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The 1960s in the United States

The major social and historical events of a tumultuous decade

  • Grades: 9–12

During the 1960s, cold-war concerns gave way as attention focused on social and cultural rebellions at home. Involvement in a long and indecisive war in Asia and scandals that reached into the White House eroded the confidence of many Americans in their country's values and system of government. The United States survived such challenges, however, and emerged from the 1970s subdued but intact.

The Exuberant Kennedy Years

The Democratic senator John F. Kennedy, asserting that he wanted to "get the country moving again," won the presidency in a narrow victory over Vice President Richard M. Nixon in 1960. The charismatic Kennedy stimulated a startling burst of national enthusiasm and aroused high hopes among the young and the disadvantaged. Within three years his Peace Corps sent about 10,000 Americans (mostly young people) abroad to work in 46 countries. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress proposed a 10-year plan to transform the economies of the Latin American nations (partially successful, it sunk out of sight during the Vietnam War). He also proposed massive tariff cuts between the increasingly protectionist European Common Market and the world at large. (The so-called Kennedy Round of tariff negotiations concluded in 1967 with the largest and widest tariff cuts in modern history.) In June 1961, Kennedy pulled together the disparate, disorganized space effort by giving it a common goal: placing an American on the moon. Responding enthusiastically, Congress poured out billions of dollars to finance the project. (After the Apollo program succeeded, on July 20, 1969, in landing astronauts on the moon, the space effort remained in motion, if at a reduced pace.)

Kennedy blundered into a major defeat within three months of entering the White House. He kept in motion a plan sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and begun by the Eisenhower administration to land an invasion force in Cuba, which under Fidel Castro had become a Communist state and a Soviet state. The Bay of Pigs invasion failed, utterly and completely. The force was quickly smashed when it struggled onto the beaches of the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. During the succeeding 2 years, Kennedy labored to break the rigid cold-war relationship with the USSR. In October 1962, however, he discovered that the Soviets were rapidly building missile emplacements in Cuba. Surrounding the island with a naval blockade, he induced the Soviets to desist, and the sites were eventually dismantled. The relieved world discovered that, when pushed to the crisis point, the two major powers could stop short of nuclear war. This Cuban Missile Crisis effectively ended the cold war.

The atomic bomb now seemed defused, and Moscow seemed ready to negotiate on crucial issues (perhaps, it was suggested 15 years later, to give the Soviets time to build a far more powerful armaments system). A new and more relaxed relationship developed slowly into the U.S.-Soviet détente that emerged in the late 1960s and persisted through the 1970s. A test-ban treaty, the Moscow Agreement, signed in October 1963 symbolized the opening of the new relationship. Three of the world's nuclear powers (Great Britain, the United States, and the USSR — the fourth, France, did not sign) agreed to end the detonation of atomic explosions in the atmosphere.

In this new environment of security, American culture, long restrained by the sense of team spirit and conformity that the crises of depression, war, and cold war had induced, broke loose into multiplying swift changes. People now began talking excitedly of "doing their own thing." The media were filled with discussions of the rapidly changing styles of dress and behavior among the young; of the "new woman" (or the "liberated woman," as she became known); of new sexual practices and attitudes and new styles of living. The sense of community faded. Romanticism shaped the new mood, with its emphasis on instinct and impulse rather than reason, ecstatic release rather than restraint, individualism and self-gratification rather than group discipline.

Assassination and Cultural Rebellion

The excitement of Kennedy's presidency and his calls to youth to serve the nation had inspired the young, both black and white. His assassination in November 1963 shocked and dismayed Americans of all ages, and the psychological links he had fashioned between "the system" and young people began to dissolve. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, later shouldering the onus of an unpopular war, was unable to build a reservoir of trust among the young. As the large demographic group that had constituted the "baby boom" of the post-World War II years reached college age, it became the "wild generation" of student radicals and "hippies" who rebelled against political and cultural authority.

Styles of life changed swiftly. Effective oral contraceptives, Playboy magazine, and crucial Supreme Court decisions helped make the United States, long one of the world's most prudish nations in sexual matters, one of its most liberated. The drug culture mushroomed. Communal living groups of "dropouts" who rejected mass culture received widespread attention. People more than 30 years old reacted angrily against the flamboyant youth (always a small minority of the young generation) who flouted traditional standards, glorified self-indulgence, and scorned discipline.

In the second half of the 1960s this generation gap widened as many of the young (along with large numbers of older people) questioned U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Peaceful protests led to violent confrontations, and differences concerning styles of life blurred with disagreements about the degree of allegiance that individuals owed to the American system. In 1968 the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Kennedy's brother Robert F. Kennedy seemed to confirm suspicions that dark currents of violence underlay many elements in American society.

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