The 1960s: Polarization, Cynicism, and the Youth Rebellion

The decade saw the end of innocence and the rise of cynicism.

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It was a decade of extremes, of transformational change and bizarre contrasts: flower children and assassins, idealism and alienation, rebellion and backlash. For many in the massive post-World War II baby boom generation, it was both the best of times and the worst of times.  

There will be many 50-year anniversaries to mark significant events of the 1960s, and a big reason is that what happened in that remarkable era still resonates today. This is Part 4 of a four-part series. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.  

Abbie Hoffman, an icon of the Sixties counterculture, summed up a common attitude of young people at the start of the decade. "I am interested in fundamental changes in American society," Hoffman wrote in New York's Village Voice, "in building a system on love, trust, brotherhood, and all the other beautiful things we sang about" in the heyday of the social movement known as "flower power." To many, however, the Sixties were marked by the worst of baby boomer self-indulgence, and the decade certainly didn't achieve the counterculture's objectives of ending poverty, war, and intolerance. In some ways, the decade had quite the opposite effect, igniting a culture war that turned virulent and that persists in some ways today.

President Kennedy inspired many with his call for national service and his desire to spread American ideals of democracy and liberty around the world in the conflict with communism. The Peace Corps was established in 1961, and a surge of volunteers signed up. Young people also flocked to government jobs. There was a sense of new possibility in everything from enhancing human relationships to protecting the environment. Tom Hayden, an influential young radical, authored the Port Huron statement in 1962 that became a call to arms for the Students for a Democratic Society and others in the New Left, largely made up of the sons and daughters of affluent parents who were drawn to rebellion and defiance of the Establishment. "We are the people of this generation bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit," Hayden wrote.

The extremes of the decade grew ever more stark. In 1965, an apocalyptic protest song called "Eve of Destruction," sung by Barry McGuire, reached the top of the singles charts. A few months later, in 1966, a song by Army Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler called "The Ballad of the Green Berets," celebrating the military and patriotism, also reached No. 1—reflecting the nation's polarization. Even the arrival of the John, Paul, George, and Ringo in the mid-Sixties couldn't bridge the cultural divide. The Beatles' catchy brand of light and happy tunes, epitomized by "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You," eventually shifted to the more countercultural "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "Yellow Submarine."

In foreign policy, the decade began with harsh Cold War rhetoric in which Kennedy promised in his inaugural address that America would "pay any price, suffer any hardship" to ensure the success of liberty in the struggle with international communism. In 1961, he presided over the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in a disastrous attempt to topple the Communist regime of Fidel Castro, and in 1962, Kennedy faced down the Kremlin in the Cuban missile crisis, when the superpowers stood at the precipice of nuclear war.

By the end of the decade, however, Americans had lost much of their innocence and optimism. Some young people, such as members of the Weathermen, turned violent in their effort to fight "the system." Few events were as pivotal as the escalating Vietnam War, which was taking the lives of thousands of American soldiers and countless Vietnamese every year. Americans increasingly believed that their leaders, civilian and military, had falsely persuaded them that the war was worth fighting and was winnable.

But the shocking events of 1968 brought a tectonic shift.

On Jan. 31, the Vietnamese communists launched the Tet Offensive, which surprised the Americans and their Saigon allies and created havoc across South Vietnam. The attackers absorbed heavy losses, but their ferocity and daring made a deep impression on the American public. The offensive suggested that a U.S. victory in Indochina was many years and thousands of lives away, if it could ever be achieved.