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  • Interview: Eric Foner on freedom
  • Interview: George McGovern on Vietnam, Iraq and the election of 1972
  • Interview: Maurice Isserman on the 1960s, Vietnam and Iraq
  • Interview: Thomas Keck on judicial activism and the conservative Supreme Court
  • Interview: Bard O'Neill on Insurgency and Terrorism and the Iraq War


      Maurice Isserman
    Maurice Isserman on "America Divided"

    Hamilton College Professor Maurice Isserman, co-author of "America Divided," talks about the societal ruptures of the Vietnam War and Iraq War eras.


    Maurice Isserman, professor of history at Hamilton College in upstate Clinton, N.Y., is co-author of the 1999 book "America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s" with Michael Kazin. My own childhood memories of the 1960s and early '70s have been coming back to me, as the same kind of societal division, naked anger and passionate activism seem to be coalescing in ways I haven't seen in the last 30 years. To get a better feel for that dimly remembered era, I talked to professor Isserman about the tumult of the '60s and the historical threads that connect our time to those times.


    Related links: Official site
    State of the Nation

    Interviews about the state of our country from the election to the inauguration.

    • George McGovern on Vietnam, Iraq and the election of 1972
    •  Thomas Keck on judicial activism and the conservative Supreme Court
    • Bard O'Neill on Insurgency, Terrorism and the Iraq War
    • Maurice Isserman on "America Divided"
    • Eric Foner on freedom
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     America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s

    Q: I was born in '63, so really the first 10 years of my life were lived under the cloud of the Vietnam War. I remember waking up on a daily basis with the knowledge of the war as a heavy presence, and not even realizing that not being at war was supposed to be the normal state of life.

    MAURICE ISSERMAN: Right. Right. Well, I remember the same period. I was 10 years older, 12 years older, but it was certainly my experience. There was no time between, say, 1965 and 1975 that the thought of the war didn't intrude on my life at some point — not least because for some significant period of that time, I was facing the draft.

    Q: What happened to you?

    MAURICE ISSERMAN: I went in for my draft physical in August of 1971 — I had dropped out of college to work against the war full-time, so I no longer had a 2-S deferment — and, fortunately for me, Richard Nixon decided in October of 1971 to suspend draft calls in preparation for his 1972 re-election bid. So if there was ever a "skin of one's teeth" escape, that was it, because I, despite my best efforts, passed my physical and was classified 1-A.

    Q: Let me ask about the title of your book, "America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s." That's meant to be a little bit provocative, right?

    MAURICE ISSERMAN: Well, it's meant to be — although it's amazing when you go back to the record to see how many times, at the time, people used the imagery of the Civil War to illuminate what was going on. First and foremost, in the civil-rights movement, where Southern opponents of the civil-rights movement, of course, draped themselves in the banner of the Confederacy. George Wallace on his inaugural address, standing on the statehouse steps in Montgomery declaring, "Segregation now, segregation forever," took note of the fact that he was standing on the same place where the Confederate States of America's independence had been declared a century and a little more before.

      Everybody seemed to think that some final great confrontation between good and evil was about to take place. And the war contributed to that. It raised the stakes. It made extremism kind of common coin in the era.
    And then Martin Luther King returned to the exact same spot on the statehouse steps in 1965, and ended his, some people think, even-greater speech than his "I Have a Dream" speech at the conclusion of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march, and he concluded with the words of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." But that imagery of the Civil War spills over into the anti-war movement, Norman Mailer uses it in "The Armies of the Night," so it was a kind of a natural comparison to draw at the time, because it was literally true that there was no time in the intervening century in which Americans were as divided as they were in the 1960s.

    Q: Do you think that was already happening in a big way before the war started?

    MAURICE ISSERMAN: Well, the war ratcheted everything up. I mean, there's all kinds of counterfactual ways you could look at the '60s and say, you know, if Lyndon Johnson had simply said in 1964, "Nah, I don't think I'm going to do this," how the '60s and the entire subsequent history of the 20th century could have played itself out differently. The war made everything costlier. The war seemed to raise the specter of the impending apocalypse. You know, another comparison with the 1860s is that many Americans looked at the Civil War as the kind of final, biblical, prophetic clash between Christ and Antichrist — and they did this on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. This was the long-predicted final days.

