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 — cementing the liberal status of a Democratic party torn between conservative and liberal factions from the 1920s through the early ’60s. 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 ’50s seemed like a bygone era, far more different than the 1990s or early ’00s 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 1960s, but we’ll do our best to make some sense of the turbulence and show how it shaped today’s politics and culture wars. 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, etc.) we remain in the “long shadow” of the 1960s, just as we’re still in the global balance of power wrought by World War II. We’ll dive deeper into civil rights and the Vietnam War in separate chapters since they are topics unto themselves and sprawl across multiple decades, while here we undertake a brief survey of the decade.
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’ve already examined. John’s father, Joseph, was a shipbuilder-Wall Street tycoon-Hollywood mogul-whiskey distributer-diplomat who had presidential aspirations himself as ambassador to Britain, and who groomed his sons to be politicians. Though Joseph’s grandparents had emigrated from Ireland in the 1840s to escape the Potato Famine, 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 also served 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 of 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.
Kennedy won the Democratic primary. 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 reason. Martin Luther King, Sr., for instance, 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 after Bobby Kennedy intervened to get the Kings released while Nixon stayed mum. Occurring in October 1960, this move helped swing the election in Kennedy’s favor. But ex-baseball player/civil rights activist Jackie Robinson stuck with Nixon, especially after an awkward lunch during which Kennedy couldn’t look him in the eye. He’d never socialized with African Americans or even working-class Irish-Americans, on whose behalf JFK’s staff had to coach him to talk in a less pretentious accent when campaigning in South Boston. 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, all true Catholics were beholden to Vatican policies in public or political life.
Nixon wasn’t as charismatic as Kennedy and lacked 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 suit 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.
Democrats put the conservative, Protestant Texan Johnson 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. JFK defeated Nixon in a razor-tight race as measured by popular vote (one-quarter of one percent), winning the electoral vote 303-219. Protestant Democrats didn’t turn out in good numbers for Kennedy, but his endorsement of Martin Luther King paid dividends among black voters and Catholics turned out in sufficient numbers that JFK’s religion was likely a net gain.
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 and Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley (D) 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. We may never know the full story as to whether Kennedy successfully rigged the election in these two states — and a Republican-led investigation found no proof — but Nixon walked away thinking that he’d been wronged. Most research has concluded that whatever happened in Texas wasn’t enough to swing that state’s vote (see optional articles below) and Nixon wouldn’t have won the presidency anyway had he won Illinois’ 27 votes. Since, as vice-president, Nixon presided over the Senate, he announced Kennedy’s official victory in the electoral college in January 1961, graciously underscoring America’s peaceful transitions of power (YouTube).
After his presidential loss and another in the 1962 California gubernatorial race to Pat Brown, father of 2x future California Governor Jerry Brown, Richard Nixon resigned from politics, famously and un-prophetically telling the media, “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 dinners 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 in a capsule so small that he claimed he wore it instead of climbing in. Ike’s investment in NASA and JFK’s support was starting to pay off. Kennedy was also willing to use space research to improve 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 1975 called Apollo-Soyuz.
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 voted against the 1957 Civil Rights Act Ike signed. 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
Spurred to action by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s work with the United Nations on human rights and the status of women, 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 progress 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 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). When the economy slowed in Spring 2020, one meme joked that it was worse for men than women because, for every $1 men lost, women only lost 79¢. 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 and Oswald told police that’s where he aimed, proud that he put a monkey wrench into the wheels of capitalism by killing the president. 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). 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 at first glance to imagine an otherwise apolitical thug like Ruby being genuinely upset about JFK’s death, let alone concerning himself with Jackie’s emotional state. But, as we’ll see below, evidence suggests that he was. 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. Ruby was insane by then, fulminating about an ongoing right-wing conspiracy to exterminate American Jews and attempting suicide several times.
Kennedy’s assassination is an excellent demonstration of how skeptical we should be toward conspiracy theories, which in this case point at various conflicting 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, this is the weakest. Nonetheless, director Oliver Stone ran with that theory in JFK (1991), 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 JFK.
