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In early 1970, Vice President Spiro Agnew had this to say about the so-called Sixties Generation:

Who Serves

As for these deserters, malcontents, radicals, incendiaries, the civil and the uncivil disobedients among our youth, SDS, PLP, Weathermen I and Weathermen II, the revolutionary action movement, the Black United Front, Yippies, Hippies, Yahoos, Black Panthers, Lions and Tigers alike— I would swap the whole damn zoo for a single platoon of the kind of young Americans I saw in Vietnam.

This is a fascinating statement for multiple reasons and on multiple levels. To begin with, a single platoon of the kind of young Americans he saw in Vietnam went into a village we remember as My Lai and murdered 504 unarmed men, women and children. On the same day, in the nearby village of My Khe, another unit of the same division murdered an estimated 155 additional Vietnamese civilians.

We thought it was funny to run Vietnamese off the roads with our vehicles and throw cans of C-rations at children as if we were hurling baseballs for strike-outs. We called the Vietnamese slopes, dinks, slants, zipperheads, and gooks.

While I personally did not participate in or witness killing on that scale, I and my fellow Marines routinely killed, maimed, and abused Vietnamese on a near-daily basis, destroying homes, fields, crops, and livestock with every weapon available to us from rifles and grenades to heavy artillery to napalm. We thought it was funny to run Vietnamese off the roads with our vehicles and throw cans of C-rations at children as if we were hurling baseballs for strike-outs. We called the Vietnamese slopes, dinks, slants, zipperheads, and gooks.

It is no wonder, it turns out, that Agnew should be so fond of the kind of young Americans he saw in Vietnam, since he himself turned out to be a criminal who was forced to resign his office in public disgrace.

Meanwhile, a great many of the kind of young Americans he saw in Vietnam became the deserters he excoriates (it is a fact that most military desertions occurred after service in Vietnam, not before). Many other soldiers and former soldiers—motivated by feelings of shame, anger, betrayal, conscience, patriotism, decency, honesty, and every conceivable combination thereof—joined the malcontents, radicals, incendiaries, civil and uncivil disobedients, becoming heavily involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement through organizations like Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the Concerned Officers Movement, and the American Servicemen’s Union.

As for the Black United Front, the Black Panthers, and other discontented minorities, one wonders if Spiro T. ever wondered why no one was prosecuted for the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, though the FBI knew who had done it by 1965, ever pondered the impact on Black Americans of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., ever noticed that in 1970 the infant mortality rate among white Americans was 13.8 while for black Americans it was 22.8.

Yippies, Hippies and Yahoos sounds colorful—like nattering nabobs of negativism—though it would have been even more alliterative if he’d said Hippies, Yippies and Yahoos, a distinction only a poet might notice, and Agnew was certainly no poet. And I suppose it’s just coincidence that the National Football League Lions and Major League Baseball Tigers are both Detroit athletic teams, the city where major riots occurred in 1967 after the cops raided a party celebrating the safe return home of two Black Vietnam War veterans.

But how did such a large portion of my generation become deserters, malcontents, radicals, incendiaries, civil and uncivil disobedients, Yippies, Hippies, Yahoos, and Black Panthers? How did Nat King Cole and the Lettermen morph into Janis Joplin and Jefferson Starship? How did Students for a Democratic Society become the Weather Underground? How did “My country ‘tis of thee” turn into “We gotta get out of this place”?

We were, after all, raised by The Greatest Generation, weren’t we? They’d survived the Great Depression and defeated the Nazis and Imperial Japan. They’d given us Levittowns and McDonald’s and drive-in movies and fluoride and “one nation under God.” We’d grown up watching wholesome American families on shows like Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet, learned about good and evil from shows like Gunsmoke and Bonanza, and came to understand the insidious ever-present threat of communism through shows like I Led Three Lives.

In my hometown of Perkasie, Pennsylvania, as far back as I can remember, we had a parade every Memorial Day that included the Pennridge high school and junior high school marching bands, complete with majorettes and color guards, uniformed members of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars marching in formation, the trucks of Perkasie Volunteer Fire Company No.1, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, Brownie Scouts, and assorted kids on bicycles decorated with red, white & blue crepe paper. Every school day started with a reading from the Bible (at least until 1963, when a suspiciously liberal Supreme Court ruled the practice an unconstitutional mixing of church and state) followed by the Pledge of Allegiance (under God). I Liked Ike, and when John Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” I was old enough to be inspired, and inspired enough to enlist in the Marines only a few years later.

