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  • The Sixties as History:A Review of the Political Historiography
  • M. J. Heale (bio)

The concept of a historical decade seems first to have been invented for the 1890s, but for the American twentieth century the Sixties has excited more popular and academic attention than any other.1 Conferences, websites, and television and radio programs seem almost in permanent and argumentative session to debate the Sixties. University courses and textbooks have proliferated, yet no two look alike. They disagree over dates, content, and significance. They even disagree over case—is the Sixties singular or plural? Yet debate on the era seems strangely unstructured, even that on its political history.2 One sign of this is the scarcity of historiographical articles or review essays on the Sixties qua the Sixties. The student can be introduced to most recognized topics in American history, such as the American Revolution or the New Deal, via essays that survey the literature and lay out the scholarly battleground.3 Not so with the Sixties, for which few guides light the way.4

One reason for this absence has been the difficulty of writing synthetic history as a consequence of the 1960s, when the powerful currents of race, gender, class, and culture undermined the older notion of a consensual society. The pieces have never been put back together again. While these forces have fragmented the writing of American history in its entirety, for the Sixties an agreed narrative was never constructed in the first place. For an older topic like the New Deal, a reasonably coherent literature had come into existence within a generation. There were disagreements, of course, but the battle lines or the rules of engagement seemed to be fairly clearly understood. This could not be said of the Sixties, whose fate it was to be dissolved by the currents it spawned before a stable historiography could be written. Probably too the Sixties has seemed unfocused as a topic because scholars have been reluctant to impute too much significance to an arbitrary segment of time.5 Further, its very contents invite discrete treatment, ranging as they do through the New Frontier and the Great Society, Civil Rights and Black Power, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam, the New Left and the New Right, the Counterculture and Rock Music (several of which have commanded their own review essays).6 [End Page 133]

Just why the era continues to excite such interest deserves a study of its own. Several factors have contributed. A measure of cultural polarization did occur in the Sixties, one that became—and has remained—entangled with party politics. During the conservative 1980s such figures as President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher helped to carry the culture wars forward to a new generation with their assaults on what the Sixties represented, and the subsequent controversies of the Clinton administration deepened the cultural divide. "If you look back on the Sixties and think there was more good than bad, you're probably a Democrat," mused Bill Clinton in June 2004. "If you think there was more harm than good, you're probably a Republican."7 The media and the associated technology too were important in perpetuating Sixties' preoccupations. Television and television archives, the general supplanting of black-and-white by color film, and electronically amplified rock music have meant that the images, sounds, and sound bites of the Sixties have cascaded down the decades in a way denied to earlier forms of culture. Demography has played a vital part, as the aging baby-boom generation that once imparted to the era its youthful ambience has continued to fight its battles (not to mention one another) and to provide a large market for its products. An emerging globalization helps to explain the era's continued fascination; the Beatles made history in 1967 when a live performance of "All You Need Is Love" was transmitted around the world by satellite technology.

If the experiences of the Sixties fractured historical scholarship, this was not evident for most of the era in the United States, when historical writing seemed to be empowered by new intellectual currents. Among the books that occasioned debate were Stanley Elkins's study of Slavery...


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pp. 133-152
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