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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

  •  INTERVIEW: MAURICE ISSERMAN

    Maurice Isserman on "America Divided"



    Continued | Back to part 2

    Q: It seems interesting to me that about the time I was in college in the early '80s, suddenly Ronald Reagan became very popular with my generation. And it was surprising to me because it was almost assumed before that that the younger generation was culturally liberal and politically liberal.

      
    MAURICE ISSERMAN
     
    Maurice Isserman.

    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.

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     RELATED ARTICLES
    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

    MAURICE ISSERMAN: Right. Well, there were two things going on. One is that Reagan was packaged and presented himself as a "rebel" against another establishment — against Washington, against the liberal establishment. He was the outsider, he was from California, which was the traditional cultural vanguard of the nation. And to the extent that he was part and parcel of a conservative reaction to the 1960s, he was personally, at least in his public presentation, so genial — you know, everybody's favorite uncle — that no one really thought that he meant any of this seriously. And in fact, most of the social and cultural gains of the 1960s — Roe v. Wade, and so forth — did very well under Ronald Reagan. He understood, or his handlers understood, the limits of his various mandates, and they didn't push through a cultural revolution. So much so that cultural conservatives would complain. They would say, "Let Reagan be Reagan," as if he was really straining at the bit to outlaw abortion or gay rights or whatever. And he wasn't — he was content to let that go, in the same way that he was going to be "tall in the saddle," but he was going to take on Grenada, not the Soviet Union, in actual military confrontation. Somebody there — maybe it was Reagan himself, maybe it was his various advisers — was fairly shrewd in understanding that.

    Of course, eight years of Reaganism and eight years of the sense that government is not the solution, it's the problem, did rejigger American politics in ways that made it very difficult for anyone to follow after him and say, "No, I think actually the New Deal, Fair Deal tradition is something we should revive." When you finally did get a Democratic president in office, who served out two terms, he was somebody who said, "The era of big government is over," and "We're going to end welfare as we know it," and pushed through welfare reform, backed by a Republican Congress. So Reagan had a tremendous impact. I think Reagan's popularity at that particular moment in 1980 was based on the fact that many people didn't think he really meant it — [they thought] that he was actually going to let things go on the way they'd been.


      
    When you finally did get a Democratic president in office, he was somebody who said, "The era of big government is over," and "We're going to end welfare as we know it," and pushed through welfare reform, backed by a Republican Congress. So Reagan had a tremendous impact.  

      
    Q: My understanding now is that among college-aged people these days, the predominant opinion is anti-Bush.

    MAURICE ISSERMAN: Well, I would say it would be a pretty even call on my campus. I think there's a lot of disquiet. I certainly see student activism re-emerging in ways I haven't seen for a few decades, around the war, around reproductive rights. I think people are concerned. There's still a very strong pro-Bush Young Republican club and so forth. I wouldn't say it's a return to the 1960s. I would say there's ferment and there's questioning in a way there has not been for some time.

    Q: Do you think that for students on your campus, the Vietnam issues surrounding Bush and Kerry have any resonance, or is that old news?

    MAURICE ISSERMAN: Well, they do if they listen to me! But I would say probably not. I think it all seems like ancient history, and, unlike you, they have no memory of this. They have no memory of Reagan for that matter. I mean, they sort of came of age in the post-Reagan era in which Ronald Reagan was already an iconic figure. So I don't think so. The Iraq war has had an impact. Again, as we talked about earlier, there's no draft, so it's not like, "Gee, I'm going to graduate next year — I wonder if I'm going to wind up in Iraq." Unless they're foolish enough to go voluntarily into the military or the National Guard, that's not going to be their fate. And I have to say, I doubt if 1 percent of students at Hamilton College intend to go into the military as a career or even a short-term commitment after their college education.

    Q: You talked about how the Vietnam War was one catalyst amid a whole social environment that included a lot of other divisions. Today, I don't think there's the same kind of ferment over racial issues or sexual issues, but maybe there is still a kind of cultural division between traditionalists and modernists over religious issues — abortion, gay marriage and so on.

