It was October 8, 1967, a Sunday, after 9 pm, which meant that The Ed Sullivan Show had ended on CBS and it was time for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Tom and Dick Smothers—yes, their real name conveniently rhymed with “brothers”—were a folk music/stand-up comedy duo who first gained popularity on the nightclub circuit in the wake of the 1950s folk boom. Their shtick was to start an old folk song, Tommy on guitar and Dick on upright bass, and sing a few bars; then Tom would stop playing and start the comedy routine, which often ended with Tom, the clown, shouting at straight-man Dick, “Mom always liked you best!”
They were good musicians, and they were funny. They were also very political, and very opposed to the Vietnam War.
So here they were, barely a month into their primetime television careers, inheriting the huge audience that the immensely popular Sullivan gave them, when they came back from a commercial break and Tom turned to the camera and said solemnly that the next act would be performing a song that was “a moving tribute to those who die without knowing why.”
The group was The Association, known for crisp harmonies and love songs that were great high-school slow-dance material, but the song they performed that night was a somewhat pretentious antiwar number they’d written called “Requiem for the Masses” (“red was the color of his blood flowing thin/pallid white was the color of his lifeless skin”). This was a few months before public opinion turned decisively against the war.
By the beginning of the next (second) season, CBS demanded that the Brothers submit their shows on tape 10 days in advance of air date so the censors could thoroughly vet them. Before the end of it, they were cancelled.
The Smothers Brothers have gone down in pop-culture history as one of the main exemplars of how antiwar sentiment found its way into American popular culture after the 1965 escalation. They were hardly alone. In television and movies and most of all in popular songs, rage against the war was everywhere in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And of course there was a backlash against the hippies that was immediate and simultaneous. The #1 pop single of 1966 wasn’t some antiwar anthem or a Beatles classic or anything by the Monkees, the “prefab four” who broke through huge that year. It was “The Ballad of the Green Berets” by a man named Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler. It sold 8 million copies.
This was a new thing in American history (well, except for the Civil War, but there was no “media” then). Go listen to radio shows from World War II. Everything was about unity, from the patriotic songs to Bing Crosby reminding listeners at show’s end to go buy war bonds.
During Vietnam, that was shattered. The old unity consensus gave way to no consensus, or a consensus that the two sides just despised each other (sound familiar?). There was no organized conservative movement in those days like there is today, but there didn’t need to be. Millions of men in their 40s and 50s had fought the big war for freedom and the American way, and they believed in the U.S.A., and now they watched these pampered snot-nose kids with their long hair and their horrible music and their funny cigarettes denounce everything they felt they’d fought for. Clashes don’t come any clashier.
The antiwar movement produced some sublime music, that’s for sure. Richie Havens’ “Handsome Johnny,” for starters:
Edwin Starr’s amazing “War.” The way he says “Good God, y’all”; I remember when it came out. Music, lyrics, whole package; a kick in the gut:
Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” with the unforgettable line “I ain’t no senator’s son”:
I could go on for pages. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Dylan of course, though his songs were earlier; just about everybody. Except Jimi Hendrix—he was for the war, at first anyway. He’d been in the army! Of course it produced schlock, too—Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction.” People sniffed “ersatz Dylan,” but he’s still out there singing it, and it’s probably made him a very rich man.
Pro-war music, and anti-hippie music, was mostly country. The most famous entry here was Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee,” with the lyric “we don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street/we like livin’ right and bein’ free”:
Haggard was no right-wing culture warrior. In 2007, he wrote a song for Hillary! But like a lot of people, he didn’t care much for hippies.
Television: Just as iconic as the Smothers, were the arguments between Archie Bunker and Mike Stivic on All in the Family. Archie was a lunch-pail Republican who’d have loved Trump; Mike, or Meathead, was a hippie grad student. Here they are fighting over the national anthem:
I can’t but scratch the surface here, but trust me: It was everywhere on TV. And it was always controversial. The week Harry Belafonte guest-hosted The Tonight Show; hoo boy!
As for the movies, Hollywood was pretty cautious. Antiwar movies in real time generally couldn’t be anti-Vietnam War. They had to disguise it. So Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H was set in Korea. The big Vietnam Reassessment movies—Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now—didn’t start coming until 1978. Then, inevitably, the anti-anti-Vietnam movies started hitting in the 1980s, notably Sly Stallone’s Rambo (“Sir, do we get to win this time?”).
And how can I not mention Jane Fonda, whose famous visit to Hanoi—well, some people still hate her for it. That and her FTA tour. You can Google for yourself to see what that stood for.
Of course the highbrows were involved too, almost all of them against the war. Robert Lowell struck first, refusing to attend a White House arts festival in the fall of 1965 in protest of the escalation. Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag may have been the most celebrated left-intellectual literary war foes, but there were hundreds of them. Yet even here, there was a backlash. A small one. John Dos Passos, James T. Farrell, Vladimir Nabokov, and Ralph Ellison (!) were pro-war.
A pop-culture wall was torn down then: It was the first time that our popular culture attempted not to sanitize and reassure us and limn the American way of life, but to reflect the divisions that were real. It all started in 1966, ’67. And when did it end? Well, I’ll let you know.
Hear diverse perspectives from the war when PBS presents “The Vietnam War,” a new film from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Premieres Sunday, September 17, 2017 at 8/7c