The problem with unraveling the Kennedy assassination isn’t that conspiracies don’t actually exist or that this particular batch seems implausible. The problem is how compelling various freestanding theories can sound in isolation. If we know that, at the least, all of them are wrong but one 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 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 (Latin cui bono) is smart, but 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 very possible that, like Leon Czolgosz, who killed William McKinley in 1901, Oswald was just a frustrated social outcast who acted alone. The public often needs more elaborate explanations of assassinations because of the huge disparity between the enormity and impact of the crime and the otherwise trivial stature of the assassin (Ruby called Oswald a “peon”). Conversely, the public accepted that a loner tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan in 1981 because Reagan survived. Respected presidential historian Robert Dallek argued that the best book on JFK’s assassination was Gerald Posner’s Case Closed: “I think he has responded very effectively to all the conspiracy theories, and there are many of them.” Posner demonstrates that Jack Ruby was notoriously violent and unstable and provides ample eyewitness testimony to support that Kennedy’s death triggered a full-blown emotional meltdown. Ruby was indeed fixated on the fate of Jacqueline and their kids and wasn’t really part of the Mafia, who considered him a snitch because he’d ingratiated himself with Dallas police. Posner disagrees with the House Select Committee that it was a typical mob hit since the Mafia would’ve eliminated Oswald immediately rather than allow the police to capture and interrogate him, and no one knew far ahead of time where and when they’d transport Oswald. The Mafia, at the very least, would’ve killed Ruby in prison. Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (2007) slams the door shut even further on the many conspiracy theories, at least for those inclined 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 might have to escalate militarily against communists in 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 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. But 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. A devout Catholic, Buckley changed his mind about civil rights after the 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four girls (next chapter), on which he blamed George Wallace (D-AL). He hosted Firing Line from 1966-99 (on PBS starting in 1971) — the longest-running public affairs show in television history — where Buckley welcomed debate with those he disagreed with.
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 verbally 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 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 and authenticity. 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.” Yet, citizenship isn’t something that may or may not occur in a social free market under the watch of a limited, neutral government. Government is the very institution that either grants or denies citizenship.
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 Goldwater’s principled 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. Their opposition to black civil rights gained Lincoln’s GOP control over most of the former Confederacy, which they’ve mostly held onto ever since for a variety of reasons that transcend race; Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have been the biggest outliers. Nationwide, since 1964, no Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of white voters.
For some voters, race was irrelevant altogether. Their newfound dedication to Goldwater and the GOP had only to do with a genuine commitment to small government. 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 New Frontier 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 healthcare insurance for senior citizens. The Republican vote was divided evenly while the Democratic majority had to overcome southern Democrats opposed to funding elderly Blacks’ healthcare (SSA). Medicare included legislation to desegregate hospitals. 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.
NOTE: David Frum, a conservative Never Trumper who wrote speeches for George W. Bush, posited an unsettling if thought-provoking theory about Medicare: that the racist 1920s immigration laws created a society with the requisite uniformity to share and share alike for elderly healthcare forty years later. Frum also guessed that if modern Democrats agreed to secure the southern border, Republicans would agree to expand Medicare to those under 65. While this idea is premised on a cynical view of human nature — that humans aren’t willing to cooperate among populations that include people who look different than them — it would help explain why, because of sufficient homogeneity (and smaller size), other nations have universal healthcare coverage. Economist Stephen Dubner suggested as much in this 2018 Freakonomics interview, though his guest retorted that Sweden maintained support for democratic socialism despite allowing more diverse immigration than Denmark or Norway. Either way, consideration of matters beyond mere free-market ideology could provide insight for progressives looking to promote cooperation within diverse societies.
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 in private, 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, LBJ unambiguously encouraged civil rights legislation once in the Oval Office, and kept the exact wording of JFK’s bill intact. 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 Barack Obama and Donald Trump, most presidential ambitions run through Congress. 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 Capitol 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 how Congress worked. The big advantage that Johnson had over the others was that his own Democratic Party controlled both the House of Representatives and Senate and, unlike many presidents, he had some in the opposing party (in this case GOP) 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: this was the critical moment when most southern Whites abandoned the Democratic Party in favor of the GOP or renegade Democrats/Independents like George Wallace. Another key figure in this transition was Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who evolved from leading the Dixiecrats in the late 1940s (previous chapter) to leading southern Republicans from 1964 to 2003. A few ex-racist holdouts like Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia remained in the Democratic Party.
