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Kevin Boyle
The Shattering: America in the 1960s
Norton, 2021

Kevin Boyle. The Shattering: America in the 1960s. Norton, 2021. Reprinted from the Cleveland Review of Books


     Michael Schumacher. The Contest: The 1968 Election and the War for America’s Soul. University of Minnesota Press, 2018.



     Non-fiction writers of all sorts, including historians and journalists, who undertake to describe the past, always face a preliminary methodological question: How to slice the pie. To describe an epoch, is it best to focus on a single event or series of events, a single year, perhaps, or would the truth come more clearly into focus by broadening the scope? What to include, what to leave out? Describe the forest or some individual trees? How much attention to detail is necessary to tell the real story? And does it make sense to treat a decade as a distinct epoch?


     The question of scope is particularly pressing when a writer wants to address periods of wrenching change or high drama. When discussing the 1930s, for example, would it be best to begin with the Wall Street Crash, which occurred in 1929, or should one start with FDR’s election in 1932? The country began changing profoundly with FDR’s election, but the seeds of that change were planted when Wall Street crashed, at the end of the previous decade. And when did “the Thirties” end—with Germany’s invasion of Poland in September, 1939, or, for Americans at least, with Pearl Harbor in December, 1941? Does that mean 1940 was part of “the 1930s”? In many ways, it was. 


     Similarly, if the subject is the 1950s, should one start in 1948, when Harry Truman unexpectedly defeated Thomas Dewey for the White House, or perhaps with the outbreak of the War in Korea in June, 1950? A key feature of the 1950s was McCarthyism, but can we understand that phenomenon without highlighting the fact that the Republican party had lost four times to FDR, and was widely expected to break that streak with Dewey in 1948? Or was the key event the Communist takeover of China in 1949, which set off hysteria about the red menace? Both events were crucial to shaping McCarthyism and “the Fifties,” but both occurred before the Fifties actually began. Or was the economy key to the period, in which case to understand “the Fifties” one should begin with the full economic mobilization of World War II, which ended in 1945, and the GI Bill passed after the war, which did so much to create a prosperous and educated middle class (at least for whites) that was a key element of “the Fifties” and its conformist culture and politics?


     There is no doubt that “the Thirties” and “the Fifties” were distinct periods in American history, but the events and circumstances we think of under those umbrella terms do not conform precisely to any neat timespan, presenting something of a dilemma for writers and historians.   


     There was no period of more profound cultural and political change than the era we think of as the 1960s. “The Sixties”—the term conjures up images of riots in inner cities, JFK Jr. saluting his father’s coffin, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, hippies in San Francisco, a savage war and protest against it, and blood flowing in the streets of Chicago.


     Two new books take opposite approaches in attempting to distill the essence of that tumultuous decade, the reverberations of which, many would say, we are still experiencing.


     Boyle, a historian, chooses to look at the full decade, start to finish, while Schumacher, a journalist and writer, focusses entirely on the presidential election of 1968, a convulsive contest. Both emphasize the importance of the two major conflicts of the 1960s, the war in Viet Nam and the struggle for civil rights, and how they shaped both politics and culture. Both tell dramatic stories, full of fascinating individuals and events—for example, Lyndon Johnson’s surprise announcement in the Spring of 1968 that he would not seek reelection in the Fall, setting off a scramble in both parties, especially among Democrats.


     Placing the two books side by side makes it difficult to avoid the judgment that a wider scope brings deeper understanding. In the case of the 1960s, at least, examining the forest tells us much more than looking at some of the particular trees.


     Boyle does a masterful job of describing the decade and much of its complexity. He does this by deftly summarizing complex processes and not shying away from judgment--for example, by pointing out that both Eisenhower and Kennedy were reluctantly trapped by fast-moving developments in the Civil Rights movement, and that they had no choice but to push the issue forward. He also has an eye for the telling detail—for example, pointing out that on the night of the fateful Civil Rights march in Selma, Alabama in 1965, LBJ was preoccupied and waiting to hear about the arrival of the first battalion of combat Marines in Viet Nam. He thus demonstrates in a few words the extent to which LBJ’s domestic accomplishments, which were substantial, were eventually drowned out by an unwinnable and ill-conceived foreign war.


