1960s: An Era of Pessimism and Activism

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1960s: An Era of Pessimism and Activism

While the 1950s are stereotyped—sometimes unfairly—as a decade of quiet optimism, prosperity, and social conformity, the 1960s are often stereotyped—rather accurately—as a decade of turbulence, political activism, and growing discontent. During the course of the decade, the American military became increasingly involved in the war in Vietnam (1954–75), sparking massive protests at home. The assassination of four important American leaders, including President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963), raised fears that the United States was no longer a peaceful nation. Organized protests by women, African Americans, homosexuals, and antiwar activists challenged the American social structure.

The 1960s began with a wave of optimism as Americans elected U.S. senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts to the presidency. Kennedy was the youngest person and the first Catholic elected to the nation's highest office. He encouraged Americans to "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country." It was a good time to inspire Americans to greatness, for the country was increasingly seen as the leading example of peace and democracy in the world. The United States was also the most prosperous nation in the world. Its gross national product (the value of all goods produced in the nation) grew 36 percent from 1960 to 1965.

This spirit of youthful energy, optimism, and prosperity fueled the American government in the 1960s. The government began to address lingering social injustices in the nation. Under both Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973), the government extended new protections to minorities and women and created important programs to lessen the impact of poverty. The government also sponsored scientific research that enabled the nation to send astronauts to the moon. Yet this same spirit also drove the government to gradually step up American involvement in what amounted to a civil war in the distant nation of Vietnam. American forces were sent to aid the South Vietnamese, who were fighting against communist forces in North Vietnam. The Vietnam War was promoted as a righteous crusade against the spread of communism, but the bungled war effort soon led many to question why Americans were fighting in Vietnam.

Lurking beneath the prosperity and official optimism of the decade were powerful forces of discontent. Not everyone in the United States was content with the way things were going. African Americans, especially those living in the South, were angry about their continuing mistreatment and about racism in schools, in the workplace, and throughout American culture. Their movement for civil rights, begun in the 1950s, was ably led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), but also by radical black activist Malcolm X (Malcolm Little, 1925–1965). Civil rights groups staged protests throughout the decade to bring about change. These protests sometimes grew quite violent, and racists responded with violence in turn. Still, by the late 1960s, the civil rights movement had gained many of its goals.

The women's rights movement was largely inspired by the gains won by the civil rights movement. Feminists had long complained about their secondary role in American society. In the 1960s, they too organized marches and other forms of protest to draw attention to the lack of equality in wages between men and women and to women's right to control over reproductive decisions. By the end of the 1960s, the size of the female workforce had grown by 50 percent and women enjoyed greater sexual freedoms.

Another of the many movements of the 1960s was the anti-war movement. As more and more American troops were sent to Vietnam in the mid-1960s, many Americans—but especially American youths—began to question why America was involved in the war. They claimed that America was using its vast power to crush a legitimate movement for freedom, that the American military unfairly drew upon blacks and poor people to man its armies, and that the nation itself had grown greedy and power-hungry. By the late 1960s, the antiwar movement had become increasingly active and visible—and had attracted the sympathy of many Americans.

A common factor in all of these social movements was the participation of youths. American youths were growing increasingly alienated from the values of their parents. They felt that Americans were not practicing their own values when they segregated blacks, kept women in positions of inferiority, and waged war against a poor and distant nation. Across America— but primarily on college campuses and in bigger cities— American youths rejected their parents' values, questioned authority of all sorts, and created a vibrant youth culture of their own. The most extreme expression of this growing youth culture was the hippie movement, whose members grew their hair long, rejected many social conventions, experimented with drugs, and sometimes lived in communal groups known as communes.

The discontent and tumult that came to characterize the 1960s was made most evident in the high-profile assassinations that shook the decade. First came the killing of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, in 1963, an event that sent the entire nation into mourning. Malcolm X, the leader of a radical Black Muslim group, was gunned down in Harlem, New York, while giving a speech in 1965. In 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy (1925–1968) were gunned down in separate killings. In their own way, each of these leaders had expressed hopes and dreams that were appealing to the youth movement. Young Americans were especially alarmed by their untimely deaths.

American popular culture was also affected by the youth and other social movements of the decade. Rock and roll, the music of youth, continued to grow and thrive as a musical form, helped along by the immense popularity of the Beatles, a British group. American movies took on bolder, more controversial subjects and echoed the turbulence of their times in ways that movies had not before. Even sports figures reflected the spirit of the times, with boxer Cassius Clay supporting the Black Muslim cause and changing his name to Muhammad Ali (1942–) and pro football player Joe Namath (1943–) projecting the image of the youthful playboy. With the exception of television news, which brought the graphic violence of the Vietnam War into American homes, television programming remained a stronghold of family values, thanks to programs like Bonanza (1959–73) and Sesame Street (1969–).

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1960s: An Era of Pessimism and Activism

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1960s: An Era of Pessimism and Activism