College could wait. I had watched with growing alarm as Communism spread its tentacles over the face of the globe: the violent repression of the Hungarian Revolution, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, communist insurgency in Laos (China had already been lost before I was old enough to remember), Khrushchev shouting, “We will bury you!” Kennedy dead, killed by a traitorous defector who had lived in the Soviet Union before returning with a Russian wife to murder the hero who had created the Peace Corps. And now his successor was saying that if we did not fight the communists in Vietnam, we would one day have to fight them on the sands of Waikiki.

I wasn’t naïve, or perhaps more accurately, I didn’t think I was naive. I knew the United States of America wasn’t perfect. By the early 1960s, I could see on television young Black Americans being beaten in bus stations for trying to ride a bus, having ketchup and mustard poured over their heads while sitting at segregated lunch counters, being attacked with fire hoses and vicious dogs while singing the same hymns I sang in St. Stephen’s United Church of Christ. George Wallace might declare, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” but that was the South, the Old Confederacy, the sore losers. And the American government and the American people were doing something about it. It was a wrong that would be righted, was even now in the process of being righted before our very eyes.

But as the decade of the Sixties moved forward, the luster began to fade. The progression, or perhaps I should say decline, was gradual, slower for some than for others, but it was steady. As the televised images of white violence against peaceful blacks asking only for the right to vote and the decency to be treated as human beings went on and on, year after year, with the gains incremental and often hard to see, and with racial tensions erupting not just in the Old Confederacy, but in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York City, the liberty and justice for all proclaimed in the Pledge of Allegiance seemed increasingly like empty words.

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60s Generation

Meanwhile, my generation’s shining knight having been struck down in his prime and just as we were truly expecting a golden age of Camelot (clichéd, I know, but nevertheless how could one not believe a new beginning was in the offing with so handsome and vigorous and young a president and his beautiful, glamorous wife), his replacement, an aging Texan with big ears and a ponderous drawl, kept insisting the US wanted only peace and not a wider war while he took the US deeper and deeper into a nightmare where Buddhist monks burned themselves to death in public, supersonic jets dropped jellied gasoline on fields plowed by water buffalo, and American boys came home in body bags in ever-increasing numbers with nothing at all to show for it but the hot air that rose from politicians’ and generals’ mouths.

Perhaps most frustrating of all, it did not seem as if either our government or our elders cared in the least what we thought or felt. Twenty-five hundred antiwar demonstrators became 25,000 antiwar demonstrators became 250,000 antiwar demonstrators, but it did not matter. One president was driven from office and another who promised to end the war was elected, but the war simply went on and on and on. Meanwhile, programs designed to help the poor and advance civil rights were crippled by a lack of commitment and gutted by the need to fund the war in Southeast Asia.

That Black efforts to achieve equal rights became more militant and strident and angry as the decade progressed, that the antiwar movement transformed from peaceful marchers wearing jackets, ties, skirts and blouses into chanting protestors wearing tie-dyed t-shirts and love beads are to me measures of the increasingly frantic efforts of my generation to get my parents’ generation to stop behaving as if they were out of their minds.

I know I am generalizing broadly here, but I think I do represent a broad swath of my generation. And I was raised to believe absolutely that the United States of America was the pinnacle of civilization, the epitome of freedom, the finest nation that had ever existed. We were truly the land of the free and the home of the brave, a nation of the people by the people and for the people, the country that most stood for equal opportunity, goodness and decency, the hope of oppressed peoples everywhere.

I wanted my country to be what I had believed all my life that it was. When I went off to Vietnam, I honestly believed that John Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln were smiling down at me from on high, that I was going to save the Vietnamese from the scourge of communism, that my country needed me to preserve all those freedoms we hold so dear. What evidence I already had that what I believed might not be entirely accurate, I was able to hold at bay because it takes a lot of force to dislodge a lifetime of conditioning. A week traveling through the Deep South when I was 16, an English teacher who tried to show me a wider world, a Quaker friend who told me just before I left for Vietnam, “Please try not to kill anyone,” could hardly begin to make a dent in the certitude I had been conditioned to think was truth.

I cannot begin to detail here all that happened over the course of my thirteen months in Vietnam or the path those experiences set me on, but suffice it to say that I finally had to confront the reality that what my parents’ generation had taught me about who and what my country was—was bullshit.

