Grand Dreams for a Better Society: Conflicting Visions of the 1960s
The 1960s were years of great and shocking events: assassins gunned down three national figures, including a president; President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) narrowly averted a nuclear war with a high-stakes bluff; civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) inspired the nation with his grand dream for a better nation; President Lyndon Johnson sent soldiers to fight a war in distant Vietnam; President Richard Nixon launched a spaceship that placed a man on the moon; the Beatles, an English rock band, "invaded" America; hippies "turned on, tuned in, and dropped out"; African Americans rioted in the streets of American cities; and the Green Bay Packers formed a football dynasty. With the exception of the assassinations, these were not isolated events. In fact, they were expressions of larger social movements or trends, dramatic distillations of widespread social tumult and tension. The dramatic events of the 1960s continued to have an impact on American social, political, and cultural practices into the early 2000s. One way people can understand who they are is to take a look at an earlier era in which their ancestors worked out their visions of the American dream.
Those who grew into adulthood in the 1960s also looked back to an earlier era to make sense of their lives. They looked back especially to the Great Depression (1929–41) and to World War II (1939–45),...
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The Innocent 1960s: Politics in the Kennedy Years
In the early 2000s, President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) was widely esteemed as one of the most important leaders in U.S. history. In fact, a 2003 poll conducted by Ohio University and the Scripps Howard News Service revealed that 14 percent of Americans listed Kennedy as their favorite president, placing him second only to Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65), who led the United States during the Civil War. Yet it is difficult to point to tangible reasons for Kennedy's popularity: on domestic issues, he promised far more than he accomplished and passed no important legislation; in foreign policy, he fumbled an invasion of Cuba, narrowly averted a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and enmeshed the United States in what became the protracted war in Vietnam. Clearly, it was not his lackluster record of political accomplishments that won Kennedy the love and respect of Americans, both at the time and in the following decades. What Kennedy offered instead was an inspiring challenge for Americans to live up to their higher ideals and, for Americans looking back, a nostalgic reminder of a less complicated time in American life. In the early twenty-first century, Kennedy remained a symbol of the simpler side of the 1960s.
The election of 1960: religion, Cold War...
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The Triumph and Collapse of the Johnson Administration
Few presidents have entered office under more difficult circumstances than Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69). Johnson had been elected as vice president along with President John F. Kennedy in 1960, and he had served for three years with the customary lack of public attention endured by American vice presidents. Then, on a fateful visit to Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, American political life changed. An assassin's bullets killed President Kennedy, and in the unsetting hours after the shooting, Johnson was sworn in as the president. When he appeared on national television that evening, he greeted a nation in deep grief over the death of one of the most beloved presidents in American history.
In some ways, Kennedy's shoes would be hard to fill. Few politicians in the twentieth century matched Kennedy's personal appeal and charm, and few were so able to inspire the American people to set aside their political differences and embrace lofty ideals about the ability of government to contribute to social justice and world peace. When it came to matters of substance, however, Kennedy had accomplished
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Another Dream for America: The Conservative Vision
The 1960s is known as a decade of political movements. The civil rights movement, the New Left student movement, the feminist movement, and the antiwar movement all attracted a great deal of attention. Each of these movements had its own goals, yet each shared one characteristic: they were dominated by those who believed that through direct public action the government could be convinced to respond to the needs and demands of the people. Colorful and dramatic, these movements attracted the largest share of media coverage in the decade that they helped to define. There was another movement, however, one that was equally important in terms of its long-term impact on American politics. Driven by people who wanted to decrease the size and influence of the federal government, and to combat the spread of Communism, the modern conservative movement appealed to those on the opposite end of the political spectrum from civil rights and antiwar protestors. In response to the defeat of Republican Richard Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74) by Democrat John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) in the presidential election of 1960, American conservatives began to craft a set of political positions that came to characterize Republican Party politics into the 2000s.
The center in American politics
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The Agony of Vietnam
The Vietnam War (1954–75) was a war like no other in American history. It was America's longest war: military advisors were in the country from 1954 until 1975, and actual combat troops were in the country from 1965 to 1975. For those government and military strategists who designed U.S. Cold War policy, defending South Vietnam was crucial. According to their thinking, South Vietnam was the first in a strategic line of dominoes (a metaphor that referred to the game in which the first falling domino triggers a long line of collapsing dominoes). In their thinking, should Vietnam fall to Communism, it might trigger a similar political shift in other small Asian nations. Yet from the time that combat troops landed at the South Vietnamese port of Da Nang, American policy was directly challenged and questioned by the largest and most dramatic antiwar protest movement in American history. This movement questioned the ethics of Cold War international politics, and the movement contributed directly to the political downfall of the American president most closely associated with waging the war, Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69). The politics involved
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The Antiwar Movement
Along with the civil rights movement, the movement to protest American involvement in the war in Vietnam provided some of the defining cultural experiences of the 1960s. From their origins in student protest in the first years of the 1960s, through the nonviolent protests of 1965, and on to the violent disruptions at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 and the National Guard shooting of students at Kent State University in 1970, the antiwar movement helped to sway public opinion both for and against American participation in the Vietnam War (1954–75). With acts ranging from prayer vigils to noisy demonstrations in American cities, from mailing in draft registration cards to self-immolation (the act of burning oneself to death), anti-war protestors drew great public attention to their cause, forcing the nation to question the legitimacy of its military actions, the honesty of its elected officials, and the consistency of its democratic values and institutions. Nearly four decades after the first American combat troops entered Vietnam, that war and the protests against it remained a source of deep division within American society.
