Certain years acquire an almost numinous quality in collective memory—1789, 1861, 1914. One of the more recent additions to the list is 1968. Its fiftieth anniversary has brought a flood of attempts to recapture it—local, national, and transnational histories, anthologies, memoirs, even performance art and musical theater. Immersion in this literature soon produces a feeling of déjà vu, particularly if one was politically conscious at the time (as I was).
Up to a point, repetition is inevitable. Certain public figures and events are inescapable: the tormented Lyndon Johnson, enmeshed in an unpopular, unwinnable war and choosing to withdraw from the presidential stage; the antiwar candidacies of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy; the intensifying moral challenges posed by Martin Luther King; the assassinations of King and Kennedy; the racially charged violence in most major cities; the police riot against antiwar protesters (and anyone else who got in their way) at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; the emergence of right-wing candidates—George Wallace, Richard Nixon—appealing to a “silent majority” whose silence was somehow construed as civic virtue. And the anticlimactic election: the narrow defeat of Hubert Humphrey by Nixon, who promised to “bring us together” without specifying how.
What togetherness turned out to mean was an excruciating prolongation of the war in Vietnam, accompanied by an accelerating animosity toward dissent. The effort to satisfy the silent majority by exorcising the demons of 1968 would eventually lead to the resurgence of an interventionist military policy, the dismantling of what passed for a welfare state, and the prosecution of a “war on drugs” that would imprison more Americans than had ever been behind bars before.
Revisiting this story is important and necessary. But difficulties arise when one tries to identify who those demons actually were. The conventional accounts of radical protest all feature the usual suspects: Tom Hayden, Mark Rudd, Abbie Hoffman, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Black Panthers, the Maoists, the Yippies, the devotees of Che. According to this narrative, nearly all the white protesters are privileged draft dodgers from a northern tier of universities that stretched from Cambridge and New York through Ann Arbor and Madison to Berkeley. As hopes for electing an antiwar president fade, they descend into pseudo-Marxist posturing and self-destructive fantasies of violent revolution. A few hapless Weathermen, sectarian spinoffs from the SDS, provide a coda to this story by blowing themselves up in a Greenwich Village townhouse in 1970.
This account provides a comforting balm for supporters of status quo politics, but it misses the larger meanings of radical protest—its pervasiveness, its heterogeneity, above all its religious roots and significance. The religious dimension of American radicalism was what separated it from the student uprisings in Paris and other European cities during the spring of 1968. American radicals lacked the anticlerical animus of Europeans; priests, rabbis, and ministers enlisted in the front ranks of the civil rights and antiwar movements. King’s decision to bear witness against the war was central to legitimating resistance to it, while provoking government counterattacks as well as denunciations from both liberals and conservatives.
“Religion” may be too solemn a word for many 1960s radicals, but it helps to capture the depth of their motives: above all their longing for a more direct, authentic experience of the world than the one on offer in midcentury American society. What made radicals mad, what drove their deepest animus against the war, was their sense that it was a product of the same corporate technostructure—as John Kenneth Galbraith called it in The New Industrial State (1967)—that reduced everyday life to a hamster cage of earning and spending. The tribunes of the technostructure were men like Robert McNamara, who shuttled from the Ford Motor Company to the Defense Department to the World Bank, and who seemed to know everything about managerial techniques but nothing about their ultimate purpose, if indeed there was one. Elite managers were the high priests of an orthodoxy with a blankness, a vacancy, at its center.
The fundamental expression of this vacuity was the war machine that multiplied corpses in Vietnam and nuclear weapons throughout the world. King acknowledged the connection between managerialism and militarism at Arlington Cemetery in February 1968, when he said, “Somewhere along the way we have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live.” A society of means without ends was a society without a soul.
Antiwar radicals, recoiling from soullessness, challenged the church of technocratic rationality. Taking this challenge seriously, recovering the mood of an extended moment, requires beginning earlier and ending later than 1968. Cultural upheaval cannot be confined by the calendar. At least one contribution to the literature, the music industry executive Danny Goldberg’s In Search of the Lost Chord, treats 1967 as the defining moment when “the hippie idea” still held transformational promise, and countercultural protest had not yet succumbed to police violence, undercover provocateurs, or media caricature—while 1968, in contrast, was a dark time of assassinations, riots, and the resurgence of the right.
