The 1960s was the most explosive decade of the 20th century, including the Civil Rights Movement, urban riots, protests, cultural revolution, Vietnam War, Space Race, and four political assassinations: John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. One charismatic president was lost, only to be replaced by a seemingly conservative Hill Country Texan who waged an all-out war on racism and poverty. John Kennedy’s death in November 1963 brought an end to the “the Fifties,” as any pretense of a unified country came unraveled. Idealism flourished and frustration boiled to the surface in a rare historical window when Americans of all races and political creeds, liberal and conservative, shared an assumption that they could change things through action, be it peaceful or violent. We saw earlier how the seeds of social change took root in the supposedly placid 1950s. Even so, by the early 1970s the 50’s seemed like a bygone era, far more different than the 1990s or early 00’s would seem to us today. Americans didn’t agree on much, but they would’ve agreed on that. Generation gaps of 18-25 years were wider than the 25-40 years separating many parents and children today. In 1965, The Who sang, “I hope I die before I get old” and wished their elders “would just fade away.” Today Millenials text their parents ten times a week.
No chapter or even a thick book could fully explain the cleavages of the 1960s, but we’ll do our best to make some sense of the turbulence and show how it shaped the political alignment and culture wars of today. Among other things, the decade saw a dramatic expansion and transformation in American notions of democracy, citizenship, the role of popular culture, and the importance of youth. The young have been trendsetters since the 1960s and the main entrepreneurial spark for retail and high-tech. Even as we reinvent paradigms (e.g. identity politics, frontier libertarianism, urban hipster) we remain in the “long shadow” of 1960’s, just as we’re still in the global balance of power wrought by World War II. We’ll cover civil rights and Vietnam in separate chapters since they are topics unto themselves and sprawl across multiple decades, while here we undertake a brief survey of the decade’s political and cultural framework.
While “the Sixties” didn’t fully kick off until around 1964, culturally speaking, John Kennedy’s administration (1961-63) dealt with many decade-defining issues, like civil rights, the Space Race, and Vietnam. Kennedy, also known as JFK or Jack, was a young congressman from Massachusetts who became president in 1961 and whose dramatic handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 we looked at two chapters ago. John’s father, Joseph, was a Wall Street tycoon-Hollywood mogul-diplomat who had presidential aspirations himself as ambassador to Britain, and who groomed his sons to be politicians. His wealth freed his kids from working so that they could focus on public service. But Joseph, Jr. died in WWII when his bomber exploded over England, leaving John, Robert, and Ted to try to fulfill that dream. John served heroically in WWII, helping to rescue his men after a Japanese destroyer T-boned the Patrol Torpedo (PT) boat he commanded in the pitch black, three miles off the coast in the Solomon Islands.
While Kennedy had a privileged background, he fought through medical problems that made war duty, campaign travel, and day-to-day life nearly as taxing as they had been for Franklin Roosevelt. He suffered from bad digestion (colitis), malaria he’d picked up in the war, and Addison’s Disease, a chronic illness affecting the adrenal gland. The steroid hydrocortisone treatment for Addison’s degenerated bones in Kennedy’s lower back. He was in near constant pain, struggled to go up or down stairs, and barely slept at night because of his daily regimen of prescription drugs. With his prognosis for a long, healthy life diminished, he went for broke and ran for president at 43.
With his younger brother Robert (Bobby) handling many of the custodial chores, JFK fought through a contentious and dirty Democratic primary with Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Lyndon Johnson of Texas to become the nominee. Kennedy’s associates unjustly accused Humphrey of dodging the draft in WWII, then Kennedy spoke at every turn about how much he disapproved of charging Humphrey with draft dodging, reinforcing the idea all the more (a time-honored political trick). Johnson, meanwhile, belittled Kennedy’s illnesses, wondering aloud if Kennedy’s “pediatrician” (children’s doctor) would authorize him to serve as president.
In the 1960 general election, Dwight Eisenhower’s VP Richard Nixon (R) of California ran against Kennedy (D). The two had much in common. They were both dedicated cold warriors who’d served in WWII, and both distrusted the more liberal tendencies of New Deal politicians. Nixon, too, battled health problems, in his case phlebitis that interrupted blood flow in his legs and threatened to send a clot shard to his lungs. The most controversial thing about Kennedy, other than his age, was his Catholicism. He was just the second Catholic candidate in American history, and the first, Al Smith in the 1920s, hadn’t done well partly for that very reason. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. endorsed Nixon at first because he couldn’t support a Catholic in good conscience.
Kennedy was hesitant to get too far ahead of the game on civil rights. After a meeting with Alabama’s segregationist governor, John Patterson, Patterson assured reporters that Kennedy was “a friend of the South.” While Kennedy spoke out of both sides of mouth on race depending on the audience, he eventually went on record as supporting King and his wife, Coretta Scott, when they were jailed in Alabama. King swung his support to Kennedy, though ex-baseball player/civil rights activist Jackie Robinson stuck with Nixon. In the meantime, JFK stressed religious freedom and his independence from the Catholic Church so much that he alienated the Vatican, the Seat of the Church in Rome. The Church argued in editorials that, contrary to what Kennedy was saying, Catholics were indeed beholden to their ideals in public or political life.
Among Nixon’s problems were his lack of charisma in comparison to Kennedy and lack of support from Eisenhower, who never cared much for his two-term vice-president. After hearing Kennedy give his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, Nixon thought he could beat his friend in a debate, and they agreed to four. A theory developed that when they faced off on television in the first ever presidential debate, most viewers thought Kennedy won but listeners who heard the same debate on the radio thought Nixon had won. While there’s no solid evidence to support that, the debate was a harbinger of things to come in politics. Just as politicians had to master the radio earlier, so too they had to be at least reasonably telegenic after the 1950s. Kennedy was coached on camera angles and his dark blue set contrasted well with the gray background. Depending on the venue, Nixon was either uncomfortable under the bright television lights, recovering from the flu, shifting around when standing on a wounded knee, or refusing to shave his “five o’clock shadow,” his lighter-colored suit blending in with the backdrop. When he finally agreed to make-up, it ran under the bright lights. Nixon’s problems varied in the early debates, but the bottom line is that JFK was better looking. Playing on fears of an atomic war, Kennedy cynically lied about a “missile gap” that had developed in the USSR’s favor during Ike’s administration even though the U.S. had a huge advantage in the arms race by 1960. Kennedy wisely spent as much time campaigning against the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev as Nixon, projecting himself as the future leader.
Ultimately, JFK defeated Nixon in a razor-tight race as measured by popular vote (one-quarter of one percent). Protestant Democrats didn’t turn out in good numbers for Kennedy, but his endorsement of Martin Luther King paid dividends among black voters. Rumors swirled that Kennedy’s father used his connections to help secure victory in Illinois and that his VP candidate Lyndon B. Johnson made sure the duo won Texas. Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana — who shared with JFK mutual acquaintances in singer/actor Frank Sinatra and Judy Campbell Exner — bragged of having stuffed the ballot box on Kennedy’s behalf in key precincts. The Mafia’s Chicago Outfit controlled many unions and, if this theory holds, Kennedy likely enlisted Sinatra to help him secure organized labor. As for Lyndon Johnson, his elections in Texas purportedly involved thousands of dead people rising from their graves to vote for him.
Democrats put the conservative, Protestant Texan on the ballot to balance off the Catholic New Englander JFK, forming what they called the “Austin-Boston connection.” Campaign manager Bobby Kennedy counted up the potential electoral votes after John’s nomination and surmised that they needed Texas to win. While Kennedy and Johnson disliked one another as much as Eisenhower and Nixon, the marriage of convenience served its purpose. Meanwhile, after his presidential loss and another in the 1962 California gubernatorial race to Pat Brown, father of 2x future California Governor Jerry Brown, Nixon resigned from politics, famously and un-prophetically saying, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, gentlemen, because this is my last press conference.” We’ll see below that he wasn’t through yet. As for Kennedy, he inspired the nation during his abbreviated thousand-day presidential term, signaling a changing-of-the-guard as the first president born in the 20th century. The youngest president up until that point (43) replaced the oldest up until that point in Eisenhower (70).