This 1964 “switch” on race has been controversial, with many modern liberals assuming these civil rights bills won out over congressional GOP opposition and the Texas State Board of Education insisting, conversely, that Republicans passed the bills. In these partisan interpretations, Democrats are putting too much weight on Goldwater and Republicans are ignoring that Democrats Kennedy and Johnson spearheaded the bills. Right-wing memes, oblivious to the 1960s realignment altogether or at least hoping their audience is, tie the Democrats to their racist past and associations with the Confederacy and KKK, hoping to implicate contemporary Democrats among those that assume parties are static. It’s at least refreshing, in the big scheme of things, that both parties would warp history to take credit rather than blame the other for these bills’ passage. That’s a sure sign of progress. However, the Civil Rights Act was actually a bipartisan bill signed by a Democratic president (Johnson). The final vote shows that the mostly northern GOP voted in favor in greater numbers than the Democrats; Barry Goldwater was an outlier. This 15-minute optional video on the partisan realignment approaches the topic from a Christian perspective and typecasts Whites and Blacks some, but it’s a tidy overview with graphic aids for more visual learners and would be beneficial to all students for reviewing a confusing topic.
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 since the bill passed. 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.”
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. 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. More money than is commonly realized went toward poor Whites in areas like Appalachia. 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 J. 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, which MLK said 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 Great Society, though, was more than just the war on poverty and racism: the government also got behind pollution control and mass transit, started spending tiny sums on public broadcasting (PBS and NPR), outlawed toxins in children’s’ toys, and funded research into fire prevention. 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. But 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. Most lobbies (~ 85%) are pro-business, but some support unions or consumer advocacy. 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, required that 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.” Rumors spread on the fringes of communist-backed water fluoridation and that Dwight Eisenhower was a communist spy (fluoride was the chemtrails of the 1960s). This was the “paranoid style” of American politics that historian Richard Hofstadter described in 1964 as resurfacing occasionally (see optional essay below). 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 with a broadside against “our liberal do-gooder friends.” George W. Bush aide Karl Rove later called the 1964 GOP convention the “young conservatives’ Woodstock.” Meanwhile, like Trump with QAnon, Reagan didn’t denounce Birchers on the fringes of his base. As the optional Post article explains below, GOP leaders tread lightly with the John Birch Society, gingerly calling out its leaders while not offending its rank-and-file, whom Goldwater described as “half of Phoenix.”
The Conservative Counter-Revolution 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 to making meaningful cuts. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) 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. In that regard, the word entitlement is misleading because it implies a welfare handout when it really means that workers are entitled to the public pension they’ve already contributed to.
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 > AI) took the lead in attacking civil rights legislation and the general move toward racial integration. He left the Democratics in 1967 to join the paleoconservative American Independent Party. Wallace shows how misleading it can be to categorize or pigeonhole people politically, especially historical figures in contemporary categories. Like many Southern New Dealers, the populist “Hillbilly Hitler” combined economic liberalism with social/racial conservatism. At first, Wallace seemed to be a purely southern phenomenon, but his popularity transcended Dixie (see photo caption above from Chicago). 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 bordered ghettos, then found auditoriums in those areas to give his speeches. Anxious Whites flocked to Wallace as he mounted a third-party run at the 1968 presidential campaign, winning five states. 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.
Shock jock Joe Pyne was an important voice in the conservative counter-revolution. We’ve seen combative radio personalities before with Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s, but 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 a war 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. Historian Todd Gitlin distinguished between the relative pessimism of the Beatniks, who acted as if they’d already lost, and the optimism of hippies, who hoped to transform the world. But Beats — including authors Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac (right) — blazed the trail for Hippies in the last 1950s and early ’60s, with their similar embrace of counter-cultural values, Eastern religion, drugs, music, and art, and their rejection of materialism, militarism, and sexual repression.