     Boyle manages to describe well-known events, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four children in 1963, and the unrest and protest surrounding the Democratic convention in Chicago in August, 1968, vividly and suspensefully.  He does not neglect personalities, pointing out, for example, the differences between Kennedy’s charm and LBJ’s charmless but often effective wielding of political power, but he does not allow personalities to obscure deeper historical currents, for example, the degree to which our strategy in Viet Nam was full of contradiction, including a willingness to back a dictator, as well as the degree to which the secrecy and duplicity with which LBJ conducted that war was a continuation of the manner in which Eisenhower had conducted foreign policy throughout the supposedly peaceful 1950s.


     Boyle begins his narrative by describing a white, working- cum middle- class neighborhood in Chicago, a place full of patriotic pride. In many ways the grand narrative he tells is that the world that created that neighborhood disappeared over the course of a decade. In 1960, it seemed as if the country would continue down the relatively peaceful, sedate, and prosperous path that created such neighborhoods and such citizens after World War II—peaceful and prosperous, at least, for whites. But by the end of the decade the combination of racial strife, a disastrous war, and wrenching cultural change had blown that world to smithereens.


     By 1968 the nation was convulsed and drenched in blood. The horrifying carnage in Southeast Asia was broadcast nearly every night on television news, the military not yet having restricted access to active theaters of war. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated that Spring. Opposition to the war reached a tipping point, racial strife had turned violent in Newark, Detroit, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, and a violent police riot (there is no other word) confronted anti-war demonstrators in the streets of Chicago, as Democrats plunged ahead to nominate the establishment candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Try as he might, and despite his stellar record on civil rights, Humphrey could not recover from Chicago and unite a party split down the middle by LBJ’s war.


     Schumacher’s book is entirely focused on that mainstream political process in 1968. While presenting a complete, nearly encyclopedic narrative of the presidential nominating system in each party, the personalities involved, and then of the election battle in the Fall, pitting Humphrey against Richard Nixon, that story is well-known (indeed, Boyle covers the highlights), but, by focusing too much on mainstream politics and individuals, he often glosses over the bigger picture. The Democratic primary battles among Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, and Bobby Kennedy, which Schumacher describes in almost agonizing detail, mattered, to be sure, but the currents of public opinion driving each of their supporters is given relatively short shrift, as are many of the underlying issues described by Boyle. In the Sixties, mainstream party politics was a lagging indicator to deeper societal currents, which Boyle, with his wider focus, makes clear. 


     Nixon, of course, eventually won that presidential contest, and did so by exploiting both disgust with Viet Nam and, more importantly, racial animus. He chose what was called a “Southern Strategy,” and thus, as Boyle perceptively argues, he wanted the nation divided. Nixon began the long, painful process of white, working class voters, such as those Boyle examines in his Chicago neighborhood, pulling away from the Democratic party—a process with which we are still living. By doing this, Nixon chose the exploitation of social division for partisan gain and taught the Republican party how to win. The lesson was not lost, and Republicans occupied the White House for most of the next two decades. 


     Both of these books leave the reader with a sense of nearly overwhelming tragedy. We are left to wonder what today’s America would look like if LBJ had chosen a different strategy in Viet Nam, a war he knew he could not win but believed he had no choice but to pursue, or if the Nation had faced up to the long-evident, blatant injustice of racial caste before it was forced to do so, kicking and screaming, by a courageous social movement, or if Nixon had been less ruthless. We are left to wonder if wiser men had made better choices (and it was, at the time, almost entirely men running things--perhaps a part of the problem) whether lives could have been spared and less blood spilled at home and abroad.


     For readers wanting to understand the overwhelming mess in which we find ourselves today, from foreign entanglements to racial and cultural division, the Sixties is a good place to start. For it is a relatively short step from Nixon’s Southern Strategy to Donald Trump, and, although both Boyle and Schumacher end their narratives before the 1970s begin, it is another short step from Nixon’s breaking the law to win reelection in 1972 to the attempts to steal the 2020 election. Whether there are eerie parallels between Hubert Humphrey and Joe Biden is a question still very much up in the air.    

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