Seeking the Prohibition and Abolition of Nuclear Weapons
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The 1960s has never lost its hold on America, nor has the argument about when the decade actually started. It has primarily been defined by five very tumultuous years–1963 through 1968–because of a number of events–among them, the March on Washington; five political assassinations; the war on poverty, the passage of the Civil Right Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965; America’s formal entry into the Vietnam War under Operation Rolling Thunder; and the long, hot summers during which a number of northern cities were roiled by race riots. McElvaine makes a strong case for compressing the decade into those five years.

McElvaine’s secondary focus is on the twenty-two month period from President Kennedy’s assassination into the autumn of 1965. He calls this period “the Long 1964,” and says it is these twenty-two months that are the 1960s. “The Long 1964" saw the arrival of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Muhammad Ali. Betty Friedan’s best-selling Feminine Mystique,” along with the “Sex and Caste” memo drafted by Mary King and Casey Hayden, inspirted the women’s liberation movement. Freedom Summer, the interracial effort to break racism and segregation in 1964 Mississippi, was the event of the period since it augured the importance of a culture and politics driven by young people.

The decade begin as a hopeful time and brought us the 1960 clash of Vice President Richard Nixon and United States Senator John F. Kennedy’s hard fought presidential campaign. As Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, Nixon represented the old; Kennedy, with his broad smile, charm, and beautiful wife, was youth personified. Both men were born in the twentieth century–Kennedy was the first president to be so–but it was Kennedy who came to symbolize youth and vigor. Both were veterans of World War II and entered Congress at the same time. Their offices were across the hall from each other, and for awhile, their relationship was cordial. But tied as he was to Eisenhower, Nixon was not as free as Kennedy to call for a New Frontier. And it was Kennedy who had the privilege of challenging Americans to send man to the moon and return him safely to earth.

But even after Kennedy’s assassination, America was still hopeful. The beginning of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency was a vigorous one. Under his leadership, America integrated the South, attacked poverty with the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, and fostered the idea that a college education was not available only to the rich. But in the first week of August 1964, two alleged attacks on U. S. naval ships in the Gulf of Tonkin were reported. LBJ asked Congress for the authority to defend U. S. interests in southeast Asia, and that authority was granted with overwhelming support from Congress. According to McElvaine, the 1960s had arrived.

McElvaine posits that this period was really about the clash of freedoms. Black Americans sought freedom from racism and access to the American Dream; women sought freedom from the hard and fast roles to which gender had consigned them; young people sought the freedom to have a good time and enjoy the opportunities that came with an expanding economy and more personal freedom.

But for every pull there is an opposing push back. Millions of Americans rebelled against what they saw as a society that had become too free–too permissive, too inclusive, too dismissive of authority. The chaos in American society was laid at the feet of Democrats, young people, blacks and women demanding their rights, and liberals. Nineteen sixty-eight was the apogee of the decade. It brought Tet, Johnson’s refusal to run for a second term, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, and the election of Richard Nixon as president of the United States.

The Times They Were a-Changin’ is an interesting and fast-paced trip down memory lane of a remarkable year in an even more remarkable decade.