The election of 1960 revealed a deep division in the U.S. It was one of the closest elections in U.S. history. It also showed the impact of television on politics. The nominees were John F. Kennedy (D) and Richard Nixon (R) who had been Eisenhower's Vice President. Both were super anti-Communists and both were controversial. Kennedy was a Catholic and young at 42. He had to assure the American people that the Pope would not take over the U.S. Nixon had been accused of illegal contributions and had given the "Checkers Speech" denying any illegal contributions but he had accepted a little dog for his daughters. The dog was named Checkers. Also, Nixon had to defend a slight recession at the end of Eisenhower's presidency.
The most interesting development, though, was the first televised presidential debate. Kennedy looked energetic, handsome, calm under fire, and "presidential." Nixon refused to wear make-up so looked washed out his "five o'clock shadow" beard showed, and he was sweating. Those who watched the debate on t.v. concluded Kennedy won. Those who listened to it on the radio concluded Nixon won.
When all was said and done, Kennedy won by 120,000 votes becoming the first Catholic and youngest President although basically the same age of Theodore Roosevelt.
Once inaugurated, Kennedy began implementing his vision of the U.S. called the "New Frontier." He was a conservative Keynesian in economics. Keynesian economics is the theory that the government can act in ways to improve the economy. The liberal version is to spend money for jobs programs, building the infrastructure, and other endeavors. The conservative version is to cut taxes to stimulate the economy. While Kennedy preferred cutting taxes, he also was not opposed to some government spending to stimulate the economy such as the space program and aid to education and the elderly poor. During the election he had also indicated support for civil rights when he called Coretta King while MLK was in jail as result of a protest.
Kennedy's legislative successes in domestic issues was limited, though. Conservative Democrats and Republicans joined to block most of his efforts. Even his Tax Reduction Plan did not pass until after his death which lowered the U.S. tax bill by 20%. He had better success in foreign policy issues. He created the Green Berets, special forces in the U.S. Army. He also created the Peace Corps, a program to send Americans to developing nations to assist in education and other training. But, Kennedy also had major problems in foreign policy. Many Americans questions his will since he was so young despite being a World War II hero.
Doubts grew in 1961 when the Berlin Wall was built dividing that city between the Communists and Democracy. Kennedy was criticized for not doing anything about it. What he could have done was not suggested short of bombing Germany that would have led to another war.
Later that year, more questions about Kennedy emerged over the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. The plan was to send Cuban exiles to Cuba with U.S. Naval support with the plan to take over the Cuban government, eliminate Castro, and destroy Communism. The C.I.A. was also involved. It turned out to be a fiasco. As soon as the exiles landed in Cuba, they were arrested and the U.S. declined to assist and withdrew. Kennedy's popularity declined He needed a success to look strong.
This opportunity came in October, 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a 1962 confrontation between the U.S. and Soviet Union over weapons on Cuba. U.S. spy planes had located Soviet missiles on Cuba that were capable of nuclear warheads. First, Kennedy ordered a naval blockade around Cuba to prevent Soviet intervention. Then, he demanded the removed of the weapons or else. "Or else" was taken to mean war and Americans prepared. For a week, the world waited. But, an agreement was reached. The Soviets agreed to remove the weapons and the U.S. would remove some missiles near the Soviet Union. The U.S. also promised not to invade Cuba. Kennedy looked strong and his popularity soared.
At the same time, Kennedy was getting the U.S. more entangled in Vietnam. The escalation was underway. Like his predecessors, Kennedy believed the complete defeat of Communists in Vietnam was necessary. He began secret orders to increase U.S. presence and increased financial support to South Vietnam. By 1961, 14 Americans had been killed there but still no ground troops. Kennedy continued with approval of helicopter support, minesweeping, reconnaissance and a defoliation campaign, a subject near and dear to me. Agent Orange was approved to kill trees in Vietnam so the war would be easier. Agent Orange turned out to be deadly for our troops and the Vietnamese to this day. My husband died on Nov. 1, 2000, as result of cancer caused by Agent Orange. People are still dying today and Vietnam and other areas, including Canada, have been contaminated. (The Canadian timber industry used it there.) By the end of 1962, 109 Americans were dead and 17,000 Americans were in South Vietnam. Remember, the Geneva Accords limit to 342?
