BY MIKE THOMASON / CONTRIBUTING WRITER

This is not just a book — it is an experience. The author, Frye Gaillard, lived the decade of the 1960s in high school in his native Mobile and in college at Vanderbilt in Nashville before becoming a journalist in 1968. He lived through this seminal decade which, after nearly half a century, one must be in his 60s to remember, but all of us live in a similar world it helped create. “A Hard Rain” is 700 pages divided into 72 topical chapters, presented in roughly chronological order. It is not light reading, but it is memorable.

I went to college in 1960 at Sewanee on the Cumberland Plateau 90 miles east of Nashville, where serious scholarship and physical isolation were the norm, and then to graduate school at Duke, where I spent my time in the bowels of the library trying to keep up with my classes, followed by a year of research in England and East Africa. When Gaillard was graduating from Vanderbilt, I was off to teach at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.

Only in the spring of 1968 at Duke was I exposed to the demonstrations following Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination and then by Bobby Kennedy’s in June. When President John F. Kennedy was murdered I read about it in Time. I was so absorbed in my academic studies, or later away from the country, that there was a remoteness about my experience of the decade. My principal concern was keeping my academic draft deferment.

I opposed the Vietnam War and was just the right age to be drafted. By comparison, as “A Hard Rain” so clearly shows, Gaillard was actively involved in the political, social and cultural revolution taking place. Only as I read this book did I realize just how much I had missed. His experience, his truly extensive documentary research and his ability as a writer breathe life into this story. As you read the book you will feel you are truly reliving that remarkable decade.

You will also see the similarities in our era and that now-distant one. The conflicts around us now, whether political, economic or cultural, have their origins in the ‘60s. Whether it is race relations, rampant drug abuse, religious conflicts, bitter political divisions or the growing wealth gap in our society, the ‘60s has left us its legacy. History doesn’t repeat itself, but people do often make the same mistakes over and over again, and then blame history for it all.

But “A Hard Rain” gives us heroes and heroines as well as stories of disappointment and failure. Its chapters explore politics, science, TV and popular culture in general. There are many chapters on sports, music and literature — everything from folk, Elvis and crossover, to the Beatles and on to Woodstock. Authors such as Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe and David Halberstam, among many others, define the decade’s literature and we still read their work today.

As Gaillard explains, the ‘60s began with young, new leaders, led by the Kennedys, and an idealism that sought to unite the nation in a search for worthwhile achievements, such as the Peace Corps or achieving racial justice following the lead of Dr. King and others. Their shining ideals were shattered by President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in 1963, to be replaced by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

Though Johnson’s efforts were more successful politically, they lacked the aura of JFK’s call to service. Johnson knew how to get things done domestically. He advanced Civil Rights more than any president since Lincoln, but the war in Vietnam was beyond his ability. Gradually this legacy of Kennedy’s Cold War mentality grew, overwhelmed the president and the nation, and swept away the idealism that characterized the decade’s early years. It also contributed mightily to unrest and riots in America’s urban ghettos and universities.

America was fighting a war which, after the Tet Offensive in January 1968, lost the support of many Americans and spurred often-violent demands for Black Power at home. With the deaths of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy later in the year, and race riots in cities across the country that spring and summer, Johnson decided not to run for re-election, opening the door to Richard Nixon, who won election in November 1968.

As Richard Goodwin, who worked for both Kennedy brothers, noted at the time, “the Sixties were over.” Nixon went on to perfect the politics of polarized division, setting voters against one another. The bitter divisions affecting our society today began with his cynicism. Donald Trump perfected Nixon’s approach, he did not invent it.

That spring the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland thanks to oil and other pollution. The event attracted national attention, leading to Nixon’s creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the nation began to confront its ecological problems. The EPA and those problems often dominate news from today’s Washington.

The war ground on in Vietnam, and by the decade’s last year Americans were tired of the lies their government had told, but had no stomach for the surrender that would eventually bring it to an end in the next decade. As Gaillard points out, no one in a leadership position understood what the war was about and so, armed in ignorance, plowed on as casualties rose. America’s leaders persisted in seeing it as a war against Communism, when it was actually another chapter in the struggle against colonialism.

Early in the decade Dr. Timothy Leary had begun experimenting with LSD while teaching at Harvard. In 1963 he lost that job, but his advocacy of “turn on, tune in and drop out” popularized drugs, initially on university campuses but eventually leading to widespread use, typified by San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District or Woodstock at the decade’s end. This expanded illegal drug use by entertainers and young people in general, laying the foundations for the drug epidemic today.

Our country was divided along so many lines, many of which we had long ignored. Women demanded equality and personhood. Abortion and birth control were no longer too sensitive to discuss in public. Gays also were leaving the closet and demanding their sexuality no longer be criminalized. The Stonewall Riots brought it all out into the open in New York City, and neither genie returned to the bottle thereafter, but the struggles by women and gays would not be resolved and arguably persist even to the present day.

On July 20, 1969, in the midst of Earth’s problems, U.S. astronauts landed on the moon. That goal of President Kennedy’s was achieved, but at the same time his younger brother, Ted, drove his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, drowning Mary Jo Kopechne, a loyal Kennedy staffer whom Ted hardly knew. The story seemed likely to ruin him, and probably would have done so if his last name were different. Fortunately for him, Apollo 11 got the nation’s attention and Kennedy survived, but the idealism his brothers had demonstrated suffered. It was a disgusting story and Ted spent the rest of his life atoning for it as a U.S. senator.

The decade that had begun with such promise of youthful idealism ended in a welter of conflict, division and recrimination. The country was badly divided and many of those divisions have widened and deepened in the years since. Those who despair for the U.S. today should read this book and realize we have passed through hard times before and survived. But hard times do not necessarily lead to a better future. That is up to us.

Even Gaillard ends by asking what the ‘60s meant and admits he isn’t sure. However, he gives us some 40 pages of notes and reading suggestions to help us understand the era. It’s hard to imagine a better book on that troubled yet productive decade will ever be written. It should be read by all of us.

Frye Gaillard, “A Hard Rain: America in the 1960s — Our Decade of Hope, Possibility, and Innocence Lost” (NewSouth Books, Montgomery, 2018)  Hardback, 700 pages. $39.95. ISBN 978-1-58838-344-0

The writer is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of South Alabama.

Book events
• Sept. 6 at Page and Palette, Fairhope, 6 p.m.
• Sept. 30 at Mobile Public Library, main branch, Bernheim Hall, 2 p.m., in program with Roy Hoffman. Free, refreshments served.
• Oct. 2 at University of South Alabama, The Faculty Club, 7 p.m., sponsored by the Stokes Center for Creative Writing and the Center for the Study of War and Memory. Free, open to the public.