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1960s all over again

We are, it's said, living through the most wrenching period since the end of World War II. Unemployment has exceeded 9 percent for 20 months, and it's unclear when it will decisively decline. Americans' faith in the future has been shaken; a recent Gallup poll finds that only one in seven thinks it "very likely" that today's children will "have a better life than their parents."

The feelings and facts are genuine, but the conclusion amounts to historical amnesia. At least one other period rivals the present for its disillusion and contentiousness -- the 1960s.

At first blush, the comparison seems absurd. The '60s were nothing if not prosperous. The economy expanded for a then-record 106 months; by 1969, the unemployment rate was 3.5 percent.

But a strictly economic focus misses broader political and psychological parallels. What frightens people today is that we've experienced setbacks that were so completely unpredicted and unimagined (financial panic, major bank failures, General Motors' bankruptcy, huge budget deficits, collapsed housing values) that they raise dark doubts about our institutions and leaders. The political order seems unequal to the challenges. The stridency of debate reflects fears that one political crowd or the other will yank the country in a disastrous direction.

Precisely the same sort of breakdown occurred in the '60s, and although the causes were very different, the consequences as measured by public divisiveness and anxieties were as great or greater.

"The country was more divided than at any time since 1861, just before the Civil War," says historian Allen Matusow of Rice University, author of an acclaimed history of the '60s, "The Unraveling of America."

Conflict isn't always bad. The civil rights protests early in the decade produced the most significant legislation of the post-World War II era: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination in employment and public accommodations.

But beginning with President John F. Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 and ending with Richard Nixon's resignation in August 1974 -- the real bookends for the historical '60s -- Americans were increasingly traumatized by events that, at the time, were unthinkable.

No one thought that Kennedy's assassination would be followed by others: Martin Luther King Jr.'s and Robert Kennedy's in 1968. No one thought that urban riots, starting with the Watts section of Los Angeles, would become a recurring summer threat. No one thought that anti-Vietnam War protests (partially driven by students' fears of being drafted) would mushroom into a major political movement. No one thought that one president (Lyndon Johnson) would not run for re-election and that another (Richard Nixon) would face impeachment and resign. No one thought the economic boom would spawn ever-rising inflation.

The toll on the national psyche was profound. Democrats, more than Republicans, became bitterly divided. People felt threatened. Law and order became a popular cause and was sometimes code for racism. In the 1968 presidential election, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama campaigned on the backlash and received 13.5 percent of the vote.

Activists were always a minority. But the minority's high visibility fed the perception that America was coming apart, with its privileged youth rejecting "conventional middle-class styles of life" and impugning "the symbols of American patriotism," Brown University historian James Patterson writes in "Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945 -- 1974." It was a wrenching era.

Although dramatic differences separate then and now, the history reminds us that we've been through this before. It also allows for modest optimism. With time, luck and leadership, America has the capacity for self-repair.

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