Goldberg’s perspective, though true to the events of the time, neglects the deep historical roots of the 1960s counterculture. Its philosophical lineage stemmed from the Romantic critique of Cartesian dualism’s separation of the knowing scientist and the knowable inert matter of the natural world; hippies who had never heard of Descartes were reenacting earlier utopian efforts to move “back to the land” and live more harmoniously with nature. The countercultural impulse arose as well from the antinomian Protestant tradition, which urged believers to withdraw from institutions that obstructed a direct relation with the divine, and it flowed more immediately from Christian existentialism, which celebrated the renewal of personal meaning and purpose through the risks of independent religious commitment. King himself preached in the Christian existentialist tradition.
The countercultural state of mind could foster profound aspirations (like King’s) but also trivial ones. The critique of technocratic expertise could lead to a rejection of universities and professions as mere servants of power—an understandable conclusion that nevertheless risked anti-intellectualism and sometimes led to sheer inanity. But countercultural politics could also pose alternatives to dogmatic ideology; it could help radicals avoid the portentous posturing, the romanticizing of revolutionary violence, that increasingly characterized the New Left as its leaders moved (with much fanfare) from protest to resistance. Less dramatic gestures characterized countercultural politics in places like Austin, Texas, or Chapel Hill, North Carolina—antiwar rallies and teach-ins, protests against university policies of racial exclusion and mistreatment of employees. This ferment spilled into the coffeehouses outside Fort Hood (Texas) and Fort Bragg (North Carolina), which revealed that antiwar dissent was pervasive within the military as well as outside it.
On superficial inspection, the impact of countercultural politics was painfully short-lived. Goldberg writes:
The efforts of millions of peace activists were sometimes overshadowed by the destructive, violent acts of a few dozen delusional radicals. An earnest spiritual movement became obscured to most observers by stoned, pontificating buffoons.
The question of how the counterculture became trivialized and demonized deserves a closer look, which would reveal the actions of FBI and CIA agents provocateurs as well as sensationalist media.
In the longer run, much of the countercultural ferment was absorbed into the therapeutic culture of self-realization or frittered away in the fragmentation bred by identity politics. A countercultural sensibility survives behind the ecologically informed awareness that humans must accommodate themselves to the natural world rather than simply master it, but that sensibility remains untethered to any capacious critique of technocratic rationality—one that would include, for example, the ever-increasing defense budget or the nuclear arms race. The creators of our public discourse need to recover the countercultural critique of the technocratic ethos, which still legitimates the national security state. Without that critique, debate over foreign policy—though conducted in moralistic rhetoric—remains devoid of moral seriousness. Revisiting the religious dimensions of 1960s protest allows for the recovery of a forgotten and necessary part of our past.
For Goldberg, 1967 marked “a period of communal sweetness” when hippie youth enjoyed “an instant sense of tribal intimacy one could have even with a stranger”—such as “a young guy with long hair who looked cool” at the San Francisco airport. The barefoot Goldberg had been refused permission to board his flight; he asked the stranger if he could have his shoes; the stranger handed them over. This would not have been possible, Goldberg says, a year later. Susan Solomon, who was briefly married to Gary “Chicken” Hirsh (drummer for Country Joe and the Fish), recalled, “There was a sense of possibility” in 1967 and into early 1968. “People felt that they could change the world with love—and briefly, it worked.” Joe Boyd of Boston, a countercultural evangelist who brought the hippie idea to the London music scene, recalled, “An atmosphere of agape was pervasive in 1967; people were fundamentally quite nice to each other.”
The equation of agape with niceness suggests Goldberg’s limitations. For him the religious longings of the counterculture (or at least the ones he cares about) are nearly all traceable to the use of psychedelic drugs—mescaline, peyote, and LSD. He quotes Aldous Huxley on mescaline, which produced a “sacramental vision of reality…a world where everything shone with the Inner Light, and was infinite in its significance,” and Grace Slick (of Jefferson Airplane) on peyote, which “made everything and everyone seem equally important. Suddenly I could see no isolation, no overabundance. It was all just energy, exhibiting itself in infinite dimensions.” Yet as Huxley acknowledged, the mescaline experience did not constitute “the realization of the end and ultimate purpose of human life: Enlightenment, the Beatific Vision”; rather it was an instance of “‘gratuitous grace,’ not necessary to salvation but potentially helpful and to be accepted thankfully, if made available.” Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist turned psychedelic evangelist, made no such distinctions: for him LSD offered a sustained look at infinity.
