The Enduring Legacy of the 1960s

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15 The Enduring Legacy of the 1960s

As the 1960s began, Americans were filled with hope and optimism. Their newly elected president, John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63), called on Americans to join him as they ventured into a "New Frontier," one that included the expansion of prosperity at home and democracy around the world and the placing of a man on the moon. Kennedy's optimism, his enthusiastic visions, were emblematic of one side of the 1960s, the side that historian David Farber aptly called "the age of great dreams" in his book of the same title. Others shared Kennedy's tendency to dream: civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. called on Americans to live out their commitment to equality for all; President Lyndon B. Johnson created a set of programs known as the Great Society with the goal of wiping out poverty and ensuring equality; antiwar protestors called for a just and moral U.S. foreign policy; hippies dreamed of a world where peace and love were all that mattered.

These dreams, and many others, were powerful goals for action in what turned out to be a tumultuous decade. They led mass numbers of Americans into action. Acting on their dreams, Democratic presidents dramatically expanded the size of the federal government; civil rights protestors marched and bled in the streets; American soldiers died in Vietnam in order, they were told, to stop the spread of Communism; Hispanic Americans led boycotts in the fields of southern California; Native Americans forcibly occupied land they believed belonged to them; women asserted their equal rights; and peace activists burned their draft cards as a signal of their refusal to fight in the war. There were also quieter ways of living out the American dream. For many—perhaps for what Republican president Richard Nixon called the "silent majority"—living out the American dream meant getting a college education, taking a secure job, and raising a family. American economic prosperity put this dream within reach of more Americans than ever before.

By the end of the decade, however, many of the dreams that had so motivated Americans were either shattered or distorted nearly beyond recognition. The dream of an expanded federal government that looked out for the needs of less fortunate Americans, for example, had run aground by 1968. The Democratic politicians who led that dream, especially President Johnson, were forced to direct time and money away from domestic affairs and toward a costly war in Vietnam, and a rising conservative movement began to argue forcefully that government had grown too large and should be limited. The antiwar movement, which began with people united around a common cause, was still capable of staging major protests at the end of the decade, but internal fighting among organization leaders and a tendency for some protestors to use violence kept this movement from attracting the mainstream support it needed to remain a real political force. Even the civil rights movement, arguably the most successful of the social movements of the 1960s, was diminished by the end of the decade. Though it had secured the passage of major legislation, the assassinations of leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X left the movement without stable leadership, and many followers drifted off into involvement with a variety of ineffective and short-lived projects, such as the black separatist movement. The hippie movement had begun in the mid-1960s with visions of peace and togetherness, but by the late 1960s the drug use that first fueled the movement had proved to be its undoing. The social vision of the early years became fuzzy and unclear, and by the end of the decade all that remained were long hair, bell-bottoms, and a few good rock songs.

Just because the grand social dreams of the 1960s did not survive the decade intact, however, does not mean that they did not exert a huge influence on the character of American culture, both during the decade and in the years that followed. In fact, many of the issues that were raised in the 1960s—including the role of the federal government in domestic and foreign policy; the need to extend civil rights to all people regardless of race, ethnicity, and gender; the place of sexuality in society; the commercialism of American culture; and the separation of church and state, to name just a few—remained of fundamental concern to Americans in the twenty-first century. The legacy of the 1960s can be understood by examining those issues that began in that era and continued to resonate with American life in the twenty-first century.

Until the 1960s, Americans generally expressed a great deal of trust and confidence in the federal government. They tended to believe that politicians told the truth and did not actively deceive the American public. But the actions of American politicians during the Vietnam War and the mass protests that followed weakened this essential bond of trust. President Johnson and his leading advisors and generals made a series of statements about U.S. war aims and achievements; when those statements were proven false, many Americans lost faith that politicians were telling the truth. President Nixon increased this lack of trust when he ordered the secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969. The trust level weakened further when people saw Nixon face impeachment for his role in ordering and covering up break-ins at Democratic Party headquarters at Watergate and then resign from office in 1974. After that time, press accusations and congressional investigations of presidential wrongdoings and cover-ups became a common feature of American political life. Every president from Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89) up to and including George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) was subject to highly publicized criticism and scandals that eroded public trust.

