The revolution was televised
It’s easy to lament the current state of American society. The public remains bitterly divided, our political system is dysfunctional, we just survived a presidential campaign that innovated every time it appeared to reach rock-bottom, and the new president has record-low approval ratings for this early in a term. The opioid epidemic is destroying communities, the economic recovery missed millions, terrorism remains a threat, and many Americans find their values under siege.
Yet, as bad as that sounds, the 2010s have nothing on the most tumultuous and traumatic decade in recent American history — the 1960s. The ’60s featured some of the same fractures, cultural upheaval and venues of conflict that we see today. But the sheer magnitude of the decade’s tragedies, conflicts and challenges to longstanding cultural norms dwarfed what we’ve experienced in recent years.
The ’60s were like going 12 rounds with the decade’s most prominent athletic titan, world champion Muhammed Ali — who, fittingly for the 1960s, was also deeply polarizing. As soon as Americans absorbed and recovered from the latest blow, another one rained down. Looming over it all was a Cold War that threatened nuclear annihilation.
In October 1962, 13 of the most tense days in post-Civil War American history highlighted the precarious state of the world. Americans feared that the Cuban Missile Crisis might end in nuclear holocaust. Only the cautious, measured action of President John F. Kennedy prevented catastrophe. Kennedy resisted more bellicose courses of action, and instead successfully defused the situation.
Alas, 13 months later, he’d be dead, struck down by Lee Harvey Oswald and a $12.78 rifle. The gutted nation ground to a halt for four days of mourning. Banding together in sorrow, a million Americans from every demographic group flocked to Washington to witness the fallen president’s final journey to Arlington National Cemetery.
Virtually every American mourned “together,” thanks to unprecedented continuous commercial-free television coverage. NBC broadcast 71 hours of programming, CBS 69 hours and ABC 60. More than 90 percent of American households watched coverage, and, on average, they tuned in for more than 31.6 hours. Those Americans glued to NBC saw Jack Ruby gun down Oswald live. Kennedy’s somber funeral proceedings, which concluded the four-day period, drew viewers in 81 percent of households.
The most memorable images from these tragic days remain permanently etched in the national consciousness — among them, CBS newsman Walter Cronkite fighting his emotions as he removed his spectacles and notified the nation of Kennedy’s death, Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office with a stricken Jackie Kennedy alongside him in a blood-stained suit, and little John Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s casket on his third birthday.
With Kennedy’s loss, some of the promise and innocence of the 1960s vanished. Dealing with tragedy, violence and assassinations would become commonplace.
In the first half of the decade, the awful images that invaded television screens most often involved Southern brutality against peaceful civil rights protestors. On March 7, 1965, 48 million Americans settled in to watch “Judgement at Nuremberg,” a film about the trials of Nazi war criminals. Roughly 90 minutes in, however, ABC interrupted the movie to show 15 minutes of news footage so horrifying that it might have come from the film itself. The audience heard Alabama Sheriff Jim Clark bellowing a racial slur as state troopers and deputies descended upon peaceful black marchers. The viewers witnessed officers wailing away on the marchers with billy clubs, bullwhips and cattle prods, while liberally dispensing tear gas. “Bloody Sunday” spawned such outrage that it propelled the Voting Rights Act to passage.
The Watts riots in Los Angeles ignited a mere five days after President Johnson signed the act into law, setting the tone for the second half of the decade. The disturbing images on television screens shifted to looters, burning buildings and other telltale signs of the decade’s 646 riots (from 1964 through 1969) that lasted a collective 1,594 days and claimed 210 lives as smoldering anger over racist institutions and hideous conditions in urban ghettos bubbled over. At times, American cities resembled war zones, with troops patrolling the streets.
Chaos, and sometimes violence, also erupted on college campuses during the late 1960s. Similar to today, newfound activism and challenges to the existing order fueled this disharmony. Yet, the disturbances today, spurred by debate over whether to prioritize free speech or “safe spaces,” have paled in comparison to the tumult on campuses in the late 1960s.
Angry over everything from university rules to encroachment upon surrounding neighborhoods and perceived aid to the Vietnam War effort through ROTC programs and government-funded or -connected research, students seized buildings, in some cases expelling administrators or holding them captive. One Harvard dean found himself slung over a student’s shoulder and deposited outside. At Columbia in 1968, student invaders helped themselves to the university president’s cigars while riffling through his files. Students also routinely struck, simply refusing to attend classes until administrators and faculty addressed their grievances.