Fertile ground for protest
In the first week of August 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69) asked for and received authorization to...
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The American Economy: Leading the World
In 1960, the United States was the most prosperous nation in the world, and it was still growing fast. The nation's prosperity had come on quickly; in the fifteen years since the end of World War II (1939–45), the gross national product (GNP), or the value of all the goods produced in the nation, had shot up by 250 percent. Then, in the first half of the 1960s, GNP grew another 36 percent. Altogether, in the 1960s the United States experienced its longest uninterrupted economic expansion to date in American history (a record for consecutive months of growth unmatched until the 1990s).
This economic boom was fueled by thriving American businesses. By 1962, 66 percent of American manufacturing assets were controlled by the 500 largest companies. Some American corporations grew into global giants. General Motors, IBM, and Coca-Cola, among others, extended their businesses throughout the world. Growing companies brought jobs—many more well-paying, white-collar jobs (that is, salaried jobs that do not involve manual labor) than ever before—and unemployment levels shrank. More and better jobs offered workers more money. The median family income (the income level at which
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In 1960, when the civil rights movement first began to gain national attention, African Americans had been working to gain political and economic rights for nearly a century. Blacks had made some progress, but the laws that many southern state legislatures had written to prevent blacks and whites from living as equals—called Jim Crow laws—continued to separate the races in restaurants, schools, theaters, parks, and other public facilities in many states in the South. Those blacks who had migrated to northern and western states in an attempt to escape the legal restrictions of Jim Crow laws found that life in these new locations had similar restrictions because of customs based on racial prejudice, or a judgment or opinion based on a preconceived notions about race. Blacks in the North and West faced discrimination, or poor treatment based on race, in housing and the job market, among other areas. Police and citizens alike enforced the separation of races vigorously. Blacks who tried to mix with whites were arrested, beaten, or killed. Penalties for violence were rarely enforced when the crimes were acted out against blacks.
Early civil rights efforts
Given the dangers involved in seeking to improve their place in American society, blacks' civil rights efforts before the 1960s often...
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Feminism and the Sexual Revolution
The women's movement of the 1960s was actually a revival, often called the second wave, of an earlier movement for women's rights that resulted in women's universal suffrage, or voting rights throughout the country, with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 26, 1920. But the momentum of the earlier women's movement dwindled as the political, social, and economic hardships of the Great Depression (1929–41) and World War II (1939–45) came to dominate life in America. The stability and prosperity of the postwar years enabled long-standing social problems to gain more attention. By the late 1960s many women joined together to create the second wave of the women's movement in order to push for more equality in their lives. In part inspired by the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, which drew attention to gaining rights for African Americans, women advocated for equal rights under the law and in the workplace and also for the liberation of women from stifling stereotypes in domestic and other cultural situations.
Some women's concerns about legal and workplace discrimination could be traced back to World War II, which had brought with it increased employment opportunities for women. By creating a campaign to get women to take traditionally male jobs, the U.S. government enticed women to join the war effort; a famous example of the campaign was the Rosie the Riveter...
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Sixties Counterculture: The Hippies and Beyond
When people in the early 2000s think about the 1960s, they might think first about the "hippies." Along with the civil rights movement, antiwar protests, and the Beatles, hippies were one of the most distinctive features of a very colorful decade. Hippies certainly attracted the attention of the media. Their distinctive appearance (bell-bottomed pants, brightly colored shirts, and long loose hair on both men and women), their drug use, and their psychedelic music provided powerful reminders of their rejection of the style and values of their parents. Yet the hippies were important for more than just their lifestyle and fashion choices. As members of a thriving and diverse counterculture, they expressed the deep dissatisfaction many other people felt with American culture in the 1960s. This chapter explores the meaning of the hippies' peculiar brand of cultural dissent.
Streams of cultural dissent
The hippies made up the most colorful, eye-catching, and nonpolitical subgroup of a larger group known as the counterculture. Although some histories use the term counterculture to refer only to the hippies, the counterculture included several distinct groups that criticized developments in American society and advocated for social change in the late 1950s and through the 1960s. One group, called the New...
