This is the fifth essay in a series devoted to examining citizenship and the American citizen, the rights, duties, and norms of which have become ever more contentious since the divisive Sixties. They have become especially relevant in recent years with the actions of Edward Snowden and Colin Kaepernick, and with the election of Donald Trump and his proposed policies on immigration reform and his accusatory statements against those who do not stand for the national anthem.
As a human body is only as healthy as its individual cells, so a civilization or modern state is only as healthy as its individual citizens. As a healthy human body is sustained by new, healthy cells, so a modern state needs continuous rejuvenation with new, healthy, good citizens to sustain itself, especially in times of stress.
The Greatest Generation of citizens experienced not one but two searing events during their lifetimes: the Great Depression and World War II. Having endured and survived these two mortal threats, they had come to know and understand each other better because of these common experiences and, by the early 1950s, faced a common threat—the Soviet Union.
Generally, the greater the threat to a civilization and—in modern history—a state, the greater is the importance to the state of devoted, patriotic citizens and the greater is the tendency of citizens to suppress their differences and strengthen their allegiance to the state. Such was the case in the United States during the first two decades of the Cold War (roughly 1947-1967), the latter half of which I personally experienced as a young adult.
Growing up in the 1950s and early 60s in a middle-class town in northern New Jersey, I drew a sense of citizenship from the common national and local symbols and rituals of the era, which citizens never significantly challenged. At our elementary school we recited daily and dutifully the Pledge of Allegiance and endured the occasional air raid drill. During these drills to prepare us for a nuclear war, we marched to a protected place in the school where we would sit and cover our heads with our arms and hands.
At the movies, everyone stood without hesitation before each movie and listened respectfully to the national anthem as an unfurled and flowing flag filled the screen. This tribute was also done before each sporting event. On those lucky summer days when my father would bring me to a New York Yankees baseball game, I cannot recall anyone not standing or even anyone not paying attention.
The two most jarring events of these years were the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. After the first I could sense from the adults I heard and the news media I saw the surprise and anxiety that our enemies, the Soviets, had beaten us in the space race. There was distress, captured in the movie, Hidden Figures, that they could now launch an attack on the continental United States, and we did not have the corresponding capability. Fallout shelter designs appeared in the major magazines. Perhaps not so coincidentally at this time, my father, brother and I, enlarged a crawl space in our basement to accommodate our family in case of a national crisis. It seemed these crises and news of proxy wars in distant places like the Congo and Vietnam between “us” and “them” galvanized American citizens to our country and its way of life. The requirements and rituals of citizenship were clear and unchallenged, at least in white, middle-class America.
In postwar America, then, the common beliefs and duties of the American citizen were clear and unchallenged in white, middle-class America. First, a belief in “America the beautiful.” We had led the Allies to victory and were once again pursuing happiness and making our country even stronger. We had accepted the mantel of leadership and gladly assumed the title of “leader of the free world.” New York was the financial capital of the world; Hollywood and New York made us the cultural capital of the world. Middle class Americans were moving to the suburbs and had enough income to buy the newest cars, appliances, and televisions. The popular family TV shows portrayed idealistic families and family life. In the movies as well as in our TV shows, truth, justice, and the American way usually prevailed in the end, good guys generally beat the bad guys.
Second, we certainly had some problems but the country as a whole was a just and fair society, based on the rule by law. There were no genuine and systematic injustices. Those who complained or said otherwise were either insignificant or un-American.
Third, the good American citizen had to stand by America. It was “America: May it always be right, but my country, right or wrong.” America was faced with a mortal enemy who had a political and economic system entirely opposed to the American system: Soviet communism. Unquestioning faith in our leaders and our policies, unity, and vigilance were now needed. While the Cold War had begun in Europe, throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, it had spread to entire globe. In 1949, China also went communist. In 1950, Korea exploded into war. By the early 1960s, the Cold War was global and the threat of nuclear war hung over American civilization.
Fourth, during the first two decades of the postwar era, the traditional authority figures of American society held the commanding heights of our ethical codes of behavior. Political leaders, community leaders, the leaders of civic organizations such as the Rotary, Elks Club, Lions Club, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars; church leaders; the police; and finally parents were all generally trusted and respected.
Lastly, while there were the exceptions like the Beats Generation in Greenwich Village and the rebels who followed the lead of James Dean, conformity was the general rule. The movie stars set the fashion trends. Men’s haircuts were short. High school and college students dressed up to go to school and to dances. Parents, school officials, and other authority figures enforced the rules, and most children and young adults obeyed.
The 1950s’ age of conformity and consensus was a high time for citizenship, patriotism, and American unity in white, middle-class America. However, by the mid-1960s, the fissures in American society, simmering since Brown vs. Board of Education, began to gain force. In February, 1960, four young black men endured abuse as they sat at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, waiting to be served. The golden age of the Kennedy Camelot ended with bullets on November 22, 1963. The first American soldier was killed in Vietnam in 1959; in March 1965, the first US combat units were deployed to Vietnam to take over and win that proxy war we believed was being led by Moscow. Our unity in patriotism to the state, its leaders, and its policies were now to be challenged by forces of change from the Left Movement, including the civil rights movement, the movement against the arms race and the Vietnam War, the counterculture movement, the women’s movement, and the environmental movement.
(See Part VI: Citizenship in the Divisive Sixties.)