Grand Dreams for a Better Society: Conflicting Visions of the 1960s

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1 Grand Dreams for a Better Society: Conflicting Visions of the 1960s

The 1960s were years of great and shocking events: assassins gunned down three national figures, including a president; President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) narrowly averted a nuclear war with a high-stakes bluff; civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) inspired the nation with his grand dream for a better nation; President Lyndon Johnson sent soldiers to fight a war in distant Vietnam; President Richard Nixon launched a spaceship that placed a man on the moon; the Beatles, an English rock band, "invaded" America; hippies "turned on, tuned in, and dropped out"; African Americans rioted in the streets of American cities; and the Green Bay Packers formed a football dynasty. With the exception of the assassinations, these were not isolated events. In fact, they were expressions of larger social movements or trends, dramatic distillations of widespread social tumult and tension. The dramatic events of the 1960s continued to have an impact on American social, political, and cultural practices into the early 2000s. One way people can understand who they are is to take a look at an earlier era in which their ancestors worked out their visions of the American dream.

Those who grew into adulthood in the 1960s also looked back to an earlier era to make sense of their lives. They looked back especially to the Great Depression (1929–41) and to World War II (1939–45), the most momentous events of the recent years. Members of this earlier generation endured severe economic troubles and then wartime civilian hardships and military service when the United States joined the Allied powers of Great Britain, France, and others against the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Following the end of World War II, the United States was perceived as the most powerful nation on earth, both economically and militarily. By the late 1950s, the great question facing the nation was how it could live up to this great legacy—how to ensure that the nation lived up to the ideals fought for by those of an earlier generation. In the years to come, numbers of Americans—politicians, social reformers, students, and other kinds of people—dreamed about how they could affect their world. Their dreams—announced in speeches, chanted while marching, written in law, sung over the radio, beamed back to Americans from the moon via television, countered by those with different visions, and sometimes paid for in blood—gave shape to the decade.

Some of the grandest dreams of the decade were announced in the political programs of major party politicians. Democrat John F. Kennedy, elected president in 1960, called his package of policies the New Frontier, for he wanted to push Americans into a new age of accomplishment. "Ask not what your country can do for you," he implored his countrymen in his inaugural address, "ask what you can do for your country." Kennedy was an inspiration to many Americans, yet he was resisted by a Congress unwilling to move at the speed Kennedy desired. Before the end of his first term, Kennedy was assassinated. His successor, Democrat Lyndon Johnson also had dreams, which he called the Great Society. He wanted to see an end to poverty in the United States and the extension of equal rights to all Americans, regardless of race, color, or creed. The dreams of these Democratic politicians rested upon the excellent economic performance enjoyed by the United States during most of the decade, and Kennedy and Johnson worked to greatly expand the federal government. Republican Richard Nixon, who was elected in 1968, did not share the liberal dreams of big government pursued by the two Democratic presidents before him. In fact, Nixon represented the growing conservative political movement of the period, a movement that believed in limiting the size and power of the federal government and returning power to state and local governments and whenever possible to the people themselves. This conservative vision proved a strong force in American politics into the 2000s.

One opinion held by many Republican and Democratic politicians during the 1960s was that Communism, the form of government in the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, was the biggest threat to the United States. U.S. politicians committed themselves to stopping the spread of Communism throughout the world in a long conflict known as the Cold War (1945–91). America's Cold War policy was shaped by the belief that a democratic political system and a free-market economy (one which let individual property owners make the majority of economic decisions) provided the best opportunities for the people of the world and that Communism was a tool of oppression. These beliefs led to dramatic encounters with the Soviet Union over its missiles placed in Cuba and over the Berlin Wall, a wall that divided the German capitol, Berlin, into east and west sections.

The political commitment to stop the spread of Communism was part of the explanation for the U.S. involvement in a civil war in Vietnam. American foreign policy was based, in part, on two beliefs: Communism must be contained, and other nations should use democratic means to achieve self-rule. These two beliefs came into deep conflict during the Vietnam War. In order to stop the spread of Communism, the United States supported the corrupt and brutal pro-Western South Vietnamese government that thwarted the majority preference for communist rule. The conflict between these two guiding principles of American foreign policy complicated the already difficult matter of conducting a war in Vietnam and helped inspire the largest antiwar movement in American history. Starting on college campuses in 1965, the antiwar movement became a powerful force in American politics by the late 1960s, drawing hundreds of thousands of participants and using its dream of global peace to change American foreign policy.

When Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963, he looked out over an audience of 250,000 supporters of civil rights for African Americans. He told this audience and the nation: "I have a dream that one day…sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood." King's dream, shared by millions of Americans, black and white, was one public expression of a powerful civil rights movement that drew increasing attention during the 1960s. In fact, the struggle for civil rights was expressed publicly in many ways during the 1960s, from marches to sit-ins to violent riots. By the mid-1960s, landmark legislation granted American blacks full civil and voting rights, nearly 100 years after the slaves were freed. By the middle of the 1960s, other groups began to grasp the significance of the dream: women, Native Americans, Chicanos, and homosexuals all lay claim to this dream as they too agitated for equal rights in a diverse American society.

The dream of a society in which people would not be judged on the basis of race, class, gender, or sexual orientation posed very real challenges to long-held American traditions, beliefs, and institutions. Across the American South, whites resisted, sometimes violently, the destruction of their long-standing racist behavior. Many people argued against granting legal protections to minorities, women, and homosexuals. Yet by the end of the decade, protest groups had made important gains in eroding persistent American biases and prejudices. Their gains did not completely erase these prejudices, but the movement for equal rights for all Americans that gained ground in the 1960s was one of the most significant shifts in social consciousness and behavior of the twentieth century.

Americans pursued a variety of other dreams during the 1960s. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) raced to place a man on the moon before the Soviet space program, and NASA succeeded in 1969. Hippies pursued their dream of peace, while engaging in drug use and unconventional sexual behavior. Other changes swept through American society: television use became nearly universal, though people worried about the quality of programming; the arts and literature reflected the turbulence of social and political change; and sports became more highly commercialized. For those immersed in pushing for social and political change, it was an intensely stimulating decade. For those who wanted to keep things the way they had been, the 1960s were disturbing and threatening years. By the end of the decade, many people felt exhausted by the pace of change, and they shifted their attention from world affairs and politics to their own private lives, a shift that earned the 1970s the nickname "The Me Decade." Were the 1960s more turbulent, more highly charged, than other decades? Were the great dreams pursued by Americans realized? These are some of the questions explored in the following chapters.

For More Information


Archer, Jules. The Incredible Sixties: The Stormy Years that Changed America. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.

Dudley, William, ed. The 1960s. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven, 2000.

Isserman, Maurice, and Michael Kazin. America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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Grand Dreams for a Better Society: Conflicting Visions of the 1960s

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