In the 1960s television became another member of the family. Bill Moyers looks at how TV both reflected and influenced the chaotic era which included the assassination and funeral of John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the Apollo moon landing, the Beatles, the saga of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr.
T.V. VOICE: 4-1-8 there’s no answer on voice…4-1-8 does not go on automatic…
BILL MOYERS: If there’s one device who’s coming of age coincided with and profoundly influenced the history of its time, it’s this — television.
RICHARD NIXON: And so tonight, to you, the great the silent majority of my fellow Americans —
BILL MOYERS: In 1960, almost every American home had at least one. Television became the other member of the family.
LYNDON B. JOHNSON: Good evening, my fellow Americans. I speak to you this evening about a very important development.
T.V. REPORTER: Ben Davis says you guys are nothing but a bunch of British Elvis Presleys.
RINGO STAR: It’s not true. It’s not true.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: We, the Negro citizens, have decided not to ride the buses in Montgomery.
DEMONSTRATOR: If we’re wrong, why don’t you arrest us?
POLICEMAN: Why don’t you get out from in front of the camera and go on?
DEMONSTRATOR: It’s not a matter of being in front of the camera, it’s a matter of facing your sheriff —
BILL MOYERS: They were chaotic times. Television told us about the chaos and whirled us into it.
RICHARD NIXON: Just think how much you’re going to be missing. You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.
JOHN F. KENNEDY: It is a pleasure to be here tonight and to participate in this program which opens up a series of discussions, sometimes known as great debates. Can you hear me now, speaking? Is that about the right the tone of voice?
BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. This broadcast is about television. It’s about technology. It’s about the impact of our way of life on the quality of life. It’s about the change that can come up on us with such velocity that it shakes the common ground we stand on. And old beliefs go down like stalks of wheat before the reaper’s blade. It’s about all these things because it’s about the 1960s. That seems a long time ago. The noise of the decade has faded. Its heroes and villains are dead or aging. But we’re still coping with the shock of the ’60s and will be for a long time to come.
BILL MOYERS: Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the assembling of the first atomic bomb, talked of the prevalence of newness, the changing scale and scope of change itself, so that the world alters as we walk on it, so that the years of a human life measure not some small growth or moderation of what we learned in childhood, but a great upheaval. That happened in the 1960s.
Of course, history ripens as it changes over time. But there are moments, such as the ’60s, when underlying patterns of history suddenly crystallize and become visible under the heat and pressure of events. I was a young man in the ’60s, too much of the times to see deeply into the times. But I could feel the shift of gravity that was taking place. We Americans had finished the Second World War with the conviction that all things are possible. Through the ’50s, we shared some cherished beliefs about ourselves — that we could never lose a war, that we were a decent and moral people, a force for good in the world, that there would always be plenty of work for everyone, that the twin juggernauts of business and technology would carry us ever onward and upwards with no fallout or hidden costs. All of these assumptions were challenged, if not shattered, by the events of the ’60s.
In this hour, I’d like to look at some of the forces that converged to change the way we saw ourselves and our world. Let’s begin with television, the invention that’s connecting you and me at this very moment. It’s so rooted in our habits that we forget how short a time it’s been around. In 1950, believe it or not, only 10% of our homes had a set. But a decade later, television was commonplace. Already it was beginning to affect not only our perception of reality, but reality itself. A lot of its technology — instant replays, stop-action devices — was invented to give us ringside seats at sporting events. But the grandstand view we got was not just of sports.
T.V. NEWS ANNOUNCER: Air Force Number One, ladies and gentlemen, carrying the president of the United States.
BILL MOYERS: John Kennedy and television sort of rode into town together. It’s been said he was our first television president, that his charisma punched right through the screen. It was true in life and in death. His was our first television assassination and funeral.
FIRST T.V. NEWSCASTER: We are taking a look at the president’s last hours.
SECOND T.V. NEWSCASTER: I think it’s impossible to give protection, isn’t it, when you’re traveling like this?
FIRST T.V. NEWSCASTER: No Secret Service man can give the president absolute protection.
SECOND T.V. NEWSCASTER: Not from a sniper’s bullet.
FIRST T.V. NEWSCASTER: These scenes were taken this morning at 11:30 Dallas time.
SECOND T.V. NEWSCASTER: It was a beautiful fall day.
FIRST T.V. NEWSCASTER: At Love Field.
SECOND T.V. NEWSCASTER: Many of these outstretched hands got handshakes from both the president and the first lady.
FIRST T.V. NEWSCASTER: The president looking trim and healthy, very tanned.
