Youth in Action: The Student Movement

A Review of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage
by Todd Gitlin

Author Biography

Todd Gitlin, once president of Students for a Democratic Society, was essential in the student movement of the 1960s. Gitlin attended Harvard University, the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkley. He has written numerous nonfiction books including Busy Being Born and The Fight is for Democracy: Winning the War of Ideas in America and the World. He currently teaches journalism and sociology at Columbia University.

The sixties was a very eventful time. A generation gap between the young and old developed. Youth culture was full of existentialism, apathy and rock ’n’ roll. Young people didn’t share their parents’ interests. Instead of caring about news and current events they read magazines devoted to humor and entertainment— a poll “found Mad a close second to Life as the most widely read magazine” for teenagers.1 The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage covers the youth movement towards dissidence, the formation of activist groups most notably Students for a Democratic Society, the Vietnam War and the rise of anti-Vietnam war attitude, and the Civil Rights Movement. The New Left movement identified strongly with the counterculture movement until the mid sixties when radicals deemed liberals inferior. The youth movement was draped in counterculture, especially in the rock ’n’ roll movement of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and other artists. Young people everywhere smoked pot and took LSD with little prudence. Sex did not infiltrate youth culture as deeply as it infiltrated other movements. People looked at sex the same way they looked at drugs—for a chance to increase their levels of existence as well as a chance to bond with their fellow human beings. The counterculture of the sixties fought back—it rejected the conformist fifties and paved the way for the radical seventies. America evolved in only a decade.

Todd Gitlin argues that the fifties contained the roots of the sixties. Remnants of the fifties lay in sixties culture. Red diaper babies, children of communists, often carried on communist or socialist feelings. Red diaper babies attracted young activists, yearning for a chance to rebel. Though these remaining communists never made a big difference politically, some of their ideas made it into the philosophy of the New Left. Without witch-hunts and massive conformity, life seemed better; “the boom was on and the cornucopia seemed all the more impressive because the miseries of Depression and war” were long gone.2 Science boomed, industry boomed, and the birth rate boomed. This prosperity led to the creation of suburbs and the conformity movements of suburbia. Ultimately, this conformity affected the sixties by inspiring people to rebel. Culture, youth culture especially, evolved with rebellion in mind. People broke taboos. Rock ’n’ roll music, satire, and art with sexual content pervaded both the mainstream and the underground. Movies such as Rebel Without a Cause and stars like James Dean epitomized the rebellious attitude of the sixties. Young people wanted to rebel simply because they could. This youth culture infiltrated politics. The New Left, full of youth and fresh ideas, took the place of the subsiding Old Left. However, this group did not become strong until well into the decade. One particularly memorable example of youth culture was the beat movement. Beatniks looked to transcendentalists for a lifestyle. They believed people could transcend normal human experience through sex and drugs.

The sixties marked a change in campus opinion— a shift to civil rights activism. The Youth Council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) organized sit-ins. During sit-ins and “the anti-House of Un-American Activates Committee (HUAC) demonstrations, the fifties expired,”3 and the sixties was born.3 The New Left made its mark with single-issue campaigns such as civil rights and civil liberties. The anti-war sentiment manifested itself in the creation of SANE, an anti-atomic weapons group while the Bay of Pigs incident pushed the New Left away from John F. Kennedy. As Kennedy’s commitment to military power in the third world continued, the New Left grew more and more dissatisfied with him. College students formed Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) as a subgroup of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID). The SDS composed The Port Huron Statement (PHS) in which they explained that people should have a voice in government and should play a larger role in the outcome of their lives. The PHS gave the New Left a new start; it separated them from the Old Left and the older generation and further solidified the strong moral, intellectual, political, and sexual bonds SDS members felt. Gitlin examines the complicated relationship between liberals and radicals as the SNCC and SDS began an alliance. In 1963, when Kennedy continued his move into the third world, the SDS wrote America and the New Era, protesting Kennedy’s policies of corporate economics. Kennedy’s almost nonexistent race policy sent SDS up in arms. When Kennedy finally nudged the FBI into investigating crimes further, the FBI pursued activists as vehemently as it went after criminals. This caused mass protests that had little effect. Many radical movements broke down into specific groups like feminists, hippies and black nationalists. SDS’s strong anti-imperialist sentiments caused some people to associate them with radicalism and communism, but few Americans took note. However, despite mass ignorance, youth culture now had its own movement.

