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Jeffrey Aaron Snyder: Review of James Patterson's "The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Changed America" (Basic Books, 2012)

Jeffrey Aaron Snyder is a historian of education who writes about the twentieth-century United States.  He teaches at Carleton College.

When did “the Sixties” begin? The answer, James Patterson says, is 1965, after which “life in the United States would never be the same again.” When President Lyndon Baines Johnson lit the national Christmas tree in December of 1964, he declared that “these are the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” One year later, Watts was still smoldering while thousands of demonstrators gathered in front of the White House to chant “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids have you killed today?” The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Changed America tells the absorbing story of how we got from the promise of Bethlehem to the nightmares of Vietnam and race riots.

The Sixties usually unfold in a frenetic montage of iconic moments, from JFK’s assassination to Jimi Hendrix’s burning guitar. Patterson should be applauded for rescuing the Sixties from the conventional sex, drugs and rock n’ roll treatment. Rather than focusing on the counterculture, Patterson brings us into the nation’s central corridors of power, re-centering the era on the “commanding figure” of LBJ and the machinery of the federal government.

Patterson portrays LBJ as a hugely ambitious man, with “epic strengths” and “epic weaknesses.” Charming and generous one moment, he could be crude and domineering the next. A man without hobbies, “politics was his religion.” Obsessed with outdoing the legislative accomplishments of his hero, FDR, Johnson pursued his domestic agenda with a relentless and imperious energy. He was a difficult man to refuse. He would buttonhole colleagues whose votes he needed, his six-foot, four-inch frame looming over them, his piercing eyes boring in, while he harangued and cajoled his targets with such force and at such length that they were rendered “stunned and helpless” (this overwhelming technique became known simply as “the Treatment”).

With the inept, slow-motion Congress of the last few years, it is difficult to fathom the “avalanche” of legislation that passed in the single year of 1965, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Medicare/Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act and immigration reform. Johnson’s vision of a Great Society, with equal opportunity for all, animated all of his major policy initiatives. While the expansive federal legislation enacted by the Johnson Administration would soon provoke a sharp right-wing response from foes of “big government” such as Nixon and Reagan, LBJ’s dream of a Great Society was initially threatened by two more pressing concerns—civil rights and Vietnam.

On March 7, 1965, dubbed “Bloody Sunday,” Alabama state troopers wielded clubs, bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire against civil rights activists attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery. Photographers and TV crews captured the brutal skull-cracking violence and millions of Americans recoiled in horror. “Bloody Sunday” helped ensure the passage of the Voting Rights Act. But on August 11, less than a week after it passed, an angry confrontation between white police and black residents in Watts sparked a furious urban revolt. The six-day riot, which saw 34 deaths and nearly 1,000 buildings damaged, fractured the shaky coalitions among different civil rights organizations and sapped the good will of many whites.

It wasn’t only violence at home that was dividing the nation. Vietnam, which LBJ frequently disparaged as that “damn little piss-ant country,” was occupying a lot more of the public’s attention as well. Throughout June and July, LBJ agonized over the best course of action to take in Vietnam. While he could not see a clear path to victory, Johnson was convinced that abandoning an ally would cause irreparable damage to the image of the United States. He eventually settled, as we now recognize, on a costly strategy of escalation. At the beginning of 1965, there were approximately 23,000 American troops in Vietnam serving in “advisory roles” in special enclaves; by the end of the year, 184,000 soldiers were on the ground serving in active combat roles.

The title of Patterson’s book comes from an eponymous Barry McGuire song that hit number one on the Top 40 charts at the end of September 1965. Contrasting the “bitter, blunt and devastatingly bleak“ lyrics of “Eve of Destruction” with the saccharine hits from earlier in the year -- songs like the Beach Boy’s “California Girls” -- Patterson argues that McGuire’s song signaled a decisive shift in the cultural zeitgeist. This is a clever insight and one not without merit. Title in hand, however, Patterson must have felt obligated to sprinkle the text with references to popular music such as Dylan going electric and the release of the Stones’ “Satisfaction.” These excursions into musical territory are mostly distracting and perfunctory.

If Patterson has a tin ear for popular music, the main theme of his book nonetheless rings true. The developments of 1965 -- the wave of Great Society legislation, the electric movement for civil rights and the dramatic escalation of the Vietnam War -- did indeed make this particular year the “hinge of the Sixties.” Concluding Eve of Destruction with a brief epilogue on “1966 and the Later Sixties,” Patterson misses an opportunity to make a bolder statement by not extending his analysis to more recent history. Consider the following facts: It has not been possible to understand or debate Afghanistan and Iraq without taking into account the “lessons” of Vietnam; No Child Left Behind, the transformational 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, has defined the educational landscape for over a decade now; and Medicare and Medicaid are at the center of the contentious -- and seemingly endless -- debates about our national debt. Almost a half-century later, we are still living in the world that LBJ helped to fashion in 1965.