SECOND T.V. NEWSCASTER: Now there he goes along. That’s a good shot of him.
T.V. REPORTER: Are you a Marxist?
LEE HARVEY OSWALD: Well, I have studied Marxist philosophy, yes sir, and also other philosophers.
T.V. NEWSCASTER: In just a few seconds here, we’ll be moving over to the shots of the motorcade.
T.V. REPORTER: Do you consider yourself a Marxist?
LEE HARVEY OSWALD: Well, I would definitely say that I, uh —I, uh —
T.V. NEWSCASTER 1: The president’s car is now turning onto L Street.
T.V. NEWSCASTER 2: This is the celebrated bubble-top limousine that the White House —
T.V. NEWSCASTER 1: The bubble-top is not up today.
T.V. NEWSCASTER 3: —before he arrives at the Trademark. Something has happened in the motorcade.
T.V. NEWSCASTER 1: The president had been shot.
T.V. NEWSCASTER 2: With a sniper’s bullet.
T.V. NEWSCASTER 3: Something, I repeat, has happened in the motorcade group.
T.V. NEWSCASTER 4: The first unconfirmed reports say the president was hit in the head. That’s an unconfirmed report that the president was hit in the head. The president’s wife, Jackie Kennedy, was not hurt. She walked into the hospital —
T.V. NEWS VOICE: Secret Service FBI agents combing the area.
SECOND T.V. NEWS VOICE: Articles were found, a box of chicken.
T.V. NEWS VOICE: There’s the weapon there.
THIRD T.V. NEWS VOICE: Just a moment.
FOURTH T.V. NEWS VOICE: The president of the United States is dead.
BILL MOYERS: The newscasters’ voices sounded cool and authoritative, but they gave us only fragments of information. All we knew for certain those first few hours was of a death in the family.
T.V. NEWSCASTER: President Johnson coming over to the microphone accompanied by military aides.
BILL MOYERS: Only the orderly transition of power gave us reassurance. But instead of pomp and circumstance, there was just this dark and melancholy tableau.
LYNDON JOHNSON: This is a sad time for all people. I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help and God’s.
BILL MOYERS: Barely 24 hours later, Lee Harvey Oswald was paraded in public as Kennedy’s killer. Was he a solitary maniac or a conspirator in some grotesque political plot? We wanted a tidy story, which this one wasn’t.
BILL MOYERS: When the suspect was apprehended and brought out of the theater —
SECOND T.V. NEWSCASTER: —was undergoing intensive interrogation, of course, from the moment he was picked up.
LEE HARVEY OSWALD: I don’t know what this is all about.
T.V. REPORTER: Did you kill the president?
LEE HARVEY OSWALD: No, sir. I didn’t.
BILL MOYERS: The police allowed it, and the cameras added to the hysteria. All who watched were present at the inquest, a tribunal of millions invited to weigh the evidence and concur in the grim conviction of a Texas lawman.
T.V. NEWSCASTER: Are there any other leads on any other suspects? Or is this the man you believe killed President Kennedy?
POLICE SPOKESMAN: I think we have the right man.
LEE HARVEY OSWALD: These people have given me a hearing without legal representation or anything.
T.V. REPORTER: Did you shoot the President?
LEE HARVEY OSWALD: I didn’t shoot anybody, no sir.
T.V. REPORTER: Here he comes out of the elevator. Yeah, he’s got to be here. There he is.
SECOND T.V. REPORTER: There he is. Here he comes.
THIRD T.V. REPORTER: As Oswald walks across the room, you are going to hear the shots —
BILL MOYERS: Again and again, we saw the violence, but never were we prepared for the next brutal twist.
T.V. REPORTER: There he is.
SECOND T.V. REPORTER: There he is.
THIRD T.V. REPORTER: Here he comes.
T.V. REPORTER: No, no, no, he has shot him!
SECOND T.V. REPORTER: Pandemonium. Oswald, shot, lays on the floor.
THIRD T.V. REPORTER: No, no, no. This has happened. No, no, no.
BILL MOYERS: Private sorrows and public event blended one into the other. Only on television could we see it whole. 100 million watched in America alone while the satellite Telstar broadcast to millions abroad. It’s television’s peculiar capacity to order events in its own way, mixing elements of time without regard to sequence. By mingling fond memories with scenes of mourning, television made this moment sadder and the myth stronger.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: I say to you this afternoon that I would rather die on the highways of Alabama than make a butchery of my conscience.
