(Note: The writer is answering the question: “Are Americans more divided now than at any time in their history?”)
NEW YORK — Today, our country is divided along a number of different fault lines — the primary one being for or against President Donald Trump. And many of the policies of the Trump administration are equally contentious.
But our country had much deeper divisions from 1968 to 1974, when it seemed the country was at war with itself. Yet the “radical movements” of the Woodstock generation shaped where we are today.
The era of race relations exploded in open civil rebellion after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King. Soldiers patrolled the streets of Detroit, Newark and other American cities to restore order.
The war in Vietnam was deeply unpopular and millions of people protested in anti-war marches. When President Richard Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia in 1970, the nation exploded in protests.
Armed National Guard troops killed and wounded unarmed student protesters at Kent State and Jackson State universities. Students across the nation went on strike, closing the university system and many secondary schools.
On the cultural side, the country was divided between the generations. While the anti-war anger helped propel the movement, issues such as marijuana, long hair, women’s lib and social justice were vehemently argued from both sides.
Radical movements — today’s domestic terrorists — such as the Weather Underground took on the government with violence and bombings. New ideas about the environment, a woman’s place in society and social justice for minorities were decried as undermining democracy.
The hippies preached “Give peace a chance” and “All you need is love.” The “establishment” responded with “America, love it or leave it.” There was not a great deal of middle ground, and many a family gathering descended into acrimony. The talk among the young was not about “resistance” — it was about “revolution.”
And of course, there was the president — Richard Nixon — who fed the flames of division for his own political gain.
“Tricky Dick” harnessed the power of the government — the FBI, the justice and police departments to create enemy lists, conduct illegal break-ins, surveillance and harassment. It was all done in the name of “law and order.”
And in 1972, Nixon won a landslide election, guaranteeing four more years of upheaval. But the country did not come apart. Watergate happened and our government’s checks and balances worked.
If you look back at the radical ideas of the late 1960s that divided our nation, many of them have become mainstream today. The country moved on.
Our country may be divided right now, but what we can learn from this particular history lesson is that there is hope for the future.
Peter Rush is the author of “Wild Word,” a newly released novel set against the backdrop of America’s protest era in the early 1970s, and CEO of Kellen, a non-profit organization management firm. Readers may write him at Kellen, 355 Lexington Ave, 19th Floor, New York, NY 10017.