The 1960s Government, Politics, and Law: Overview

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The 1960s Government, Politics, and Law: Overview

The decade of the 1960s has been called one of the most turbulent in all of American history. Several major events shaped the era: the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy; the killings of other national leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X, and controversies and crises surrounding the cold war with the Soviet Union, the surging Civil Rights movement, and the escalating war in Vietnam.

The decade began with much promise and hope on the national political scene, with the election of a young, vibrant new president. However, America faced both foreign and domestic challenges. The cold war carried over from the previous decade and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis almost resulted in a full-scale nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Black Americans pushed for equal rights and were met with violent resistance on the part of Southern segregationists (people who supported the separation of the races). Then in 1963, on a November day in Dallas, President Kennedy was murdered, sending the nation into mourning.

Vice President Lyndon Johnson followed Kennedy as chief executive. Johnson envisioned America as a "Great Society," one in which federal government-sponsored social programs would eradicate poverty. Johnson's "Great Society" and "War on Poverty," however well intentioned, were ill-fated. On one level, government funds used for antipoverty programs did little more than set up federal bureaucracies. Antipoverty programs were expensive to run and, in the end, did little to uplift the nation's poor, and funding for these programs had to be diverted to pay for the escalating war in Vietnam.

Furthermore, Johnson encountered trouble with his Vietnam policy. In an attempt to halt the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, the president began sending troops in increasing numbers to fight in the rice paddies of Vietnam. Almost immediately, Americans began protesting this action. Year by year, the numbers of protestors increased significantly.

By 1968, Americans were deeply concerned about the fate of their country. To many, it seemed that the great American experiment in democracy was coming apart and was doomed to failure. That year witnessed a seemingly unending string of crises both foreign and domestic. On the international front, North Korean communists seized the USS Pueblo, a U.S. Navy freighter sailing in international waters. The communist North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive, a military action that served notice that the war in Vietnam would not be easily won. American soldiers no longer were the good guys; in the small South Vietnamese village of My Lai, they massacred hundreds of civilians. On the domestic front, antiwar protests did not let up. The nation was split down the middle, between those who intoned such expressions as "America, love it or leave it" and "My country right or wrong," and those who responded by avowing "Hell, no, we won't go" to Vietnam. Two leading national figures, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy, were assassinated. President Johnson declared he would not seek his party's presidential nomination. Blood was spilled on the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention, as police clubbed and tear-gassed anti-war protesters.

That year, Richard Nixon was the Republican presidential nominee. During the 1950s, Nixon was the two-term vice president under Dwight Eisenhower; in 1960, he lost the presidency to Kennedy. This time around, Nixon defeated his Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey. By the end of the decade, Nixon presided over a country in which antiwar protests grew larger and louder and more frequent. Yet despite troop withdrawals from Vietnam, the American presence in Southeast Asia continued into the 1970s and civil unrest continued.

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The 1960s Government, Politics, and Law: Overview

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The 1960s Government, Politics, and Law: Overview