GEORGE WALLACE: Any preconceived march along the public highways of this state is not conducive to orderly flow of traffic and commerce within and through the state of Alabama.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: Don’t panic and remember that we must remain true to nonviolence. I’m asking everybody in the line. If you can’t be nonviolent, don’t get in it. If you can’t accept blows without retaliating, don’t get in the line. You can accept it out of your commitment to nonviolence. You will somehow do something for this nation that may well save it.
BILL MOYERS: Martin Luther King chose Selma, Alabama for this 1965 protest march precisely because it was likely to provide the most dramatic confrontation with police. And that meant the widest television coverage. It was a manipulation of public conscience that gave power to the weak.
CIVIL RIGHTS DEMONSTRATOR: You beat people bloody in order that they will not have the privilege to vote. Whenever anyone does not have the right to vote, then every man is hurt. I am hurt because these people cannot register. You are the sheriff of this county because they’re not registered. And that’s one reason you don’t want them to register. Because you would no longer be able to use your brutality on them. And all they’re asking us to be in out of the rain. You can turn your back on me, but you cannot turn your back upon the idea of justice!
BILL MOYERS: All through the summer, civil rights workers were overpowered by local resistance. And all through the summer, television widen the arena where the battles were fought. Now, too, the South could see itself as others saw it and face the inevitability of change. Perhaps it would have happened without television, but certainly it would not have happened so swiftly.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: How long? Not long. Because mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He’s trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. His truth is marching on. Glory, hallelujah!
CROWD: Yes, sir! That’s right!
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: Glory, hallelujah!
CROWD: Yes, sir! That’s right!
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: Glory, hallelujah!
BILL MOYERS: From half a world away, television was bringing other images that disturbed and divided us — Vietnam. Michael Arlen called it the living room war. By the end of 1965, almost 150,000 American troops were fighting there. Television went along. Once again, history and the medium influenced one another. The pictures television chose to show us affected what happened. They were pictures we couldn’t ignore, visceral pictures — pictures that grabbed our emotions and wrung them out over and over again. The pictures told a story our leaders could not refute. The pictures said our might couldn’t make it right.
At home, politics and protest played a nightly counterpoint to the struggles of our soldiers, the second front of a faraway war.
PROTESTORS: We want peace! We want peace! We want peace! We want peace!
ROBERT KENNEDY: I am announcing today my candidacy for the presidency of the United States.
PROTESTORS: You gotta be left or right. You gotta be left or right. You gotta be left or right. You gotta be left or right.
VOICE: Hey, we got people at the site. [SHOUTING] Don’t fire!
BILL MOYERS: Over it all roamed the camera’s relentless eye, searching for conflict and casualties.
LYNDON B. JOHNSON: I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.
BILL MOYERS: You got us into the world by stealth, said Henry Kissinger to a Johnson man. We shall have to get us out by stealth. In the end, there would be no triumph here, only a prayer for whatever could be saved of life and honor.
NEIL ARMSTRONG: Tranquility Base, here. The Eagle has landed.
MISSION CONTROL: Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.
BILL MOYERS: Our landing on the moon. Now here was a triumph.
MISSION CONTROL: 30 seconds and counting.
BILL MOYERS: Again, television went along —
MISSION CONTROL: Astronauts report it feels good.
BILL MOYERS: —the cameras and humans packed into the tiny space capsule for reasons of earthly politics.
MISSION CONTROL: Lift-off. We have a lift-off.
BILL MOYERS: It was easier to get appropriations for the space program if the audience felt like auxiliary astronauts.
[INTERPOSING NEWS ANNOUNCERS IN VARIOUS LANGUAGES]
BILL MOYERS: Untold millions watched in awe. We were TV junkies by now, snatching every crumb of information and emotion on this extraordinary high.
MISSION CONTROL: Houston, if you could comply, we’d like to see a little smiling faces up there. If you could give us an interior view, I’m sure everybody would like to see you, over. Now we coming in. I can’t quite make out who’s that head. Ah, it’s big Mike Collins there.
MIKE COLLINS: Well, you got a little bit of — hello, there, sports fans. You got a little bit of me, plus Neil is in the center couch and Buzz is doing the camera work this time.
MISSION CONTROL: Is Buzz holding the cue cards for you, over?
MIKE COLLINS: Cue cards have a no. We have no intention of competing with the professionals, believe me.
MISSION CONTROL: You’re a go. You’re a go to continue powered descent. You’re a go to continue powered descent.
LUNAR MODULE CREW: Forward. Forward. 40 feet down two and 1/2. Kicking up some dust. Four forward, drifting to the right a little. APA at a descent. Auto d — [INAUDIBLE] control, both auto descent and engine command override off. 413 is in.
