Many Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 & 1964, now age 59 to 77) are prone to waxing nostalgic about the decade of the 1960’s. They see it as a time when America and the western world was somehow greater. The Good Old Days – where life was simpler, safer, and filled old-fashioned family values. They seem to forget that the 1960’s was a turning point for the world. It was, in fact, filled with global wars, tragic assassinations, and political unrest. All of these led to positive, albeit painful, cultural changes for the better. So let’s take a quick look at 6 key events/movements of the Sixties that changed our world forever.
1. The Vietnam War
The Vietnam War raged for 20 years from 1955 to 1975, yet perhaps never so violently, and with such a rapid escalation, than during the late Sixties under U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. The U.S. and its allies, including Australia and South Korea, sent in troops supporting democratic South Vietnam in its war against Communist North Vietnam, supported by Red China and the Soviet Union. Over time, the war spread into neighboring Cambodia and Laos. The U.S. sent 1.5 million troops to Vietnam and over 58,000 of them died, including over 1 million Vietnamese. The deadly Tet Offensive by North Vietnam in 1969 resulted in 1,500 U.S. killed, 3,000 South Vietnamese and an unknown number from the North.
Unlike the Iraqi Gulf Wars of the 2000’s, the Vietnam War was extremely unpopular in the U.S. and abroad. A mandatory military draft sent thousands of young men overseas to fight in the dense jungle. At home, anti-war protests erupted on university campuses and in the streets. The largest were at the University of Wisconsin and Washington D.C. in 1967, and outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Every day, news headlines reported the loosing battles being fought by the U.S. military.
The futility of the Vietnam War eventually led to the withdrawal of troops by U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1975, and the fall of the Saigon capital. Similar to the 20-year War in Afghanistan of this century, the opposing Communist forces rapidly took control of the nation, making it ultimately a decades-long failed effort.
2. The Civil Rights Movement
The Civil Rights Movement may have been born in the 1950’s, but it experienced its peak of both negative unrest and positive change in the Sixties. The Woolworths lunch counter sit-ins in North Carolina cities happened in 1960. The Freedom Riders tragic bus bombing went down in Alabama in 1961. The violent Bloody Sunday occurred at the Selma, Alabama Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, when peaceful black protesters were violently beaten by the state police. Nationwide race riots broke out throughout the entire decade, occurring in Harlem, Watts, Detroit, Cleveland, and Philadelphia, to name just a few. And it wasn’t just an American issue. In Britain, race riots in Notting Hill, London flanked the decade.
What positives came of all this unrest? For one, the non-violent March on Washington for Freedom. It culminating in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s famous I Have a Dream speech, which took place in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial. U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, leading to the start of racial desegregation and the start of fundamental integration across America. The new laws, though impactful, did not however wipe out racism and bigotry. That pair of human vices, though significantly blunted, is unfortunately still with us in the 2020’s.
3. The Hippie Counterculture
The Hippie Movement began in the mid-Sixties, primarily amongst young white men, women and teenagers in the US, UK, Canada, Europe, and Australia. The Hippies rejected higher education, corporations, wars, the military, and general middle class “squareness.” They instead embraced sexual liberation, Eastern philosophy, nature, meditation, and psychedelic drugs. The hippies created and lived in Free-Love communes in the countryside. ‘Peace’ became their mantra, ‘Make Love not War‘ their slogan, and ‘Groovy’ the new catch phrase.
The famous Summer of Love was in 1967, when hippies gathered in San Francisco to celebrate the movement. Their music was a mixture of folk, rock, and blues – propagated by the later Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead. It culminated in the famous 1969 Woodstock Music Festival on a remote farm in New York state, where a half-a-million hippies came to dance and hear Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix and The Who. And it wasn’t just America. Woodstock was topped a year later by the Isle of Wight Music Festival in 1970 with over 600,000 hippies and 50 musical acts.
The rest of society labeled them as flower children, dropouts, or druggies. Hippies joined college students in anti-Vietnam War protests, many of which led to riots and violent clashes with city police. By the 1970s, the Hippie Movement became a part of our culture as they got married, had kids, and began careers. Its legacy today is seen in everything from recycling and renewable energy, to Punk and Goth music, to organic health foods and recreational drug use. Aging hippies are now your older neighbors who occasionally kick back, light up a joint in their yard, and reminisce about the Sixties.