Prior to the 1960s, organized mass protests were a fairly uncommon experience in American life. The civil rights movement, however, became a pioneer in the creation of public actions designed to sway government policy. With its bus boycotts, lunch counter sit-ins, marches, and mass rallies, the movement demonstrated the political power that lay in a mass of well-organized and disciplined people, and the model that they created for advocacy continued to be used into the early 2000s by women, ethnic minorities, and homosexuals. While rights-based protest brought about significant changes in laws designed to offer equal protection and rights to minority groups, changing deeply imbedded cultural stereotypes and social patterns proved more difficult. Blacks still experienced much higher levels of poverty than whites and had more difficulty getting adequate education and jobs. Homosexuals continued to work in the early 2000s to gain access to full protection of the law in many states and for legal recognition of gay marriages. But the presence of black, gays, and other minorities in sports, television, music, and other areas of culture was breaking down some stereotypes and misunderstandings that cause discrimination (the singling out of minority groups for unfavorable treatment).

Sadly, one of the legacies of the 1960s was an increase in the acceptance of violence. By any measure, the 1960s were violent years: one president (John F. Kennedy), one presidential candidate (Robert Kennedy), and two prominent civil rights leaders (Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X) were assassinated; civil rights activists were regularly attacked, beaten, and sometimes killed by armed police forces and white mobs, most notably in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963; antiwar protestors experienced similarly violent attacks for voicing their opinions, most notably at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 and at Kent State University in 1970; urban riots flared in major cities throughout the mid-and late 1960s, causing death and the destruction of property; and war raged in Vietnam. This violence was brought into American homes by extensive television coverage, which made the beatings and killings seem immediate and close. Television coverage made violence seem normal, and diminishing restrictions on the content of television programming allowed violence to become increasingly a part of American entertainment. It remained so in the early 2000s.

The 1960s also ushered in a number of more lighthearted cultural changes. One of the great changes was a relaxing of standards of dress and personal appearance. In the early 1960s, young people dressed and wore their hair in conservative styles: boys wore suits and crew cuts, and girls wore neat dresses and hairstyles similar to those worn by their mothers. But the student-led protest movements of the early 1960s, the immense popularity of the long-haired British band the Beatles, and the stylistic excesses of the hippies helped bring about a revolution in American style. By the end of the 1960s, long hair for men, blue jeans, and brightly colored clothes were commonly worn by people of all ages. This loosening of acceptable norms for dress extended to other area of personal behavior, including sexuality and drug use. By the end of the 1960s, and continuing into the twenty-first century, youthful experimentation with sexual expression and use of illicit drugs were far more common.

Another legacy from the 1960s was the widespread commercialism that pervaded American culture in the following decades. The movement toward a society that revered consumer goods and celebrities was already underway in the 1950s, but it fully took hold in the 1960s when television ownership skyrocketed and mass-market magazines began to focus on lifestyles based on wealth, consumption, and leisure. Television, movies, and magazines all promoted consumer goods as the ultimate expression of personal identity and indeed of American patriotism. In the long Cold War with the Soviet Union, one of the true markers of American superiority was its ability to provide cars, clothes, high-quality food, and other goods to average Americans. Television, film, and sports stars attracted attention for their glamour and for their wealth, and American professional sports became a huge business in this period. These patterns only increased over time.

The 1960s introduced many issues and events that had long-lasting effects on U.S. culture and American beliefs. Issues connected to the role of the American military in foreign conflicts, the legal separation of church and state, the way that art and literature reflect cultural change, and the way that the Olympic Games have a role in international politics offer significant parallels between the early 2000s and the tumultuous decade of the 1960s. For better or for worse, the decade of the 1960s was a testing ground for some of the most controversial and engaging issues that continued to affect Americans in the twenty-first century.

For More Information


Collier, Christopher, and James Lincoln Collier. The Changing Face of American Society: 1945-2000. New York: Benchmark, 2002.

McCormick, Anita Louisa. The Vietnam Antiwar Movement in American History. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2000.

McWilliams, John C. The 1960s Cultural Revolution. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

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The Enduring Legacy of the 1960s

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