MISSION CONTROL: We copy you down, Eagle.
SPANISH NEWSCASTER: [Describes lunar landing in Spanish]
MISSION CONTROL: And we’re getting a picture on the TV.
BILL MOYERS: Some scientists said all the work could have been done by cameras and computers. We just weren’t ready for that. Neil Armstrong gave a gallant performance for us all when he stepped out into that ghostly cold light.
NEIL ARMSTRONG:That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
MISSION CONTROL: Roger. The EVA is progressing beautifully. I believe they’re setting the flag now.
MIKE COLLINS: Great.
MISSION CONTROL: I guess you’re about the only person around that doesn’t have TV coverage of the scene.
MIKE COLLINS: That’s all right. I don’t mind —
BILL MOYERS: Armstrong included all humanity in his statement. We planted only the American flag, a telling if small detail. From the moon, the Earth is but one place. No national boundaries are apparent. We enjoyed that view while it lasted. Back home in the ’60s, Earth didn’t seem like that at all.
[MUSIC “THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER”]
TV STATION SIGN OFF: Cue on seven, six, five, four, three, two, one. And black. That’s it, gentleman. Thank you. See you all tomorrow.
BILL MOYERS: When the scientist Freeman Dyson arrived in this country from Europe in the 1940s, he noticed a strange and attractive quality in American students. They lived in a world without shadows and seemed to Dyson very young and innocent. They lacked, he said, the tragic sense of life which was deeply ingrained in every European of his generation. They had never lived with tragedy and had no feeling for it. So they had no sense of guilt, either.
30 years later, Dyson wrote things were very different. The Vietnam War had produced in American life the same fundamental change of mood that the First World War produced in Europe. The age of innocence, said Dyson, is now over for all of us.
BILL MOYERS: Television played a role in this. When we looked at the screen, it showed us the cruelty of sacrifice made in vain, the ugly details of a war we came to decide was unwinnable. It showed us the sudden bloody end of our new frontier. It made plain the face of bigotry. So the old, optimistic assumptions gave way to a necessary sense of moral tragedy.
We lost something else, too, in this period — our untainted faith in the blessings of machines. When I interviewed the imminent scientist Rene Dubos shortly before his death in 1982, he remarked that until the 1960s, there was almost universal hope for a kind of utopia in which all human problems would be solved by science and technology. Before the ’60s were over, we had realized that the tree of knowledge which grows in this earthly paradise bears its fruit evenly, the good and the bad on the very same branch.
[TYPING ON A COMPUTER KEYBOARD]
BILL MOYERS: Listen. This is the sound of the late 20th century, the computer. In the mid-1960s, this sound edged into our lives along with the sound of the helicopter and the electric-drive still camera. Sometimes it is the quiet things that deserve our closest attention. Computers of a kind have been with us since the abacus. Now, their murmur began to invade many a place where the clanks and bangs were once a kind of music, like the printing trades.
PRINTER: —with an S. Yeah, they had an S — And what’d you do? Get it out of here. That’s a bad S.
FEMALE VOICE: It’s a bad S?
PRINTER: I find it very sad, very sad. I’ve learned the new stuff, the new processes and all. But I’ve been a printer now for 26 years. I’ve been in this place for 20 years — six years apprenticeship, 20 years journeyman. And these are words that aren’t just tossed around. They’ve always meant something to us printers.
VOICE: Where does this thing go?
FEMALE VOICE: This one’s trying to say, rescue workers milling around an ice cream truck after. And then it’s going to say it exploded in Lower Manhattan yesterday.
BILL MOYERS: Printing is an ancient and honorable craft, with a long history of skill and devotion on the part of its practitioners. No wonder that at The New York Times, these descendants of Gutenberg found it so painful to close the chapter.
PRINTER: Over 49 years being a member of the composite room, a senior member of the priority list. The number one man on the priority list.
REPORTER: How do you feel about this changeover?
PRINTER: Well, I feel that they call it progress. But as far as I’m concerned, it is not. I would like it to stay the way it was, you know? Keep the old machine running.
REPORTER: When’s this operation going to close up?
PRINTER: It’s going to close up in the morning.
REPORTER: How do you feel about it?
PRINTER: Another innovation, a new process we’re moving into.
SECOND PRINTER: You know, this is as far as they could go, though. This part, the automation with the hot metal, this is as far as the Times could go.