The song “Eve of Destruction” fit the apocalyptic mood perfectly. People finally noticed youth as a political movement. This idea, along with the ideas of dissatisfaction, as seen in “I can’t get no Satisfaction,” and cohesive love, defined the youth movement. For the first time, pop music focused on politics and drugs rather than focusing on love. The Human Be-In, an event filled with music and drugs, permanently associated hippie culture with Haight-Ashbury. The 1967 summer of love gave young people ideas of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. The Diggers, a group of radical existentialists, considered themselves the authorities of the hippie movement. Full of flash and attention grabbing techniques, the Diggers brought attention to the fact that “the New Left was square and hypocritical–middle class kids comforting themselves.”4 The New Left was most active in opposition to the draft; they declared the week of October 16 ‘Stop the Draft Week’ and shut down part of Oakland. After the death of revolutionary Che Guevara, the New Left moved from protest to resistance. Demonstrators actively provoked police after police began beating picketers regularly; the first brutal confrontation was dubbed “Bloody Tuesday.” Though fighting back gave activist causes a sense of romance, many remained skeptical about power, doubting that America would accept radical change. Many activists traveled the globe, visiting countries in the midst of revolution, such as Cuba and Vietnam, in an attempt to understand the global community. All this resistance brought the movements to a breaking point.

The resistance that declared itself in Oakland continued in a mass anti-war movement including marches, strikes, petitions, and sit-ins. Small actions provoked mass retribution and bloodshed. Draft resistance remained “the hub for support” for protestors in the New Left.5 In January 1968, the Tet offensive began. Not only did the offensive cross moral boundaries and cost lives, it was incredibly ineffective. This hurt the case for war because “in American politics there is no more drastic criticism to be made of a policy, whatever its moral dubiousness, than that it proved conspicuously ineffective.”6 Tet gave liberals hope that America would soon pull out of Vietnam. Counterculture and the New Left met at the Chicago Democratic Convention. Chicago was an explosion; police beat protestors, bystanders, and reporters. The protesting didn’t make a huge difference in the political spectrum, but it represented a liberal victory. People believed that liberalism could succeed. As “the Revolution” began, the women’s movement broke with the New Left because women in SDS faced discrimination. Though they could join easily, they had no power. The Revolution made little progress in the anti-war movement. After all, the war continued until 1972 while the student movement faded because of excessive factionalism. Their last hurrah was the post-Cambodia uprising. Though the movement died out, counterculture shaped the sixties with rock music and civil rights activism.

In writing about the sixties, Todd Gitlin revisits his youth. As a prominent member of Students for a Democratic Society, he not only observed history, he changed it. Gitlin examines all of the sixties in his book, but he focuses on the student movement. Gitlin’s thesis is that though the student movement rose and fell within a decade, it positively affected American politics and culture. He respects the student movement’s ideals; they stayed strong despite lack of success. Though activists were “committed to an impossible revolution” they remained united and perseverant for many years.7 Because he was a part of the student movement, Gitlin focuses on the students’ side of the battle. He never mentions the difficulties the government or private citizens faced because of radical action. Giltin included the celebrated ideas of individuality and community in The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. Like many members of the New Left, Gitlin glorifies terrorism and radical action in the name of bettering society, both in the violent protests of the student movement and the guerilla warfare of countries in revolution. Gitlin focuses on issues and events that most affected the student movement. However, he is never one sided. Gitlin includes events that show both the angelic and ugly side of radical movements. Activists never seem devilish and Gitlin never lapses into criticism of movements. Gitlin published The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage in 1987. He waited until his youth faded and his radical impulses lessened. With time comes wisdom in the form of perspective. Gitlin puts a large emphasis on the idea that the fifties inspired the early sixties. He waited over a decade before he examined the sixties to see how the decade affected the seventies. Writing in the eighties gave Gitlin the freedom to write honestly; people no longer clutch intensely to the events that transpired. A negative portrayal will offend no one. Gitlin takes advantage of time and experience to describe an era.

