The year 1964 was still basically the 1950s: America remained a rules-based society. Clothing was still generally conservative across the nation (no "hippies" yet), and television and movies still reflected comfortable and reassuring content. True, the music had changed, and would soon be the de facto religion of the Counter-Culture, but in 1964, only the first few verses had been written, even with the unprecedented success and influence of The Beatles. In 1964, the first of the "Baby-Boomers" were entering college, and the U.S. economy was not just expanding, it was roaring along (GDP increased by at least 25% since the mid-1950s). In general, Americans were trusting and confident about the the federal government, in terms of knowing what needed to be done, and the best way in order to accomplish its goals. The only real ferment in American society was with the African-American Civil Rights Movement, which among many unresolved issues, featured the continued struggle in states such as Mississippi to get African-Americans to be able to register to vote. In terms of African-American Civil Rights, 1965 was the year the movement started to radicalize.
In March of 1965, the Selma March (really three marches, the last, successful march led by MLK, Jr.) occurred, which was a key event in pressuring LBJ and Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act later that same year. However, despite these great Civil Rights events, more-and-more African-Americans became impatient with the pace of change - there was a gathering sense that abolishing legal racism would not lead to racial equality. And, despite these great Civil Rights events, virtually every state was ignoring Civil Rights for African-Americans . . . what to do?
On 6 August, 1965, the Voting Rights Bill was signed into law by LBJ; five days later, theWatts Riot started in Los Angeles. Thirty-four people were killed (all but five were white), over one-thousand were injured, over four-thousand were arrested, over one-thousand buildings were destroyed (mostly white homes & businesses), and the estimated cost of destruction was $40m ($287m in 2012 dollars). In 1965, whatever line that had restrained African-American rage outside the South was disappearing. Poverty plus sky-high expectations led to rage: efforts to gain Civil Rights did not lead to a greater standard of living. The Watts Riot changed the attitudes of millions of white Americans: 88% polled stated that self-help was preferable to federal assistance . . . Patterson argued that this was the beginning of organized "White Conservative Backlash". Second only to the Vietnam War, the Watts Riot did more damage in terms of polarizing America, which opened the door to the Tumultuous Sixties.
By the fall of 1965, impatient, ever-more rights-conscious advocates for the poor were demanding federal assistance. At the same time, ultra-conservative opposition was forming in this era of Liberalism (most famously with Ronald Reagan's candidacy for governor in California). I'm sure LBJ lamented more times than he could count that 1965 was not 1964; few presidents in the era of scientific polling had greater support than LBJ in 1964. Concrete evidence of that support came in the Election of 1964, where he received 61.1% of the popular vote, which is highest percentage in history (well, since 1824, when presidential elections were opened up to the average voter). Warren Harding in 1920, FDR in 1936, and Richard Nixon in 1972 were the only other presidents to receive over 60% of the popular vote, and LBJ surpassed them all. During 1965, with the rules-based "Political Center" quickly diminishing, and the rights-based liberal and conservative extremes starting to grow with no stabilizing force in place, the formula for polarization in American politics and society was created. Most of LBJ's signature legislative achievements in his "Great Society" (e.g. Civil Rights, reducing poverty, improving education) were more promise-than-substance. Almost manic in his desire to out-do his idol, FDR, in terms of legislation over a short period of time, LBJ was unable to follow-through and clarify/enforce legislation. LBJ often over-promised and over-stated during the legislative process, which then led to greater expectations, and then to the all-but-guaranteed under-performance of his cherished legislation. By 1965, President Lyndon Johnson had a credibility-gap with an increasing number of Americans.
Everything didn't change in 1965 - "feel-good" entertainment was still very popular. During the spring, almost all the songs were about love and personal feelings; even Bob Dylan scaled-back his lyrics. The "Sound of Music" was released in theaters, and despite a relatively lukewarm reception by some major critics, millions of Americans saw the movie (adjusted for inflation, it's the third highest-grossing movie in history). But with music, forces of change were rolling, literally - The Rolling Stones' "(I Ain't Got No) Satisfaction" topped the Billboard charts; in a way, the song became a sort of national anthem for the emerging Counter-Culture. But it was another song that made a larger impact during 1965 and beyond: "The Eve of Destruction", performed by Barry McGuire, which went #1 on the Billboard Singles Chart on 25 September. The lyrics focused on Vietnam, nuclear holocaust, Civil Rights, and the hypocrisy of organized religion. It very likely only reinforced existing viewpoints while not changing very many, if any, minds towards the topics in the song, but by the fall of 1965, as a result of this song, more-and-more people started to gravitate towards the topical and confrontational in the world of music.