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 sang before moving 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 a 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 straight-laced tourists stared out bus windows snapping Polaroids as if they were in a zoo. These scenes from 1967 Monterey Pop Festival capture the vibe:
Another mecca that sold more records and carried over into the 1970s was Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles — home to Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Frank Zappa, John Mayall, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and various members of the Doors, Mamas & Papas, Beach Boys, Monkees, Eagles, and Crosby, Still, Nash & Young.
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. One long-running seminar tried adventurously if unsuccessfully to integrate Eastern mysticism with quantum physics, especially entanglement. Bruce Springsteen, whose early band Steel Mill played Esalen, called attendees “belly button gazers.” 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 counterculture also included a strain of Christian revival known as the Jesus Movement that impacted modern evangelicalism. Other hippies often referred to their Christian component as the “Jesus People” or “Jesus Freaks.” One of the fastest-growing denominations of the 20th century, the Calvary Chapel, baptized its members in the Pacific Ocean.
As for actually bringing about change in the form of laws, etc., the individualism inherent in the counterculture’s message undermined group political action. Their best results came on environmental regulations, as we’ll see in Chapter 19, but those had a long background in the conservation movement that predated hippies and transcended party lines. There were 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, a project they set up in 1956 to spy on, infiltrate, and disrupt leftist and far-right political organizations (political freedom has its limits). Johnson okayed the program before he left office when he felt betrayed that MLK was opposing the Vietnam War. The government had a weird relationship to the counter-cultural because they did what they could to foil and disrupt it with the FBI’s COINTELPRO (some “hippies” walking around at Woodstock were really FBI agents), yet the CIA’s MKUltra program inadvertently sparked the counter-culture by encouraging LSD experimentation in the mid-60s as they used human subjects in the Bay Area to see if they could potentially employ mind control over enemies abroad (i.e. Soviets and their spies).
While most of America’s domestic terrorism has been on the far right (KKK, Timothy McVeigh, Robert Gregory Bowers, etc.), a violent faction of the SDS called the Weather Underground, or Weathermen, originated at the University of Michigan. They were named for a line in Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” where he sings “you don’t need a weatherman to tell you which way the wind blows.” 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, especially aimed at police. The Black Panthers rejected their alliance, calling them “anarchistic, opportunistic, and Custeristic,” for George Armstrong Custer’s foolhardy offensive at Little Bighorn in 1876. Alas, only a few hundred joined the Weathermen and their bark was bigger than their bite, though they provided a propaganda gold mine for the right. While no one died in their attacks (one paralysis), 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. Obviously, armed insurrection was an infantile fantasy that never would’ve worked, however only a small percentage ever subscribed to the idea.
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 lifestyle 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 co-founded Rolling Stone magazine in 1967 (Wired magazine, the “Rolling Stone of technology,” also came out of San Francisco).
While Gallup and Harris 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. For 1966, the #1 song on Billboard charts was SSgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets.” But younger anti-war protesters 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.
In the early 1970s, President Nixon and Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) tried unsuccessfully to get John Lennon deported back to Britain as they feared the ex-Beatle and his wife, Yoko Ono, would lead the anti-war movement from New York’s Greenwich Village (his last name being a heterograph of Vlad Lenin might have subconsciously further raised their suspicions). Though Lennon’s “Imagine” (1971) became the most famous anti-war song, the left’s idealistic notions of changing the world had more or less crumbled by the early 1970’s. Yet, the counterculture had a lasting impact on several fronts. Silicon Valley grew, financially, out of the Cold War spending that we saw in the previous chapter, but hippiedom seeded the innovators that designed integrated circuits and personal computers that were conceived as a kind of anti-authoritarian response to big business mainframes (Stanford’s Computing & the Counterculture). Roszak writes about this connection in From Satori to Silicon Valley (1986).
