The 1960s and 70s: Decades of Turmoil
Copyright © 2005-7, Henry J. Sage

The Kennedy Years
JFK and Nixon The 1960 election was a milestone in terms of the impact of television on electoral politics. Richard Nixon, who had been vice president under President Eisenhower for eight years, and who had a number of notable achievements on his record, was a formidable, intelligent candidate with broad experience and a sophisticated understanding of foreign affairs. Although he received only lukewarm support from the outgoing president, Richard Nixon was not to be taken lightly. nixon-kennedy debate
JFK and Richard Nixon
Kennedy and Nixon Debate on Television
The TV Debate—where appearances matter—was considered decisive in the 1960 election.

Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts, on the other hand, had many visible assets, including a charming young wife and family, a Harvard education, a record of heroism in World War II, and the backing of a wealthy and powerful family. Yet his years in Congress and the Senate had been undistinguished, and when Adlai Stevenson opened the nomination for vice president during the 1956 Democratic convention, Kennedy lost his bid to Estes Kefauver. Kennedy also had to reckon with the fact that he was attempting to become the first elected Irish Catholic president in American history. If he won, he would also be the youngest man ever elected president of the United States.

In retrospect the outcome of the election and seems to have turned on the first televised debate between Senator Kennedy and Vice President Nixon. Kennedy's movie star good looks and smooth performance overshadowed the haggard, pale appearance of Richard Nixon, who had recently been hosptialized, and who looked far less appealing to the television audience, having declined to use makeup. Those who heard the debate on the radio and did not see it divided their sentiments regarding the winner 50-50 between the two candidates. For those who saw the debate on television, Kennedy came out ahead by a substantial margin. The vote was one of the closest in American history; Kennedy's margin was 118,000 votes out of 68 million cast.

JFK Inaugural address.

Probably because of his assassination and the nonstop television coverage of all of events during the weekend leading up to the funeral, including the heroic performance by Jacqueline Kennedy and the tragic image of the her two young children saying farewell to their father on camera, Kennedy's popularity was probably even greater after his death than during his administration, and people without a deep knowledge of politics considered him to have been a great president. In fact, Kennedy's domestic record was quite modest. He was unable to persuade Congress to follow his lead in a number of his initiatives, and most of his proposals, especially in the civil rights area, were finally realized under the powerful Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy after his death. Congress did support Kennedy's creation of the Peace Corps and passed economic programs for urban renewal, raising the minimum wage, and increasing Social Security benefits. Critics have claimed that Kennedy's performance in office had more style than substance, but there is no question that the White House seemed a far more glamorous place with the Kennedy family in residence.

See also Cold War.

The question still discussed about President Kennedy’s foreign policy—one for which there is no satisfactory answer—is: “What would Kennedy have done in Vietnam if he had not been assassinated?” Some believe that he was prepared to end what he saw as a misguided venture; however, advisers close to the Kennedy administration have indicated that if his intent was to begin a full withdrawal from Vietnam, they had seen little evidence that he would carry it further. True, he had drawn down the number of advisers in Vietnam slightly during the last months of his presidency, but some believe that that was just preparation for the election of 1964.

In the end, Kennedy followed the path of Presidents Truman and Eisenhower as a leader determined to prevent the further spread of Communism in the world and to use all reasonable means to keep the Soviet Union from taking advantage of any perceived American weakness. He had campaigned on the issue of a missile gap between United States and the Soviet Union, and even his plan to place a man on the moon in the decade of the 1960s was, to a large extent, aimed at defeating the Russians in space. The military implications were obvious. It was, of course, during Kennedy's administration that the most dangerous point in the Cold War was reached: the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

The Space Race. During the mid 1950s most Americans were aware that the government was doing research on the exploration of space and that one day, probably in the far distant future, men would go to the moon and beyond. But when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, an artificial satellite, into Earth orbit in 1957, Americans were stunned. Russian scientists had been portrayed as less capable than their American counterparts, and Soviet successes were supposedly based on borrowing of western ideas. But when the Soviets leaped out in front in space exploration, even with a primitive vehicle, Americans reacted with a combination of disbelief and panic. Articles with titles like “Why Johnny Can’t read-And Why Ivan Can” began to appear, and the entire U.S. educational system was hauled into court and placed under scrutiny. Reflecting people’s attitudes, Congress passed legislation that created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and passed additional laws meant to improve American science and math curricula. The space race was seen as part of the cold war, and Americans felt they had to win.

No one played this theme more strongly than President Kennedy. Early in his administration he dedicated that nation to putting a man on the moon and returning him safely by the end of the decade, defined as January 1, 1970. The seven Mercury astronauts made flights in the early 1960s, and then the Gemini and Apollo programs began to prepare for an eventual lunar landing. With the assistance of former German V-weapon rocket scientists and an aviation industry with much talent, the Americans caught up with and passed the Soviets and reached Kennedy’s goal: Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in July, 1969.

