AMERICA DIVIDED

The Civil War of the 1960s

By Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin

Oxford Univ. 358 pp. $30

Reviewed by Evan Thomas

In the spring of 1963, a group called the Kingsmen cut a recording of "Louie, Louie" that became a defiant anthem of the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll generation. Listening to the lyrics, slurred and guttural, teenagers wondered, "What is that guy singing?", and let their pornographic imaginations do the rest. Frightened by the apparent rawness of the song and its hold over their children, parents complained to ministers and school teachers, who in turn protested to the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover ordered an investigation, but after using the latest audio technology the FBI concluded that the lyrics were "unintelligible at any speed." The gumshoes never bothered to ask the Kingsmen themselves what they were singing.

Had they, Hoover's men might have learned that "Louie, Louie" was a rather tame sea chantey about a sailor who tells a sympathetic bartender (Louie) of the love who waits for him at home. The Kingsmen's lead singer, Jack Ely, slurred the words because he had to strain to reach the microphone above him and because he had braces on his teeth. The others in the band performed raggedly because they were nervous to be in a recording studio. At first, disc jockeys played the Kingsmen recording as a novelty, a kind of joke. It was only after parents squawked and the feds stepped in that the song really took off. "Such stupidity helped ensure `Louie, Louie' a long and prosperous life," write Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin in America Divided. "If the raunchy-sounding song was officially deemed a cultural menace, then it had to be good."

The short history of "Louie, Louie," one of many telling anecdotes in this lively survey of the 1960s, is a metaphor for the authors' larger point. The decade, like the song, was not quite as subversive as it appears in popular memory. The '60s are generally recalled (and demonized) as an era when the country lurched to the left. Civil rights, women's lib, the massive peace protests, a general loosening of morals and widespread assaults on established authority -- all shook up the country after the sleepy '50s. But many of these movements were quickly undercut by internal contradictions and class and cultural strains, and in any case met with a fierce conservative reaction. If anything, Isserman and Kazin argue, the '60s saw the rise of the Right -- attacks on the welfare state, a boom in fundamentalist religion, and a sharp political backlash.

The first liberal icon of the '60s -- President John F. Kennedy -- was in fact a cautious pragmatist who regarded most liberals as fools or saps. Lyndon Johnson used utopian rhetoric to call for an end to poverty and discrimination. But, distracted by Vietnam ("that bitch of a war"), Johnson never came through on his promises. The so-called War on Poverty was meagerly funded and left to wither. Liberalism remained an essentially middle-class movement. Conservatives did a better job connecting with the lower middle classes and the resentful "outs" of society. Right-wingers became the "populists" while the liberals were mocked as "limousine liberals."

Most student radicals, certainly in the early days, were not angry bomb-throwers trying to overthrow their parents. "Slogans and songs aside, the activists of the FSM [Berkeley Free Speech Movement] actually did trust a good number of people over 30," write the authors. They cite a study by a Yale psychologist who surveyed young radicals in the mid-'60s and found that "most came out of close, achievement-oriented families of liberal or, in some instances, radical persuasion." Over time, the movement did become more bitter and hostile -- but much of the anger was self-destructive. The "beloved community" of the early civil rights movement devolved into intramural squabbling among blacks and whites, gays and straights, men and women. Stokely Carmichael, the black militant who hijacked the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) jeered, "The position of women in SNCC is prone!"

In the preface, Isserman and Kazin explain that they met as young radicals of college age in 1970 "who cared a great deal more about changing history than studying it. For a while, we lived in the same `revolutionary youth collective' and wrote for the same underground paper." They admit to "still clinging to the vision of a democratic Left." At times they seem wistful about the lost possibilities of liberalism. But they are at once knowing and unsparing about the excesses of their generation. They carefully explain the drug culture -- and then bury it, quoting what author Arthur Koestler, after his first LSD trip, told the drug's guru, Timothy Leary: "This is wonderful no doubt. But it is fake. . . I solved the secret of the universe last night, but this morning I forgot what it was."

America Divided is full of such pointed injections of reality. After their non-studious student radical days, Isserman and Kazin became academics: Isserman has focused on the Left, Kazin on conservative movements. Thankfully, they don't write like most academics. America Divided is a knowing and highly readable narrative.

Evan Thomas, assistant managing editor of Newsweek, will publish a biography of Robert Kennedy next summer.