The counterculture also emboldened the sexual revolution, ushered in shaggier groovy dos and facial hair than America had seen on males since the 19th century, reinvigorated popular music, popularized recreational drug use beyond what it had been in the first half of the 20th century, and contributed 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. Alice Waters’ 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. Today, in fact, farm-to-table is so common that, instead of calling it farm-to-table or California-style we just call it “a good restaurant.” And your local barista has the 1960s to thank for his or her job. Less healthy, if also tasty, the counterculture gave us Ben & Jerry’s® ice cream.
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. The night James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. Bobby Kennedy landed in Indianapolis and gave this impromptu speech to a mostly African-American audience who, in an age before smartphones, hadn’t yet heard the news:
It’s hard to imagine a politician today quoting classical poetry with no teleprompter. If RFK made such a speech today he’d likely be trashed by the right for elitism and by the left for equating his brother’s assassination “at the hands of a white man” with MLK’s. But that night Indianapolis avoided the violence and arson that afflicted most major cities.
LBJ backed his VP Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota for the Democratic nomination, 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 Bobby 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 Bobby 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: the aforementioned, old-time machine boss and Mayor Richard J. 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. The Democratic Party has long been a sort of cobbled-together mosaic of various groups but, during and after Chicago, they were especially divided between the “hairs” and “cigars” (young liberals and protestors vs. blue collars and old union/party bosses).
The chaos of the Democrats’ 1968 convention helped convince both parties to make their primaries binding rather than just serving as popularity polls, as was then the case in many states. Since the 1970s, both parties have avoided open (or brokered) conventions, instead deciding ahead of time who their candidates are through the primary system (the closest exception was the Democrats in 1980). This makes for boring summer conventions — infomercials mainly with lame theme songs, too many balloons, and miniature flag-waving delegates in straw boater hats (Styrofoam™ for those on a budget) — but they avoid the danger of unpredictability and make the primaries more important. The important part of today’s conventions is the behind-closed-doors hammering out of the party’s platform, or bullet-points of ideas and stances on various topics that they pledge to fight for if elected. Also, younger speakers can gain national exposure that helps them get nominated themselves in the future (e.g. Ronald Reagan in ’64 & ’76 > ’80, Bill Clinton in ’88 > ’92, and Barack Obama in ’04 > ’08).
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.
Like Trump’s 2020 campaign (minus the summons to vigilantism and conflation of peaceful and violent protesters), Nixon promised to return “law and order” to American streets if elected in 1968, as did Reagan in his gubernatorial runs. Nixon also promised 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. Violent crime doubled in America between 1960 and ’68. Then, in 1969, the Hell’s Angels biker gang killed two concert-goers while “policing” a free Rolling Stones concert the Grateful Dead organized 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) of young impressionable followers 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 interpretations of the New Testament Book of Revelation and the Beatles White Album. Indulging in a toxic brew of LSD and far-right ideology, Manson thought Blacks would murder all the White people (except them), at which point his family would emerge from their lair in the desert outside Los Angeles and murder Blacks. What’s most disturbing about characters like Manson isn’t that they’re lunatics, but rather their power to hold sway over others.
For good measure, the 1968 Flu Pandemic killed over a million people worldwide and ~ 100k Americans between 1968-70 after entering California among troops returning from Vietnam.
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 space program, in general, was one of America’s greatest public-private partnerships, including over 20k companies from all 50 states. For spacesuits, NASA enlisted International Latex — most famous for their Playtex Cross-Your-Heart bras (the company stressed their knowledge of comfortable, flexible garments in their sales pitch). The on-board navigation system developed at MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory and companies like Raytheon pushed software beyond anything imagined a decade prior. MIT Lab Director Margaret Hamilton (right) coined the term “software engineering” as her group worked on the Apollo instrument panel. NASA propelled the microchip processing industry because traditional mainframe computers were too large to take into space. They also had to invent on-screen display keyboards and simple LED display for the ex-Navy and Air Force pilots who’d become astronauts but weren’t familiar with coding and had other challenges to occupy their time (Hamilton’s daughter also inadvertently reminded her to take operator error into account by pushing the wrong buttons, which in fact happened on real voyages). 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 background. Another Nazi, Kurt Debus, directed the Kennedy Space Center (above). Originally, von Braun wanted to build a space station first, then go to the Moon from there. However, budget and time constraints dictated that they leave directly from Earth. 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 36-story high, multi-stage Saturn V Rocket into space required an explosion equal to a two-kiloton atomic bomb (albeit with no radiation) creating 7.5 million tons of exhaust thrust in its second stage, after which it was traveling 7x faster than the speed of sound. The Saturn V’s didn’t take fuel measured in gallons; they needed 5.6 million pounds. The new Saturn V’s burned RP-1, a kerosene-based hybrid between jet fuel and the less stable and more expensive liquid hydrogen (LH²).
