The Sixties and the Forgotten Man: A Non-Modest Proposal

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt of Peter E. Austin’s essay, “The Sixties and the Forgotten Man: A Non-Modest Proposal.” Dr. Austin was Honors Professor of History and University Studies for sixteen years at St. Edward’s University. Currently he directs The 1960s Project, a large study of the era that grew out of a large lecture course for college freshmen on the same topic.

To read the full essay, click here.


One July day long ago, a young man from Kansas decided to try his luck in the 1500-meter run at the annual US vs. British Commonwealth meet in Los Angeles. He set a world record that day against the Kenyan runner Kip Keino that stood for seven years. This was not new. As a younger man, he had shown promise in high school and was the first athlete his age to run a mile in under four minutes. By graduation, he had bested his own record several times and by nineteen had set a string of world records in the mile and half-mile. Ironically, this Topeka native had been cut from his school’s basketball, baseball, and track and field teams as a teenager, and running cross-country was a last resort. Determined by grit or his Presbyterian faith, Jim Ryun became the youngest male track athlete ever to qualify for the Olympics. Eventually he medaled in three sets of Games over twelve years, received Athlete of the Year Awards, was elected to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame; and upon retirement from running, entered business, then national politics as a Congressman on the Republican ticket, and received the Medal of Freedom from President Trump in 2020.

As Jim Ryun prepared to set world records, Robert Noyce was tinkering with something called an “integrated circuit” just invented by an engineer at Texas Instruments named Jack Kilby. Noyce was part of a group of engineers known as the “traitorous eight” that left their place of employment in Mountain View, California to see if they could realize the potential of a new piece of microelectronic equipment called a semiconductor. They started a company near Palo Alto that Noyce now ran whose name, Fairchild Semiconductor, reflected both the purpose of the company and the man who started it, Sherman Fairchild, whose “Camera and Instrument,” was a large military contractor on the East Coast. At Texas Instruments, Jack Kilby had used the element germanium as a conducting material for the hundreds of working transistors he had fit on a small grid-patterned platform called a “chip.” Noyce, however, favored the use of silicon as a substrate for cheaper manufacture and, for this decision, Fairchild became the most profitable semiconductor manufacturer in America. The traitorous eight formed the nucleus of a company that became an incubator of technology talent in today’s “Silicon Valley.” Eight years after his chip breakthrough, Noyce left Fairchild along with research director, Gordon Moore and fellow scientist, Andy Grove, to found Intel Corporation. A year later, electrical engineer Jerry Sanders left his marketing position at Fairchild to found a company called Advanced Micro Devices.

Louis and Mary Leakey were as interested in past affairs as the men of Silicon Valley were interested in future ones. And their achievements were no less profound. Paleoanthropology was progressing nicely as a serious endeavor, and the British husband and wife team were trailblazers. The Leakeys had worked on digs in the Olduvai Gorge of the Serengeti for years—chain-smoking, surrounded by their dalmatians, and sharing a dinner table with a variety of creatures from monkeys and snakes to owls. For his part, Louis was determined to test Charles Darwin’s hypothesis that humans arose in Africa. Mary, a failed college student, had found little that interested her outside of excavation. The year Jack Kilby invented the integrated circuit, Mary found the team’s first significant human remains—a fossilized skull of a hominid she called “Our Man” that, in time, became known as Australopithecus boisei. A short time later came a less robust though larger-brained specimen called “skilled man” or Homo habilis. Along with these spectacular Tanzanian finds began studies of another sort that the Leakeys, particularly Louis, sought to sponsor investigating the furrier ancestors of man. Jane Goodall began her sixty-year study of chimpanzees in nearby Kenya about the time that Homo habilis was named, and Dian Fossey started her quest into the Congo to find out what made gorillas tick. A third researcher, Birute Galdikas, studied orangutans in Borneo, and joined Goodall and Fossey as “Leakey’s Angels,” each of whom would become an important scholar in the field of primatology and contribute to solving the puzzle of human origins.

Jim Ryun set speed records on the ground. Sears, Roebuck & Company dreamed of setting distance records in the sky. And the design firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill was set to help Sears reach its goal, and keep Chicago the laboratory of architecture and design it had been for decades. Sears was the world’s largest retailer and decided to consolidate its thousands of employees in the Chicago area into a three million square foot building on the western edge of the Loop. Such a structure carried a footprint too large for any mature downtown, so the solution, of course, was to build up; and architect Bruce Graham with Skidmore’s chief engineer, Fazlur Khan, took on the design challenge—fresh off a partnership that had built the one-hundred story John Hancock building. The result was an impressive example of American optimism and retail confidence that increased in floor count as fast as Sears increased its projections for growth. When completed, the “Sears Tower” was a quarter mile high—taller than any building to date, including New York’s unfinished World Trade Center—so high in fact that the Federal Aviation Administration worried about its effect on birds and air traffic. More important than height, the Sears Tower used Fazlur Khan’s system of mutually-supporting “tubes” that profoundly resisted lateral loads, including seismic and wind forces. These “tubes” —nine in the case of Sears—set off a renaissance in skyscraper building because they enabled architects to build, in Khan’s phrase, “cities in the sky,” with far less concrete and steel, yet with more expression in this medium than ever before.