Despite Leary’s overblown rhetoric, there is no doubt that acid trips were often the first stop on a spiritual journey away from Western rationality, toward a cobbled-together Eastern alternative. Richard Alpert’s self-transformation offers a telling example. A professor of psychology at Harvard, Alpert describes himself in 1961, before his first LSD trip, as
an adult in a world that was defined by the intellect. The high priests of America were scientists and intellectuals. What was valued is what you knew you knew. Introspection was rejected. What was respected was what could be measured from outside, not from inner experiences. Anything you couldn’t measure was treated as irrelevant.
One could hardly find a better summary of the positivist creed that ordered the midcentury technostructure.
Alpert and many of his contemporaries found reductionism spiritually impoverished and fled it when they glimpsed another way of being shimmering from the East. After Alpert met his guru Neem Karoli Baba, he became Ram Dass (“Servant of God”) and returned to the US in 1969 to create what Goldberg calls a “linkage between hippie culture and ancient spiritual cosmology,” conveyed in Alpert’s best-selling Be Here Now. (My brother owned a well-thumbed copy, and once gave me one for my birthday.)
Other commentators on the counterculture preferred a more familiar religious idiom. Paul Goodman, who had been lionized by the left for his Growing Up Absurd (1960), recognized toward the end of the decade that what the restless young were seeking was a “New Reformation,” a revival of genuine spiritual experience in the face of a corrupt positivist orthodoxy. What really alienated young white rebels from their affluent society, Goodman wrote, was its “nauseating phoniness, triviality, and wastefulness, the cultural and moral scandal that Luther found when he went to Rome in 1510.” (Young black Americans had more precise and palpable complaints.)
The greatest scandal was that “science, which should have been the wind of truth to clear the air, has polluted the air, helped to brainwash, and provided weapons for war.” Reformation “does not involve destroying the common faith [in science], but to purge and reform it.” What was needed was technical modesty, fittingness—“the ecological wisdom of cooperating with Nature rather than trying to master her.” The crisis of professional authority was part of a larger crisis of modernity; Goodman wanted to salvage the promise of modernity by reforming the professions.
Theodore Roszak wanted to go farther. In The Making of a Counterculture (1969), he coined the term “counterculture” to try to capture the wide-ranging significance of youth rebellion, for which he wanted to find a legitimate lineage, even an intellectual history. He refused to reduce the countercultural ferment to a mishmash of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, dismissing Leary’s eschatological fantasies as a “counterfeit infinity.” At its most profound, Roszak argued, the counterculture arose from a Romantic and existentialist tradition preoccupied with sustaining authentic existence in an inauthentic society—a tradition stretching from Blake and Wordsworth to Martin Buber and Paul Goodman:
The stereotypic beatnik or hippy, dropped-out and self-absorbed, sunk in a narcotic stupor or lost in ecstatic contemplation…what lies behind these popular images but the reality of a sometimes zany, sometimes hopelessly inadequate search for the truth of the person?
Countercultural seekers confronted an “orthodox culture” that was “fatally and contagiously diseased,” Roszak wrote. “The prime symptom of that disease is the shadow of thermonuclear annihilation beneath which we cower.” Unprecedented technical means, decoupled from any humane ends, produced an array of weapons that could destroy the world and “make the rubble bounce,” in Churchill’s phrase.
Roszak implied that the countercultural critique of technocratic rationality could have immediate political consequences—among them a refusal to participate in the Vietnam War and a firm stand against the use of nuclear weapons. US military policy, and particularly the nuclear arms race, revealed the ultimate consequences of what he called “the myth of objective consciousness”—the reduction of everything “out there” (including human populations) to mere objects or numbers, rendering them available for mass destruction.
I first read Roszak (along with Buber, Albert Camus, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and King) in my bunk on the USS Chicago, a cruiser that carried missiles armed with nuclear warheads (which the Navy officially denied). I was a cryptographer with a Top Secret clearance and would have been required to decrypt the message that let those birds fly. Roszak’s critique resonated powerfully with me. Eventually I refused my scripted role, was stripped of my clearance, and honorably discharged. And my refusal was by no means unusual among junior officers and enlisted men, black and white—including several of my shipmates. If I ever experienced any of the “communal sweetness” described by Goldberg, it was probably in the antiwar counterculture of San Diego.