People “liked Ike” (Eisenhower) as the popular phrase went, but JFK and his sophisticated wife Jacqueline brought a youthful change of pace to Washington politics. The Kennedys were rich but they wore their wealth lightly, and they symbolized the American Dream insofar as John was only three generations removed from the poverty of the Irish Potato Famine. Rather than hiding their wealth, they managed to sell their prestige and glamour. They invited intellectuals, scientists, and artists to dinner at the White House that Jacqueline redecorated. JFK embraced press conferences, arguing and joking with the press. There hadn’t been kids in the White House since anyone could remember. To Jacqueline’s chagrin, John capitalized by opening up the family to coverage in popular magazines.
Kennedy’s New Frontier agenda was dedicated to winning the Space Race against the Soviets, especially given the importance of long-range missiles to the arms race. The race began under President Eisenhower in the 1950s, as we saw in previous chapters. The Soviets got off to a quicker start, both in satellites and unmanned Moon shots. While details of the Soviet launches weren’t commonly known among Americans, Nikita Khrushchev humiliated Ike by giving him a model of the Luna 2 during his 1959 visit to the U.S. — the first man-made craft to land on the Moon.
Kennedy invigorated NASA, with spending increasing from 0.5% to 4.5% of the federal budget (today it’s back around 0.5%). He boldly claimed that the U.S. would land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. The forecast seemed preposterous to some because the U.S. had barely even put a man in the stratosphere at that point, let alone a man in orbit, let alone shooting people all the way to the Moon and back. For many, JFK’s promise seemed the stuff of science fiction. But in 1961, Alan Shepard made it into space and the following year John Glenn orbited the Earth. Ike’s investment in NASA and JFK’s support was starting to pay off. Kennedy was also willing to use space research to better Soviet relations, similar to the Atoms-for-Peace plan Ike had for nuclear power. Kennedy suggested merging the American and Soviet space programs, but Khrushchev rejected the offer because he thought it would jeopardize security. The countries later ran a joint project in 1973 called Skylab.
Government spending on space and weapons boosted the economy and JFK lowered taxes some in 1963, with the top bracket dropping from 91% to 77%. As mentioned, he was ambiguous at first on civil rights, keeping a safe distance from Martin Luther King in order to not alienate southern Democrats, but pushed harder than his predecessor, Eisenhower. That was noteworthy because, as a senator, JFK had voted against Ike’s 1957 Civil Rights Act. Like Eisenhower at Little Rock, Kennedy sent troops into the South, in his case to integrate Ole’ Miss University in 1962 and the University of Alabama in ’63. He was a gradualist who helped lay the foundation for the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964, but he opposed making voting rights part of the law because he thought that would sink the bill. In the last year of his life, he said, “we face a moral crisis…it is time to act.” Kennedy also reintroduced food stamps, increased unemployment insurance, and expanded school lunches and support for mental health.
Equal Pay Act
JFK signed Congress’s Equal Pay Act outlawing sex discrimination in pay for equal work. Researchers continue to disagree on the extent of the pay gap, but there’s no mistaking that there have been huge strides over the last half-century. Not all politicians embrace full pay equality for equal tasks, though, at least as a legal guarantee. As State Senator Glenn Grothman (R) explained when Wisconsin repealed similar state legislation in 2012, money isn’t as important to women so they don’t need as much. Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker (R) thought enforcing the law could “clog up the courts.” Nonetheless, most Americans of all political orientations likely believe that women and men should receive the same pay for the same work. Do they?
As of 2013, female pay was 77% of male according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (and President Obama) for all full-time work defined as 35+ hours; 84% according to the Pew Research Center; 87% if we measure BLS stats for 40-hour weeks only (excising the confusing 35-40 hr. category). However, among many factors, women are more likely to take years off to have and care for children, giving them less seniority when they return to work. Moreover, University of Texas business professor Emily Amanatullah devised an experiment showing that women are less likely to negotiate pay raises. More so than the old school attitude expressed by Senator Grothman, these two factors probably explain why the gap starts off minimal, then widens later in peoples’ careers. Most importantly, for the purpose of measuring the overall gender pay gap, women as a group don’t concentrate in the same professions as men, though many professions are equal or overlap. It’s important to measure across the same jobs because men work more dangerous jobs (538 stats) such as fishing, lumber, heavy construction, and oil drilling, that tend to pay more for that reason. “Apples-to-oranges” comparisons of all jobs don’t tell us much about discrimination unless one broadens one’s definition of discrimination to include lack of women in certain jobs, at which point the researcher has to untangle male discrimination from female choice and strength requirements. Whatever the reason, women work so few of these dangerous jobs, proportionally, that their leading cause of on-the-job death is homicide.
What about an “apples-to-apples” comparison of the same jobs, adjusting for age/seniority, race, education, and hours (subtracting maternity leave)? In 2009, the U.S. Department of Labor conducted a study of fifty research papers and concluded that the adjusted gap was closer to 5-7%. According to a 2014 study by Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, women today average around 71% of male wages for the same jobs in medicine, 66% in finance, and 82% in law. Goldin thinks some of the gap is due to men being either more willing or free to work the odd or long hours these jobs demand. Getting partner in a law firm, for instance, can require years of 80-hour workweeks impossible for mothers without stay-at-home husbands. Outside of these high-paying professions, however, the gap narrows. In this 2007 Stanford study, economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Katz argue that across all professions for the same work, women averaged 91% of male pay. Goldin and Katz discuss wage gap dynamics in this 2010 Freakonomics interview. For similar work, the gap is slowly but surely narrowing in the early 21st century and, among young millennials, women might be doing even better than men. In this 2015 Huffington Post article entitled “Wage Gap Myth Exposed,” the American Association of University Women (AAUW) rejects the commonly used 77% Bureau of Labor Statistics figure and agrees with the Department of Labor, claiming the across-the-board adjusted gap has narrowed to 93%. Additionally, while they don’t doubt the existence of old-fashioned sexism, they question how much of the remaining 7% is actually due to discrimination.
The 1963 Equal Pay Act coincided with the publication of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, a book often credited with kicking off the biggest wave of feminist activism since the Suffragist movement nearly a half-century earlier. For Friedan, advertisers created the mystique of the idealized housewife who should be content with what she has and shouldn’t covet a career where she could use her mind or other talents. While many women were happy as housewives, Friedan spoke for others who felt thwarted or bored and consequently suffered from the depression or guilt she called “the problem with no name.” Activists like NOW pressed for change and, over the next couple of decades, women won the right to sit on juries in all 50 states, serve in the military on mostly equal terms, and establish credit without relying on a male relative. Additionally, Title IX ensured that girls and women could play high school and college sports, domestic violence shelters were established, and every state outlawed marital rape.
Meanwhile, Kennedy’s younger brother Robert Kennedy served as his Attorney General, cracking down on organized crime and, eventually, pushing for civil rights reform. The Mafia resented the younger Kennedys’ righteousness about organized crime after their father Joseph, Sr. had skirted around the edges of the law. First Lady Jacqueline thought historians, whom she called “bitter old men,” would consider her husband a failure because he couldn’t push anything substantive past the “Old Guard” of Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans in Congress. I can only speak for one bitter middle-aged man, but JFK seemed to be getting his sea legs under him just as an assassin’s bullet ended his life in Dallas in 1963.
Jacqueline Kennedy had never accompanied JFK on a domestic political trip, but the two had grown closer in the previous year after they lost their third child, Patrick, in infancy to respiratory distress syndrome, and he wanted her along in Texas. Kennedy was in Texas because, like 1960, it was a critical swing state in the upcoming 1964 election and he’d already been in Florida the previous week. He’d supported a fundamental civil rights act that would outlaw segregation and discrimination, but he needed at least two southern states to win reelection. They asked conservative Texas Governor John Connally (D) to accompany them for that very reason and also had VP Lyndon Johnson come along. As Robert pragmatically told John: “that’s why we put the sonovabitch on the ticket in the first place.” JFK was scheduled to speak at Palmer Auditorium in Austin the night of his death.