Together, these examples portray imaginative, rigorous, and disciplined tasks in what one would assume were productive and reasonable times. So it may come as a surprise that these achievements are little known precisely because of when they took place: the 1960s.

The 1960s in the United States have achieved iconic status in the eyes of professors, students and the general public who tend to connect the decade with revolutionary social and political unrest and cultural change, reflected in phrases such “flower power,” “teach-ins,” “days of rage,” “the personal is political,” “America’s second civil war,” “tune in, turn on, drop out,” “give peace a chance,” “sex, drugs and rock & roll.” The period is associated also with a parade of people such as Twiggy, Betty Friedan, Janis Joplin, Richard Nixon, Ken Kesey, Mrs. Robinson, Bob Dylan, Malcolm X, and Nikita Khrushchev; with places like My Lai, Woodstock, Altamont, Haight-Ashbury, Woolworth’s, Cuba, Selma, and Watts; and even initials such as JFK, LBJ, MLK, MIA, SDS or LSD.

In a typical account of the 1960s there is great attention devoted to four areas: civil rights, feminism, Vietnam, and the Counterculture. These signature themes have become so dominant in people’s minds that it is difficult for most to recall anything else that occurred during the decade. Books, articles, television documentaries, and college courses weave together year after year a common narrative around a common fabric of themes. Papers and conferences on the era, such as at the University of Texas in 2012 or Texas Christian University in 2017, for example, deal with little but these themes—as have many books of the period published since 1987:

  • John Blum, Years of Discord: American Politics & Society, 1961-74 (1991).
  • Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines (eds.), “Takin’ it to the streets” (2011)
  • Tom Brokaw, Boom: Voices of the Sixties (2007).
  • Dominick Cavallo, A Fiction of the Past: The Sixties in American History (1999).
  • Mike Davis & Jon Weiner, Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties (2020)
  • Gerald J. DeGroot, The Sixties Unplugged (2008).
  • David Farber (ed.), The Sixties: From Memory to History (1994)
  • Henry Finder (ed.), The 60s: The Story of a Decade (2016).
  • Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (1987).
  • M. Isserman & M. Kazin, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (2010).
  • Charles Kaiser, 1968 in America (1988).
  • Mark Lytle, America’s Uncivil War: The Sixties Era, Elvis to the Fall of Richard Nixon (2006).
  • Arthur Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the US (1998).
  • J. Morrison, Camelot to Kent State: The Sixties in the Words of Those Who Lived It (1987).
  • Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie (1989).
  • Christopher B. Strain, The Long Sixties, 1955-1973 (2017).
  • Irwin Unger (ed.), The Times Were a Changin’: A Sixties Reader (1998).

Many of these books are superbly written and enjoyable. But the larger point is that they tell the same story while discounting huge swaths of human achievement occurring in that period—from the intricacies of foreign affairs to discoveries in medicine and the wonders of architecture; from business issues to sports, entertainment to science. These books also overlook the ways that many Americans lived their lives in the years 1960 to 1970 or so—raising families, building businesses, attending schools and churches, and pursuing happiness in the ways they saw fit within a bustling market economy. The standard history of the 1960s indeed is one we think we know, and one we see every day; a time so important to LIFE magazine that it devoted an entire commemorative volume to it in 2019, entitled “The 1960s: the Decade When Everything Changed.” But here in words and pictures yet again was a rearrangement of the decade’s four themes, as incomplete and misleading as the books published each year that leave out many of the vital people, places, and things that made the decade hum.

In 1883, a Yale sociologist named William Graham Sumner presented a lecture that warned against what he saw as the growing encroachments of the state to solve social problems. The lecture eventually became an essay entitled “The Forgotten Man” and described a sort of algebra of politics whereby well-intentioned progressives often coerced average citizens into supporting dubious social projects. Sumner wrote: “As soon as A observes something which seems to him to be wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine . . . what A, B, and C shall do for X.”

C? What about C? Where does he come in? Sumner was talking about laws that roped large segments of society into causes in which they played no part, had no need for, but for which they were expected to pay. There was nothing wrong with A and B helping X, but Sumner was concerned with them speaking for C and putting him on the hook, as “the man who never is thought of.”1

Sumner’s A-B-C device is useful to address the gap in the literature on the 1960s. A discussion of the classic themes of civil rights, Vietnam, the counterculture, and feminism—is longstanding. Glorifying the radical 1960s, however—the loud, exceptional, interesting, wonderful, psychedelic 1960s—gets in the way of getting to know everything else—the “Cs,” the contributors, the quiet producers, the innovators who don’t self-promote or march, are not brought forth by historians, and have no obvious advocates. These are the men and women who made the era what it was in a variety of fields including athletics, engineering, technology, science, medicine, entertainment, and others. It is these who are always left out, deserve credit, and to whom I want to pay some attention.