NASA eventually oversaw six landings on the moon, the last one on December 11, 1972. Since then all space flights have been limited to low orbits. The Space Shuttle program, which followed Apollo, accomplished much but was plagued by accidents, as the Challenger shuttle was destroyed during a launch in 1986, and the Columbia was destroyed during re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003. NASA plans to retire the remaining shuttle craft in 2010 and replace them with a new vehicle, the Orion, designed to take astronauts back to the moon and perhaps beyond.

See Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff and the film of the same title; Norman Mailer, Of A Fire on the Moon; Also dramatic and historically sound are the Tom Hanks film Apollo 13 and his HBO series, From the Earth to the Moon. The NASA web site is one of the most popular and frequently visited on the World Wide Web.

The Johnson Years: America in Turmoil

Lyndon Baines Johnson was one of the most fascinating and controversial figures in American political history. He was a man of extraordinary talents, appetites and ambition. He first came Washington from Texas in 1931 as secretary to a Texas congressman, where he caught the attention of Franklin Roosevelt and was appointed as Director of the Texas National Youth Administration. He was elected to a full term in the House of Representatives in 1938 and served there until 1948, when he was elected to the United States Senate.

In 1951 Johnson was elected majority whip of the Democratic Party in the Senate, and in 1955 he became the Senate Majority Leader, a position he held until being elected vice president under John F. Kennedy in 1960. Johnson was an extraordinarily persuasive man, and in dealing with his fellow legislators, his methods were so direct and forceful that his political dealings became known as the “Johnson treatment.” He could be both charming and heavy-handed, but when he was determined to get votes for a bill he favored, he could exert relentless pressure in persuading colleagues to follow his lead.

Although the negotiations were carried out in private, considerable evidence exists that John Kennedy did not really want Johnson as his vice president, but since Johnson, as majority leader of the Senate, was the most powerful man in Washington in 1960, Kennedy and his aides felt that Johnson should be offered the job. They also counted on Johnson to deliver the electoral votes of his native Texas as well as other Southern states. The Kennedy team was apparently shocked when Johnson decided to accept the position. The vice presidency of the United States has been described in less than glowing terms by more than one occupant of the office, and there is no question that Lyndon Johnson was frustrated over his lack of meaningful responsibilities. President Kennedy made him overseer of the American space program, but that did not really satisfy Johnson's longing to be in the center of political action in Washington.

Johnson in  dallasThe vice president accompanied President Kennedy on his fateful trip to Texas in 1963. Shortly after Kennedy was pronounced dead at Dallas’s Parkland Hospital following his assassination, Johnson was sworn in aboard Air Force One, as President Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline, stood by in her bloodied pink suit.

The transition from the Kennedy to the Johnson administration was understandably wrenching, first of all because Kennedy's cabinet and staff were in a state of shock following the sudden death of their leader. In addition, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were about as far apart as two politicians of the same party could get in style and personality. Kennedy, the wealthy scion of an old Boston political family and Harvard graduate, epitomized everything glamorous and attractive about Washington politics. Mrs. Kennedy conducted herself with enormous dignity during the ceremonies following her husband's death, and pictures of her standing side-by-side with her two young children, her son John being too young to comprehend what was happening, deeply touched the American people.

Lyndon Johnson, by contrast, had come from humble beginnings, attended Southwest Texas State Teachers College and, after teaching for a year, worked his way up through the political ranks by his own means. Whereas the Kennedys suggested candlelit tables with fine glassware and china, Lyndon Johnson and his family conveyed the image of a rousing Texas barbecue. Johnson moved slowly and carefully during the weeks and months following Kennedy’s death, looking forward to the election of 1964 as he renewed contacts with political colleagues in Congress and elsewhere. As president, with the full apparatus of the White House at his disposal, he commanded attention and demanded loyalty.

Johnson’s forte was not foreign affairs, but the Cold War was a continuing reality, and the situation in Vietnam following the assassination of Premier Diem was murky at best; he could not afford to ignore the realities of international events. Johnson's interests, however, lay in his dreams for domestic programs, as he planned an all-out assault on what he saw as America's social skills: racism, poverty, lack of opportunity, and a host of other issues first addressed by Franklin Roosevelt during the New Deal. Johnson later told biographers that his goal had been to dance with the lady he called the “Great Society,” but instead he was distracted by what he called that “bitch goddess of Vietnam.” Although his legislative achievements in pursuing his goals for domestic improvements were stunning, in the end his legacy was determined by the Vietnam War. (See separate section on Vietnam.)

