Eric Foner is an outstanding historian. This is shown by the many notable volumes that he has produced. His The Story of American Freedom is a fine example of his work, and the final two chapters, “Sixties Freedom” and “Conservative Freedom,” warrant particular attention for anyone trying to come to terms with these two complex periods.
In “Sixties Freedom,” Foner begins with Rosa Parks’ small but forceful act of defiance, refusing to yield her seat to a white rider in compliance with a racist municipal law in Montgomery, Alabama. This incident fueled the growing movement demanding that blacks throughout the nation be given equal rights. (275) As Foner points out, the civil rights movement largely took the nation by surprise. Suddenly “freedom” could no longer be merely a word parroted in anti-communist propaganda. Millions of blacks had served in World War II to win freedom overseas. Now, they asked their nation to live up to its own promises. (275-76) Drawing its membership largely from black churches and later from college students black and white, the civil rights movement in turn gave rise to other movements in the sixties, which “restored to freedom the critical edge often lost to Cold War triumphalism, making it once again the rallying cry of the dispossessed.” (276)
Foner traces the development of the civil rights movement, finding the oratory of Martin Luther King to be a galvanizing element in that struggle. A key element of this oratory was King’s ability to express freedom for black people as freedom for all Americans, something that slowly brought the American political system into the struggle, first with the reluctance of the Eisenhower administration, then the intermittent gestures of John Kennedy, and finally the stirring endorsements of Lyndon Johnson. (280)
Even as this movement reached its triumphs, it began to disintegrate as it had to turn from legal barriers to economic issues, something more amorphous and so unsettling that even many
of Dr. King’s advisors urged caution. (283) The economic movement actually received its greatest boost in the War on Poverty, pat of President Johnson’s “Great Society” program, a program which faded as the nation’s resources were diverted to the war in Vietnam. (285-87)
Perhaps the finest part of this chapter, in Foner’s analysis of the “New Left.” In that movement that seemed often the herald of disorder Foner gives a lucid clarity, finding its origins in the moral critique that showed the hollowness of American reality as contrasted with American ideals and in the growing sense of suffocation in modern consumerism. (288) Drawing on the language of Jefferson, Emerson, Garrison, Debs, and Dewey, the young people who articulated the New Left’s views pressed the notion of individual freedom (289) They found their key issue in Vietnam, a war that the United States stumbled into because it failed to realize in time that it could not view “the entire world and every local situation within it through the either-or lens of an anti-Communist crusade.” (290) Trapped in McCarthy era rhetoric of “lost” nations, the United States committed itself to supporting corrupt, dictatorial regimes in South Vietnam against indigenous and widely popular movements, and soon committed hundreds of thousands of troops to a hopeless war that led inexorably to the alienation of millions of young people at home. (290) Meanwhile, the New Left spawned such fierce expressions of individual freedom as the disregard of traditional family values and the endorsement of the drug culture. (292-93) Along slightly less rebellious lines, a new feminist culture arose, rebellion at the idea that women should be relegated to suburban house-wifery and child-rearing as their only options in life. (293-99) Foner finds all of these various and sometimes confusing strands coming together in the efforts of the legal system which emerged in what he dubs the “rights revolution.” (300-05)
Turning then to the revival of conservatism, Foner begins by noting that after World War Two, conservatism seemed completely discredited. Associated mostly with European fascism, it seemed of only historical significance. (308) Drawing on ideas of market economics and making this their lodestar, conservatism gradually reintroduced themselves into social discourse, even when this led to the contradiction of wanting an unrestrained marketplace, with government controls over matters such as morals. (310) The movement found its greatt synthetic thinker in William F. Buckley, the founding editor of The National Review. (310-11)
As the New Left rose, it spawned in reaction a counter-movement, gelling in the Young Americans for Freedom, the young shock-troops for the nomination of Barry Goldwater to the presidency. (312) Though defeated in the 1964 election, Goldwater opened the way for the Republicans to cultivate a backlash against the New Left and the Democratic party, summed up in the idea of home owner’s freedom not to associate, that propelled Richard Nixon to the White House in 1968. (312-14)
Religion, once seen as moribund, rose as the religious Right, coming together to defeat the Equal Right Amendment and to elect a former New Deal democrat, Ronald Reagan. (317-19) Reagan defined freedom in ways almost unrecognizable to Great Society democrats as freedom from government interference, and managed to make “liberal” virtually an unspeakable epithet in American political discourse. (320-025) Nevertheless, conservatism showed the same tendency as liberalism in gradually falling to excess, a notable example being the Montana “freemen” who asserted a virtually right of anarchy in 1999, raising the troubling question anew, What is freedom?” (328-30)
Eric Foner does not try to answer this final question. He finds in the ideal of freedom a defining core of what America is and what it means, and leaves to history the resolution of that question. His job is to chronicle the process by which that definition continues, and we are fortunate to have such a lucid commentator on that process.