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Millennium series: 1960s and 1970s

  • Mary Naber
  • 1999 30 Dec
Millennium series: 1960s and 1970s
Continuing our millennium series, Mary recounts the 60s and 70s as years marked by the beginning of America's distrust in its government.

One need not look far back into our country's history to understand the origins of the modern day disrespect for authority and the establishment. Indeed, the events of the 1960s and 1970s served to erode the nation's faith in many historically trusted institutions.

The era began with hope. In 1960, the energetic and dynamic John F. Kennedy was elected the youngest President in history. Communism still served as the national enemy, heightened by the East German construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, but unifying Americans as they shared in fallout shelter plans and school bomb drills. Kennedy's popularity soared following the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when he successfully negotiated the Russian removal of nuclear-tipped missiles from Cuba and the return of US CIA agents captured during the Bay of Pigs attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. Recognizing that capitalism could be advanced around the world through investment in other countries, Kennedy also instituted the Peace Corps and Alliance for Progress, which provided aid to Latin American countries. Unfortunately, his life -- and the fresh enthusiasm he had brought to the White House -- was cut short with an assassin's bullet in 1963.

The early 1960s are also remembered for the rise of the Black Civil Rights Movement, led by the Reverend Martin Luther King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Still subjected to extensive segregation, arbitrary lynching, and unjust Jim Crow laws, blacks brought national and often televised attention to their cause through the 1961 Freedom Riders Protest, 1963 Birmingham Protest, 1963 March on Washington, 1964 Freedom Summer voter drive, and 1965 Selma Protest.

Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson became President in 1963, and negotiated a number of civil rights laws through Congress. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, and was enforced through the establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Johnson's concern for the poor inspired his vision for the Great Society. To fight the War on Poverty, he passed the Economic Opportunity Act, which established Job Corps, VISTA, and other programs.

Johnson was also responsible for the escalation of the Vietnam War. The United States, concerned that South Vietnam's fall to Communist North Vietnam would have a domino effect on other countries, had provided the country with military aid and advisors since the outset of the War in 1957.

In 1965, Johnson began sending American troops. As lives were lost in the extensive bombing and guerrilla warfare, Americans became more vocal in their protests against US involvement in Vietnam. Riding a wave of rebellion, Americans also rallied for women's rights, Native American's Rights, and tougher environmental standards. Tie-dyed clothes, beads, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin identified a younger generation that gathered to promote peace and free love. Making these new ideals possible were the advent of the birth control pill, fueling the Women's Liberation Movement, and the prevalence of LSD. But over time the rebels became more assertive in their demands, demonstrated in the 1968 Chicago Police Riots outside the Democratic National Convention Headquarters.

The year of 1968 perhaps proved most tumultuous in the assassinations of a national hero, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and Presidential hopeful Senator Robert Kennedy. Personally discouraged by his military failures following a violent Tet Offensive by the Northern Vietnamese in 1968, Johnson decided not to run for reelection and was succeeded as President by Richard Nixon, who promised "Peace With Honor." In 1969, the nation's unrest was interrupted for a moment of celebration as American Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon.

Nixon soon betrayed the nation's trust that he would end the war, sending US troops into Cambodia in 1970. This action enraged the public further and incited riots on school campuses. An ROTC building was firebombed at Kent State, resulting in a revolt in which the National Guard shot and killed 4 students, while injuring 9 others. Two million students protested at 350 college campuses, motivating an early and abrupt closure of many universities before summer.

The United States had fallen into a deep division between conservative patriots and the youthful rebels when Nixon was reelected in 1972. By this time, the youthful rebels had lost almost all faith in government -- including their optimistic hope of influencing it -- and fell further into a drug-induced isolationism with independent dancing styles in the new disco clubs. Few Americans even took note when a treaty was signed to quietly end the Vietnam War in 1973.

In 1971, the Pentagon Papers revealed that the Executive branch had been hiding information on the extent of US involvement in Vietnam. Beginning in 1973, Nixon and his advisors came under examination for a list of illegal activities, including involvement in the National Democratic Headquarters break-in. Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in October 1973, and almost a year later Nixon became the first President to resign in US history.

The Watergate Scandal and the events of the preceding years succeeded in eroding American's trust in its government. The injury burned deeper when South Vietnam's capital of Saigon ultimately fell to the Communists in 1975, and 1100 Americans and 5400 South Vietnamese fled the country in US helicopters. The loss of American life in the war seemed senseless to a nation accustomed to well-defined military victories.

Gerald R. Ford took over at the White House from 1974-1976 as the only President to not be elected by the popular vote. Jimmy Carter served as President from 1977-1980, but was plagued by poor economic conditions. Inflation in the country had reached 13.5% by the late 1970s, due in large part to the excessive money printing by the US Government to pay for Vietnam, and a drastic oil shortage. In September of 1978, Carter's approval ratings jumped 15% after his "Malaise Speech", but then dropped steeply when he asked his entire cabinet to resign a few days later.

Foreign relations in Carter's Administration also broke down, as Russia invaded Afghanistan, violating the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) developed earlier in the decade. In 1979, Iranian students invaded a US Embassy in Tehran and held 144 diplomats hostage, while calling for the US to return their shaw for trial. A military rescue mission ordered by Carter failed with 8 deaths. The revolutionaries finally released the captives 444 days later.

While the 1960s are remembered for social unrest, the era brought attention to grave injustices and discrimination in our country. And God was there as He moved through visionaries like Martin Luther King who propelled a movement that saw some of the most sweeping civil rights bills of the century passed.

The Lord walked among those sent to the Vietnam War, too. He undoubtedly felt something of a broken heart when the Supreme Court ruling in Roe vs. Wade permitted abortions in 1973. But He made himself available to the youthful rebels, and others who found that the free love of the 60s and drugs of the 70s could not ultimately satisfy, and that human institutions will always fail. In the great Jesus Movement of the 1970s, thousands were baptized in oceans and lakes. New churches were started. New music was played. And Christ was lifted up onto the throne in many lives.

To read yesterday's article on the significance of the 1940s and 1950s, click here. Also, be sure to give us your vote on the most significant decade of the century by using our Century survey. Or enter your own opinions on the matter in our Forums discussion.