A New Informal, Unfinished History of the United States



            The 60’s were a time of great conflict and change. More than one historian has called it (even leaving aside the Vietnam war) “our greatest domestic crisis since the Civil War.”

            The period witnessed dramatic developments on the national political  level: the election of a young and dynamic John Kennedy in 1961, his assassination three years later, and the subsequent passage under President Lyndon Johnson of an ambitious new round of progressive/ New Deal-type legislation. Of course, throughout the decade and beyond, the country was mired in the most unpopular, divisive war in its history--Vietnam.

            American involvement in that war was a part of the larger Cold War, which had begun after WWII. Ostensibly, the United States was backing the democratic South Vietnam from an invasion of the communist north (The country had been split in 1954). Official U.S. involvement began when President Kennedy sent 15, 000 military advisers to South Vietnam. After his death, President Johnson (LBJ) “escalated” our involvement, and by 1968 we had over 500, 000 troops there. But the North Vietnamese, under Ho Chi Minh, and their southern allies, the so-called Viet Cong,” were not be be denied. By 1972, when President Nixon withdrew the last U.S. troops, 58,000 Americans had died.

            But much of the history of this period was written not in the halls of Congress nor in the rice paddies of Vietnam. Rather it was enacted in the streets of this country, as large numbers of Americans turned to protests, demonstrations, and other forms of direct political action, whether to gain Civil Rights for African-American or  to demand rights for students or to end a war or to raise the issue of Women’s Liberation. During the 60’s, there was hardly an aspect of American society and culture that was not called into question: schools, food, personal appearance, sexual attitudes and behavior, American foreign policy, nuclear disarmament, racism, the role of universities, families. In fact, in many significant respects, Lincoln-Sudbury Regional HS, which remains still one of the most progressive schools in the state, is  a product of those questioning, tumultuous times. Can you count the ways?

            Besides the emergence of various radical movements (“McCarthyism” was now dead, and “the times they were a-changin’), a unusual counterculture had begun, recalling the utopian experiments of the 1840’s and 1850’s. The post-war baby boom had produced a bulging generation American youth. While many of them would dedicate their youth to protesting for rights and for peace, perhaps even a larger group challenged standard American values by simply dropping our, moving to large youth communities like Haight-Ashbury (in San Francisco), experimenting with drugs, emulating native American cultures, living in tribal communes, exploring “free sex,” and sometimes “going back to the land” and taking up a simpler, less material rural life. From the hippies of the counter-culture there also came the environmental consciousness and movements of today.

            Of course throughout  this period, there emerged (let’s face it) the best darn rock an’ roll you and I have ever heard! The folk music wasn’t too shabby either. Bob Dylan. Joan Baez. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. The Jefferson Airplane.The Grateful Dead. Jimi Hendrix. Janice Joplin. The Doors. Crosby, Still, Nash, & Young. Buffalo Springfield. The Band. Monterey Pop. Woodstock. What more do you want? The music gave the period its energy. Or was that vice-versa?

            The 60’s (which incidently, as a state of mind, lasted until about 1973) did give out a lot of energy, not only in the U.S. but among youth all around the world. It was a time of vision, a time of slogans like, “All Power to the Imagination!” To appreciate its power, consider: Nearly 30 years, later many young people still adapt the 60’s style of dress and appearance, still profess its values, and still listen to its incomparable music. The 1930’s were also a very radical time, but three decades later young people were no longer thinking a great deal about it. What accounts for the staying power of the 60’s?

National Politics

            President Kennedy’s election in 1961, after an exciting campaign featuring the first TV debates, demonstrated that the country was ready to leave behind the conservative ‘50s, to which President Eisenhower had provided reassuring but unexciting leadership. The country was ready for change and was enchanted by the young, handsome, energetic Kennedy (the spitting image of the young Bill Schechter!) and his beautiful wife, Jackie.  Enchanted perhaps, but Kennedy won by  one of the slimmest of margins in U.S. history, and became, notably, our first Catholic president.

            Kennedy’s inaugural speech promised bold change and called Americans to sacrifice for the national good. There is considerable disagreement  about what JFK actually accomplished. Some argue that his rhetoric, charisma, and style overshadowed his actual achievements. Others point out that he only had three years, and that Congress was controlled by Republicans and southern conservative Democratic congressmen, which made it difficult for him to get his legislative program enacted. Still, the pro-JFK faction argues that as time went on the president became increasing committed to Civil Rights, to nuclear arms control (credit for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty goes to him), and to the abolition of poverty in the U.S. It does seem that his rhetoric about  “New Frontiers” and “Ask (ing) what you can do for the country” helped to inspire idealism among young people, even if the Kennedy administration could not always keep pace with the idealistic forces it unleashed.