The administration’s liberal causes had already caused U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson and VP Lyndon Johnson to be physically assaulted in Dallas, and the hate mail regarding JFK’s upcoming trip kept the Dallas police and Secret Service busy in preparation. The culprit this time, though, wasn’t connected to the sort of reactionary organizations the authorities feared, and the sniper found a convenient nest from his own workplace rather than the numerous overpasses, rooftops, and bridges the Secret Service secured as the presidential motorcade wound its way through the city on its way from Love Field to the Trade Mart, where JFK was scheduled to speak. In an instant, on November 22nd, Jacqueline lost her husband, home, and job in the first of the decade’s four political assassinations.
The culprit, Lee Harvey Oswald, was a former Marine sharpshooter who defected to the USSR before returning to the U.S. with his Russian wife. On the right, he’s pictured in one of the “backyard shots” with Marxist newspapers. He shot Kennedy with a mail-ordered Italian infantry rifle from the 6th-floor window in the Texas School Book Depository as the limo wound its way through Dealey Plaza, blowing part of Kennedy’s brain out through the right side of his skull. Another ex-Marine marksman, Thomas Arthur Vallee, had taken a job in Chicago that gave him a similar vantage point to kill Kennedy, but the Secret Service canceled the motorcade there earlier in November when tipped off by Chicago police. While the shot in Dallas responsible for the fatal blow came from behind Kennedy (the depository), the way the president’s head recoiled gave some people the impression that a second gunman fired another shot from the “grassy knoll” in front of him. Indeed, the 1976-78 House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations argued just that based on acoustic evidence. Yet subsequent forensic evidence suggests that all three shots came from Oswald, or at least from the book depository. An experienced marksman like Oswald could fire off the bolt-action rifle shots in the allotted time — though conspiracy theorists argue he was a mediocre shot — and there’s scant evidence of any bullets fired from in front of Kennedy. One witness, Lee Bowers, claimed to see a gunman or gunmen behind a fence on the grassy knoll and smoke and a muzzle flash, but his account was vague.
Oswald’s first shot from the depository missed (possibly glancing off the stoplight that was directly between him and the motorcade), the second passed through Kennedy’s neck and then through the back and wrist of Governor Connally, who was seated in front, lodging in Connally’s leg (he survived). Oswald’s wife, Marina, testified that they liked the Kennedys and that Connally was the intended target because he refused to upgrade Lee Harvey’s general discharge to honorable, which incurred a better pension. If that’s the case, he missed again. The third bullet hit Kennedy in the back of his head. Complicating investigations further and fueling conspiratorial fires, the Secret Service pushed the normal coroners out of the way and performed what critics charge was a sloppy autopsy at the Bethesda Naval Hospital back in Maryland.
Dressmaker Abraham Zapruder captured it all with a Bell & Howell Zoomatic, though the full 8mm film wasn’t shown on TV until 1975 because of its graphic nature (LIFE published still frames in the 1960s, minus the most graphic Frame 313). Unlike most spectators, who jumped or hit the ground when the shots rang out, Zapruder held the camera steady. The Secret Service sometimes put a bulletproof glass bubble over the president’s black Lincoln convertible, but it was a beautiful day and it wasn’t attached this time.
The police questioned Oswald in the lunchroom of the depository, but another employee vouched for him. He then fled the scene and killed a policeman before being caught in a movie theater. The gun prints were smeared, but they found his prints on the paper bag he used to smuggle the rifle into work. When the public learned that Oswald had lived in Russia, they suspected at first that the killing could escalate into a bigger Cold War conflict. It was just a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In the 1990s, declassified CIA documents revealed that Oswald met with Cuban and Soviet agents in Mexico City weeks prior to the assassination attempting to obtain a visa. The CIA had Oswald under surveillance. According to the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Thomas Mann, Secretary of State Dean Rusk instructed him to squelch any investigation. It’s possible that the CIA didn’t want investigators poking around because they didn’t want them stumbling across incidental information related to their own anti-Castro campaign operating out of Mexico (previous chapter). Oswald didn’t get his job at the Texas School Book Depository until after he returned from Mexico and the parade route wasn’t revealed until days before Kennedy’s visit.
Then days after the assassination, local strip club owner and one-time Al Capone errand boy Jack Ruby killed Oswald as they moved him from the Dallas jail to the courthouse, sparking conspiracy rumors in other directions that continue to this day. For one to argue that Oswald acted alone, he or she more or less has to argue that, by extension, Ruby also acted alone (strictly speaking, the two things aren’t mutually exclusive). That latter case is more difficult to make than the former. Ruby knew New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello, who hated the Kennedys for deporting him to Guatemala. According to this Mafia conspiracy theory, Ruby had been skimming Marcello and Marcello gave Ruby a choice between killing Oswald or being killed. Oswald was born and raised in New Orleans and his uncle worked as Marcello’s bookie. At first, Ruby said he killed Oswald out of patriotic duty and to spare Jacqueline the stress of having to return to Texas for the trial. But his first visitor in jail was capo Joseph Campisi and Ruby dined at Campisi’s restaurant the night before the assassination. For skeptics, Campisi’s visit was so blatant that, if anything, it disproves a Mafia conspiracy; otherwise, why would they make it so obvious? On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a thug like Ruby being genuinely upset about JFK’s death, let alone concerning himself with Jackie’s emotional state. The House Select Committee determined that Ruby’s killing of Oswald had the earmarks of a “mob hit.” Chief Counsel to the Committee, G. Robert Blakey, said mob bosses in Chicago, Tampa, Las Vegas/Los Angeles, and New Orleans (Marcello) feared that RFK and JFK would put them out of business. Marcello purportedly said, “it made more sense to go after the head of the dog (JFK) than the tail (RFK).” In 1985, he told an FBI informant and cellmate in a Texarkana prison that he “killed the little bastard (JFK)…he was a thorn in my shoe.” Before he died of lung cancer in prison in 1967, Ruby said the world would never know his true motives, which taken at face value contradicts his earlier statements. He asked to be taken to Washington, D.C. where he’d be safe so that he could reveal the truth, but wardens denied his request.
Kennedy’s assassination is an excellent demonstration of how wary we should be toward conspiracy theories, which in this case point at various parties, including the Mafia, pro-Castro Cubans, Soviet KGB, and Lyndon Johnson, with some versions accusing the CIA and FBI as either being complicit or at least enabling cover-ups. For their part, the CIA withheld key documents concerning their relationship with Oswald during the initial Warren Committee investigation in 1963-64 and the House Select Committee investigation in 1976-78. The Warren Commission never saw the wiretap recordings or photos of Oswald in Mexico City, for instance, or interviewed anyone familiar with his movements there. In a 1972 documentary, Earl Warren said Lyndon Johnson didn’t want anything about the Mexico City story kickstarting a nuclear war because of Oswald’s perceived connections to Fidel Castro or Nikita Khrushchev (PBS Frontline).
Oswald was a member of the New Orleans chapter of a pro-Castro group. The mugshot on the left was taken after his arrest at a pro-Castro rally. Kennedy continued (via the CIA) with Eisenhower’s plan to use the Mafia to kill Fidel Castro (Operation Mongoose, Chapter 14). Yet anti-Castro elements, including some in the Mafia, were also angry with Kennedy for having agreed to leave the dictator in power after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Castro himself denied any involvement, saying that he preferred Kennedy to Johnson. As mentioned, American mobsters were angry with Bobby Kennedy to start with and, by extension, John seemed ungrateful for their help in Cuba. For proponents of the Mafia theory, they killed John to get rid of Bobby as Attorney General or out of vengeance toward both (Marcello’s head and tail).