By the time Kennedy was dead, 489 Americans had died and Diem was dead, too. He had been killed in a 1963 coup. The U.S. had stopped supporting Diem after seven Buddhists committed suicide to protest against him by self-immolation (setting themselves on fire) all live on television.
Still, most Americans were unclear about Vietnam. Events at home dominated the news. The Era of Protest had begun. The young were restless especially college students. 1960 marked the beginning of new aggressiveness in the area of Civil Rights by African-Americans, Hispanics, women, and gays. The most dramatic strategies came out from African-Americans.
The turning-point began February 1, 1960, in Greensboro, North Carolina, with the introduction of the sit-in movement at Woolworth's lunch counter. Lunch counters were in almost every department store at that time but they were strictly segregated and African-Americans were not allowed to be served. To force desegregation, mostly college students, inspired by the non-violent tactics of MLK, began to take seats in the lunch counter leaving no room for white customers. They received no service yet stayed non-violently. They were attacked by white customers but remained calm and non-violent. It took five years of sit-ins but they were successful.
In 1961, they had been joined by the "freedom rides," a strategy to desegregate interstate buses. Both African-American and white young people forced desegregation of bus stations and buses by working together. They were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan and buses were even bombed. At the same time "Freedom Summer" had been launched again by mostly college students. Again both African-Americans and whites joined together to work to get African-Americans registered to vote while staying with African-American families. Activists were again attacked and beaten.
At first Kennedy seemed reluctant to act due to the political consequences. It was his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who was the real hero in the civil rights movement. He told his brother that civil rights was a crisis in morality and that was far more important than political consequences. So, Kennedy acted. He got a federal injunction on the Ku Klux Klan and other racist organizations involved in interfering with the peaceful protests. He also got the Interstate Commerce Commission to ban discrimination in interstate travel (buses). He also sent Federal Marshalls to Montgomery, Alabama, to stop some of the worst violence. Justice Department officials were sent to Birmingham, Alabama, to try to control violence against protesters there led by the sheriff "Bull" Connor."
Meanwhile, activists opened another front, to desegregate southern colleges and universities in the South. In 1962, James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi. Riots led to two killed and the arrival of the National Guard. In 1963, Vivian Malone and Jimmy Hood tried to register at the University of Alabama where they were confronted by Governor George Wallace blocking the door swearing no desegregation would be happening there. Federal officials confronted Wallace, he stepped aside, and Malone and Hood registered.
In June, 1963, Kennedy decided to propose new Civil Rights legislation. He went on television to condemn racism and explain his legislation to ban discrimination in hiring based on race or gender, desegregation of public places, and more protections for voters. that night Civil Rights Medgar Evers was murdered.
Nonetheless, support for Civil Rights was increasing among whites. Again, television played a major role. Americans saw peaceful, nonviolent protesters attacked with fire hoses, dogs, and electric cattle prods. Children were arrested, too. Then in August, 1963, the March on Washington featured MLK's "I Have a Dream Speech." Both African-Americans and whites were there together to support integration.
In September, television also showed the bodies of four young girls killed in a bombing of their Baptist Church in Birmingham.
Meanwhile, Hispanics were also involved in the Civil Rights Movement in Texas in an event called the Crystal City Revolution. Crystal City is a South Texas city known as the "spinach capital of the world" with a statue of Popeye in downtown. While the majority of the citizens were Hispanic, none had ever served on the city council. So five, "Los Cincos," candidates ran for the city council to take over. They succeeded with the help of organizations and labor unions at the local Dole factory.
Then, on November 22, 1963, everything changed. Kennedy was assassinated just down the street from El Centro College. Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) took over as President and he was from Texas but devoted to civil rights. He exploited the guilt of the nation and all the favors owed to him as an expert in politics. He declared his vision for the country, the Great Society. What followed was another era of reform like the New Deal that included many of the issues Kennedy had supported.
This included the 20% Tax Reduction Act that Kennedy had proposed. LBJ also got passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed literacy tests to vote and provided federal oversight in areas where voting discrimination existed. He also got passage of the Naturalization and Immigration Act of 1965 that ended the Quota System and limited immigration by numbers. While family reunification was considered race and religion were no longer factors. But this was bad news for Mexicans. For the first time they were placed along with all Latin Americans under limitations creating the "illegal alien."
