text © Don Davis
A time traveler suddenly stepping from the beginning to the end of the decade of the 1960's would, in many urban locations, be confronted with changes in styles and interests perhaps greater than in any previous decade in American history. 'The Sixties' actually refers to the period from about 1965 to 1975, when vast populations underwent cultural upheavels of an intensity seldom recorded in Human history. However distinct a given era may seem, it arose from trends continuing from earlier times as well as reactions to ongoing events. My attempt to address this is the introductory section on the 1950's. The story of the late 1960's is presented not as a peak experience or unique moment but as the period of a dramatic acceleration of a post World War II cultural 'subdividing' of the population which continues into the 21st century.
Among the most powerful messages to emerge from that time was the awareness of different cultures, religious concepts, and lifestyles and the awakening to the viability of alternate ways of life. Much oppression and misery would disappear if people wouldn't regard other cultural groups within and outside one's country as enemies. Unfortunately the oppression society can inflict on people now is far greater than back then, and this has coincided with an alarming trend of complacency by most younger people. I cite a recent example of a young lady of unreproachable background who was denied being at her graduation ceremony because a steak knife was found in her car by a snoopy security guard. The knife had dropped out of a box as she assisted in a move, yet despite a plausible explanation she was thrown out of school under a 'Zero Tolerance' rule with no appeal. Those students of that class should have backed her up in the face of her ridiculous treatment and boycotted the ceremony and otherwise taken a stand. They didn't and oppression is thus sustained and reinforced. In the times I write of there may well have been a different outcome of such a story to report.
What will be learned by new generations of the time when we realized we had choices will be edited, sanitized, and edited some more in deference to corporate interests behind the Mass Media. Corporate interests become an insidious filter to the transmission of history, and even the supposedly politically left leaning Public Broadcasting edited out all the scenes of people smoking Cannabis in their 1990's broadcast of the musical documentary 'Woodstock' and vilified the memory of Tim Leary upon his death on their newscast. Most commentary on talk radio is hostile to the changes happening during these times. Many written accounts and a few sympethetic documentaries will be available to future generations who will for many canturies be curious about what it all meant.
Objectivity when discussing this era is difficult, since you were likely to be on one side or another of the various burning issues of the time. All one can do is show how it was from your point of view and realize the different realities which were in effect for the major ideological blocs which emerged in those times. I cannot pretend to do more than highlight a selected few trends in this process. While no such relatively short essay can hope to cover everything of importance to such a topic, I have tried to convey something of what it was like without the 'filtering' inherent to commercial and government media.
I was there, albeit quite young, and this is how it looked and what it meant to me.
Setting the stage: The 1950's-affluence and conformity
As civilization recovered from
World War Two, millions of soldiers were reunited with wives and
a rise in the birth rate soon followed, chiefly between about
1947 and 1952. The post war era was especially kind to the United
States, where affluence fueled a boom in the availability of consumer
goods and use of entertainment media. Television skyrocketed in
popularity as the 40's ended, and RCA's color television system
had it's broadcast debut in 1950. Soon the RCA system would win
the color broadcast format contest of the times and after a slow
start would remain unchallenged on the American airwaves for over
half a century.
Automobiles were widely available and their gas mileage didn't matter. Rows of mass produced houses spread across the suburbs sprouting from cities and new schools filled with children. Benjamin Spock's book 'The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care', published in 1946, became a highly influential book as millions of 1950's mothers read it for advice.
The affluence of the times was also reflected in the variety of military aircraft prototypes being presented to test pilots in numbers and variety unthinkable by the end of the century, including exotic designs like the 'Flying Wing' and the flying saucer like 'flying flapjack'.
The Korean war ran it's course during the early 1950's, a war which was not quite a war, the outcome of which was victorious yet not quite thoroughly so. The need to rather delicately extricate ourselves without openly fighting a war with China led to the practice of overtly limited warfare. General Douglas MacArthur's dismissal by President Truman ended a public dispute over such conduct of the war. The ultimate result was a South Korea which over the decades irretrievably outclassed it's socialist northern namesake in living standards and world trade influence.
Exploration milestones were still being established on Earth, such as the first ascent of Mount Everest on June 2, 1953, by Edmund Hillary and the Sherpa guide Tenzing. The explosion of the first Hydrogen bomb on March 1, 1954 announced yet another great leap in the destructive power available to human hands and civil defense became a visible public concern. A glimpse by science into the process of physical creation of the Universe was revealed at the end of 1954, when the 'Big Bang' was announced as the probable result of extrapolating back in time the currently observed expansion of the Galaxies from each other. IBM began accepting orders for the rental of it's vacuum tube based computer in 1954.
The major technological miracle of the decade was, of course, the October 4, 1957 launch of Sputnik One. After the spectacular failure of Vanguard 1, the United States successfully launched it's first satellite on February 1, 1958. The first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus, navigated under the northern polar ice cap that August. In late October 1958 regular transatlantic jet service began, using the Boeing 707, which took seven hours rather than the 10 or more of the fastest propeller driven planes.
Such changes taking place in the background of peoples lives steadily reshaped the world and how people could learn of it, and indeed the pace of technology was outrunning society's ability to grasp much less manage it.
The children growing up in the 1950's lived in the shadow of the collective memory of the Second World War. At least outwardly, American society seemed to promote a model of uniformity. Although people lived individually fulfilling lives and carried the legacy of their times through the immediate post war era, the degree to which the early 1950's has been outshone by later times almost makes that period look like a kind of cultural dark ages. Public paranoia was opportunistically inflamed by politicians who promoted scapegoating, particularly in hunting for Communists. Decades previously, Communist movements lacked the moral baggage which was established upon the disclosure of the atrocities of Joseph Stalin after his death on March 5, 1953. The number of actual incidents corresponding to the Communist conspiracies invoked by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his assistant Roy Cohn were insignificant. In April 1953 Charlie Chaplin effectively exiled himself from America rather than subject himself to investigative proceedings. 1954 marked the greatest prominence and finally the fall of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Television commentator Edward R. Murrow detailed his abuses on a March 12 broadcast. McCarthy then tried to intimidate the Army, and after the 'Army-McCarthy hearings' were over it was the turn of 'Tail Gunner Joe' to face investigation, culminating with a humiliating condemnation by the Senate on December 3. Three years later at age 48 he would die a broken man.
I am ashamed to report that Hollywood entertainment
executives conspired to eagerly cooperate with the House on Un-American
Activities Committee inquisitors, barring from the industry hundreds
of worthy talents who wished no harm to their country. Movies
slid into a conservative vein and social problems were rarely
explored for years to come. In 1951 rules against mentioning drugs
and abortion were enacted by the 'Motion Picture Association of
America', then the censors of Hollywood. Courageous directors
like Otto Preminger defied them with films like 'The Man With
The Golden Arm' starring Frank Sinatra in a striking performance
as a heroin addict. Even the few who initially dared to speak
out against the inquisition, like Humphrey Bogart, were soon intimidated
into stepping into line like beaten dogs, parroting the denouncers.
This was ironically a mirror image of the treatment in the Soviet
Union of contrived enemies of Joseph Stalin, with lives rather
than reputation at stake. Under the pressure of public support
for greater latitude in subject matter, the grip of the censors
gradually loosened. The great folk balladeer Pete Seeger stood
his ground under the House on Un-American Activities Committee
interrogation on August 8, 1955. For his courageous stand he was
sentenced to a year in jail, but successfully fought off the charge
after a seven year legal battle. In 1950 the passport of Paul
Robeson was revoked after visits to the Soviet Union and other
'Iron Curtain' countries. Robeson was a polymath, pouring incredible
energy into widely differing interests including acting and political
activism. A primary emphasis of his was elevating the status of
Black people and other oppressed minorities across the world.
Robeson was defiant against intimidation, and the Communist hunters
were to later be aghast at his unrepentant audacity when he appeared
Moralistic crusades were conducted against comic books as well as Communists. A successful line of comics published under the heading 'Educational Comics' or 'EC' featured the best artists in the medium, often adapting stories by top authors of a literary form then undergoing a 'golden age', Science Fiction. Some stories pushed the boundaries of traditional comics territory including portrayals of human carnage, hints of sexuality, and even one story of a policeman abusing people, knowing he would never be suspected. Soon a 'Comics Code' would be imposed on the industry, and henceforth neither heroes nor villains bled, women were a bit less curvy, and policemen were always shown in a positive light.