Another line of conjecture pointed the finger at Lyndon Johnson, who was ambitious and bored to the point of depression with the vice-presidency. He and Kennedy didn’t get along and Bobby Kennedy always suspected Johnson, who had the obvious motive of ascending to the White House. There’s no compelling evidence, though, that Johnson ordered the killing. Of the main theories, including those pointing to the Mafia and Soviets/Cubans, this is the weakest. Nonetheless, director Oliver Stone ran with that theory in his 1991 movie JFK, a semi-fictional spin told through the eyes of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. Martin Luther King’s son Dexter Scott implied the same in 1999 about the government’s involvement in his father’s killing. Likewise, there’s no compelling evidence to suggest anything of the sort besides the testimony of James Earl Ray, who shot King. Stone later said that he was mixed up about some of the evidence when he made the movie.
The problem with unraveling the Kennedy assassination isn’t that conspiracies don’t actually exist, or that this particular batch sound bad. The problem here is how compelling various freestanding theories can sound in isolation. If we know most of them are wrong since they conflict with each other, then collectively they show how right wrong theories can sound. Also, be wary of magnitude: the larger the web of supposed conspirators, the more unlikely it would be for everyone to keep the secret for long, to say nothing of pulling it off in the first place. Think of how much fame and fortune would accrue to whoever spilled the beans in a tell-all book and could back it up. Finally, be wary of equating motive with a crime in this and all other conspiracy theories (e.g. the Truth Movement positing that George W. Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks, or FDR having foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack, or NASA faking the Moon landings). To ask who profits from something (or Latin cui bono) is natural enough, but it’s insufficient. Johnson wanting Kennedy dead, if true, would not mean he was behind the assassination by any stretch, and the same is true of Castro, the Mafia, etc. It’s possible that, like Leon Czolgosz, who killed William McKinley in 1901, Oswald was just a frustrated social outcast who acted alone. Respected presidential historian Robert Dallek said, “The best book on this subject is by a man named Gerald Posner called Case Closed. I think he has responded very effectively to all the conspiracy theories, and there are many of them.” Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (2007) slams the door shut even further on the many theories, at least for those inclined to take Ruby at his initial word and with time enough to tackle the 1650-page tome.
Those interested in the Kennedy tragedy, its media coverage, and theories as to what happened should visit the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas. As of 2015, roughly 30% of Americans thought that Oswald acted alone and that Ruby acted alone in killing Oswald. With most of the principal actors dead, we may never know the full story behind JFK’s death, but Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) was sworn in as the new president on Air Force One as he and Jacqueline made their way from Dallas to Washington. Our story picks up from there.
The 1964 Presidential election came at a tumultuous time, with the country still in shock over Kennedy’s assassination and looking as though it would have to escalate militarily to stem communism in South Vietnam. In June, Klansmen and police in Neshoba County, Mississippi murdered three civil rights workers as the pressure mounted to grant minorities full citizenship. Meanwhile, the British Invasion led by the Beatles and Rolling Stones reinvented Rock-n-Roll as a cultural revolution unfolded against traditional values.
Lyndon Johnson (D) was president for a year after JFK’s assassination before running against Arizona Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, or AuH20 as bumper stickers called him for those familiar with the periodic table. Many politicians seem plastic or insincere as they fake smile to crowds and waffle around on issues to suit whatever they think voters want. Similar to Democrats in the post-Reagan era, most Republicans in the post-FDR era were “me too” insofar as they didn’t dare take on the New Deal. Barry Goldwater, by contrast, was a straight shooter with independent convictions who didn’t suffer fools kindly.
Domestically, Goldwater strayed from many other Republicans by voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed racial discrimination in public places, and he didn’t support national intervention forcing states to allow minorities to vote. Goldwater wasn’t really a racist himself; he’d integrated the Guard in Arizona and hired Blacks to work in his own department store. But he opposed using the national government to protect minorities’ civil rights, earning him the devotion of racists, North and South. And he wasn’t above courting the racist vote: “We’re not going to get the Negro vote in 1964 or ’68 [so] let’s go hunting where the ducks are.” By ducks, he meant disaffected white Southerners peeling away from the Democrats. It wasn’t inevitable that the party of Abraham Lincoln would swing in this direction. As late as 1960, Goldwater promised progressive Republican New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller (John D.’s grandson) that he’d work with him and Eisenhower to remove the last vestiges of racism, segregation, and discrimination. And, as we’ll see below, the civil rights legislation to come resulted from a coalition of progressive Democrats and moderate Republicans. However, other more conservative Republicans were gravitating toward journalist William F. Buckley, Jr., whose National Review combined free market economics with a small-government ethos unsympathetic toward the cause of minority citizenship.
During the GOP’s 1964 convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Goldwater supporters booed the moderate Rockefeller when he called the Republicans a party of inclusion. They harassed African-American Rockefeller delegates, including Jackie Robinson. A century after the Civil War, Lincoln’s party was taking a backseat to the party of the Confederacy on race. Historian/journalist Tim Stanley wrote that, for Goldwater supporters who resisted taxation and services for the poor, “their grievances often carried a racial subtext.” Historian/journalist Rick Perlstein wrote that, by 1964, liberals and conservatives were at each other’s throats over the issue of freedom, but they didn’t agree on the what freedom meant. For liberals, freedom meant citizenship for all Americans; for conservatives, it meant not using the government to protect the citizenship of all Americans. Lyndon Johnson arrived at the former position by arguing “There is no issue of states’ rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.” Arriving at the latter position purportedly involved not racism, but moral courage. Just as Buckley had the “guts to tell the truth” in the NYC mayoral race on the upper left, Goldwater’s campaigners told voters “in your heart you know he’s right.”
After he won the nomination, Barry Goldwater didn’t make the usual move toward the center to win the general election. Instead, he stuck to his conservative convictions, probably realizing all along that he’d lose. That had two impacts. First, he not only got crushed in the presidential election, but Democrats swept to power in the House and Senate, leading to the most liberal era in American history. Second, he emboldened a strong grass-roots movement among young conservatives that blunted liberalism’s advance by the late 1970s. He’d already helped William Buckley seed that movement through a ghostwriter with The Conscience of a Conservative, the best-selling book on American campuses in 1960-61 and one of the most influential books of the late 20th century (some argue that best-selling books don’t change minds; they just sell well among people who are already thinking along those lines). Reader Hillary Clinton (née Rodham) was not among those conservatives who blunted liberalism in the 1970s, as she swung left midway through her college years at Wellesley in the late 1960s. But earlier, growing up in the affluent Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, she campaigned as a “Goldwater Girl” after her high school history teacher assigned her Conscience of a Conservative. Before that, she canvassed Chicago’s South Side (Barack Obama’s future neighborhood) for Richard Nixon in the 1960 election and claimed to see pro-Kennedy voting list entries for vacant lot addresses.
Goldwater was eccentric. He believed alien saucers were housed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (Hanger 18) and enjoyed ham radio and Kachina dolls. He was an accomplished amateur photographer, specializing in Southwestern landscapes and Hopi Indians. Despite his social libertarianism — supporting gay rights in the military, being pro-choice, and a critic of the religious right — he was nonetheless the godfather of the conservative revival that blossomed in the 1980s and beyond. He was the first staunch conservative to run for the GOP since the New Deal in the 1930s, opposing the graduated income tax, hoping to make Social Security optional, and vowing to ramp up aggression against communism beyond the Truman Doctrine of containment.
Goldwater wanted discretionary use of nuclear weapons put under the Pentagon’s control rather than the President, a scenario that probably would’ve led to several attacks during the Eisenhower administration and a mutual exchange with Cuba in 1962. He was only joking about dropping a hydrogen bomb into the men’s room of the Soviet Kremlin, but he (or the Pentagon) undoubtedly would’ve used tactical nuclear weapons in the Vietnam War, which might’ve escalated into a larger conflict. Paraphrasing the Roman politician/philosopher Cicero, Goldwater’s favorite slogan was Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. Many Americans might’ve been wondering whether or not that was really the case in a nuclear world.
