Study Guide

The 1960s Introduction

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The 1960s Introduction

The '60s: it wasn't just the "Age of Aquarius." It was truly an age of reform and revolution. Mainstream politicians launched a multifaceted campaign to eliminate poverty, expand government services to the elderly, and increase educational opportunities for people of all ages.

Over the course of the decade, Congress passed historic legislation transforming the role of government in American society. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, the Job Corps, the Office of Economic Opportunity, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Transportation were all part of this legislative record.

But reform wasn't confined to the Washington political establishment. Student activists rallied to fight racial segregation and end the Vietnam War. Much of this protest was peaceful. Students cited the examples set by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. in seeking nonviolent social change.

But some activists lost confidence in nonviolent methods as the decade passed and the war in Vietnam continued. Radical factions like the Weathermen argued that the war abroad and racial and class injustices at home required more aggressive responses. By the end of the decade, these militants had gone underground to wage a campaign of targeted bombings against government institutions linked to the war and "oppression."

Other reformers and revolutionaries eschewed politics for cultural and social change. These prophets of the counterculture sought to transform the ways Americans worked, lived, and loved. They denounced materialism and capitalism, encouraged self-exploration and self-fulfillment, and offered wide-ranging prescriptions toward these ends—drug use, sexual experimentation, communal living, and non-Western religions.

At the same time, popular stereotypes notwithstanding, the '60s wasn't a decade that belonged entirely to the counterculture and to left or liberal political movements. The modern conservative movement that later came to dominate American politics through the Reagan and Bush Eras was born in and of the 1960s as well.

What is The 1960s About and Why Should I Care?

The 1960s was a decade of slogans.

  • Students chanted "Stop the War."
  • Hippies extended an invitation to "turn on, tune in, and drop out."
  • John Kennedy urged Americans to explore a "New Frontier."
  • And Lyndon Johnson pledged to build a "Great Society."

It's easy to list the catchy phrases coined by protestors and politicians. But it's harder to recreate the vision and sense of opportunity that inspired these slogans. During the 1960s, people of all ages and backgrounds became convinced that America could build a new society—a nation in which no one was poor or exploited, everyone could be educated, and the sins of America's past—ahem, racism—would be redressed.

Of course, not everyone nursed the same vision. Some pushed their critique of contemporary society further than others. And somewhat ironically, people who shared common goals on some issues found themselves violently at odds over other social questions. 

Still, there's something striking in the fact that a New England blueblood and a hard-nosed Texan, thousands of idealistic college students, and just as many young countercultural revolutionaries would share the same basic belief that America was on the edge of a new, more perfect time in history.

So, what exactly brought them together, and what drove them apart? Why the 1960s? Why not sooner or later? And what did all this idealism and vision produce? 

Did it leave us with anything more than a bunch of slogans?

The 1960s Resources


John Andrew, Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society (1999)
Readers interested in a more comprehensive and academic look at Johnson should read Robert Dallek’s below 1999 biography. But readers interested in a shorter evaluation of the Great Society—its legislation, operation, and impact—should read this balanced, well-written book.

David Barber, A Hard Rain Fell: SDS and Why It Failed (2008)
This is a balanced, complex, and interesting examination of the evolution of the Students for a Democratic Society. Central to Barber’s argument is the conclusion that the SDS failed largely because its white male leaders failed to fully understand and rise above the racism and sexism the student movement claimed to protest.

Robert Cohen and Reginald Zelnik, The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s (2002)
This collection of essays and mini-memoirs offers a fascinating account of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement. The approach taken by contributors ranges from the scholarly to the commemorative—an entire section is devoted to Mario Savio who died in 1996.

Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963 (2003)
Readers interested in a comprehensive and authoritative biography of Kennedy should read this book by Boston University historian Robert Dallek. It's massive, but Dallek manages to maintain a strong narrative thread and spices up his account with new information about Kennedy’s notorious womanizing.

Jo Freeman, At Berkeley in the ‘60s: The Education of an Activist, 1961–1965 (2004)
Anthologies like Robert Cohen’s and Reginald Zelnik’s offer more varied analyses of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, but students might prefer this insider’s day-to-day memoir.

Michael Harrington, The Other America (1962)
This powerful exposé of poverty reportedly inspired Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to expand federal anti-poverty programs. Portions of the book, like its discussions of diminishing real wages in the wake of declining union membership, continue to resonate decades after its release.


The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced (1967)
Recorded in London, this first album by the Seattle legend signaled a new direction in American rock. Raw, powerful, and employing all the tricks made possible by electricity (feedback, distortion), Are You Experienced debuted as the student movement and counterculture was gathering its own more electric intensity.

Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
Almost every Dylan album of the era speaks to some important part of the 1960s, but this one (Dylan’s fifth studio album) is interesting because it represents Dylan in transition. Dylan taps into his pre-folk rock and blues roots in this half-acoustic, half-electric declaration.


Passing the Torch to a New Generation
President John Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower, 1961

Transfer of Power
Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as president after the assassination of John Kennedy

Politics, Texas-Style
Lyndon Johnson applying a little political pressure

Johnson’s War on Poverty
President Lyndon Johnson visiting Kentucky in 1964

Columbia 1968
Students at Columbia University occupy one of the campus buildings for a week during April 1968

Movies & TV

America’s War on Poverty (1995)
This five-hour documentary traces the war on poverty from its beginnings in the early 1960s through the Nixon administration. Made by Henry Hampton, better known for his epic Eyes on the Prize series, this documentary drew some criticism from conservatives for its idealistic assessment of the 1960s campaign to build the “Great Society.” Regardless of its politics, the series provides the most comprehensive review of this monumental legislative project.

Berkeley in the '60s (1990)
This documentary explores the evolution of student activism at UC Berkeley from the late 1950s through the People’s Park protest. Filmmaker Mark Kitchell’s sympathies are clear, but his interviews with participants include a great deal of reflection on the errors and excesses of the movement.

Joe (1970)
Released in 1970, this film offers a dreary look at American society torn apart by change. No one comes off particularly well in this dark film; the hypocritical executive, the racist hard-hat, and the drug-dealing hippie are all on a violent and self-destructive collision course.

The Graduate (1967)
This classic offers a memorable but ultimately conservative expression of youth’s alienation during the 1960s. Mrs. Robinson continues to serve as an iconic image of the jaded culture confronting young Americans coming of age. But Benjamin’s rebellion ultimately follows a fairly conventional path.


Free Speech Movement Sources
An extensive collection of documents, chronologies, essays, and images are available on this site dedicated to Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement.

Blasphemy: Curt Flood’s Suit of Baseball
This site nicely recounts Flood’s challenge to Major League Baseball’s reserve clause.

The Miller Center of Public Affairs
The Miller Center of Public Affairs maintains a website devoted to the history of the presidency. Biographies, photo galleries, speeches, and much more compiled information is provided here. 

Historical Documents

Presidential Papers
The American Presidency Project has made thousands of documents available through its searchable database. Speeches, press conference transcripts, executive orders, signing statements, and public papers for every American president are among the documents linked to this site.

Kennedy Sources
An extensive collection of Kennedy materials—papers, speeches, and press releases—has been made electronically available by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Johnson's "Great Society" Speech
After Kennedy's assassination, and Lyndon Johnson's prompt swearing in as president, Johnson got right to work implementing his Great Society policies. This speech highlights those objectives.

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