And then I ran headlong into reality in the ricefields and villages of Vietnam. It was a bewildering and horrifying and shattering awakening. Profoundly disturbing. Life-altering. I cannot begin to detail here all that happened over the course of my thirteen months in Vietnam or the path those experiences set me on, but suffice it to say that I finally had to confront the reality that what my parents’ generation had taught me about who and what my country was—was bullshit. It was lies, delusions, hypocrisy, fiction. And when I finally began to understand that, it made me angry.

Other members of my generation have different stories to tell, different paths they followed, different experiences that shaped them. But I think most of us ended up at the same conclusion: that America, our United States of America, was not what we had been taught to believe it was. That our parents’ generation, the Greatest Generation, wasn’t so great after all. The Generation Gap didn’t just invent itself or develop out of thin air. We didn’t start saying—and believing—that you couldn’t trust anyone over 30 just because it sounded good. Our elders might blame our behavior and dress and beliefs on Dr. Spock and too little application of the belt, but Dr. Spock didn’t raise us; their generation did. The generation that criticized us for enjoying the materialism they had created for us. The generation that was now sending so many of us off to die on the other side of the world. The generation that had lived their entire lives complacently ignoring the plight of Black Americans south and north. The generation that mocked us as “Yippies, Hippies, and Yahoos.”

Long before the 60s painfully rolled over into the 70s, bringing us the invasion of Cambodia, the murders at Kent and Jackson States, the Pentagon Papers, and the invasion of Laos, if long hair and colorful clothes and marijuana pissed off the older generation, hurray for that. If amped-up drums and screeching guitars and politically charged lyrics upset our elders, we figured we must be doing something right. If women and gays and Latinos and Native Americans were demanding equality, it was about god-damned time.

There was, of course, no shortage of people in my generation that aren’t covered by my sweeping generalizations. There were members of my generation who hated people like Bayard Rustin and Tom Hayden and Dick Gregory and Abbie Hoffman and Phil Ochs. Dick “Dick” Cheney and John Negroponte, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, John Boehner and Robert Zoellick are all more or less my contemporaries. And as the late Paul Lyons amply demonstrated in his book Class of ’66: Living in Suburban Middle America, a large portion of the Sixties Generation neither fought in Vietnam nor protested the war, but merely sidestepped it and went on with their lives. That’s why they had no problem with draft-dodging Dan Quayle as vice president and draft-dodging George W. Bush as president; in these men, who avoided risking their lives in Vietnam without personal or political consequence, much of my generation saw themselves and their own choices during the Sixties.

But a lot of us did find unavoidable the contradictions between what we’d been taught and what we could see, and chose not to ignore what we were seeing. We wanted America to be what we had been taught to believe that it was. For awhile, many of us believed we could make it so.

And for all my discouragement about the reactionary backlash that has consumed the United States since the rise of Ronald Reagan, a backlash that has seen huge numbers of Americans voting against their own self-interests election after election, the removal of the consequences of American foreign policy from domestic politics, the terrifying rise of the national security state, and the most obscene maldistribution of wealth this country has seen since the Gilded Age, the Sixties Generation—our generation—has had a lasting impact.

Who would ever have thought we’d live to see a Black president? (Even if he isn’t really African-American with the full heritage of slavery, poverty, and systematic de-humanization imbedded in his ancestry and his DNA, but is quite literally half-African and half-American, and even if he’s disappointed many of us who had actually believed “Yes He Could,” the mere fact of his election was something I never thought I’d live to see.) Who would have thought the Supreme Court of the United States—this Supreme Court in particular—would ever rule that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional? Who would have imagined Muhammad Ali lighting the torch at a US-hosted Olympic Games, or a Gold Medal Olympic decathlete publicly going transgender. Or a woman as a viable candidate for president? Or Bernie Sanders making a serious bid for the White House, for goodness sake!

Bernie Sanders, the Congress of Racial Equality activist who pressured the University of Chicago to end racial segregation in campus housing. Bernie Sanders, who worked as a teacher in Head Start. The socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont. The Independent elected to the US House of Representatives. The democratic socialist US Senator who voted against the invasion of Iraq. And now, against all odds, giving the political establishment a run for its money without being a religious zealot or a narcissistic fascist or a Wall Street toady. A man who espouses free education, health care for all, environment over profits, infrastructure over weapons systems, and an equitable distribution of the wealth of this nation. Anyone hearing echoes of the Sixties?

Whether Sanders or any other truly progressive thinker can ever prevail at the level of national electoral politics remains to be seen, and I personally fear to hope too fervently. But maybe, just maybe, the Sixties aren’t over yet. Poor old Spiro T. must be turning in his grave.


W.D. Ehrhart