BUSTING THE MYTH
The 60s Unplugged: A Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade
By Gerard DeGroot (Macmillan 509pp £20)
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'You don't understand,' an American history professor once said to me of the 1960s, wagging an avuncular finger. 'You had to be there.' Coming from somebody who had spent his life studying the nineteenth century, it seemed a particularly silly thing to say. But then, as Gerard DeGroot points out in a thoughtful introduction to his new book, there are many people for whom the myth of the Sixties has become 'something sacred', a totem of high-minded idealism regularly invoked as a reprimand to our own supposedly cynical age. 'In no other period of history', he writes, 'has canon been allowed so freely to permeate analysis.'
Books celebrating the youthful idealism of the late Sixties are ten a penny, particularly across the Atlantic, so it is refreshing to read one that takes a mercifully clear-sighted view of the decade. DeGroot does remember the period, but only just: his earliest childhood memory is of the morning after Kennedy beat Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, when he peered up into the California sky, hoping to see Yuri Gagarin's capsule over San Diego. Surely too young to have been caught up in the hedonism of the Summer of Love, he has set himself a deceptively simple task. He has no overarching thesis, no axe to grind: instead, he simply gives us sixty-seven independent essays, rich in anecdote and character, many of them elegantly ripping apart the stereotypes of popular mythology.
If there is a disappointment about DeGroot's book, it is that it often follows very familiar lines. Although he claims that his work is 'more global than any book previously produced', it is dominated by American characters and events, most of which have been written about dozens of times before. His selection policy is nothing if not orthodox, so his opening sections cover such well-worn topics as the origins of the transistor, the invention of the Pill and the poetry of the Beats. Later, we read about the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the expansion of the Vietnam War, the development of the hippy movement and the Civil Rights marches. The supporting cast is the usual mixture of hairy protesters and senior politicians, above all Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. It would be refreshing one day to read an account of the Sixties that focused not on Martin Luther King and Joan Baez but on Jack and Joyce Hackensack from Muncie, Indiana; but this is not that book.
Where DeGroot scores highly, however, is in the cool intelligence and sardonic insight with which he covers this well-trodden ground. It is a relief to find a historian who concludes that the radical group Students for a Democratic Society was 'nine-tenths hot air', or who can see that John F Kennedy was above all a brilliant political salesman, a David Cameron for the Sixties. His treatment of Muhammad Ali is particularly clear-sighted: here, the great boxer emerges as a rather more opportunistic, even hypocritical, figure than in the usual hagiographies. And while even DeGroot has his heroes (the pioneering environmental campaigner Rachel Carson, for example), his alertness to nuance never deserts him. As he points out, Carson always argued that the real villains behind modern pollution were not the 'evil' corporations but the mass of modern consumers, a verdict we would do well to remember.
Unlike many American historians, who often treat events in the rest of the world as essentially irrelevant, DeGroot benefits from a useful sense of context. The preposterously overblown fantasies of the Californian counterculture melt into air when set alongside the chilling stories of the repression of the Prague Spring, the bloody conflict in Biafra or the atrocities in Mao's China. The late Arthur Marwick used to bang on excitedly about the Sixties as a great 'cultural revolution', an unfortunate phrase that looks distinctly tasteless when DeGroot reminds us what the real Cultural Revolution was like: students beating their teachers with spiked clubs; women with long hair being forcibly shorn and raped; an old woman being lashed with chains until she collapsed, at which point a female Red Guard jumped on her chest until she died. After scenes like these, who cares about all those whingeing students at Berkeley and Columbia?
What this book gives us, therefore, is a portrait of the American Sixties that is far more nuanced than the usual tub-thumping tracts. For DeGroot, the hippy movement was neither a wonderful Dionysian moment nor a terrible lurch into apocalyptic decadence, but a silly, self-indulgent irrelevance. The 'sexual revolution' was often an exercise in predatory exploitation, and even the movement against the Vietnam War, he reminds us, was ultimately a failure. As a political force it peaked in 1968, the year that saw the election of Richard Nixon, and the war promptly went on for another seven years, ending only when Communist tanks rolled into the presidential palace in Saigon.
In a sense, though, Gerald DeGroot is probably wasting his time. As he admits in his conclusion, belief in the myth of the Sixties is now a kind of religious faith, 'a dream that ignores the laws of economics, politics, and human nature'. Its adherents worship at sacred sites in San Francisco, Amsterdam and New York; they follow the teachings of such prophets as Malcolm X and Bob Dylan; they pay homage to martyrs like John Lennon and Jim Morrison. No amount of historical revisionism or rational analysis will ever induce them to abandon their creed. 'You had to be there', they say. But if they had actually been there mentally as well as physically, if they had woken up and opened their eyes, they would have realised that the real winners from the Sixties were conservative populists like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. 'By paying so much attention to what was happening on Maggie's Farm,' DeGroot writes, 'we failed to notice the emergence of Maggie Thatcher' - a nice way to round off a provocative and entertaining book.
Dominic Sandbrook's latest book, 'A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties', is published by Little, Brown.