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Excesses and Genuine Reform Are Legacies of a Turbulent Decade

The issues that made the 1960s such a turbulent decade are still before us.

Race relations, which in the '60s were the focus of the voting rights and desegregation struggles, today are at the heart of the affirmative-action debate. The Vietnam experience, which tore the nation apart, surfaces each time Americans agonize over the prospect of United States troops being deployed overseas.

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Now, with a quarter-century of hindsight, historians are trying to avoid either nostalgia or revulsion in making a clear-eyed assessment of this crucible decade.

In ''The Movement and the Sixties,'' Terry Anderson draws on new sources in an attempt to neither glamorize nor demonize a kaleidoscopic period in American history.

Anderson, a Vietnam War veteran and a professor of history at Texas A&M University, spent eight years researching and writing his book. Throughout, he makes use of interviews with participants in the social movements of the '60s, as well as considerable research into ''alternative'' and ''underground'' publications.

Because the mainstream press often failed to understand the ''movement,'' he says, these publications are crucial sources that have been inadequately explored. Anderson concludes that the '60s brought about beneficial social and political reforms, as well as huge cultural changes that remain more controversial.

Why did the social protests of the '60s lead many youths to consider themselves part of a countercultural ''movement?'' Anderson contends that events were not driven primarily by great leaders, though individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez cannot be ignored.

The period cannot be understood by analyzing organizations: Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the best-known student protest group, never numbered more than a tiny minority of collegians. (Many more, in fact, were members of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative group.)

Nor did a fixed ideology play an important role -- certainly not communism, which students and other activists overwhelmingly rejected or ignored. Anderson's thesis is that student protesters were reformers, not revolutionaries.

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''In fact,'' he writes, ''if there was an ideology of the movement then it probably could be described more accurately as the traditional American philosophy -- pragmatism.''

The motive behind the activists of the '60s generation, which Anderson defines as those born in the 1940s through about 1954, was idealism. ''Activists felt that problems existing in the nation were inconsistent with the American ideal, with ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.''

Two issues defined ''the movement'' of the '60s, Anderson says. In the first half of the decade, civil rights protesters demanded and won voting rights and desegregation of public places for African-Americans. That movement was led by black ministers and aided (and publicized) by the involvement of white student activists. These activists succeeded because they were largely immune to economic or physical coercion by established white society.

Had the decade ended there -- after a period of nonviolent protest -- it might have been widely viewed as an era of social progress, Anderson says. But in the second half of the '60s, controversy over the US role in Vietnam drove Americans apart.

Activists began questioning the alleged goal of defending freedom in Vietnam while poverty and social injustice persisted at home. ''I didn't go to college in 1965 expecting to become a radical,'' one student says, ''but I didn't expect the Vietnam War to develop the way it did either.... For us it would have been immoral to just go on with college and career plans when the war was still going on.''

Youths and other protesters contributed to doubts that eventually emerged in a majority of Americans about whether their government had clear and worthy goals or had been entirely truthful in its conduct of the war.

In 1968 -- a particularly tragic year of assassinations and urban riots at home, and the Tet offensive in Vietnam -- voters in the presidential election narrowly chose Richard Nixon, who promised he had a ''secret plan'' to end the war. (He didn't.)

Youthful reformers had worked for the election of either Eugene McCarthy or Robert Kennedy, who in their eyes represented the best chances to end the war and bring the nation together. Anderson notes that after the assassination of Kennedy, and Nixon's victory over Hubert Humphrey, a conventional Democrat, many young activists became disillusioned. The move to ''drop out'' into communes or other alternative lifestyles rather than continue to attempt reform through the political system accelerated.

Incidents at the end of the decade, such as the grisly murders by Charles Manson and his followers and the riot at the Monterey Pop Music Festival, convinced much of mainstream America that the youth culture, though espousing love and peace, was dangerous and violent. Excesses identified with illicit sex and drugs began to replace social progress as the '60s icon.

Yet any balanced view of the '60s, Anderson contends, must include an acknowledgment of positive social change: indisputable progress for African-Americans and even more significant progress for women. Among other solid reforms were the blossoming of the environmental movement, from the publication of Rachel Carson's ''Silent Spring'' early in the decade (1962) to the first Earth Day celebrated at its conclusion (1970).

Anderson's well-written, accessible history is much more than nostalgic reading for baby boomers, the great majority of whom sat on the sidelines during most of the decade while a minority acted. Neither is it a polemic in unquestioning defense of '60s activists. Instead, it attempts to understand the motives of ''the movement'' and place its actions in the context of the times. In doing so, it provides a valuable counterpoint to the reductionist and revisionist views now prevalent.

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