THIRD PRINTER: It’s inevitable they were going to go into computers. All the knowledge I’ve acquired over these 26 years is all locked up in a little box now called a computer. And I think probably most jobs are going to end up the same way.
BILL MOYERS: We don’t ever seem able to calculate all of what a new invention will bring, the problems it will solve or create. As computers moved into the workplace, they touched the human condition to the benefit of some and the adversity of others. I was in the newspaper business in the late ’60s just as the switch began to computerize technology. The new way was clean, quiet, safe, and produced 1,000 lines a minute against 14 lines for the old way. But the people it displaced were left grieving for the past and for their self-respect. Witness those printers at The New York Times.
But we didn’t think too hard about the price of these new wonders when they first arrived. Computers, after all, promised to give the human mind the same gigantic expansion of function that earlier machines gave the human muscle. And they lived up to their promise. By reducing complex calculations to milliseconds, computers put us on the moon. They enabled us to diagnose illness and predict elections. Our credit card economy couldn’t work without them.
BILL MOYERS: Before Citibank embraced automation, it took three days, 30 processing steps, and 14 people with six files to prepare a letter of credit. With automation, one person sitting in a data processing cockpit could complete the job the same day the request was received. No wonder that in the dawn of this new era, we envisioned up push-button paradise where machines would perform the menial chores of the marketplace and people would be free to pursue a good time.
This is the Fiat assembly line in Rivalta, Italy — not a soul in sight. Is this the future, machines doing the work and giving us that most precious gift — time? We’d come a long way from the Puritan work ethic of our early days to the pleasure seeking of modern time.
WAITRESS: Oddly, though, most of us continue to define ourselves not by our pleasures, but by our work. Without it, we felt robbed of what made us individuals. To be a waitress is an art. I feel like a ballerina. You know, I do it with an air. If I drop a fork, there’s a certain way I pick it up. You know, like, I’m onstage. I tell everyone I’m a waitress, and I’m proud.
BILL MOYERS: In nearly every occupation, we were surrounded by labor-saving machinery. New gadgets were evolving all the time, so many and so often that we took them for granted. We also took for granted that we were in charge of the machines, not they of us. Hope told us machines might eventually take over nearly all the dreary heart-numbing tasks. Faith said there would still be plenty of places that need that special human touch.
TELEPHONE OPERATOR: 3-8-8-
MAN: Thank you very much. Thanks.
OPERATOR: You’re welcome.
BILL MOYERS: Any ominous note in all of this was hard to hear over at the din of high employment in full production. Ironically, from Detroit, where the din was the loudest, we began to hear mutterings that this union of men and machine was not entirely a happy one.
ASSEMBLY-LINE WORKER: A car comes, I weld it. A car comes, I weld it, 101 times an hour. I think the time passes fastest if you let your mind just phase out, blend in with the speed of the line.
SECOND ASSEMBLY-LINE WORKER: Sometimes out of pure meanness, when I make something, I put a little dent in it. I like to do something to make it really unique. Hit it with a hammer deliberately to see if it’ll get by. So I can say, I did it. That’s mine.
THIRD ASSEMBLY-LINE WORKER: I drift back in 10 years later when I was a kid and what me and my brothers did. The things you love the most are the things you drift back into.
BILL MOYERS: Henry Ford invented the assembly line saying, walking is not a paying proposition. So as men stayed put, the parts moved along. That made for efficiency and, therefore, economy. Cars were cheap. But assembly lines had another unanticipated effect as well. They parsed time into smaller and smaller bits. Things that once had been crafted to last countless seasons now appeared and evanesced with increasing rapidity. No longer were craftsman and craft linked by a thing of value that would endure through the ages.
As much as Henry Ford, Frederick Taylor had been the author of this revolutionary change. Taylor did time and motion studies that applied the principles of scientific management to the human side of the work equation. Our motions could be examined, dissected, and redesigned to rule out inefficiency and error, just like machines. Taylor’s work made inevitable the question, how can human beings with their quirky nature compete in the workplace with machines honed to protection?
FOURTH ASSEMBLY-LINE WORKER: No man’s a robot. They can only do so much well. Once you get past that quantity of work that he can do well, you’ve got a sloppy piece of junk going down the line.
UNION WORKER: One of they myths says that the unions and workers are against technology, and we’re not. If technology can make a better product, it can make a better life, it can shorten working hours, or give an early retirement, or produce socially useful products, then we’re for it. The question is, how does management intend to use technology? And that’s what we’re concerned about.
SECOND UNION WORKER: I don’t think any of us want to stop new innovations. But what we want to be able to do is control our lives.
