A popular media discussion in recent years has centered on whose was the “greatest generation.” Consensus quickly focused on my parents’ generation, the one that fought and won World War II. They also grew up during the Depression, a crucible that formed their character. And they begat and raised the greatest generation in sheer numbers, the Baby Boomers – though some would say that counts against them.
But what was the “greatest decade”?
I nominate the one whose 50th anniversary we just started observing – the 1960s.
A turbulent decade to be sure. Many remember only the bad parts, and the list is long: assassinations, race riots, the Vietnam War and subsequent protests, the Democratic Convention riots, a counter-cultural explosion accompanied by plenty of sex and drugs with predictable casualties, the Cubs’ collapse in 1969.
Not enough people, however, seem to remember the “half-full” side.
I thought about the ’60s recently because I was in Houston, of all places, interviewing some priests who had been in Rome during Vatican II. While there, I took a tour of NASA, a prominent item on my list of meaningful places to visit. The old Mission Control room was, for me, like visiting sacred ground.
Those two events alone, the Second Vatican Council and the U.S. space program, make the 1960s, by a long shot, the greatest decade – at least in my lifetime.
Pope John XXIII, one of my childhood heroes, surprised the entire Catholic Church by calling the council into session in 1962 and, in the process, unleashed an unprecedented wave of energy and idealism. Unfortunately, he died the following June, and the Vatican Curia, along with its orthodox storm troopers, have spent the last 50 years trying to cram the genie back in the bottle.
They can’t. The Church has changed forever, and though it is taking far too long to realize Vatican II’s vision of a more open, decentralized, ecumenical institution – a church of the people, rather than a church of the hierarchy – that vision will, someday, be realized. The forces of reaction and revision will try to tell you the spirit of Vatican II was all a figment of overheated imaginations. Don’t believe them.
It was real.
The space program, meanwhile, took us into “the heavens” and unleashed a similar wave – of hope, optimism and national self-confidence. President John F. Kennedy embraced the challenge to win the race to the moon, and though we were motivated too much by Cold War ideology, the nation met that challenge.
Today at NASA, the buildings look run down. Even the paint is peeling, which may or may not be a ploy to publicize their plight. But think about how those space flights made you feel once upon a time (if you were lucky enough to be alive then). Have you felt anything close to it since?
And that wasn’t all. Birth control liberated women reproductively and gave them a major boost toward social equality. The courage of Martin Luther King Jr. and so many other African Americans led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Medicare guaranteed a healthier, more secure retirement for the Greatest Generation (and hopefully the rest of us).
The creative cultural explosion made a lot of people nervous, but it also produced an astonishing breadth of music, most of which still sounds amazingly good today.
A lot of the bad things that happened in the ’60s came from violent pushback against positive progress. Nonetheless, it was a great decade for democracy, including the demise of colonialism worldwide.
It’s true that the ’60s led to a three-decade-long conservative backlash which has produced most of our current problems. But don’t blame the ’60s. Blame the backlash.
The tectonic shifts that began with the 1960s’ Big Bang, though uncomfortable for many, were necessary for all. And we’re better off for them.
There’s never been a decade quite like it.