James Patterson, professor emeritus of history at Brown University, has emerged as a premier chronicler of the momentous and explosive politics of the '60s.
In his last book, Freedom Is Not Enough (2010), he showed how the liberal backlash to Daniel Patrick Moynihan's landmark 1965 report on the decay of the black family life warped the left's approach to the problem for decades to come.
In his new tome, The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America, he pulls us back from the peak of 1960s unrest — the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, Woodstock in 1969 — to the year it all started.
The Phoenix caught up with Patterson for a Q&A by phone. The interview is edited and condensed.
WHAT DID AMERICA LOOK LIKE AS 1965 APPROACHED? WHAT WAS THE STATE OF THE AMERICAN PSYCHE? Well, my argument is that the early 60s, well into 1964, in many ways resembled the fifties. Adults, as well as students, dressed pretty much the way they had in the fifties. Students, for instance, very few of them were wearing long hair or beards. Women were still wearing lip stick, short hair, skirts. There were signs in 1964 of serious change — the Berkeley Free Speech movement late in the year, for instance. But for the most part, very late '64 and early '65 was a time of optimism, of peace. It was also an extraordinarily prosperous time.
Lyndon Johnson, I start the book with this, actually said this at his national tree lighting ceremony, which occurred in December of 1964, and I quote: "These are the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem. Today, as never before, man has in his possession the capacities to end war and preserve peace, to eradicate poverty and share abundance, to overcome the diseases that have afflicted the human race and permit all mankind to enjoy their promise in life on this Earth."
HOW DID LBJ COPE WITH THE SHOCKS OF 1965, BE IT SELMA OR THE WATTS RIOTS OR THE PUBLIC REACTION TO THE ESCALATION IN VIETNAM? WAS HE STUNNED? The title is "The Eve of Destruction." [But] a lot of what happened in 1965, from the standpoint of Lyndon Johnson and the liberals was far from destructive. It was far and away the most constructive and most productive year of American liberalism in all of the 20th century. Among the landmark legislation which got through in 1965 was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was the first time the federal government poured a lot of money into public schools, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, a long overdue reform of America's very racist immigration system, and so forth.
[But] he does escalate the [Vietnam] war. In January of 1965, there are only 23,000 American military people there. They were called military advisers. For the most part, they were not engaged in combat. By the end of the year, there were 184,000 American soldiers there and of course, many of them were dying. So this is a year of huge escalation. It's the year when we really go to war in Vietnam.