There seemed few acceptable avenues for people who fit in poorly with the prevailing model of society, indeed until the late 1950's one hears little of 'underground' lifestyles besides that of musicians, hobos, low profile homosexuals, and a few roving motorcycle gangs. The 'biker' gangs originally arose from small groups of World War II air veterans and hobbyists wearing leather flight jackets from that war. Such associations were replaced in time with the motorcycle groups of later notoriety, most prominently the 'Hell's Angels' (whose name may have been carried over from the 8th Air Force, 303rd Bombardment Group (H) "Hell's Angels")
Transitions: The breezes of change begin to be felt
As early as 1945 Herman Huncke, an associate of a group of educated vagabonds which included writers Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg first used the word 'beat' as slang to describe a 'beaten down' or repressed state of affairs lending itself to alienation from society, in the process attaining an overview of life missed by most. John Clellon Holmes wrote a New York Times article 'The Beat Generation' in November 1952. Some groping for an alternate realities seemed to be winding it's way through at least a small number of people through out the post-war period. Incidentally, the earliest use of the word 'cool' as a slang term for a mellow state of mind may be in a 1927 poem by the influential black activist Marcus Garvey. A significant amount of slang used by young people emerged first in the urban black community, spreading among some musicians and other groups on the fringes of society. The work of blues musician Robert Johnson also deserves mention as instrumental in the evolution of what would soon be known as 'rock and roll' music. That term, after sporadic use since 1916 in religous context, spread through its use in a trio of late 1940s songs and with 1951 promotion by Cleveland, Ohio disk jocky Alan Freed on WJW radio. An early milestone in the emergence of this genre was the March 1951 recording by Ike Turners 'Kings Of Rhythm' 'Rocket 88' which praised a new Oldsmobile car of the time.The entertainment industry steadily sought more of the youth market as their numbers grew in the post war era, although trends were in place much earlier which would provide mass outlets through which entertainment and ideas would be widely spread. Among the earliest American 'teen idols' to entertain the young and elicit concern of their parents was Frank Sinatra in the mid to late 1940's. Warner Brothers cartoons of the time parodied the screaming girls and his thin body, showing it disappearing behind his microphone stand!
One interesting departure from traditional beliefs arising during the 1950's was the popular attention given to reports and literature dealing with 'Flying Saucers' since the initial reports in 1947. 'Pulp' magazine editor Ray Palmer and paperback book authors began a 'cottage industry' of spreading reports of flying saucers from space and speculating on their implications. Conspiracy scenarios involving government cover-ups of profound truths were an undercurrent of these stories. Although this avenue of inquiry has consistently proven unproductive to those interested in finding proof of mass visitations by aliens, some side effects of this literature at least tended to broaden the world views of many. Besides providing a safe forum to criticize the government's secrecy, the belief in 'Flying Saucers' shifted the emphasis in many peoples concepts of 'spiritual' matters from traditional Christian world views to the possibilities inherent in pondering the attributes of highly advanced alien civilizations. Possibly we could be taught by the advanced beings in the saucers, or perhaps we can one day attain God like powers through our own efforts and be like 'them'. The significance of the 'Flying Saucer' phenomena is that the mass visions of our time at the frontiers of our reality are not saints and angels anymore but spaceships and aliens. The collective consciousness had spoken.
Here and there dissatisfaction began to be
expressed with the way some in society were being treated by others.
Old grievances were being addressed, for instance, when racial
integration of Public schools was ordered in 1954. An effective
bus boycott was initiated by Rosa Parks two years later when she
refused to give up her seat in a 'whites only' section of an Montgomery
Alabama bus. Until that time interstate bus drivers had to stop
and rearrange the seating of the passengers so all of visibly
African ancestry would be at the back of the bus while crossing
certain state lines!
The exodus of more affluent residents from cities to exploding suburbs received attention, and divorce rates were climbing alarmingly. Juvenile delinquency began to be mentioned in the media. Books containing provocative ideas would occasionally diffuse their messages into the collective mind set. To mention but a very few, the 1956 publication of C. Wright Mill's 'The Power Elite' provoked thought on how power might be manipulated by a few behind the scenes, but the villains perceived generally depended on one's political perspective. Ayn Rand's lengthy 'Atlas Shrugged' appeared in 1957 and exposed her staunchly secular 'objectivism' philosophy and an interminable speech to millions of readers. The works of a few 'beat' culture writers also brought alternate views of life to many as the decade wound down, especially 1957's 'On The Road' by Jack Kerouac (whose manuscript was typed on a long continuous paper strip like an ancient papyrus scroll!) and the work of the poets Jack Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg. William S. Burrough's nightmarish 'Naked Lunch' was published in 1959. Many of the 'beat' writings were inspired by experiences gathered over the previous decade of living 'on the edge' of society.
After Sputnik was orbited in 1957, the word 'Beatnik' was coined by San Francisco columnist Herb Caen to describe the alternate youth culture which had become established. They tended to be intellectuals and college students who drank coffee and wine, perhaps smoked a little Cannabis, and enjoyed trying to be profound as well as Bohemian. They were a movement attracting people who didn't fit into the mainstream, primarily well educated youth. The 'Beatniks' were an early manifestation of alternate lifestyles appearing and thriving openly in university influenced environments. Through out the decades to follow, San Francisco and the immediate area would feature prominently in these changes. An early example of protesting uniformity was University of Pennsylvania track star Bruce Dern's resignation from the team in 1957 rather than trim his facial hair, declaring "It doesn't make you a hoodlum just by wearing side burns!" He was to thrive as an actor in later decades. Paul Robeson was finally granted his passport after a Supreme Court decision in 1959 that a citizen's right to travel could not be withheld without due process. On June 12 1956 Robeson testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and in response to the usual Communist affiliation queries he gave them a spirited response! When asked about Stalin (who awarded him a Stalin Peace Prize) his reply included: "Whatever has happened to Stalin, gentlemen, is a question for the Soviet Union, and I would not argue with a representative of the people who, in building America, wasted sixty to a hundred million lives of my people, black people drawn from Africa on the plantations."
Alan Freed organized the first Rock
and Roll concerts in 1952, and as time passed music concerts appealing
to young people would grow in size and cultural influence, especially
with the ascendancy of television. 'Rock and Roll' became a dominant
music form roughly after the June 1954 release of 'Rock Around
The Clock' by Bill Haley and the Comets. Chuck Berry, Little Richard,
Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, and Elvis Presley would soon emerge
as major talents in this general musical field along with many,
many others. Groups were proliferating, early examples including
'Frankie' Lymon and the Teenagers, the Platters, The Coasters,
and the Five Satins among many others to come. Most of the immediate
pre-rock era music was practically obscured by the enormous popularity
of 'rock n'roll'. Such was the concern of older authority
figures toward the perceived danger of loosening of morals by
exposure to rock performances that in 1957, during the third appearance
of Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show, Presley's performance
was only shown from the waist up! The February 3, 1959 plane crash
which killed Buddy Holly, the 'Big Bopper', and Richie Valens
was a major blow to millions of fans of their music, and helped
shift the focus of Rock and Roll talent from Texas to California.
This traumatic event for the emerging Youth Culture was but one
of all too many occasions where great talents died in small planes
flying under marginal conditions.
The decade dawns
In 1959 the American flag assumed
it's current configuration with the addition of Alaska and Hawaii
as states. In 1960 the round tubed color television sets were
still for the relatively affluent, and little of the broadcasting
was yet in color. Space exploration was brand new, and the first
people were about to orbit the Earth. Much of the emphasis of
space flight was within the context of the 'cold war' jockeying
for world prominence between the U.S. and U.S.S.R..
The idea of the continual possibility of nuclear war promoted an undercurrent of concern, resignation and helplessness in the populace, but a few openly questioned the viability of that state of affairs. Little by little people began to dare to speak out and act to attract attention to neglected social causes.The breeding ground for change was largely the population of students in generally coastal Universities. The first use of the word 'sit-in', for Gandhi derived non violent demonstrations for black people's civil rights, took place in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960. The fledgling peace movement, principally rallying around the 'Ban the Bomb' cause, managed to produce a march in London April 18, 1960 with 75,000 students showing up. The next month the contraceptive pill was approved for public use in the U.S. A June 27 U.S. Supreme Court decision disallowing evidence seized unconstitutionally from use in trials was a triumph of asserting rights for common citizens.
With the election of John F. Kennedy in November of 1960 a real transition in leadership was apparent, from the day of his stirring inaugural speech. Through television the young and energetic President became familiar to millions, the charisma he projected rendering all presidents before since pale and lifeless in comparison.
The world's population had just reached 3 billion people, most of them still illiterate. The 'Space Needle' of the 1962 Seattle World's fair and many of the pavilions below it proclaimed the glories just ahead, a kind of updating of the vision proclaimed at the influential 1939 New York World's fair. Atomic tests were still done in the atmosphere, and a few were even detonated in space! The first satellite television broadcasts were announced by the Air Force on April 3, 1962, and publicly demonstrated July 11 of that year.
Rock music was in the act of merging various musical styles, from gospel and rhythm & blues to folk music, and the the 'British Invasion' was just dawning. The numerous gospel influenced artists, the 'Girl Groups', and the work of Phil Spector are examples of early Sixties musical styles. Carol King was one prominent song writer who was active through out the decade. Another songwriter we would hear much from was Bob Dylan.
The 'Cold War' was still in high gear then, with every school periodically undergoing the serious ritual of stopping whatever was going on in class and huddling under their desks when the air raid sirens sounded. There were television commercials for Radio Free Europe, one in particular showed a baby crying with a smoking cattle branding iron shaped like a 'hammer and sickle' moving toward it! The cartoon villain 'Boris Badinov' from the 'Rocky and Bullwinkle' television cartoons is a product of this era. Among the toys in circulation echoing the climate of the times were special Lionel toy train cars which looked like an innocent freight car yet could open their roofs and shoot a rubber tipped toy rocket across the room.
The late October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest to atomic war we have ever come. Many people formed lines in supermarkets buying up all the canned goods and disrupted their routines drastically preparing for war. Facing what could have happened must have influenced the direction many moved in their politics and attitudes in the years ahead. At the end of 1962 Peter, Paul and Mary's 'Blowing In The Wind' became perhaps the earliest trace of protest to appear in popular music, while folk singing was enjoying a round of prominence. The use of the medium of music to proliferate ideas and philosophy to the young populace became a major cultural influence through the rest of the decade and beyond.