The tensions of the decade climaxed (though they hardly abated) in its stormiest year, 1968. On Jan. 30, the stunning Tet Offensive temporarily knocked American troops in Vietnam back on their heels. Tet also fostered the development of a “credibility gap” in which Americans lost faith in their government’s honesty. On Feb. 27, maybe the most trusted man in America — Walter Cronkite — questioned the rosy picture of U.S. involvement in Vietnam painted by government and military officials, asserting, “For it seems now more certain than ever, that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.”
A month later, on March 31, dogged by chants of “Hey, Hey, LBJ, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today” and stung by a surprisingly weak showing in the New Hampshire primary, President Johnson stunned a national television audience by declaring, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
Four days later, an assassin’s bullet felled the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That night, in Indianapolis, New York Sen. Robert Kennedy (whose safety city officials warned they could not guarantee) bared his soul, recalling that he knew the pain and hatred sparked by assassination all too well. Yet, he pleaded for love, wisdom, compassion and a feeling of justice toward Americans of all races instead of division, hatred, violence and lawlessness.
Kennedy’s stirring remarks received credit for preventing Indianapolis from burning on a night when many other cities viscerally absorbed the fury and sorrow provoked by King’s assassination. A mere two months later, however, it was Kennedy who lay dead at the hands of an assassin.
In late August, blood ran through the streets of Chicago, and Democratic dignitaries choked from the tear gas employed by police in what was, depending on one’s perspective, either a brutal police riot or the hippies and the protestors finally receiving a richly deserved beating. The media judged it to be the former. Horrified anchormen shared video of clubs swinging away, expecting the public to share their revulsion. CBS’ Eric Sevareid dubbed the worst night of clashes “the most disgraceful night in political history.”
Yet, exposing the deep gulf in American society, polls showed that a majority of Americans actually cheered the police on. The telegrams and letters inundating the networks condemned the media’s coverage; letters to CBS ran 11 to 1 in favor of the police. One letter writer to the Chicago Tribune dismissed Walter Cronkite as gullible.
In truth, rage was the one thing binding most Americans together in the 1960s. Conservatives resented the spoiled, unpatriotic brats protesting on campuses and burning draft cards. They demanded that the government restore law and order. In the decade’s smoldering cities, they saw lawlessness and crime, not spontaneous combustion prompted by longstanding inequality and squalor. They fumed over the decisions of the liberal Supreme Court that favored criminals and pornographers, took prayer out of schools and required bussing of their children to achieve racially balanced schools. Conservatives also saw the nascent women’s and gay rights movements as an affront to their God-ordained values.
Liberals seethed as well — but their fury stemmed from cultural norms that were racist, misogynistic and otherwise bigoted. What conservatives regarded as bedrock principles that fueled America’s greatness, racial minorities, women, LGBTQ people, atheists and many young Americans considered stifling and wrong. Whereas to conservatives, patriotism and the dangers of communism dictated support for the Vietnam War, many liberals decried an immoral war that had strayed from American principles and senselessly ended lives. In the time-honored tradition of the decade, liberals took to the streets to demand the end of the war and changes to the structures and norms animating American society.
Today, we can trace many of the fissures roiling society and politics to the 1960s. Many of the problems exposed during the ’60s still fester. Racial minorities, women and LGBTQ Americans still struggle for equal rights and treatment. Conversely, conservatives persist in demanding a return to the values that they believe fuel American greatness. Americans have once again taken to the streets to protest developments that they consider unacceptable.
Whereas the 1960s witnessed the growing credibility gap that eroded trust in government and faith that it could be an engine for good, today, the blurring of truth and fiction hampers the very functionality of our political system. “Fake news” and echo chambers — in which people only consume content that supports their views — have left Americans living in parallel universes and demonizing each other.
Yet, in spite of this turbulence, we have avoided the worst devastation, physical and emotional, inflicted during the 1960s. Americans don’t wake up each morning fearing that the world might end, pictures of burning cities and pitched battles in the streets aren’t commonplace, and we haven’t seen our leaders struck down by assassins’ bullets. Our society faces challenges, but one look at the 1960s demonstrates how much worse things could be.
Brian Rosenwald conducts the research for the Slate podcast Whistlestop and a book companion to the podcast. His doctoral dissertation, “Mount Rushmore: The Rise of Talk Radio and Its Impact on Politics and Public Policy,” will be a book for Harvard University Press. He has also written for CNN.com, Politico, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Baltimore Sun, The Daily Beast and Time Magazine’s history blog.