In the halcyon days of 1964, most Americans supported involvement in Vietnam (that was still true towards the end of 1965 to a lesser degree). LBJ inherited U.S. involvement in Vietnam from his predecessors, but decided to continue their policies, in part, because he wanted to avoid the label of appeasement (Munich, 1938, was still fresh in most American's memory). Also, he wanted to avoid any comparison to Truman and "Losing China" (1949) with Vietnam. LBJ's major problem, however, was that he didn't have a strong background in foreign policy; domestic policy was in his wheelhouse. Former JFK advisers that continued in service for LBJ, such as Robert McNamara (SecDef), McGeorge Bundy (NSA), and Dean Rusk (SecState) basically gave the president bad advice concerning Vietnam. Many powerful high-level politicians advised LBJ to avoid increasing America's commitment in Vietnam, and to even vacate the region, but LBJ decided to head in the other direction. In short, LBJ gambled that with the expanding economy, he could afford to pursue his goals with his "Great Society" as well as expanding America's role in Vietnam in order to stop the spread of Communism.
Vietnam, more than anything else, spurred the polarization that characterized the 1960s.
A timeline of events concerning Vietnam in 1965 as outlined by Dr. James T. Patterson helps to illustrate that point:
27 January: The "Fork in the Road" memo from McNamara & Bundy: bomb North Vietnam.
7 February: Pleiku (8 Americans killed; 100+ wounded)
8 February: LBJ ordered large-scale bombing of North Vietnam
2 March: The official start of "Operation Rolling Thunder" (bombing North
Vietnam), including napalm and Agent Orange - this is the event that triggered
the massive U.S. involvement in Vietnam
8 March: 3500 Marines land at Danang (the first U.S. soldiers in Asia since the Korean War)
24 March: The first "Teach-In" occurred at the University of Michigan, spreading to other
campuses that spring
17 April: The first Anti-War Rally in Washington, D.C. (25,000, surprising everyone; the
largest peace demonstration in history to that point)
7 June: General Westmoreland demanded more soldiers; the U.S. was already venturing
beyond its original "Enclave" strategy of just defending key locations in South Vietnam
28 July: LBJ's press conference, announcing the escalation as if it was just "one more item"
LBJ did not prepare citizens for the realities of Vietnam, even though he foresaw what the
long-term consequences could entail; he decided to, in essence, pull a "Nixon", and move
forward as secretly as possible . . . from this point on, it was LBJ's war, "Ground Zero" for
the "Turbulent Sixties".
5 August: CBS (Cronkite) footage of U.S. Marines destroying a village hut despite the pleas of
an elderly woman; 150+ dwellings were destroyed by flamethrowers & lighters . . . for the
first time, a significant number of viewers believed that Vietnam could not be won
31 August: LBJ signed into law making the burning of draft cards a federal offense (5 yrs)
14-18 November: Ia Drang Valley (240 U.S. soldiers KIA in 5 days, triple the average
for a "normal" week in Vietnam; it was the first large-scale encounter of U.S. troops
with the enemy in Vietnam)
Fall of 1965: Most in the media no longer view Anti-War protesters as "trivial"
- For the first time in front of the White House came the chant "Hey, Hey, LBJ, How
Many Kids Have You Killed Today" (LBJ was not in the White House the first time)
1965 was the year in which America became unhinged, primarily due to LBJ's decision-making regarding America's involvement in Vietnam. Added to the volatile atmosphere was the rising expectations and rage of African-Americans, as well as the growing polarization that resulted with the diminishing influence of Liberalism versus the increasing influence of Conservatism. In 1966, one of the most conservative mainstream politicians, Ronald Reagan, easily won election as Governor of California. In 1967, the Detroit Race Riot occurred, far exceeding what happened in Watts in 1965. In early-1968, the Tet Offensive showed that LBJ and General Westmoreland were, in essence, lying about the progress of the War in Vietnam, and on 31 March, LBJ announced his decision that he would not be a candidate for President.
Only four years before that televised speech, on 22 May, 1964, LBJ was invited to speak at the University of Michigan. He spoke of a "Great Society" that would provide abundance and liberty for all. The goal of his "Great Society" would be an end to poverty and racial injustice in their lifetime . . . that speech set the tone for his campaign against the ultra-conservative Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, in 1964 to continue as President of the United States.
Click HERE to see the television commercials from the campaigns of both Presidential candidates from the Election of 1964 (courtesy of the "Living Room Candidate")