The death of innocence
1963 was, among other things, the year
of tragedy and brutalization. An April 10 underwater disaster
caused the loss of the submarine Thresher with all aboard. The
interruption of television programming for the stark announcement
that night left a nation contemplating the fate of the crew helplessly
struggling to stay alive as the submarine plunged helplessly to
crush depth. Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist, was shot June
15 by a sniper. Two months later a bomb in a Birmingham, Alabama
church frequented by black people (then still labeled 'Negroes'
in the media) killed 4 young girls, igniting the first major episode
of race related rioting since World War II Detroit. The disturbances
were quickly quelled by the National Guard. That summer also saw
the release of horrifying news photos of a Buddhist monk in Vietnam
immolating himself while seated in a meditation pose.
The event overshadowing everything else that year was, of course, the November 22, 1963 assassination of JFK. That event became the first occasion when TV provided a means to visually share such a deeply tragic national experience. In the decades since that event is recognized as among the top events in the 20th century. It is said one person was actually present at both Dealy Plaza then and at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the other Big Day seared into the collective consciousness of America until September 11, 2001. A mass grief seemed to wash over the entire Western World at the announcement of his death, as if someone with the power to save the Earth was snatched away from us just as his work was nearing completion.
Somehow the sudden traumatic knowledge of the presence of senseless murderers in the population shook the confidence in our ability to work miracles. The terrible lesson that any famous achiever can be cut down by some nobody with a rifle was part of the agonizing sense of futility which swept the nation in the wake of the assassination. The even more terrible truth most people suspected to be behind the murder of JFK may be known but lost in the cacophony of theories emerging over the decades since.
It is with dismay that I see the predominance of literature about John F. Kennedy focusing on the circumstances of his death. JFK was a giant among men, even images of his silhouette convey greatness. He lived life on his own terms yet was profoundly sensitive to the needs of those around him. Kennedy loved and lived as he saw fit, and left behind a legacy of fond public and very private memories, not one of bitterness and broken lives. He enjoyed power, yet used it as often as possible for stimulating and cultivating America's awakening resources. The cultural shadow he cast was manifested in the great achievements he initiated, social and technological. The Peace Corps have done much unheralded good in the world. The restructuring of civil rights in America was largely drawn up in his administration and followed through with by his successor. Project Apollo's voyages to the Moon, which JFK initiated, will be remembered as long as history is taught. The first steps on another world will become an opening chapter to an era if space migration opens up, and will cry across the centuries as a miracle once possible if we remain forever Earthbound.
The mid to late 60s styles, especially
the 'mini-skirt', brought more of women's legs to everyday view
then we had been used to seeing beyond the beaches. Sexuality
itself began to emerge out into the open as part of life. Gender
also started to become simply part of ones life and not necessarily
the major factor in one's destiny. Career options available to
women began to increase on demand, although they were for many
years paid generally less than what men made for the same jobs.
'Women's Lib' or 'Liberation', was a phrase heard often then.
Some people were getting tired of institutionalized stratification
of society, especially those on the losing end of such arrangements.
Those women who wished to pursue options beyond that of a traditional
housewife began to see reinforcement in writings such as Betty
Freidan's 1963 book 'The Feminine Mystique'. In 1966 Freidan helped
found the National Organization of Women (NOW), and was it's first
Hugh Hefner's advocacy as editor of Playboy not only boldly proclaimed people's rights to enjoy themselves, the excellent articles always provided a 'legitimate' excuse to have the magazine! The dehumanizing 'objectivacation' of women in most pornographic literature also began to receive attention. Soon many older movies portraying women stumbling and fainting in emergencies, behaving hysterically, and being cured by being shaken or slapped began to look like the grotesque caricatures they were.
Many people began to look at what was
really possible and act on those perceptions in all aspects of
their lives, especially in relationships. The idea of couples
'living together' graduated from the status of 'living in sin'
to a welcome option for many. Radio stations catering to the youth
market broadcast information on where to get help for birth control
and venereal disease treatment. Partly from choice and partly
from lack of available abortion women began to have more children
without being married, and as time passed the percentage of people
ending up in or emerging from traditional married situations dropped.
The introduction of reliable birth control largely
separated sex from procreation, which brought greater choices
to those inclined to pursue relationships. Birth control technology
was making strides in previous decades but it was The Pill which
truly made the difference. 'The Pill' was becoming widely used
by the wiser of sexually active women by the end of the 1960s.
For it's invention we are indebted to Margaret Sanger, activist
for women's rights in an era when they couldn't even vote in the
United States. Sanger's husband had been jailed in 1915 for distributing
birth control information, which was then considered obscene literature!
In the 1950's Margaret convinced Dr. Gregory Pincus to develop
a safe reliable oral contraceptive. All the births that didn't
happen as a result of the power of will over genetic programming
are an invisible legacy contributing to a better quality of life
for those children which were born, of which a presumably higher
percentage were consciously desired. In
the beginning of the decade of the 60s the father was generally
excluded from being present at the birth of his child, pacing
back and forth in the waiting room until a nurse arrived to give
the news. By the start of the next decade the relaxing of old
taboos allowed husbands and boyfriends inside the delivery room
to see and even participate in the conclusion of the process they
A major development of these times was the decline of the restraints imposed by traditional organized religions. While the century started with most Americans going to Church and remaining all their lives in the regions they grew up in, after the 60's there were many ways one could choose to live and think. What people believe determines what kind of world we live in nearly as much as the external realities around us.
A modest 'metaphysical' undercurrent
in American beliefs had trickled it's way through the Christian
dominated culture since the late 19th century, largely due to
the 'Theosophical' literature of Helena Blavatsky such as 'The
Secret Doctrine' written in 1888. Blavatsky helped introduce to
American readers Eastern religious concepts of reincarnation,
Karma, and the transience of our surroundings within large time
scales while trying to bring her vision of ancient mysticism to
her readers. The works of Edgar Cayce, 'professional psychic'
and author of numerous transcribed 'revelations' on Atlantis,
past lives and other esoteric topics sparked a growing tendency
to believe in fabled ancient advanced civilizations on Atlantis
and other presumed antediluvian island nations. In later decades
what would one day be called the 'New Age' movement would arise
from the foundations laid by the Theosophical society, Cayce and
his contemporary Alester Crowley and others. Louis Pauwels and
Jacques Bergier's metaphysical manifesto 'The Morning Of The Magicians',
translated from French, appeared in America in the mid '60's and
was widely read. Wild speculations on the role of cosmic catastrophes
in shaping human history by Immanual Velikovsky were widely circulated,
especially in his book 'Worlds in Collision'.
As religious values were being re-evaluated some aspects of Eastern philosophies became widely incorporated into the personal beliefs of many. This was first publicized by visits of celebrities to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and other Indian individuals of high esteem such as Meher Baba, whose motto was "Don't worry, be happy". Alan Watts brought his intriguing commentaries on Eastern religious concepts to millions through his writings and especially through the broadcasts of his lectures on Pacifica radio.
Native American beliefs enjoyed renewed interest within and beyond the Indian Nations. Much of the lore and languages which had been passed down from elders languished in Christian dominated times, but some of the old ones who still remembered had the satisfaction of being eagerly listened to in their last days.
For many years 'Ouija boards' had been used as a parlor game, with many getting the 'spooky feeling' that some kind of communication was taking place 'through' them. During the late 1960s various divination using belief systems received wide attention, such as I-Ching, Tarot, and other methods of 'reading' situations while referring to randomly shuffled symbols and ideas.
This era saw the rise of
the individual quest for the meaningful. A relatively small but
widely spread number of people tried their hand at being 'seekers'
with the inevitable 'seers' emerging to serve their needs. More
than once in the late 60's widely circulated reports of psychic
predictions of a huge earthquake in the Bay Area prompted rounds
of official disclaimers and widespread uneasiness. Jean Dixon's
alleged ability to predict of the future was widely accepted,
and just after the end of the decade Yuri Geller became famous
for allegedly bending spoons with his mind and a gentle touch.
Astrology experienced a huge revival in popularity, and although
its tenants are unproveable through scientific methods many people
flocked to it in degrees of seriousness from glancing at newspaper
columns to paying to have 'charts' prepared individually. By the
end of the 60s more people probably referred daily to astrology
pages in newspapers than read the Bible daily. Alernative religious
communities grew, such as the positively aligned 'Wicca' community
with it's 'Earth goddess' emphasis. Disproportionate media
interest was shown to Satan oriented cults which also rose in
the late 60s, notably Bay Area personality Anton LeVey's 'Church
Of Satan'. This seemed more of a forum to express contrariness
with established 'sacred' institutions than a serious belief system.
The truth is to be a Satanist you have to effectively embrace
the Christian belief system, simply worshiping its 'negative'
extreme. A number of people even felt comfortable declaring
abject Atheism, something up to that time almost as stigmatized
in America as Communists.
A willingness to look beyond the traditional local wisdom resulted in a lot of blind alleys for serious inquiry, but certain practices which apparently justified themselves such as Acupuncture were also exposed to the West. Chiropractors, although founded in questionable theory, was an early alternative medicine which had long since demonstrated more help than harm and was thus allowed to exist. Outright medical quackery flourished as well.
