Ah, the ‘60s, the hippie-drenched era recently dredged up as part of the Woodstock 40th anniversary news coverage.
What a shame that so much of what the public knows of the turbulent decade is either an exaggeration or outright falsehood.
Enter The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Sixties by Jonathan Leaf. The author debunks much of the conventional wisdom regarding the decade, from the culture at play to the Vietnam War.
It’s easy to blame psychedelics abuse for the mass hypnosis regarding such an important chapter in American history. But Leaf calmly shares some cold, hard facts concerning the era.
Sixties kicks off with the student radicals, the young men and women who protested until their lungs gave out about the evil Vietnam War, capitalism’s social disparities and other hard-left causes.
Turns out the protestors didn’t reflect the vast majority of students. Most pursued the typical college pursuits — academic excellence and some harmless extracurricular activities. Hard to believe conservative icon Barry Goldwater was the most requested campus speaker in the early 1960s, but it‘s true.
Meanwhile, the vocal minority weren’t just trying to speak out against injustices, they were very often Communists opposed to virtually everything the United States stands for.
Free love ruled during the 1960s — or did it? While the culture celebrated the dawn of Cosmopolitan magazine and the birth of the Pill, the real sexual revolution (think “key parties” and orgies) blossomed during the 1970s.
Civil rights took center stage during the era, and icons like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X addressed the racial inequalities swirling through the still young nation. But while conscious-raising speeches pushed the country forward to a more enlightened state, blacks actually suffered during the latter portion of the decade, financially speaking, courtesy of the well intentioned Great Society programs.
In fact, the dawn the ‘60s marked significant progress for black Americans. The average income of a skilled black worker doubled relative to whites from 1936 to 1960, adjusting for inflation.
Historians eagerly strip away some of Malcolm X less savory actions, but they also neglect to mention how a liberal hero like Cesar Chavez stood for the government deporting illegal aliens.
Sixties disassembles other personalities from the era, including author Norman Mailer and environmentalist Rachel Carson.
Mailer saluted the societal criminal as a figure artists need to emulate and called Fidel Castro “the greatest hero to appear in the Americas,” among his many irrational statements. Carson’s alarmism regarding the use of DDT had disastrous consequence in Africa, a continent ravaged by a malaria outbreak the pesticide could have helped contain.
Perhaps the most eye-opening chapter involves the era’s musical legacy. Leaf takes the time to strip away the musical shortcomings of the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan — the latter‘s simplistic three-chord progressions could be easily mastered by a beginner, he notes. But it’s the raw sales figures from the era that truly shock.
Bobby Vinton scored four number one singles during the decade, while The Who didn’t have one. Other less hip chart toppers included Johnny Mathis, Dean Martin, Conway Twitty and Henry Mancini. And movie musical soundtracks like “The Sound of Music” and “Camelot” stood tall next to album hits by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Even the era’s movie classics tend to be ignored in favor of films like “Easy Rider” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” Meanwhile, sturdier films like “The Sound of Music” and “My Fair Lady” endure without seeming so dated, Leaf argues.
The beloved television shows of the time, like “Gunsmoke,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and “My Three Sons,” reflected traditional values.
The book’s political section deconstructs the Warren Court, a body which helped break down existing rules without the encouragement of the public. Seems legislating from the bench is hardly a modern convention.
Leaf sprinkles his book with colorful asides, like a sidebar mocking the objectivity of New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan who went from hard news scribe to author of a 700-page assault on the Vietnam War.
“Camelot as it Really Was” reveals the truth behind the late President John F. Kennedy’s time in office, a period marked not just by Kennedy’s flagrant infidelities but also the kind of serious medical ailments which could have forced him out of office had he lived long enough to serve two terms.
Camelot even started out as a fraud, as election day shenanigans helped Kennedy beat Richard Nixon by the narrowest of margins.
The Vietnam War chapter reveals the true nature of the enemy U.S. soldiers were up against, the corrupt news report by Walter Cronkite that led to a major shift in public opinion regarding the war and how U.S. soldiers were far more likely to help villagers than commit the kinds of atrocities so eagerly reported then — and now.
The 1960s truly were remarkable time for this nation, but it’s best to read The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Sixties before attempting to put it in its proper context.