LBJLyndon Johnson was one of the most powerful politicians in the nation's history. He could be cajoling, pleading, bargaining, threatening, or promising, sometimes, it seemed, all in the course of the same conversation. He was famous for what was known as the “Johnson Treatment.” He was a man not to be crossed with impunity. Although he was unfailingly gracious to Jacqueline Kennedy following JFK's assassination, the “Kennedy crowd,”or “Irish Mafia,” often left him feeling frustrated and angry. While he kept major Kennedy advisors such as Defense Secretary McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, he often clashed with JFK's brother Robert, especially when the former attorney general began to challenge his Vietnam policy.

High on President Johnson’s agenda was progress in the area of civil rights, something which President Kennedy had started, but which was still far from completion upon his death. As a Southerner Johnson was in a strong position to push civil rights legislation. Though it took all his powers of persuasion, Johnson's achievements in civil rights were of major significance. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were two of his major achievements. (See Civil Rights section.)

Additional Achievements of Lyndon Johnson included bills to establish the Medicare and Medicaid programs; the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964; creation of the Job Corps, a sort of domestic Peace Corps; the Elementary and Secondary Education Act; and the Head Start program. Johnson also sponsored legislation that revised immigration policies, toughened anti-crime systems, and sought to improve public housing and clean up urban slums and the environment at large. Although many of these programs failed to meet their objectives, it was the greatest reform movement since the early days of FDR’s New Deal. Lyndon Johnson presided over much the “the sixties,” however, and the times were indeed a-changing.

The 1960s: America in Revolt

The decade of the 1960s began chronologically in January 1961, a month that saw John F. Kennedy inaugurated as president of the United States. Kennedy’s inaugural address was highlighted by the memorable call to arms, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” In those early days of the Kennedy administration the world seemed relatively calm, although the shooting down of the U-2 aircraft over Russia, the continuing threat of nuclear war, and the Cold War environment that saw the United States, Russia, and Communist China, along with their allies, balanced against each other, kept people on edge. But French Indochina, a portion of which was the nation of Vietnam, rioting in the streets, and all the turmoil that has come to characterize the 60s was hardly a whisper on the horizon. The Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, and Kennedy’s confrontations with Premier Khrushchev kept people nervous, but the storm had not yet struck.

The sixties really began on November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, by Lee Harvey Oswald. Young and vibrant, with a lovely wife and two small children, the President was extremely popular among young Americans. With his untimely death the nation began a descent into one of the most chaotic decades in American history. Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, was a powerful President who achieved a great deal of what Kennedy had intended, and much more. His “Great Society” even went a step or two beyond the New Deal in terms of fundamental reform, but lingering doubts over Kennedy’s death remained alive. To this day, many believe a Kennedy’s murder was part of a conspiracy, one in which the government itself may even have been involved.

Student Protests. While the fifties were a “laid back” decade, the 1960s were in many ways the opposite. Whereas in the 1950s a popular television program proclaimed that “Father Knows Best,” by the end of the 1960s young people had convinced themselves that father did not know much of anything. Beginning with the “free speech” movement at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964, a series of rebellions spread from campus to campus and dealt with an ever-widening variety of issues, from women’s rights, to the Vietnam War, to the nature of the university itself. Although in retrospect people think of those rebellions in terms of the “anti-war” movement, the student protests were much wider in their scope. In fact, Vietnam protests comprised only a minority of campus disturbances, many of which were directed at societal problems in general.

columbia 1968The more strongly the police reacted, the more rebellious the students became, and the larger their numbers grew. Across the nation, at hundreds of campuses, buildings were damaged or even destroyed, offices were ransacked, and professors unsympathetic to the students demands were driven from classrooms. In many cases the university was obliged simply to shut down. While cynics may have noted that the level of student protest seemed to rise the closer it got to exam time, the students were often addressing serious issues in thoughtful manner. On the other hand, many leaders of the student movement—men and women whose names became well known beyond their own campuses—had fairly obvious political agendas and sometimes seemed to be exploiting the rebellious conditions for their own purposes. The Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, had chapters on many campuses and often orchestrated demonstrations and other disruptive activities. (The organization still exists.)

While often high-minded, the student demonstrations were frequently violent, and they triggered responses from university officials that ranged from acquiescence to forcible resistance to what many students perceived as outright oppression. When college police forces proved inadequate to handle the growing level of disruption, local police forces and even national guard troops were called in, with predictable results. Taunted by what they viewed as foul-mouthed, “spoiled brats” of the upper classes who shouted epithets such as “pigs,” and worse, at them, the police often reacted with violence of their own, and the riots often turned bloody, even deadly.

