In The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s, David Farber outlines the economic, social and political changes that served to transition American society from the Cold War years to a time of world dominance through new ideas, new products, and new responsibilities.
Farber presents the economic resurgence of America in the post-war years as a clash of values between the saving-and-manufacturing ethos of those who had faced the Great Depression, and the consumerist ethos of younger citizens of what had grown to be the richest nation in the world. The emergence of life in self-contained homes in the suburbs, gleaming automobiles with exaggerated embellishments, and a craze for appliances that promised a “push-button” solution to household chores characterized this new phase of prosperity. This contrasted starkly with the much more austere values of those who had been adults during the War.
Alongside their increased prosperity, Americans were also learning what it meant to be one of the two superpowers in a polarized world. Two contrasting styles of leadership were seen at the beginning of the 1960s. During the Presidential campaign of 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy was committed to change, and Vice President Richard M. Nixon was committed to preserving the anti-Communist, conservative Cold War legacy of President Eisenhower. Their respective followers also represented how different generations, communities and groups of Americans viewed their country and the world.
A national market system, nationally integrated radio shows, sports leagues, and mass-circulation magazines brought disparate Americans into a developing national mainstream culture. TV shows—like The Beverly Hillbillies, which showed a family used to a rural lifestyle dealing with the sudden prosperity of a Californian mansion—had millions of viewers. Rock 'n' Roll music arrived, and with it arrived the emergence of music as an industry worth millions of dollars. For many, the Beatles’ songs and the songs of their contemporaries represented a freer world. This was particularly because young people were breaking with the past and expressing emotions like exuberant joy or sexual longing that had been held in check by their predecessors.
This decade was extremely significant for the manner in which issues of race—of segregation versus equality and of discrimination versus justice—would occupy center stage and lead to the birth of an active and vocal civil rights movement. Southern black people took a stand against racism and segregation and convinced leaders of the Democratic Party that racial equality and social justice needed to be given the highest priority. A clutch of activist factions made it clear that more radical solutions to issues of race were needed than had hitherto been considered or implemented. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) provided leadership for African Americans even as federal government intervention in matters of race increased, such as the presence of US Marshals at the entry of Air Force veteran James Meredith into the all-white University of Mississippi.
Differing opinions on how the war on poverty was to be waged led to mixed results and did not succeed in narrowing the gaps between the rich and the poor. Food Stamps, Community Action Programs, and Medicaid and Medicare programs were only some of the means that were attempted to address economic inequalities. Some of these led to a hardening of attitudes among those who resented the beneficiaries of “dole” or social welfare cheques, and this has stayed to the present day.
Undoubtedly, the Vietnam war influenced much of what happened in this decade, from foreign policy to military involvement and, finally, the growing antiwar movement. Farber has spent a considerable portion of his book analyzing how the military-industrial nexus mentioned by Eisenhower in his farewell speech in February 1961 influenced American policy in Vietnam. He has also outlined how the Americans misread the popularity and mass appeal of Ho Chi Minh beyond the borders of North Vietnam into the South ruled by Ngo Dinh Diem with US support. The consequences of this were growing numbers of body bags returning to the US and the disenchantment of youth with their country’s professed claims to being guardians of the Vietnamese people against Communist threats and invasion.
The antiwar movement, along with heightened levels of marijuana usage and the pervasive influence of music, led to the creation of a “counterculture” or rebellious rejection of the “traditional” values of American life. This image of the rebellious member of the counterculture has stayed as perhaps the most recognizable stereotype of the 60s.
They believed that the “traditional” verities and “traditional” values of American life were what had produced the war in Vietnam and racism and a lot of other ugliness and stupidity. They did not accept the stories most white Americans told themselves about themselves: that they were the best, most generous, most free people on earth. They advocated new identities, new dreams, and radical change. By the late 1960s this fight over values, morality, and the fundamental nature of American life inflamed America.
The final churn towards the end of the decade was provided by the women’s liberation movement and the movement for a healthier planet by ecological activists. Both of these have gained more momentum and evolved in different ways over the subsequent decades, to retain an important role in how public policy is shaped and executed. Undoubtedly, gender justice and a greater responsibility towards the environment have come about due to how Americans began to view these matters in the 1960s.
In conclusion, it can be said that David Farber succeeds in providing ample examples and observations to support his thesis that the cultural and political struggles of the 1960s led to structural shifts that have defined the US to the present day, and it is therefore necessary to understand them.