U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Deconstructing Hardhats and Hippies

hardhatPenny Lewis’s new book Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: The Vietnam Anti-War Movement as Myth and Memory has been the topic of much discussion lately. To get a sense of her argument, check out this interview she did with Jacobin contributing editor Chris Maisano. The gist of Lewis’s contention is that the way we collectively remember the antiwar movement splitting American society along cultural and class lines—between the manly hardhats who dutifully supported the war even as they were dying in it, and the effete hippies who protested the war even as they evaded service—is all wrong. Lewis shows that working-class Americans were far more likely to evince antiwar sentiments than middle-class and rich Americans.

Lewis’s argument is no surprise to me. Perhaps this is due to my being raised on thinkers like Noam Chomsky, who routinely cites poll data that reveals working-class Americans disagreed with US war efforts to a much larger degree than those more privileged. Moreover, the great documentary film Sir, No Sir about the antiwar movement within the military, which I have shown to students several times, clearly demonstrates that the antiwar movement was not isolated to effete college students. Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks is on firm ground.

But the larger implications of Lewis’s argument, that Nixon’s “silent majority” is a mythical construction meant to serve an explicit political purpose, raises some questions for me. Even if working-class Americans were likelier to oppose the war, does this then entail that working-class conservatism was overstated? What do we then make of Jefferson Cowie’s argument in Stayin’ Alive about the conservatism of working-class culture in the 1970s, especially with regards to race and gender? Does Lewis’s argument negate the very premise of the culture wars? Or does it merely shift the analytical terrain? What say you, dear reader?

25 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’m nowhere close to being done with the book (I think I’ve said that to others several times because I’m reading so many books right now) but in relationship to Cowie’s work: perhaps what this is really telling us is that, while the white working class population was certainly receptive to conservatism, perhaps their turn Right, even in the mid 1970s, was by no means inevitable?

    I think back to another book, Tim Stanley’s “Kennedy vs Carter” about the 1980 Democratic presidential contest, where he cites polling data that shows many Americans actually agreeing with key elements of Kennedy’s liberalism. Above all Americans wanted leadership, so perhaps a liberal variant of Reagan’s dynamism, with some new and fresh ideas, could (I stress COULD here because we really don’t know) have at least offered a challenge to the tide of conservatism in the late 1970s.

    But going back to the white working class: it sounds like Lewis’ book is more within the vein of the first half of Cowie’s, in that the working class was up for grabs until the late 1970s and the presidency of Jimmy Carter. At that point it appeared conservatism was their only hope.

    • It’s said that a fair number of northern, white, working-class RFK primary votes voted for George Wallace in November ’68. The Kennedy-to-Reagan story seems potentially similar.

      • Indeed. And that’s the tragedy of many for the RFK assassination. If only he lived, they’d argue, he could have build the white working class–black urban–progressive coalition the Democrats needed. I still have my skepticism about that though.

      • It wasn’t just the killing of RFK, but the combination of that with the killing of Martin King a few months earlier, and the impact of that on segments of the left, black and white, along with everything else that was happening in 1967-68 (including Tet), and going back to Malcolm X’s 1965 killing right at the point in time when he and King were converging toward a more radical version of a still-non-violent civil rights movement in alliance with a still-non-violent anti-war movement. That was the environment that radicalized RFK — and the violent killing of that spirit-that-might-have-been left a vacuum filled by macho, sectarian pick-up-the-gun radicalism black and white (look at the memoirs of Weather Underground leaders about 1968). Of course this alienated much of the white working/lower middle class, at the same time as they had increasingly begun to want out of Vietnam.

      • An RFK victory was possible but not likely. Even after winning primaries–in South Dakota, Indiana, Nebraska, and California–he was still behind Hubert Humphrey in the delegate count. In 1968, primary victories did not guarantee delegates. It should also be kept in mind that LBJ controlled the Democratic convention and hated RFK. Even if RFK won the Democratic nomination, I find it difficult to believe he would have carried Southern states considering his support for civil rights. Who knows though? Maybe he would have had a fighting chance. After all, Hubert Humphrey almost beat Richard Nixon in the general election.