    It's not that the language of biblical prophecy necessarily was invoked — although some people, like Martin Luther King, did invoke it — but there was a widespread sense in America in the late 1960s that these long-simmering issues, divisions, value clashes, were coming to a head and that something was going to be decided once and for all. From George Wallace's thundering at "pointy-headed liberals" to hippies dreaming of the "Age of Aquarius," everybody seemed to think that some final great confrontation between good and evil was about to take place. And the war contributed to that. It raised the stakes. It made extremism kind of common coin in the era.

    Q: Did the draft force a lot more people into a position of having to choose?

    MAURICE ISSERMAN: Well, it certainly helped concentrate one's mind if one was between the ages of 18 and 26 and male, or the girlfriend of a male or the sister of a male who was facing that. In retrospect, who fought the war? It was the poor and working class and the minorities. But if you were a college student, like I was in that period, that was not a comfort that was available to you. There were college students who went. There were middle-class students who went to Vietnam, and if it could happen to them it could happen to you. So yes, it certainly seemed to raise the ante in interesting ways.

    It wasn't just, you know, the Berkeleys and the Madisons and the Harvards and the Yales, but [also] Southern universities and Catholic universities and even service academies. The Merchant Marine Academy had anti-war protests going on — unthinkable!  

    Q: I think my clearest memory of that time was hearing people say, or seeing bumper stickers or T-shirts that said, "America, love it or leave it," "Keep America beautiful — get a haircut." Or hearing people defend the Kent State killings. At some point it became, as you say, "America Divided" — it became a barrier across which there was almost no commonality.

    MAURICE ISSERMAN: Right. There was the famous Merle Haggard song, "Okie from Muskogee," taking one side of the cultural divide, and then I think it was the Youngbloods who came back with, "I'm just a hippie from Olema." John Prine, who was a presence in those days, had a great song: "Your flag decal won't get you into heaven anymore. It's already overcrowded from your dirty little war." These days I sometimes think of that song and find myself humming it as I pass the cars with the "United we stand" bumper stickers.

    Q: Was there a social basis for who fell on which side?

    MAURICE ISSERMAN: That's an interesting question. I think the '60s are often seen in very simplified terms as the product of the "generation gap" — and if you look at the social movements that defined the decade, that's not so evident. That is to say, in the civil-rights movement, there were young and old, both in the white community and the black community, who supported civil rights, and others who were opposed. And similarly in the anti-war movement, it wasn't all college students, although they tended to be the most visible and they tended to be the center of media attention. The sense was, if you were 18 to 26 you'd be against the war, and if older you would be in favor of the war — which would have been news to my parents, who were well over 26 but who bitterly opposed the war.

    On the other hand there was this huge cohort, this Baby Boom generational cohort. And the interesting thing about that is the way that it cut across class lines, regional lines, cultural lines, in this kind of common youth-culture-ish sense that some great change was coming. That young people were going to bring about a change — whether it was a political change or a cultural change or, you know, just the better music, or "sex, drugs and rock and roll." There was some sense in which diverse regions and cultures were united around this, and you can see this in 1970 when Nixon invades Cambodia. Nixon had come into office with a "secret plan" to end the war, and the secret to his political success was that he seemed to be doing it. He seemed to be turning the color of the bodies in Southeast Asia from white to brown as he was "Vietnamizing" the war. Actually, in some ways, he was increasing the ferocity of the war with his air campaign, but American casualties were decreasing.

    In May 1970, he forgot how the formula worked, and suddenly expanded the war with an American invasion of Cambodia. And the result was a huge popular reaction — off campus but particularly on campus — and a national student strike. And if you look at the colleges that went on strike, there were something like 500 colleges and universities where significant anti-war activity took place, up to shutting down the campus. And it wasn't just, you know, the Berkeleys and the Madisons and the Harvards and the Yales, but [also] Southern universities and Catholic universities and even service academies. The Merchant Marine Academy had anti-war protests going on — unthinkable! But Richard Nixon, he was a uniter — he united all these people in opposition to his policy in Southeast Asia, if that policy, in fact, looked like it was re-escalating a war which everybody was heartily sick of by that time.

    Continued: 1 | 2 | 3 | Next

    NOVEMBER 1, 2004

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