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What Happened
in the 60s?

Some people called it the "decade of discontent" because of the demonstrations against the war and the race riots in Detroit, Los Angeles, and other cities. Others called it the decade of "peace, love, and harmony" because of the peace movement and the emergence of the "flower children." To some, it was acid trips and mind expansion: "Far out, man." For us teenagers, it was surely the decade of rock and roll... from Elvis to the Beatles... and a thousand places in between. It was an active decade in the Congress as President Johnson signed major civil rights legislation and the laws enacting Medicare and the first round of the war on poverty. Oh wait; I left out the race to the moon, major political assassinations, the Berlin Wall.....

The country was a far different place in 1960 than it was in 1969. No, you cannot describe what happened in the sixties in a single paragraph... perhaps not in a thousand. That is part of its fascination.

All these significant events occurred in the span of just one decade. Imagine yourself as an impressionable teenager, in the midst of all his turmoil and excitement. Let me take you back there:

It is early 1960... many of us have barely learned where Russia is on the map. We are taught that Russia has "the bomb"; they are the enemy. The Russians shoot down an American spy plane over the Soviet Union and capture pilot Captain Francis Powers, thus proving to the world that the U.S. was spying on its adversaries. This gave the Russian leader all the reason he needed to cancel disarmament talks with the U.S.... a precursor of tough times to come in the rest of the decade. The "cold war" is very hot. - 1960.

Just as we begin listening to rock n' roll music, the Twist becomes the newest dance craze. Starting with the Twist, our dances had much more movement, and a whole lot less direction. The transistor was invented in the '50s; it's first big impact in consumer products was the battery-operated transistor radio. I bought my first one in about 1960 through a mail-order catalog; they were not available in retail stores in the U.S. till the mid-sixties. There might be 3-4 rock and roll radio stations in a major city; they all played the same 40-60 songs. Singles were about two to two and a half minutes long; stations did not like to play songs longer than that. (Listeners might switch stations when they play a song the listener did not like; shorter songs reduced that occurrence.) Radio stations promised "All the hits, all the time," and "More music, more often." The Doors released two versions of "Light My Fire," a short one for the radio, and a longer one for the album. Richard Harris broke ranks when his record company released only a 4-5 minute version of "MacArthur Park" in 1968. It was all AM radio in the 60s. (Oh, I guess FM was around, but FM was mostly for eggheads.) The transistor radios picked up only AM stations. Radio stations encouraged listeners to call in and make requests and dedications. FM started to gain popularity in the late 60s, and became "standard" in the mid-70s. Billboard magazine published its top 100 list every week, but many local stations printed their own hot 100 lists. You could pick one up at the station or a local record shop. The hot new songs were recorded on 45 rpm (rotations per minute) records. (Seventy-eight rpm records faded into history after WWII.) A 45 single cost 97 cents, plus 3 cents tax. When an artist or group had 5-6 hits to their credit, they would put them on an album, along with 4-5 songs that had not been released as singles. Albums were recorded at 33 rpm; don't ask us why. An album cost about four dollars. - 1960.

In the first presidential election that many of us remember, Vice-President Richard Nixon loses to John Kennedy, the youngest man ever to be elected president. Some people say that Kennedy's father, Joe Kennedy, bought or stole the election - and there is considerable evidence of that. But Nixon refused to contest the results, saying, "I would not want the presidency on those terms."
This is the first national election in which television played a major role. The two candidates debated three times on television and radio. Those who listened on radio said Nixon won the debate; but many more watched on television; they thought Kennedy won. Two years later, in an attempt to make a political comeback, Nixon runs for governor of California... and loses again.
After his loss in California, in an angry statement to the press announcing his retirement from politics, he says, "Just look at all you're going to be missing; you don't have Nixon to kick around any more." (Wanna' bet?) - 1960/1962.

We feared communism, which had come to the western hemisphere in a small country 90 miles from Florida. Rebels backed by the U.S. attempt a coup to overthrow Fidel Castro in an event known as the Bay of Pigs. Although the plan was hatched during the Eisenhower administration, the failure is a horrible embarrassment to the young, new president who let it proceed. The CIA made other attempts to get rid of Castro; but he has outlasted nine U.S. presidents. - 1961.

Germany is divided into two separate and highly unequal countries. Perhaps because he sees the U.S. as weak, Russian Premier Khrushchev exerts his country's authority in Europe by constructing a huge concrete wall along the Soviet's portion of Berlin, thus imprisoning its citizens. This stark symbol of oppression lasts for thirty years. Can you imagine being trapped in your own country, unable to leave for any reason? (Cubans still are.) While the wall stood, hundreds of East Germans escaped to the west, but dozens were killed by East German guards while trying to make a desperate run. Such was the price people were willing to pay for freedom. That is why our parents never take it for granted. - 1961.

