Michael Harrington has written filling in the background to the American political scene, much of which finds no reflection in the Presidential campaigns.
the defining of decades has long been a popular intellectual pastime in the United States. The Twenties were Prohibition and Prosperity; they roared. The Thirties were Depression and New Deal, and they persisted through the Presidential election of 1948 (there were no Forties as a unit of social experience). The Fifties, under the benign incompetence of Eisenhower, revolved around Cold War and McCarthyism.
Now, almost on chronological schedule, it appears that the American Sixties are beginning. It is a matter of mood, of a growing conviction that things will be different because they must be different.
Take the last few months. In the early spring, the sit-in movement of the Southern Negro students swept across Dixie and touched off demonstrations and picket lines in every major Northern city. In May, eighteen thousand people crowded Madison Square Garden in New York to demonstrate for a sane nuclear policy. After the meeting, five thousand followed Norman Thomas and Harry Belafonte on a midnight march across Manhattan to the United Nations. In July, over fifteen thousand whites and Negroes were involved in marches and vigils for Civil Rights during the Democratic and Republican Conventions.
A couple of years ago, a small group of liberal, pacifist and radical leaders issued a newspaper ad. for a “sane nuclear policy”. The response was surprising, quick and uneven. Ever since then, groups of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy had been springing up (and dying) across the nation. In the process SANE has attracted a fairly wide middle class following. Its spokesmen include intellectuals like David Riesman and Erich Fromm, and entertainment personalities like Harry Belafonte, Steve Allan and Robert Ryan (the presence of movie stars is more significant than it might seem; this is the first political action in Hollywood since the blacklist of the early Fifties).
But SANE’s impact (and that of the entire peace movement) is limited. So far it is a middle-class phenomenon. The AFL-CIO position on foreign policy is often a bit to the right of the State Department, and many trade unionists fear the impact of disarmament upon the job market. Recently, however, there have been a few small, but significant, breaks in the labour movement. At the Madison Square Garden rally, Walter Reuther, President of the Auto Workers, was a featured speaker. Here and there, other trade unionists have followed his lead.
Objectively speaking, peace is the decisive issue in America. But politically, the Civil Rights movement has been more dynamic and important. For one thing, its immediate constituency includes eighteen million Negroes, more and more of them living in the big Northern cities where they have the vote. This means that Civil Rights has a mass, popular character which the peace movement lacks. Then, the Negroes have been engaged in non-violent direct action, fashioning an image of commitment and participation that is the very antithesis of the Fifties.