The Turbulent 1960s - From the New Frontier to the Great Society - Expanding movements for civil rights - Cold War confrontations: Asia, Latin America, and Europe - Beginning of Détente - The antiwar movement and the counterculture
Introduction • The 1960s was a time of tremendous socio-political change and upheaval. As the decade progressed, the pretense of social conformity and stability assumed during the height of Cold War in the 1950s gave way to more pronounced disillusionment and far more direct and widespread challenges to long-held American policies and ideals. • By the end of the decade, those challenges to American socio-political homogeneity had developed into deep fissures, reordering the political landscape and unleashing a torrent of pent-up social tensions that continue to affect American society to the present. From the Vietnam War to the ongoing struggle to realize meaningful Civil Rights reforms, the 1960s was indeed a most turbulent era.
- From the New Frontier to the Great Society • Change was on the horizon from the outset of the decade. JFK’s election in 1960 heralded this sentiment: he was the youngest ever elected president, and the first (and only) Roman Catholic to win that office. In his acceptance speech, JFK promised to lead the US into a new “New Frontier,” a notion that was prophetic in ways JFK would never know. • The immediate context of “New Frontier” was more about a rhetorical shift of strategy in the Cold War, from military brinksmanship to an ideological and intellectual/scientific competition between the two superpowers. But it also hinted at the notion that the US had reached an important cultural crossroads, in which the nation could continue to rely on “mediocrity” or pursue “national greatness” with bold new political and social clarity. • In the ongoing drama of Cold War geo-politics, JFK pursued a strategy of “flexible response”- eschewing the “massive retaliation” posturing of the previous administration. The policy may have prevented global annihilation in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it also is credited with lowering the threshold of intervention and ultimately leading to the intractable quagmire of Vietnam. • On the social front, JFK’s New Frontier ran into old obstacles- a divided Congress failed to push through promised reforms on education, medical care for the elderly, and civil rights reforms. A series of violent episodes and escalating urgency in the Civil Rights struggle emboldened JFK from his initial timidity on civil rights, but an assassin’s bullet prevented him from seeing significant national civil rights reform. • JFK’s domestic ambitions were taken up by his VP and successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who despite his roots as a southern (Texas) congressman, became the first president to directly address civil rights reform, overseeing the most far reaching and meaningful legislation of the era, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. LBJ also initiated the most sweeping social reforms since the New Deal. Collectively, these reforms were known as the “Great Society” programs.
From the New Frontier to the Great Society • LBJ won a resounding victory over Republican contender Barry Goldwater in 1964, carrying with him an expanded Democratic majority in Congress. Johnson had already prodded Congress to wage a “War on Poverty,” and as the new Congress resumed in early 1965, he seized on the opportunity to significantly expand allocations to that effort, as well as other notable expansions of government, including two cabinet departments and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. • LBJ also shepherded major reform legislation affecting education, access to healthcare for the elderly and indigent (Medicare and Medicaid), immigration, and voting rights- widely seen as the crowning achievement of the Civil Rights movement. • As the Great Society moniker suggests, LBJ had even greater ambitions for his domestic anti-poverty and social improvement programs. But as the mid 60s progressed and war in Vietnam turned more nightmarish by the day, LBJ increasingly lacked the capital, both financial and political, to enact many of his proposed reforms. The War on Poverty took a back seat to the actual war raging in the jungles of southeast Asia.
Expanding movements for civil rights • In the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement both intensified and expanded beyond its initial scope and leadership. Clearly, MLK continued to provide the movement with vision, leadership and moral gravity of the highest eloquence, but other strategies of even more direct and militant action began to emerge. • In the early 1960s, groups like SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) sponsored sit-ins, “freedom rides,” and voter registration efforts throughout the deep South. The violence that attended these direct challenges to segregation garnered international attention, stirring the previously indifferent and giving the movement the platform and moral suasion to stage the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The March on Washington in 1963 was one of the largest public gatherings in US history and the occasion for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech- widely credited with inspiring the groundbreaking legislation in the succeeding years. • But the mechanisms of justice move slowly, and even in the midst of long-awaited federal legislation, some civil rights activists began to argue that equality could not be won through statute and ballot, but would have to be taken by the disenfranchised themselves, with force if necessary. • Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam were the most vocal early proponents of Black separatism and self-empowerment. Prior to his assassination in 1965, Malcolm X was beginning to back away from the more extreme “White Devil” rhetoric, but others continued to advance more confrontational strategies to achieve the goals of racial equality and justice. Stokely Carmichael, a prominent leader of SNCC in the mid-1960s, advocated the quasi-separatist “Black Power” movement. And in 1967, the Black Panther Party was formed and began promoting open militancy and separatism- wielding machine guns in the ghettos of Oakland and Los Angeles. • Meanwhile, racial violence continued to plague American cities throughout the late 1960s. Riots in LA (Watts), Detroit, Newark and other cities indicated the continued frustration and disenfranchisement of urban Blacks. Another round of nationwide racial violence erupted following the assassination of MLK in April 1968.
