1964 - The Year The Sixties Began

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It has been called the “burned-over decade,” a “dream and a nightmare,” the “definitive end of the Dark Ages, and the beginning of a more hopeful and democratic period” in American history. It’s been celebrated in movies like Forrest Gump and memorialized by television shows like “The Wonder Years,” “American Dreams,” and “China Beach.”

To many on the Left it is a bygone age of social consciousness and freedom. The writer William Braden observed that it ushered in a “new American identity—a collective identity that will be … more emotional, more intuitive, more exuberant—and, just possibly, better than the old one.”

To conservatives it was a time when a vast, invidious cultural revolution corroded America’s basic values. The columnist George Will scorned it as an era of “intellectual rubbish,” “sandbox radicalism,” and “almost unrelieved excess.” Even the liberal intellectual Daniel Bell believed it gave rise to a “world of immediate gratification and exhibitionist display.”

It was the 1960s, and it didn’t begin when you think it did. It began on January 1, 1964.

Consider for a moment the state of affairs in the weeks just following John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. Billboard magazine’s Top 20 list was dominated by “Sugar Shack,” sung by Jimmy Gilmore & the Fireballs; “He’s So Fine,” by the Chiffons; Little Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him”; and “My Boyfriend’s Back,” by the Angels. No Bob Dylan. No Beatles. No Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, or the Who. Just innocuous pop of the sort purveyed by Bobby Vinton and “The Singing Nun.” The calendar might have marked the end of the 1950s, but the music was still there.

The four Britons helped American youths seize their country’s culture.

Leaf through the pages of the 1963 student yearbook at Columbus High School, in Columbus, Indiana, and you’ll find rows of confident young Americans—the boys all short-haired and clean-shaven, identically attired in tweed jackets and thin dark ties (with the exception of one Thomas Whittington, who donned a black bow tie); the girls, modest in their long-sleeved, high-necked blouses, wearing their hair either up or cropped just above the neck. No sideburns, no long hair, no open collars, no flower power. Just a bunch of future IBM managers and their future housewives.

What Time magazine famously observed of those coming of age in the 1950s—“the most startling thing about the younger generation is its silence”—still largely applied to high school students and collegians in the early 1960s. “We’re a cautious generation,” a student at Vassar had informed Newsweek just a few years earlier. “We aren’t buying any ideas we’re not sure of.” Another student said: “You want to be popular, so naturally you don’t express any screwball ideas. To be popular you have to conform.”

These were the days when Tom Matthews, a high school senior in California, could run for class president on the stirring platform “Vote for Tom—He’s a Real Good Guy.” “That’s the way we were,” Matthews later remarked. “… Around my high school, guys were still padding the halls in saddle shoes and humming ‘Sh-boom.’ A nice girl was a virgin who didn’t smoke cigarettes. Ideology? No one even heard of it. There were no issues. We were suspended closer to the Age of Sinatra than the Age of Aquarius.”

If the kids were still loitering in the fifties, so were their parents. In early 1964 people had tremendous faith in their elected officials, their elders, the police, and the Army. Seventy-six percent of respondents to the University of Michigan’s American National Election Study that year believed that they could trust the federal government to do what was right “most of the time” or “just about always.” By the close of the decade barely half of all Americans had faith in their public institutions. But those days of popular cynicism and skepticism still lay in the future.

So things stood in the weeks after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Few people then could have imagined how quickly their lives—and the country—would change. For 1964 was the year of the Beatles, Mississippi Freedom Summer, and the Gulf of Tonkin, three phenomena that changed the country forever. Americans woke up on January 1 still living in the quiet 1950s. They went to bed on December 31 in the stormy 1960s.

At 1:20 p.m. on February 7, 1964, four mop-topped (as the inescapable epithet went) performers from Liverpool, England, debarked a Pan Am flight at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, where they were greeted by more than 3,000 screaming fans.

“There were girls, girls, girls and more girls,” wrote a local newspaper reporter. “Whistling girls. Screaming girls. Singing girls. They had beatles we love you and welcome signs.” As the plane touched down in front of the international-arrivals terminal, fans broke into cries of “We want the Beatles.” An airport official remarked, shaking his head,“We’ve never seen anything like this here before. Never. Not even for kings and queens.”