      • Yeah, I’ve never been sure of RFK even winning the nomination, much less defeating Nixon in 1968.

        As for the death of MLK, completely agreed. It just seems that, in popular memory at least, RFK was the last, best hope for a new coalition to be developed to pick up the reins of the New Deal coalition and take Democrats forward.

      • At the very least, had LBJ thought RFK was close to winning the nomination, he would have removed his hand from around HH’s throat and allowed Hubert to say want he wanted to say about Vietnam– before the convention, rather than waiting until ten days before the election – as it was, HH made up almost all of the ten point gap between him and Nixon in those last ten days on the basis of his last minute campaign emphasis on withdrawing from Vietnam. (HH had been against LBJ’s 1965 plunge into Vietnam from the beginning, and had the temerity to say so to LBJ’s face, in a war-cabinet meeting, leading LBJ to ban him from all future foreign policy discussions, and to forbid him from speaking publically on Vietnam, for the duration — which stuck until HH, beside himself, agreed to go to Vietnam and speak glowingly of U.S. success there – but once back home, he was so humiliated in front of everyone who knew him, he came to his senses, but that meant going back to being mute in public. Once HH was nominated, LBJ told him that if he (HH) included any disagreements with LBJ’s Vietnam policy in his campaign, he (LBJ) would dry up every dollar from the big Democratic doners. In other words, had RFK lived, either he would have won the nomination, and likely the election, or HH would have been freed of LBJ’s choke hold and likely won the election. This would have saved a lot of lives, American and Vietnamese, but may not have fundamentally changed what happened in the U.S. in the ’70s, given the likely continuing 1967-69 crack up of the Left, the inevitable playing out of the post-WWII boom, the rising war of position of the Right.

      • @B Alpers
        IIRC, good albeit anecdotal contemporaneous reporting on the ’72 election (eg D.Broder) indicated *some* (not all, of course) McGovern primary voters were also working-class whites otherwise drawn to Wallace. Similar phenomenon, perhaps.
        I’m sure the pol scientists have analyzed this all by now in detail but I’m not v. familiar w the quant elections literature.

  2. Andrew: You wrote—“Does Lewis’s argument negate the very premise of the culture wars?”

    What is that singular premise, or are you just being provocative?

    I ask, in part, because I’m considering a whole ‘nother sociological cause/premise/assumption for the Culture Wars.

    I’ve been thinking a lot recently—without putting my thoughts to any systematic test—about how “the” Culture Wars are solely, perhaps, a product of political dysfunction. My point here is pretty straightforward: When the political system in America is (historically and presently) perceived/felt to not be “working” properly, then policy questions/discussions are transformed into cultural issues. Since we can’t find compromise in Congress we look for answers in culture (in an anthropological sense).

    This may be hijacking your thread, but it seems appropriate to broach my theory here in light your phrase “the premise of the culture wars” (and why are you capitalizing Culture Wars yet?!?!).

  3. You yokels! If every starts capitalizing “Culture Wars” we’ll all be stuck with it as a periodization forever, just like we’re stuck with “Gilded Age.”

    Just say no to majuscules!

    • Well, there certainly is some historical justification for talking about the recent iteration (1970s-present) of the Culture Wars as IT. That said, my theory above points to a notion that there is an ongoing idea of culture wars that must be respected.

  4. LD: It’s funny, I had never really thought of the culture wars as the Culture Wars, as a mode of periodization. But this past week, we’ve been moving, and I’ve finally had a chance to unpack a ton of books that have been in storage for years. And I’ve been organizing the American books chronologically. When I get to the late 80s/90s, the only books I have are about either foreign policy (the Gulf War, the Balkans, the debates about intervention) or the culture wars. From the point of view of my library, it’s as if the culture wars were really the only thing going on, domestically, between 1987-1999.

      • It’s real war v. culture wars–sounds like a good idea for a panel! I hope that Penny Lewis will take up my suggestion to write a post for this blog, now that we have two posts on her new book.

    • I did after I wrote a post about her book a couple of weeks back. But encouragement certainly helps. There is a great deal more to discuss with her and this might be a good place do to so.

