The New Left’s definition of freedom initially centered on participatory democracy, a political concept. But as the 1960s progressed, young Americans’ understanding of freedom increasingly expanded to include cultural freedom as well. Although many streams flowed into the generational rebellion known as the “counterculture,” the youth revolt was inconceivable without the war’s destruction of young Americans’ belief in authority. By the late 1960s, millions of young people openly rejected the values and behavior of their elders. Their ranks included not only college students but also numerous young workers, even though most unions strongly opposed antiwar demonstrations and countercultural displays (a reaction that further separated young radicals from former allies on the traditional left). For the first time in American history, the flamboyant rejection of respectable norms in clothing, language, sexual behavior, and drug use, previously confined to artists and bohemians, became the basis of a mass movement. Its rallying cry was “liberation.”

Here was John Winthrop’s nightmare of three centuries earlier come to pass—a massive redefinition of freedom as a rejection of all authority.

Two young members of the counterculture at their wedding in New Mexico.

Antiwar Protest. The First Amendment guarantees Americans the right of free speech, and to assemble to protest government policies. Rarely in American history have these rights been used on so massive a scale as during the 1960s. This photograph of an antiwar demonstrator placing flowers in the rifles of U.S. soldiers outside the Pentagon (the headquarters of the American military, in the nation’s capital) at a 1967 rally against the Vietnam War was reproduced around the world. Some 100,000 protesters took part in this demonstration.


1. Do you think that the photographer intended to suggest that peaceful protest is an effective way of spreading the antiwar message?

2. What elements of life in the 1960s seem to clash in this image?

Timothy Leary, promoter of the hallucinogenic drug LSD, listening to the band Quicksilver Messenger Service at the Human Be-In in San Francisco in 1967.

“Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command,” Bob Dylan’s song “The Times They Are A-Changin’” bluntly informed mainstream America. To be sure, the counterculture in some ways represented not rebellion but the fulfillment of the consumer marketplace. It extended into every realm of life the definition of freedom as the right to individual choice. Given the purchasing power of students and young adults, countercultural emblems—colorful clothing, rock music, images of sexual freedom, even symbols of black revolution and Native American resistance— were soon being mass-marketed as fashions of the day. Self-indulgence and self-destructive behavior were built into the counterculture. To followers of Timothy Leary, the Harvard scientist turned prophet of mind-expansion, the psychedelic drug LSD embodied a new freedom—“the freedom to expand your own consciousness.” In 1967, Leary organized a Human Be-In in San Francisco, where he urged a crowd of 20,000 to “turn on, tune in, drop out.”

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