The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






The Sixties

Woodstock: the iconic Sixties event

The Sixties in its most obvious sense refers to the decade between 1960 and 1969 (see: 1960s), but the expression has taken on a wider meaning over the past 20 years. It has come to refer to the complex of inter-related cultural and political events which occurred in approximately that period, mainly in the United States but also in other western countries, particularly France, West Germany and Britain. It is used both nostalgically by those who participated in those events, and censoriously by those who regard them as a period whose harmful effect are still being felt today.

Popular memory has conflated into "the Sixties" some events which did not actually occur in that decade. The American Civil Rights Movement, for example, was formed during the 1950s, although some of its most dramatic events occurred in the early '60s. On the other hand, women's liberation and Censored page began only in the very late '60s and reached their full flowering in the 1970s. But the term Sixties has become a convenient shorthand for all the new, exciting, radical, subversive and/or dangerous (according to one’s viewpoint) events and trends of the period.


What happened in the Sixties?

Generally, the Sixties is taken to include the following events or trends.

In the United States

The movement for civil and political rights for African Americans (in the early '60s usually called Negroes and in the later '60s Blacks), initially a non-violent movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Gandhian figures but later producing radical offshoots such as the Black Power movement, the Black Panther Party and the Black Muslims.

The beginning of what was generally seen as a new political era with the election of President John F. Kennedy in 1960, and its ending in tragedy and disillusionment with Kennedy's assassination in 1963, the assassinations of King and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, and the collapse of Lyndon Johnson's presidency.

The rise of a mass movement in opposition to the Vietnam War, culminating in the massive Moratorium protests in 1969, and also the movement of resistance to conscription (“the Draft”) for the war. The antiwar movement was initially based on the older 1950s "Peace movement" controlled by the Communist Party USA, but by the mid '60s it outgrown this and become a broad-based mass movement centred on the universities and churches.

Stimulated by this movement, but growing beyond it, the radicalization of large numbers of student-age youth, beginning with the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley in 1964, peaking in the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and reaching a tragic climax with the shootings at Kent State University in 1970.

The rapid rise of a "New Left," employing the rhetoric of Marxism but having little organizational connection with older Marxist organizations such the Communist Party, and even less connection with the supposed focus of Marxist politics, the organized labor movement, and consisting of ephemeral campus-based Trotskyist, Maoist and anarchist groups, some of which by the end of the 1960s had turned to terrorism.

Rioting at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, 1968

The overlapping, but somewhat different, movement of youth cultural radicalism manifested by the hippies and the counter-culture, whose emblematic moments were the Summer of Love in San Francisco in 1967 and the Woodstock Festival in 1969.

The rapid spread, associated with this movement, of the recreational use of cannabis and other drugs, particularly new synthetic psychedelic drugs such as LSD.

The breakdown among young people of conventional sexual morality and the flourishing of the Censored page. Initially geared mostly to heterosexual male gratification, it soon gave rise to contrary trends, Women's Liberation and Gay Liberation.

The rise of an alternative culture among affluent youth, creating a huge market for rock and blues music produced by drug-culture influenced bands such as The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane and The Doors, and also for radical music in the folk tradition pioneered by Bob Dylan.

In other Western countries

Paris 1968
Paris 1968: almost a revolution

The influence of American culture and politics in Western Europe, Japan and Australia was already so great by the early 1960s that most of the trends described above soon spawned counterparts in most Western countries. University students rioted in London, Paris, Berlin and Rome, huge crowds protested against the Vietnam War in Australia and New Zealand (both of which had committed troops to the war), and politicians such as Harold Wilson and Pierre Trudeau modelled themselves on John F. Kennedy.

An important difference between the United States and Western Europe, however, was the existence of a mass socialist and/or Communist movement in most European countries (particularly France and Italy), with which the student-based new left was able to forge a connection. The most spectacular manifestation of this was the May 1968 student revolt in Paris, which linked up with a general strike called by the Communist-controlled trade unions and for a few days seemed capable of overthrowing the government of Charles de Gaulle.

In non-Western countries

The peak of the student and New Left protests in 1968 coincided with political upheavals in a number of other countries. Although these events often sprang from completely different causes, they were influenced by reports and images of what was happening in the United States and France. Students in Mexico City, for example, protested against the corrupt regime of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz: in the resulting Tlatelolco massacre hundreds were killed.

In Eastern Europe, students also drew inspiration from the protests in the west. In Poland and Yugoslavia they protested against restrictions on free speech by Communist regimes. In Czechoslovakia, 1968 was the year of Alexander Dubček’s Prague Spring, a source of inspiration to many Western leftists who admired Dubček's "socialism with a human face." The Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August ended these hopes, and also fatally damaged the chances of the orthodox Communist Parties drawing many recruits from the student protest movement.

In the People's Republic of China the mid 1960s were also a time of massive upheaval, and the Red Guard rampages of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution had some superficial resemblances to the student protests in the West. The Maoist groups that briefly flourished in the West in this period saw in Chinese Communism a more revolutionary, less bureaucratic model of socialism. Most of them were rapidly disillusioned when Mao welcomed Richard Nixon to China in 1972. The Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara also became an iconic figure for the student left, although he was in fact an orthodox Communist.

Why did the Sixties Happen?