Johnson supported the Civil Rights Act and cast himself as a foreign policy moderate even while escalating in Vietnam just enough to not look like too much of a patsy. Convincing Congress to give him a blank check to win in Vietnam (the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) sent LBJ’s approval rating soaring from 42% to 72% nearly overnight, while out of the other side of his mouth he vowed to keep the actual fighting in the hands of America’s South Vietnamese allies, the fighting “Asian boys should be doing” instead of Americans. Meanwhile, Democrats countered pro-Goldwater In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right buttons with In Your Heart, You Know He Might [blow up the world] or In Your Guts, You Know He’s Nuts. They briefly ran a controversial commercial called the Daisy Spot depicting a young girl plucking the petals off a daisy as she counted down 3, 2, 1 before the world’s hopes went up in a Goldwater-induced mushroom cloud:
LBJ won by a landslide in the electoral college (and 61% of the popular vote), with Goldwater winning only his home state of Arizona and the Southeast. But Goldwater’s victory in the Southeast, due mainly to his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, was noteworthy, signaling the most dramatic electoral shift since the Civil War. Though they were the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Union in the Civil War, their opposition to black civil rights gained the GOP control of most of the former Confederacy, which they’ve held onto ever since for a variety of reasons that transcend race.
For some race was irrelevant altogether; their newfound dedication to Goldwater and the GOP had only to do with a genuine commitment to small government. As we saw above, that was arguably the case with Goldwater himself. But imagine a hypothetical scenario whereby the states in red had Hispanic majorities that voted to disenfranchise Whites. The Federal government then intervenes on Whites’ behalf arguing that Hispanics were violating their 14th Amendment right to equal protection. Would Whites support states’ rights against the feds, even if it meant suffering their own racial injustice? It beggars belief to imagine that happening. Would even Goldwater support Arizona’s right to disenfranchise Goldwater? Is protecting voters’ rights in a democracy really an abuse of government power?
Regardless of how he gained traction, Goldwater had indeed launched a broader movement that transcended racism. Another way to look at Johnson winning 60% of the popular vote is that, for the first time since the New Deal, an uncompromising, unapologetic conservative had won a respectable 40%. Even in losing, Goldwater had “moved the needle” more than many presidents who win elections. Conservatives would get their day in the Sun, but their time hadn’t arrived yet. They would need someone with a warmer, more approachable personality, like Goldwater’s most famous campaigner: former actor and General Electric spokesman Ronald Reagan.
LBJ’s Great Society
Johnson defined his own agenda apart from Kennedy’s called the Great Society and accomplished much in the year after JFK’s death, even before he ran on his own. He relished one-upping the upper-class Kennedys, whom he thought looked down on him. In 1964, LBJ not only won reelection, but liberal Democrats swept into power in the House and Senate, making it a watershed year in politics. The Democrats, aside from being known by their initials (FDR, JFK, LBJ), were fond of branding their presidential administrations: the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier and, now, the Great Society. The Democrats had come around to the ideas of economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who argued in The Affluent Society (1958) that you couldn’t measure society’s success by total material wealth alone. He endorsed public investment in infrastructure and education, insisting that there was something wrong with pervasive poverty amidst the wealthiest society on Earth. In a commencement speech at the University of Michigan, LBJ argued that the U.S. had a wealthy and powerful society but needed to strive upward “to a great society…a society that demanded an end to poverty and racial injustice.”
Declaring an all-out “war on poverty,” Johnson played off JFK’s martyrdom, convincing like-minded Congress to pass legislation on Kennedy’s behalf. And, pass bills they did. If we were to judge presidents by how much they accomplished, nothing since the New Deal can compare to LBJ’s “coonskins on the wall,” that can be viewed at the LBJ Museum, University of Texas. Of course, the government isn’t a factory whose goal is to manufacture as many laws and agencies as possible, but the 60’s were a good example of the opposite of gridlock — what can happen when the President and Congress are in sync.
LBJ accomplished what Truman mostly failed to with the Fair Deal, which was to expand on the New Deal. Most socialist of all the legislation, and ultimately popular among a wide swath of Americans, including those who don’t cotton to the term socialism, was the addition of Medicare to Social Security, providing a healthcare stipend for senior citizens. LBJ invited the Trumans for the signing since Harry had pushed harder for universal coverage than any president since Teddy Roosevelt. Since the Trumans had fallen on hard times, they welcomed their own Medicare checks. Today most Americans, even self-proclaimed budget hawks, see some version of Medicare as a fair part of government’s social contract, but it’s also the fastest-growing part of the budget because of inflation in medicine, the transition of Baby Boomers into retirement, and longer lives, in that order of importance. Such benefits are known collectively as entitlements.
LBJ’s father was a politician, and Lyndon was a New Dealer during the Depression as a Congressman from the 10th District in central Texas. He was reared in that progressive school of thought at the outset of his career (LBJ & FDR). Like FDR, Johnson’s liberalism didn’t extend to race, at least not at first. As Majority Leader of the Senate in the 1950s, Johnson led the Boll Weevil southern Democrats who blocked civil rights legislation. As a teenager, his idea of a good time was to drive into Austin from Johnson City with rattlesnakes in the trunk to scare black kids with. But, so too, Johnson taught public school in the mostly-Hispanic Rio Grande Valley as a young man and empathized with poor people of all races. He helped secure federal funds for low-income housing in Austin. As a senator, he treated his black servants well, but poorly when in the company of other southern Democrats. By the late 1950s, LBJ was developing an ambiguous reputation on race, refusing to sign a Southern Manifesto opposing school integration and overcoming Strom Thurmond’s (D-SC) epic 24-hour filibuster to shepherd the watered-down 1957 Civil Rights [voting] Act through Congress. He also signaled a willingness to back reform as a vice-president under Kennedy in the early 60’s. Yet, Kennedy added LBJ to his ticket precisely to diffuse opposition from racist southern Democrats.
Then, for reasons no historian has fully parsed out, LBJ unambiguously encouraged civil rights legislation once in the Oval Office. Maybe he saw his chance to do something good for society or to accomplish more than the popular Kennedys had. Politicians are people too and people grow and change their minds. But it wasn’t really a full 180° turnabout since Johnson had always been of two minds on civil rights and even said in the 1950s that he was biding his time, waiting to get into a more powerful position so that he could affect positive change. Like Abraham Lincoln a century earlier, LBJ did what he had to do to affect change and that process leaves behind a muddled record. Purity and consistency aren’t for losers, but they are for people content to stay on the sidelines. Finally, maybe LBJ had just seen enough manipulative race-baiting after a long career in American politics. In 1960, he explained its underbelly to staffer Bill Moyers: “If you convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t know you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
On the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in 2014, all the living former presidents and Barack Obama convened at the LBJ Library and Museum in Austin. Bill Clinton noted that LBJ was born just 43 years after the Civil War in a town, Stonewall, named for a Confederate hero. President Obama, whose own election would’ve been impossible without Johnson, described LBJ’s transformation: “During his first 20 years in Congress, he opposed every civil rights bill that came up for a vote, once calling the push for federal legislation a ‘farce and a sham.’ He was chosen as a vice presidential nominee in part because of his affinity with, and ability to deliver, that Southern white vote. And at the beginning of the Kennedy administration, he shared with President Kennedy a caution towards racial controversy. But marchers kept marching, and four little girls were killed in a church. Bloody Sunday happened. The winds of change blew. And when the time came, when LBJ stood in the Oval Office — I picture him standing there, taking up the entire doorframe, looking out over the [White House] South Lawn in a quiet moment — [he] asked himself what the true purpose of his office was for, what was the endpoint of his ambitions.”
As all presidents learn, including Obama and Trump, most presidential ambitions run through Congress on Capitol Hill. As former Senate Majority Leader, Johnson could spearhead legislation and get it through Congress. The U.S. hasn’t had a president since as adept at working Capital Hill. Johnson’s successor Richard Nixon was infamous for his “fortress mentality” in the White House. The country then had a series of outsiders who rose through the ranks as state governors, including Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, who were unfamiliar with the workings of Capitol Hill. The big advantage that Johnson had over the others was that his own party controlled both the House of Representatives and Senate and, unlike many presidents (including Obama), he had some Republicans willing to work “across the aisle” in a spirit of bipartisanship. Moreover, Johnson was persuasive. He was a consummate politician who could cajole, prod, flatter, or steamroll, depending on the circumstances. Senator Richard Russell, Jr. (D-Georgia) predicted what would happen after JFK’s assassination: “You know we could’ve beaten John Kennedy on civil rights, but not Johnson.” The photo above is a revealing shot of Russell, his former mentor, getting the up-close-and-personal “Johnson Treatment.” If you visit the LBJ Museum, you can pose with a similar LBJ cut-out yourself.
