A Clean Break With The Past

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Something very strange has happened in the United States very recently. Traditional attitudes and values that have prevailed and come down from generation to generation in all but unbroken succession since the founding of the republic have suddenly been overturned or are in the process of being overturned. Traditional American ways of looking at things—including the traditional way of looking at our own past—have suddenly been reversed. A startling discontinuity, as stark as a geologic fault, has occurred in our cultural history since 1964.

It is a temptation, and one constantly yielded to by social commentators, to look upon these things (like the geologic fault) as having simply happened —as having occurred without human volition or control. The environment has changed, it is said; no wonder people and their attitudes change. The process is made to appear as inexorable as changes in the phase of the moon.

What has “happened” in America has been largely the doing of the older half of our present population—those born before the Second World War. Through their ingenuity and enterprise and with the help of their equally ingenious and enterprising predecessors of the generations before, the members of the present older generation have changed the country so radically that the old conditions under which the old values obtained are simply not there any more. True enough, the change was brought about (in traditional American fashion) entirely without planning, and, indeed, its social effects have by and large not been felt by the generation responsible. Not really understanding what it has wrought (still quaintly anthropomorphizing computers, for example) and being beyond the age when long-held attitudes and values are easily surrendered, the older half of the country mostly clings to the old ideas. In the meantime the younger half, those born since the war, have grown up in a whole new world and, in a triumph of environment over heredity, have become a new breed. The fathers, clever enough to invent computers, jet planes, moon ships, antibiotics, and weapons of race suicide, are not wise enough to know their own sons, who are now shaping the values of America and will soon be America.

A quarter century ago next month, with V-J Day, the United States emerged from the war into modern times. In the subsequent twenty years, while the nation’s adults, the prewar generation, were unwittingly removing from their own and their children’s lives the physical underpinnings of the old national faiths and attitudes, they were also continuing—in fact, accelerating—the long process of social amelioration that had gone on, though not uninterruptedly, since not long after the Civil War. The first postwar quarter century was one of outstanding social as well as material progress.

About five years ago, I undertook a study of social change in the United States over the twenty-five years between the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 and the mid-sixties. I found, among other things, that the great corporations, considered so gigantic and sinister in 1939, had become many times more gigantic and —in the pretty-well-substantiated public view—a good deal less sinister. (In the late thirties the Temporary National Economic Committee had reported with awe that General Motors, perhaps the archetypical American corporation, had assets of one billion dollars; less than two decades later General Motors would have annual profits after taxes of one billion dollars. It would meanwhile have abandoned its former rather surly attitude toward society and become a corporation as enlightened as most in its social attitudes.) The gross national product over the period had gone from 90 billion to 630 billion dollars a year; the federal budget had swollen from around nine billion to over one hundred billion; national income per capita had risen from nine hundred to well over three thousand dollars, while the national population (in sharp contradiction to the glum demographic predictions of 1939 that the nation faced a people shortage) had risen from 130,000,000 to over 190,000,000. Taxes and other forces had brought about a vast and generally beneficent redistribution of national wealth. Computer technology, in 1939 just a gleam in a few scientists’ eyes, was already on the way to bringing about a new era in science and technology and, more obviously at first, in business methods; and the initial fears that computers would throw millions of people out of their jobs were beginning to prove unfounded. Poverty had by no means been eliminated, but by almost any fair-minded standard it had been sharply reduced; indeed, my calculations showed that by the standards applied in 1964, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s one third of a nation ill fed, ill housed, and ill clothed in the thirties had been a gross understatement.

I found that over the period under study there had been a vast tidal migration from farms to cities. Thirty-one million Americans, or a quarter of the population, were farmers in 1939; only thirteen million, or less than 7 per cent, were still on the farms by 1964. The effect of this influx on the cities and on the new urbanités themselves, despite crime and overcrowding and suburbia and urban sprawl, had not proved to be all bad. I found a tremendous rise in formal education: the average American was an elementary-school graduate in 1939, a highschool graduate by 1964; 15 per cent of college-age Americans attended college in 1939, well over 40 per cent in 1964.