Protest at Berkeley
A classic Sixties scene: students and police at Berkeley, 1965

The underlying causes of the upheavals of the 1960s were demographic and economic. The children of the postwar baby boom (those born between 1945 and 1955) began flooding into American universities in the mid '60s. They found a university system that was rapidly expanding as a result of escalating demand for university graduates in the postwar economy, but mentally unprepared for this influx. Both faculty and administrators were products of an older system of higher education founded on hierarchy and deference, and who as a result of their experiences in the McCarthyist period were afraid of any sign of campus radicalism. Their attempts to suppress student activism triggered the Free Speech Movement in 1964.

Although students were exempt from the draft (a source of resentment among working-class and Black youth), the escalation of the Vietnam War after 1964 provoked massive opposition on the campuses. The students of the 1960s had no memories of World War II or the early years of the Cold War, and were appalled at the grim realities of counter-insurgency warfare as seen (for the first time) live on network television. The anti-Communist rhetoric of the Cold War no longer persuaded them that such things were necessary for the defence of freedom, particularly given the dubious democratic credentials of the South Vietnamese regime for which the war was being fought.

The wider aspects of the Sixties revolt in the United States reflect the same demographic dynamic. The parents of the baby-boom student generation had typically grown up in the Great Depression, served in World War II and founded their families in the early years of the Cold War. They valued hard work, frugality, conformity and self-discipline. They believed in the traditional values which, as they saw it, had made America a great power, and had also given them a standard of living which their parents in the 1930s had not had. Their children, having grown up in affluence and security, not surprisingly did not share these views, and valued instead personal freedom above all else. This brought them into conflict with their fathers, and for many the university Dean, the US military and President Johnson became father figures to be defied and rebelled against.

(These statements are of course generalisations, to which many exceptions could be found. There were in the 1960s plenty of liberal or radical parents, some of them veterans of the prewar Socialist or Communist parties. Some of these were indeed important transmitters of older radical traditions to their student-age children: this was particularly true in Jewish families, from which student leaders such as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin emerged. There were also plenty of conservative students, particularly on smaller campuses and those away from the radical climes of California and New York. Conservative groups such as Young Americans for Freedom had many members and waged war against the campus radicals. Nevertheless, these generalisations are true enough to explain much of what happened in the period.)

Why did the Sixties End?

The riots and rebellions of the 1960s produced a fairly immediate political backlash. In France, de Gaulle had a massive victory in the 1968 elections, although his government then introduced sweeping reforms to the university system to meet the students' legitimate grievances. In the United States, Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential election on a "law and order" platform, greatly assisted by the candidacy of George Wallace, which split the Democratic Party's base by luring away culturally conservative White and working-class voters. When the anti-war and radical wing of the Democratic Party nominated George McGovern in 1972, Nixon crushed him. But Nixon was shrewd enough to see that the best way to defuse the youth revolt was to get out of Vietnam and abolish the draft, both of which he did in his first term.

The fatal shooting of four students by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University in May 1970 seems to have had a sobering effect on the student radical movement. The mass of students did not support the more extreme organisations of the late '60s, and as the radicals graduated (or dropped out) they found the revolutionary message even harder to sell in the wider community. After 1970 a small minority moved into armed groups such as the Weathermen (later the Weather Underground), while the majority drifted back into mainstream liberal politics. A typical career path is that of Tom Hayden, one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the most important student radical group, who later became a liberal Democrat member of the California state legislature.

The most extreme radical groups burned themselves out (sometimes literally) in the early 1970s, and some of the remainder often took up cultism of various kinds as they lost their faith in political activism. Events such as the mass suicides as Jonestown and the eco-terrorism of the Unabomber represented the dregs of 1960s radicalism. By the 1980s some '60s radicals had drifted to the extreme right, or turned to promoting conspiracy theories about extraterrestrials. The same thing happened in Western Europe and Japan, as groups such as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Red Brigades and the Red Army Faction turned to terrorism and were eventually crushed or dispersed.

The rapid decline of the student left after Nixon's withdrawal from Vietnam is not very surprising in retrospect. The radical movement employed the language of Marxism and tried to link itself to the wider socialist movement - one of the most surreal images of the late '60s is Country Joe McDonald at Woodstock, leading hundreds of thousands of middle-class youth in singing "We love Chairman Mao, We love the Pathet Lao, etc." But the student left was the exact opposite of one of the "revolutionary discipline" ideal of many Marxist groups groups - it was anarchic, wildly individualistic and hedonistic. Its overriding theme was personal freedom and self-fulfillment - "doing one's own thing." In this it was, despite the external trappings, closer to the American tradition of individualistic liberalism than to the imported European doctrines of Marxism.

This was the reason why the Sixties cultural revolution proved impossible to reverse. It represented a deep and genuine social change, and one that was a natural if unfamiliar development of American libertarianism rather than an ephemeral reaction to extraordinary circumstances. The civil rights revolution for African Americans, the movement of women into the workforce, the decriminalisation of abortion and Censored page, the greater personal freedom for young people in cultural and sexual matters, and the widespread use of recreational drugs, all became permanent parts of American life. Parallel changes took place in most other Western countries sooner or later. Many of these changes were then exported to the rest of the world as part of the package of "Westernisation."

Thus, although the 1980s were a period of conservative ascendancy in both the United States and Britain, under the leadership of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher respectively, their conservative agenda dealt mainly with economic issues, and few of the demands of cultural conservatives were met, despite the important role they played in bringing these leaders (particularly Reagan) to power. Most conservative Republicans know that the Sixties students and their children are now a powerful middle-class constituency whose residual social liberalism cannot be infringed on too far without provoking a political response.

Further Viewing

To see examples of the idealism of the Sixties, view the Woodstock Movie .

Last updated: 02-07-2005 05:34:02
Last updated: 04-25-2005 03:06:01