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Toxic Times

Toxic Times

In The Shattering, Kevin Boyle aims to lay out a straightforward narrative of the chaotic Sixties. He leaves key questions unanswered.

Arch Puddington
The Shattering: America in the 1960s
by Kevin Boyle (W.W. Norton & Co., 480 pp., $32)

Few periods in American history have been the source of more controversy than the 1960s. The Shattering: America in the 1960s is the latest book to grapple with this tumultuous decade. Historian Kevin Boyle has departed from the usual pattern of Sixties books: This is not a memoir written by an academic looking with nostalgia at the political causes that energized his youth and the excesses that destroyed the counterculture. Rather, Boyle has produced a straightforward narrative history of the period, beginning with the Eisenhower administration’s final years and culminating in Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election. Boyle narrows his focus within that period to two events of overriding significance: the civil rights revolution and Vietnam, with less attention paid to New Left shenanigans.

A new assessment of the period is welcome given the current state of American politics. The loss of faith in government, the media, and religion documented across opinion polls have roots in that decade’s polarization and violence. Many today trace the erosion in institutional authority to Sixties phenomena: lies about the Vietnam War, the Left’s coarseness, the intractability of racial divisions.

Boyle does not directly indulge in these comparisons. But there can be little doubt that, in writing the grim history of an earlier era, he has an eye cocked on America today.

The Shattering makes for somber reading. Beatings and killings happen again and again in Alabama and Mississippi, where civil rights protestors are targeted; in big cities, driven by a combustible mix of police aggression, rioting, and National Guard deployment; on college campuses and during antiwar protests; in Vietnamese hamlets.

But before things unraveled, the United States ranked as arguably the most successful society of modern times. The final year of Eisenhower’s presidency boasted full employment, surging college enrollment, low inflation, high levels of union membership, and a massive movement of the White working class into the middle class.

Black Americans did not share equally in the postwar riches. Black military veterans, having fought for freedom, returned to a Jim Crow regime in the South and real-life segregation elsewhere. Boyle’s account of Martin Luther King’s Southern campaigns rehearses familiar material. He does take note of the role played by two of the movement’s veteran figures, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. Rustin was crucial in developing a two-pronged strategy meant to shake the country’s moral sensitivities while also reassuring the country with tactics that stressed discipline and order during protests and rejected violence and property destruction.

Testimony to the success of this strategy was the remarkable degree of bipartisan support for the foundational civil rights laws passed during Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency. When John F. Kennedy balked at presenting Congress with a civil rights proposal even as King’s legions were being mauled in Alabama, congressional Republicans prepared their own version. It was Senate Republicans who provided the votes to beat back Dixiecrat filibusters and ensure victory for the omnibus Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

Aside from the civil rights campaigners, there are few heroes in this saga. Johnson comes close—the Johnson who spoke of an America “bending toward justice” and of a nation “free from want, for our time and for all time to come.” Boyle admires his commitment to racial equality and his outsized ambitions for eliminating poverty. He seems to share the conventional assessment that LBJ’s plans were brought down by the Vietnam War—“that bitch of a war,” as LBJ called it, even as he escalated American involvement.

But other evidence presented in The Shattering strongly suggests that, war or no war, the expensive project to abolish poverty and inequality inevitably would have encountered unstoppable headwinds—indeed, hurricane-force headwinds—beginning with the Watts riots in 1965, the year the Voting Rights Act was passed, followed by the emergence of the Black Power movement. The signal event was the replacement of John Lewis as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee by Stokely Carmichael, a firebrand radical mesmerized by his own rhetoric. Lewis was committed to nonviolence and integration. Carmichael disparaged both, calling integration “a subterfuge for white supremacy,” deriding nonviolence as a “dying philosophy,” and demanding that Whites “move over, or we’ll move over you.” It didn’t matter that Blacks overwhelmingly rejected Black Power and separatism. Carmichael and the Black Panthers had supplanted King with the White Left and in the media as well.

King himself was having difficulty adapting to conditions that did not bend to the tactics that had served him well in the South. Rustin had argued that protest should give way to political organization to meet the challenge of economic inequality and the complex conditions outside the South. He also had counseled against linking the civil rights struggle to the antiwar movement. Nevertheless, King pressed ahead with what would be a calamitous protest drive in Chicago, and began to embrace the rhetoric of revolution in his increasingly bitter remarks about the war.