The sense that other intelligences existed somewhere received serious attention in the mid 60s with the first attempts to listen in on neighboring stars, called 'Project Ozma'. The quest for other intelligent minds took novel turns with inquiry into the possible high intelligence of Dolphins and whales. Even plants were probed with sensors attempting to detect reactions to actual and threatened injury! In a way these efforts suggest the direction the world view of the intelligentsia was drifting, towards looking for other mortal entities and intelligences as we can imagine them based on our growing knowledge. Serious attempts at delving into 'paranormal' areas such as Extra Sensory Perception, or ESP, hinted at trying to find ways to test our developing hypotheses of the processes operating at the inner fabric of reality. Such ideas represent to many a more dynamic and satisfyingly participatory world view than that conveyed by many religions. In general there was a movement among 'seekers' away from seeing a given belief system as THE truth, only as A truth.
The 1964 'Free Speech' movement
in Berkeley was the first of many a student movement which was
to disrupt numerous academic institutions over the next decade.
Mario Savio, it's initial spokesman, said "There is a time
when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you
so sick at heart, that you can't take part; and you've got to
put your body upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon all the
apparatus, and you've got to make it stop." Within 5 years
Savio was nearly a forgotten man.
Mainstream politics was a tough place to try to work change, but 'The Movement', as the 'New Left' flock of organizations fed by counterculture sentiments was called, made it's mark in the election arena late in the decade as a growing percentage of activists worked 'within the system'. The presidential candidacy of Eugene McCarthy for the 1968 election was a spectacular example of a block of voters emerging which later more successful candidates felt a need to work with. Robert Kennedy was the most promising candidate, and as he was concluding a successful campaign a Palestinian gunman shot him down because of Kennedy's vocal support for Israel. Syria later promised him a big parade in his honor in the unikely event he was released! The momentum seemed to be for Robert Kennedy thanks to a massive youth movement support and gathering dissatisfaction with the course America was taking. His assassination brought a fresh round of anguished dissillusonment to the very people who had tried to make change, realizing the work of millions can be undone by one man with a gun.
In the end it was Hubert Horatio Humphrey who became the Democratic candidate against Richard Nixon. Unfortunately the Democratic National Convention was the scene of rioting demonstrators and rampaging police broadcast across the world by the mass media. At one time during the melee the demonstrators chanted "The whole world is watching!". The 'police riot' was initiated by the conservative despotism of Mayor Richard Daley who hated the youth movement, although numerous provocations from wilder elements of the demonstrators has to be acknowledged. The police in effect played into the hands of a few extremists.
Humphrey began the final campaigning under a cloud of repression, and to many he seemed the 'establishment' nominee after they had pinned their hopes on 'Clean Gene' McCarthy and Kennedy. Vice President HHH was a decent and compassionate man, and such was his loyalty that he refused to rebuke President Johnson's Vietnam policies until it was too late. The stubborn third party candidacy of George Wallace sapped a critical number of Southern Democrat votes from Humphrey when he needed them most. The tragedy of the outcome was not just Nixon's election with years of continuation and even escalation of the fighting in Vietnam to come, it was the loss of a real visionary in Humphery who as President would have continued the manned exploration of space. If Humphrey had won the 1968 election we could well now have large communities in space and on the Moon, and bases on Mars.
After Nixon's election, the adversarial relations between 'The Movement' and the leadership was whipped into violence on many occasions. Many abandoned political activity, a few moved to violent underground acts, but a lot of people continued to care about things and act on them in various constructive ways.
The Pacifica radio network was an important balancing influence against the mainstream media. Even with the mainstream media, widely considered biased towards the Left, there was an over reliance on Pentagon and White House handouts for information. Pacifica reported on a secret war in Laos which sounded like wild leftist conspiracy talk at the time but later proved to be true.
During the antiwar demonstrations, hours of live coverage followed the street confrontations raging between police and national guards and Berkeley demonstrators. KPFA was always the best place to learn what was really going on in the streets, but college stations like KZSU in Stanford University and others also 'did their duty'. During a series of confrontations between demonstrators (more running from 'billy clubs' than anything else) on Stanford campus, an episode of media partisanship occurred as the announcers on KZSU gave false information on where the demonstrators were going but accurate accounts of the locations of the police for the benefit of the protesters! A 'People's Park' was declared by community activists at a vacant lot owned by the University of California Berkeley. Riots flared, and National Guards killed a demonstrator named James Rector. In another episode a police helicopter sprayed downtown Berkeley with tear gas. Later a vivid mural of the events was painted on a building adjacent to 'People's Park' which survives now as a hangout for scary looking homeless types and narcs (short for narcotics agents)
Dance to the music...
Byrds, Beach Boys, and many other groups reflected and facilitated
the changes in the 'collective consciousness' of the affluent
western youth culture. While not meaning to overrate their role,
the musical transformations of various popular bands make as good
a 'sign post' as any in defining those fateful years. In particulat
the evolution of the musical styles of the Beach Boys and the
Beatles among others will always indicate to future historians
that 'something was up' in the minds of musicians in those critical
Exploding on the American scene just after the mass depression following the assassination of JFK, the Beatles lifted the spirits of young America and brought initial incredulous reactions from many to their 'long' hair! In mid February 1964 their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show brought to millions of homes varying degrees of the excitement heard in the studio audience. The Beatles entertained much of a generation through the mid to late 1960's and their music will be widely heard as long as the 'Baby Boom' population is alive.
In April 1966 the Byrds released '8 Miles High', among the first expressions of psychedelic influence to be played on the radio. Three years previously experimentation with LSD had occurred among student bodies at several large universities and was about to explode into the young population.
The Beach Boy's 'Pet Sounds' album became a major inspiration for the Beatles 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely hearts Club Band', generally considered the biggest musical landmark of that transition in popular culture. A major sign of the cultural changes traceable in music was the turnaround in popular opinion of the Vietnam War. The top song of 1966 was the patriotic 'Ballad of the Green Berets' by Sgt. Barry Sadler, but by the end of 1968 the futility of the war featured prominently in one popular song after another. Rock music stations gave numbers for draft counselors in between playing 'Sky Pilot' by the Animals and the 'I fell Like I'm Fixing To Die Rag' by Country Joe and the Fish. In fact a significant portion of the popular music of the time bore reinforcements and encouragement to the attitude of resistance to the draft as well as smoking Cannabis and other pleasurable pursuits. The questioning of authority became an open subject on FM radio, although I recall AM talk shows hosts ridiculing dissenting callers, particularly those against the Vietnam war.
A significant number of musicians reared in
the affluent liberal climate of the San Francisco region emerged,
making The 'San Francisco sound' a national item in music. The
Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Quicksilver
Messenger Service, the Grateful Dead and many others sang of things
beautiful and bizarre. Love, Tim Buckley, and the Doors were major
talents arising from Southern California. Leftist political satire
albums by 'The Firesign Theater' became popular in University
Some of the best of the vocal groups, such as the 'Beach Boys' and 'Mommas and Poppas', created works of beauty within but transcending the 'top 40' format which still dominated music stations up to that time. Part of that radio music format was dictated by the short length of time a 45 rpm record could play, about 5 minutes. The LP, or long playing record could accommodate nearly a half hour of music on a side, but until then the format was used to pack many short songs together. One or two of these songs might be selected for release as 45 'singles' which would get the air play on 'top 40' radio. In the late 60s groups started to venture into longer compositions filling up more of the side of an LP. In a few cases short cyclical sounds were even inserted into the final inner loop the stylus arm would finally reach at the end of the record, but automatically raising stylus arms soon inhibited the opportunities to hear them! Long musical pieces had little or no play on the AM stations, as chained to 'format' as they were, but FM radio, an outlet of higher sound quality and then less commercial programming restrictions, was wide open musical territory. The 'early sixties top 40' popular music was starting to give way to the desire of groups to blaze new territory thanks to 'Album Oriented rock' stations on FM.
Traditional AM rock stations were format dominated,
the 'disk jockeys' showing no respect for the music. They constantly
talked over the songs with obnoxous stacatto deliveries and overplayed
their stupid 'jingles'. Songs were also edited or even sped up
to cram more records into an hour! FM stations would generally
not 'step on' music, and greater variety as well as length was
enjoyed as 'Underground' FM radio met the needs of more sophisticated
listeners. The greater fidelity of FM and records in general also
prompted greater effort by musicians to achieve quality sound
mixes. Until then an FM radio then was little more than a fairly
large box in some living rooms playing classical music from a
high fidelity patterned fabric covered speaker. A San Francisco
station called KMPX, under the direction of 'top 40' station KYA
veteran Tom Donahue, began to redefine what musical radio could
mean. Songs from albums never heard on AM radio were played, sometimes
2 or 3 versions of the same song were presented to compare the
treatment, and long compositions were accommodated. This alone
was a breakthrough as commercials were minimal during the next
year or so on this and another station, KSAN, which was to steadily
grow into a local institution over the next few years. Before
commercialism reared its ugly head a kind of underground renaissance
was expressed on the airwaves of these FM radio stations. Weird
records and even spoken word material and live performances were
heard on these stations. One might hear old blues, banjo picking,
extended sitar pieces, or groups with names like Thirteenth Floor
Elevators, Pink Floyd, and Moby Grape. Similar radio stations
appeared across the country, and from that time on many college
radio stations began to play more 'experimental' and 'daring'
During the late 60's movies were also reflecting the new social attitudes, unconventional romantic situations (The Graduate) graphic portrayals of mayhem (The Wild Bunch) and outright reveling in psychedelia (Yellow Submarine) among the territories explored once the moral dictates imposed on the film industry since the 1930's were cast off. The pre 'Hayes office' films were also rediscovered and shown in revival theaters to full houses in college towns. Even old propaganda films like 'Reefer madness' entertained jeering crowds in smoke filled theaters in a manner unthinkable to those who made the film!
