On Aug. 23, 1963, South Vietnamese generals asked President John F. Kennedy whether the United States would approve a coup. The White House replied that if President Diem was removed, the U.S. would support an interim government. On Aug. 26, Kennedy had second thoughts but did not inform the generals he had changed his mind. The next day, civil rights forces held their March on Washington. Two currents ran through 1963, Kevin Boyle notes: "one of boundless hope, the other of blood. The summer belonged to hope. In the fall the balance tipped."
In "The Shattering," Boyle (a professor of history at Northwestern and the author of "Arc of Justice") focuses on struggles over racial justice, the Vietnam War and the government's right to regulate sexuality, in a lively popular history of the 1960s. Along with most professional historians, Boyle rejects the commonly held assumption that a Berlin Wall separated the consensual 1950s from the divisive '60s. In the '50s, he demonstrates, amid repression, racism, anxiety and anger, boundaries were contested and occasionally broken.
Inevitably, given the number of books on the 1960s, a lot of material in "The Shattering" will be familiar to readers. That said, Boyle enlivens his narrative with emblematic vignettes. He documents Bayard Rustin's behind-the-scenes role in spreading Gandhi's philosophy of passive resistance, founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and planning the March on Washington.
Boyd explains how Estelle Griswold and Norma McCorvey became defendants in cases that involved Americans' rights to privacy, contraception and abortion. He describes the first Human Be-in, held in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. He reveals that 25% of American soldiers in Vietnam came from poor families, 55% from the working class, and just 25% from the middle and upper classes. Boyd reports that two infantrymen swept into Ben Suc with their squad, shot a man riding a bicycle, and declared he had to be Viet Cong because he was leaving town.
"The Shattering" ends in 1972, with President Richard Nixon's re-election, a rout in which he carried 49 states. Less than two years later, amid revelations of the Watergate break-in and certainty of impeachment, Nixon resigned. President Gerald Ford withdrew troops from Vietnam, but not before 2 million Vietnamese civilians, 1.5 million North and South Vietnamese troops, and 58,000 Americans had died.
The 1960s were over. Or were they? Abortion remains a deeply contested issue. The percentage of African American students in segregated schools, Boyd points out, is now 8% higher than it was at the height of integration. The pandemic and the murder of George Floyd underscore that this is not the only disparity between Blacks and whites.
And our country is more polarized than it had been in what had seemed to be the most apocalyptic decade of the 20th century.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
The Shattering: America in the 1960s
By: Kevin Boyle.
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co., 464 pages, $30.