The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An account of the 1960s that goes beyond the baby boomers’ perspective

Women march past the Capitol in a “peace parade” led by former Montana congresswoman Jeannette Rankin on Jan. 15, 1968. The Vietnam War is one of the central struggles of the 1960s — alongside civil rights and reproductive freedom — that historian Kevin Boyle explores in his book. (AP Photo)
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‘The whole world is watching!” So shouted the throngs of antiwar protesters outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago as they confronted the batons and tear gas of thousands of riot-gear-clad police officers and National Guard troops. The violent moment serves as the climax in most standard depictions of the 1960s. Accounts such as Todd Gitlin’s book “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage,” CNN’s 10-part 2014 documentary “The Sixties,” produced by Tom Hanks, and Aaron Sorkin’s recent movie “The Trial of the Chicago 7” present the decade as one of generational and ideological civil war. The conflict between police and protesters in Grant Park, broadcast internationally, projected the sense that the national consensus, and the country itself, had unraveled at the seams.

While offering powerful imagery and parables, such depictions have tended to privilege the experiences and perspectives of baby boomers like Hanks and Sorkin. This boomer vantage point has made the era less relatable to large swaths of the American public — especially those for whom the 1960s are now the very distant past. Kevin Boyle’s “The Shattering: America in the 1960s” aims to eliminate the boomers’ ownership of the narrative. Although iconic events like Woodstock and the 1968 Democratic convention still make an appearance, Boyle purposely decenters them.

“The Shattering” instead opens several miles from Grant Park and years before the 1968 Democratic convention with the story of the Cahill family, who lived in the “bungalow belt” on Chicago’s northwest side. Part of the nation’s ascendant postwar White middle class, the family’s patriarch, Ed Cahill, a World War II veteran turned salesman, decided in 1961 to drape his entire block in American flags to celebrate the Fourth of July. The Chicago Tribune ran a photograph on its back page the next day of Ed; his wife, Stella; their children; and more than 30 of their neighbors against a blanket of Old Glories. The group, men and women, young and old, but all White, projected a sense of security and pride as they stood “smiling into the sixties.” Boyle seeks to show how the decade came to upend the sense of stability and faith of Americans like them.

Boyle primarily concentrates on three of the era’s central struggles: racial justice, the Vietnam War and reproductive freedom. But if he narrows the thematic lens, he expands the chronological one.

A professor of history at Northwestern University, Boyle draws on a wide range of important historical scholarship produced over the last 20 or so years on topics like the Black freedom movement, modern political history and U.S. empire.

The first third of the book focuses on the 1950s and the fragility of the postwar political and social order, which rested on racial segregation, the Cold War expansion of the military and sexual repression. In doing so, Boyle shows that the shattering that occurred in the 1960s was not necessarily provoked by the three events that serve as his focus. There were deep fissures in the nation’s political, social and cultural fabric well before the decade started.

Boyle has a gift for synthesizing and translating the often dry arguments and analysis of formal scholarship (my own included) into artful and empathetic storytelling, as he did with his masterful 2004 National Book Award-winning “Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age.” At every turn, he illuminates the experiences of a wide array of individuals, from well-known icons like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and George Wallace to activists like the civil rights movement’s Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin. We also meet the people behind iconic court cases, such as Roe v. Wade’s Norma McCorvey and Estelle Griswold, who intentionally got herself arrested in order to challenge a law banning contraception in Griswold v. Connecticut.

Through vivid and poignant descriptions, the reader sees the tragedy of the Vietnam War through the eyes of 21-year-old helicopter pilot James Farley, weeping over the body of a fellow soldier, and the Kent State shooting from the perspective of the father of one of the slain students. Boyle also plumbs the diaries of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon to offer glimpses of their interior worlds. This approach does more than just lessen the distance between presidents and ordinary Americans, it also reveals how the issues of civil rights, Vietnam and sexual freedom, which are usually told on different planes, affected politicians and people like the Cahills who experienced the events firsthand or watched them on nightly news broadcasts.

It is notable that Boyle’s archetypal Ed and Stella Cahill maintained their allegiance to the Democratic Party through at least the 1972 election. Boyle does not say what this White Catholic family thought of Roe v. Wade or King’s efforts to integrate Gage Park, a Chicago neighborhood not dissimilar from their own. Yet, by the mid-1970s, Ed Cahill recognized that something in the nation’s fabric had changed. He stopped covering his block in American flags every Fourth of July: The moment for such displays had passed.

What distinguishes “The Shattering” is not only the way it deepens the portrait of the past, but also how it foreshadows the politics of the future. Boyle captures moments like the Republicans blocking Johnson from appointing a new chief justice in 1968 because it was an election year, which led to a significant reshaping of the Supreme Court.

But Boyle is restrained in drawing parallels between the 1960s and the present. He need not struggle to do so. The events and issues outlined in “The Shattering” defined not just the 1960s but our own times as well. By shining a spotlight on racial justice, a forever war and reproductive freedom in the past, Boyle offers important lessons for the present and the future.


America in
the 1960s

By Kevin Boyle. W.W. Norton. 480 pp. $32