Monday, February 13, 2012

"Mad Men," "Alcatraz," and the Fascination with the Kennedy Era

Propelled by the unlikely success of AMC”s  “Mad Men,” television has been fascinated by the early 1960s in recent years.  The current season has featured “Pan Am,” “Playboy Club,” and “Alcatraz,” which have all been set during this time period.  While “Alcatraz” is the only one of these shows likely to be renewed, the continuing interest in this period reflects a persistent nostalgia for the United States before the social and political changes of the 1960s.

Following the Kennedy assasination, the nation went though a series of upheavals, from Vietnam to race riots to Watergate.  Though the Kennedy era witnessed the beginning of the civil rights movement, with sit-ins as well as the March on Washington, many scholars do not believe the decade truly began until the mid-1960s.  One historian refers to 1964 as “The Last Innocent Year,” as the major aspects of the turbulent decade did not start until after the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Though there were 16,000 U.S. advisers in Vietnam by 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson did not send American ground troops until 1965, when it became clear South Vietnam would fall to communism without direct U.S. military involvement.  While there had been minimal antiwar activity early in the war, opposition to the conflict grew every year after 1965, as casualties mounted.  By 1968, a majority of Americans believed the war had been a mistake and protesters and police squared off at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Furthermore, the non-violence and the interracialism of the early civil rights movement gave way to assertions of self-defense and black nationalism. Only a week after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, race riots broke out in Watts, followed by three more years of “long, hot, summers,” culminating in a national wave of violence after Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis in 1968.  One of the few cities that did not experience disorder was Indianapolis, where Robert Kennedy was campaigning for president in the Indiana primary.  After informing the crowd that King had been shot, RFK told them of the anger he had felt after his brother’s murder and urged the audience to reject violence. The younger Kennedy seemed to be a unifying figure in a divisive time, able to reach out to both blacks and disaffected working-class whites.  Adding to the turmoil of that year, RFK himself was assassinated two months later in Los Angeles, immediately after winning the California primary.

Richard Nixon achieved a historic political comeback to win the 1968 presidential election over Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, and sought to end the war in Southeast Asia through “Vietnamization”; that is, turning over military responsibilities to the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN).  Nevertheless, the anti-war movement continued to grow, peaking in 1970 when Nixon expanded the war by invading Cambodia.  The largest wave of campus protests followed and five Kent State students were shot and killed by Ohio National Guardsman.

Eventually, American military involvement in Vietnam came to a close with the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, but it took a toll on the country, both in terms of 58,000 casualties as well as a loss of trust in government and other major institutions.  President Johnson and military leaders had repeatedly insisted we were winning the war and these lies gave way to a “credibility gap” between the public and Washington.  This gap expanded because of Nixon’s prevarications during the Watergate scandal.  In the early 1960s, three quarters of Americans trusted the government to do the right thing all or most of the time. Since Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate scandal in 1974, it has been rare to find a poll where even one-third of the country trusts the government in such a fashion.

In addition, social and cultural changes disturbed many traditionally minded Americans.  The divorce rate rose dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s, as did the number of children born out-of-wedlock.  Many blamed these trends on the emerging feminist movement.  After the Stonewall riots in 1969, gays also began to come out of the closet and organize politically.

As a result, nostalgia grew for the seeming calm of the 1950s and early 1960s.   George Lucas’ film “American Graffiti” (1973) and the television show “Happy Days,” (1974-1984) were early examples of this phenomenon.  Coming in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, they presented an optimistic vision of Eisenhower-era America, without showing the darker sides of the period, such as racial segregation and McCarthyism.

In latter years, social conservatives often promoted an image of the 1950s as a time of stable families when America led the world militarily.  On “Meet the Press” in 1995, Newt Gingrich praised the 1950s, saying that liberal Democratic policies and the 60s counterculture had undermined the traditional families of the time, causing modern social problems.

It is not only conservatives who harken back to the Kennedy era.  Numerous hagiographic accounts of the Kennedy presidency have promoted the idea of his administration as “Camelot.” Oliver Stone’s “JFK” (1991) suggested that if President Kennedy had lived, he wouldn’t have escalated the war in Vietnam.  Indeed, the upheavals that followed the Kennedy assassination are a major reason for the persistent JFK nostalgia.  His presidency now looks like the calm before the storm.

Of course, “Mad Men” is no “Happy Days.”  The show clearly illuminates some of the downsides of the time, particularly the institutionalized sexism.  Still, some observers have suggested that the early seasons romanticize the period.  I’ve stopped watching “Pan Am,” but it did seem to indulge in nostalgia, suggesting that stewardesses are the avatars of feminism and largely ignoring the difficulties they faced.  It is too early to tell with “Alcatraz,” which moves back and forth in “Lost”-like fashion between present day and the early 60s.  Nevertheless, the proliferation of such shows, as well as the continued fascination with JFK, show the nation still has a soft spot for that era in American history.

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