During the 1960s, students across America rose up to demand reform. On campuses from Berkeley to New York, they demanded desegregation, unrestricted free speech, and withdrawal from the war in Vietnam. Highly idealistic and inspired by periodic successes, the students believed they were creating a new America.
During the 1960s, young Americans on and off campuses challenged conventional lifestyles and institutions. They protested the materialism, consumerism, and mania for success that drove American society. They urged people to explore alternative patterns of work and domesticity. They challenged traditions surrounding sex and marriage. And they argued that all paths to deeper fulfillment, even those involving illicit drugs, could be justified. They believed they were creating a new America.
In 1961, John Kennedy coupled his presidential oath of office with an announcement that the torch of American idealism had been passed to a new generation. He called on Americans to join in a self-sacrificial campaign to explore a new frontier. Together they would fight “tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”12 They would send American ambassadors of good will around the world, and they would even land a man on the moon. Kennedy called on Americans to create a new America.
In 1963, Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency and immediately set about expanding Kennedy’s vision of social and economic perfection. He vowed to win the war against poverty and build a “Great Society” that elevated the poor, cared for the elderly, and offered educational opportunities to all. Johnson would push through Congress one of the most ambitious and extensive legislative agendas in history. Medicare, Medicaid, VISTA, Head Start, federal college scholarships, and the Office of Economic Opportunity all were created under his leadership. Johnson, the United States Congress, and the 43 million people (61% of the voters) that gave Johnson an enormous mandate in 1964 believed that they were creating a new America.
We tend to equate the idealism of the 1960s with the student movements and the counterculture that offered the most dramatic challenges to American policies and conventions. But the truth is, idealism crossed generations and permeated almost all levels of public life. Perhaps no period in American history has been filled with such an expansive and ambitious sense of possibilities—such a grand, inspiring sense of what Americans could achieve.
Of course, not every American marched in lockstep to the same vision of “progress.” In many places, north and south, segregation was defended. Citizens and politicians questioned the wisdom of expanding government services, arguing that they were costly and might breed a culture of governmental dependency. The new lifestyles advocated and lived by members of the counterculture were condemned as immoral and anarchistic. Student protestors were labeled self-indulgent children without the experience to make sober judgments.
And not every reform or vision advanced during the 1960s survived into the 1970s. American capitalism did not collapse under the pressure of student revolutionaries. Consumerism remained an essential element of American society. And many of the conventional institutions and practices of both Wall Street and Main Street persisted.
But student protestors did contribute to the end of the war in Vietnam, they did advance civil rights, and they did transform the culture of American colleges. Many of the values of the counterculture did work their way into the mainstream. America’s workplace is now more diverse and flexible, our sexual ethics have changed, and environmentalism has become a widely embraced set of values. Many of the programs created under Kennedy and Johnson are now accepted fixtures within the nation’s web of social services. Poverty has been reduced, America’s elderly are better cared for, and educational opportunities are far greater. And in 1969, the United States landed a man on the moon.
The 1960s remain a controversial decade. Critics argue that the era created the welfare state, bred a culture of immorality and self-indulgence, and bequeathed to America’s taxpayers an enormous burden. Its defenders, on the other hand, argue that the decade left America’s political and social institutions more just, and its culture more healthy.
The 1960s did create a new America. The question is, was “new” better?