THIRD UNION WORKER: If they want to put technology in, you’re gone. They shut down a whole building because of a robot. The whole building, they laid them off.
FOURTH UNION WORKER: We see large central computers that direct and monitor how parts are made, how they’re routed through the shop. And the purpose of these programs systems, is, again, to try to tighten up on the workforce, to do what Iron Age magazine has called, eliminate the last unpredictable variable — people.
BILL MOYERS: By the late ’60s, the box score seemed to favor the machines. More than a million jobs had gone automated in just a few years. If crafts were disappearing, would smokestack America be far behind? The social engineers did seem less inventive than the mechanical ones, perhaps because we thought of new machinery as a solution, not a problem. The dilemma was, of course, most painful for those who found themselves superfluous.
WORKER: It’s a rough situation. The computers and everything else is taking over. Part of my job is maintaining the automations on some of the presses. It eliminates many, many people.
WOMAN’S VOICE: How does that make you feel that you’re maintaining the equipment?
WORKER: Well, to see a machine doing your job, it — not good.
BILL MOYERS: However we might rail against technology, we’re not about to repudiate it. It’s become the milieu we live in, like the spider in the web. To be fair, these machines are themselves marvels of human accomplishment. They’ve improved the quality of products like steel. They’ve kept down costs so that more of us than ever can enjoy their output. And they’ve broken the chains of drudgery and danger on the job.
Still, as the old saying goes, nothing fails like success. And the price that is exacted by these machines for their wonders became an issue in the ’60s. What about all those people whose labor had been saved because their jobs had been eliminated? What about work itself as a personally unique experience? Is technology taking us toward a boring new world where we are merely a part of the total machine? In a robotized world — artificial, autonomous, self-determining, proceeding by cause and effect without regard to ends — what happens to human values?
CONSTRUCTION WORKER: You can’t take pride anymore. You’re mass producing things, and you never see the end result of it. I’d like to see on one side of a building a foot-wide strip from top to bottom with all the names. So when a guy went by, he could take his son and say, see, that’s me over there on the 45th floor. I put that steel beam there.
WOMAN’S VOICE: I think that a lot of people have work and life as two separate things, And I think that’s because the fulfillment of life isn’t carried over into the work a lot of times. So you get two basic lives that you’re living. Now, I’m living-living. Now, I’m working-living.
BILL MOYERS: Happily, the human spirit is not easily daunted. The joys of the human continuum — laughter, music, and shared memories — change little, even in an age of microchips.
WOMAN WITH CHILD: First we learn to walk. Then we learn to talk.
BILL MOYERS: As a friend put it to me, ain’t no machine going to be anybody’s mother.
WOMAN WITH CHILD: Then we learn to drop!
MOTHER WITH DAUGHTER: Glad you’re back from the army. It’s been years and years, but I still know you —
BILL MOYERS: To the generations coming up since the ’60s, robots and computers are the new tinker toys. But who could cherish a world that didn’t include ages-old nursery games? Unquestionably, our magnificent thinking machines are saving us labor. But it’s clear now that by themselves, they will not create a more humane and satisfactory civilization. Only we humans can do that.
[SINGING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE]
BILL MOYERS: So the riddles of automation run deep. If an industry modernizes, workers lose their jobs. If it doesn’t modernize, it can’t compete and goes under, and people lose their jobs anyway. Brute labor is boring and onerous, but so is the monotonous tending of machines. Furthermore, automation has so fragmented this whole complex process that it’s hard to know who’s in charge. If you’ve ever tried to get a big department store to correct a mistake in your computerized bill, you know what I mean.
On the other hand, automation has helped to fill those department stores with vast quantities of goods. And that’s the other thing about the ’60s we want to look at. We became then the greatest consumer society ever thanks to the vastly increased productive power of our machines. New products — many of them synthetic and cheap — multiplied like microbes. They were sold almost overnight to mass markets created by television, the one peddler able to call on every home in America at once.
BILL MOYERS: Except for the poor who couldn’t pay, the pleasures of possession became a democratic experience. We Americans don’t have a creed. We have an appetite. Samuel Gompers summed it up for everybody with one word. Asked what labor wanted, he replied, more. By the ’60s, that appetite was so ravenous, it was easily caricatured.
VOICE: It’s more fun to eat at Autoeat. So come on down to the big, friendly, giant hamburger. Prepared for you super fast by our fully mechanized kitchen. There’s always TV in every stall.
VOICE: Introducing the Stud Super Sport, for that special breed of man who demands performance.
VOICE: Here is proof that one plus one equals two.
