WHAT AN ODD assortment were the spiritual geographers of the 1960s in America: Robert Frost, Bob Dylan, George Wallace and Martin Luther King Jr., to name a few. There was also the earlier voice of Yeats, sounding his vision of the apocalypse with words which seemed so appropriate to so many events of the decade:
Things fall apart; the center can not hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned . . .
We emerged from the Eisenhower years with a sense of brisk transition. The 1950s, rightly or wrongly, attach themselves to memory with such words as torpid, silent, self-centered.
John Kennedy, who in a normal cycle of political history might have been the President of the 1960s, was the first true contemporary for the generation of Americans who came to maturity in the shadow of World War II. They were the millions who had fought or experienced the war, who were raising families in VA-financed housing after finishing GI Bill-financed educations, who were climbing the rungs of social and economic mobility and were occupying the center stage of national political life. The high school graduating class, it seemed, had taken over the government.
On Broadway and in the White House the ebullient lyrics of Camelot promised to be the musical signature to the new decade. In that brief, shining moment the twin symbols of the Round Table and the Oval Office became part of American pop political culture, the table and the office presided over by a young President-king and First Lady who embodied that generation's dream of grace and achievement.
It was a yeasty moment of hope and consensus, tempting us to forget the deep political and sectarian divisions of the 1960 campaign and election. It would be an age, promised Robert Frost at the Kennedy inaugural, of "poetry and power."
Poetry. Frost, with flinty eloquence, pronounced his vision of an Augustan period in American life, of a nation confident and mature in power, measured in action. How inconceivable it would have been to him on that January day to hear the stoned and doleful or strident cadences of what were to become the dominant American poetic voices of the 1960s.
Then take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted frightened trees out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow . . .
Who could have peered beyond the shaggy white mane at the inaugural lectern and discerned the message of Bob Dylan and the lure of "Mr. Tambourine Man"? How improbable it now seems that the decade which began with the upbeat Arthurian metaphor of Camelot ended with the rebellious youth tribalism of Woodstock?
"Historical time seems to have accelerated in America," wrote Godfrey Hodgson in his perceptive assessment of the period, America In Our Time. "By the time children graduate from high school, the year in which they went into first grade seems as remote as some prehistoric age of innocence: before the Fall." The 1960s began with Kennedy's exuberant promise to reach the moon by the end of the decade - a feat which was achieved nine years later, just a few hours after Chappaquiddick.
Power.Although we had laid to rest the ghost of McCarthyism at home, the Cold War still smoldered along the global rims of American and Soviet power. During the 1950s the Manichean struggle had been waged on Washington's behalf by the Dulles brothers. In the 1960s the terrors of the nuclear stalemate had become increasingly apparent to both sides and the competition shifted to the back alleys and paddies of the Third World.
Laos, Cuba, the Congo, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam . . . these became the crisis centers of the decade, places where proxy conflict between the superpowers merged with a confusion of local political and nationalistic causes so easily susceptible to misunderstanding from afar. But vigor an decisiveness were the official virtues of the "hard-nosed" professors, deans and foreign policy intellectuals who poured into Washington during the early 1960s from Cambridge, New Haven, Detroit and Wall Street. The professors were determined to show that they too could be tough men of action.
This new breed set the basic patterns of American response to the international power challenges of the decade. It was such men as Robert S. McNamara, the Bundy brothers, Dean Rusk, Roger Hillsman - those encompassed in David Halberstam's catch-phrase "the best and the brightest" - who agreed that a major challenge to American power in the decade would be a frail-looking intellectual from central Vietnam named Ho Chi Minh and the revolutionary-nationalist peasant army he led.
Rusk, who had served in Harry Truman's State Department, was haunted by the memory of the "loss" of China under a Democratic administration and so too, perhaps, were John and Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson after them. Unlike President Nixon later on, they still had Richard Nixon to worry about.
At home there was a vision of unlimited economic growth which could be achieved under the neo-Keynesian doctrine of the New Economists. This meant using the levers of governmental power over taxes, spending, debt and money supply to fine-tune the ecomomy. The new conventional wisdom now proclaimed in Washington was that the American system was virtually depression-proof.
Furthermore the fruits of the new growth would be dispensed to all Americans, including the blacks and poor whites trapped in the Appalachias of "structural poverty" - so identified in The Other America, the 1960 muckraking tract by Michael Harrington, one of the intellectual precursors of the War on Poverty.
The first five years of the 1960s seemed to ratify the wisdom of the New Economists, Walter Heller, Gardner Ackley, Paul Samuelson and others. Unemployment dropped to under five per cent during much of that period and inflation slowed down to less than two per cent. But the major governmental benefits to the economy were the 1962 investment credit to business under John Kennedy and the tax cut passed early in 1964 under the new Johnson Administration. Corporate profits doubled between 1961 and 1966. Promises to tax reform failed to materialize along with the tax cuts - true to political tradition. The share of the GNP claimed by federal, state and local taxes, about twenty-eight per cent, was not only less than in the principal West European countries but also lower than in the United States during the Eisenhower years.
But as the war costs rose toward a yearly level of $26 billion President Johnson hesitated at asking for taxes to finance it. There was enough, he kept insisting, for guns and butter, for Vietnam and the Great Society. By the time Johnson asked Congress for the ten per cent surcharge - the Vietnam war tax - it was too late. The economic fuses were primed for a heavy and unrelieved surge of inflation.
There was money to be made in the 1960s, particularly for those who already had some. It was a time of go-go investment, based of course on a bull market. The cultural heroes of the well-to-do were the brilliant market manipulators whose exploits were hailed not only in the financial trade journals but in such organs or upper status consciousness as New York magazine.
For the less privileged, the unhappier truths of the 1960s - war, inflation, political turmoil - were made more acute by the heavily hyped political rhetoric to which we had become addicted. Blacks locked into poverty in the American inner cities took little solace from the proclamation of the "war on poverty" which seemed to bestow its primary benefits on a new bureau cracy on anti-poverticians. Working class whites found their pay checks increasingly hostage to inflation, the value of their houses and the quality of their neighborhood public schools threatened by newly arriving black families - all seemingly orchestrated by distant governmental elites. It was their rage, whether in Gary or Newark, which gave George Wallace of Alabama a national voice.
America's Sixties conformed almost exactly to my thirties. I too confess to having watched the parade begin at the Inaugural mount in Washington with the January's sense of crisp thrill. The ensuing memories come in sharp images, frozen frames of a newsreel: reading the first bulletins from Dallas the early afternoon of November 22, 1963, numbly pasting them together simply to have something else to do than cry; being roused by a telephone call in a Mississippi hotel room earlier that year to learn that civil rights leader Medgar Evers had just been shot dead in his driveway; hearing a White House press spokesman announce in the spring of 1965 that the arrival of American Marines in Danang signified "no change of policy" toward the Vietnam war.
Perhaps the Sixties are still too close to us, its myths, rages, shocks and disenchantments too close to the new skin of consciousness that has formed since. The mistakes, the hubris, the deceptions of those who held power then have become the stuff of today's headlines. Congressional investigating committees have in recent years been writing the revisionist history of the period: the Chaos program, the foreign assassination schemes, the illegal government snooping on American citizens - all the antecedents of Watergate.
Today, as the men and women of Jimmy Carter's post-Vietnam, post-Water-gate government plight their troth with power in Washington, the question nags our minds: Was there a lesson to have learned?