Off the Rails: Mad Men and American Liberalism in 1968

While the two-hour sixth season debut of Mad Men earlier this month played oddly coy about which year the series was set in, we now know that we’re witnessing Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce versus 1968.

Or perhaps it’s the other way around, given how the year of 1968 came close to tearing the country apart. In many ways, the events of that year shaped our current world in ways that are still playing themselves out, so it’s worth exploring just how badly the nation imploded. Apologies for the length of this post, but it's merely a partial list of 1968's horror stories.

Vietnam and the Cognitive Dissonance of the Liberal Elite

In the 1950s and 1960s, German émigrés such as Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, the former leaders of the socialist Bauhaus school of design of the 1920s Weimar Republic ,were busy building skyscrapers to house America’s corporate elites. To this day, Mies’ Seagram Building and Gropius’ Pan Am Building are lasting tributes to Weimar aesthetics on Park Ave. So perhaps it’s no wonder that American liberal elites were themselves embracing a Weimar-esque sense of dissipation and fatalism. JFK’s optimistic New Frontier worldview was supplanted by a collective malaise by depressed American elites by the late 1960s.

The cognitive dissonance of liberals not being able to process that JFK was the world’s most prominent victim of the Cold War was one cause of this malaise. Another was the ambition of LBJ’s Great Society, which had attempted to build on Kennedy’s space program and his nascent efforts at fighting communism in Vietnam with a series of Texas-sized domestic programs. LBJ’s goal was to recreate FDR’s New Deal, and as Rand Simberg has written, Johnson embraced NASA’s moon missions as an extension of FDR’s TVA program. But LBJ’s Texas drawl could never replace JFK’s polished Brahmin accent and style in the eyes of American liberal elites, who would come to turn on Johnson, devouring him for his outsized sense of ambition, and his patriotism.

As Patrick Moynihan had said in the early 1970s, “Most liberals had ended the 1960s rather ashamed of the beliefs they had held at the beginning of the decade.” But it's worth flashing back to the end of the 1950s just to see how dramatic the transformation was. As I mentioned when I interviewed David Gelernter last year, chapter one of his 2012 book America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered In the Obamacrats) opens with a remarkable quote from William DeVane, the dean of Yale, in 1957:

Our national leaders for the most part are men of integrity, idealism, and skill; our literary and artistic people command an international respect such as they never had before; our scientists and engineers, especially the latter, are the wonder and envy of other nations; our teachers in our colleges and universities are learned and devoted.

By 1968, liberal elites in academia and the media were simply incapable of allowing such a sentence to pass from their lips, and their worldview would become ever more punitive in the years since: Former JFK/LBJ official turned public TV staple Bill Moyers recently denounced the Pledge of Allegiance on PBS:

Veteran journalist Bill Moyers told his viewers on March 29 that the next time they say the Pledge of Allegiance, they should “remember: it’s a lie. A whopper of a lie.” Bill Moyers’s “Moyers & Company,” which included the snippet, airs on taxpayer funded PBS.

“We coax it from the mouths of babes for the same reason our politicians wear those flag pins in their lapels – it makes the hypocrisy go down easier, the way aspirin helps a headache go away.”

It’s a cliché to write that the well was poisoned by Vietnam; as Gelernter wrote in America-Lite, the sixties peace movement preceded the escalation of our involvement there.  Early in America-Lite, Gelernter contrasts that 1957 quote from Yale’s William DeVane with mid-1970s quotes from liberal essayist E.B. White. “No one knows which way to turn and which way to go,” White believed in 1975. The following year, he would add, “Patriotism is unfashionable, having picked up the taint of chauvinism, jingoism, and demagoguery. A man is not expected to love his country, lest he make an ass of himself.” Almost 40 years later, Bill Moyers would take that sentiment to its punitive conclusion. In America-Lite, Gelernter notes:

The conventional view is that the civil rights movement and Vietnam and feminism are what changed the country. But the antiwar movement and modern feminism were consequences of the revolution. The civil rights movement sustained and expanded the revolution. For the thing itself, we have to look elsewhere.

* * * * *

Today, when Americans praise their own nation, they do it defiantly; that unselfconscious patriotic pleasure is gone. What caused the American mood to crumble between William DeVane’s statement and E. B. White’s? The civil rights struggle couldn’t be the answer; for one thing, it united rather than divided the country, except for the segregationist Old South. Maybe the bitter split over the war in Vietnam explains it. But that can’t be right; can’t be the whole truth. Antiwar protests were powered by the New Left and “the Movement,” which originated in Tom Hayden’s “Port Huron Statement” of 1962, before the nation had ever heard of Vietnam. And the New Left picked up speed at Berkeley in the Free Speech Movement of 1964 and early ’65, before the explosion of Vietnam. Bitterness toward America was an evil spirit shopping for a body when Vietnam started to throb during 1965.

1965 is when the sea change occurred in the writing of David Halberstam of the New York Times on the subject of Vietnam, which would set the tone for much of the rest of the MSM. As Roger Kimball wrote in the New Criterion after Halberstam died in 2007, Halberstam spent the first half of the 1960s, particularly while JFK was still alive, championing the importance of Vietnam as, in the words of Halberstam, “a strategic country in a key area, it is perhaps one of only five or six nations in the world that is truly vital to U.S. interests.” By 1968, he and much of the rest of the American news media would turn against the war.