In the best sense, the students and their sympathizers were trying to bring about positive change in American society. They saw themselves as friends of the working classes, a voice for the oppressed, and many of them made positive contributions to the civil rights movement. In the South, Black students led the sit-ins and freedom marches and were on the front line when things got rough, as they usually did. For most white students the Vietnam War, while not the only issue, was the biggest issue, and their feelings were probably complicated by the fact that as college students they were deferred from the draft. Draft eligible young man had to remain in good standing, however, and professors often went out of their way to see to it that they did. The Vietnam protests also called attention to what many saw as an unholy alliance between universities and government—more particularly the military establishment. Weapons research, for example, was attacked by students who felt that such work was morally objectionable in a university setting. (President Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex was cited often by sixties students.)

President Johnson marked time until his overwhelming reelection over Barry Goldwater in 1964, and then all hell began to break loose. As American troops were sent to Vietnam in ever-increasing numbers, as the civil rights demonstrations grew ever more bloody and violent, and as protests seem to erupt almost on a daily basis, mostly on college campuses, the 60s turned into a time of turmoil and trouble. Although a few early campus rallies were held to support the troops, their days were numbered.

The focus of much unrest on the campuses often dealt with civil rights. For example, in the spring of 1968, Columbia University in New York City erupted over plans by the University to build a facility in a housing area in neighboring Harlem. The students soon took over the college, occupying administration offices, and eventually causing the university authorities to call for the assistance of the New York City police. Although today, in the aftermath of September 11, policemen and firemen are generally viewed favorably by most Americans of all generations, during the 60s student protesters saw cops as the enemy. During an uproar at Boston University, the Boston tactical police were called in and blood was shed as the students resisted the police and the police reacted strongly, even excessively, as some claimed. At the University of Maryland in College Park, a campus generally not known for political activism, students shut down the main traffic artery of US Highway 1 during rush hour. Fire bombs directed at ROTC buildings, break-ins at draft boards, and marches on the Pentagon became part of the culture of the 60s.

chicago 1968The year 1968 was the peak of the turmoil as violence broke out in Chicago during the Democratic national convention. The Chicago police under Mayor Daley carried out what came to be known as a “police riot,” and more blood was shed by demonstrators and occasional innocent bystanders. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated in 1968, and it seemed to many that the country had not only lost its moral compass, but was rapidly running amok. The year 1969 saw the inauguration of President Richard Nixon, and as he seemed to be working to try to end the war, the turmoil also seemed to abate for a year. But then, with the invasion of Cambodia in 1970, the shootings at Kent State University in Ohio, and then a confusing and frustrating end of the American involvement in Vietnam, followed closely by the growing Watergate scandal, it seemed that things were as bad as ever. (See The Nixon Years section.)

In 1973 the American POWs came back from Vietnam, Senator John McCain among them, and the escalating Watergate crisis led to Richard Nixon’s resignation in August of 1974. Although South Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975, and the city of Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, most Americans viewed it from a distance. In 1976 the country rallied from its despondency in order to celebrate the bicentennial of American independence, and it seemed that by then the 60s were well over. But the nation did not go back to the way it had been in the 1950s—too much had changed. Civil rights legislation opened doors that had been closed for a century. Women had begun to assert themselves and move into areas previously unheard of for the “gentle sex.” Coed dormitories were common on college campuses, thus indicating that the sexual revolution had been, in effect, rubber stamped by university authorities. If parents were distressed, there wasn't much they could do about it; and, in fact, they had lived through the 60s themselves and had been changed by the experience, as had all Americans.

The outcomes are hard to assess. The Vietnam War did come to an end, and substantial progress was made in civil rights and other areas. Perhaps those changes would have come about anyway, maybe more slowly, but maybe without arousing as much resentment. One outcome is certain: the university was changed forever. In the 1950s the university stood in loco parentis—in the place of the parent, knowingly accepting the responsibility not only for students’ education, but for their moral behavior as well. Dormitories were segregated by sex, use of alcohol and drugs was at least officially frowned upon, and male students were allowed to visit females in their dormitories only under controlled conditions. Students were expected to behave in class, obey the college rules as well as the laws of the city and state where they were located, and generally to conduct themselves as ladies and gentlemen.

By 1966 or 1967 all that had begun to change. Although the memory of the student protests seems retroactively to have centered around the Vietnam War, the students were angry about many more things. The university was now obliged to recognize that its students were adults, that they had rights, and that it was not proper for college officials to rule their charges with too heavy a hand, no matter how well intentioned such guidance might have been.

1960s Events:

Whatever one may feel about the sixties, especially among those who were alive at the time, one thing is clear: The country was changed in significant ways, and although many saw that as a negative result, many of the changes were needed and were overdue. The rights of Blacks, hispanics and women called for reform, and as usually happens when a pendulum swings, in some areas it went too far. But we are left with the changes that were made.

Postwar Domestic Home | Updated November 8, 2016