What do you think about when you think of the 1960s? Hippies? Advances in Civil Rights? The Vietnam War? I looked at the dark years, starting with 1965, that seeded the future.
1965 - Hippie Counterculture in the Dark
We were Roosevelt and Truman babies, some Eisenhowers later on.
Optimistic was our natural state of mind. Raised in the most booming of times in American history, we believed, until November 22, 1963, that we had it made for the rest of our lives.
Prosperity abounding everywhere around us, we were a generation whose parents declared we would have all the things they went without. And not just commercial goods. In the dark, painful shadow of World War II, our parents wished us ta lifetime of peace.
The American economy boomed. Fueled to capacity by war construction, it did not sag later, our gross national product more than doubling between the end of the war in 1945 and 1960. We not only had more cars than ever before, more televisions and bigger homes, we moved ahead of the rest of the world in nearly everything else.
And we had peace. Gathered out of the fog of war in the late Forties and gaining momentum, we were protected by the Cold War, the great powers knowledge that an attack on one would mean the destruction of the other and perhaps the the rest of the world with it. Instead, we had proxy wars, struggles between smaller nations in efforts to influence the future of civilization.
We were happy. All of my friends were. Some, like me, chaffed at the conformity we saw everywhere, the controlled vanilla culture of youth, but we were still happy to be rebels, still on the team.
We were living a fantasy. The mass media, as much a self-serving propaganda machine then as it is now, never told the whole story.
But then, my generations reigning hero, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was murdered in Dallas on a warm autumn afternoon. A lid that was ready to come off blew away. What spilled out was uglier than anything we could have imagined.
Who's Country is This, Anyway?
It wasn't that political assassinations were new to us. We knew about Lincoln. More recently, only 37 years old, charismatic civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, was gunned down in his driveway in Jackson, Mississippi. Shot through the heart, he was still initially refused admission to the local whites only hospital because of his color.
But the Evers murder and the fierce resistance to civil rights could be isolated from us as quirks of the backward South, still unwilling to admit the Civil War was over and blacks were free and equal.
We would overcome, we believed. Kennedy's public support for the rights of all Americans lifted our spirits. This was still the America they taught us about in school, wasn't it? The land of the free? The home of the brave?
The President Has Been Shot
No one who was alive that day in the U. S. will forget where they were when they heard the news. I was lazing my way through French class, knocking off a class I needed for college. Our school's rarely used public address system crackled on.
A radio announcer bluntly told us that President Kennedy had been shot. Not much later, we heard that "Our beloved president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, is dead."
Clouds gathered. The sun tucked itself away behind them.
1965, The Year the American Dream Got Snuffed
Look back now and you can see it coming. In the gathering darkness, the American Dream is being snuffed as the wheels begin to come off.
So much of it sucked as a time for coming of age, but we had the Beatles. We had the Stones.
The rest of 1964 was bad news. Breaking with the Nation of Islam, Malcom X declares that peaceful protest will not be enough to win the rights minorities are supposedly guaranteed in the Constitution. It seemed so strange, so disconcerting, that there needed to be a fight at all, that resistance to fairness in America could be so great, public violence may be needed to respond to establishment violence and repression.
Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize, but there was a sense that it was more hopeful than real. We all wanted Dr. King to be right but doubted that he was.
In August, the notorious Gulf of Tonkin Incident, later shown to be faked, led to Congress giving President Johnson huge leeway in responding to North Vietnamese attacks on American troops. The gates to the most disgraceful war in United States history opened.
By the end of the year, Johnson escalated, approving a plan to begin the massive bombing of North Vietnam.
In a blow to the optimism that once powered the American Dream, the Warren Commission rushed to judgment, claiming to arrive at the final and complete story of the Kennedy assassination. The gaps and omissions were like sores on the American conscience that grew over the years until few believed the whole story would ever be told.
What Went Wrong in America?
When I wrote Fusible Links, I started out without as much perspective as I have now on how those dark years. 1965 and 1966 edged by as a quiet storm that washed out the American illusions we'd been raised with.
Probably foremost in changing perceptions was getting used to the idea that political assassinations could and did happen in America. This laid a sort of overall blanket over our disintegrating trust.
The public struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, the murders taking place in South, without enough outrage in the North, eroded our learned belief that our country was a fair place with equal opportunity for all. Clearly, it wasn't.
A thread of violence grew redder when Malcom X was murdered. It was only February and things were heating up. Less than three weeks later, on Bloody Sunday, Alabama State Troopers attacked peaceful marchers in Selma, denying them the right to continue on to the state capital in Montgomery to dramatize their grievances.
Managing his way through dangerous political waters, Martin Luther King led 25,000 marchers, many more than the original contingent, from Selma to Montgomery. It was giant step for Civil Rights, but there was no escaping the fact that it should never have been necessary,
Obscured behind the Selma story, 3,500 U. S. Marines landed in South Vietnam, the first American troops officially on the ground.
It was still only March.
A Black Summer, 1965
Seeds planted in fertile ground that summer blew up with violence that could only breed more.
In July, President Johnson announced the increase of American troops in Vietnam to 125,000. To oil the killing machine, he also increased the number of men involuntarily drafted into service to 35,000 per month.
The horrors to come in Vietnam began sliding downhill.
In August, the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts exploded with six days of racially fuel rioting. "You can't rebuild a slum," the saying went, as $40 million in property damage burned with little resistance.
34 people died in the Watts riots with over a thousand injured. The fight for civil rights and political equality entered its most dangerous phase.
Apologies to Hemingway - An American Sun Also Rises
It was in this unsettled time, when it was hard even to describe what it meant to be American, my fictional hero, Peter McCarthy, falls innocently in love. He strikes out on his own for the first time, exploring the world of work in America and the boundaries of friendship and trust.
Ordinary lives go on, even when turmoil swirls around them. Young people fall in love. Workers match up with employers. Music and dancing are never far off.
But what I found myself wondering about was how an emerging individual would make his way with a future so unclear and the world around him changing with little clear indication of where it would end.
Then, it grew clear to me how much the flowering of the counterculture and the hippie movement it nurtured offered safety and brightened hope to a disillusioned generation. I could see how our idea of what our country could become filtered out of the extended sadness of 1965 and 1966.
The Summer of Love, 1967, was just around the corner.