VOICE: What about the convenient new trigger-action dispenser pack with the throwaway clip?
VOICE: Space pen — the only pen to go to the moon.
BILL MOYERS: Here in comic exaggeration is another part of the riddle that came front and center in the consumerism of the 1960s. The dream of abundance is a glistening thread woven through the whole American saga. And while you might make an argument that all those goods cluttered our lives needlessly, don’t try it on my mother who had to go out early every morning when she was a girl and draw the bucket of milk from the well where it had been lowered overnight to keep it cool. She prefers a refrigerator, thank you.
Or my grandmother — she pumped and carried every bucket of water in her home, chopped every stick of firewood, scrubbed every garment, scoured every lamp chimney. Not long before she died at the age of 96, I ask her if she ever yearned for the good old days. And she rolled her head on the pillow and said, “Uh uh, uh uh!”.
BILL MOYERS: We have to remember about the American appetite that it was driven by an old and powerful impulse to escape the struggle for subsistence. But as technology made it possible for us to produce faster and faster on an ever-increasing scale all the things that can be produced, we were enticed into a nearly fatal illusion that we could escape from humanity’s dependence on the rest of nature. The sheer size and speed of the economic process made it seem as if our society were being run by someone resembling the sorcerer’s apprentice.
The sorcerer’s apprentice produced water, then couldn’t remember the trick that would turn it off. So it was with consumer goods in the ’60s. Just about everybody wanted them, welcomed them, and wanted more. But there was a catch. The historian Daniel Boorstin said it this way, the trouble is, in history you never see the price tag until after you have made your purchase. This was the decade we began to learn the price.
BILL MOYERS: 22 million babies were born to us in the years just after World War II. On November 20, 1967, our population passed the 200 million mark. We were trying to build houses for everybody — bigger, better equipped, grander houses than most of our grandparents could have imagined. Having all these things had been a part of the American Dream. Earlier generations thought of their possession as a great accomplishment. Now, owning a house was for openers. After that came the task of filling it with a king’s ransom.
HUSBAND: OK. Surprise me and get something cheap.
HOUSEWIFE: —just be those three little lines.
HUSBAND: No, really, honey, really. What you’ll get is just fine.
HOUSEWIFE: One day, Tom come in and he said, I think it’s this house that’s done all this to us. And I said, no, it’s not just the house, you know. It’s everything. He said, let’s sell it. I said, what are we going to do? I said, we don’t have the money to go out and buy the house that I would like to have. And I’m not going to buy another house that I don’t want. He said, we’ll go with my mother and father. I said, no way.
I was constantly getting in arguments with Tom because I was going out charging the most ridiculous things. I can show you some things in there that I paid a lot of money for that was so idiotic. Because I was depressed and lonely and frustrated, I didn’t know what to do with myself. So I’d go out and buy a new set of sheets, or new curtains, or a new blanket, or a new place mat for the table — something that I didn’t need, but it made me happy for the moment, OK? But then I learned that, too. That didn’t make me happy forever. It only lasted a day or two, and I was right back where I started from.
BILL MOYERS: Critics said that consumerism in the ’60s was becoming an end in itself. Industry using the tools of technology to make things which clever television commercials pressured us to buy with credit. Credit is money we didn’t even have yet.
ANIMATION VOICE: The estimated value of this prize is $200.
MAN (with wife of back): What’s going on here? The floor is moving. I’m running like crazy. And I’m not getting anywhere.
ANIMATION VOICE: [PRIZE-WINNING SIREN] A winner! …have just won the cart and clubs. And they’re running on for more prizes on Sweet Deals. Ladies and gentlemen, here’s a man and woman striving ever onward for the things that really count. It’s all there for the taking. All you have to do is play the game!
BILL MOYERS: A decade earlier, novelists had begun to describe the American pursuit of happiness as a rat race. The ’60s produced a crowd that announced it was withdrawing from the race. The Woodstock Nation, they called themselves. But many of them traveled to rock concerts on their prosperous parents’ allowance, in cars that used gas and oil, to listen to music technologically amplified.
We were bound to technology even as it helped to divide us. It was rare in the ’60s to stay put, rare to know neighbors well, rare to come by a sense of continuity naturally. Some communities had more cars than people — Los Angeles, for one. Cheap fuel and raw materials propelled our peripatetic prospering society. Without them, the wizardry of the sorcerer’s apprentice would have been only mirrors.
