The 1960s were the beginning of the end

In many ways the 1960s were the beginning of the end for the US. At least that’s the way many writers see the chaotic decade of the Vietnam war, racism, civil rights and the revolt of college students.

One of the most famous of the books about the 1960s is Rick Pearlstein’s book Nixonland: the rise of a President and the fracturing of America. This book was published in 2008. I read the book when it came out but since I now remember little of the details I decided to reread it. In my opinion this is one great book.

Winter grasses along the Snake River in the Tetons.  As usual I include of images of natural America to remind us that not all is lost yet. Places like this always remind me that there is still hope.  Maybe its not true that  the 1960s were the beginning of the end.
Winter grasses along the Snake River in the Tetons. As usual I include images of natural America to remind us that not all is lost yet.

“Nixonland” is one of the best books about the 1960s

The main idea of “Nixonland” is that the 1960s were a watershed in America. In that era almost everything we thought we knew about America changed.

Nixonland is a very long book, 834 pages. It is a political history of America in the 1960s. In the simplest of terms it is the story of what happened in America between the Johnson landslide in 1964 and the Nixon landslide in 1972. These are the years when American first divided into red and blue, the years when liberals and conseratives first became irreconcilable enemies to the detriment of the country.

The great issues of those years were Vietnam and racism and civil rights. These were the issues that began the breaking of America. This is where the line that runs directly from Nixon to Reagan to Gingrich to Trump began. This is the story of the rise of conservatism and the triumph of Republicanism and the fall of an America where citizens believed in community and the common good. This is where that story began, with Richard Nixon. It is also the story of the end of the New Deal and the political rise of an embittered and resentful working class that eventually became the Trump base. These are the years when the New Deal, begun by FDR in 1932, gave prosperity and respect to the working and middle class and then ended with the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. LBJ was probably the last New Deal President.

Nixonland is an incredibly detailed book. l can’t tell you about the whole thing in one short post, so here is just one little piece of it that stood out for me.

In one of the early chapters of the book Perlstein talks about the long summer of 1966.  This was the summer when all hell broke loose in Vietnam and in racially broken America when riots and racist bedlam dominated the news.  Nixon was busy saying he was totally opposed to the kooky far right but his actual words sounded an awful lot like Goldwaters, the far right conservative who ran for president against Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

In the summer of 1966 America itself was in chaos and violence was exploding both in the American heartland and in Vietnam.  

Layered rock and pebbles along the Green River in Utah
Layered rock and pebbles along the Green River in Utah

Perlstein pauses for a bit in his description of this long hot summer to talk about Chicago. In Chicago, white neighbourhoods had long been building fences to keep Blacks out and Blacks were deciding they had had just about enough of this.  It was the time of Black is Beuautful, straight pressed Black hair was out, Afros were in, and Stockely Carmichael was saying that he had had enough too.  He had gone to jail 27 times now for what he believed in and dammed if he was going again.  It was time for blacks to assert their dignity, it was time to start fighting back.

Many of the white urban neighbourhoods in Chicago were quite nice places to live in. There was a reason they were so nice. These comfortable lilly-white Chicago neighbourhoods had a long history.

In the first part of the 20th century whites were called from Europe to work in America’s industries in places like Chicago.  And then a bit later Blacks were called from the American South to work in the same industries, except in dirtier and lower paid jobs.  At first, all of this new urban working class, both blacks and whites, lived in tenement buildings in the slums of Chicago 

But in the 1920s economic boom, whites were able to put together enough money to move out of the slums and buy cheap bungalows in attractive neighbourhoods.  Blacks were seldom paid enough to make it out of the slums and out of the tenement buildings where they remained living in the direst poverty.

The story of where the bungalows in the best neighbourhoods came from in the first place is an interesting story.


Soft foggy dawn on Logan Pass in Glacier National Park in Montana.   Places like this always remind me that there is still hope.  Maybe its not true that  the 1960s were the beginning of the end.
Soft foggy dawn on Logan Pass in Glacier National Park in Montana

The bungalows of Chicago and all the other American industrial cities first came from the British craft movement at a very opportune time, just when they were most needed.  These bungalows revolutionised urban living for working and middle class families all over the Western world. Perlstein puts it this way:

“Idealistic reformers coming out of England’s Arts and Crafts movement devised a new form of cheap and felicitous housing unmatched in the history of the industrial working class: the urban “bungalow.” Squat, handsome, one-and-a-half-story single-family homes in sturdy brick, garden plots out front, each a happy marriage of community-building uniformity and dignity-enhancing individuality (families could choose their own geometrically patterned brickwork…Each home had plentiful sunlight; minimal traffic (garages were in the back alley); endless ribbons of common greensward out front for children to play; each neighborhood anchored by parish church and school; all manner of citizens’ bunds to join; lively neighborhood newspapers; attentive block captains under the discipline of Daley’s Democratic machine attuned to their every municipal need.”

These homes changed the world of the working and middle classes.  This is a good example of America at its greatest. These homes were built all over America and sold at reasonable prices, especially after WWII with federal subsidies. This white America was not perfect of course, it mostly left out Black America.

Black people were mostly fenced out of this world of leafy, cool, beautiful neighbourhoods.  This fencing out was done mostly by housing and real-estate restrictions that redlined certain areas as not available to blacks.

Sunset in the Tetons in Wyoming.   Places like this always remind me that there is still hope.  Maybe its not true that  the 1960s were the beginning of the end.
Sunset in the Tetons in Wyoming

There were of course some black neighborhoods that were also somewhat nice, but on a lower scale. As America grew more prosperous life got slowly better for everyone.

