Robert O. Self
Few decades in American history reverberate with as much historical reach or glow as brightly in living mythology as the 1960s. During those years Americans reanimated and reinvented the core political principles of equality and liberty but, in a primal clash that resonates more than half a century later, fiercely contested what those principles meant, and for whom. For years afterward, the decade’s appreciators considered the era to have its own “spirit,” defined by greater freedoms and a deeper, more authentic personhood, and given breath by a youthful generation’s agitation for change in nearly every dimension of national life. To its detractors in subsequent decades, the era was marked by immature radical fantasies and dangerous destabilizations of the social order, behind which lay misguided youthful enthusiasms and an overweening, indulgent federal government. We need not share either conviction to appreciate the long historical shadow cast by the decade’s clashing of left, right, and center and its profound influence over the political debates, cultural logics, and social practices of the many years that followed.
The decade’s political and ideological clashes registered with such force because post–World War II American life was characterized by a society-wide embrace of antiradicalism and a prescribed normalcy. Having emerged from the war as the lone undamaged capitalist industrial power, the United States exerted enormous influence throughout the globe after 1945—so much that some historians have called the postwar years a “pax Americana.” In its own interest and in the interest of its Western allies, the United States engaged in a Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union over the fate of Europe and no less over the fate of developing countries on every continent. Fiercely anticommunist abroad and at home, U.S. elites stoked fears of the damage communism could do, whether in Eastern Europe or in a public school textbook. Americans of all sorts in the postwar years embraced potent ideologies justifying the prevailing order, whether that order was capitalist, patriarchal, racial, or heterosexual. They pursued a postwar “normalcy” defined by nuclear family domesticity and consumer capitalism in the shadow cast by the threat of communism and, after 1949, global thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union. This prevailing order was stultifying and its rupture in the 1960s is the origin point of the decade’s great dramas.
The social movements of that decade drew Americans from the margins of citizenship—African Americans, Latina/o, Native Americans, women, and gay men and lesbians, among others—into epochal struggles over the withheld promise of equality. For the first time since 1861, an American war deeply split the nation, nearly destroying a major political party and intensifying a generational revolt already under way. Violence, including political assassinations at the highest level, bombings and assassinations of African Americans, bombings by left-wing groups like the Weathermen, and major urban uprisings by African Americans against police and property bathed the country in more blood. The New Deal liberalism of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman reached its postwar peak in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and then retreated amid acrimony and backlash, as a new conservative politics gained traction. All this took place in the context of a “global 1960s,” in which societies in Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere experienced similar generational rebellions, quests for meaningful democracy, and disillusionment with American global hegemony. From the first year of the decade to the last, the 1960s were a watershed era that marked the definitive end of a “postwar America” defined by easy Cold War dualities, presumptions of national innocence, and political calcification.
To explain the foregoing, this essay is organized in five sections. First comes a broad overview of the decade, highlighting some of its indelible moments and seminal political events. The next four sections correspond to the four signature historical developments of the 1960s. Discussed first is the collapse of the political consensus that predominated in national life following World War II. We can call this consensus “Vital Center liberalism,” after the title of a 1949 book by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., or “Cold War liberalism.” Its assault from both the New Left and the New Right is one of the defining stories of the 1960s. Second is the resurgence, after a decades-long interregnum dating to Reconstruction, of African American political agency. The black freedom struggle of the 1960s was far more than a social movement for civil rights. To shape the conditions of national life and the content of public debate in ways impossible under Jim Crow, black American called for nothing less than a spiritual and political renewal of the country. Third, and following from the latter, is the emergence within the American liberal tradition of a new emphasis on expanding individual rights and ending invidious discrimination. Forged in conjunction with the black freedom movement by women, Latino/as, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and homophiles (as early gay rights activists were called) and gay liberationists, this new emphasis profoundly changed American law and set the terms of political debate for the next half century. Fourth and lastly, the 1960s witnessed the flourishing of a broad and diverse culture of anti-authoritarianism. In art, politics, and social behavior, this anti-authoritarianism took many forms, but at its heart lay two distinct historical phenomena: an ecstatic celebration of youth, manifest in the tension between the World War II generation and the baby boom generation, and an intensification of the long-standing conflict in American life between individualism and hierarchical order.
Despite the disruptions, rebellions, and challenges to authority in the decade, the political and economic elite proved remarkably resilient and preserved much of the prevailing order. This is not to discount the foregoing account of challenges to that order or to suggest that social change in the 1960s made little difference in American life. However, in grappling with this fascinating decade we are confronted with the paradox of outsized events and enormous transformations in law, ideology, and politics alongside a continuation, even an entrenchment, of traditional economic and political structures and practices.