Johnson signed the two most significant civil rights bills since the Civil War: the 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed racial discrimination in public places and the 1965 Voting Rights Act that, along with the 24th Amendment of 1964, outlawed restrictions on voting such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses. After he signed the Civil Rights Act, LBJ purportedly told Martin Luther King, as he handed the souvenir pen to him over his shoulder, that “We’ve just turned the South over to the Republicans.” He was right although the Civil Rights Act was actually a bipartisan bill. The final vote shows that the mostly northern GOP voted in favor in greater numbers than the Democrats; Goldwater was an outlier. Southern Democrats inserted a clause reaffirming the Equal Pay Act for women, hoping that northern Democrats would have to vote against the whole bill since unions opposed equal pay for women. This ploy was partially effective but backfired overall. As chronicled by historian Byron Hulsey, Illinois Republican Everett Dirksen helped patch together a coalition of Democrats and Republican that secured passage. Dirksen quoted author Victor Hugo: “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come.”
Nonetheless, this was the critical moment when most southern Whites abandoned the mainstream Democratic Party in favor of the GOP or renegade Democrats/Independents like George Wallace. Jesse Jackson, who worked as an aide to King in the 1960s, remarked at the 2014 celebration that, while it was King who provided the inspiration, it was Johnson who delivered the legislation: “No president save Abraham Lincoln has been as transformative as Lyndon Johnson. Lincoln and Johnson are the two tallest trees in the forest.” In addition to the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, Congress also passed legislation banning racism from the immigration process and federal housing loans, and the Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage in all the states. We’ll cover those important developments more in Chapter 17 on Civil Rights.
Why is America a diverse place in the early 21st century? It isn’t because Generations X-Z suddenly got cool and overturned their parents’ social order. It’s because their grandparents overturned their great-grandparents’ social order, culminating in a string of seemingly dry laws and court cases. While it obviously would have been impossible to succeed entirely, LBJ and Congress set out to diminish racism and poverty as best they could. They spent federal money on public housing projects and various agencies dedicated to helping the poor gain employment in cities, rural areas and Indian reservations, as well as continuing the food stamp program Kennedy piloted and other nutritional programs. The Office of Economic Opportunity started VISTA, Job Corps, and Head Start.
In some cities, especially those like Chicago run by old-school political machines, local authorities diverted funds to white neighborhoods. Chicago boss Richard Daley’s theft of ~ 30% of federal funds earmarked for that city sparked black protest and led Martin Luther King to temporarily relocate his family to Chicago (MLK said it was more racist than Mississippi). This put LBJ in a conundrum as Democrats relied on Daley’s machine to deliver presidential elections, as we saw above with JFK in 1960. The government also got behind pollution control and mass transit and spent on public broadcasting (PBS and NPR). The Wilderness Act of 1964 set aside over 9 million acres of federal land for preservation.
This was the crescendo of New Deal liberalism, at least if we define crescendo as the public will to support such measures rather than the pure amount of bureaucracy. That accumulates steadily over time and is probably greater today with the additional Departments of Education, Energy, and Homeland Security. When critics complain about “big government” or the “welfare state,” it’s really LBJ’s Great Society they’re usually talking about, more so than the core New Deal. Fifteen years later, when Ronald Reagan won the 1980 presidential election in a shift back to the right, one commentator said that “Goldwater lost against the New Deal, but Reagan won against the Great Society.”
In the 1960s, some of the liberal push came from lobbyists rather than Congress or the President, even though all laws are ultimately written by Congress. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader was such a thorn in General Motors’ side about the automotive industry, especially the lack of seat belts in its cars and instability of the Chevrolet Corvair (with its unusual rear axle and engine in the trunk), that they tried to lure him with a prostitute so they could blackmail him. He resisted her advances, sued GM for entrapment, and used the million-dollar settlement to seed an office of full-time lobbyists nicknamed Nader’s Raiders.
Goaded by Nader’s Raiders, the government outlawed firing employees just before pensions kick in, demanded ingredients be listed on food products, made one’s own credit scores available to consumers, and forced Detroit automakers to offer optional seat belts. While many people hate gadflies and loathe big government, so too they don’t want to be fired on the eve of their pensioned retirement, be kept in the dark about their own credit, eat things they don’t understand or fly through a windshield. How many lives have seat belts alone saved since the 1960s?
Conservatives didn’t take this nonsense sitting down. Their Counter-Revolution commenced as the Great Society unfolded and can be traced to William F. Buckley, Jr., Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and, further to the right, the John Birch Society (1958- ). Birch founder Robert Welch railed against a supposed cabal of mainstream Democrats and Republicans conspiring with the USSR to “create a worldwide police state, absolutely and brutally governed from the Kremlin.” In his 1979 memoir With No Apologies, Goldwater (now safely out of the limelight), wrote about an impending global “new world order” conspiracy and upcoming “period of slavery.” Reagan was more mainstream, if still to the right of the moderate GOP faction. In his address at the 1964 GOP convention, aka “the Speech,” he laid out the basic message that would carry him to the presidency in 1980 in a broadside against “our liberal do-gooder friends.” George W. Bush aide Karl Rove later called the 1964 GOP convention the “young conservatives’ Woodstock.” The movement centered on cultural grievances and resisting the growth, role, and scale of government. California elected Reagan governor in 1966 in the same midterm election that saw moderate Republican George Romney (Mitt’s father) reelected governor of Michigan — a state that post-New Deal Democrats normally relied upon with its blue-collar, unionized auto workers. Goldwater was too extreme, though, going straight for the jugular by trying to dismantle the New Deal itself (i.e. Social Security) rather than chipping away at the Great Society. The truth is that most government-hating voters like their Social Security check and Medicare coverage, putting true-believing politicians in a bind when it comes time to get past the rhetoric and actually make meaningful cuts. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) faced this same dilemma in the 2010s. Remember that the older voters get, regardless of their political leanings, the more they’ve already paid into the entitlement system. People of all political stripes can use a safety net when medical bills start mounting in retirement. What many voters really prefer is their own entitlements with less money going to other groups.
Many felt less ambiguous about their dislike of Blacks and hippies, especially the disaffected southern Democrats who’d been scared out of their party by passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Alabama Governor George Wallace (D) took the lead in attacking civil rights legislation and the general move toward racial integration. At first, Wallace seemed to be a purely southern phenomenon, but his popularity transcended Dixie (see photo caption above). Many northern Republicans and working-class Democrats resented integration and black political equality, especially those in cities where children now shared classrooms with African Americans and Hispanics. Wallace looked at city maps and found the working-class white neighborhoods that abutted ghettos. He’d find auditoriums in those bordered areas to give his speeches. Anxious Whites flocked to Wallace as he mounted a run at the 1968 presidential campaign. Wallace ran again in 1972 but was paralyzed in an assassination attempt. He later repented against his racist past and became governor, once again, of Alabama in the 1980s, this time with the support of forgiving Blacks.