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Decline or Revival? Changing Currents in the American Religious Experience
As in so many areas of life, Americans in the 1960s questioned past religious practices and searched for authenticity or genuineness in their spiritual experiences, whether in established faiths or in new religious groups that formed as cults or communes. A cult is a group of people who share the same beliefs but whose beliefs and lifestyle are unlike the majority's beliefs; a commune is a group of people who live together cooperatively, sharing work and expenses. Moderate Protestant churches, long the bedrock of American religion, saw declines in membership, while membership increased in smaller, theologically more conservative Protestant sects, with their more fervent and expressive forms of worship. The other mainstream religions—Catholicism and Judaism—also experienced important changes. The Catholic Church modernized some of its key doctrines and celebrated the election of America's first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63), but at the same time it resisted changing its views regarding human sexuality, which led to a loss of membership. Jewish leaders worried that their religion was weakening as Jews embraced the secular (non-religious) elements of American culture, and they looked for ways to revive a sense of Jewish identity. No matter their religion, many Protestants, Catholics, and Jews filtered their participation in the major social movements of the era—especially the civil...
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Sports and the Changing Tides of American Culture in the 1960s
The 1960s had its share of thrilling athletic events, fiercely contested rivalries, dominant teams, and inspiring sports heroes. The Green Bay Packers, the Boston Celtics, and the New York Yankees dominated professional football, basketball, and baseball, respectively. Yet the decade also saw upstart teams such as baseball's New York Mets and football's New York Jets produce dramatic championship seasons. Longstanding records were shattered in major league baseball, as Roger Maris hit sixty-one home runs in 1961, and Maury Wills stole 104 bases in 1962. College football and basketball remained tremendously popular sports. In 1968 alone, three football teams—the University of Texas, Ohio State University, and Penn State University—all compiled undefeated records. In college basketball, coach John Wooden's University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Bruins were kings of the court, winning ten national championships between 1964 and 1975. Athletes and teams in many other sports pushed the boundaries of their field, thrilling fans with their prowess.
Obviously, there are great stories to be told about sports in the 1960s. Yet it was not the athletic contests themselves that defined the changing nature of sports in the 1960s, but rather the way that developments in sports reflected the pressing societal issues of the era, from Cold War politics to civil rights to the widespread commercialization of...
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The Arts in 1960s America
The arts—literature, art, dance, and theater—went through a fascinating period of growth and change during the 1960s. New, experimental art forms like pop art and happenings drew new public attention to artistic expression. Literary artists challenged traditional ideas about fiction and poetry. Increased financial support from government as well as private donors opened new museums and regional theaters and helped art exhibitions and dance and musical performances tour the country. The increased publicity of art, theater, dance, and music brought larger audiences to museums and performances than ever before. Young people were especially encouraged to develop their own artistic talents during the 1960s in the workshops, dance schools, and regional theaters that multiplied throughout the country.
Trends in the arts reflected both the turbulent social and political trends of the time and the influence of artists and writers of an earlier generation. By the 1960s, America had been involved in some sort of military conflict for nearly three decades. World War II (1939–45), the Cold War (1945–91), the Korean War (1950–53), and the Vietnam War (1954–75) all had an impact on the way Americans perceived the world, and American writers especially paid attention to the impact of these wars on people's feelings and thoughts. The civil rights movement and the sexual revolution helped to expand...
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Popular Entertainment: Escape and Engagement
In film and television it is hard to determine which movie or program best represents American popular culture in the 1960s. Television included such diverse programs as the popular western Bonanza (1959–73), with its depiction of life on a nineteenth-century cattle ranch and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967–70), in which comedians Dick and Tom Smothers pushed the boundaries of social satire, sexual innuendo, and taste. Films of the decade included big-budget spectacles like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Cleopatra (1963), set in ancient times and featuring huge casts and lavish sets, and small independent movies such as Easy Rider (1969), which depicts two hippie rebels searching for freedom from the mainstream's restrictive rules as they motorcycle across America. Music was also diverse. It included the socially aware folk songs of Bob Dylan, the surf sounds of the Beach Boys, the romantic crooning of Frank Sinatra, and the late 1960s psychedelic rock of Jimi Hendrix. Even the popular music of the Beatles included very different songs, such as the early happy song "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and the angry later songs such as "Revolution" and "Helter Skelter."
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The Enduring Legacy of the 1960s
As the 1960s began, Americans were filled with hope and optimism. Their newly elected president, John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63), called on Americans to join him as they ventured into a "New Frontier," one that included the expansion of prosperity at home and democracy around the world and the placing of a man on the moon. Kennedy's optimism, his enthusiastic visions, were emblematic of one side of the 1960s, the side that historian David Farber aptly called "the age of great dreams" in his book of the same title. Others shared Kennedy's tendency to dream: civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. called on Americans to live out their commitment to equality for all; President Lyndon B. Johnson created a set of programs known as the Great Society with the goal of wiping out poverty and ensuring equality; antiwar protestors called for a just and moral U.S. foreign policy; hippies dreamed of a world where peace and love were all that mattered.
These dreams, and many others, were powerful goals for action in what turned out to be a tumultuous decade. They led mass numbers of Americans into action. Acting on their dreams, Democratic presidents dramatically expanded the size of the federal government; civil rights protestors marched and bled in the streets; American soldiers died in Vietnam in order, they were told, to stop the spread of Communism; Hispanic Americans led boycotts in the...
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