The decade of the 1980s represented a turning point in American history—a crucial era, marked by political conservatism and an individualistic ethos. The 1980s also witnessed a dramatic series of developments in U.S. foreign relations, first an intensification of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and then a sudden relaxation of tensions and the effective end of the Cold War with an American victory. All of these developments were advanced and symbolized in the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan (1981–1989), a polarizing figure but a highly successful political leader. Reagan dominates our memories of the 1980s like few other American leaders do other eras. Reagan and the political movement he led—Reaganism—are central to the history of the 1980s. Both their successes and their failures, which became widely acknowledged in the later years of the decade, should be noted. Reaganite conservatives won political victories by rolling back state power in many realms, most of all in terms of taxation and regulation. They also succeeded in putting America at the unquestioned pinnacle of the world order through a victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, although this was unforeseen by America’s Cold Warriors when the 1980s began. The failures of Reaganite conservatism include its handling of rising poverty levels, the HIV/AIDS crisis, and worsening racial tensions, all problems that either Reaganites did little to stem or to which they positively contributed. In foreign affairs, Reaganites pursued a “war on terror” of questionable success, and their approach to Third World arenas of conflict, including Central America, exacted a terrible human toll.
The 1950s have typically been seen as a complacent, conservative time between the end of World War II and the radical 1960s, when anticommunism and the Cold War subverted reform and undermined civil liberties. But the era can also be seen as a very liberal time in which meeting the Communist threat led to Keynesian economic policies, the expansion of New Deal programs, and advances in civil rights. Politically, it was “the Eisenhower Era,” dominated by a moderate Republican president, a high level of bipartisan cooperation, and a foreign policy committed to containing communism. Culturally, it was an era of middle-class conformity, which also gave us abstract expressionism, rock and roll, Beat poetry, and a grassroots challenge to Jim Crow.
Emerson W. Baker
The Salem Witch Trials are one of the best known, most studied, and most important events in early American history. The afflictions started in Salem Village (present-day Danvers), Massachusetts, in January 1692, and by the end of the year the outbreak had spread throughout Essex County, and threatened to bring down the newly formed Massachusetts Bay government of Sir William Phips. It may have even helped trigger a witchcraft crisis in Connecticut that same year. The trials are known for their heavy reliance on spectral evidence, and numerous confessions, which helped the accusations grow. A total of 172 people are known to have been formally charged or informally cried out upon for witchcraft in 1692. Usually poor and marginalized members of society were the victims of witchcraft accusations, but in 1692 many of the leading members of the colony were accused. George Burroughs, a former minister of Salem Village, was one of the nineteen people convicted and executed. In addition to these victims, one man, Giles Cory, was pressed to death, and five died in prison. The last executions took place in September 1692, but it was not until May 1693 that the last trial was held and the last of the accused was freed from prison.
The trials would have lasting repercussions in Massachusetts and signaled the beginning of the end of the Puritan City upon a Hill, an image of American exceptionalism still regularly invoked. The publications ban issued by Governor Phips to prevent criticism of the government would last three years, but ultimately this effort only ensured that the failure of the government to protect innocent lives would never be forgotten. Pardons and reparations for some of the victims and their families were granted by the government in the early 18th century, and the legislature would regularly take up petitions, and discuss further reparations until 1749, more than fifty years after the trials. The last victims were formally pardoned by the governor and legislature of Massachusetts in 2001.
Steven K. Green
Separation of church and state has long been viewed as a cornerstone of American democracy. At the same time, the concept has remained highly controversial in the popular culture and law. Much of the debate over the application and meaning of the phrase focuses on its historical antecedents. This article briefly examines the historical origins of the concept and its subsequent evolutions in the nineteenth century.
Both sexuality and religion are terms as vexatious to define as they can be alluring to pursue. In the contemporary period, figuring out one’s sexual feelings, identity, and preferences has become a signal aspect of self-formation. Understanding one’s religious feelings, identity, and preferences may seem less imminent, but is certainly no less complicated. Both terms cause no small amount of confusion. Clearing up some of this confusion requires speaking frankly about delicate matters, and also speaking flatly about enormously complex experiences. Popular media coverage of ecclesiastical sex scandals in America suggests that people enjoy hearing about the profanation of religious duty. Despite the observed, inferred, and accused sexuality in American religious history, or maybe because of it, eroticism suffuses narrative accounts of American religious history and descriptions of religious actors. In U.S. history, sexuality has often been a key lens through which we have understood the nature of religion, the leaders of religions, and the reason for religious commitment.
Anne Sarah Rubin
Sherman’s March, more accurately known as the Georgia and Carolinas Campaigns, cut a swath across three states in 1864–1865. It was one of the most significant campaigns of the war, making Confederate civilians “howl” as farms and plantations were stripped of everything edible and all their valuables. Outbuildings, and occasionally homes, were burned, railroads were destroyed, and enslaved workers were emancipated. Long after the war ended, Sherman’s March continued to shape American’s memories as one of the most symbolically powerful aspects of the Civil War.
