Chapter 29 - Protest and Stagnation: The Western World, 1965-1985


BETWEEN 1945 AND 1965, Europe not only overcame the devastating effects of World War II but actually experienced an economic recovery that seemed nothing less than miraculous to many people. Economic growth and virtually full employment continued so long that the first post-World War II recession in 1973 came as a shock to Western Europe.

In 1968, Europe had experienced a different kind of shock. May 1968 is now remembered as a historic month because of events in Paris. A student revolt erupted at the University of Nanterre outside Paris but soon spread to the Sorbonne, the main campus of the University of Paris, where about five hundred students gathered for demonstrations and demanded a greater voice in the administration of the university. The authorities decided to react with force and arrested a number of demonstrators, although as one police officer said, “To tell the truth, we were not enthusiastic about it if we could avoid it, knowing too well, from experience, that our interventions created more problems than they solved.” Indeed, the students fought back, prying up paving stones from the streets to use as weapons. On May 3, eighty policemen and about three hundred students were hurt; almost six hundred students were arrested. Demonstrations then spread to other universities, which served to embolden the students in Paris. On the night of May 10, barricades, formed by overturned cars, went up in the streets of Paris. When police moved in to tear down the barricades, violence ensued. One eyewitness recounted: “A young girl came rushing out into the street practically naked and was manhandled from one cop to another; then beaten like the other wounded students.” Students expanded the scale of their protests by inviting workers to support them. Half of the French workforce went on strike in May 1968. After de Gaulle’s government instituted a hefty wage hike, the workers returned to work, and the police repressed the remaining student protesters.

The year 1968 saw widespread student protests around the world, and for a brief moment, students and radicals everywhere believed the time had come for a complete renovation of society and government. But the moment passed, and the Western world was left with the new order created in the twenty years after World War II. In Eastern Europe, the crushing of Czechoslovakia in 1968 by Soviet troops left Eastern Europeans with little choice but to remain as Soviet satellites. In Western Europe, democracies continued to evolve. But everywhere, resignation and stagnation seemed to prevail as the new order established in the Western world during the twenty years after World War II appeared to have become permanent: a prosperous, capitalistic West and an impoverished Communist East.

A Culture of Protest

FOCUS QUESTION: What were the goals of the I revolt in sexual mores, the youth protests and student revolts, the feminist movement, and the antiwar protests? To what extent were their goals achieved?

In the late 1960s, the Western world was rocked by a variety of protest movements relating to sexual mores, education, and women’s rights as well as a strong antiwar movement against the Second Vietnam War (see “The Second Vietnam War” later in this chapter). Although many of the dreams of the protesters were not immediately realized, the forces they set in motion helped to transform Western society.

A Revolt in Sexual Mores

World War I had opened the first significant crack in the rigid code of manners and morals of the nineteenth century. The 1920s had witnessed experimentation with drugs, the appearance of pornography, and a new sexual freedom (police in Berlin, for example, issued cards that permitted female and male homosexual prostitutes to practice their trade). But these indications of a new attitude appeared mostly in major cities and touched only small numbers of people. After World War II, changes in manners and morals were far more extensive and far more noticeable, giving rise to what critics called the permissive society.

Sweden took the lead in the propagation of the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s. Sex education in the schools and the decriminalization of homosexuality were but two aspects of Sweden’s liberal legislation. The rest of Europe and the United States soon followed Sweden’s example. A gay rights movement emerged in California in 1969 and had spread to France, Italy, and Britain by 1970.

The introduction of the birth control pill, which became widely available by the mid-1960s, gave people more freedom in sexual behavior. Meanwhile, sexually explicit movies, plays, and books broke new ground in the treatment of once-hidden subjects. Cities like Amsterdam, which allowed open prostitution and the public sale of pornography, attracted thousands of curious tourists.

The new standards were evident in the breakdown of the traditional family. Divorce rates increased dramatically, especially in the 1960s, and premarital and extramarital sexual experiences also rose substantially. A survey in the Netherlands in 1968 revealed that 78 percent of men and 86 percent of women had engaged in extramarital sex. The appearance of Playboy magazine in the 1950s had also already added a new dimension to the sexual revolution for adult males. Along with photographs of nude women, Playboy offered well-written articles on various aspects of masculinity. Playboy’s message was clear: men were encouraged to seek sexual gratification outside marriage.

Youth Protest and Student Revolt

The decade of the 1960s also saw the emergence of a drug culture, especially among young people. For most college and university students, marijuana was the recreational drug of choice. For young people more interested in mind expansion into higher levels of consciousness, Timothy Leary, who had done psychedelic research at Harvard on the effects of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), became the high priest of hallucinogenic experiences.

New attitudes toward sex and the use of drugs were only two manifestations of a growing youth movement in the 1960s that questioned authority and fostered rebellion against the older generation (see Images of Everyday Life on p. 903). Spurred on by the Second Vietnam War and a growing political consciousness, the youth rebellion became a youth protest movement by the second half of the 1960s (see the box on p. 904).