Among the film events of the latter part of
the decade were the re-release of Fantasia, discovered by a new
generation more open to innovations than the audiences the film
was first shown to. Films tried to explore the wonderful possibilities
of the medium in new ways, two examples are the privately crafted
ethereal visions of Jordan Belson, and the modest first attempts
to use the computer to make abstract film animations, such as
John Whitney's 'Permutations'. The greatest conceptual leap in
studio financed motion pictures was arguably Stanley Kubrick's
'2001-A Space Odyssey'. Opening at first to tepid reviews, the
film soon gained an underground following of repeat viewers, and
people would bring sleeping bags and lie down in front of the
first row of seats! This film provided a vision of where we could
have been in space by the turn of the century if trends in place
in the mid 1960's had continued. At that time those possibilities
were still real and we dared to dream big.
A major influence on the cultural
changes of the 1960's was the war, or 'police action' in Vietnam.
It is important to state my background premises regarding the historical importance of our involvement in Vietnam.
My experience was of the cultural war at home in those critical years, as one sympathetic to and to a limited extent participating in the Antiwar movement. I was too young to have any substantial connection with people who fought in Vietnam, or for that matter those who prominently fought against the war. For a while it seemed that generations of young men including mine were destined to be sent there. I'm glad to this day I was on the side of the peace movement, as that war was a losing proposition so far as the U.S. was concerned from day one and I believe history has borne out the validity of that view. No disrespect for the soldiers who fought there is to be found in my account. It was clear to me even then that the decisions of the leaders was the thing being demonstrated against, not those following orders, often under duress.
The epochal struggles of the twentieth century culminated in the rise of Fascism, it's defeat and the subsequent balance of terror with the Soviets in the suddenly reshaped world. A fundamental difference became obvious between the wars against Hitler and Imperial Japan and the later limited Asian conflicts we entered. The Korean War seemed to be conducted as a standard war over territory with distinct boundaries between the allied and opposing sides, yet the firing of General MacArthur over the conduct of that war signaled the start of geopolitical constraints openly dominating the conduct of warfare. Avoiding a major war with China while stabilizing the borders of South Korea was a delicate and lengthily task. Years of protracted conflict and the haggling peace negotiations made that conflict into a morass none in America were sorry to see us leave. The fall of MacArthur, an American icon, also disheartened many.
Vietnam also started out being conducted as a defense of a divided ally, but from the start the rush towards US involvement seemed not so much the stopping of a distinct invasion as the intervention in behalf of a preferred side of a civil war. One invading nation after another seemed to spend a generation of time and men fighting to work the Vietnam situation to their advantage only to finally cut their losses, and it seemed unwise to follow the decades old pattern. The first American soldier to die in action against the Viet Cong was James Davis (no relation) on December 22, 1961. At the beginning of 1962 JFK sent 2 Army divisions to Vietnam to demonstrate our commitment to the Diem government, one incremental step of many into the mire. 10 days before John Glenn's February 26, 1962 space flight a few hundred college students traveled across the country to participate in a Harvard student organized peace rally outside the White house. President Kennedy actually sent the demonstrators an urn of coffee, and invited some of them out of the bitter cold into the White House to discuss their concerns with his top aides!
The 'Gulf of Tonkien' incident which was used as a provocation for massive American intervention was actually two events, the first an actual raid by some North Vietnamese gunboats on the destroyer Maddox on August 2, 1964. Two days later a 'hair trigger' reaction to a false alarm prompted planes from two carriers to attack shipping and 100 miles of North Vietnamese coastline. The second 'incident' was well embellished and fed to a then gullible press, and in the maneuvered climate of retaliation President Johnson obtained overwhelming support of Congress for a resolution promising support "for all necessary action" to defend U.S. forces in Southeast Asia. The right emotional strings were thus pulled from influential government corners to cause a blank check to be written for the Vietnam 'War'. Like Korea, it was never a declared war, given the title 'Police Action', to try and redefine the massive enterprise beyond the context of traditional war for political reasons. It may well be that the United States will never actually declare war again.
If something like a decisive military effort could have been mounted, it should have been done at once and in a manner calculated to get the job done promptly. Instead a politically limited war was conducted at great cost. It may or may not have been possible to do what we supposedly set out to do, but the expenditures and decades possibly required simply were not justified by the actual national security interests involved. In my opinion desire for access to cheap labor and rich oil deposits may well have influenced our desire for involvement in the war. Numerous influential contractors were making a lot of money and employing many, and it's easy to get used to certain levels of economic activity and use the political process to encourage it to continue even if it means the deaths of untold thousands elsewhere.
brought the 'Generation Gap' to the forefront more than Vietnam.
As early as 1965 people were being arrested after publicly burning
their draft cards. By the end of that year sizable rallies against
the war had occurred in Washington and New York.
A somber milestone in the war Was reached in April 1966 when for the first time the weekly death toll of Americans outnumbered that of the South Vietnamese forces we were there to assist. Demonstrations against our involvement in Vietnam became common In 1967, a year which saw major race rioting as well as the 'Summer of Love'. A widely circulated photo of that year featured a demonstrator placing flowers in the barrels of rifles held by national guardsmen. The December 1967 cover of the New Left magazine 'Ramparts' featured actual draft cards being burned! Doing this was a Federal Offence, and police routinely asked for people's draft cards, since they could arrest those young men who didn't carry one!
In early 1968 the North's Tet offensive, although beaten back in a bloody mess, brought the stark realization to many that the "Light at the end of the tunnel" was getting no closer. In practically every direct battle U.S. forces wiped out the determined yet poorly equipped North Vietnamese. The key to undesirably protracting the contest and ultimately prevailing turned out to be not in trying to directly outfight the U.S., it was in making us fight the kind of war we don't want to, which tends to even out the individual odds especially in unfamiliar environments. Constant attrition by snipers, traps, disease, and opiate addiction took a cumulative toll.
After a few years the bleaker aspects of the truth began to emerge due to unprecedented media access to the 'war'. Tales of isolated atrocities by American soldiers were circulated, and in a photo series in the Palo Alto Times I saw a bound North Vietnamese prisoner being dropped headfirst from an airborne helicopter.
Thanks to the heroic efforts of a soldier who provided film he shot at the Mi Lai Massacre to Life Magazine, and the stellar journalism of Ron Ridenhour, who gathered the story, we learned of the horrific incident where U.S. soldiers in a bloody rage killed some 500 villagers, including entire families. A landmark trial was to follow from this event. The atrocity stories such as Mi Lai were scattered and sparse but served as terrible lessons of what being placed in a prolonged orchestrated stalemate can do to people. It is only fair to report the instances of U.S. soldiers giving food and medical aid to civilians so far outnumbered the few atrocities so as to render the latter exceptional in their rarity as much as their horror.
Apparently the aversion to dying for nothing overcame even the military brainwashing in at least a few soldiers. In the course of the war over 300 'fragging' incidents occurred, where soldiers killed their over zealous commanding officers, traditionally by making sure they were next to an exploding fragmentation grenade. Only late in the war did I see on television news a map of regions of South Vietnam controlled by the South. This map revealed the failure to control anything like the entire South after years of enormous effort, with a loose patchwork of isolated spots like holes in a Swiss cheese surrounded by enemy controlled regions.
The great anti-war moratorium day of October 15, 1969 was the most visible mass demonstration against the Vietnam war that ever took place. Following is my recollection of that part of the event I experienced.
The moratorium was the talk of the halls of Menlo-Atherton High School that day. The school officials broadcast dire warnings on the P.A. systems to the students against cutting classes. There was a sense of urgency, that this was the day to get out there and be heard.
Classes were suddenly nearly empty and students with cars were filling them with students. It was a mass movement in action, the daily routines evaporated that day and soon enough I was in one of those cars. After being dropped off near downtown Palo Alto, we congregated to lines of people standing where the march was due to begin. Leaflets were being handed out appealing for various causes, from freeing Black Panthers in prison to other crusades seeking participants and money. Soon the march of many thousands of young people began, many of us carrying signs, walking along in something between a carnival atmosphere a street parade occasionally chanting 'Hell, no we won't go!" and other slogans. "One, Two Three, Four, We don't want you're f---ing war", with varied later verses, was another favorite.
Once we paused in our march down University Avenue in front of the new tall office building, raised our fists and roared defiance at the executives peering down at us from their office picture windows. That evening on the News thousands were shown on the steps of giant marble buildings singing John Lennon's "All we are saying...is give peace a chance!" It was exhilarating to participate in a social revolution. This is what that day was like to one of the millions who took to the streets that day. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
Judy Collins had a song 'It Isn't Nice' which was one of the early Movement ballads, and the words she sang rang true beyond the headlines she cited. It was no longer really controversial for antiwar sentiments to be expressed in song and public discussions. Judy Collins and Joan Baez were among the most prominent balladeers of the Movement, but a list of anti Vietnam war songs would fill pages. The creative initiative was usually in the hands of the counterculturists due to the proclivity of many artists, musicians and writers to circulate 'off the beaten path' of society. The 'right' tended to fall back on patriotic and religious themes in their rhetoric. Paul Harvey in one of his commentaries compared the ideology of the demonstrators with that of Hitler! At that time Reader's Digest had a promotion gimmick which hoped to cash in on their conservative readership. They printed out millions of waving American flags which appeared on many a car's back window.