I hazard to state that the large number of less-written-about events, people, and inventions of this storied time are equally—possibly more—enduring than some of the higher profile things identified with the 1960s today. Three of these areas – foreign affairs, architecture, and developments in economics – touched millions at the time they occurred.2

To read the full essay, click here.


1 While W.G. Sumner created “the forgotten man” in the 19th century, I am indebted to Amity Schlaes for the revival of this idea in her book The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (New York: Harper, 2008).

2 It has become almost customary to treat the 1960s more as an era than as a decade. For this reason, I refer in this paper to a “Long Decade” starting in 1960 and stretching to 1974/75 when the 1960s exhausted itself in the scandal of Watergate and the agony of Saigon.


Image: Intel Free Press, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, cropped.

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Peter E. Austin

Peter E. Austin was Honors Professor of History and University Studies for sixteen years at St. Edward’s University. He is author of Baring Brothers and the Birth of Modern Finance (Pickering & Chatto, 2007), and is completing a manuscript on the historical relationship between lawyers and the economic growth of nations. Currently he directs The 1960s Project, a large study of the era that grew out of a large lecture course for college freshmen on the same topic.

2 thoughts on “The Sixties and the Forgotten Man: A Non-Modest Proposal

  1. The thing that I think is most misunderstood about the role of women in the 1950s & 1960s — and Betty Friedan’s _The Feminine Mystique _ is that changes in technology made the housewife superfluous, and to understand Friedan’s review of the Smith Class of 1943, one has to look at *their* mothers, who would have had to become pregnant in 1922 to have daughters graduating in 1943, and likely were married at least a few years before that.

    In the 1920s, both electricity and (manufactured) gas only existed in the cities, and even there it was only used for illumination, it was way too expensive to use for cooking, let alone heating. Girls were taught, from childhood, how to dry and can (i.e. bottle) foods so as to preserve them for the winter. This even extended to the “canning” of meat — my mother sent me off to college with Mason jars fulled of “canned” beef so that I wouldn’t starve.

    In the 1950’s “bottled gas” arrived — first in 100 lb cylinders of liquid propane gas and then the truck-filled larger cylinders that are still common in much of rural America. At the same time the cities went from (expensive) manufactured gas to the much cheaper natural gas. What this did was eliminate the wood/coal fired cookstoves which went to the junkyards to be replaced by the new gas stoves — the “cooking with gas.”

    Then there was the introduction of the automatic washing machine, which washed, rinsed, and spun all by itself — along with the clothes drier which eliminated the need of hanging clothes on the clothesline. People forget that the washing machine of the 1950s was just a tub with an agitator, and that women had to pull clothes out to rinse, soaking them in adjacent laundry sinks, and then run them through the wringer — and *then* hang them out to dry.

    Food technology advanced as well, starting with “TV Dinners” and going to what we have available today. Much as all of the highly detailed information that railroad engineers knew in the era of steam became irrelevant when Diesel locomotives arrived, all of the equally detailed information that women knew suddenly became irrelevant when frozen food arrived.

    Remember that prior to WW-II, people didn’t have refrigerators — a lot of veterans used their GI pay to buy their mothers a refrigerator which wasn’t anywhere near as efficient as the ones we have today. (You couldn’t keep ice cream in the freezer, it would melt.)

    A man no longer needed a wife to preserve & cook his food for him — he could now go downtown and buy frozen food and prepare it himself. And if you look at the literature of the time, there were many references about how a man should want a woman (i.e. wife) to prepare “home cooked meals.”

    Women became superfluous….

    Well, men now have become superfluous for all the same reasons, a husband is no longer needed, a woman is far better off as a single mother. All of the things that men used to do — i.e. provide for and protect women — are now done by the state.

    And men have become every bit as irrelevant as women were in Betty Friedan’s era.

    The interesting question is what will be the consequences of having lots of irrelevant men who are now excluded from society? The feminists are organized in a way that the men ever were, but when you create a large portion of society with no hope for a better future, you’ve inherently created an unstable society….

    I’m thinking that the 2020s will be every bit as tumultuous as the 1970s were, and for the very same reasons….

  2. An interesting essay. In a way, something similar was going on in the much-derided 50’s. A time widely regarded as an age of conformity had a great to deal to offer in culture high and low. Hemingway, Faulkner, the beats, Copland and Bernstein, Miles Davis. A lot of it came at the end of the 50s and elided into the 60s. And not just “culture”: in science, the Hale telescope, Watson and Crick, the real decoding of the genetic code in the 60’s, the quark model, the cosmic microwave background (decisive evidence for the Big Bang). And oh, is there any mention of the space age, the moon shot? And I have it on good authority that there was a lot of sex, drugs, and rock and roll mixed in with the really fun stuff listed above.

    The 50s and 60s seem more joined at the hip from today’s perspective, the former not just a conformist wasteland, the latter not just about a complete wack-out, at least not until late in decade.

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