Aug 11, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 47 • By JONAH GOLDBERG
Throughout the "Ike Age" of the 1950s, the Left simmered while the Right seethed. Eisenhower's popularity, coupled with his acceptance of the New Deal, made true-believing conservatives feel like Christians in ancient Rome. With the arrival of the 1960s, both ends of the political spectrum came to a boil - - with the Right heating up first.
Each side had its youthful shock troops. About Students for a Democratic Society and other organizations in the leftist orbit, we have heard much. Indeed, SDS's call to arms -- the Port Huron Statement -- is required reading in many college political-science courses. But about Young Americans for Freedom -- vanguard of the Right -- we have heard little. Thus, John A. Andrew's The Other Side of the Sixties provides a valuable service.
Andrew points out that the Left and Right have worked together to propagate a particular image of the 1960s -- that it was a time of left-wing protest politics. Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich have been among the chief endorsers of this notion. But Andrew demonstrates that the decade included far more than left-radical agitation. YAF had approximately as many members as SDS. YAF organized earlier, and perhaps better, than SDS. It was in 1960 that YAF convened in Sharon, Connecticut, to decide on its principles; SDS did not hold its conclave in Port Huron, Michigan, until two years later.
Furthermore, YAF was considerably more blue collar than SDS, whose members were more privileged and held a decidedly elitist view of their role in the world. The YAFers, not the SDSers, sounded the louder alarm. The opening line of the Sharon Statement reads, "In this time of moral and political crisis, it is the responsibility of the youth of America to affirm certain eternal truths." The Port Huron Statement, meanwhile, begins with a certain lazy honesty about its self-indulgence: "We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit." And it is the authors of the Port Huron Statement who reside in syllabi alongside the men who wrote the Federalist Papers.
Why were the devotees of Russell Kirk routed by those of Herbert Marcuse? It could be that YAF set out to clean house and SDS, eventually, to burn it down. But a deeper answer may lie in the competing visions of the two camps. Leftist radicals could afford to be self-indulgent, their vision unconstrained. After all, they believed the U.S. government had the wealth and expertise to do anything it wanted, and that the Soviet Union was as often as not the wronged party in the Cold War. The conservatives had no such luxury. Young conservatives believed that communism was a very real threat abroad and that the leviathan state was metastasizing at home. In short, they had to be grown-ups, and hence a little boring. If you believe the Bolsheviks are at your door, you don't have time for bong hits. Therefore, Todd Gitlin's bestselling book The Sixties makes for more entertaining reading than, say, George Nash's The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945.
The Left has masterfully spun the colossal mess it made of the universities and other institutions -- as the serious politics of the 1960s. And as Andrew notes, many conservatives have bought this interpretation. But at long last, the revisionism has begun. The real mystery is why anyone swallowed the other line in the first place. After all, most of the radical leftists of the 1960s climbed down off the shoulders of giants, rejecting the wisdom of centuries in favor of . . . what? A communal adhocracy driven by the mantra " If it feels good, do it."
The founders of YAF were dedicated to the "wisdom of the ancients." This is the real historical curiosity. Almost since the founding, America's students have tried to grab the steering wheel from the back seat. As Oscar Wilde once observed, "In America, the young are always ready to give those who are older than themselves the full benefits of their inexperience." What Andrew demonstrates is the extent to which the young men and women of YAF were willing to do their homework, rather than make it up as they went along. There were, of course, some very serious people on the left -- Gitlin, a former SDS president, was one of them -- but generally left-wing radicals behaved as if their parents were out of town, while conservatives acted as if they were on their first summer job at their dad's office.