Later this was to inspire the lyrics of yet another protest song: "Your flag decal won't get you into heaven anymore. It's already overcrowded from your dirty little war, Jesus don't like killin, no matter what the reason for, No, your flag decal won't get you into heaven anymore"
The Draft was widely regarded as a kind of malevolent 'body snatcher', and many were determined to make the Selective Service work to get them. The trick seemed to be to try to be more of a troublemaker than it was worth to them without being outrageous enough to be made a public example of. A lot of people simply never registered with the draft board. Various counseling organizations got you in touch with volunteer lawyers who would help you make a try at a conscientious objector status (which I applied for and was denied) and attempt on your behalf various legal delaying tactics. Others sought deferments by going to college or becoming a teacher. A few managed to get domestic duty in the National Guard and Coast Guard, which never wanted for volunteers then! In the meantime students were being punished for being arrested in demonstrations by having their college deferments yanked, turning them into draft bait. Our own government was viewed as 'bad guys' by growing numbers of young people.
Soon the arguments for continuing the war seemed to veer from the original reasons for going in and became almost a kind of crusade to succeed so the thousands of soldiers hadn't already died there for nothing. It was often said that the United States had never lost a war, and this wasn't going to be the first! The monstrous enterprise thus took on a life of it's own, a status quo maintained at the expense of much blood and sanity.
There were plenty of people willing to go, and neither I nor anybody I knew thought less of them for making that decision, it was simply among the realizations of the times that one had the right to question why someone wanted you do die for nothing.
The Vietnam war dragged on, and demonstrations became regular events with increasing trends toward confrontation. At the start the antiwar movement was more of a 'grassroots' effort, and many wanted to cast a visual vote with their bodies. Slowly the wheels of change were turned by masses of people at first straining against the prevailing cultural currents, then steadily feeling encouraged as the direction began to turn around. Later the professional agitators moved in. Opportunists began to try to make political changes of various agendas emerged from this movement, including strident Marxist and Maoist groups. These intense people with buttons and berets, who waved the North Vietnamese flags seen late in the era of demonstrations, were I suspect the origin of the stories which aroused so much resentment in veterans who were simply trying to do what they thought was right (or to survive). Sometimes the Maoists were openly trying to promote armed revolution, handing out literature of violent intent and even trying to inflame encounters with lines of police. These were also the people who made sure the cameras filmed them burning American Flags.
The provocative nature of the latter display was deliberately exploited by both sides of the issue. So many people regard the American flag as a graven image that they will be provoked to violence at the sight of one being burned. These sentiments are, to me, misplaced, the greatness of America is something far beyond a gaudy piece of cloth, something no flame can consume.
The stories often told of veterans being spit at, called 'baby killers' and such are likely the results of isolated efforts by these later more militant factions of the antiwar movement, although the 'urban legend' factor significantly magnified in apparent number the few actual events of this kind. Later I was to learn that an unknown but presumably small percentage of the most violent of the revolutionaries were in fact government agents deliberately trying to discredit the Movement. Most of the violence was presumably started by participants of violent nature working themselves into a frenzy.
Sometimes a demonstration was declared
illegal over a loudspeaker then people would simply sit and be
picked up or otherwise manhandled into a bus. I never saw the
benefit of being arrested, I worried about my USGS job and stayed
just outside the disputed areas. If you think I was a coward,
too bad, at least I was there. More than once I ran for my life
amid crowds of panicked young people, riot geared cops with mayhem
in their eyes close behind! Once I reached a fence, hopped it,
and saw a mass of people nearby being 'poured' over the fence,
legs and intertwined arms of young men and women tumbling in a
chaotic mass in one convulsed reflex away from the swinging clubs!
The 'billy clubs', which were of hard wood with lead cores, made
dull thwacking thuds as they felt the bones of those not fast
A friend of mine hung around some people active in the neo-Maoist 'Venceremos' organization, whose dark green flag featured a machine gun silhouetted on a red star! They were the dedicated fanatics who moved into and altered beyond comparison what had once been a positive organization, the Midpennensula Free University, hoping to tap into the community participation that group had inspired. (I worried a bit if my former membership in the predecessor group would come back to bite me later.) Their membership steadily dwindled to a few fanatics who reinforced each others revolutionary attitudes, but a few were later to make national headlines on their own. Once my friend related a situation he experienced when he was holed up in an upstairs suite on University Avenue in Palo Alto with a rather serious couple who asked him to briefly watch over a crate full of firearms! I was to learn years later that their names were Bill and Emily Harris, who would later assist in founding the 'Symbionese Liberation Army', whose claim to notoriety was the murder of an Oakland school official Marcus Foster and the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst and the subsequent bank robberies.
As the war continued, resentment festered and tended to spin off in its extremes this kind of activity. Big bomb blasts began to be relatively common occurrences in government facilities thought to be connected to war. Such tactics by a few destructive fanatics unleashed the very violence the original protesters took to the streets against. In retrospect, however, it may have been that the specter of domestic terrorism was one factor in getting the attention of the government that the war had to end.
Later in the movement some entertainers got bolder in their activism. Joan Baez traveled to North Vietnam, and included a tape of a bombing raid in Hanoi in one of her records. The most infamous such visit was that of Jane Fonda, who in North Vietnamese publications and films was seen gleefully posing among their soldiers, even sitting in an antiaircraft gun! Her judgment may have been called into question (she later apologized) but cries of 'traitor' directed against her were made legally impotent by the fact Vietnam was not a declared war. Only in times of declared war can people be silenced in draconian fashion by our government, part of the price of not declaring wars is that you can't try people for giving 'aid and comfort' to the enemy.
The cruel truth is that, like it or not, our soldiers of that and any other war fought and died for the right of people, even like Jane Fonda, to say whatever they wanted. Her lack of criminal prosecution (or execution!) when she returned said more to the world about the integrity of our beliefs in free speech than all the 'Voice of America' propaganda broadcasts put together.
Nixon's early days in office were marked by open escalation of the war into neighboring countries. This brought the most violent confrontations, culminating in the Kent State shootings of unarmed students and passers-by by nervous national Guardsmen. No one ever took responsibility for issuing the order to fire on the students and the murderers of those students lived on unpunished. This occasion marked the peak of public anguish over the divisive 'war'. Finally America began to 'phase' itself out of the conflict, as the politicians began to respond to people's feedback.
The preoccupation of Nixon with the 'Watergate' political scandal and impeachment proceedings left little room in his schedule for protracted foreign entanglements. In the end as soon as American forces were withdrawn North Vietnam reneged on it's treaty obligations and staged a massive invasion of the South. By now America had had enough, at last taking to heart JFK's admission that in the end it was their war. Not only were the soldiers gone, the massive material aid was no longer forthcoming. The corrupt leadership of the southern forces largely abandoned the cause, leaving gallant but unlead soldiers to fend for themselves. Organized resistance to Northern forces was hampered by roads clogged with fleeing masses, terrible scenes of panic taking place through out the country. In Da Nang the last airliner had to take off in the middle of a panicked mob, bodies clinging and falling from wheels and doors as the bullet riddled plane left a bloody path along the runway.
The defeat was as sudden as it was absolute,
Saigon being captured on April 30, 1975, becoming Ho Chi Minh
City. America ended up throwing away over 50 thousand lives, a
hundred billion dollars, part of the vitality of our economy and
currency, and our ability to visit other worlds, all to delay
the communist takeover of Vietnam by a decade. Over a million
Vietnamese lives were lost. Great damage to the environment was
caused by carpet bombing of rain forests and widespread use of
toxic defoliants like 'Agent Orange', whose terrible effects on
those U.S. soldiers exposed to the chemical were ignored by the
Veterans Administration for years.
Of the airmen who were shot down over Laos none were ever seen again. It may be that hundreds of U.S. prisoners of war were ultimately left behind to be used by Vietnam as 'bargaining chips' for reparations talks which never took place, but if so they slowly died over the decades in jungle work camps. In one chilling case an alleged photograph and hand print of a POW came to light in the early 1990s, and enthusiastic efforts of his wife and relatives to compare the fingerprints with those on record led to the discovery that all his prints had been removed from the government archives! Later, however, this very photograph was convincingly shown to be a forgery in a Scientific American article.
Survivors and loved ones carried the emotional legacy of that 'war' for decades in their hearts, and in many the scars never healed. Tales of heroism in Vietnam are legion and many a person's peak experiences were defined by their adventures there. The stories of those who survived the fighting and the flawed U.S. policy of those times stand as testimony to individual perseverance and personal victory.
Despite the eventual consensus that we never should have been there in the first place, over the years being a Vietnam Veteran was to attain such status that many thousands of people would later falsely claim such affiliation!
One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small...
Among the seminal events which
would one day lend a kind of underground spiritual backbone to
the counterculture of the late 1960s was the invention of LSD.
In 1938 Dr. Albert Hoffman of Sandoz Laboratories in Basle, Switzerland
was seeking a new circulatory stimulant, in the process exploring
the exotic chemistry of a rye fungus called Ergot. His 25th variation
of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide extractions was tried on animals
with no desired effect, and the vial sat for years among many
other fruitless attempts. On April 16, 1943 Hoffman decided
to take a closer look at this substance, and in the course of
preparing another batch accidentally absorbed a little through
his fingertips. Shortly the first LSD experience occurred. Hoffman
took a bicycle ride while experiencing unusual alteration and
amplifications of his senses. It was a beautiful sunny day, and
it all looked splendid to him as he sailed along in an island
of tranquility tucked away among the battlefields of Europe.