    MAURICE ISSERMAN: Yeah, I think absolutely. I was at the Washington pro-choice march in April, and went down with a busload of Hamilton College students — and I don't know when was the last time a busload of Hamilton College students went to a march on Washington. Mostly women — not entirely. And looking around at the crowd, it struck me that — I took my 14-year-old daughter with me, and fully 50 percent of the crowd was much closer in age to her than it was to me. This was a young group brought together by the defense of reproductive rights, which is one of, in my view, the great social advances of the 1960s. So I think that there is a core committed to defense of those gains from the 1960s.

    I think what you don't have, where the '60s were different, was this tremendous, compelling image of young — young and old, but especially young — black students in the South who were challenging this century-old tradition of racial discrimination, of Jim Crow, and winning. You know, you could see the young people who were making these very brave [actions] at the risk of their lives, coming up against the Ku Klux Klan and the Southern sheriffs and shaking the old order. And I think that's what you don't have today — a sense that the order can be changed. People can be roused to defend existing rights; the sense that society is really plastic and can be re-formed and remade is something that, as far as I can see, the students I teach don't have. They're kind of wistful about it. They look back at the '60s nostalgically, in the same way that other people look back at World War II and the "greatest generation" nostalgically. But they think that that's gone — the days when "giants strode the earth," like Martin Luther King, and really remade things are no longer possible. It's sad to see that, even among people who basically share my values and share my aspirations but think, "That could never happen again."

      
      I think what you don't have, where the '60s were different, was this tremendous, compelling image of young black students in the South who were challenging this century-old tradition of racial discrimination, of Jim Crow — and winning. I think that's what you don't have today — a sense that the order can be changed.
      
    Q: Do you feel that's the case?

    MAURICE ISSERMAN: Well ... um ... I feel ... yeah, I do feel that's the case. [Laughs] I think that could change. I think that they could see an example of a world-changing event and say, "Hey, we could do that." I mean, if John Kerry wins and there's space opened up for social movements and you see new laws and new rights gained, it could change entirely. But all they have seen in looking back over the history of the last three decades is a slow erosion of the gains made in the 1960s. They haven't really seen that period of change and possibility.

    Q: A certain parallel that has occurred to me recently is the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964, which is credited with creating so much activism on the right, which came to fruition a decade or two later. And it feels to me this year like there is a great activation of the left, of a lot of energy that was dormant for a long time. And I don't know how this election is going to come out, but I wonder if we're going to see a lot of development on the left, starting from this year.

    MAURICE ISSERMAN: Well, I'm a historian — I only predict the past, I don't predict the future! But it's true that the Goldwater right was very shrewd politically. After 1964, many mainstream commentators were not only writing off conservatism — they were writing off the Republican Party. "Well, you know, it's gone." And the Goldwater Republicans dug in, and in '66, with Ronald Reagan's victory, [were] showing what they could do in particular states.

    But everything broke right for them — the Vietnam War, the riots, the long hot summers, and so on. Even so, in 1968, if Bobby Kennedy had not been assassinated, I think he would have secured the nomination of the Democratic Party in Chicago and I think he would have won. I mean, Hubert Humphrey, a completely pallid and unappealing candidate compromised by his support for the war, nearly caught up with Nixon — in which case, you just kind of rewrite the entire subsequent history of the 20th century.

    Or to give another example, in 1976 Jimmy Carter nearly lost the election to Gerald Ford. He was a very inept campaigner, as it turned out. Let's suppose Gerald Ford had been elected in 1976. That means that the economic difficulties of the late 1970s, the Arab oil embargo, and the Iranian hostage crisis — and he wouldn't have done anything different than Jimmy Carter did — would all have been on the Republicans' plate, and Teddy Kennedy would have been elected president in 1980. Ronald Reagan would be a footnote. "Oh, you know, former governor of California who never quite made it in national politics."

    There are long-term developments that favored a conservative and Republican ascendancy — but it's also the case that particular fortuitous sets of circumstances broke just right for conservatives, from the '60s down to the present. 9/11, you know, God help us, was a great break for George W. Bush, who otherwise would have to be running on a really poor economic record and have nothing else in his arsenal in 2004. But it was a circumstance that, as well as killing many, many people and leading to a very tragic outcome, also worked very well for Karl Rove's economic strategy.


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