NASA fast-tracked its programs and sent a manned orbit behind the dark side of the Moon in the 1968 Apollo 8 voyage, the first time humans had ever left Earth’s orbit. If the U.S. hadn’t been racing the Soviets, they would’ve spent more time on research since they were still having problems closer to home with the Saturn V rocket and weren’t entirely sure how they’d handle things once they successfully got something aimed toward the Moon. Three astronauts burned to death on the launch pad in 1967 and several Saturn V engines blew up before engineers returned to the German V-2 for help with combustion stability, separating the air and fuel nozzles and adding baffles to compartmentalize the chamber. Kennedy wanted transparency in press coverage so that American taxpayers could see the setbacks and appreciate the dramatic challenges of space travel. NASA’s openness contrasted symbolically with the Soviets’ more top-secret program.
After detaching from the booster rocket, the Apollo 8 command module had to “thread the needle” to get in Moon’s orbit, angling away enough to avoid crashing into the Moon while decelerating and coming close enough (~ 60 miles) to catch its orbit, which is weaker than Earth’s since it’s smaller. They were uncertain how the engine would respond in its ten orbits considering that it was oscillating between 250° heat on the bright side of the Moon and -250° on the dark side before firing its thrusters for the 3-day return voyage. Because of the dramatic photos Apollo 8 took of our own blue planet (e.g. Earthrise below), it’s been said that we went to the Moon and discovered the Earth. While critics bemoaned NASA’s waste of money on space exploration given our terrestrial challenges, this new perspective reminded people of Earth’s beauty and fragility at the dawn of the environmental movement and was described by astronauts as a near-religious experience.
Traveling home at 25k m.p.h. required less thrust than the take-off since they weren’t fighting against Earth’s gravity, but on both trips there and back they were aiming at a moving target (thus the need for computers and a small army of mathematicians). The other trick was to pass through the Earth’s atmosphere indirectly enough to not burn up in re-entry but at a steep enough angle to not skip off into oblivion; without oxygen, the astronauts would’ve died but never decomposed (the scenario in David Bowie’s 1969 “Space Oddity”). Having safely negotiated re-entry, the Apollo 8 craft slowed with a giant parachute and landed in the Pacific Ocean, where the astronauts were rescued.
Apollo 8 was a hair-raising if successful journey and, within just seven months, NASA topped it with Apollo 11’s successful manned landing (other missions tested equipment in Earth’s orbit). 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 1960s, 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 three days before the 1969 Apollo 11 Mission. The Americans were more willing to risk life, though, by sending a manned mission.
After settling into orbit like Apollo 8, the Apollo 11 (landing) lunar module (Eagle) not only had to separate from the command module (Columbia) and land on the Moon without crashing, but also take back off again and re-dock with the command module, which circled overhead with lone astronaut Michael Collins while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon. Collins, who was trained to return home by himself if Armstrong and Aldrin died, took the photo of the lunar module on the left, also shown as “LM” in the picture above. Mission Commander Neil Armstrong said that on a difficulty scale of 1 to 10, walking on the Moon was a 3 and landing the lunar module was a 13. Unlike Armstrong, the public wasn’t aware at the time that ¾ of the LLTV practice landings on Earth ended in ejections and wrecks.
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. The computer and radar also disagreed as to how fast the landing module was descending. Just to make things interesting, they ran low on fuel as they searched for a landing site without boulders that might damage their craft. Armstrong and Aldrin 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 After several hours of flight checks, Armstrong opened the hatch and made his “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” onto the lunar surface — a 3.5-foot hop because he’d landed so gently that the shock absorbers didn’t compress. 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 lunar module fired up and launched back into space, rendezvoused with Collins’ command module, docked, and aimed back toward Earth in the same way as Apollo 8.
