1965: When the "Sixties" Really Started



James T. Patterson, professor of history emeritus at Brown University, is the author of The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America (Basic Books, 2012), from which this essay is adapted

Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson during the Christmas season, 1965. Credit: LBJ Library/White House.

On December 18, 1964, Lyndon Johnson turned on the lights of the National Christmas Tree and proclaimed, “These are the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” He added, “Today -- as never before -- man has in his possession the capacities to end war and preserve peace, to eradicate poverty and share abundance, to overcome the diseases that have afflicted the human race and permit all mankind to enjoy their promise in life on this earth.”

In retrospect we know that Johnson, who was not a modest man, was bloviating. Indeed, events in 1964 -- murderous violence against civil rights activists in Mississippi, armed conflict at the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam, the Free Speech Movement at the University of California -- presaged larger controversies to come. But few people then predicted the arrival of anything like the polarization -- “the Sixties”--that was soon to grip the nation and that became angriest in 1968. Earlier in 1964, Johnson had secured passage of a historic civil rights act as well as a law to wage a “war” against poverty. The economy was booming as never before. And the president, having trounced Barry Goldwater at the polls, was off and running in his quest for an unprecedentedly ambitious set of Great Society programs -- Medicare and Medicaid, federal aid to education, immigration reform, and many other measures. American liberalism was cresting at an all-time high tide.

Many Americans in early 1965 echoed Johnson’s optimism. It was mostly a time of high expectations and (save for race relations) of social stability and consensus. James Reston, chief political columnist for the New York Times, wrote on January 1 that the nation was entering an “Era of Good Feelings.” Time magazine gushed a month later that the United States was “On the Fringe of a Golden Era.”

1965, as it turned out, did see passage of LBJ’s Great Society: more than any year in modern United States history, it stands tall as a Year of Reform. But it also stands as the time when the “Sixties” descended on the nation, driving the United States into a new era, many of whose divisions and conflicts beset us today.

Changes involving civil rights were pivotal in 1965. In January, Martin Luther King launched a drive in Selma aimed at garnering voting rights for blacks. These heroic efforts, nonviolent and interracial, met with violent white resistance, notably on “Bloody Sunday” in early March, when white troopers and policemen savaged protestors who were embarking on a peaceful march to Montgomery. The assaults, captured on television, outraged millions of Americans, including Johnson, who dramatically told Congress, “We Shall Overcome” and backed black demands for a voting rights act.

In mid-summer, the Voting Rights Act -- even today a useful weapon against racial discrimination -- finally passed. Johnson signed it before a joyous gathering in the Capitol on August 6. By then, however, the complicated struggles in Selma had widened divisions among black leaders -- many younger activists were beginning to reject interracial strategies and reliance on nonviolence in all situations. Moreover, five days after signing the law, furious blacks in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles engaged in the most prolonged and destructive racial disturbance in decades. The president, shaken and plaintive, complained to an aide, “How is it possible? After all we’ve accomplished? How can it be?” Habitually suspicious, he ordered an investigation into whether a Communist conspiracy had sparked the troubles. Though he calmed down -- and remained committed to civil rights efforts -- many white Americans were appalled by what had happened. Never again would civil rights activism hold the moral High Ground or regain the momentum that it had enjoyed at the start of the year.

Developments in Vietnam proved equally polarizing in 1965. Though Johnson in late 1964 was readying the nation for armed conflict, he had promised otherwise during his presidential campaign. “We are not going to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home,” he said in late October, “to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” By early 1965, the United States had some 23,000 troops in Vietnam. This represented a modest increase over the roughly 17,000 that had been there when Kennedy was killed. But the administration described them as military advisers, and said nothing about plans to escalate the war.

A Viet Cong attack on American troops at Pleiku in early February dramatically altered the situation. Reacting quickly, the administration started what became non-stop bombing of North Vietnam. In early March, at exactly the same time as Selma’s “Bloody Sunday,” LBJ sent the first combat Marines to the shores of South Vietnam. Thereafter, escalation of the conflict exploded. At the end of 1965, an astonishingly high number of American troops -- 184,000 -- were fighting there.

By then, cultural restiveness was mounting, with antiwar protestors (some with long hair) gathering strength. In the world of popular music, performers like the Rolling Stones, with (“I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” Bob Dylan (“going electric” at the Newport Jazz Festival), and others were challenging the supremacy of Julie Andrews, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, and the Supremes. In the early fall, Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” a loud and angry song that assailed America’s racist and warlike character, soared to the top of the pop charts. “The whole crazy world,” McGuire ranted, was tumbling toward apocalypse.

When LBJ turned on the Christmas tree lights in December 1965, he was far more subdued than he had been a year earlier. He promised nothing, except vaguely to seek a path to peace. His modesty was understandable: 1965 had indeed been a banner year for liberal legislation, but some of his domestic efforts -- the War on Poverty, federal aid to education -- had been oversold, thereby provoking conservative reaction. Inflation, lifted in large part by spending for the war, was becoming worrisome. Ronald Reagan was readying a successful run for governor of California in 1966. And the divisions that had arisen over race relations and foreign policy in 1965 proved irreparable. What we now recognize as “the Sixties” -- a highly contentious era best described as starting not in 1960 but in the pivotal year of 1965 (and as lasting at least into the early 1970s) -- had for better and for worse changed the course of modern American history.

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