May, 5: Alan Shepard becomes the first American to fly into space aboard the "Freedom 7." The entire flight lasts about 15 minutes; nearly every radio in the country is tuned to the coverage. Buses, taxis, and schoolroom classes across the country come to a complete halt so that people can listen. (Most people cannot get to a television set at 9:30 in the morning to watch this on TV.) The Russians beat us into space (by a couple weeks), but the race had just begun. - 1961.
President Kennedy challenges his country to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. - 1961.

Baseball is "America's pastime"; the major sport in the country. The whole nation watches with excitement as Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris compete against each other in an effort to break Babe Ruth's home run record. Roger Maris (right) does it, with 61 home runs. - 1961.    

John Glenn orbits the earth three times in the "Friendship 7." The first seven astronauts are scheduled to fly in the Mercury series of space flights. After that, the Gemini series. And then, the Apollo series... to the moon! - 1962.

Marilyn Monroe dies suddenly under a murky cloud of suspicion, although her death is officially ruled a suicide. Marilyn Monroe was one of the few, and certainly the biggest of the Hollywood "bombshells" of the time. Her connection to the Kennedy's (the extent of which was largely unknown at the time) added to her mystique and popularity, both before and since her death. - 1962.

The National Guard is called out to oversee the integration of the University of Mississippi as James Meredith becomes the first Black to enroll. - 1962.


The U.S. prepares for war against the Soviet Union because of the presence of Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba. Throughout the sixties the government conducts "civil defense drills," and some people bought air raid shelters to protect them in case of an attack. President Kennedy negotiates a deal with Chairman Khrushchev, who removes the missiles in exchange for a promise from Kennedy not to invade Cuba. This time "We faced them eyeball to eyeball... and they blinked." - 1962.

Johnny Carson begins a 30-year reign as host of the "Tonight Show." The future of late night television seemed in doubt when network executives give a young comedian named Johnny Carson a shot at hosting the "Tonight Show." Five years later, nearly everyone was talking about whatever happened the night before on "the Carson show." Johnny remained the undisputed leader of late night television until he retired. - 1962.

Dr. Martin Luther King, preaching non-violence, offers his "I Have a Dream" speech before an audience of 200,000 in Washington, D.C. (The text of the speech is available here.) - 1963.


The women's liberation movement takes off with the publishing of "The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan. - 1963.

President Kennedy is assassinated during a visit to Dallas, Texas. Two days later, in front of a national television audience, Jack Ruby shot and killed Kennedy's accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. - 1963.

But, as Paul Harvey likes to say, wash your ears out with this: Three months later, the Beatles led the "British invasion" by landing in New York, and proceeded to change rock music forever. - 1964.

Ted Kennedy nearly dies in a plane crash. He broke his back, but went on win election to the Senate, and continues to hold that position 40 years later. - 1964.

President Lyndon Johnson declares a war on poverty. That this war is indeed winnable is never questioned. Director Sargent Shriver says it will take about a billion taxpayer dollars to achieve this victory. Let the battle begin. - 1964.

The U.S. surgeon general declares that cigarette smoking, a habit "enjoyed" by 60% of the adult population, is a major health hazard. In the back of their minds, our parents had known this all along. But commercials for tobacco had claimed it was refreshing and even healthy. It took another thirty years for the government and the people to get serious about breaking this devastatingly destructive habit. - 1964.

Sam Sheppard, defended by unknown attorney F. Lee Bailey, is found not guilty of murdering his wife. This was perhaps the most grizzly and heinous murder ever thrust onto the national scene. Dr. Sheppard had been convicted of the crime a decade earlier. F. Lee Bailey became famous for getting the verdict overturned and his client acquitted. And yes, it is the crime that inspired "The Fugitive." - 1966.

With hardly anybody paying attention, the Green Bay Packers beat Kansas City in the first Super Bowl. - 1967.

Three U.S. astronauts (Grissom, Chaffee, White) die in a fire on the launch pad during a practice session. A faulty wire ignited a fire, and the absence of an effective hatch release trapped the astronauts in their capsule. This is the first serious accident associated with the U.S. space program; it is a devastating setback. But plans for a lunar landing this decade proceed. - 1967.

The state of Israel was less than twenty years old; its chances for long-term survival were still questionable. Bordering Arab neighbors took advantage of this uncertainty by attacking Israel, but the determined and skilled Israeli Army clobbered them all in what became known as the "Six Day War." - 1967.

Huge and horrible race riots in Detroit surpass those in the Watts section of Los Angeles two years earlier, in terms of both financial cost and lives lost. Forty-one people die; Detroit's mayor says, "It looks like Berlin in 1945." The face of America has serious blemishes. - 1967.

With hundreds of American soldiers dying every week, the "troop strength" in Vietnam increases to 475,000. - 1967.

