A Clean Break With The Past


Further, I argued that anti-Semitism, a strong and ominous thread in our national warp in 1939, had ceased by 1964 to be an important factor—permanently, I patriotically supposed. On the question of Negro rights and privileges the evidence of progress, though more equivocal, was nevertheless present. In 1964, in the nation’s capital city, where in 1939 no black man had been suffered to eat in a public restaurant used by whites or to register in any hotel, Congress was passing a wideranging civil rights act, and the next year it would pass a far wider-ranging one. A long, painful campaign for civil rights in the South, beginning with the Supreme Court’s first desegregation decision in 1954, had caught the national imagination and that of our Texan President himself, and as a result of increased black-voter registration Negroes were being elected to office at many levels in most parts of the country. Economically, to be sure, the average black man was only slightly better off in relation to the average white man than he had been in 1939. Formerly his income had been somewhat less than half of the white man’s; now it was slightly more than half. But in 1964 the country seemed to have the will to tackle even this anomaly. One felt, buoyantly, that with the political liberation of the Negro virtually accomplished, his economic liberation was next on the agenda.

“… the national mood reversed itself as dramatically as a manic-depressive”

In its foreign affairs I said that the United States, which with the end of the war had assumed free-world leadership for the first time, had handled this generally unwanted responsibility fairly well in spite of some spectacular bungling. There were, despite moral arguments advanced in their behalf, such egregious disasters as the Bay of Pigs, the ill-starred U-2 reconnaissance flight, the unfortunate (but then not yet overwhelmingly tragic) miscalculation of our involvement in Vietnam. But there was also the nuclear test-ban treaty of 1963, the relief programs all over the world, and, of course, the Marshall Plan, which through its backers’ statesmanlike vision of where enlightened self-interest lay, had done so much to set flattened Europe back on its feet.

In sum, my research convinced me that “the quarter-century … had seen such rapid and far-reaching changes in many aspects of American life as are not only unprecedented in our own national experience, but may well be unprecedented in that of any nation other than those that have been suddenly transformed by … war or plague.” And I concluded that while the enormous material gains of the quarter century had unquestionably had their moral costs, the moral loss was far less clear than the material gain. America could not patly be said to have “sold its soul for mediocrity.”

So I wrote then. Between then and now, over the past five years, many but not all of the trends I noted have continued. Economic growth has gone on to the point where most economists believe that 1971 will be the year when our gross national product will pass the all but inscrutable figure of a trillion dollars a year. Our 1964 federal budget is now almost doubled. Poverty, more and more in the news, is nevertheless still decreasing in fact.

On the other hand the migration from farms to cities has slowed sharply. Anti-Semitism in a new form has made an ominous appearance among Negro militants. Racial integration of schools has failed tragically, as shown by the fact that at the beginning of 1970—sixteen years after the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision—less than one fifth of southern Negro pupils and hardly more than one fourth of northern and western Negro pupils were attending predominantly white schools. The stagnation of black economic status is shown by the persistence of two familiar statistics—black income still just over half that of whites, black unemployment still double that among whites.

But statistics are not all. There exist also national moods, and they rather than statistics reflect attitudes and values. There are fashions in statistics; appropriate ones can be found to fit any mood, to buttress any conventional wisdom, and it can be argued that the moods give birth to the figures rather than vice versa. At any rate, some time recently, probably in 1965, the national mood reversed itself as dramatically as a manic-depressive patient goes from the heights to the depths, and I see my study as having been completed in the last, climactic days of a period of national euphoria.

The trigger for the mood change is harder to identify. Many would equate it with the hateful trigger of Lee Harvey Oswald’s mail-order gun in Dallas in November, 1963, and contend that the accomplishments of 1964 and early 1965 were the result of accumulated momentum—that, indeed, the productive phase of the Kennedy administration was actually the year and a half after John Kennedy’s death. Others would choose the Watts riots of August, 1965, the first time the murderous and suicidal rage and despair of urban blacks outside the South was revealed; perhaps the largest number would choose the escalation of the Vietnam war, which began with the bombing of North Vietnam that February. At all events the change occurred, and the nation went into the valley of a shadow from which it has not yet emerged as this is written.