Another important ringleader in the 1960s conservative counter-revolution was decorated WWII combat vet and shock jock Joe Pyne. While we’ve seen combative radio personalities before with Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s, Pyne was first to take the “attack interview” medium onto television, at one point attracting a larger combined radio-TV audience than Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. He provided an outrageous alternative to respectable male TV characters like Carson, news anchor Walter Cronkite, actor Andy Griffith, and kid show host Captain Kangaroo. Pyne had a larger audience than Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Megyn Kelly combined for in 2016 and made more than the president or baseball star Mickey Mantle. Through his protégé Bob Grant, Pyne laid the foundation for the “combat talk” style of Morton Downey, Jr., conservatives Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Michael Savage, libertarian Howard Stern, and, to a lesser extent, liberal hosts Bill Maher and Chris Matthews. Pyne pioneered call-in radio on WLIP in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1949 before founding the “TV shoutfest,” according to media historian Donna Halper. In the 1960s, the confrontational Pyne bullied and interrupted his way through interrogations of anti-war “peace creeps,” Black Panthers, “pinkos,” “fairies,” “sissy liberals,” and “dingbat women’s libbers,” inviting his guests to “take a hike” or even “go gargle with razor blades” while his studio audience booed them and once even rushed the stage and destroyed the set when a guest advocated “free love.” Pyne, who had a prosthetic lower leg from an injury sustained at Okinawa, greeted guest musician Frank Zappa by saying, “I guess your long hair makes you a woman.” Zappa replied, “I guess your wooden leg makes you a table.”
While Joe Pyne and George Wallace were both ambiguous in their own ways on race — Wallace wasn’t as racist privately as he pretended to be to attract votes and attention — they shared an outright hatred of free-loving hippies. Originally called “junior-grade hipsters” by their Beatnik forebears, hippies rejected the materialism, violence, and racism of mainstream culture and generally “let their freak flags fly.” They also often rejected the American work ethic, leading their detractors to consider them bums. In reference to hippies’ use of vulgar language, Wallace said he had some four-letter words of his own: W-O-R-K and S-O-A-P.
A new culture radiated out of London and San Francisco but spread around the Western world by the mid-1960s. Austin, the epicenter within Texas, had nudist Hippie Hollow Park on Lake Travis and numerous music venues led by Eddie Wilson’s World Armadillo Headquarters, aka “the Dillo,” and (Kenneth) Threadgill’s, where Port Arthur’s Janis Joplin debuted before migrating to the Left Coast. Things got rolling in the Bay Area with the Trips Festival at Longshoreman’s Hall in January 1966, headlined by the Grateful Dead and Joplin’s band, Big Brother & the Holding Company. By 1967’s “Summer of Love,” the city’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood was Mecca for young adventurers, runaways, and assorted waifs from who-knows-where shaking their bones to the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe McDonald and other psychedelic acts while straightlaced tourists stared out bus windows snapping Polaroids as if they were in a zoo.
Established by two Stanford psychologists in 1962, the Esalen Institute along the coastal cliffs of California’s Big Sur (below) was ground zero for transcendence and exploring higher planes of consciousness through meditation, LSD, encounter groups, massage, yoga, “finding your body,” and all manner of beliefs and practices later known as New Age. Journalist Kurt Anderson called Esalen the “mother church of a new American religion for people who think they don’t like churches or religions but who still want to believe in the supernatural.” While not everything at Esalen involved belief in the supernatural, it’s true that the counterculture, as historian Theodore Roszak was calling it by 1969, valued mysticism over reason and rationality.
The individualism inherent in the counterculture’s message undermined group political action but there were nonetheless groups like the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that advocated for progressive causes. Under Nixon, the FBI undermined organized expressions of the counterculture and Civil Rights movement through a project called COINTELPRO. Johnson okayed the program before he left office when he felt betrayed that MLK was opposing the Vietnam War. While most of America’s domestic terrorism has been on the far right (KKK, Timothy McVeigh, etc.), a violent faction of the SDS called the Weather Underground, or Weathermen, originated at the University of Michigan. Whereas today’s Antifa mainly tries to beat up and harass right-wingers for exercising their right to free speech, the Weathermen blew up evacuated government buildings and hoped, in conjunction with militant Blacks, to overthrow the U.S. government through a “guns and grass” fueled civil war. Alas, their bark was bigger than their bite, though they provided a propaganda gold mine for the right. While no one died in their attacks, three of their own were killed when they accidentally ignited a bomb in a Greenwich Village apartment. Four students unconnected to the SDS or Weathermen bombed the Sterling Hall physics building at the University of Wisconsin to protest the school’s connections to the military-industrial complex, killing one researcher and injuring three others.
Some counterculture protesters were political from the start, especially the Free Speech Movement of 1964 at the University of California-Berkeley that protested the campus’ ban on political activism. The Berkeley protests initially attracted a wide swath of students, including conservative Goldwater supporters, because of the administrators’ ban on free speech. Eventually, leadership passed to radical Mario Savio, who implored followers to throw their bodies “upon the gears, upon the levers” of mainstream society. Most hippies, conversely, weren’t very political at first, content with changing society merely by setting a counter-example. But they soon merged with radicals from Free Speech, SDS, and New Left opposed to the Vietnam War or promoting other causes like civil rights. The phrase Make Love, Not War symbolized the conflation of hippies and political radicals. By then, Rock-n-Roll provided the soundtrack of the new Age of Aquarius. Free Speech veteran Jann Wenner started Rolling Stone magazine in 1967.
While polls showed that public support for the Vietnam War was actually higher overall among the young than those over 30, many opposed it on moral grounds and others opposed being drafted and fighting in it against their will. This was one area where the supposed generation gap was mythological, at least in the direction you’d expect since the young favored the war more overall. In 1966, the #1 song for the year on Billboard charts was SSgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets.” But younger anti-war protestors were definitely more vocal than their older counterparts or hawkish contemporaries, and opposition to the war moved to the forefront of counterculture causes. Body bags have a way of capturing peoples’ attention.
The counterculture’s idealistic notions of changing the world crumbled by 1969 or so. But hippiedom still had a big cultural impact that outlasted the ‘60’s, emboldening the sexual revolution, ushering in shaggier groovy dos and facial hair than America had seen on males since the 19th century, reinvigorating popular music, popularizing recreational drug use beyond what it had been in the first half of the 20th century, and contributing to significant “blue island” portions of the country (especially college towns) that are, in varying degrees, “Berkeleyized and Vermontified.” The counterculture raised awareness of healthy diets and environmentalism (then called ecology) and promoted introspection, yoga, group therapy, and Esalen-like quests for self-fulfillment that later transcended its narrower demographic base. Chez Panisse (1971) and Peet’s Coffee & Tea (1966) started on the same block in Berkeley, California. Together they launched the California Cuisine organic, locally-sourced restaurants and gourmet coffee roasters ubiquitous across America today. Indirectly, your local barista has the 1960s to thank for his or her job.
Liberal Democrats turned on President Johnson because of his escalation of the Vietnam War. He found it impossible to juggle the dual mandates of a war on poverty at home and war against communism in Vietnam. Historian Sean Wilentz wrote that the result of LBJ’s Great Society “was a bizarre and cruel reversal of the Roosevelt Presidency — a period of lofty reformism and military crusading in which the reformism bred rioting and conservative resurgence, and the crusading bred intense dissent and military disappointment. By alienating southern Whites over desegregation and northern liberals over Vietnam, Johnson presided over the collapse of the New Deal spirit that he was trying to preserve and extend, instead preparing the way for a profound shift rightward of the political center over the next 20 years.”
The president was bitter. “You know the difference between cannibals and liberals?” Johnson asked two black civil rights leaders. “Cannibals eat only their enemies.” The embattled president became increasingly paranoid and used the FBI-COINTELPRO to wiretap friends and enemies alike, including his VP Hubert Humphrey. After the despondent LBJ decided to not run for reelection in 1968, some hippies cut their hair and “went clean for Gene,” campaigning for Eugene McCarthy as the first Democratic candidate pledging to get the U.S. out of Vietnam. McCarthy’s willingness to accept a coalition (part communist) government in South Vietnam was controversial, as was his notion of busing inner-city black students to affluent suburbs. Bobby Kennedy rose to the head of the Democratic pack among those pledging withdrawal from Vietnam. LBJ backed his VP Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, sort of. He bugged Humphrey along with Republican Richard Nixon, privately hoping that Nelson Rockefeller would win the GOP nomination. Humphrey controlled the Democratic establishment votes of unions and minorities and pledged to stay the course in Vietnam since most blue-collar union Democrats still supported the war. An Israeli-born Jordanian terrorist named Sirhan Sirhan shot Kennedy the night he won the California primary, throwing the race into disarray. The Arab assassin objected to Kennedy’s pledge to send arms to Israel.