            The President’s handling of foreign affairs was both criticized and lauded. When a U.S. backed invasion of Cuba failed at the Bay of Pigs (1961), JFK did not look very good. A year later, his strong stand against Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba (“The Cuban Missile Crisis”) brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Ultimately though, JFK forced the Russians to back down. His handling of the crisis was considered by many a case study in brilliant, courageous, and cool “crisis-management.”

            The young president’s assassination in 1963 was a traumatic moment for the nation. Arguments will go on concerning whether he was a “great” President. The great tragedy was that his potential could now never be fully realized. His death was followed by an outpouring of genuine grief. Some would argue that his death marked the end of “American innocence, ”  of belief in the possible goodness of government. To be sure, after his death things began to fall apart.

            After the assassination, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson took over and ran for his own term in 1964. His administration was followed by that of Richard Nixon, who won two terms, with the second being cut short by Watergate and his resignation (1974).

          Johnson launched the so-called “Great Society” programs, marked by the signing of two major Civil Rights bills as well as a “War on Poverty.” Federal program after program was added to alleviate the country’s social problems in a dramatic extension of FDR’s New Deal philosophy. A few of these programs succeeded, but many fell short, falling victim to budgetary woes caused by the very expensive Vietnam War. It turned out we could not have both “guns and butter.” Nixon was more conservative but he did not really attempt to significantly cut back on these social programs or “New Dealism” in general.  But his rhetoric emphasized “law and order” rather than themes of social justice. This appealed to people--mainly the older generation--who had grown weary of the turmoil of the decade--and particularly of those long-haired protesters. The 60’s were coming to a close.

            National politics (1964-72) was dominated by the national debate over Vietnam, a debate which turned violent on more than one occasion, including the tragic day when four students were killed at Kent State University. The discord caused by the war, was well as rioting by African-Americans living in the inner-cities (in protest against racism and their collective impoverishment), helped make the 60’s, in the view of some historians, one of the most serious domestic crises in the history of the American republic. Only the Civil War and the Great Depression can compete for this dubious title. The later assassinations of Malcolm X (1965), Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy (both in 1968) pushed the country even closer to what appeared to be a national nervous breakdown.


            During the 60’s, history was made in the streets. The Civil Rights Movement, which had roots in the 40’s and 50’s, exploded on the scene and became a mass movement by 1960. Sit-in’s, picketing, and other demonstrations succeeded, at great cost, in destroying the Jim Crow system and in re-wining for black people the right to vote.Many died to make this happen. Most other movements of the 60’s were inspired by, and patterned themselves after, the CRM.

            Following close on the heals of the CRM was the anti-war movement which grew over a period of 10 years from a handful of students on college campuses to millions of Americans--and eventually a majority. As the war went on and on, “escalating” into a ever wider conflict, and, in the eyes of some, an increasingly criminal one, the Movement became more confrontational and even violent. Police and young people clashed in the streets.  Ten of thousands of college students “resisted” the Draft, in one way or another. In the end, this movement proved to be one important factor in bringing our involvement in the war to a conclusion in 1972. Most Americans just grew plain weary of this--our longest--war, and became progressively more uncertain about just why we had become involved in the first place. Old Cold War war justifications such as “containment” just didn’t seem sufficient  any more.

            Following the Anti-War movement, and provoked by it, was the Women’s Liberation Movement. Suffice it to say, we live in a very different country because of it. This movement, as with the other two, was sparked by college students. There is still sexism in American, but impressive progress has been made. In fact, it has been suggested that the WLM has fallen victim to its own success, and that is why it is no longer as visible. Men and women look at women very differently today than they did before the 60’s.

            There were also important movements in the 60’s on behalf of gays, native Americans, and prisoners.


            The culture of the 1960’s was dominated by so-called “Youth Culture.” Apart from opposition to the Vietnam war and the presence of radical political movements, the counter-culture sought to change American values. The presence of hippies with long hair, a new kind of R &R, and communes all constituted a challenge a to mainstream culture. Drawing on eastern religions, drugs, native American values, the counter-culture encouraged its participants to drop out of an achievement-oriented, individualistic, materialistic way of life, in favor of one that encouraged
cooperation, simplicity, meditation, “doing your own thing,” and “back-to-nature” values. The peaceful, mass assemblage at the Woodstock music festival in 1969 seemed to showcase the C-C way of life. This peaceful way of life also caused a massive “generation gap” with older Americans leading to many  family fights over the dinner table, with parents imploring their kids to clean up and “get a haircut--please!!”

            Did the C-C succeed? How deeply did it effect American society? On these questions historians disagree. But if many communes have now fallen apart, it does seem that we have become a society more tolerant of different life styles. What do you think?\






            New Frontier


            Bay of Pigs


            The Cuban Missile Crisis


            The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty


            The Sit-In Movement

            Freedom Rides

            Freedom Summer
            “I have a dream....”

            Birmingham Sunday

            The Civil Rights Act of 1964

            Voting Rights Act of 1965

            Kent State


            Detroit Riots








            Bob Dylan




            Generation Gap


All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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