Johnson also passed the 24th Amendment abolishing the poll tax, appoint the first African-American to the cabinet (Robert Weaver of Housing and Urban Development), appointed the first African-American to the Supreme Court (Thurgood Marshall) and passed environmental legislation including the Clean Water Act, the Wilderness Actof 1964, The Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, The National trails system Act of 1968 the Wild and Scenic rivers Act of 1968, the Land and Water Conservation Act of 1965, the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965, the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act of 1965, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the Aircraft Noise Abatement Act of 1968, and National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.
LBJ also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 that banned housing discrimination and extended constitutional protections to American Indian Reservations. He passed the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965, created Public Broadcasting and Big Bird with the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, passed the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 along with the Highway Safety Act of 1966 as result of Ralph Nader's book Unsafe at Any Speed. In addition he passed the Truth in Lending Act of 1968 to require disclosure of the full cost of financing and teh wholesome Poultry and Wholesome Meat Acts of 1967-8. Then LBJ launched his "War on Poverty." This led to the creation of Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, the Jobs Corps, and federal aid to public education including the creation of the Head Start program.
Poverty declined. Among the elderly with Medicare, poverty decreased 24%. 12 million families left poverty. But, it did not improve in households headed by women.
Despite LBJ's efforts the Civil Rights protest continued and violence became common. In 1964, three civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi. 21 were arrested but there was no conviction. Them in 1965, Malcolm X was assassinate-d when he rejected the Nation of Islam's anti-civil rights dogma In 1965, two were killed during a march from Selma to Birmingham, Alabama. in 1964-68 urban riots became common with the worst in 1965 in the Watts section of Los Angeles. 34 were killed and it was started by police brutality and 30% unemployment. Violence radicalized organizations. Some expelled white members. Others like the Black Panthers rejected non-violent protest (formed 1966-7). Youth said MLK and the NAACP were too cautious. Hispanics also radicalized in the organization Alianza. They demanded the return of lands occupied national forests, arrested forest rangers, and had a shoot out at Rio Arriba County Courthouse. Anglos were radicalized also. The Students for a Democratic Society conducted campus takeovers and occupied administators' offices. The most radical was the Weathermen who were bombers. Eventually they blew themselves up in New York City although survivors keep showing up. Women also were radicalized by the book The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. Rumors that women were burning their bras created controversy although the actual incidents were rare. Then came 1968.
Colleges were under siege. Then MLK ws assassinated and riots followed with 40 killed. In June, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Hopelessness swept the nation. The Civil Rights Movement began to loose momentum due to deaths of leaders, infiltration by law enforcement, loss of funds as moderates and Jews were alienated by radicalism and the anti-Semitism of the Nation of Islam. By the mid-1970s only the most moderate organizations like NAACP and LULAC survived.
Another reason for the decline of the Civil Rights Movement was the growth of the anti-Vietnam War movement. To understand that we need to understand how LBJ changed the conflict.
LBJ was determined to save South Vietnam from Communism, too. And, he made a major change in U.S. policy in August, 1964. This was the result of and incident in the Tonkin Gulf of the coast of North Vietnam. The U.S. Destroyer Maddox reported it had been attacked by three North Vietnamese patrol boats. The Maddox returned fire hitting all three. The Maddox was joined by the U.S.S. Turner Joy when a storm erupted. Radar indicated 22 torpedoes coming toward the U.S. ships although some on board suggested they could be phantom blips from the storm.
At any rate, this incident was used by LBJ to increase his authority when Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that gave the President almost total control of policy in Vietnam with only two dissenting votes. This overrode the constitutional specification that Congress has certain powers in terms of war. This will be the closest thing to a declaration of war in Vietnam and was used as if it was.
Meanwhile, LBJ is re-elected promising "no wider war." Few of his advisers questioned his policy except an Undersecretary of Defense, George Ball. Then in 1965 eight Americans were killed in Pleiku, South Vietnam. With this, LBJ launched "Operation Rolling Thunder," a two month air attack on North Vietnam including the use of Napalm, a chemical agent that burned the skin. This is one of the most famous pictures of the war and the use of Napalm. The little girl did survive and is now in the U.S.
Then, in March, LBJ ordered two Marine Battalions (3500 men) to Vietnam. On March 8, 1965, the first American ground troops were in Vietnam under the command of General William Westmoreland. In April, two more Marine Battalions and 20,000 support troops were in Vietnam. LBJ also expanded the mission to search for Vietcong in South Vietnam. The escalation continued and by the end of 1965, 184,000 Americans were in Vietnam, my class had graduated from high school, and the first classmate was killed.
