What are we to make of the 1960s? Conservative politicians berate it, popular culture eulogizes it, contemporary citizens
struggle with its lasting effects, whether understood or appreciated. There is no lack of material dissecting the 1960s. Memoirs abound, and scholars have depicted a wide range of the era’s features. Almost daily, the media reminds us of this turbulent era, and yet as political scientist Edward P. Morgan makes clear, the overall effect is to confirm stereotypes that mask rather than illuminate the nature of changes that had such lasting effect. The media, he insists, does the public a disservice, distracting public attention from persistent problems addressed frontally in that era–of rights for women and minorities, poverty, national security, and protection of the environment, among others—by reviving latent culture wars from the 1960s
One way to understand the full range of the 1960s experience is to look at collective biography, and here I choose to follow a group of men caught on the cusp of change. Too early to be part of the counterculture, too late to be fully socialized to the norms so dominant in the 1950s in the years before they entered college, the Yale Class of 1964 was ideally suited to chose among the competing strands of experience offered in a turbulent era. Despite their relative homogeneity as a group—all men, overwhelmingly Protestant, and almost all white—they nonetheless diverged significantly in experience, outlook, and attitude over time.
Scheduled for publication in the spring of 2015 by Cornell University Press, Class Divide asks questions central to the experience of the past half century: If the goal of securing individual liberties for all people could be understood as fundamental in the early 1960s, how were the means for securing those rights recast in later years? If American power had once been perceived as essential to the defense of those liberties, how were agents of authority to be treated in light of perceived violations of trust, whether at home or abroad? Once sexual mores subscribed to in practice and supported by law for generations were challenged by new definitions of liberty, what would be the new basis for acceptable behavior, inside or outside of marriage? How would matters of faith and social responsibility fare as fundamental challenges to traditional outlooks and practices came under fire? The book project is described below.
As distant as the period is in real time, the 1960’s and all it represents won’t go away. As recently as May 26, 2010, New York Times political reporter Matt Bai ran a front-page story under the headline, “2010 Debate Still Trapped in the 1960s.” By most accounts, the period represents a cultural and social sea change, though a recent book, The Permissive Society: America, 1941-65 by Alan Petigny, argues that the roots of change were sunk well before the 1960s. However one identifies the complex period referred to as the “sixties,” critics look to university campuses for its origins. As pollster Daniel Yankelovich puts it in his 1983 book, New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down, “The campus upheavals of the sixties gave us the first premonitory sign that the plates of American culture, after decades of stability, had begun to shift.” Not just the Free Speech Movement that erupted in the fall of 1964 at Berkeley, but Columbia and Harvard in the late 1960s attract their fair share of attention. But Yale? And Yale 1964? As one classmate proclaimed, “We missed the sixties. We didn’t smoke dope and all that stuff.”
Missed the “1960s?” Not at all. We were in Mississippi during the fall of 1963 and the summer of 1964. We were in Sproul Hall during the Free Speech movement at Berkeley the fall of 1964. We formed communes and appeared at Woodstock, albeit in the service of the National Guard. We were in Brazil and Africa in the Peace Corps and in Saigon during Tet. We campaigned for Barry Goldwater and Gene McCarthy, served on Indian reservations, and made environmental law. We marched on the Pentagon and served in the Pentagon. I tell these stories in a way that challenges conventional thinking about the period.
An examination of the mores and trends conventionally associated with the 1960s would naturally bypass a mid-decade class whose profile was every bit as narrow demographically as the 1950s classes that preceded it. Change, though brewing in the early 1960s in the Yale admissions office, did not emerge in dramatic form until the appointment of Inslee Clark as Dean in 1965. Yale’s student body has never been the same since, as many traditionalist alumni are quick to complain. Yet Yale’s class of 1964 is important precisely because it straddled a divide, both institutionally and nationally. Caught up in the turmoil of both the civil rights movement and the Cold War, Yale 64 can properly be defined either as the last class of the 1950s or the first of the 1960s. The lives of its members reflect that divide.
Fulfilling Yale’s historic commitment to honing its students for public service, its members include three who have served as state attorneys general, two U.S. senators, one the Democratic candidate for Vice President in 2000, the other the U.S. Attorney General under George W. Bush, several college presidents, and a host of business executives whose philanthropy has distinguished them beyond their chosen fields. Despite the ability of most members to avoid service in Vietnam, the class includes both career and other decorated officers, one of whom has written a book linking his military experience to a recent visit to the country. As expected as such contributions might be, there are also the exceptions: a legal services lawyer who spent decades in exile after the FBI charged him with smuggling a gun to Black Panther militant George Jackson; a member of an all-male class who played an important role in securing the right for women to elect abortions under the landmark Roe v. Wade decision; a leading advocate for ending the arms race that so defined the Cold War.
Hard as it is to define a generation, as A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times, “certain characters and narratives nonetheless draw together confused and disparate experiences in a way that feels almost instantly emblematic.” Consider this, then, something of a book of collective memory, how narratives are collectively shaped through interactions with others who share a common vocabulary and perspective on events. Here was a group of young men whose freshman year was marked by the election of John Kennedy and who experienced the traumas, among other things, of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban missile crisis, and countless civil rights confrontations in the South as well as in New Haven before the devastating news of the President’s assassination on the eve of the Harvard-Yale game their senior year. Here too was a group that struggled over invitations to campus both to George Wallace and to U.S. Communist party leader Gus Hall. Here was a class who welcomed the advent of the birth control pill in 1960, even as it witnessed a Connecticut state court ruling that finally lifted the prohibition of contraceptives. How could this class not have had common memories?
What graduates of the class of 1964 did with their lives is another thing. This study does not argue that Yale was the crucible that prepared a group of young men, who were more disparate than they seemed on the surface, to accommodate change uniformly. Yet change they did, and it’s in that collective portrait that the effects of the 1960s, broadly defined, are charted. When one asks whatever happened to the 1960s, at least one answer will be revealed in the collective biography of a group of men whose ties to the past were deeply tested by the changes in their lives.