How Have We Changed?


As part of the magazine’s look back over the past forty years, American Heritage asked a wide range of historians, journalists, writers, and public figures the following question: “What do you think is the most important, or interesting, or overlooked way in which America has changed since 1954, and why? And what does this change say about us as a people?” We knew this was a broad question, to say the least, but we were still surprised by the answers it elicited; they turned out to be as various and provocative and illuminating as the people they came from. An anthology follows.

The Terbul Deklin of Liturcy

The change from waxed paper to cling wrap says it all.

The degree of civilization at any time and place may be measured by the way in which particular acts are classified. Some are free, some forbidden or commanded by law, the rest abstained from, by habit and the sway of opinion. I think the chief change in American society between 1954 and today is the shrunken area occupied by the third kind of behavior.

The phenomenon has been called Permissiveness and credited to a bugbear called Relativism. This explanation ignores the underlying motive and the predisposing state of fact. What we see is not simply laxity, but a paradox that carries a message. Why the extensive lying, cheating, and stealing by the intelligent and well-to-do? Why the artist’s rage to disgust and serve up the obscene? Why the passion for “telling all” and for the conglomerate, not only in business but also in everyday life, eating at all times and places, wearing any kinds of clothes anywhere, and using dirty words—everything regardless of surrounding conditions?

I believe the answer lies in that last word. The intense purpose behind many seemingly disparate acts and beliefs comes from resentment against obstacles, against any condition set in the path of any creature’s doing what he, she, or it desires. A barrier is an affront to human nature. What all want is the Unconditional Life.

This ideal stimulates the imagination and, if need be, removes guilt. Ambition balked cheats with a clear conscience; and greed, seeing the arbitrariness of property rights, steals as it were on principle. With lines blurred and fences down, it is easy to be virtuous and never “discriminate” in any sense. In this light, blue jeans, a sweater, pearls, and gold evening shoes qualify as “a style.”

To explain the rise of the passion for the unconditioned would require a look at modern cultural history, taking in the wars, the social thought, and the arts of our time. But the immediate impelling force is the universal sense of oppression: too many contacts with too many people, thanks to multiplying means of communication; too many rules, warnings, limits, delays, duties, prohibitions, exclusions, conditions—a ubiquitous “zoning” of existence by which government tries to reconcile incessant claims. Lastly, the exit door is blocked by the mass of trivial details that force attention if one is to thread one’s way more or less unbruised through workaday life. To take every chance of breaking out is but reflex action.

The most important change since 1954 derives from the fact that until then America had never lost a war. The French, who had lost many wars, lost the Battle of Dien Bien Phu that year, which should have taught us a thing or two but didn’t. And so today we, too, are now a nation that has experienced defeat. Until the Indochinese events that began (for us) in 1954, Americans believe that every time the country undertook a major project—to defeat the British, to settle the West, to control the secessionist South and abolish slavery, to institute a variety of social reforms, to defeat the Second World War Axis—the project turned out well. But not Vietnam.

In the first years after the war, most Americans drew a very simple lesson—to wit, never get involved in someone else’s troubles unless it is absolutely unavoidable. Some people still feel that way, naturally. But I think most people have come to think today that it is good to send at least a few American soldiers to central Africa; that in spite of everything, we performed a good deed in Somalia; that we did well in preventing the expansion of Saddam Hussein’s power, even if success in the Gulf War was less than what it seemed at the time. So the simple lesson from Vietnam has turned out to be too simple.

All in all, we are an older nation than we were in 1954. We have learned that things can go deeply wrong, and we have learned that, even so, hiding in a cave is no alternative. We have learned the lesson that there is no lesson. George Washington is our national symbol, and on our heads, too, a few white hairs have sprouted.

Can we understand our own times? I’m not sure. Matters that seem urgent, forces that seem irresistible in their period may vanish like the once powerful Prohibition party. But here are some very provisional comments.

In 1954 and again in 1965 my husband and I drove to California and back, dawdling across the country. A couple of the roads we took in 1954 (U.S. 40, U.S. 66) had become historic by 1965. Sheer growth has been an obvious change. Now I hear that the roads, airports, and bridges built in the late 1950s are broke and no one’s fixing them. That’s like us: Americans, as a people, have been better at building great projects than at maintaining them. On the other hand, the past forty years have brought new strength to movements for historic preservation and conservation; if Americans ever became good housekeepers, that would be a change.