As I look back on the '60s, the thing I remember most is the idealism. We were a generation that had been raised by our Harvard-educated, Norman Mailer-reading parents to believe that war was evil and conventional society evil-er still. We had been brought up on all the platitudes and forced to listen to scraggly-haired fake folk singers. Yet we dared to question the authority of Walter Cronkite. We dared to protest in favor of the Vietnam War.
Ours was a generation with a mission. It was a mission to save the world from everything. We saw what a mess our parents' generation had made of the world, and we thought: we could do better. We could kill some of the people who were messing the world up overseas. Our parents would tell us over and over again that America should get over its inordinate fear of Communism and that if we didn't agree we should pack up and move to Franco's Spain. But then we would read the New York Times editorials with a flashlight and smuggle Kingsley Amis articles in from England, and we would be strengthened in our resolve. This resolve allowed us to keep our mission intact even after the New York Times editorialists chickened out and caved into pressure from the big corporate interests of the time. Corporations, as you know, all wanted to end the Cold War so they could trade with the Russians and Chinese. They tried to stop the war because they put profits before people, and we wouldn't stand for it.
I remember the spirit that burned within us, as bright as the figures we burned in effigy. I remember going down to the White House to demonstrate in favor of the war, only to be hit on the head with clubs by the police. We discovered that they were acting on direct orders from President Johnson, who thought our support was giving him a bad image. So we came back the very next day and screamed: "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many Communists did you kill today? NOT ENOUGH!"
I remember the songs we wrote and sang outside any building that wasn't sound-proofed. The songs were raw statements of teenage rebellion, but with perfect rhymes and scansion. I still have my own contribution to the all-night sing-in outside Jason Epstein's summer cottage. It went:
Just shut your mouth
And sally forth,
'Cause if we fail
To stop those commies,
They'll kill or jail
Our dads and mommies.
I remember one night I lit up a bong and our group chairman, Dave, lit it up from the other end. And our group sub-chairman, Rolfe, looked at us both and said: "Gentlemen, if Ho Chi Minh had his way, all our pot would be going to the Russians' manufacturing of experimental hemp fabrics. Do we want this?" I replied "No!" Dave replied "Sinatra!" But he meant "no."
I don't see the same idealism animating today's pro-war protesters. Their support is halfhearted at best. They say they "support the troops." Our generation didn't support the troops. We didn't even like the troops. Their uniforms were idiotic and they listened to too many Pat Boone records. What we supported was the WAR. If there had been a way to have the war without troops, so much the better.
Young people often ask me "How can we recapture some of the ideals of the '60s?" I always tell them this: You just don't get it today. You think being pro-war means wearing an American flag hat or finding fault with the performances in Mystic River. For us, being pro-war was part of our attempt to smash the system. The establishment had been against us ever since Eisenhower dumped all over the military-industrial complex. But they couldn't stop us from making our voices heard and calling the public's attention to the plight of the disenfranchised weapons researchers.
If you want to understand the '60s pro-war generation, think of a time when, for the first and last time, young people didn't just accept everything linguistics professors told them. Think of a time when young people all over the country were challenging their parents and telling them that maybe duck-and-cover did work after all. And think of a time when, for the first time in American history, a generation came together to stop a war from ending.
But most of all, think of the music, a music of revolt against all the anti-war government propaganda coming out of the Republican Party (from 1964 to 1968) and the Democratic Party (from 1969 on). If you need to know what kept the '60s generation going, just listen to this song, written by Rolfe and his three girlfriends with harmonies by their guitar teacher Harlan:
Don't trust the businessmen
Who say war's too expensive;
Don't trust the congressmen
Who say the Tet's offensive;
The politicians lie to you,
The businessmen are lying too,
But you and me, we'll see it through,
Hooray for the Vietnam War!
Even Dave would have to agree.