The Sixties in America: History, Politics and Protest
Michael J. Heale
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press / Bass Paperbacks, 2001.
£12.95, 178 pages, ISBN 1853312053

Georges-Claude Guilbert
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 surveys.

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 McCarthy’s America (Palgrave / Macmillan 1998).

I gather Heale’s 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 decade’s 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 of decades.

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 (diapers).

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 you’ll 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 discussed.

Although one must steer clear of silly stereotypes, one must also render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s 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. Heale’s 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.