But frankly, most American parents were too busy earning a living, raising
families, and worrying about the chaos around them to analyze to the root
causes of their country’s social ills. All many of them knew was
that young people were doing things they would never have dreamed of doing
when they were their age, and that nothing but trouble ever came from these
demonstrations, protests, sit-ins, and so on.
The latter years of the 1960s were unlike anything they had ever seen. Most were too young to remember the last time their government was seriously concerned about a massive popular uprising that could have resulted in a revolution. That was in the depths of the Great Depression, during the early 1930s, when many feared that democracy itself might not survive. Membership in the American Communist Party was greater during the Depression than at any other time. The help alleviate the sense of alarm people felt back then, Franklin Delano Roosevelt included a famous line in first inaugural address in 1933: “All we have to fear is fear itself.” Protests and riots occurred during the Depression, but it was the older generation that participated in them. In the ’20s and ’30s children were being raised to “be seen and not heard,” and young people were not nearly as numerous as they would become after World War II. The children of the ’20s and ’30s grew up to become the parents of the high school and college kids of the ’60s, but with no frame-of-reference to guide them through the new upheavals.
The ’60s were almost the exact opposite of the ’30s. In the 1930s the unemployment reached at least 25 percent, but at the end of 1968 the U.S. unemployment rate was only 3.3 percent, its lowest level in 15 years. The economy was humming along, young people were enjoying a luxurious standard of living compared to what their parents had grown up with, and other than the nasty little fact of a war in Southeast Asia, what possible reason could they have for being unhappy?
But the economic prosperity was in no small part due to the Viet Nam War itself. Aside from providing lucrative government contracts to key industries, the military draft took many male high school graduates out of the job market, and those who could enroll in college were able to legally avoid the draft. Thousands also dodged the draft by fleeing to Canada, further thinning the ranks of the unemployed in the U.S. A few years later when the wartime economy began to sputter it would become clear that the economic boom of the late ’60s had been largely artificial.
Meanwhile, millions of college students across the country had little else to do than think about what would happen when their draft deferments expired on graduation day, and listen to the horror stories their friends were bringing back from Nam. Institutions of higher learning were telling them to think for themselves, and reminding them about American literary classics like Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. Following the example of the Civil Rights Movement and propelled by youthful idealism they organized, collaborated, and planned to make a difference.
One lesson the Civil Rights Movement had taught people was that the guardians of the status quo would always caricature any challenge to their agenda as “disrespect for authority.” African-Americans trying to exercise their rights to free speech, to peacefully assemble, and to vote, had been assaulted with this bogus charge time and time again. If the law said that people had to pay a poll tax or take a literacy test (both of which were measures designed to exclude African Americans from southern voting booths), then to challenge these laws was to show “disrespect for authority,” and “practice lawlessness.” Now it was the anti-war protester’s turn to hear it.
For all too many people, long after the images of violence in Viet Nam faded away, the images of hippies and yippies brawling with police lingered in the minds of the older generation. After all, they would encounter these kids in America’s cities and suburbs on a daily basis, and had been warned that many of them were drug-crazed. Violent scenes from both inside and outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago did little to change anyone’s mind. People in the anti-war camp tried to use those events as evidence that the American government had become an out-of-control authoritarian regime, while those who were convinced that the war was right saw the protesters as an unruly band of trouble-makers who had no respect for authority.
Bill Gothard basically took the status quo’s propaganda and gave it pseudo-biblical underpinnings. Millions of American Christians seized upon it as a kind of “Anti-Hippie Insurance” and began sending their kids to the Basic Seminar in droves.