Fifty years ago Thursday, President Lyndon B. Johnson turned on the lights of the National Christmas Tree and proclaimed, "These are the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem." He continued, "Today — as never before — man has in his possession the capacities to end war and preserve peace, to eradicate poverty and share abundance, to overcome the diseases that have afflicted the human race and permit all mankind to enjoy their promise in life on this Earth."
LBJ was by no means alone at that time in predicting such a glorious future. Millions of Americans were anticipating passage of Great Society reforms that he had been promising in his super-successful presidential campaign. The economy, having advanced steadily since 1961, was booming as never before. James Reston, chief political columnist for the New York Times, wrote on Jan. 1, 1965, that the nation was entering an "Era of Good Feelings." Time magazine gushed that America was "on the fringe of a Golden Era." It added that "the classic conflict between parents and children is letting up."
These sentiments make one thing clear: Hindsight is far clearer than foresight. The rosy predictions of peace and societal goodwill came on the eve of the political, social and cultural turbulence — even violence — we now think of as "the Sixties."
The Sixties didn't start in 1960. Rather — as the comments by LBJ, Reston, and others indicate — the years before 1965 were fairly stable. Most Americans in 1964 dressed as they had in the 1950s. Few young people sported beards or long hair. Colleges rigorously enforced parietal rules. Though the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley revealed rising restiveness among the young, the Students for a Democratic Society had only 1,365 paid-up members in December 1964. (The total rose to an estimated 80,000 by 1968.) Though white violence against civil rights advocates during Mississippi's Freedom Summer had angered many people, supporters of racial justice hailed passage of the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act — and of the War on Poverty — and remained committed to nonviolence and interracial cooperation.
Johnson's conviction that the nation was developing its capacity "to end war and preserve peace" seems particularly jarring, in light of both what was happening at the time and what would happen in the months following the speech. The previous August, Johnson had ordered bombing in North Vietnam following the Gulf of Tonkin "crisis," but during his 1964 presidential campaign against Barry Goldwater, he had posed as an apostle of peace. In October, during the heat of that campaign, he promised: "We are not about to send American boys nine or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves." Yet by the end of 1964, the United States had 23,000 "military advisors" in Vietnam, some 6,000 more than had been there at the time of Kennedy's assassination in November 1963.
American liberalism, the driving force behind much of what Johnson touted in his December speech, peaked in early and mid-1965. Driving a heavily Democratic Congress, the president secured a path-breaking Elementary and Secondary Education Act, expansion of the War on Poverty, and Medicare and Medicaid. Congress also approved a powerful Voting Rights Act, an innovative Higher Education Act, and long-awaited reform of America's then-racist immigration system.
But 1965 also brought the start of the tempestuous Sixties. Following a Viet Cong raid on an American base in early February, LBJ authorized round-the-clock bombing (Operation Rolling Thunder) of North Vietnam. A month later, combat Marines landed at Da Nang. At the same time, on Bloody Sunday (March 7), white police and troopers savaged peaceful marchers in Selma, Ala., thereby enraging millions of Americans. In late July, LBJ announced a massive escalation of American forces in Vietnam. In early August, five days after he signed the Voting Rights Act, blacks in Watts erupted in violent protest. Many whites, shocked, began to wonder about civil rights activism. The movement was never the same thereafter.
During the next few months, much of the optimism that had prompted Johnson's grandiloquent remarks in December 1964 began to fade. Political polarization was widening. Black leaders in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were moving toward what became known in 1966 as black power. Antiwar protesters were starting to burn their draft cards. On the right, conservatives launched increasingly vocal attacks on the War on Poverty and on Big Government. Ronald Reagan, very much in the headlines, was readying a successful run for the governorship of California in 1966.
Developments in popular music reflected this more unsettled mood. In June, the Rolling Stones released "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," whose lyrics were more sexually explicit than those of other pop hits of the day. Described by fans as "an anthem for a generation," "Satisfaction" soared to the top of the charts. A month later, Bob Dylan "went electric" at the Newport Folk Festival, thereby hastening a trend toward folk-rock. In September, Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction," a raw and explicitly topical protest song, reached No. 1.
By the end of 1965, 184,000 American troops were stationed in Vietnam, and casualties were mounting. Inflation, much of it caused by the war, was worrying economists. When LBJ turned on the lights of the National Christmas Tree in December, he had nothing uplifting to say. Events in 1965 had launched a series of transformations — many of them rancorous and divisive — that sharpened during the Sixties that followed. Fifty years ago, a new era was arriving.
James T. Patterson is an emeritus professor of history at Brown University and the author of "The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America."