… What has been pulling us apart? One wishes one knew. Yet there are a number of near and long-term developments that can be discerned and surely contribute significantly to what is going on.
Of the near-term events, the two most conspicuous are the Negro revolution and the war in Vietnam. Although seemingly unrelated, they have much in common as to origins, and even more as to the process by which they have brought on mounting levels of disunity. … In a word, those in power have allowed domestic dislocations that accompany successful social change to be interpreted as irrefutable evidence that the society refuses to change; they have permitted foreign-policy failures arising from mistaken judgments to be taken as incontrovertible proof that the society has gone mad as well. … The essence of the Negro problem in America at this time is that despite great national commitments, and great progress, a large mass of the black population remains poor, disorganized, and discriminated against.
These facts are increasingly interpreted as proof that the national commitment is flawed, if not indeed fraudulent, that the society is irredeemably “racist,” etc. … Moreover, increasingly that argument is directed not to particulars, but to fundamental questions as to the legitimacy of American society.
Vietnam has been a domestic disaster of the same proportion, and for much the same reason. … At the risk of seeming cynical, I would argue that the war in Vietnam has become a disastrous mistake because we have lost it. …
There is a longer-term development contributing to the present chaos which bears mentioning. Since about 1840, the cultural elite in America have pretty generally rejected the values and activities of the larger society. It has been said of America that the culture will not approve that which the polity strives to provide. For a brief period, associated with the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, there was something of a truce in this protracted struggle.
That, I fear, is now over. The leading cultural figures are going—have gone—into opposition once again. This time they take with them a vastly more numerous following of educated, middle-class persons, especially young ones, who share their feelings and who do not need the “straight” world. It is their pleasure to cause trouble, to be against. And they are hell bent for a good time.
President Johnson took all this personally, but I have the impression that you will make no such mistake! …
May 17, 1969
For the President
I think you are entirely right to have been disturbed by Pete Hamill’s article: “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class” [published in this magazine]. To be frank, I would have sent it to you myself, save that it seemed to me this is just what you were talking about during the campaign. “The Forgotten Americans.”
A new voice is being heard in America today. It is a voice that has been silent too long. It is a voice of people who have not taken to the streets before, who have not indulged in violence, who have not broken the law.
These forgotten Americans finally have become angry. They have not really found a voice in American politics, but they are indeed angry. And have reason to be. You ask, “What is our answer.” To which I suppose my first reaction would be to ask, “What is their question?” …
What is the question? It is this: How is the great mass of white working people to regain a sense of positive advantage from the operation of American government, and retain a steady loyalty to the processes of American society, at a time when those above and below them in the social hierarchy seem simultaneously to be robbing the system blind and contemptuously dismissing all its rules. …
August 19, 1969
Memorandum for the President
Autumn now approaches, and with it—such being the singular capacity of American life to compress the social change of generations into demi-decades—the season of student unrest, disorder, and turmoil … beyond the simple issue of campus violence—simple in the sense that almost everyone will agree that students should not club the dean, but neither should they be prevented by bayonets from doing so—the far more complex question of the relationship of the American polity to the newest generation of middle-class youth awaits you. You because, as president, you are the embodiment of that polity. It is, in a sense, entrusted to the president that he be concerned with these profound matters of continuity and change. You also because so long as the Vietnam War continues student protest constitutes an immediate and direct threat to the day-to-day effectiveness of the national government, quite apart from any long range concerns.