Charles Hunt critiques The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage in a 1989 review. Hunt compares Gitlin’s book with James Miller’s book on the sixties. Both Gitlin and Miller fill their books with personal anecdotes and the ideals of participatory democracy. Hunt believes that Gitlin adeptly identifies the contradictions in the student movement of the 1960s. The New Left “denied or refused to recognize history”8 and this “cost the student movement in the sixties dearly.”9 The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage helps remedy this situation by providing people with an intelligent analysis of the sixties that can “serve the next generation of radical movements.”10 Hunt objects to Gitlin’s idealization of the student movement and his often pessimistic, social democratic perspective. A review in Publishers Weekly glorifies the book. It argues that “nobody is better equipped to write a definitive history” than Gitlin. Since Gitlin was active in the sixties he was able to write with an insider’s view.11 The review argues that the book is detailed and logical, perfectly defining the decade.

The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage is full of highly condensed facts. The book contains the key details of the sixties. Gitlin frequently loses focus and spreads himself too thin by covering so many facets. He jumps around from movement to movement and radical group to radical group without much depth. Gitlin uses his personal experience to gain perspective on the sixties. He focuses on the student movement because he knows it well, but displays a clear bias towards radicals. Gitlin confesses his prejudice, he “had believed in the movement itself.”12 Bias shows in the nostalgic tone of the book. Gitlin clearly believes that the student movement could have and should have done more. He regrets its quick defeat and longs for more radicalism.

The sixties marked a watershed in history. Gitlin believes that the counterculture of the sixties changed American culture forever. The music of the sixties held out in history; “rock culture convulsed with the rest of the youth movement.”13 Though long hair and frequent pot abuse subsided, mainstream music never lost its rock ’n’ roll roots. Even now, teens flock to concerts and record stores just to get a sample of their favorite rock artist. Many put more value on community than on family. People went from conforming to showing the world that they were different—individualism ran high. Instead of staying in their microcosms, people thought globally. American imperialism forced people to open their eyes; they saw “capitalism, fundamentalism, nationalism, starvation and torture” all over the world.14 In the past, international relationships led to domestic turmoil and the tapping of American money, troops, and resources. This continued in the sixties with the Vietnam War and continues today with the war in Iraq. However, people are now more aware of America’s role in the rest of the world. America aims to help other countries even though its interference does not always yield positive results.

Much about the sixties changed America. In the sixties, change occurred because of different “movements’ divine delirium.”15 People learned to ignore the reality of what was, and to push for their hopes of what could be. This idea of hope inspired activist movements of the seventies, eighties and nineties. Civil rights movements made a permanent impact on society. People were treated with more equality than ever. The New Left movement inspired modern democrats in their idealistic idea of participatory democracy. Despite radicals’ unscrupulous behavior, America remained a moral country governed by moral laws. People put slightly less emphasis on family than previously, but most people still valued loved ones more than liberty. The biggest change of the sixties was the increase in freedom. Activists could protest without fearing for their lives and people could express themselves without massive retribution. This added to the individualism of the era. Today, anyone can dress, talk, or think any way they desire. Without the sixties, this would have been impossible. The sixties gave people more freedom in their lifestyles and attitudes. The age of fear was over. Freedom was here to stay.

Americans look back at the sixties with a mix of regret, nostalgia, and hope. Americans’ “sense of divine wore thin.”16 People woke up and saw the world as it was. The student movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement permanently affected American policy. Culture changed from conservative dress and big band music to long hair and heavy guitar riffs. Young people rebelled for no reason at all. All they knew was that the world was wrong; it needed to change. They didn’t know how, why, or when, but they knew change was necessary. America forever upheld this principle of attempting to perfect the world.

review by Crystal Kaba

  1. Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. United States: Bantam Books, 1986, 35.
  2. Gitlin, Todd 13.
  3. Gitlin, Todd 83.
  4. Gitlin, Todd 225.
  5. Gitlin, Todd 292.
  6. Gitlin, Todd 299.
  7. Gitlin, Todd 326.
  8. Hunt, Charles. “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage Book Review.” Monthly Review 1989: 2.
  9. Hunt, Charles 2.
  10. Hunt, Charles 2.
  11. Publishers Weekly 1997: 1.
  12. Gitlin, Todd 397.
  13. Gitlin, Todd 429.
  14. Gitlin, Todd 437.
  15. Gitlin, Todd 435.
  16. Gitlin, Todd 436.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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