Cold War confrontations: Asia, Latin America, and Europe • The increasing domestic turmoil of the 1960s was intertwined with escalating foreign entanglements in the ongoing drama of the Cold War. • As discussed, the decade began with a shift in American diplomatic posture, and the USSR wasted no time testing JFK’s “flexible response.” Their opening salvo was the construction of a wall enclosing east Berlin. Kennedy responded with a high profile speech, but chose not to take any direct action. An even greater test came the following year with the Cuban Missile Crisis- the apogee of tension in the entirety of the Cold War. • The crisis was precipitated by a revolution in Cuba, led by Marxist Fidel Castro. A failed invasion of Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs- sponsored by the CIA- was an international embarrassment for JFK, and Khrushchev seized on the apparent weakness to test the resolve of the JFK administration by building missile sites on the Caribbean island . Kennedy responded with a naval blockade that forced the Soviets to back down. America appeared to prevail n the standoff, but the secret negotiations included the removal of American missile sites in Turkey , and an understanding that the US would take no further action to dislodge the communist regime in Cuba. • Meanwhile, back in Europe, the superpowers maintained an uneasy status quo through much of the remainder of the 1960s. One bump in the road occurred in 1966 when France withdrew from the NATO alliance. And in the pivotal year of 1968 France underwent a paralyzing general strike and violent student protests sponsored in part by a growing communist influence. Opposite forces were at work in Czechoslovakia in the same year, as anti-Soviet sentiment fomented the pro-democratic protests known as the Prague Spring, eventually crushed by an overwhelming presence of Soviet tanks. The US may have been tempted to act in more direct support, but the American effort in Asia was growing more dire by the day and as the Vietnam conflict began to unravel, few thought it prudent to antagonize the Soviets in eastern Europe. • Beginning in 1965, American involvement in southeast Asia increased dramatically as LBJ unleashed Operation Rolling Thunder, an air campaign designed to bomb the North Vietnamese into submission. Troop numbers increased dramatically following the escalation, but despite the escalation, little progress was made to dislodge or dissuade the Viet Cong. In early 1968, a massive counteroffensive coinciding with the Vietnamese new year (Tet) dispelled any notions of a tidy or imminent victory in the quagmire.
Beginning of Détente • Détente, a French word that translates roughly to “relaxation” is used to describe the lessening of tensions during the Cold War. • The earliest signs of détente can be traced to Eisenhower’s second term, and the rise of Nikita Khrushchev as Stalin’s successor in the Soviet Union. Both leaders used the opportunity to open new dialogue between the two superpowers, but progress came haltingly and a series of mishaps (especially the U-2 incident) put the Cold War back on ice for the time being. • Other geo-political forces outside the direct influence of Washington and Moscow also contributed to an easing of tension through the 1960s. Several nations had begun deeply resenting and openly contesting the polarization of the world into the defined “spheres” of the Cold War, and began the so-called “Non-Aligned Movement”- perhaps best exemplified by Yugoslavia under the leadership of Marshal Tito. • Ironically, the single biggest push for détente came from the Cold War’s most dangerous moment, the Cuban Missile Crisis, in the fall of 1962. In the aftermath of the crisis, as the world breathed a sigh of relief, both sides realized the benefits of increased dialogue and a scaling back of the intense rhetoric that had thus far characterized Cold War relations. Within weeks, a “Hotline” that gave US and Soviet leaders direct access to one another was installed. • The scare in Cuba also indirectly resulted in the first major attempts to reign in the nuclear arms race. The US ,USSR, and Great Britain negotiated the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963. This was followed by negotiations that led to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which began in the late 60s, and the Outer Space Treaty (1967) , which paved the way for the high water mark of détente, the SALT I and Salt II treaties, (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties) which were finally concluded in the early 1970s.
The antiwar movement and the counterculture • For contemporary Americans the single most defining aspect of the late 1960s remains the anti-war movement and the counterculture that endorsed it. As the conflict in Vietnam progressed from indirect aid, to direct aid, to aerial bombing and finally all-out ground war, opposition to US involvement increased. The “peace and love” ethic of the “hippies” was an obvious appeal to challenge the basis of a foreign war that many thought unnecessary and wasteful of American lives and treasure. Though initially small, anti-war protests gained significant momentum and adherents through the late 1960s, with opposition spreading far beyond the initial association with the hippies and the counterculture. • For their part, the youth associated with the counterculture can be seen in the context of the broader social convulsions and turmoil of the era- a reaction to the conformity that they believed conservative forces were attempting to maintain in American society. Drawing from the nonconformist traditions of the preceding generation, the counterculture of the 1960s was exponentially larger, and advocated not just personal liberty, but a radical reorganization of American society. For many associated with the counterculture, the war in Vietnam was symptomatic of much deeper problems in American society- misguided exceptionalism, and the greed and power of the military-industrial complex. Their rejection of social and sexual norms was in itself a form of protest against what they saw as shallow materialism and sheepish conformity of American society.