In an televised address to the nation, President Lyndon Johnson suddenly and unexpectedly declares, "I shall not seek, and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president." The Vietnam war claims another soldier. - 1968.    

Dr. Martin Luther King is assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. We begin to think that things are out of control. James Earl Ray is caught; he confesses to the murder and spends the rest of his life in prison. But suspicions of conspiracy linger. - 1968.    

Two months later, Bobby Kennedy is assassinated in Los Angeles while running for president. The assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, is caught at the scene, and remains in jail over 30 years later. But the Kennedy "claim to the presidency" is pushed even further away. - 1968.    

Protestors disrupt the Democratic nominating convention in Chicago, and hundreds are arrested as the youth try to make their voices heard. Now we know that things are out of control. - 1968.

The voting public looks for a change. In a political comeback unmatched in the twentieth century, Richard Nixon wins the presidential election in a close race against Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. - 1968.

President Kennedy's widow, Jackie, marries Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis. - 1968.

Senator Ted Kennedy drives his car off a bridge in Massachusetts, killing his young passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. This major story was partially drowned out (sorry) by the moon landing that took place just days later. A week after the accident, Kennedy received a suspended sentence, and that was the end of it. But many Americans would never look at Kennedy the same way (and few would ever ride in a car with him at the wheel.) - 1969.

The U.S. wins the space race convincingly by landing a man on the moon. "Houston... Tranquility Base, here; the Eagle has landed." Neil Armstrong is the first man to step onto the surface of the moon. His crew member, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin steps out soon afterwards while Michael Collins circles above in the command module. Event of the century? Possibly; we all thought so at the time. We met the late president's challenge and conquered outer space. This gave Americans confidence that we could beat the Russians in anything... if put to the test. - 1969.

Half a million party-goers sludge through the mud to experience four days of rock n' roll at an event called Woodstock. (For the full story, see our "Woodstock Remembered" page.) Heavy press coverage makes the event seem much larger than it was and shows the passing of baby boomers from young children to adult children. - 1969.

Charles Manson and other members of his cult murder actress Sharon Tate and six others in a horrible event that was referred to as "Helter Skelter." The death penalty is later overturned in California, so Charlie and his "family" can spend the rest of their lives in prison at the taxpayers' expense - 1969.

250,000 protestors (mostly boomers) march against the war in Washington, D.C. It is only fitting that the decade ends with as much excitement and turmoil as it began. - 1969.

What a decade!! Take a look at 1969... all the events listed for 1969 took place within a period of five months! It was simply awesome!

Let's compare that to the major events of the nineties. Many things may pop into your head today (the birth of Madonna's baby may loom large in your mind), but what do you think we'll remember about the nineties 30 years from now? Let's see...

The Berlin Wall came down.
The Soviet Union ceased to exist.
Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, tried to take over Kuwait, but was beaten back by a coalition of forces led by the U.S. Nonetheless, he continued an attempt to build up an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction throughout the decade.
Former NFL running back and celebrity O. J. Simpson beat a murder rap.
The president was impeached and tried in the Senate on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice relating an affair he had with a White House intern.
The U.S. enjoyed the longest period of economic growth since the sixties.
Millions of people throughout the world died from a disease contracted largely by careless and dangerous personal behavior.
The personal computer and the Internet connected ordinary citizens to information, people, and events around the world.
Even the public schools are not safe as more than a dozen times kids deal with their anger by shooting their classmates and teachers at school.
Elvis is sighted at a trailer park outside Tupelo, Mississippi.

That should explain why baby boomers keep talking about how great the sixties was.

But wait... there's a whole lot more. Pick a year, any year:

'56     '57     '58     '59     '60     '61     '62     '63     '64     '65

'66     '67     '68     '69     '70     '71     '72     '73     '74     '75

The Last Word
The description of the 60s continues at Then and Now - another special feature at BBHQ.

For a taste of the music that defined and mirrored the sixties, visit our Music Room.

If you are looking for even more information on the boomers, or what it was like when the boomers were growing up... check out the BBHQ Library. We have several books on the sixties there, including "The Sixties: From Memory to History," "Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows," "Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties," "I Haven't Understood Anything Since 1962," and "The Fifties."

Next, you might want to go to your local library and look up "Life" magazine from the sixties. "Life" was a weekly back then; in fact, it was the weekly magazine. Hugh Sidey's essay on the back page was always terrific. Finally, if you have the luxury, ask your parents. Listen closely; in fact, record what they have to say on tape. Someday, your grandchildren will thank you.

Or, return to the entrance to our Sixties Section for other features.

Thousands of people have come to the BBHQ Sixties Section. How did you hear about it? What do you think? What else would you like to see here? Include your e-mail address if you want a response.

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