Even before Kennedy’s death, Democrats were divided over whether or not to court the vote of young protesters and radicals. Doing so threatened to alienate the blue-collar union workers and farmers who’d formed the party base since the New Deal and before. In 1968, anti-war protestors crashed the party (so to speak) at the Democrats’ nominating convention in Chicago but ran into another type of Democrat, old-time machine boss and Mayor Richard Daley. Daley’s police relished the opportunity to crush some hippie skull while the kids camping in Grant Park trained for their impending showdown by doing Tai Chi. Three days of street brawls ensued as Daley issued a great Freudian slip to the press: “Our police aren’t here to create disorder, we’re here to maintain disorder.” His simple order to the police was “club, then gas.” The chaos eventually spilled out onto the floor of the convention himself, embarrassing the Democrats and sending a disorganized message to the electorate.
Law & Order and Helter Skelter
The big beneficiary of the Democrats’ confusion was none other than Richard Nixon. Nixon had been on the sidelines for most of the decade studying the situation, especially the way George Wallace tapped into the frustrations and anxieties of the silent majority at home watching white protestors and black rioters on T.V. Nixon wasn’t referring to the dead, as the phrase is sometimes used, but rather to the commoners celebrated in Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” who didn’t garner a lot of media attention but were uncomfortable with changes they saw going on around them.
This time, unlike when he lost to John Kennedy in 1960, Nixon would embrace television. On the set of the Mike Douglass Show, young producer Roger Ailes boldly told Nixon, “Television is not a gimmick and, if you think it is, you’ll lose again.” It was a wake-up call and Nixon hired Ailes as an adviser. Described by journalist David Greenberg as the “single most important figure in the creation of modern conservatism other than the presidents he advised,” Ailes fused “television’s power to conjure feelings of anger and resentment to an ideology of cultural populism that demonized liberal elites.” He served as a media consultant for Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and both George Bushes. Ailes went on to become chairman and CEO of Fox News (1996-2016) before a flurry of sexual harassment charges led by Megyn Kelley and Gretchen Carlson.
Nixon promised to return “law and order” to American streets if elected in 1968, along with executing a secret plan to end the Vietnam War. He narrowly defeated the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, in another close election. Having narrowly lost to Kennedy’s hope and optimism in ’60, Nixon narrowly won on fear and pessimism over Humphrey in ’68. People understandably thought the world was crashing down around them.
1968 had been a rough year in America, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, setbacks in the Vietnam War, and rioting and crime in the streets. Then, in 1969, the Hell’s Angels biker gang killed two concert-goers while “policing” a free Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Race Track outside San Francisco; the FBI and Chicago Police killed promising young civil rights leader Fred Hampton in “self-defense” in Hampton’s bedroom; LIFE magazine published photos of American soldiers slaughtering women and children at a Vietnamese village called My Lai; and deranged failed musician Charles Manson ordered his “family” (i.e. cult) on a senseless murdering spree in Los Angeles. Manson foresaw a coming race war between Whites and Blacks he called “Helter Skelter,” based on his warped interpretation of Revelations (Old Testament) and the Beatles White Album.
At least the world got a nice lift in July 1969 with the Apollo Moon landing, a Homeric feat of engineering and the most inspirational achievement of the military industrial complex. The onboard navigation system developed at MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory and companies like Raytheon pushed software beyond anything imagined a decade prior. NASA propelled the microchip processing industry because traditional mainframe computers were too large to take into space. But integrated circuits were in their infancy, as we saw in Chapter 15. A 32GB iPhone 7® has nearly 500,000 times more storage space than the Apollo module’s 72 kilobytes of memory. Women literally wove the software into the core rope memory used to wire the computer. But not all the technology was even that cutting edge. Astronauts checked the mechanical gyroscope (AGS) that guided them with a sextant like the ones used by sailors since the Middle Ages to gauge stars. Radio waves from Houston provided a third guidance system.
By now Wernher von Braun was the public face of the space program, featured on Disney programs with his German accent, though the public still wasn’t aware of his Nazi background. Originally he wanted to build a space station first, then go to the Moon from there. However, budget and time constraints dictated that they leave from Earth directly. Based on Tom Kelley’s idea at Grumman Aircraft, they’d build a three-stage rocket with a smaller module that would detach after lunar orbit and descend on its own. Boosting the multi-stage Saturn V Rocket into space required an explosion stronger than the early atomic bombs, albeit with no radiation. The Saturn V didn’t take fuel measured in gallons; it needed 5.6 million pounds. The module not only had to separate from the main craft and land on the Moon without crashing but also take back off again and re-dock with the main craft.
NASA had at least a vague idea what the landing portion would entail because the Soviets had landed unmanned craft on the Moon already with their Luna (or Lunnik) Program, allowing the U.S. to gauge the gravity. In the early 60’s, NASA sent similar crafts, the Ranger Probes, to scout for good landing spots between craters by looking at the last seconds of footage. The Soviet Luna 2 was the first craft to crash on the Moon in 1959, Luna 9 landed safely, Luna 10 orbited, and Luna 15 crashed there just three days before the 1969 Apollo 11 Mission. The Americans were more willing to risk life, though, by sending a manned mission. NASA fast-tracked its programs and sent a manned orbit behind the dark side of the Moon in 1968.
NASA followed that up in 1969 with Apollo 11’s successful manned landing. Mission Commander Neil Armstrong said that on a scale of 1 to 10, walking on the Moon was a 3 and landing the module was a 13. Twenty-two-year-old MIT engineer Don Eyles wrote the program to guide the landing system, the most sophisticated software in existence as of 1969. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin turned on his return radar too early because his checklist was typed wrong, causing the computer to overload. As the craft descended they considered aborting the mission, but the computer dumped less essential information on its own and guided the craft safely. The world was watching as RCA and Westinghouse had built an analog camera that transmitted images to Earth. When they set down, Armstrong famously radioed home to the Johnson Space Center and the rest of humanity watching TV’s: “Houston. Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.” Video He landed the craft so gently that the shock absorbers didn’t compress, making his “one small step for mankind” a 3.5-foot hop. The Camel-puffing engineers at Mission Control in Houston breathed a collective sigh of relief, but they still hadn’t undertaken the most difficult parts of the mission.
After the astronauts poked around the lunar surface for a few days, the module fired up and launched back into space, rendezvoused with the main craft, docked, and aimed back toward earth. Getting home was tricky. They had to pass through the Earth’s atmosphere indirectly enough to not burn up in re-entry but at a steep enough angle to not bounce off into oblivion (though the astronauts would’ve died without oxygen, they would’ve never decomposed). Having safely negotiated entry after a two-day return journey, the craft slowed with a giant parachute and landed in the ocean, where the astronauts were rescued. Just twelve years had passed since the Soviets launched Sputnik into orbit. Several Apollo missions followed, the last in 1972. In 1970 and ’73, the Soviets landed and operated a solar-powered, remote-controlled rover on the Moon, the Lunokhod (moonwalker) — the forerunner to the Pathfinder NASA landed on Mars in 1997. But there might never be another moment quite like the 1969 Apollo 11 mission when the U.S. fulfilled John Kennedy’s ambitious goal of landing men on the Moon by the end of the decade. And it was a relief for new President Richard Nixon, who’d prepared obituaries for the astronauts.
Optional Viewing & Reading:
JFK Library & Museum (Boston)
LBJ Presidential Library (UT, Austin)
Bill Clinton, “Seat of Power,” New York Times Book Review of Robert Caro’s 4th LBJ Book, Passage of Power (5.2.12)
David Greenberg, “How Roger Ailes Created Modern Conservatism & How Donald Trump Upended It,” Politico, 7.20.16
Kevin Cook, “Joe Pyne Was America’s First Shock Jock,” Smithsonian Magazine (June 2017)