Robert Putnam and the loss of community

This comfortable world of family and community and good jobs began ending in the 1960s.  The American world began changing in many ways in this chaotic decade. To describe this change allow me leave Rick Perstein’s book “Nixonland” and move to a series of books by Robert Putnam. Putnam is, in my opinion, just as great a writer as Perlstein. Where Perlstein looks at the world through a political lens, Putnam does so through a social and cultural lens.

The theme of a series of books by Robert Putnam is that the sense of community and togetherness in urban America began to fail in 1960 and was pretty much dead by 2000. 

And it wasn’t just community.  It was also wages, healthcare, education, secure jobs, honest political representation, and many other things that began to end in the 1960s.  Putnam’s books are all about the story of the end of America as a great and progressive nation.  

Here are the best of Putnams books’

“Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community.”  Published in 2000

“Our Kids, The American Dream in Crisis”,  Published in 2015

“The Upswing: How America came together a century ago and how we can do it again”. Published in  2021

Putnam is sometimes a little bit derided for being sentimental and generalising too much.  To a degree this may be true but I think there is a great deal of truth in his theme of the loss of community in America.

Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park in CO.   Places like this always remind me that there is still hope.  Maybe its not true that  the 1960s were the beginning of the end.
Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park in CO. Places like this always remind me that there is still hope. Maybe it’s not entirely true that the 1960s were the beginning of the end.

In his 2021 book “The Upswing,” Putnam extends his ideas a little from his first book “Bowling Alone”.  The theme of “The Upswing” is that the history of the last 120 years of America is an inverted U.  At the very beginning of the 20th century the US was much like it is now: atomized, no sense of community , failing jobs, inequality, stagnating wages, failing education, despair, resentment and anger.  But, says Putnam, all of this began to gradually get better through the New Deal and the postwar years to a peak in 1960 when JFK asked people to ask not what their country could do for them but what they could do for their country.   And many responded by joining the peace core and other public service organizations. 

Putnam sees the election of JFK as the peak of American prosperity and community; or at least as a symbol of that peak. Then the 1960s imploded with race wars and Vietnam and politicians like Nixon who preyed on the resulting chaos.   And gradually social, cultural, and economic values began to disintegrate until America is now no longer a good place to live.  

But, says Putnam, perhaps we can re-create the rise of prosperity and community that began once before in 1900. He sees hopeful signs that this may be happening right now. He thinks that maybe in the decade of the 2020s we may be able to reverse the trends that began in the 1960s .

Nixonland tells the political part of the story of the fall of America beginning with Nixon, then Reagan, then Gingrich and finally Trump.  I think these four politicians had a lot to do with the disintegration of America that began in the 1960s.  The 1960s were a water shed decade when America broke in two. 

Dawn in Dead Horse State Park in Utah.   Places like this always remind me that there is still hope.  Maybe its not true that  the 1960s were the beginning of the end.
Dawn in Dead Horse State Park in Utah

Putnam in, “The Upswing,” thinks that there may be a chance that we may be able to start another upswing in the loop of American history.  I think this is likely.  Biden may have broken the mold of president as destructive manipulator.  And I am now reading a lot about the end of the neoliberalism that was put in place by Reagan. Reagan’s neoliberalism which celebrated selfishness and extreme individuality had a lot to do with the destruction of American community.

Just today, July 13, 2021, the New YorkTimes had an article titled “America’s 40-Year Experiment With Big Business Is Over.” This article is about the end of big busines’s free ride with little competition and less regulation.  It is about the return of competition and trust-busting in America.  

It could be that we are now on the upswing once again, after the long descent from the 1960s. Maybe we can once again return to the community and the common good, and public service that were once commonplace in postwar America.

Dallas Divide near Telluride in Colorado

More reading on this subject

Books by Rick Perlstein

Before the storm: Barry Goldwater and the unmaking of the American consensus

Nixonland: The rise of a president and the fracturing of America

The invisible bridge: the fall of Nixon and the rise of Reagan

Reganland: America’s right turn 1976-1980

Books by Robert Putnam

“Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community.”  Published in 2000

“Our Kids, The American Dream in Crisis”,  Published in 2015

“The Upswing: How America came together a century ago and how we can do it again”. Published in  2021

There is one more great book about the rise of conservatism In America

Democracy in Chains: The deep history of the radical right’s Stealth plan for America by Nancy MacLean

Is it possible to change America?

A few more images of natural America

Autumn along the Crystal River in Colorado.   Places like this always remind me that there is still hope.  Maybe its not true that  the 1960s were the beginning of the end.
Autumn along the Crystal River in Colorado
Birch and Maple along he Swift River in New Hampshire.   Places like this always remind me that there is still hope.  Maybe its not true that  the 1960s were the beginning of the end.
Birch and Maple along he Swift River in New Hampshire. Places like this always remind me that there is still hope. Maybe it’s not entirely true that the 1960s were the beginning of the end.
Yankee Boy Basin Colorado.   Places like this always remind me that there is still hope.  Maybe its not true that  the 1960s were the beginning of the end.
Yankee Boy Basin Colorado. Places like this always remind me that there is still hope. Maybe it’s not entirely true that the 1960s were the beginning of the end.
Gibbon River in Yellowstone
Gibbon River in Yellowstone
Jenny Lake in the Tetons.   Places like this always remind me that there is still hope.  Maybe its not true that  the 1960s were the beginning of the end.
Jenny Lake in Teton National Park. Places like this always remind me that there is still hope. Maybe it’s not entirely true that the 1960s were the beginning of the end.
White Columbine on Teton Pass in Wyoming.   Places like this always remind me that there is still hope.  Maybe its not true that  the 1960s were the beginning of the end.
White Columbines on Teton Pass in Wyoming. Places like this always remind me that there is still hope. Maybe it’s not entirely true that the 1960s were the beginning of the end.

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