King was a major presence in the world of military dissent (applications for conscientious objector status often depended on his ideas), but he was less influential among the self-consciously hip outside it. Would-be white revolutionaries preferred secular firebrands like Stokely Carmichael to a Christian pastor whose nonviolence seemed inadequate to address the poverty and despair of young blacks in cities. Yet despite the assumptions of Carmichael and other critics, King was no sentimental idealist: he had a hard-nosed understanding of how the waste of resources on imperial adventures abroad sustained persistent poverty at home—with black people disproportionately represented among the poor. For him, the civil rights crusade flowed naturally into the antiwar movement. As the leading religious leader in the country, his presence in antiwar demonstrations provided legitimacy to other clergy who opposed the war, and to the antiwar movement as a whole.
King had always vowed to “meet physical force with soul force” in the struggle for racial equality. By early 1967 he was ready to put that strategy in a larger frame. On February 25, he denounced the Vietnam War, deploring its human costs: “Young men…sent home half-men—physically handicapped and mentally deranged.” He opposed the war, King said, out of love for America, which he wanted to be “the moral example of the world” rather than “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He repeatedly challenged the American conflation of power and virtue—the assumption that “we have some divine, messianic mission to police the whole world.” And he warned that “the shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before,” linking US support for the heirs of French colonialism in Vietnam with the “domestic colonialism” in northern US cities. Announcing in February 1968 that he would lead a Poor People’s March on Washington in May, he targeted the web of connections linking capital, race, class, and the garrison state, infusing his moral critique with religious conviction. “The judgment of God is upon us today,” he announced at the National Cathedral in Washington on March 31, 1968. Less than a week later he was dead.
Before his martyrdom, King’s turn against the war provoked a torrent of abuse from liberal journalists and stepped-up snooping from government agencies. Indeed all the fiftieth-anniversary accounts of 1968 devote much space to FBI and CIA infiltration of antiwar protest and surveillance of American citizens. Amid pervasive subterfuge, it was not always easy to know who was on whose side. The historian Richard Vinen notes:
When the dean at Louisiana University [sic] was shouted down by a group of students, an undercover policeman in the crowd handed him a megaphone. But the leader of the shouting students was himself an FBI agent.
Lyndon Johnson was as convinced as J. Edgar Hoover that the antiwar movement was riddled by foreign subversives, and he set the CIA to work (illegally) on finding them. The agency came up empty-handed. Antiwar activism was as American as cherry pie, as one could tell from even a glance at the Boston Five, a handful of prominent educated professionals (including the pediatrician Benjamin Spock and the Yale chaplain William Sloan Coffin) whose efforts to help young men avoid the draft provoked the Justice Department to bring them to trial in January 1968.
Resistance to the draft intensified, often under religious auspices. On May 17, 1968, two women and seven men entered the Selective Service System offices in Catonsville, Maryland, pulled hundreds of files out into the parking lot, poured homemade napalm on them, set them on fire, and began to pray for peace. The Catonsville Nine described themselves as “Catholic Christians who take our faith seriously.” They included two priests, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, who became leading figures in the antiwar movement and major targets of the FBI.
Through the summer of 1968, frustration and anger mounted on the left and right. Black nationalists and white cops sniped at each other with high-powered rifles in the streets of Cleveland; more young men were dying in Vietnam every week, and more were coming home ravaged mentally and physically; antiwar demonstrations attracted hundreds of thousands of marchers but also provoked outrage among pro-war believers, who viewed the antiwar counterculture as an undifferentiated mob of hippies. It is important to recall the venom directed against them: “DIRTY HIPPY BASTARD—HOPE THE VIET CONG CUTS YOUR HEAD OFF AND PUTS IT ON A POLE” read a worn graffito I encountered in 1969, scratched on a metal picnic table in Balboa Park, San Diego. This ferocity was routine in the late Sixties; some of the silent majority harbored murderous thoughts.
