This morning I finished Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America by James T. Patterson. I often read in cycles, and Eve was the third of a three-part installment, if you will, in a project to read more about contemporary history. Five years ago, just prior to my first visit to Gettysburg, I made a conscious effort to raise my game regarding Civil War history. I feel I have done that, though I still have a ways to go. I have gained a great deal, but recently I felt I was losing my mojo in other areas. There are only so many hours in the day; every time you are doing one thing by definition you are not doing something else.I believe so many focus so intently on the Civil War, especially those who dwell on the minutiae of the battles, that they lose something. One cannot understand the war, or our complicated history, without context.
In his preface Patterson makes clear that no one year can “change everything,” as the blurbs and subtitles often shout to us when we walk the aisles of the local bookstore. Life just doesn’t follow the calendar like that. Still, as Patterson shows, 1965 was a transforming year in American history. The assassination of Malcolm X, Selma, Vietnam escalation, Watts rioting, Voting Rights Act, immigration reform, the alphabet soup of Great Society programs that President Johnson felt secure to create after being given a mandate during his landslide victory in November 1864 and inauguration in January 1965. Not for nothing did Johnson proclaim during the lighting of the national Christmas tree in December 1964 that we were living in “the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” It was typical LBJ hyperbole, but as was the case with many of Johnson’s pronouncements it had a ring of truth. Ironically, America’s prosperity and hopefulness are what led to to the anger and cynicism of the era as it became clear that our many problems were not so easy to fix.
Culturally things were changing as well. The Beatles released Rubber Soul at the end of the year. It is hard not to believe that 1965 was the year that the sixties became The Sixties. I have added Patterson’s Grand Expectations, the United States, 1945-1974 to my short list.