This was by coincidence about half a year from the first successful launch of the V-2 by the Germans. Both outer and a kind of inner space were thus first reached in that pivotal year of 1943, and a generation later the exploration of both would blossom. Ironically, military uses were initially sought for both. Afterwards during the 1960's their respective cultural influences both would change the outlooks and lives of many people.
In 1956 the word 'Psychedelic'
was coined by Dr. Humphrey Osmond of the New Jersey Neuropsychiatric
Institute. The CIA sought out LSD and other exotic drugs as methods
to interrogate people. Experiments were conducted on unknowing
patients and soldiers which led to tragic episodes for some. Later
efforts to recruit university talent to research the possibilities
of LSD led to some of the test subjects being changed well beyond
the intended scope of such trials. Among those who realized the
dramatic importance of the reappraisal of perceived reality and
what it could mean to society were Harvard professors Timothy
Leary and Richard Alpert. The former would coin the phrase "Turn
on, tune in, drop out", the latter more quietly showed a
generation what possibilities existed which traditional society
ignored, largely summarized in a square format book by Alpert
(who assumed the name Ram Dass) 'Be Here Now'. Other veterans
of experiments with LSD began to spread the word. Lyricist
Robert Hunter was part of a government funded Stanford study in
the early 1960s, after which he suggested to the rest of the musical
band he was in this substance had merits. The group was soon to
change it's name from the Warlocks to the Grateful Dead. Psychology
student Vic Lovell lived in a cluster of old military houses in
Palo Alto near Stanford University called 'Perry Lane'. This small
community was occupied by artists, writers, and educated bohemians.
Lovell was a volunteer at a Veterans Administration 'psychotomimetic'
drug experimentation program in which LSD was administered., and
he recommended the experience to Fellow Perry Lane neighbor and
Stanford graduate in creative writing, Ken Kesey. Kesey later
got a job at that facility as a psychiatric aide and liberally
shared the LSD he took home with the Perry Lane community. For
the first time people were able to enjoy a psychedelic experience
free of a clinical environment. Keseys novel, 'One Flew Over The
Cuckoo's Nest' was written largely from his experiences working
at the VA mental institution. By 1963 LSD was beginning to be
taken by well connected students in several major colleges, and
it is possible Robert Kennedy tried the drug through Harvard connections.
In an ironic turnabout the attempts by the CIA to seek ways to control people with these substances backfired and spread mutations of attitudes and philosophies through the populace. The wide dissemination of LSD was soon to have a wide ranging influence of debatable benefit or scourge depending on your outlook.
One figure who had been prominent in the 'Beat' culture was adventurer and satyr Neal Cassady, who in 1962 met Ken Kesey. Kesey's gaily painted 1939 International Harvester school bus made it's debut in 1964, and as the group of 'Merry Pranksters' traveled across the countryside Cassady was often at the wheel.
Some landmark events in the rise of the psychedelic movement begin with the 'Trips Festivals' organized by Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, which later saw the involvement of Stuart Brand and Bill Graham. The first 'Trips Festival' was conceived of by Kesey and friend Ken Babbs while tripping heavily in a graveyard in 1965. Babb's house near Santa Cruz was the site if the first such gathering, more of an open private party than anything else. A flyer passed out in these early events asked 'Can You Pass The Acid Test?' Later that year the larger house of a Grateful Dead associate was used for a more widely publicized gathering. Projectors and stage lighting was brought in and hundreds of people showed up. Seeing the need for a larger gathering site, the third acid test was held in a large log cabin in Muir Beach. The Hell's Angels motorcycle group showed up and although concerns of violence accompanied their presence they absorbed the refreshments with the same numb awestruck introversion as did everyone else. The culmination of these seminal psychedelic gatherings was the 'Trips Festival' in January 1966. San Francisco's Longshoremen's Hall was filled with light show projectors, microphones, speakers, tape machines, and two buckets of Kool-Aid. One was labeled slightly cryptically as laced with LSD, the other was unadulterated. The fledgling Grateful Dead would play long sparkling audio convolutions while pranksters would play with the sensory environment with the tools at hand. The first rock concert light shows were derived from the visual accompaniment of these 'Acid Tests'. In this all night event people would trip their brains out, cry, laugh hysterically, comfort each other and drift in private and shared reveries. Some would reel about in states ranging from contemplative ecstasy to wondering if they were dying, with microphones picking up utterances in obscure corners and blaring them out from echoing loudspeakers. These events, and a Playboy interview with Timothy Leary, may have begun the real surge of widespread curiosity into the state of mind LSD produced. The rest is history..
(Pictured is part of an undipped collector's
sheet of 'blotter acid' with Tim Leary's signature. In actual
sheets each perforated section would be detached and swallowed
as one dose)
LSD had the most profound influence on the generation of all the illegal drugs being ingested not because it was the most used, which it wasn't, but because it lent itself to profound albeit at times chaotic revelatory states. When 'tripping' you can come face to face with yourself and how you relate to the world, all trappings of ego fall away and you are forced to be absolutely honest with yourself, something utterly terrifying to many people. Profound mental images sprout and branch into others which merge into 'infinity pictures' in your 'inner vision', quickly overwhelming your ability to take it all in and you grab another manageable bundle of ideas until it again grows and multiplies beyond your grasp! Characteristic hallucinations include a crawling or shifting movement overlain on most visual textures, pattern recognition from random elements, enhanced colors, and a 'trailing' delay in visual updating which makes things appear to preserve their three dimensional paths in the air, such as a feather or thrown ball. Later, after 'peaking' two or three hours after ingestion, serene states often occur, although the environment is very important in determining this. The LSD state confronts one with a plethora of extraordinary stimuli, and reveals the mental overlays and patterning adorning the real world we are usually too conditioned to notice. The apparent difference between that which perceives and the perceived can be a subtle thing at times, the subconscious patterns woven across randomness adding up to a significant portion of our belief systems. The ideal was for someone first taking LSD to be with someone who had done it before to serve as a kind of 'guide'. A controlled comfortable environment is the best place for such an experience. The effects last about 8 to 10 hours. It is fair to say that LSD and similar psychedelics are not for everyone, I would personally guess that no more than a third of the people in our current culture would derive the optimal benefit from it. "Flashbacks' warned of in government propaganda are little more than a prohibitionist's planted 'urban legend'. An example of a counterculture planted urban legend was that banana peels could be cooked in your oven, the inner meat scraped up and smoked with psychoactive effects. This canard was referred to in a Donovan song, "Mellow Yellow".
This mass desire for experimentation
in 'inner space' coincided in time with that of outer space, and
both occurred in cultures primarily antithetical to each other.
Both shared the sense of revealing new vistas in their own fashions,
something the times were apparently ready for. These methods of
investigation of the extremes of perception and reality hold great
potential of use and misuse by individuals and especially by governments.
The few but widely publicized instances of people trying to drive
or behave contrary to the laws of physics while tripping helped
give the authorities the rhetorical ammunition to clamp down on
research into psychedelic states. Until these legislative 'blinders'
are removed much mental and perhaps spiritual territory will remain
Most of those who hope to see research into LSD legitimized speak of allowing use of the drug only to patients in hospital environments in hopes of courting favor with the restrictive entities. As for only clinical use being permitted, I can't imagine a place I would like to 'trip' less than a sterile hospital setting! People shouldn't drive or be in responsible positions while 'tripping', but there is wide experiential latitude possible while assuring a safe experience for everyone involved. It is amazingly safe for thousands of roughly like minded people to take psychedelics together, it has happened hundreds of times in mass gatherings. In one instance Doc Ellis, a professional baseball player, was tripping because he didn't expect any action that game. Suddenly he was called to play, somehow maintained his composure and proceeded to pitch a no hitter!
Peyote cactus pulp was the rather unpalatable introduction of most people to Mescaline, and 'Magic Mushrooms' brought Psilocybin to the masses. Occasionally synthetic varieties of these substances would appear, and in general the portion of the mind addressed by them is similar to that of LSD, except that Mescaline tends to be more of a contemplative inner journey while Psilocybin causes colors to appear about a third above normal saturation, with after images especially apparent.
The major categories of drugs such as Heroin, certain amphetamine concoctions, Cocaine, and Cannabis affect different portions of the brain and tended to foster different varieties of mentality and behavior. Each drug thus gathered a 'mini subculture' about it, largely separate and distinct from each other. Each such culture should be evaluated on its own distinctions and judged accordingly. If there was a 'gateway drug' which deserved attention it would be the mild stimulant Nicotine, based on it's addictive power.
Cannabis has traditionally been a favorite of creative types such as musicians and artists. It has a way of bringing to the surface creative ideas in subconscious development, admittedly whether or not they're ready to see the light of day. In some novices, under the wrong conditions, it can initiate anxiety. Near the end of the 1960s an ounce of 'Pot', often called then a 'lid of grass', cost about 10 dollars and was almost exclusively Mexican. Once in a while some hashish would come in, a delicacy to THC (TetraHydroCannibanal, the psychoactive ingredient in Cannabis) lovers. Hashish was usually gathered by having people (hopefully shaved) run through closely spaced Cannabis plants until covered with concentrated pollen and droplets of THC laden sap. This is scraped off their skins and rolled into masses and pressed into brown slabs. In the 70's such slabs, about the size of a large bar of cooking chocolate, bore a stamp alleged to be that of the Afghanistan government of that time! (In those days Afghanistan was something of a place of pilgrimage to adventurous young counter-culturists, where the beautiful scenery would be enjoyed with the hospitable locals!) They were typically cut for sale into small wafers weighing a gram. Many people had their first exposure to the metric system through handling such underground intoxicants. By far Cannabis became the biggest Counterculture drug and revealed as its use spread not only the folly of earlier government propaganda but the terrible things the authorities were willing to do to people for harmlessly enjoying themselves.
