Sixties in America: History, Politics and Protest
Michael J. Heale
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press / Bass Paperbacks, 2001.
£12.95, 178 pages, ISBN 1853312053
Université de Rouen
Bass Paperbacks is a series that intends to gradually cover every
major aspect of American Studies. It is edited by Philip John Davis
and George McKay. So far, the series has been quite convincing, with
titles such as American Exceptionalism by Deborah Madsen (1998),
and The Cultures of the American New West by Neil Campbell
(2000), both of which I have found very helpful. For the record, Neil
Campbell is the author with Alasdair Kean of the valuable
American Cultural Studies (Routledge, 1997). The aim of the
series is to offer students very up-to-date and pleasantly concise
Bass, of course, stands for The British Association for American Studies,
which is associated with the publisher in this creditable endeavour.
Michael J. Heale is Professor of American History at Lancaster University.
He has written quite a few books, including the fairly well-known
McCarthys America (Palgrave / Macmillan 1998).
I gather Heales book on the American sixties, like its companions,
was originally intended for Keele University Press, but the company
has been taken over by Edinburgh University Press. In view of the
editorial line of the publisher, though, this is not unduly worrying.
The Sixties in America begins with a welcome reminder of the
decades mythological status. Indeed, once the spirit of
the sixties has been evoked, the sixties are seen in perspective,
and Heale undertakes to quietly demolish one or two frequent misconceptions.
Even the most scholarly historical research has occasionally been
known to tumble down the slippery slope of that most nostalgia-inducing
One of the best-spread and most enduring clichés about the
sixties is the idea of a colossal proportion of the young being overwhelmed
by a tremendous spirit of protest: one pictures thousands of long-haired
youths and flower-power girls swept off their feet overnight by some
magical force and suddenly screaming slogans on top of their lungs
in the middle of some campus or in the street, enthusiastically marching
to promote some noble cause or denounce some gruesome social scourge.
The truth is, as Heale records, the proportion of active radicals
on campuses was probably in the order of 5%, if that. But of course,
the post-war baby boom did hit the universities in the mid-sixties,
so on a campus of, say, 20,000, that still means 1,000 students ready
to take to the streets or occupy an administration building. I suspect
the proportion of cannabis smokers was only slightly higher, but some
people like imagining vast numbers of cool dudes chain-pot-smoking
whereas now is the time when everyone smokes joints.
Besides, quite a few of the charismatic leaders of protest movements
were in their late thirties or even early forties. So much for popular
imagery and notions of counterculture gurus barely out of their nappies
What is true, though, and can hardly be exaggerated, is the huge contrast
between the fifties and the sixties. Look at most novels or
even sociology books of the fifties, and youll get the
impression of an average American who is male, white, middle-class,
and suburban. This would soon change, and not only because a handful
of very articulate feminists debunked the cult of the perfect apple-pie-baking
mom that was so virulent in the aberrant fifties. The
social and cultural trends of the fifties had been mostly affirmed
against individual assertions of self-sufficiency and activism, and
the students of the fifties are sometimes referred to as the
silent generation. In the sixties, Heale reminds us, there was
a pervasive belief in the power of action. The sixties
generation (whatever that might mean exactly) believed in action,
and in association. That strong faith, unlike anything ever observed
on American soil except perhaps in the 1830s explains
why reform and protest movements multiplied. People really did cling
to the notion / possibility of change.
Heale is unintentionally funny when he tackles the counterculture:
Smoking dope, revelling in rock music, and taking part in love-ins
afforded many young people an opportunity to achieve a measure of
personal autonomy. But the counterculture was also an instrument of
change, or so some believed [
]. A wholesale change of consciousness,
some believed, could lead to peaceful revolution. It sounds
as if he were afraid of allowing even the slightest personal apprehension
of sixties counterculture to seep through; so one wonders if like
so many of us he still occasionally listens to some old vinyl LP with
a nostalgic sigh, or if on the contrary he is glad it is all over.
The book is crystal-clear when it deals with economic notions: the
New Frontier, the Great Society, the new science-fire economy.
Universities, rather than factories, Heale writes, were the motor
behind it all. Racial questions and the foreign policies of the successive
sixties administrations are also dealt with in a sharp, clear fashion.
Moreover, the interaction of foreign and domestic affairs is appropriately
Although one must steer clear of silly stereotypes, one must also
render to Caesar the things that are Caesars and not neglect
the heritage of the sixties; though be it a mixed one, as Heale has
it. Surely enough, the optimism and activism of the decade did not
entirely disappear with it; surely enough, the sharper awareness
both of rights and of group identities continued to inform movements
of many kinds [
]. White and male America had surrendered some
of its authority.
This book is perfect for undergraduate students and may adequately
complement the research of graduate students. Scholarly without being
tedious, it may also be of great interest to the general public.
Two small hitches, however:
Michael J. Heales The Sixties in America may be considered
somewhat lacking in developments when it comes to the rebirth of feminism
in the sixties, or indeed to the birth of modern-day gay militancy
(which gets a total of seven lines), but this is surely due to the
limiting format of the series; readers are unmistakably encouraged
to seek further enlightenment elsewhere, should a particular aspect
of the sixties grab their attention.
The Sixties in America does not end with a bibliography in
the traditional sense of the word, but with suggestions for
further reading where books and articles are not listed but
integrated in a text. Although undeniably teeming with sound advice,
this text prevents the reader from rapidly spotting the names of scholars
or the titles of books. I realise this is a deliberate and frequent
choice, but I dare say not one I myself would have made.