . . . The police chief in nearby Monticello called the festival throng “the most courteous, considerate, and well-behaved group of kids that I have ever been in contact with in my twenty-four years of police work.” Despite the drugs, unsanitary conditions, a three-hour wait to use a pay telephone, and shortages of almost everything, no violence – not even a fistfight – occurred.

During the Apollo mission on the moon, astronauts were sealed in airtight suits to protect them from the cold, the lack or oxygen and the absence of air pressure in space. Their helmets and suits came between them and a new world. The Woodstock festival immersed its audience in tastes and smells, with flesh pressed against flesh and oozing mud squishing between everyone’s toes and fingers. The audience felt inducted into a new, psychically bound “Woodstock Nation,” as one participant Glenn Weiser remembered.

“That was the first the first revelation of Woodstock. – the sheer size the counterculture had grown to. Every town had its hippies, but now enormous numbers of us had massed in one area. Friday afternoon brought home to everyone how broad-based the movement had become . . . [T]he second revelation of Woodstock [was] the brotherhood that developed as an entire crowd of young people high on psychedelics got acquainted with those sitting next to them . . . There was a feeling of immediate friendship, and the sense of a group mind at work.” Some hoped magic would result, a world transformed not through space age technology but through good will. “And I dreamed I saw the bombers/riding shotgun in the sky,” Joni Mitchell later sang of the concert, “And they were turning into butterflies/above our nation.”

The vision of a better world that fueled both quests proved to be an illusion. Moon landings ended much sooner than anyone expected and by 2011 the future of the American space program was in question. The space shuttle program ended that year, and NASA had no new manned journeys to space planned by the end of the year. If Archibald MacLeish hoped that the image of the world from space would inspire brotherhood, that dream had completely crumbled by the time of a civil war in Bosnia in the 1990s that produced the worst genocide in Europe since the Holocaust and other heartless slaughters Rwanda in the 1990s and in the Sudan in the opening years of the twenty-first century.

The dreams Woodstock inspired also quickly shattered. Just four months after the concert, the English rock band the Rolling Stones staged a show at the Altamont Raceway in northern California. A cancellation of an earlier show meant that the concert’s producers had a single day to prepare for the arrival of an audience of about 300,000. “Sanitary facilities were inadequate, the sound system, terrible; the setting cheerless,” Matusow wrote. “Lots of bad dope, including inferior acid spiked with speed, circulated through the crowd. Harried medics had to fly in an emergency supply of Thorazine to treat the epidemic of bad trips and were busy administering first aid to the victims of the random violence.”

Much of the trouble came because the Rolling Stones had decided, upon the recommendation of the Grateful Dead, to hire the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang to guard the stage in return for $500 worth of beer. Drunk and strung out on drugs, the Angels “indiscriminately clubbed people for offenses real and imagined.” The clubbing continued when the Stones got on stage. Lead singer Mick Jagger stopped singing at one point to beg the Hell’s Angels to stop the violence, but to no avail. Jagger resumed the concert, and darkly sang the band’s recent hit “Sympathy for the Devil”:

I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the gods they made
I shouted out
“Who killed the Kennedys?”
When after all
It was you and me.

“Midway though [the song],” Matusow said, “only a few feet from the stage, an Angel knifed a black man named Meredith Hunter to death.” In retrospect, the event seemed like the death of the 1960s and the start of a more desperate decade of diminished expectations in which bombers didn’t turn into butterflies but the nation would instead, by 1980, elect as President Ronald Reagan, a man who saw military hardware as a sign of American pre-eminence in the world.

The counterculture to a large degree was a byproduct of the prosperity produced in the post-World War II American economy. The middle-class and affluent whites who dominated the counterculture enjoyed the luxury to dream of alternatives to the status quo. “By solving the problem of want, industrial capitalism undermined the very virtues that made this triumph possible, virtues like hard work, self-denial, postponement of gratification, submission to social discipline, strong ego-mechanisms to control the instincts,” Matusow argued. “. . . Unprecedented affluence after World War II created a generation of teenagers who could forgo work to stay in school. Inhabiting a gilded limbo between childhood and adult responsibility, these kids had money, leisure, and unprecedented opportunity to test taboos.”

