Lost in The Sixties
Their memory ain’t mine.
by: Mackubin T. Owens

National Review on Line June 5, 2002 9:45 a.m.

This past Saturday, I forced myself to watch the rerun of the dreadful NBC miniseries The Sixties. I'm not sure why — maybe to see if it was really as bad as I remembered.

It was. And as I watched it, I was reminded once again that a "culture war" continues to rage for the soul of America. The central objective of this war is to control the way the past is portrayed, for to control the past is to give meaning to the present and direction to the future.

When I wrote a Providence Journal column on The Sixties shortly after the miniseries first ran in February 1999, I was inundated by e-mails taking me to task for my cynical interpretation of the era. The predominant theme of these e-mails was: "How dare you question or ridicule the idealism of this holy period in history." Of course, that was my point — that it was not idealism that characterized the era, but hypocrisy.

There are two competing interpretations of the 1960s. The first is exemplified by the claim of Sixties radical and present California Democratic politician, Tom Hayden, who wrote in his memoir Reunion that "We of the Sixties accomplished more than most generations in American history." In this view, the Sixties were exciting, heroic, and uniquely infused with moral passion — the "Promethean moment," in the words of one commentator, "when the Chosen Ones went through hell to save their souls and ours."

The second interpretation is far less flattering: It was a time of incredible intellectual flatulence, when pretentious adolescents under the tutelage of Herbert Marcuse and the like affected a pose of moral superiority vis-à-vis their countrymen. It was a time when the pampered and narcissistic children of privilege spouted Marx, Guevara, and Fanon and engaged in no-fault acting-out. It was a time when self-styled radicals embraced the enemy against whom their countrymen were fighting and dying. It was a time when for many, the goal was to cleanse fascist, racist "Amerikkka" by "any means necessary." The nihilism that lay at the heart of this radicalism turned murderous thugs like George Jackson, Charles Manson, and Huey Newton into "authentic" existentialist, revolutionary heroes. The best guide to this interpretation of the era is Destructive Generation, by David Horowitz and Peter Collier.

The Sixties offered up the former version, of course. To be sure, the "bad" Sixties are represented — by Kenny Klein, a Weatherman, Mark Rudd-like character who moves from idealism to radicalism and accidentally blows himself up with a homemade bomb. And, of course, we see the "really bad" Sixties in the person of Brian Herlihy, a high-school jock who enlists in the Marines because he doesn't get an expected football scholarship to Notre Dame; goes to Vietnam; and returns a burned-out wreck — the Traumatized Vietnam Vet that is by now a staple of the popular culture, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

But the miniseries is really a celebration of the "good" Sixties: the idealism of the civil-rights movement and opposition to the immoral Vietnam War. The good Sixties are represented by Michael Herlihy, Brian's intelligent and morally earnest younger brother, who rejects what the viewer is invited to see as the fatuous patriotism and authoritarianism of his father's America (ironically, Herlihy père is a member of what is now celebrated as "the greatest generation"); Sarah Weinstock, the proto-feminist, radically pure Barnard girl, whom Michael pursues even as she falls under the sway of Kenny; Willie Taylor, a black preacher from Mississippi who, after his church is burned down by racists, moves to Watts, where he is gunned down by police during the 1965 riot; and his son Emmet, who is driven by his father's killing into the embrace of a sanitized version of the Black Panthers.

The Sixties takes us, via the idealistic Michael, through what former radical Peter Collier calls "the Movement's stations of the cross": the Freedom Rides, the March on the Pentagon, the assault on Columbia University, the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, the "Days of Rage." Ironically, the miniseries gives the "black" experience short shrift, despite the fact that the civil-rights movement remains the noblest domestic achievement of that decade. This is because, while the white "idealists" the miniseries celebrates may have participated in the civil-rights movement, at least at the beginning, they did not inspire it — preferring the "authentic" black voices of Malcolm X and the Panthers to that of Martin Luther King. For Michael and Sarah, the real "happening" of the decade is the Vietnam War.

The Sixties is an example of what Collier and Horowitz describe as "the manufacture of innocence out of guilt, the eternal work of the Left." For the Left, they continue, there are no yesterdays, only tomorrows; never any "fossilized remains of death and destruction caused by past commitments," only the utopias to come.

The high note upon which the miniseries ends — with the whole Herlihy family reunited and its consciousness raised — reinforces this view. There is no suggestion of the decade's deplorable legacy. Abroad, there were: the "liberation" of South Vietnam, costing (in addition to Saigon's war dead) a minimum of 100,000 summary executions at the hands of the Communist liberators; a million and a half "boat people," and a like number sentenced to "reeducation camps"; genocide in Cambodia; and a perceived shift in the "correlation of forces" that encouraged Soviet adventurism throughout the 1970s. And at home there was the genesis of one social pathology after another — drugs, drug-related crime, the explosion of sexually-transmitted diseases, feminized poverty, "poverty pimps," and race hustlers — as a result of the radical assault on "the System."

When the expected revolution failed to come, and the war ended, the antiwar movement of the 1960s fragmented. Most moved on to new fads — physical fitness, Eastern religions, environmentalism, entrepreneurship, and yuppiedom in general. Others implemented Fanon's concept of revolutionary violence through the Weather Underground or this and that "liberation army," surfacing periodically in some Keystone Kops caper and reminiscent of those Japanese soldiers on Pacific islands who, unaware that World War II had ended, fought on.

Still others began what German New Leftist Rudi Dutschke called the "long march through the institutions." From their tenured positions on university campuses, they now inculcate into new generations of students the idea that the United States is irredeemably racist and oppressive. And from their positions in the news and entertainment industry, they have helped to disseminate moral relativism throughout the culture.

For many of us who fought in Vietnam, what is most unforgivable about the "idealists" celebrated in The Sixties is that many of them actively worked for the defeat of U.S. forces in Vietnam — and most of the rest acquiesced in their enterprise. One of the little revisionist lies perpetuated by the miniseries is that though the protesters opposed the war, they had nothing against those who fought it. This lie is refuted not only by the protesters' actions and rhetoric at the time, but also by the personal experience of countless Vietnam veterans. It is disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

For at least a decade now, there has been talk of "healing the divisions" of the Sixties. But in my view, there are two groups who stand in the way of any such reconciliation: the opportunists whose "idealistic" opposition to the war was merely a cynical ploy to ensure their personal safety; and those who continue to believe that by protesting the war, they were somehow morally superior to those who fought in it.

My own attitude toward the first group is summed up by an observation of John Stuart Mill, the quintessential nineteenth century liberal. "War is an ugly thing," he wrote, "but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. A man who has nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety is a miserable creature who has no chance at being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself."

As for the second group, I would echo the even more eloquent remark of my friend Jim Webb — recipient of the Navy Cross for heroism in Vietnam, former Secretary of the Navy, and best-selling novelist — when asked by a radio talk-show host for his thoughts about Jane Fonda. "If she was on fire…" Well, let's just say he wouldn't put the fire out. Nor would I

— Mackubin Thomas Owens, an NRO contributing editor, is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam in 1968-69.