BILL MOYERS: But by the ’60s, we were spending our bounty wildly. And we were beginning to wonder how long could it last. How long, indeed, could we go on drawing from the common wealth of those natural elements that sustain us — water, air, and earth? To many in the ’60s, the strip mines of Appalachia and of the West became the grotesque shape of things to come. Human ingenuity had again made the unthinkable possible — to scrape the earth off huge deposits of coal.
Machines could lay them bare, then cart them off to warm or cool our homes, to turn the engines of industry, and to fire the neon signs of an infinity of fast food franchises. Should it be so? Was it the unavoidable price of prosperity? Or was this our own generation’s grand larceny against the future? Thus began a great debate — economic growth versus the environment.
OLD MAN’S VOICE: Compromise? How in the hell can you compromise when the mountain’s coming in on you? I know where there’s about 1,500 acres in one strip operation. That land is — that mountain’s really literally leveled off at the top. And that land is laid to rest forever and eternity. I don’t want to live here. I really — there’s nothing in the world that I’d rather give up. When I was a little boy, I was raised on Beaver Creek. And I saw the beaver go. I saw the streams go. And now I’m seeing the last place on Earth that man may want to exist on. There’s no hope here. We’ve had it.
WOMAN’S VOICE: It’s the land. You know, it’s really this planet is all that we’ve got. And the idea that we should tear down these mountains. It should be the inheritance of our children. What right has this generation to do that kind of thing to the land? We’ve only got one planet, you know.
BILL MOYERS: Most everyone agreed. The pollution of streams, of air, of oceans, of forests, must stop. But who’d go first? Once there had been an empty continent to contain what we threw away. Freely pursuing our own private interests, we all had helped to pollute it, thinking, perhaps, we could escape the ultimate price of decay or restoration. Now, the bill was coming due. Would we, members of a free community, pay it?
OLD WOMAN’S VOICE: The first time I saw the Sierra, I could well imagine their creation. The stillness of the ice and the thunder of water had come and gone since time began. And each year, the snow water was as pure as if it were caught in a crystal chalice. It was so clear you could see through it forever.
OLD MAN’S VOICE:I was married in June, 1902. My honeymoon was up that old trail, a-winding into the land of my dreams and over into Lake Valley where my father’s ranch touched the sea and the clouds. Little things that made me look back on my younger days — riding horseback over those mountains, fishing those cold streams. I lost my middle girl when she was 11. Change, change — I guess that is what life is all about. Nothing stays the same. But I hate to see that beautiful country change.
BILL MOYERS: So swiftly was change upon us in the decade of the ’60s, so swiftly did the landmarks fall, that all these years later it seems a ride through great upheaval into a vast unknowable future. Many a survivor thought its chief legacy to be commonplace knowledge. When change comes as it must, and the old order passes, be certain to bargain as you can for something of value.
It was only day before yesterday that we gained our place on this planet, only this morning that its mysteries were made known to us. What is our time but a crystal falling? Nature knows nothing of decades or centuries. It knows only the rhythm of life and death, and of each season’s routine. That was not enough for us. We needed things, tools, to tame Nature’s savage ways and make a home here. This we did. We have gained our dominion. But it is not yet written that we shall stay here.
BILL MOYERS: This brings to a close our walk through the 20th century. The lessons of the past I leave for others to draw. All I know for certain is that we need to remember more than ever because life today is so fragmented and rootless.
Lincoln spoke of the mystic chords of memory. They define something especially human, a power of transmitting experience through generations of time, shared, so far as we know, by no other created being. We’re all, in part, shaped by those who’ve gone before and whose legacies we carry whether we would so or not. I, personally, enjoyed seeing and hearing in these films the people of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and knowing that I’m bone of their bone, and that whatever I need to face will not require of me any more courage than they needed to confront their own struggle.
BILL MOYERS: Perhaps the vast technological powers that have been let loose on this crowded planet will overload our systems sooner than we can devise ways to control them. But looking at the past, I can’t surrender to so morbid a possibility for the future. People are resilient, and the recuperating powers of nature richly in evidence through time. That much I take away from this journey, that and the belief that destiny can still be shaped by human will.
You may recall that Big Brother in Orwell’s totalitarian world of 1984 banished history and confined inconvenient facts to the memory hole where they disappeared so that each day he could manipulate reality for his own end. People who cannot remember are easily made victims. Tradition and conscience, said the great Italian patriot Mazzini, tradition and conscience are the two wings given to the human soul to reach for the truth, both issued from the past to make even our time with all its dangers a moment yet pregnant with choice and hope.
I’m Bill Moyers. For my colleagues on this A Walk through the 20th Century, good night.
This transcript was entered on April 14, 2015.