Blogs > Cliopatria > Vincent J. Cannato: Review of Mark Hamilton Lytle's America's Uncivil Wars: The Sixties Era from Elvis to the Fall of Richard Nixon (Oxford University Press, 2006)

Jul 24, 2007 8:53 pm

Vincent J. Cannato: Review of Mark Hamilton Lytle's America's Uncivil Wars: The Sixties Era from Elvis to the Fall of Richard Nixon (Oxford University Press, 2006)

[ Vincent J. Cannato, Department of History, University of Massachusetts, Boston.]

The Sixties--Again

Do we really need another synthetic history of the 1960s? Bard College historian Mark Hamilton Lytle seems to think so and has produced his own survey of the era entitled _America's Uncivil Wars_. Lytle is perhaps best known for co-authoring the inventive _After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection_, an excellent introduction to historical methods for college survey courses (and one of the books we used in my AP U.S. History class two decades ago).

In his latest book, Lytle promises to break out of the"good sixties/ bad sixties" narrative that he argues too often suffuses histories of this period. Both sides of the political spectrum are invested with certain views of the era. The Left wants to see the era as a time of idealism and hope, brought down by assassinations, war, and repression. The Right views the sixties as an expression of the worst instincts in American society and it has spent more than three decades trying to restore what apparently was lost during the 1960s.

Lytle believes that traditional histories of the 1960s slight certain topics. The rise of conservatism during this period was ignored or else treated as a mere"backlash" against progressive politics. In a similar vein, the growth of evangelical churches and the rise of the Sunbelt never really fit in with the traditional story of the tied- dyed, activist 1960s.

In an attempt to move away from traditional discussions of the sixties, Lytle shifts from the traditional chronology. This is a history, as the book's subtitle suggests, of the"long 1960s," from the mid-1950s though the mid-1970s. Periodization by decades has never been terribly useful. As most historians now agree, many of the conflicts of the sixties had their antecedents much earlier and the changes brought about by the 1960s were felt even more strongly in the 1970s and later. Hence, we have a story of the"sixties" that begins with Elvis and ends with Nixon.

The book is divided into three parts. The first is the story of the American consensus of the 1950s and early 1960s and it is presented here in a fairly straightforward history of the era. Eisenhower conformity, Cold War fears, McCarthyite repression all make their predictable appearance. It is a well-written overview, but not a terribly novel one. Lytle frames the consensus in a somewhat different way than the Schlesingerian-style"Vital Center." Arthur Schlesinger Jr. argued for an ideological middle way that fought off the extremes of Left and Right, totalitarianism and fascism, that was anti-Communist and internationalist abroad, and that defended the New Deal spirit of government activism at home. Lytle's consensus is different, and more prosaic. He defines it as an"elite" that was"almost exclusively white and male, Protestant, middle and upper middle class, and socially and culturally conservative. It controlled business organizations, media, churches, colleges, and universities and government at both the local and national level" (p. 5).

In crafting the book in this way, the author seems under the impression that both Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon were part of the post-war consensus."No one better personified the old consensus than Richard Nixon," writes Lytle."After all, he had used it to build his career" (p. 9). I am not sure this is correct. Nixon forever saw himself as an outsider, not a member of the post-war consensus. His fight against Alger Hiss proved to him that the"establishment" had a vested interest in defending Hiss. The same thing holds true for McCarthy, who saw himself fighting against an establishment he viewed as soft on Communism. Lumping McCarthy, Nixon, and J. Edgar Hoover among the consensus elite, with, say, Clark Kerr and Robert McNamara, is true on some general level, but papers over a great deal of difference.

It is a small, but telling point. Throughout the book, Lytle argues that the attacks upon the consensus were an attempt at opening up a closed, privileged elite by liberal activists. What we get is an assault on the consensus that was less about ideology and more about"diversity," sprinkling John Lewis, Timothy Leary, Bob Dylan, and Betty Friedan into the nation's elite leadership. Meanwhile, the assaults on the consensus from the right are little understood or poorly explained by Lytle. Thus it becomes clear as the book progresses into the second section--moving through civil rights, the New Left, and the beginnings America's military involvement in Vietnam--that this is more of a traditional synthesis of the 1960s than what Lytle had promised at the start, albeit a smoothly written and engaging synthesis. It is a familiar narrative, heavy on SDS and Tom Hayden quotes.

The book comes into its own about halfway through when Lytle discusses the counterculture in a chapter entitled"The Great Freak Forward." It provides an excellent discussion of the rise of"hippie" culture. Clearly Lytle is enthusiastic about the topic, although some might find him a little too blasé about the dangers of drug abuse.

