America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960’s
by Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin
Oxford. 358 pp. $30.00
In their preface to this book about the “Civil War” of the 1960’s, the historians Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin reveal that, when young, they, too, served on the battlefields of that epochal conflict. “We lived,” they write, “in the same ‘revolutionary youth collective’ and wrote for the same underground paper, signing only our first names to articles as an emblem of informality.”
Since they do not provide further details, it is left to the reader’s imagination to envision what life must have been like in that Portland, Oregon, collective, and what wild insurrectionary plots were hatched each night around the kitchen table by young Maurice and Mchael and their fellow communards. In any event, what both Isserman and Kazin and many other radicals of those days have gone on to discover in the intervening decades is that in postmodern America there is always time for second and even third acts. After the flames of revolution died out, the two of them made their necessary accommodations with bourgeois respectability and enrolled in graduate school. Soon enough, both were tenured professors, writing articles and books—like this one—to which they signed their full names.
Isserman and Kazin begin their history of the 1960’s by drawing an explicit analogy between the conflicts that wracked America in that decade and the war a century earlier that ended slavery. Over 3 50 pages later, they conclude by observing that both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln—assassinated 103 years apart in the month of April—were martyred before either could see the promised land for which he had struggled. In between these sweeping and grandiose comparisons comes a tale of heroic confrontation, of Americans “engaged in a struggle for the nation’s very own soul.”
Unfortunately, the two sides to this conflict are never identified with any real precision. In a chapter portentously entitled “Gathering of the Forces,” we learn instead that in the benighted 1950’s, the nation as a whole was awash in an unprecedented prosperity that left most Americans satisfied while also irrationally exercised over the Communist menace. Already, though, a prophetic minority—drumroll, please—was undertaking to challenge the status quo:
Not all Americans at the dawn of the [60’s] shared a world view steeped in abundance at home and perpetual tension about the cold war abroad. . . . Emerging in the postwar era was an alternative America—peopled by organizers for civil rights for blacks and women, by radical intellectuals and artists, and by icons of a new popular culture.
In the decade to come, these platoons of righteous dissenters proceeded to confront the dominant society over civil rights, feminism, the sexual revolution, and America’s cold-war entanglements. In so doing, they not only helped to save the country from its own worst political instincts but they transformed a repressed and stultifying culture in the bargain.
Fueling the upheaval, especially toward the end of the decade, was the war in Vietnam. According to Isserman and Kazin, America’s obsession with Soviet and Chinese expansionism had blinded it to the fact that what was occurring in Vietnam was an indigenous nationalist revolution, albeit Communist-led. As the dying in that country intensified, they write, the antiwar movement “attained its greatest breadth of support and legitimacy.” By the fall of 1969, the ranks of the peace movement “spoke more loudly than Nixon’s silent majority.”
But if antiwar passion provided the fuel, many other ingredients contributed to the stewpot as well. In chapters treating, among other things, the rise of the Black Panthers, the emergence of the New Left, the eruption of a new youth culture, and Lyndon Johnson’s abortive attempt to forge a Great Society, Isserman and Kazin strive to recreate the events, the personalities, and some of the feelings that disturbed the consciousness and filled the airwaves of an era.
If I have made America Divided sound like a belated effort to vindicate its authors’ youthful commitments, it is surely that. But it also means to be more than that. For one thing, Isserman and Kazin are now somewhat ambivalent about those youthful commitments: “While still clinging to the vision of a democratic Left,” they write defensively, “we certainly do not endorse all that radicals like ourselves were doing in the 1960’s.” For another thing, their work is billed as a “definitive history,” which means that it supposedly conforms to the scholarly standards of their profession. Unfortunately, in seeking to give voice to their supposedly more mature perspective, Isserman and Kazin have produced a narrative that is utterly conventional, a sort of Life-magazine account of the 1960’s, only with footnotes and in turgid prose.
But blandness bordering on vacuity is only one of this book’s many flaws. Another is unoriginality. In particular, the Civil-War analogy trotted out in the title and at the opening and close of the narrative is by now nothing more than a cliché; in fact, it was already a cliché in the 60’s (see, for example, Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer’s 1968 narrative of protests against the Pentagon). It would take something far more substantial than what is on offer here to make sense of this ill-fitting parallel, and it is hardly surprising that, in the body of the book, the Civil-War theme evaporates without a trace.
What does not evaporate, alas, is Isserman and Kazin’s mindless celebration of the 60’s as marking an emancipatory break with the dead past. Any serious history of the period, one would think, should at the very least have attempted to draw up a balance sheet of pluses and minuses. Are American universities, for example, freer or more encouraging of intellectual difference today than they were before the New Left began “liberating” them? Whatever the answer, the question is one that Isserman and Kazin decline even to entertain.
Similarly, an accurate ledger would weigh the effects of the new culture of drugs and sexual freedom: did that culture, perhaps, help to accelerate the social and family breakdown of the last three decades that has devastated so many quarters of American society, including the black underclass in our cities? And what about the “achievement” of the “peace movement” in forcing the United States out of Vietnam? Here Isserman and Kazin are content to rehash the standard version of the war given by such liberal-radical writers as Stanley Karnow, Neil Sheehan, and Gareth Porter; they completely ignore the new historical research demonstrating the extent to which the Vietnamese Communists were controlled by their Soviet sponsors, or the way those same Communists suppressed every manifestation of genuine Vietnamese nationalism. As for the millions who were forced under totalitarian rule as a result of the Communist victory and the American defeat in Vietnam, about this there is, needless to say, nary a peep.
By avoiding every genuine controversy raised by the 1960’s, Isserman and Kazin have taken the path of safety—for which they may be rewarded by the polite applause of their fellow tenured radicals—at the price of a book that is at once flimsy and irrelevant. The radicalism of the 60’s left us many things; to judge by the complacent superficiality of America Divided, a cadre of serious historians does not figure prominently among them.