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Book review of The Times They Were a-Changin’: 1964, the Year the Sixties Arrived and the Battle Lines of Today Were Drawn by Robert S. McElvaine

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Refusing to fade into antiquity, the 1960s reluctantly remain an irrepressible hold on the nation’s imagination. Although nearly two-thirds of Americans were born after 1969, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and others from that era live on as mythological figures. Hollywood and the publishing industry, meanwhile, in their continued glorification of the decade’s political achievements, cultural icons and social revolutionaries, seem unconcerned that Congress last passed a major civil rights bill in 1968, with the Beatles releasing their last album two years later, and The Flower Children Fit Now on their grandchildren.

The Times They Were a-Changin’: 1964, the Year the Sixties Arrived and the Battle Lines of Today Were Drawn enthusiastically jumps into this well-covered area. Harnessing the insights and wisdom of Robert S. McElvaine, a renowned scholar who studied and lived through the period, The Times reflects the momentous but thorny legacy of the era through an insightful, provocative and entertaining lens. To that end, McElvaine eschews an encyclopedic account of the decade in favor of a concentrated examination of a 22-month period stretching from the assassination of Kennedy in November 1963 to the fall of 1965 – what McElvaine calls the “long 1964” – as the starting point of this , what is now referred to as “the 1960s.”

He argues convincingly. The list of transformative events within this time span included the Kennedy assassination, two historic civil rights acts, the conservative takeover of the Republican Party, a sweeping immigration law, the escalation of the Vietnam War, the Mississippi Summer of Liberty, the launch of the free speech movement in Berkeley, and the riots in watts.

The social changes were just as momentous. The “Long 1964” saw the arrival of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Muhammad Ali. Betty Friedan’s bestseller Feminine Mystique, along with Mary King and Casey Hayden’s memo Sex and Caste, inspired the women’s liberation movement. Sparked in large part by Freedom Summer, what McElvaine called “the pivotal event … that marked the arrival of the 1960s,” a youth-driven culture challenging authority emerged in this era.

However, McElvaine occasionally exaggerates the impact of the “Long 1964”. The depiction of Barry Goldwater’s candidacy as the starting point for the GOP’s takeover of the South illustrates this trend. Goldwater’s presidential bid certainly played a key role in this process, but the party’s advance in the region had begun under the leadership of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Capitalizing on the Democratic Party’s civil rights disagreements, the former general garnered the second-highest number of electoral votes by a Republican in the South since Reconstruction. Eager to expand the entry of the 1952 election, he expanded the GOP’s organizational presence in the South, culminating in Operation Dixie in 1957.

To further woo the area’s white population, Eisenhower repeatedly declined to endorse it Brown v Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that ended racial segregation, and even threatened to skip the 1956 GOP conference if the party’s platform gave his government credit for the decision. He also downplayed Southern efforts to resist desegregation, for example by calling out the Southern Manifesto, the poisonous executive order backed by more than 100 Southern congressmen, urging the region to “move toward integration.” oppose,” described as a moderate proclamation rather than a radical challenge to the federal authority it represented.

By 1960, Eisenhower’s efforts had transformed the GOP’s flimsy presence in the South into a sizable organization with ample funding and a roster of freshly minted party leaders and candidates.

McElvaine also over-emphasises President Lyndon B. Johnson’s masculinity in explaining America’s involvement in Vietnam. Examining Johnson’s psyche yields valuable insights, but McElvaine’s emphasis on Johnson’s masculinity – both literal and figurative – infantilizes the former president. What about the influence of the domino theory, a key Cold War doctrine, on his decision-making? What about the litany of advisers – most of them leftovers from the Kennedy administration – urging Johnson to increase America’s armed forces? What about Johnson’s attempts to ward off critics who accuse him of being soft on communism? What about the fact that Johnson struggled to send in extra troops in 1965 instead of rushing forward like a cowboy at a rodeo? While McElvaine acknowledges these rationales and motivations, particularly Johnson’s fear of appearing politically weak, he places far too much emphasis on Johnson’s “male” ego to explain America’s involvement in Vietnam.

The book shines at reminding why the public is so captivated by this decade. The 1960s, McElvaine explains, “still define the political, social, cultural, and economic battle lines along which Americans fight today.”

For McElvaine, the Republicans represent the “anti-Sixties party” that aims to undo many of the achievements of the decade.

The antagonism of the GOP goes far beyond the political or social sphere. For conservative critics, the era serves as a constant reminder of America’s shortcomings, making it impossible for them to return to an airbrushed national image without stamping out the decade’s revolutionary changes. McElvaine aptly notes that this perspective, spiced up by Donald Trump, is not so much a loss of innocence as a nostalgia for a time when many white Americans were unaware of the injustices around them – the “ignorance of guilt.” , who idolized the nation’s idealistic principles and disregarded the plight of African Americans, women, and others.

For his admirers on the left, like McElvaine, the era remains “the most intense, meaningful, and — overall — most positive period of change in American history,” even when considering the violence, radicalism, and hedonism it unleashes Has.

One can draw a direct line between these opposing viewpoints of the 1960s and today’s struggles over the 1619 Project, the removal of Confederate statues, and the standing of many of the nation’s founders and leaders. These conflicts result from irreconcilable views about America’s character and a dispute over how to judge its virtues and transgressions – a divergence unleashed during the “Long Year 1964”.

The perpetuation of these divisions has fueled the nation’s preoccupation with the 1960s as well as today’s noxious political climate. “Should we go back to what 1964 was about,” McElvaine asks, “or should we try to bury the gains that were made then?” Regardless of the outcome, it’s fair to say that America’s answer is inevitable for years to come fixated on the 1960s.

Michael Bobelian teaches journalism at Columbia University and is the author of “Battle for the Marble Palace: Abe Fortas, Earl Warren, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and the Blacksmiths of the Modern Supreme Court.”

The times they changed

1964, the year the sixties came and the front lines of today were drawn

https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2022/07/01/transformative-1960s-still-have-grip-america/ Book review of The Times They Were a-Changin’: 1964, the Year the Sixties Arrived and the Battle Lines of Today Were Drawn by Robert S. McElvaine

Chris Estrada

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