A few days ago, I volunteered to help encourage Penn State students to register for the vote. At the start-up meeting, a young woman next to me asked if I had done this sort of thing before. I answered that my wife and I had gone door to door to promote George McGovern's candidacy.
"Oh," she said, and then, "I've never heard of him."
"It was 1972," I replied. “He was the anti-war candidate against Nixon.”
"Oh," she said. "That was before I was born."
It reminded me of how little people--of any age--talk about the sixties and seventies these days. When I was in high school back in the early sixties, what did we watch on television? To be sure, we had our own generation’s icons; there was Star Trek and Twilight Zone and Gunsmoke. But we also watched movies on TV and, typically, they were movies from the 1940s. We knew, from television, a lot about our parents' music, their cultural icons, and, of course, their war. The sixties, though, are different. They are, for many young people, an unknown place.
It is not just politics, of course. In those days, politics, Vietnam, civil rights, the Great Society program, the youth movement, sexual liberation, music were all intricately inter-connected. And, as a result, they are all a mystery to many younger people.
In her new book, Witness to the Revolution, Clara Bingham notes that “from the start of the academic year in 1969 until the beginning of classes in September 1970, a youth rebellion shook the nation in ways we may never see again. It was the crescendo of the sixties, when years of civil disobedience and mass resistance erupted into anarchic violence . . . And yet, the school year of 1969-70 has gone largely overlooked.” (It was, parenthetically, my senior year in college, when student protests brought an early end to spring term at Penn State.) Bingham notes that, in our cultural memory, there is a “mental jump from ’68 to Watergate” (p. xxvi) and, ultimately, to the Reagan Revolution and the nation’s abrupt turn to the right. Bingham, who herself was born in 1963, notes that “the turmoil and passion of the 1960s was a hazy memory, and even hazier was the understanding of what could possibly have mattered so much” (p.xxxv).
That may change next year when PBS broadcasts Ken Burns’ new ten-part documentary series The Vietnam War. The series, according to Burns' website, "sheds new light on the military, political, cultural, social, and human dimensions of a tragedy of epic proportions that took the lives of 58,000 Americans and as many as three million Vietnamese, polarized American society as nothing has since the Civil War, fundamentally challenged Americans’ faith in our leaders, our government, and many of our most respected institutions, and called into question the belief in our own exceptionalism."
It should be an interesting year for conversations across generations. It will be good to see if we, as a society, are able to have an open discussion not only of the war, but of the cultural, social, and political turmoil that was part of the times—a social conversation that we have largely abandoned since the 1970s.