Some of LBJ's advisers began to abandon him including the Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara who had designed the policy. LBJ sent more troops. By 1968 542,000 Americans were in Vietnam. It was costing $30 billion a year. The federal deficit grew to $25 billion. But, LBJ did not want to raise taxes to pay for it so the Great Society ad War on Poverty programs were slashed. Optimism and economic growth declined. And, the anti-war movement grew.
the turning-point came in January, 1968. Still a majority of Americans supported the effort. Media and politicians said victory was at hand. That was before the Tet Offensive, an attack by Communists in South Vietnam that changed public opinion. It had become obvious the Communists were not on the verge of defeat although the U.S. eventually won the battle. But, there was a perception of loss in what had become a "living room war" because of television. Media turned against the war including Walter Cronkite, a news commentator who had been selected the "most trusted man in America." Americans began to sense we could not win and felt they had been misled. Politicians began to turn against the war, too.
By March 1968, LBJ faced reality and changed policy to "disengagement" and "Vietnamization" or turning the conflict over to the South Vietnamese. It was too late. An almost unknown anti-war candidate, Eugene McCarthy, almost won the New Hampshire primary over LBJ. So, on March 31, LBJ withdrew from the presidential primary. Democrats were left in disarray. By June, Robert F. Kennedy was the leading candidate but was assassinated. The convention in Chicago turned into a "police riot" as protesters descended on the city. Inside the convention was just as chaotic. They managed to nominate Hubert Humphrey, LBJ's Vice President, who was respected in the civil rights arena but stuck with LBJ's Vietnam policy.
When Republicans met, it was much more peaceful and Richard Nixon was nominated. He criticized the protesters, not the war. There was also a third party candidate, George Wallace whose American Independent Party was anti-civil rights.
Nixon won by one percent of the popular vote. but the protests and war continued. By 1970 over half of Americans were against the war, already the longest war in U.S. history at that time. 40,000 Americans had died. Nixon decided to escalate the war.
Nixon announced the bombing of Cambodia to cutoff supply lines to the Communists. College protests were everywhere. Many colleges were forced to close, but they were having final exams at Kent State University in Ohio. At Kent State, there were several days of disorder and the ROTC building was burned. The National Guard was called in and on May 4, they opened fire on protesters. No one knows why to this day. No one knows if any orders were given. Two weeks later, a similar event occurred at Jackson State University in Mississippi and two were killed by State Police. Many Americans were shocked, but others said "good riddance." The backlash had begun. One thing that resulted was one of my favorite war songs. By Neil Young, Ohio became the anthem for a generation.
The 1960s were over but the social changes of the 60s remain today. the counterculture had an enormous impact on these changes. The hippies or flower children were different than the beatniks. Hippies were not depressed. they said "make love not war." They happily rejected materialism. They said they could live without working and create a peaceful utopia. They were hallucinating badly.
LSD was a major force in the 60s counterculture movement. It had been discovered accidentally in 1938 by a Swiss scientist, Albert Hofmann, when he spilled some on himself and had an interesting experience. In 1947, the CIA began to authorize studies to see if it could be used in chemical warfare. Scientists began using and distributing it. In 1959, two Harvard professors (Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert) distributed it and were fired so they began a utopian community and continued. Meanwhile, Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) discovered LSD and established a commune in California. They were known as the Merry Pranksters. Then two chemists (Ausgustus "Owsley" Stanley and Melissa Cargill) began mass production seeing themselves as social engineers. Eventually the "psychedelic nation" was born.
A musical revolution followed. The "underground" press grew. New religions were explored. Art and fashion changed. Experimental lifestyles emerged. The peak was 1967 and the "Summer of Love" focused in San Franciso's Haight Ashbury section. But, as the hippies gathered, problems became apparent. Experiment with many drugs, crime, and sexually transmitted diseases spread. Women were exploited to be "liberated." It was overwhelmingly white and young people from middle-class homes. By 1969, the movement was dying. The Woodstock Festival was the last gasp as most of those who attended were just trying to be cool.
Many Americans were concerned about the trends of the 1960s and blamed hippies. Divorce and unwed motherhood increased. Crime statistics were worse than today. Traditional values crumbled. It was a time of lost innocence.