1962. It all seems so far away: President Kennedy, the Cuban Missile Crisis, “The Twist.” How can we relate to the time of the first Beatles’ hit, the first James Bond movie, and the first manned space orbit of the Earth? How did it feel to live in the year of Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You?” and the film To Kill a Mockingbird?
Well, judging from what people were telling the Post, it felt a lot like today.
“We don’t have the family as a unit as we used to have. As a result, a lot of the kids have got out of control.”
“People seem to have lost something. They don’t seem to care anymore. Maybe what we’ve lost is Americanism. They don’t teach it to the kids anymore.”
“These teenagers that really scare you, with their gangs … and all. What’s got into our kids? I don’t know.”
“We’re all living too fast. … We’re all running and we can’t catch up.”
“We’re becoming decadent. … Moral values have declined. People don’t feel patriotism as they used to.
These quotes were typical of the responses from the 500 people interviewed by Stewart Alsop for his article, “The Mood of America.” Our country was in a “curious national mood” that year, according to Stewart Alsop. After talking to Americans in seven states, he concluded that the country’s odd mood was “balky, ambivalent, and contradictory.”
“For example, the American people, to judge from their talk, are in an essentially conservative frame of mind. The word ‘socialism’ to most of them is almost as bad a word as ‘communism.’ They are worried about Government spending, and instinctively resistant to what they call ‘too much government.’ A surprising number of them are firmly opposed to any tax cut unless it is accompanied by a balanced budget.
“In view of all this, one might suppose that there was a great tide of public sentiment in favor of the … more conservative Republican party. [Yet] most voters prefer the Democratic Party, and they prefer President Kennedy to any now-visible Republican rival by a big majority. And except in the Middle West, most voters like the President’s Medicare program, which is anathema to conservatives.
“There are other odd ambivalences. For example, most of the people we talked to fear nuclear war more than anything else, but only one in five thinks there is much danger of such a war.
“Finally, the American people are by and large a strongly moral, even moralistic people, who are deeply worried about … the morality of the American people.”
It seems strange now that Alsop expected more consistency among American voters. It was understandable, though; the country was entering an age of changes and challenges. In February of that year, America had taken another giant step into space with John Glenn’s orbit of the earth. In October it would confront Russian missiles pointed at us from Cuba. Ready or not, the country would have to consider how it would respond to the changes of the modern world.
Many responded with divided loyalties between the old and the new. The division had already begun to show in the change of presidents. While America had always revered and identified with Dwight Eisenhower, they were increasingly drawn to the more aloof, intellectual, charismatic Kennedy. They were still soundly against ‘big government’ but they were growing more supportive of the struggling NASA program and Medicare.
The ambivalence between the old and new loyalties was particularly noticeable on the question of racial equality. The basic view of White Americans, according to Alsop, was summed by a Baltimore housewife who said, “They got rights, just like anybody else. They ought to vote and have just as good schools and all that, but I don’t see why we got to mingle together.” Many could accept the new thinking about equal rights; they just couldn’t yet accept Black Americans.
It was a time of great challenge, not unlike today. And, like today, the uneasiness and uncertainty over the way forward lead some Americans to believe we have lost our moral compass. The economy had stalled, and some feared a recession was on its way. The Cold War was close to going ‘hot,’ and we were regularly conducting air-raid drills against the possibility of a nuclear attack. Yet, Alsop was “really surprised [by] the number of people who felt [our] greatest problems are moral rather than economic or political. … A surprising number seem to feel that somehow, somewhere, America has lost something—a sense of purpose, a sense of right and wrong, a sense of home and family … something that was good that has gone out of American life.”
If he was interviewing Americans today, Alsop would probably get the same sense of concern about our moral condition and the feeling of loss. He might feel the same atmosphere of “part nostalgia, part moral indignation.”
But would he find the character of the American people the same as he did in 1962: “a pleasant people, unsuspicious and openhearted”?