LIFE magazine, December 26th, 1969

The ’60s: Decade of Tumult and Change

“It is tempting for historians — and perhaps even more so for journalists — to paste a specific label on a decade. LIFE has labeled this special issue ‘The Decade of Tumult and Change.’ It was certainly that.

And yet the significant moments of a decade rarely begin with the opening year and then stop neatly on calendar cue ten years later; men and events are not so tidy with time. The last decade in America that perhaps deserved a single, embracing label, was the ’30s: surely it was a decade dominated from beginning almost to end by the Great Depression. The ’40s, however, were sharply divided between World War II, over in 1945, and the post-war years, a period for America of worldwide involvement and rebuilding. Nor did the second phase of the ’40s end with the decade. It continued into the ’50s, which eventually became a period of relative tranquility and peace, of the cold war and the silent generation.

The ’60s, a time of tremendous forces and changes, will be analyzed and argued about for years to come. But we suggest that this decade, in terms of American life and the American scene, breaks into two fairly distinct parts. In the first, there was a brisk feeling of hope, a generally optimistic and energetic shift from the calm of the late ’50s. Then, in a growing swell of demands for extreme and immediate change, the second part of the decade exploded — over race, youth, violence, life-styles and, above all, over the Vietnam war. These explosive years will carry over into the ’70s, and it is impossible to predict when they will end.

The great trends and themes of this turbulent era were, indeed, already in motion during the early years of the ’60s, but they became dominant only in the second half of the decade. If a single event can be picked to mark the dividing line, it is not the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, an isolated national tragedy brought about by the act of a single megalomaniac, but the Watts riots in Los Angeles in August 1965. It was Watts, sudden and violent, that finally ripped the fabric of lawful democratic society and set the tone of confrontation and open revolt so typical of our present condition.

The tumbling years began with a new President inviting his countrymen of all ages to accept a share of the burdens of leadership. This invitation, with its eloquent appeal to idealism, reached the young of America, and they responded not only by joining the Peace Corps but by beginning to study the possibility that they had an urgent stake in the quality of American life. This involvement would lead, eventually, to enormous outbursts of protest against a profusion of targets.

In these early years [of the decade], despite Russian dominance in space, the Bay of Pigs, the small but growing conflict in Vietnam, the backlash against civil rights action and the rising black unrest in the cities, there was a certain optimism that good ends could be accomplished in an orderly and even joyful fashion. The country was eager for heroes and signs of national achievement, and John Glenn provided both when, in the winter of 1962, he orbited the earth three times. And then the President was shot. The long weekend of mourning brought us closer together as a people than we have been at any time since. The sense of disillusionment and of important things begun but never completed ran parallel with grief. Lyndon B. Johnson’s first years in the White House, though marked by proclamations of the Great Society and outstanding congressional action, particularly in the field of civil rights, were accompanied by deepening involvement in Vietnam. By the end of 1965, Vietnam had become a real war — and a national trial. At the same time, American viewers watched in nightly disbelief television film of rising disorders in their own land, in their own streets and in their own campuses. The explosive years have arrived.”


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