Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Pp. X+358. ISBN 0-19-509190-6.
"America Divided" is an unhappily appropriate title for a book that seeks to delineate the story about "the intertwined conflicts" over issues of political philosophy, race relations, gender roles and personal morality that were raised in the 1960s and were left mostly unresolved since then.
In their effort to avoid political and generational partisanship, as they claim, Isserman and Kazin do not offer a "total interpretation" but rather suggest some larger interpretative guidelines to young Americans for understanding the decade beyond popular cultural products such as "the Beatles, Woodstock and Star Trek."
In order to do so, they expand their narrative beyond the borders of a single decade, offering brief histories to any event, issue or aspect of American culture they believe is related to the 1960s (f.ex. explanations of the Vietnam War reach back to World War II and the ensuing Cold War rhetoric; the sexual insurgency is related to the well-known studies of Kinsey and Masters and Johnson on sexuality as well as its influence on gender politics in the 1980s and 1990s; the use of LSD from the youth communities is followed by the history of its discovery and experimentation from the CIA; etc.).
As a result, the narrative is impeded by constant deviations and non-linear renderings of the period which - though closer to our contemporary sense of history - make for often difficult reading.
The book compensates with its emphasis on the central role certain groups in society (blacks, women, student activists) have played in the shaping of historical events. Rather than writing history from the perspective of those in power, the authors concentrate on the energy and thrust of the social reform movements and the anti-Vietnam War protests in the 1960s. They argue persuasively how the spirit of reform developed into radicalism and rebellion by black militants and SDS activists which, in turn, led to assassinations, political disarray and cultural anarchy that brought an end to liberalism as a dominant ideological stance and established an era of political, economic, and cultural conservatism that now deminates the country (the authors believe that even Democrat Bill Clinton's major accomplishments in office were ones that conservatives had long advocated).
With its crisp, straightforward language, previously unpublished photos from various sources and maps this book is an impressive accomplishment not to be missed by students and scholars of American history and culture.
Faculty of English Studies
University of Athens