Yet, a revolution was needed in a culture in which rape was treated as a male privilege in marriage and in which millions of African Americans, Chicanos, and Native Americans were disenfranchised and treated as subhumans. Regardless, among affluent whites both the baby boomers and their parents were deceived by the unusual economic comfort of the 1950s and the 1960s and suffered from unrealistic expectations of what was possible, financially, morally and spiritually. Like Tantalus in the Greek myth, these generations thought themselves surrounded by limitless opportunity, and endless pleasure – whether in the form of material comfort, a freer society, a more just world, or a life unshackled by punishing Puritanism – that lay within easy reach. The crushing economic contraction of the 1970s, however, cruelly pulled away these treasures, feeding a resentment that would give rise to a different, conservative age of indulgence.”

One of the central political figures of the 1980s would not be a hippie but a straight-laced Baptist minister in Virginia, Jerry Falwell, who made a career of bashing unions. Falwell had supported segregation and not baptized African American members in his church until 1971. He would blame the 2001 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on feminists and the legalization of abortion, and would describe AIDS as “the wrath of God against homosexuals.”

Men like Falwell hated everything about the 1960s and 1970s counterculture and would the Virginia minister become the most visible leader of evangelical Christians who would sweep Ronald Reagan into power in the 1980- presidential race. The view of the Woodstock audience had been inclusive. The creators of Apollo imagined an expansive future. Falwell wanted a narrower, more restrictive America. He wanted gays back in the closet, and women back at home. While he condemned the sexual excess and drug abuse of the 1960s counterculture, however, Falwell would in the years after the 1980s show blindness towards another type of excess.

When Ronald Reagan was sworn into office January 20, 1981, “The inaugural festivities had been in full swing since the weekend . . . In 1976 [at Jimmy Carter’s inaugural], all the events had been open to the public, and most had been free. Now a simple ball ticket cost $100 ($274 in 2011 dollars) . . . the tarmac at Washington National Airport so crowded with private jets that some had to be turned away,“ as Dominic Sandbrook said. At a time of high inflation and skyrocketing unemployment, Nancy Reagan wore a dress “that cost enough to keep fifty people in food stamps for a year.” The inaugural festivities cost taxpayers $16 million [almost $44 million in today’s dollars.]

At one banquet at Union Station, Sandbrook wrote, “tables were piled high with gourmet food prepared by the finest French chefs; stuffed clams and raw oysters, lobsters and scallops, éclairs and brioches, carpaccio and chardonnay.” In spite of expensive decorations, however, Union Station was decaying after years of neglect and one failed attempt at renovation during the 1976 bicentennial celebrations. “Even as Reagan’s guests circulated around the gourmet tables, some noticed mold in the ceiling and cigarette burns in the carpet.”

As the wealthy inaugural attendees “swallowed their expensive cakes and pastries, they tried to ignore the shabby drunks and derelicts, a small army of the capital’s homeless, gathering outside the doors, drawn by the aroma of the food,” according to Sandbrook. “First one, then another slipped past security and made for the tables, and for a few glorious moments the forgotten Americans found themselves shoulder to shoulder with the rich and the famous. But it was only for a minute or two, then the guards were on them, and the illusion was broken, and they were outside, shivering with cold as Washington toasted a new era.”

The inaugural foreshadowed the next thirty years of American history. Reagan would slash spending on public housing, and federal aid to cities would be cut by 60 percent during his eight-year presidency. A consequence was a massive increase in the number of homeless, which in America by the late 1980s had swollen to “600,000 on any given night – and 1.2 million over the course of a year. Many were Vietnam veterans, children, and laid-off workers.”

Meanwhile, Reagan tripled the federal debt from $900 billion to $2.7 trillion ($5.1 trillion as of 2011), spent to a large degree on military hardware. From Reagan’s first year in office to 2011, the United States federal government would run deficits 27 out of 31 years and would decline to raise taxes for expensive wars and other military adventures in Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Bosnia, Serbia, Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya and elsewhere. As of 2011, the total federal debt reached $14 trillion. Many questioned whether America adequately funded schools, much less moon missions. By 1981, America did not find a Woodstock Nation of peace and love, or a New Frontier in outer space, but a Darwinian world of rich and poor drowning in red ink.



Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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