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11:00 PM, Nov 5, 1995 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
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Tell me what you think of [the 1960s], and I'll tell you what your politics are," once said Joseph Epstein, the editor of the American Scholar. Of course, you might make much the same point about the 1980s or the 1950s, but the 1960s stand out as a decade of particularly intense cultural and political convulsions.

The American liberalism shaped by Roosevelt and Truman, which was anchored in blue-collar precincts, and which gave us the welfare state, internationalism, and civil rights laws, was killed off in the 1960s. This set the stage for decades of battles between the new liberalism of McGovern, Carter, and Clinton and the new conservatism of Reagan and Gingrich. As for the cultural legacy, hemlines have dropped back from the record heights they reached in the 60s, but the rates of illegitimacy, divorce, and recreational drug use have just kept climbing. The Republican congressional revolution may again reshape American politics, but for the last 25 years we have been living in the shadow of the 1960s.

In Telltale Hearts: The Origins and Impact of the Vietnam Antiwar Movement (St. Martin's Press, 370 pages, $ 24.95), Adam Garfinkle offers a new take on the central force of the 1960s, the antiwar movement. Garfinkle, a resident scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, aims to show that, far from having caused or even hastened America's withdrawal from Vietnam, the antiwar movement had the opposite effect. Since the war was a mistake, as Garfinkle sees it, the "utterly normal contours of American politics," he argues, would have compelled disengagement. But this natural process was inhibited by reaction against the antiwar movement. "The antics of the radical antiwar movement," he says, "deterred more Americans from opposing the war sooner because they were afraid of the company they would have to keep."

Garfinkle advances two other theses: that "the real causes" of 1960s radicalism "lay in the generic difficulties of coping with the revolutionary social life of post-World War II America"; and that "the main impact of the antiwar movement was not felt in Southeast Asia but in the United States." This last point, however, is nothing but a corollary of his first thesis. If the antiwar movement did not impel American withdrawal from Vietnam, then of course its main impact would have been here rather than there. But if Garfinkle is wrong and the antiwar movement was the motor driving American withdrawal, then its effects on American life, however large, pale in comparison to its consequences for the Indochinese: the slaughter of millions and the imposition of totalitarianism on them all.

To advance his second thesis, Garfinkle argues that "overwhelm in the case of the New Left, the young radical had difficult relations with parents and family." He bases this on the research of Stanley Rothman and Robert Lichter, authors of Roots of Radicalism. But Rothman and Lichter do not show that such friction occurred "overwhelmingly," only that it was somewhat more common among radical youngsters than among their non-radical peers. And to the extent that such familial friction existed, what does it explain? Did the youth of the 1960s as a whole have more friction with their parents than the apolitical youth of the 1950s or 1980s? Anyone who was around the New Left knows that many of its members, especially among the core activists and leaders, were the progeny of 1930s radicals.

Garfinkle echoes the conventional description of New Leftism as a generational revolt. But the political activism of many, I would guess most, New Leftists was smiled upon by their parents, whether old radicals or just liberals. And this may be true even of those New Leftists who had difficult relations with their parents. The New Left offspring of old Left parents rejected their parents' ideologies, and to that extent they were rebelling, but whether they knew it or not, they had absorbed much of their outlook from their parents.

Garfinkle mentions "red diaper babies" but belittles their importance. Indeed, he underestimates across the board the influence of old Leftism of various stripes. He attributes the origins of Vietnam protest largely to a group he labels "new pacifists," but they were mostly old radicals. He characterizes the League for Industrial Democracy (from which SDS sprang) as growing out of progressivism, but it was basically a Socialist party front. And he mentions the liaison with Hanoi established by Cora Weiss, whom he describes as heir to the Helena Rubinstein cosmetics empire, when in fact the firm was Fabergand Weiss's more important inheritance was a family tradition of admiration for the Soviet Union.