Conspiracy theorists argue that NASA faked the Apollo 11 landing — similar to the plot of a 1978 movie co-starring O.J. Simpson called Capricorn One on Mars — but such a plot would’ve involved hundreds if not thousands of people, all of whom would’ve had to have been silenced by the government to avoid the risk that just one would later cash in by publishing a tell-all book. What are the chances that no astronauts or engineers would’ve fallen on hard financial times in the half-century + since? Moon Landing Conspiracy Theory rests partly on the black background of moon photos, which show no stars. NASA explains that because of the sunlight behind, cameras were set with fast exposure and small apertures, making it impossible for such faint light to show up. Had they faked Apollo 11 they might’ve even forgotten that detail and accidentally added a nice backdrop showing stars in the night sky. NASA also explains that the flag they planted vibrated in low-gravity and no atmosphere when Buzz Aldrin twisted the pole but that doesn’t prove that they were in the wind (the moon has no wind with no atmosphere). Again, had they faked it, they probably wouldn’t have shot the scene with the wind blowing the flag. There are other purported inconsistencies that NASA rebuts on an item-by-item basis. Though our most powerful telescopes (including even Hubble) aren’t up to the task of zooming in on the junk we littered the Moon with, we now have high-resolution photos from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) that circles 15 miles over the Moon mapping its geography. Conspiracists claim the evidence in LRO photos could’ve been planted later, but saying that Apollo 11 was fake and Apollo 12+ was real sort of takes the oomph out of the conspiracy. The most straightforward interpretation is that NASA just went there in July 1969. Everything about the official interpretation adds up; there’s no need for any elaborate counter-explanations minus compelling evidence. Later, the LRO took similar shots of the Apollo 12 and 17 sites. Here is their 2012 photo of the Sea of Tranquility, where Apollo 11 is both “purported to have landed” and actually did and launched from, leaving behind the bottom of the lunar module and blowing over the flag they’d planted:
Just twelve years passed Sputnik and Apollo 11 — twelve years between humankind never having launched anything into orbit and a round trip manned mission to the Moon. 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. Unmanned missions to Mars and Venus (1972), and several to the outer Solar System like Pioneer 10, Voyager 1 & 2, and Cassini-Huygens, were more impressive than Apollo and have taught us more science, along with unmanned telescopes like the Hubble and Webb. But the 1969 Apollo 11 mission most sparked the public imagination, as people around the globe gathered around TV’s and TV stores to share the moment — arguably the most humans ever fixated on a singular event. And a safe splash-down southwest of Hawaii was a big relief for new president Richard Nixon, whose staff had prepared obituaries and burial at sea-type funerals for the astronauts.
Optional Viewing & Reading:
JFK Library & Museum (Boston)
LBJ Presidential Library (UT, Austin)
Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper’s (November 1964)
Jesse Wegman, “The Filibuster That Saved The Electoral College,” New York Times (2.8.21)
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
David Greenberg, “Was Nixon Robbed [in 1960]?” Slate (10.16.2000)
Josh Zeitz, “Worried About A Rigged Election? Here’s One Way To Handle It, “ Politico (10.27.16)
Kevin Cook, “Joe Pyne Was America’s First Shock Jock,” Smithsonian Magazine (June 2017)
Alvin Felzenberg, “How William F. Buckley, Jr. Changed His Mind On Civil Rights.” Politico (5.13.17)
Erick Trickey, “Before QAnon, Ronald Reagan & the GOP Purged John Birch Extremists From the Party,” Washington Post (1.15.21)
Baynard Woods, “Charles Manson Was Not A Product Of the Counterculture,” NYT (11.20.17)
Steven Moss & Richard Paul, “How JFK Made NASA His Secret Weapon in the Fight for Civil Rights in America,” Public Radio International (3.3.15)
Steven Moss & Richard Paul, “Wernher von Braun’s Record On Civil Rights” PBS: American Experience (5.11.19)