The antiwar counterculture affected many people one would never have expected it to touch. An incident from my own experience is illustrative. In a class on leadership in the Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Program at the University of Virginia, our instructor, a nondescript lieutenant, was warning us that there were likely to be a lot of political demonstrations in the weeks leading up to graduation, and reminding us that we were not allowed to participate in them in uniform. A hand shot up in the back of the room. It belonged to a scholarship student in electrical engineering from the mountains of southwestern Virginia. “But what if it’s a demonstration for peace?” he asked. After a long silence, the lieutenant muttered something unintelligible and changed the subject.
The engineer’s question was naive but morally serious. He wanted to hold power to its moral pretensions. The motto of the Strategic Air Command, composed of B-52s that were pounding North Vietnam, was “Peace Is Our Profession.” From the engineer’s point of view, we ought to be able to demonstrate in uniform for peace. This insistence on moral consistency pervaded the antiwar counterculture, which demanded that policymakers enact their professed ideals and denounced their failure to do so.
The idea that white male southerners in uniform might have been influenced (however indirectly) by the antiwar counterculture is inadmissible to the conventional narrative of the Sixties. One would never know from the standard account that antiwar convictions shaped the worldviews of many people who had never gone to an SDS meeting, chanted Maoist slogans, dropped acid, or worn a Nehru suit. The only Nehru suit I saw in Charlottesville was worn as a joke by one of two successful anarchist candidates for Student Council. Their choice of the anarchist label signaled their belief that playfulness had a place in politics, and that absurd policies sometimes demanded absurdist gestures of protest.
The anarchists won by daring to say publicly what everyone knew privately: that university politics was controlled by a handful of fraternities composed of privileged boys from a handful of prep schools. Student Council elections were an empty ritual until the anarchists injected a dose of absurdity to unmask the pretensions of the powerful—a characteristic countercultural move. They also brought class and race into public discussion, perhaps for the first time at that self-consciously traditional university, by demanding that the (mostly black) food service and hospital workers be allowed to form unions.
At a conservative southern university, what mattered was the protest, not the clothing it was dressed in. But when neatly dressed protesters staged an antiwar march in Richmond, the television news focused on a single rabble-rouser in a purple cape and a floppy cavalier’s hat. The caricaturing of the counterculture was well underway.
Yet despite the caricatures, some political consequences of 1960s radicalism were significant, at least for a while. One of the most hopeful was the growth of popular skepticism of the FBI and the CIA. As revelations of unconstitutional domestic surveillance proliferated in the early 1970s, even Congress began to realize the need for reining in the intelligence agencies. A Senate committee headed by Frank Church (a Democrat from Idaho) explored the vast extent of illegal surveillance and concluded, “Too many people have been spied upon by too many government agencies, and too much information has been collected.” The Church committee also found abundant evidence of CIA crimes abroad, including assassinations of foreign leaders.
Though there was a brief flurry of public concern, the policy outcomes of the investigation remained minimal, and within a few years the intelligence agencies had reasserted their claim on public legitimacy. Today, in a major historical irony, the dream of impeaching Trump has driven much of the Democratic Party into an uncritical embrace of the FBI and the CIA. The institutions that have conducted illegal surveillance of American citizens for decades have been suddenly transmuted into monuments of integrity.
The late Sixties can also be searched for antecedents of social movements that later came to fuller fruition. The Stonewall Riots in summer 1969 signaled the arrival of the Gay Rights movement; feminists staged the first protest at the Miss America pageant; the American Indian Movement was founded; and Edward Abbey published Desert Solitaire, which became a bible for environmentalists. Seeds of an ecological consciousness were sprouting among the back-to-the-land sectors of the counterculture.
Along with the self-righteous inanities that no doubt flourished in some rural communes, a more enduring countercultural sensibility survived. Its evaporation into New Age bromides and its fragmentation into a thousand trendy “alternative lifestyles” have become a familiar story. But the core of resistance never disappeared entirely, and the countercultural search for alternatives to technocratic rationality remains more necessary than ever. The corporate technostructure survives, increasingly deregulated, no longer even pretending to provide the job security that was available to more fortunate workers at mid-century. Police brutality toward black people has been militarized, facilitated by the use of sophisticated weapons and riot gear, while the legal rights of defendants have receded with the rise of mass incarceration. Serious debate on foreign and military policy has largely retreated to the margins of public life, experts continue to justify endless wars abroad, and our nuclear arsenal awaits a trillion-dollar modernization. Revisiting the Sixties leads to a sobering conclusion: everything has changed, and nothing has changed.