“Since the First World War,” Norman Mailer wrote in 1960, “Americans have been leading a double life, and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground.” On the surface there was “the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull.” Yet coursing beneath was “a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires,” expressing the “concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation.”
The purpose of Mailer’s essay, which appeared in the November 1960 issue of Esquire, was to reflect on the implications of John F. Kennedy’s possible election as U.S. president, should Kennedy succeed the practical and dull (if also reassuring) Dwight D. Eisenhower.
As for Kennedy himself, Mailer had his doubts. But he did not doubt that JFK’s candidacy represented “a choice which history had never presented to a nation before.” His election would be “an existential event,” bringing to the surface the subterranean river with all of its coiled force and suppressed energy.
To say that Mailer’s speculation turned out to be prescient is to understate the case. When Kennedy took office, the subterranean river did breach the surface. In short order came the epic flood commonly known ever since as the Sixties.
Kennedy himself had little to do with the ensuing events. Notwithstanding heroic efforts by various writers to hype the fraudulent legend of Camelot, Kennedy’s abbreviated presidency produced an ambiguous legacy. His recklessness lit the fuse that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which he managed to snuff out just in time. For that we should be grateful. Yet Kennedy also affirmed and deepened the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam, and for that no gratitude is due. What matters most about Kennedy was his assassination: after Dallas came the deluge.
As for the developments that lent to the Sixties its particular character, Kennedy neither anticipated nor understood them. Much the same can be said of his successor Lyndon Johnson, whose own presidency was swamped and capsized by the floodwaters of the subterranean river.
More assassinations and attempted assassinations, antiwar protests on an epic scale, cities torn by widespread rioting, the rise of a counterculture, new strains of political radicalism, the appearance of domestic terrorism, an overall assault on the legitimacy of established institutions: by 1968, the country itself seemed on the verge of coming apart. All of these were the product of discontent and anger that the political establishment struggled vainly to comprehend.
Allow me to suggest that we find ourselves today in a comparable situation—not identical, but with enough similarities to invite reflection. Once more the subterranean river has unleashed the forces of ecstasy and violence. In the 1960s, broadly speaking, those forces emerged from the far Left. In the present moment, broadly speaking, they come from the far Right. Yet as was the case in 1968, the possibility of things spinning out of control now presents itself, as the country lurches from one outrage to the next, with the massacre in the Pittsburgh synagogue offering only the latest example. And as in 1968, little evidence exists to suggest that the nation’s political class has the capacity to comprehend what is occurring, much less the wit and courage needed to address the problem.
So it’s worth recalling how the nation did manage to emerge from the Sixties, bruised and bewildered but more or less intact.
More than a little credit is due to Richard Nixon who, whatever his faults, was a master politician. Nixon the strategist correctly discerned that the key to restoring some semblance of domestic calm was to end the Vietnam War. His program of progressively drawing down U.S. forces committed to Southeast Asia both reduced American casualties and made it possible to terminate conscription. Nothing did more to encourage protesters to find better things to do with their time. The ultimate result was not “peace with honor,” yet by the time of Nixon’s impeachment, the floodwaters had nonetheless begun to subside. This was no mean accomplishment.
A second factor may have been even more important in bringing the Sixties to an end. This was the nihilism to which at least some on the Left had succumbed. Consider the contrast between the idealistic Port Huron Statement of 1962 and the Weather Underground’s bizarre declaration of war on the United States in 1970, which summoned “Amerika’s youth to use our strategic position behind enemy lines to join forces in the destruction of the empire.”
For a time, the radicalism of the Sixties burned very hot indeed. Yet it soon burned out, with the great majority of Americans accommodating themselves to the “empire,” whatever its shortcomings. They will do so again today.
Despite the unremitting hysteria of the mainstream media and the handwringing of the American intelligentsia, the election of Donald Trump does not qualify as an existential event. That said, in November 2016, the subterranean river did resurface once again. Sadly, no figure on the political stage today, regardless of party, possesses anything like Nixon’s shrewdness in coping with the consequences. So when it comes to draining the floodwaters of radical reaction that Trump’s victory unleashed, we should expect little help from Washington.
Yet let us not despair. The ebb and flow of events in the 1960s should give us confidence that the center will ultimately hold. The market for ecstasy and violence will once more prove to be limited and transitory. Today’s alt-right is no more likely to win the support of ordinary Americans than did the Weather Underground during the infamous Days of Rage.
In due time, an appreciation for reality and a sense of decency will reassert themselves. In the meantime, the responsibility of conservatives is to hew to their principles, which should begin with respect for the Constitution and its promises of Union, Justice, domestic Tranquility, the general Welfare, and the Blessings of Liberty for all Americans.
Andrew Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large. His new book is Twilight of the American Century, published by the University of Notre Dame Press.