Before World War II, higher education had largely remained the preserve of Europe’s wealthier classes. After the war, European states began to foster greater equality of opportunity in higher education by reducing or eliminating fees, and universities experienced an influx of students from the middle and lower classes. Enrollments grew dramatically; in France, 4.5 percent of young people attended a university in 1950. By 1965, the figure had increased to 14.5 percent.

But there were problems. Classrooms with too many students, professors who paid little attention to their students, and administrators who acted in an authoritarian fashion led to student resentment. In addition, despite changes in the curriculum, students of ten felt that the universities were not providing an education relevant to the realities of the modern age. This discontent led to an outburst of student revolts in the late 1960s (see the box on p. 905). In part, these protests were an extension of the spontaneous disruptions in American universities in the mid-1960s, which were of ten sparked by student opposition to the Second Vietnam War. Perhaps the most famous student revolt occurred in France in 1968, as we saw in the introduction to this chapter.

The French revolt spurred student protests elsewhere in Europe, although none of them succeeded in becoming mass movements. In West Berlin, university students led a protest against Axel Springer, leader of Germany’s largest newspaper establishment. Many German students were motivated by a desire to destroy what they considered to be the corrupt old order and were especially influenced by the ideas of the German American social philosopher Herbert Marcuse (mar-KOO-zuh) (1898-1979). In One-Dimensional Man, published in 1964, Marcuse argued that capitalism had undermined the dissatisfaction of the oppressed masses by encouraging the consumption of material things. He proposed that a small cadre of unindoctrinated students could liberate the masses from the control of the capitalist ruling class. But the German students’ attempt at revolutionary violence backfired as angry Berliners supported police repression of the students.

The student protest movement reached its high point in 1968, although scattered incidents lasted into the early 1970s. There were several reasons for the student radicalism. Some students were genuinely motivated by the desire to reform the university. Others were protesting the Second Vietnam War, which they viewed as a product of Western imperialism. They also attacked other aspects of Western society, such as its materialism, and expressed concern about becoming cogs in the large and impersonal bureaucratic jungles of the modem world. For many students, the calls for democratic decision making within the universities reflected their deeper concerns about the direction of Western society. Although the student revolts fizzled out in the 1970s, the larger issues they raised were increasingly revived in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The Feminist Movement

By the late 1960s, women began to assert their rights and speak as feminists. Along with the student upheavals of the late 1960s came renewed interest in feminism, or the women’s liberation movement, as it was now called. Increasingly, women protested that the acquisition of political and legal equality had not brought true equality with men:

We are economically oppressed: in jobs we do full work for half pay, in the home we do unpaid work full time. We are commercially exploited by advertisement, television, and the press; legally, we of ten have only the status of children. We are brought up to feel inadequate, educated to narrower horizons than men. This is our specific oppression as women. It is as women that we are, therefore, organizing.

These were the words of a British Women’s Liberation Workshop in 1969.

An important contributor to the growth of the women’s movement in the 1960s was Betty Friedan (free-DAN) (1921-2006). A journalist and the mother of three children, Friedan grew increasingly uneasy with her attempt to fulfill the traditional role of the “ideal housewife and mother.” In 1963, she published The Feminine Mystique, in which she analyzed the problems of middle-class American women in the 1950s and argued that women were being denied equality with men (see the box on p. 907). She wrote, “The problem that has no name – which is simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities – is taking a far greater toll on the physical and mental health of our country than any known disease.”2

The Feminine Mystique became a best-seller and propelled Friedan into a newfound celebrity. In 1966, she founded the National Organization for Women (NOW), whose stated goal was to take “action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.” Friedan’s voice was also prominent in calling for an amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women to be added to the U.S. Constitution.

Antiwar Protests

One of the major issues that mobilized youthful European protesters was the U.S. war in Vietnam, which they viewed as an act of aggression and imperialism. In 1968, demonstrations broke out in universities in Italy, France, and Britain. In London, 30,000 demonstrators took to the streets protesting America’s war in Vietnam. But student protests in Europe also backfired by provoking a reaction from people who favored order over the lawlessness of privileged young people. As Pier Paolo Pasolini (PYER PAH-loh pah-SOH-lee-nee) (1922-1975), an Italian poet and intellectual, wrote: “ Now all the journalists of the world are licking your arses ... but not me, my dears. You have the faces of spoiled brats, and I hate you, like I hate your fathers . ... When yesterday at Valle Giulia [in Rome] you beat up the police, I sympathized with the police because they are the sons of the poor.”3 Antiwar protests also divided the American people after President Lyndon Johnson sent American troops to war in Vietnam. As the war dragged on and a military draft continued, protests escalated. Teach-ins, sit-ins, and the occupation of buildings at universities alternated with more radical demonstrations that led to violence. The killing of four student protesters at Kent State University in 1970 by the Ohio National Guard caused a reaction, and the antiwar movement began to decline. By that time, however, antiwar demonstrations had worn down the willingness of many Americans to continue the war. The combination of antiwar demonstrations and ghetto riots in the cities also heightened the appeal of a call for “law and order,” used by Richard Nixon, the Republican presidential candidate in 1968.

Next Reading: 29-2 A Divided Western World