Sherman’s March began with the better-known March to the Sea, which started in Atlanta on November 15, 1864, and concluded in Savannah on December 22 of the same year. Sherman’s men proceeded through South Carolina and North Carolina in February, March, and April of 1865. The study of this military campaign illuminates the relationships between Sherman’s soldiers and Southern white civilians, especially women, and African Americans. Sherman’s men were often uncomfortable with their role as an army of liberation, and African Americans, in particular, found the March to be a double-edged sword.
Peter C. Baldwin
Today the term nightlife typically refers to social activities in urban commercial spaces—particularly drinking, dancing, dining, and listening to live musical performances. This was not always so. Cities in the 18th and early 19th centuries knew relatively limited nightlife, most of it occurring in drinking places for men. Theater attracted mixed-gender audiences but was sometimes seen as disreputable in both its content and the character of the audience. Theater owners worked to shed this negative reputation starting in the mid-19th century, while nightlife continued to be tainted by the profusion of saloons, brothels, and gambling halls. Gradual improvements in street lighting and police protection encouraged people to go out at night, as did growing incomes and decreasing hours of labor. Nightlife attracted more women in the decades around 1900 as it expanded and diversified. Dance halls, vaudeville houses, movie theaters, restaurants, and cabarets thrived in the electrified “bright lights” districts of central cities. Commercial entertainment contracted again in the 1950s and 1960s as Americans spent more of their evening leisure hours watching television and began to regard urban public spaces with suspicion. Still, nightlife is viewed as an important component of urban economic life and is actively promoted by many municipal governments.
H. Paul Thompson Jr.
The temperance and prohibition movement—a social reform movement that pursued many approaches to limit or prohibit the use and/or sale of alcoholic beverages—is arguably the longest-running reform movement in US history, extending from the 1780s through the repeal of national prohibition in 1933. During this 150-year period the movement experienced many ideological, organizational, and methodological changes. Probably the most widely embraced antebellum reform, many of its earliest assumptions and much of its earliest literature was explicitly evangelical, but over time the movement assumed an increasingly secular image while retaining strong ties to organized religion. During the movement’s first fifty years, its definition of temperance evolved successively from avoiding drunkenness, to abstaining from all distilled beverages, to abstaining from all intoxicating beverages (i.e., “teetotalism”). During these years, reformers sought merely to persuade others of their views—what was called “moral suasion.” But by the 1840s many reformers began seeking the coercive power of local and state governments to prohibit the “liquor traffic.” These efforts were called “legal suasion,” and in the early 20th century, when local and state laws were deemed insufficient, movement leaders turned to the federal government. Throughout its history, movement leaders produced an extensive and well-preserved serial and monographic literature to chronicle their efforts, which makes the movement relatively easy to study.
No less than five national temperance organizations rose and fell across the movement’s history, aided by many other organizations also promoted the message with great effect. Grass roots reformers organized innumerable state and local temperance societies and fraternal lodges committed to abstinence. Temperance reformers, hailing from nearly every conceivable demographic, networked through a series of national and international temperance conventions, and at any given time were pursuing a diverse and often conflicting array of priorities and methodologies.
Finally, during the Progressive Era, reformers focused their hatred for alcohol almost exclusively on saloons and the liquor traffic. Through groundbreaking lobbying efforts and a fortuitous convergence of social and political forces, reformers witnessed the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in January 1919 that established national prohibition. Despite such a long history of reform, the success seemed sudden and caught many in the movement off guard. The rise of liquor-related violence, a transformation in federal-state relations, increasingly organized and outspoken opposition, the Great Depression, and a re-alignment of political party coalitions all culminated in the sweeping repudiation of prohibition and its Republican supporters in the 1932 presidential election. On December 5, 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, returning liquor regulation to the states, which have since maintained a wide variety of ever changing laws controlling the sale of alcoholic beverages. But national prohibition permanently altered the federal government’s role in law enforcement, and its legacy remains.
Ross A. Kennedy
World War I profoundly affected the United States. It led to an expansion of America’s permanent military establishment, a foreign policy focused on reforming world politics, and American preeminence in international finance. In domestic affairs, America’s involvement in the war exacerbated class, racial, and ethnic conflict. It also heightened both the ethos of voluntarism in progressive ideology and the progressive desire to step up state intervention in the economy and society. These dual impulses had a coercive thrust that sometimes advanced progressive goals of a more equal, democratic society and sometimes repressed any perceived threat to a unified war effort. Ultimately the combination of progressive and repressive coercion undermined support for the Democratic Party, shifting the nation’s politics in a conservative direction as it entered the 1920s.