4. The Feminist Movement
The Feminist Movement began in the early Sixties, primarily amongst middle-class white women. Prior to that, women were expected to marry and be housewives, staying at home to raise the children born during the post-war baby boom. Careers and higher education were for men, and any work outside the home would be limited to low paying jobs. The movement began with the publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Frieden. It challenged the idea that a woman’s only place was in the home. In 1966, Friedan joined other women to found the National Organization for Women and be named its first president. They protested in the streets for equal pay, equal opportunity, and equal rights.
Cosmopolitan rebranded their women’s magazine in 1965 from homemaking to feminism. Editor in chief, Helen Gurley Brown, focused on modern, working, independent woman. The Feminist Movement went on to shine a light on sexual harassment in the workplace and domestic violence at home; as well as the need for access to contraception and childcare. Journalist and activist Gloria Steinem joined the movement, writing for New York magazine and later forming Ms magazine. One group of women even threatened (though they never did) to burn their bras at the 1968 Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City as a sign of protest.
The legacy of the Sixties’ Feminist Movement should be clear to any woman of today who has or had a college degree, career, children, and/or home. There is still much room for growth, however, when it comes to things like equal pay and opportunities compared to men.
5. The Superpowers’ Cold War
While the world certainly has its issues today with the Russian Federation, led by President Vladimir Putin, it cannot compare with the Superpowers’ Cold War of the Sixties. Both sides built nuclear arsenals that would not only obliterate the enemy, but destroy the entire world ten times over. Families built nuclear bomb shelters in their back yards rather than swimming pools. Children practiced air-raid drills in schools by climbing under their desks. The infamous Berlin Wall was constructed by East Germany in 1961 and would stand for 28 long years. Then there was the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the US and USSR sat on the brink of World War III and global nuclear annihilation.
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President John Kennedy were prepared to go to full-scale nuclear war over the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles based in Cuba, and a subsequent U.S. naval blockade of the Caribbean island. For 13 tense days, each leader had their “finger on the button,” so-to-speak, while anxious negotiations took place between the White House in Washington and the Kremlin in Moscow. In the end, Khrushchev backed down, removed the missiles from Cuba and the entire world breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Even after that scare, the Cold War continued another 37 years until the fall of the Soviet Union.
6. Fateful Assassinations
Perhaps no other decade than the Sixties saw so many pivotal assassinations. These included, but are not limited to: U.S. President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963, Malcolm X in New York City in 1965, Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis in 1968, and U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles in 1968. And that short list does not even include the Prime Ministers of South Africa, the Congo, and Japan – also killed in the Sixties. The deaths of these influential leaders forever changed the course of politics, culture and the civil rights movement. One can only imagine what our world would be like today if either Kennedy or King had survived.
But perhaps, all those deaths toughened the Baby Boomer generation. Did the ideals of JFK die with him? Certainly not – as just one example, when Apollo 11 landed men on the Moon in 1969. Did the Civil Rights movement die with MLK? Like Gandhi before him, King inspired a whole new generation of non-violent activists and his very name evokes a sense of reverence amongst minorities to this day. In our current decade, such political assassinations are thankfully rare. Yet the impact and consequences of those fateful 1960s deaths are still felt today. We continue to tackle political, cultural, economic and racial polarization.
The Sixties was really like any other decade in our modern history. It was fraught with cultural changes, political turmoil, economic upheaval, new technologies, and yes, waves of unfortunate violence. For sure, some 1960’s small rural towns, isolated from national or global issues, did have a sort of idealistic, innocence to them. But whether you are a Boomer or a Millennial, compare the Sixties to the 1990’s, 2000’s or 2010’s. You will see a repeated pattern of struggle and change, struggle and change. We managed to survive the Sixties without nuclear Armageddon and we will somehow survive the 2020s as well. It is, after all, how we overcome our struggles and evolve, that defines us as a planet – a generation – or an individual.