The final section of the book, dealing with the period between 1969 and 1974, focuses on the rise of what Lytle calls"essentialist politics," as well as the fall of Richard Nixon. While Lytle is correct that the narrative of the"sixties" needs to be stretched into the 1970s (and beyond), this section is the weakest of the three. Recent works by Edward Berkowitz, Bruce Schulman, and Philip Jenkins all do a better job of fleshing out the period of the late-1960s through the early 1980s.[1]

The theme that ties the book together is found in its title. The idea of the sixties as the nation's second civil war is not new, and can be found, for instance, in Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin's very good overview of the period _America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s_ (1999). Nor is the concept of civility and incivility new, as Lytle borrows from Kenneth Cmiel's essay on the topic.[2] Leaving aside the usefulness of the"war" metaphor, throughout the book the concept of"uncivil wars" remains foggy and confusing. Who"fought" the war? When did the war begin? Why use the plural"wars"? Who won the war? When did the war end? Did it end with Watergate, as Lytle implies at one point, or did the war continue through the 1990s with attacks on Bill Clinton, as he implies elsewhere? None of these questions are adequately answered.

At one point, Lytle writes:"It takes two sides to make a war, even an uncivil one. By the summer of 1967, the army of official America was already on the field" (p. 224). Was the"uncivil war" started when dissidents and others rebelled against the consensus establishment, as Lytle sometimes implies, or is the"uncivil war" a creature of the government and conservative reaction against the rebels, as this quote suggests? Too often, the impression left on the reader is the latter explanation, but the concept of"uncivil war" remains murky until the end.

If it was a war, as Lytle suggests, then many Americans in the 1960s sat on the sidelines. What about those that neither joined the New Left, the New Right or the counterculture? We never get much sense of what the experiences of average Americans was like during the"long 1960s," but we do hear an awful lot about what Todd Gitlin and Tom Hayden have to say.

Lytle is honest that he is not totally detached from this era and that he" came alive socially, politically, and intellectually" during this period. As I read the book, I could not help but think of journalist Rick Perlstein's excellent 1996 article entitled"Who Owns the Sixties." There is no mention of the article in Lytle's book, although the piece seems to capture many problems inherent in undertaking a survey of the sixties.[3]

Perlstein describes the debates over interpretations of the 1960s, showing how much of the earlier scholarship was written by participants in the battles of the time, and how younger scholars are broadening the focus of the study of the sixties, to the point of questioning whether the sixties really are a unique and distinct period. To give one example, Perlstein quotes Thomas Sugrue on Woodstock. In contrast to older historians who saw Woodstock as a seminal event of the times, Sugrue is much blunter:"It was just a rock concert and it was memorable for two reasons: because there were gate crashers, and because the weather was bad."[4] Where does Lytle come down on Woodstock? He argues that the" celebratory spirit of Woodstock reflected the commitment to human betterment that had energized the Left and counterculture" (p. 338).

Even with his earlier protestations, Lytle is still drawn to earlier interpretations of the sixties. Despite this, and even if the"uncivil war" theme is stretched a bit too thin, Lytle's book is still a handy synthesis of the era. Along with Isserman and Kazin's _America Divided_, this book stands as a useful guide for general readers interested in the period, and would make a good addition to any undergraduate history syllabus.

But one also has the sense that perhaps Lytle's book is one of the last in the line of"sixties" books. More and more of those writing about this period did not live through it and are not as personally invested in it as is Lytle and others who preceded him. Not only does this mean stretching the definition of the era beyond the New Left/ SDS/counterculture narrative, but it also might suggest an end to sixties exceptionalism among historians.


[1]. Edward D. Berkowitz, _Something Happened: A Political And Cultural Overview of the Seventies_ (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005); Bruce J. Schulman, _The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics_ (New York: The Free Press, 2001); and Philip Jenkins, _Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[2]. Kenneth Cmiel,"The Politics of Civility," in _The Sixties: From Memory to History_, ed. David Farber (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994). See also, William Chafe, _Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Freedom Struggle_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).

[3]. Rick Perlstein,"Who Owns the Sixties? The Opening of a Scholarly Generation Gap," _Lingua Franca_ (May/June 1996):30-37. For this idea of a generational difference in interpretation, see Andrew Hunt,"'When Did the Sixties Happen?' Searching for New Directions," _Journal of Social History_, 33, no. 1 (Fall 1999): 147-161.

[4]. Perlstein., p. 30.

Copyright (c) 2006 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For other uses contact the Reviews editorial staff:

comments powered by Disqus