1964 - The Year The Sixties Began


“Throughout our history, countless Americans have died in the continuing struggle for equality. We shall continue to work for this goal and we fervently hope that Americans so engaged will be aided and protected in this noble mission.” At the close of his remarks, Goodman wept in the arms of a family friend.

The triple murder in Mississippi had a profound impact on public opinion. On the eve of the 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Americans disapproved of the planned demonstration by a margin of 60 percent to 23 percent, an indication of how skeptically most people still regarded the black freedom struggle. By September 1964, 59 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll voiced approval of the new civil rights law, compared with 29 percent who opposed it.

Jim Crow had spent its last credit with the American public, and the smartest segregationists realized it. “As long as it’s there,” Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia said of the Civil Rights Act, “it must be obeyed,” a sentiment echoed by the Louisiana senator Allen Ellender, who reluctantly admitted that “the laws enacted by Congress must be respected.”

Though some firebrands like Mississippi’s governor, Paul Johnson, urged citizens and businesses not to comply with the law, by late 1964 most Southern towns and institutions had dismantled the rigid segregation apparatus that had defined local race relations since the 1880s. “Colored” and “White” signs came down, signaling the final disappearance of American apartheid.

The road ahead wasn’t a smooth one. Battles remained over voting rights, open housing, and economic opportunity—battles that would take the civil rights movement to new and unexpected places, like the urban North, and which would usher in a more confrontational style of activism and protest. After Freedom Summer, civil rights became a national issue, and it defined the political debate for the rest of the decade.

On August 2, as FBI agents in Neshoba County waded through Mississippi swampland amid a 106-degree heat wave in search of the bodies of the three missing civil rights workers, 12 time zones away, off the northernmost coast of North Vietnam, the U.S. destroyer Maddox was patrolling the waters around a cluster of small islands in the Gulf of Tonkin. The ship’s commander, Capt. John Herrick, was engaged in the DeSoto Patrol, a top-secret intelligence operation, surveying the Hanoi regime’s shore-defense system. As Herrick steered through the choppy Pacific waters that afternoon, three North Vietnamese PT boats emerged from behind Hon Me Island and swiftly closed with the destroyer. Though technically entitled to the privileges of maritime neutrality, the Maddox retreated to open waters; the PT boats followed in close pursuit, then launched torpedoes. Herrick sent a distress signal that led a nearby Navy carrier, the Ticonderoga , to scramble its fighter jets, which swiftly sank one PT boat and disabled the remaining two.

Thousands of miles away, in Washington, D.C., aides awakened President Johnson to inform him of the attack. The President’s response was swift and unequivocal. Johnson ordered the Maddox to resume its operations—for good measure, he teamed her with a second destroyer—and warned Hanoi that any further incitements would invite a military response. LBJ was acting at least in part out of perceived political necessity. His opponent in the fall election was Sen. Barry Goldwater, a conservative Arizona Republican and vehement anti-Communist who had electrified the GOP National Convention earlier that summer when he declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Johnson was determined not to be outhawked. He scarcely needed his Texas friend Robert Anderson to remind him that “you’re gonna be running against a man who’s a wild man.”

1964 to 1965: The number of U.S. troops in Vietnam went from 17,000 to 184,000.

The next day, on August 3, under direct orders from the Pentagon, Herrick once again steered his ship toward the North Vietnamese coastline, but when his radar suggested a torpedo attack, he quickly veered toward Hainan, a nearby Chinese island. In the hours that followed, the Maddox appeared to be under attack. Later that day Herrick re-evaluated the afternoon’s events and informed his superiors that “many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonar men may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by Maddox .” Despite this follow-up report, Johnson pressed ahead. On Wednesday, August 5, just as FBI agents were uncovering Michael Schwerner’s shirtless corpse in the Olen Burrage Dam, the President ordered a five-hour-long battery of air strikes on North Vietnamese military targets.

Two days later Johnson demanded and won congressional passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized the Commander in Chief to employ “all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression” in Southeast Asia. The measure passed unanimously in the House of Representatives and by a vote of 88 to 2 in the Senate. The only dissenters were the Alaska Democrat Ernest Gruening and the Oregon Democrat Wayne Morse.