Capturing a Moment

Review of The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America, by James T. Patterson (New York: Basic Books, 2012)

One of my professors recently told me she was beginning to believe the best thing a historian can do is drill down into and fully decipher a particular historical moment. We tend to believe that change is best explained by a cause-and-consequences approach that covers decades or centuries, not weeks or months. But James T. Patterson’s new book, The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America, demonstrates that my professor is onto something. Patterson shares with other commentators the feeling that 1965 was a “pivot” or a “hinge”—“the time when America’s social cohesion began to unravel and when the turbulent phenomenon that would be called ‘the Sixties’ broke into view” (p. xiii).

Despite the collective soul-crushing wrought by JFK’s assassination in 1963, his “eloquent calls for a New Frontier had raised expectations his death could not dim” (p. 2). A confident and stable America faced the start of 1965 armed with bouncy pop music, unprecedented prosperity, and a masterful leader devoted to social change, in the White House. Patterson finds the national mood upbeat as LBJ trounced Barry Goldwater in late 1964, despite growing racial tensions and campus unrest. Nascent conservatism as orated by Ronald Reagan and violence against American “advisers” in Vietnam constituted a gathering storm, but most still believed the president would keep them out of war. It helped that they were distracted by televised sports and Christmas shopping.

At the height of his popularity in early 1965, Johnson aimed to “out-Roosevelt” his idol, FDR, by quickly forcing as many of his Great Society programs as possible through Congress. Eve of Destruction focuses on this “big man in a big hurry.” During the first hundred days of the 1965 congressional session, he pushed legislators to enact Medicare and Medicaid over the objections of American Medical Association conservatives, despite the fact no one knew how much it would cost; and struck a compromise on the issue of federal funding to parochial schools to enact the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which he considered a cornerstone of his War on Poverty.

Meanwhile, on March 7, “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama and on March 8, the landing of American combat troops in Vietnam “[m]ore than any other happenings … pulled the United States into the contentious era that Americans now think of as the Sixties” (p. 66). Why does Patterson find these two the most pivotal dates within the pivotal year of 1965? In the first case, the violent confrontation between white Selma officials and nonviolent civil rights protestors attempting to march to the state capitol gained national media attention and galvanized Johnson’s push for a meaningful voting rights act. This had been precisely the intent of Martin Luther King, Jr., who had lobbying Johnson for support for a voting rights act. The president shrewdly played his cards by embracing the swelling public mood.

As we know, the results of Johnson’s Vietnam escalation have a far less favorable legacy. The “fork in the road” identified in a February memo to Johnson from hawkish advisors indicated two highly unfavorable options: looking soft on communism or sending Americans to die. Patterson emphasizes the feasibility of Johnson’s political survival had he chosen to walk away from supporting South Vietnam, making his decisions appear that much more fateful. Antiwar sentiment grew through April, with student groups leading the largest-ever American peace protest in Washington, D.C. Critics accused Johnson of opening a “credibility gap” with his heavy-handed suppression of a suspected Castro-led rebellion in the Dominican Republic; he accused his young detractors of having been born too late to understand the menace of communism, but soon even the conservative media outlets that had supported Johnson’s Vietnam policy came to suspect that he was hiding the extent of the “escalating nastiness of the fighting taking place on the ground” (p. 107).

General William Westmoreland delivered a bombshell from Saigon: he needed to more than double American troop levels to 175,000 to prevent the collapse of South Vietnam. Some members of Congress and the American intelligentsia, notably poet Robert Lowell and journalist John Hersey, began to agitate more loudly against the war. Johnson grew tense and bristly, at one point saying, “I can’t trust anybody anymore. … I’m going to get rid of everyone who doesn’t agree with my policies” (p. 166). At the end of July, the president finally came clean to the American public about his intention to escalate the ground war.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s War on Poverty created more and more doubters as its disparate programs failed to meet their ill-conceived objectives. Aimed at increasing economic opportunity rather than providing relief, and hoping for “maximum feasible participation” from the poor themselves in crafting solutions to poverty, the programs inspired conservatives to grouse against handouts and liberals to complain about red tape and mismanaged funds. As Patterson concludes, “the spread of social programs in the Johnson years, stimulating ever grander popular expectations, had the unintended consequence of intensifying the demands of a host of rights-conscious interest groups in America” (p. 117).

Popular music took a turn for the gritty when the Rolling Stones released “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in June, and Bob Dylan in July brought his similarly gruff single, “Like a Rolling Stone,” to the Newport Jazz Festival with a full electric back-up band. To Patterson, “powerful forces unsettling Americans at the time—notably racial tensions and popular fears associated with the Vietnam War—help to explain the increasing popularity of loud and often harsh music such as that of the Stones and Dylan” (p. 147). Concurrently, passage of the Voting Rights Act and the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid, as well as a Supreme Court ruling striking down anti-contraception laws, indicated that the times were indeed a-changin’.

In early August, a race riot in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles compounded the Vietnam violence, with television news outlets bringing ever-more-graphic footage from both events into American homes. A distraught Johnson first blamed a communist conspiracy and then moderated his agenda on race, distancing himself from Moynihan’s call for national action and turning his attention to an anticrime act rendered suddenly more salient.

In September, a hit single written by a 19-year-old Dylan fan and performed by Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction,” seemed to capture the national mood. Its lyrics, “accompanied by sounds of bombs going off, were bitter, blunt, and devastatingly bleak about contemporary events, predicting that all manner of terrible developments—war in Vietnam, racial tensions, nuclear weapons—were propelling the United States (and “the whole crazy world”) toward the apocalypse” (pp. 193-94). Still the president pursued his liberal legislative agenda, rounding out the year with immigration reform, creation of Housing and Urban Development, and establishment of National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities.

Patterson demonstrates how the characteristics of the radical 1960s—culture wars, urban disorders, and the quagmire of the Vietnam War—fully germinated in 1965 and flourished in the years after, spilling over into the seventies. The book is crisp and even-handed, and particularly strong on Johnson’s leadership style and personal struggles. And Johnson proved to be prescient, in the long view, when he perceived a greater threat from rising national political polarization than from student protesters. “Don’t pay attention to what those little shits on the campuses do,” he told an associate. “The great beast is the reactionary elements in the country. Those are the people that we have to fear” (p. 195).

Two pervasive themes are how McCarthyism still lurked over domestic politics, and how implications of “appeasement,” so many years after Munich, still motivated leaders to adopt an overly tough international stance. Patterson shows clearly how the Vietnam escalation complicated race issues, and how liberal efforts to improve race equality through “economic opportunity” failed to solve problems for black Americans. Unfortunately, he does not fully exploit the ample cultural history on the sixties, using examples of popular culture more as signposts than as explanatory texts. Still, the main argument succeeds unequivocally and the book is a pleasure to read.