  5. Majority support for the Vietnam war had vanished by 1967. However, Nixon’s poll numbers on the war were in the red only twice, indicating that his drawdown had majority/plurality approval, and of course Nixon slaughters McGovern in 1972. Except for driving LBJ from office, it’s difficult to gauge the “anti-war” movement’s actual effect, that is, whether history would have been about the same with or without it.

    See also

    http://www.mbc.edu/faculty/gbowen/PublicOpinionVietWar.htm

    “Overview: This webpage is a supplement to the longer essay on the Vietnam War found on this website. It attempts to clarify two of the central myths regarding the loss of public support for the war: the myth that it was primarily young people who opposed the war; and the myth that it was primarily college educated people who opposed the war. By grasping the facts reported in three charts here, this page should help sharpen student understanding by identifying when public support turned against the war, and by clarifying which groups in society were most (and least) supportive of the war.”

  6. I have not read Lewis’s book, but I have read of it since its release and it sounds to me like she is trying to suggest there was a politically liberal working-class in the 1960s-1970s. (At the very least, she seems to be arguing that it was more liberal than commonly acknowledged). From the way that Andrew Hartman posits his question, this might challenge or complicate Jefferson Cowie’s characterization.

    From my limited qualifications – I did undergraduate honors research on the topic under Gary Gerstle – I would argue that the best characterization of working-class political views ca. 1970 is neither liberal nor conservative but divided between the two.

    Also – and this may very well be part of Lewis’s book – you can’t be too certain on this “likely to oppose the war” business, because apparently some public opinion polling at the time counted people opposed to immediate withdrawal as nonetheless “anti-war.” There was likely a big divide among this “anti-war” plurality about how to end the war (immediate withdrawal, peace settlement, escalation, or even nuclear attack). That’s not to say that Lewis is wrong, or that the anti-war protest movement wasn’t diverse (it was); it’s just a complex topic with a large spectrum of political viewpoints.

  7. Those same northern working class whites that voted for Nixon and later Reagan also elected very liberal members to congress. My guess is the reason that large numbers of northern working class whites supported Nixon and Reagan (especially in 1980) was due to the poor state of the economy. In the eighties, conservative Christianity did not take hold with blue-collar workers in the northeast and the rust belt states like it did in the south. Even the right-winged shock jocks that appealed to northern white working class Americans, Howard Stern and the late Morton Downey, Jr. would bash Christian fundamentalists as much as they would liberals. Cultural issues may have mattered a lot to white southern working class people, but northern blue-collars just ignored or were even hostile to social conservatism.

  8. Great discussion. Sorry to return to it so late. It’s been a busy week.

    It seems clear to me that on the question of the Vietnam War, the white working-class was much more antiwar in sentiment than popular memory or punditry would have it. But this is not necessarily to argue that they were reliably liberal in their voting patterns or cultural ethos. I always explain the paradox to my students as such: by 1967 or 1968, the majority of Americans opposed the war, but an even larger majority opposed the antiwar movement.

    But even though the (northern) white working-class was often culturally conservative, especially on issues that the Catholic Church had a strong opinion about, this demographic was not to become right-wing culture warriors. That was left to the largely white evangelical south and west.

    Tim: Although the premise upon which you make the culture wars a proper noun would work to my benefit, since I’m writing a book on the topic that I would love to become a signature book on the era, I’m not convinced that the culture wars should be capitalized. There are too many other defining features of the 80s and 90s to single out the culture wars as THE defining feature. If my book convinces enough people otherwise, great. But it’s not my ambition.

    • Great question, which probably deserves its own post: What’s in a Capital Letter? Does capitalizing Cold War, War on Terror, and Culture War confer upon such efforts at periodization transcendental status (i. e., they are NOT human constructions), or does it highlight their artificiality and “constructed-ness” all the more? I don’t think capitalizing Culture Wars is wrong, and it certainly won’t “crowd out” other frames for the post-1970 world. On the other hand, capitalization is very ambiguous and might demand an explanation at some point in the book.

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