Conventional wisdom (or the opinions and beliefs that are generally accepted by most people in a population) is a powerful force in society. Even if you are someone who scrupulously avoids popular culture, you will still absorb conventional wisdom over time. As a researcher, however, I caution people against automatic and unquestioning belief in anything without the facts to back it up. That goes for conventional wisdom, as well. There are times when, in fact, conventional wisdom is just plain wrong.
Let’s think, for example, about the Vietnam War. Picture the 1960s and early 1970s in your head. What was the culture of the time with relation to the war? What were the most popular songs? What did the people of the United States think about the war in Vietnam?
Unless you actually personally served in Vietnam, the images that come to your mind probably involve some or all of the following: protests, hippies, burning draft cards, ostracizing returning soldiers, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, CCR, peace signs, sit-ins, Allen Ginsberg, and SDS. Whenever a modern TV show or movie tackles the ‘60s, odds are good that you will see some aspect of the anti-war movement, whether explicitly or simply in theme/message (for example, Forrest Gump  has a memorable scene set at an anti-war protest, while Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb  doesn’t specifically mention Vietnam, but was most certainly influenced by the growing anti-war movement of the time).
Vietnam War Protest in Washington D.C., October 21st, 1967
In many of our minds, the war and the anti-war movement is the overriding story of the 1960s, and so one could be forgiven for thinking that American society as a whole was against the Vietnam War. It’s certainly what conventional wisdom, especially as interpreted through popular culture, tells us. A senior in high school once even insisted to me with great conviction that no American civilian actually supported the war, not one, and she consequently refused to budge on that point. She was born in the mid-1990s, more than thirty years after the war in Vietnam ended, and no member of her family had been involved, either as a soldier or as an outspoken detractor… and yet this one point of contention clearly meant a great deal to her. Why is that?
Before we can answer, we need to look at the reality of the 1960s. According to Gallop Polls during the war years, while support for the war did go downhill, from around 75% in 1965 to 40% in 1973, that is still a very far cry from being able to say that American society was against the war.1 According to the US census, the population of the USA was 211.9 million in 1973; 40% of 21.9 million still equals nearly 85 million people who believed that America was doing the right thing in Vietnam, even after the disaster that was 1968 and Walter Cronkite's influential anti-war broadcast of that same year. And interestingly enough, when those results are split up by age group, there was never a time in the 1960s when the young people opposed to the war outnumbered the elderly who were opposed to the war, which goes completely against our prevailing image of the era.2
Anti-war movements also did not dominate popular culture to the extent we feel they did. For a good example, let’s focus on the music. Of the top 20 Billboard hits of the 1960s, the only song that we could possibly associate with the anti-war/hippie movement would be “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.” The rest is a mix of Elvis, the Beatles, and other songs that have nothing to do any sort of political turmoil.3 The bestselling albums of the 1960s included: five musical soundtracks (in fact, West Side Story’s soundtrack was the best-seller two years in a row!), one album that was mostly covers of other popular songs, The Monkees, Iron Butterfly (who, in their own words, "weren't anti-anything"4), and only one album from an explicitly anti-war artist, Jimi Hendrix.
In fact, one of the most popular songs of the 1960s, spending five weeks as the No. 1 hit in America in 1966 (and tying with “California Dreaming” as the No. 1 record of the year), was an explicitly pro-military song called “Ballad of the Green Berets.” It’s not exactly a masterpiece of songwriting, but, as LeVar Burton would say, you don’t have to take my word for it! You can watch a performance of this song here. To most of us, it doesn’t hold a candle to many of the magnificent songs that came out of the 1960s, but there it is, a rather simplistic piece of jingoistic pablum, and yet it topped the charts. In order for that to happen, there must have been significant support for this song and its message among the generation that we would more strongly and instinctively associate with the anti-war movement. And it was not alone. There were several pro-military songs that did very well in the 1960s, including Dave Dudley’s, “What We’re Fighting For,” Autry Inman’s “Ballad of Two Brothers,” and The Spokesmen’s “Dawn of Corrections.” Again, not what we would call good songs, but “popular” doesn’t always equal “good.”
Though music is just one facet of society as a whole, my point boils down to this: when it comes to the Vietnam War, our conventional wisdom is wrong. American society as a whole was not opposed to the war, and in fact, great numbers (though not always a majority) of Americans supported it all the way through. In addition, young people were never opposed to the war in the percentages that the elderly were. How can we have gotten it so wrong? And why does it mean so much to us today to have been anti-war 50 years ago?
Even in cases like this, where the conventional wisdom is wrong, that does not mean that it is without any value. Conventional wisdom is a story that we tell ourselves about who we are. Our impressions of culture in the 1960s might not tell us who we were in the 1960s with any accuracy, but they certainly tell us about who we are and what matters to us now. We want to believe that we were always against the war in Vietnam because we want to believe that we are both compassionate and skeptical. We want to believe that, even if the leaders of our country made mistakes, we ordinary folks were always on the right side of history.
On the individual level, this relates to the psychological concepts of the “Experiencing Self” and the “Remembering Self.” The Experiencing Self is us in the moment of an event and how we actually felt and acted; as you might expect from the name, the Remembering Self is how we perceive that event in our memories. An event through the lens of the Remembering Self is often markedly different than that same event through the lens of the Experiencing Self …or, to put it another way, if the Experiencing Self and the Remembering Self saw things the exact same way, no one would ever choose to have more than one child. We make decisions based on the Remembering Self, not on the Experiencing Self, and so too do we often make decisions based on conceptions gained through conventional wisdom, rather than on 100% factual evidence.
So when you think about history, always remember that you are thinking about two very different stories: what actually happened, and what we believe happened. Take value from both, but never look at just one as the whole truth.
1 http://institution.gallup.com (Unfortunately, a subscription is required to access this data)
2 Hazel Erskine
The Public Opinion Quarterly
Vol. 34, No. 1 (Spring, 1970), pp. 134-150
Accessed at http://www.jstor.org/stable/2747894
3 The list in its entirety, including links to several of the songs, can be seen at http://www.billboard.com/articles/news/6296373/billboard-hot-100-1960.
4 Interview with Iron Butterfly bassist Lee Dorman, accessed at http://www.craigmorrison.com/spip.php?article70.