Meanwhile, the White Left underwent a similar process. Initially galvanized by vague discontent with American democracy and inspired by nonviolent protest, the New Left came to embrace violence as a legitimate tactic at home, along with a galaxy of anti-democratic movements in the Third World. Tom Hayden, the leader of the Students for a Democratic Society, early on said the movement was “rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason, and creativity.” And yet a few years later, he was calling for “two, three, many Columbias” (referring to student takeovers of major universities, some by violent methods). From its early embrace of “participatory democracy,” the New Left degenerated into a quasi-cult that advocated campus bombing to provoke a “crisis of legitimacy” in the existing order (over a hundred universities were targeted in 1968–69).


The political consequences of America’s arguments over race, the Vietnam War, and a relentless assault on social norms were profound. Opinion polls in 1968 showed Americans much more concerned about riots and disorder than the war or racial injustice. Further evidence came in the form of a shocking surge of support for George Wallace’s independent presidential bid. It was shocking because the crowds that were chanting “Let George Do It” were located in Wisconsin as well as Alabama, in venues like Milwaukee’s Serb Hall, with an audience of White ethnic union members who had pulled the Democratic lever since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s time. Wallace, a demagogue par excellence, pounded home a frightening message focused on crime, secure neighborhoods, and safe schools, all of which he implied were placed in peril by Black extremists and liberal schemes for “forced integration.” In the end, support for Wallace outside of his Southern base dwindled by Election Day. But echoes of his message resonate, even today.

Boyle’s assessment of Vietnam amounts to a sweeping indictment of American governing elites, anchored on presidential duplicity. Both Johnson and Nixon poured troops and arms into a conflict they knew to be unwinnable, and both went to great lengths to conceal strategic failure. Boyle regards Nixon as the more insidious commander-in-chief of the two, because of the latter’s undermining peace talks that posed a threat to his election, and then intensifying a merciless (and secret) bombing campaign that brought indiscriminate death to peasants in Cambodia and Laos, as well as in Vietnam.

But Boyle’s real target is the Cold War itself. He refers to the “amorality” of the struggle against the Soviet Union, and asserts that the Cold War “crushed American radicalism” and gave birth to a society and economy where militarism was front and center. He skips briefly over the nature of the Soviet challenge after World War II, including the USSR’s expansionist forays in the Third World, as well as the emulation of the Soviet system by Marxist forces bent on the overthrow of governments in Latin America and elsewhere. To Boyle, the Cold War’s defining features are McCarthyism, CIA-engineered coups, and General Curtis LeMay, a caricature of an ultra-hawk military man who makes several prominent appearances in The Shattering.

Nor does Boyle place America’s cataclysmic experience in an international context. America was not the only country where new forms of radicalism took bewildering and occasionally terrifying forms. In France, violent street protest brought down a government; in Germany and Italy (and Japan too), revolutionary cells committed acts of terrorism, assassinating businessmen and government officials, bombing railroad stations and office buildings.

This brings us to the core problem of The Shattering. Boyle has been rightly praised for his skill at turning a complex and sometimes bizarre decade into a coherent, often riveting, narrative. But he never really confronts the decade’s paramount theme: the decline of American liberalism. Perhaps never before, not even during FDR’s presidency, had the moderate Left enjoyed such sweeping political dominance—at the White House, in Congress, at the Supreme Court, in the culture at large—as it did after the 1964 election. In addition to civil rights laws, the Democrats passed Medicare and Medicaid, along with legislation that did away with national quotas and opened the United States to immigrants from around the world. But by the decade’s end Nixon was President, with liberal ideas on the defensive, liberal institutions like the university under siege, and liberals themselves arguing over values like the universality of democratic norms and America being the leader of the Free World. On these crucial issues, Boyle’s narrative leads the reader not to where responsibility lies, but to predictable conclusions: the Vietnam War, militarism, dishonest politicians, the Right, racism.

As we should have learned in more recent years, America’s troubles are too complex and have too many sources to place all of the blame on the Right or the Left, or even on the Establishment. The Shattering tells a gripping story about a critical time in American history. But ultimately it does not explain why a decade that began with transformational achievements and high expectations for even more progress went so terribly wrong.

Arch Puddington is senior emeritus scholar at Freedom House. He has written widely on global democracy and is author of the Freedom House Special Report, Breaking Down Democracy: Goals, Strategies, and Methods of Modern Authoritarians (2017), and a biography of trade union leader Lane Kirkland.

Image: 1970 protest at Florida State University, State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, https://floridamemory.com/items/show/25387, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44251446

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