It was 1965. Lyndon Johnson was the president. The economy was booming. The Beatles were mophaired, loveable and probably unaware of what the word “psychedelic” meant. The famous march over the bridge in Selma would soon provide a dramatic breakthrough in attempts to integrate the South. Prospects for our country and our society never looked better. And yet...
In his new book The Eve of Destruction, retired Brown history professor and author James T. Patterson offers the interesting hypothesis that it was 1965, not late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when everything began to implode. And armed with the benefit of hindsight, Patterson carefully points out the missed signals and unappreciated trend lines that should have forewarned us of the societal transformation that was about to begin.
In an informal book signing and discussion on the East Side with the Providence Rotary Book Club, Professor Patterson explained the rationale behind the book. He started by recalling the overwrought comments made by President Johnson as he lit the White House Christmas tree in 1964: “These are the most hopeful times in all the years since the birth of Christ in Bethlehem.” Hyperbole of course, yet perceived as credible. Buoyed by his landslide victory just a few weeks before, the President promised a country about to embark on “an unprecedented decade of American growth.”
But he had reason to be confident, suggests the author. The early ‘60s were a period when our society was as egalitarian economically as it ever would be. Our middle class was booming, in part by our general prosperity, in part by the wage gains achieved by blue-collar union workers, in part by a tax rate of over 70% on our highest wage earners. In fact, Patterson pointed out, the gap between the relative wages of the lowest and highest paid employees of a corporation were as low in 1964 as they ever would be. And despite the tragic assassination of John F. Kennedy just one year before, Johnson’s commitment to honor his predecessor’s legacy by creating a “Great Society” in his honor was enthusiastically embraced by the vast majority of the country. Additionally the very first class of baby boomers, that huge population bulge that was to shape our society for decades, was just entering their first year of college.
Yet Patterson suggests, though the signs went unrecognized, everything began to erode in 1965. Take civil rights. After the initial flush of success that accompanied the successful march across the bridge in Selma, just a few months later, amidst the heat of mid-August, the violent riots in Watts put an end to the hope that a commitment to non-violence and an omnibus of grand social programs would be enough to provide quick and meaningful solutions to inequality, “Burn Baby Burn” soon replaced “We Shall Overcome” as the anthem of the impoverished ghetto areas of the North. While his commitment to liberalism and black empowerment remained unwavering, the President was soon forced to ratchet down his goals – substituting amorphous alternatives like the “War on Crime” for example – until, as Daniel Moynihan, his chief architect for these policies noted, “the moment had been lost.”
The year 1965 marked arguably the broadest passage of liberal social policies in the country’s history, rivaling even the first hundred days of President Roosevelt. As a political arm twister, there has never been anyone quite like President Johnson, Patterson observes. The problem was that as good as his intentions may have been, the implementation of the programs was flawed. And with the drain of Vietnam soon to come, it wasn’t long before the grand vision clouded over. Some programs were unqualified successes – Medicare, the Voting Rights Act, Head Start for example – others, like the War on Poverty or the Office of Economic Opportunity, went up in puffs of meaningless verbiage, and as society became increasingly disillusioned with its political leaders, the grand polarization of our country took hold.
Nothing of course did more to create this great divide than the Vietnam War. As part of his exhaustive look at 1965, Professor Patterson, ever the conscientious researcher, went through every edition of The New York Times, Newsweek and Time to document the daily and weekly perception of events. He puts these events in perspective as he categorizes the underestimations, the oversimplifications and the downright untruths. By his standards, Patterson feels Johnson was not a hawk committed to save the world from communism. In fact, at first he wanted to end the war as quickly as possible because he rightly saw it as a drain on the precious resources necessary for him to continue his beloved domestic agendas. But in 1965, the overwhelming majority of the country was fully in support of our intervention and Johnson was locked in despite himself, determined “not to be the first President to lose a war.”
As an interesting overlay, Patterson also offers an overview of the changes taking place in music, the lingua franca of the ‘60s generation. It was more than ironic that a song by the “other” British band, the Rolling Stones, called “Can’t Get No Satisfaction” was one of the best sellers of ‘65. Again with a historian’s eye and attention to detail, he chronicles the parallel evolution of the songs that helped fuel the impending revolution.
A New Englander by birth, Patterson actually began his career as a journalist, working for several years at the Hartford Courant, before entering academia at the University of Indiana. He taught for over three decades at Brown with half a dozen well-received books to his credit. His thesis is certainly a provocative one. And his books should appeal both to those who lived through this turbulent period of our history, as well as those who didn’t but wonder where the roots of the current bi-polarity of our society first took hold. While the answer to that question may be elusive, reading Patterson’s The Eve of Destruction certainly provides an interesting place to start.