February 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 1
On January 2 the New York Jets signed the University of Alabama quarterback Joe Namath to a $427,000 contract that made Namath the highestpaid first-year player in professional football history. “I realize that the football Giants are better established in New York than we are,” said the Jets’ president, Sonny Werblin. “But I remember that when I was growing up in New York, the baseball Yankees couldn’t get started in this town.…all that changed as soon as the Yankees got their Joe Namath, Babe Ruth.” Namath actually lived up to this comparison when he engineered a victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. That game elevated not only Namath and his victorious team but the entire American Football League in its struggle for respectability against the NFL, with which it was scheduled to merge in 1970.
“We are in the midst of the greatest upward surge of economic well-being in the history of any nation,” said President Lyndon Johnson in his January 4 State of the Union message to Congress. “We do not intend to live—in the midst of abundance—isolated from neighbors and nature, confined by blighted cities and bleak suburbs, stunted by a poverty of learning and an emptiness of leisure.” In outlining his vision of the Great Society, Johnson promised something for everyone. Almost every paragraph of the fifty-minute speech called for a new government action or study. Even after his administration had fallen apart under the weight of its own ambitions, Johnson believed in the principle of the Great Society. “We’re the wealthiest nation in the world,” reflected the former President in 1970. “We need to appeal to everyone to restrain their appetite. We’re greedy but not short on the wherewithal to meet our problems.”
The Johnson administration had been considering an escalation of the war in Vietnam for several months when, on February 7, several dozen Vietcong guerrillas made a night attack on the Camp Holloway American air base at Pleiku. The commandos struck the airstrip and a nearby barracks with hand grenades and mortars, killing 8 Americans and injuring another 126. “I don’t believe it will ever be possible to protect our forces against sneak attacks of that kind,” commented Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.
In Washington President Johnson immediately held an emergency meeting with the National Security Council to plan the American response. “We have kept our gun over the mantel…for a long time now,” he said. “And what was the result? They are killing our men while they sleep in the night. I can’t ask our American soldiers out there to continue to fight with one hand tied behind their backs.” Johnson ordered U.S. Navy jets to bomb a guerrilla training camp at Dong Hoi in North Vietnam. At the time there was speculation that the Hanoi government had hoped to provoke such a retaliatory raid in order to convince the visiting Soviet premier Aleksei Kosygin that its armies needed military aid.
On the tenth North Vietnamese commandos killed twenty-three more Americans in a strike on a barracks at Quinhon, seventy-five miles east of Pleiku. Johnson had seen enough. Disregarding protests from several liberal senators and threats from the Soviet and Chinese governments, the President decided on February 13 to initiate Operation Rolling Thunder, the sustained bombing of North Vietnam. “Even if it fails, the policy will be worth it,” wrote the presidential adviser McGeorge Bundy of the decision. “At a minimum it will damp down the charge that we did not do all that we could have done, and this charge will be important in many countries, including our own.”
The Black Nationalist leader Malcolm X had been convinced for several months that his life was in danger when, on February 21, three gunmen assassinated him as he spoke to an audience in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. Malcolm X believed that his repudiation of the Black Muslim religion had made him a target and that powerful elements in the American government wanted him dead. Though two of the men later convicted of killing him were Black Muslims, their trial did not reveal evidence of a conspiracy.
Malcolm X had emerged from prison in 1952 as a self-educated member of the Nation of Islam. He preached a mesmerizing doctrine of black militancy and asked no concessions of white America: “An integrated cup of coffee doesn’t pay for 400 years of slave labor.” He rejected the principle of nonviolent protest advanced by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as “asking the fox to protect you from the wolf.” He denied that he encouraged bloodshed: “I’m not for wanton violence, I’m for justice.” He said he was the angriest black man in America.
In 1964 Malcolm X was suspended by Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Black Muslims, for drawing negative publicity. Growing disillusion led Malcolm X to denounce the religion and found his own church in New York City “to carry into practice what the Nation of Islam had only preached.” Malcolm X had begun to express faith that an end to America’s racial problem could be based on reconciliation rather than confrontation. He knew his break with the Muslims had made him a marked man, but he continued to speak. “To speculate about dying doesn’t disturb me as it might some people,” he explained in his autobiography. “I know that societies often have killed the people who have helped to change those societies.”