1965 may seem a long time ago, but really it isn’t.
I remember it vividly.
The year was a time of great turmoil for a country that had enjoyed unparalleled prosperity, peace, unity and stability for two decades following World War Two.
As the year progressed, you can see clearly the origins of America’s debt crisis.
All of this is explained very well by James T. Patterson, a professor of history at Brown University, in his recent book, “The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 transformed America.” (Basic Books, $28.99)
For Americans over 60 it will bring back many memories. Even for those brought up outside of the US, like myself, the black and white television news pictures of riots in Salem and Watts, of civil rights marches, of LBJ, of conflict in Vietnam and of American troops arriving in the Dominican Republic will all come back as you read Mr. Patterson’s account of that memorable year in US history – the year that really began the “Sixties.”
What we didn’t know then, but can now, is the impact 1965 would have on us today!
Lyndon Baines Johnson might never have been President of the United States. He was suddenly thrust into the most powerful position in the world when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November, 1963. LBJ had been JFK’s Vice-President.
The following year was an election year. His opponent was Republican Barry Goldwater. Goldwater’s campaign slogan was “In your heart, you know he’s right.” With Goldwater’s threat to use “low yield atomic weapons” on Hanoi in mind (page 20), the Democrats countered with “In your guts, you know he’s nuts!” This was not the official campaign slogan but it caught on, repeated endlessly on the three major networks. LBJ won by a landslide.
Johnson is remembered mostly for the Vietnam quagmire. Largely forgotten is his Great Society, the social reforms that he got through Congress, social reforms that committed the United States to a much greater role for government, a role which inevitably keeps on expanding. Also forgotten is that LBJ, as he was popularly known, was one of the most effective presidents in American history when it came to working successfully with Congress, a stark contrast to today. When LBJ wanted something, he got what he wanted! This was made possible by the many decades he had spent in Congress and the friendships that were firmly established. He was not beyond bullying and cajoling people to support him and could be quite crude and vulgar at times.
Leading what was at the time the wealthiest country in the world, LBJ was able to persuade the American people to support vast new and expensive programs, including Medicare and Medicaid (government health care for the elderly and for the poor, respectively). The increasing costs of these “entitlements,” together with Social Security (introduced by FDR) are the primary cause of America’s pending bankruptcy five decades later.
Comparing himself to President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR), Johnson, a fellow Democrat, boasted that whereas Roosevelt “passed five major bills the first hundred days. We (Congress, under his guidance) passed 200 in the last two years. It is unbelievable.” (page 199) Many of those bills made dramatic differences in the lives of African-Americans. “Charles Mitchell, the NAACP’s chief legislative lobbyist, observed later that LBJ made a greater contribution to giving a dignified and hopeful status to Negroes in the United States than any President including Lincoln, Roosevelt and Kennedy.” (ibid.)
A relatively minor piece of legislation has changed America dramatically. In 1965 LBJ sponsored a new immigration bill, which Senator Edward Kennedy steered through Congress. The new bill opened up America to massive immigration from what was then called the “Third World,” the newly independent nations of Africa and Asia, as well as neighboring countries in Latin America. This has led to significant demographic changes, which will soon see America’s whites become a minority. Together with free medical care and assistance for single mothers, this has also added greatly to the financial burden on US taxpayers.
More might have been accomplished if it hadn’t been for Vietnam. The war there had begun before LBJ became president, but was soon to escalate and then escalate again. It kept on escalating until over half a million American servicemen were engulfed in an unwinnable war thousands of miles away in the hostile jungles of Indo-China. It was to become the first war America lost! It was also the reason why LBJ did not seek a second full-term as president. Health problems were also a concern – he died four years after leaving office at the age of 64.
By the end of the year, a conservative backlash was evident. In October, a group of leading intellectuals started questioning the increasing role of the federal government and launched the “Public Interest” as a neo-conservative publication. America’s culture wars had begun. The following year Ronald Reagan became Governor of California.
LBJ’s term as president is one of the most interesting in modern American history, brought to life in great detail by Mr. Patterson. The consequences of his term in office are still with us to this day.