Cocaine has had a darker, violent component associated with it. People both opposing and facilitating it's distribution exhibited a high mortality rate, and many dabbled too much with it during the 1970s. Perhaps ten percent of the people who used cocaine kept using it too long, even to the point of doing frightful damage to their credit and nasal septums. The Methamphetamine derivative using crowd, those who injected and smoked the stuff, were in general the least educated and most violent group. The injecting of 'speed' was specifically warned against in public service ads in the late 60s. Heroin users tended to be a closed secretive crowd whose life was more profoundly altered by the drug than the other populations mentioned. In my opinion they tended to be people who didn't read, and never knew of all the tragic case histories. Unfortunately, some of the greats in the music of the era were to meet their ends with Heroin. A rise in the use of 'downers', (often called 'reds'), also occurred at the end of the 60s among lesser educated young people who followed such fads rather than thought about what they were doing.
Alcohol is the social drug which is legal, although it leads to far more injuries and deaths than all illegal intoxicants put together. Although inhibitions are lowered while consuming alcohol to the benefit of varieties of social encounters, too often violence also accompanies the use of this drug. A party filled with people smoking Cannabis will almost never be violent, while the same cannot be said for gatherings of people using alcohol. Alcohol is not a drug to 'think' or write with, drinking in this writers experience dulls the creative aspects of consciousness.
Logic and consideration of the strengths and detriments of various intoxicants have little to do with the laws on the subject. The powers that be don't even really want to protect us from ourselves. Governments fear little as much as they do people who believe and behave in unpredictable ways. In the interests of stability they wish to legislate our very states of consciousness. This is true for the 'war on drugs' in America as much as it is the current persecution of meditation groups in China.
The emergence of alternate social realities
As the cultural upheavals known
as 'The Sixties' careened along, millions of people shared the
collective experiences for better or for worse. Whoever remembers
being alive in the time and places of these changes will never
forget it, not the feeling of having a fighting chance to reform
the World, not the music concerts, not the revelry and drifting
inner contemplation of infinite consciousness, nor the laughing
and breathless nights with those you didn't have to marry to be
The surge of social activism characterizing the decade was at first focused towards the civil rights of Black people. Later mass movements dealt with the Vietnam war, then still later unequal treatment of other minority groups, women, then as the movement began to peter out, the needs of psychologically and physically impaired individuals and finally in the next decade Gays and lesbians received some of the benefit of the spreading climate of accommodation. It was as if a kind of marching crusade snaked it's way across society and tried to battle the perceived evils of the day, moving from issue to issue like antibodies ferreting out harmful bacteria.
Until 1966 it was common practice to buy a car, then trade it in on a new model every year or so. As the decade ran out, in many so did the sense of limitless prosperity of our culture. Soon even gasoline mileage would matter. The 60s was the time we felt we could afford to be idealistic. It may be that the youthful idealistic population peaked at the critical years when they would have the maximum effect. The trans-generational lessons and trials of these times sent a kind of collective shock through the culture which to this day affects the room people have been given in shaping their own lives. Such a climate of tolerance was nurtured during a time many saw others living as they wanted and making it work. The social revolutions of the late 60s were thus consolidated into ongoing lifestyle choices by the start of the 70's, when the youth culture was evolving into less of a collective mentality and more towards individualism. The fragmenting of music radio audiences and the start of the decline of the major TV networks were signs of the progress of this individualizing trend. Pockets of the counterculture proceeded to take root and spread in cities through out the Western world.
Scattered attempts at 'communal' households were attempted, most broke up but a few such communities survived for decades. Some people sought out relatively secluded lives on farms while the land was still relatively cheap, where one could live as one wished and attract little attention. The collective mind sets of humanity underwent interesting divergences by this time which determined how one viewed one's place in the world as a species. Traditionalists tended to view the world as human property, it's life effectively ours to use or displace at will. People who cared about the environment tended to view the planet as a great interconnected process, of which humanity has the right to demand only so much. At the very least they hope for a controlled growth instead of expanding urban sprawls without regard to what already exists. Environmentalism emerged as a cause directing attention to problems such as the logging of remaining giant redwood forests in the pacific north west. Industrial wastes being dumped into the air and water was seen as undesirable and steadily dealt with. The implicit need to keep the numbers of humanity from increasing to the point of catastrophic depletion of resources became a mass concern from about the end of the 60s, largely thanks to the efforts of Paul and Anne Erliche, and the 'Club of Rome' studies of various overpopulation scenarios which gave the world a 'heads up' on what to avoid. Part of the movement to recognize the value and fragility of Earth's living systems was probably assisted by the circulation of photographs of Earth as an isolated globe in space, returned by robot and manned deep space missions.
The 'Human Potential Movement' of the
70s with it's metaphysically oriented psychology, or to it's detractors,
'psycho babble', had it's seeds sown in the 60s. So did the 'New
Age movement', which attempts to provide alternative spiritual
paths to those who seek them. One of the revelations of the 1960s
was that the world wasn't necessarily divided into right and wrong
factions on every issue and that many people in effect saw the
world very differently and with equal functional validity. 'Live
and let live' began to be a widely adopted attitude among people,
or to quote a widely played song of the times: 'Different strokes
for different folks'. Millions did well with positive outcomes
emerging from their actions and influences, a modest fraction
did poorly and many just became lazy and 'dropped out', and ceased
trying to influence things at all. Some people reeling from traumatic
experiences and addictions found solace in returning to more traditional
religions, the 'Jesus freak' movement of the early 70's being
an example. There was, of course, wide attendance of churches
in many regions of the Country. Although such religious institutions
were never really threatened with extinction, some acted as if
they were, taking to the airwaves and condemning the emerging
viewpoints and practices.
Sadly, some of the changes initiated by the late 1960s movements were not for the best. Cynicism found fertile soil during the latter half of the decade, be it directed at the political system or the planned obsolescence in such things as American automobiles. Great cleavages in America were deepened and respect for society was undermined, or more specifically one portion of society's respect for the other mutually plummeted. Over the years drug fads would make headlines as the desire for novel experience was addressed through pharmacological means. Unfortunately ignorance can be fatal, and every couple years some poor individual would make tragic headlines while trying to inhale some product which was unintended for internal use. A percentage of unwary or unlucky people were steadily grabbed by law enforcement organizations enforcing petty drug laws, with the artificial doubling of the prison population to follow in the years ahead.
With the relaxing of traditional moral guidelines a degree of destructive behavior took place as well as positive. A lot of theft occurred, by young people against one another, as well as against government agencies set up to help the unfortunate. Relaxing the rules and morality inevitably results in exploitation by a malovelent minority. In a comparatively few cases, again overblown by the 'urban legend' factor, people would apply under different names for welfare benefits and collect multiple checks, or deliberately have more children to increase their welfare allotment. Tragically, in some inner cities generations began to be reared on welfare.
Large race riots were another unfortunate institution we saw a lot of in the 60s. On August 11 1965 a pattern began which would be played out repeatedly over the years, white police stopping a black motorists becoming a perceived police brutality case. Violent responses would follow from a comparatively small percentage of local residents who lashed out with thrown bricks, Molotov cocktails and a few guns, looted the gun and liquor stores, and burned the shops in their immediate neighborhoods. Some of these business tried to evade the flames with hastily painted signs indicating Black ownership. (the term 'Black' had replaced 'Negro' in common print after the mid 1960s) In 5 days about 30 people were dead and 20,000 National Guardsmen were patrolling the streets of the Watts district of Los Angeles. The angry slogan 'Burn Baby Burn' was widely quoted in madia accounts of the Watts riots, although it originated in a lauditory phrase for favorite records used by the disk jocky the magnificent Montague, who had used it for a couple years before his moving to Los Angeles.
In 1966 Chicago, New York and Cleveland suffered disturbances which killed two people each. The summer of 1967 was perhaps the worse for riots, Newark, New Jersey and Detroit were the largest of dozens of urban areas participating in that 'Long, hot summer'. For a few days an insurrection appeared to be in progress in our cities. In Detroit alone 38 people died. The major episodes of racial rioting in 1968 took place in Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, and Cincinnati, among many others, after the April 4 assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King in Memphis. Thereafter such major rioting tapered off into rare but increasingly angry episodes, generally following with exasperating predictability the process outlined above.
People became more mobile in the distances they were willing to commute to go to work, and in relationships mobility became a virtue and permanence often became a casualty of choice. In many places in America half of the marriages were destined to end in divorce, with it's effects on children sowing it's own problems for future generations. The irresponsibility of many, especially a sizable fraction of men who would 'love and leave' women, led to a significant growth of single mothers and children growing up without fathers. Abortion would not be available until 1973 as a last resort 'out' from unwanted parenthood. The wiser use of effective birth control methods such as the pill must have prevented a far larger birth rate than what did occur. Some point to the modern horrors of life and blame them on the breakdown of the old ways of living as exemplified by the demand for and use of 'the Pill'. I believe that giving people more choices and options is a good thing.
The 'Generation Gap' of the late 1960s were both a gulf of ignorance and an opportunity for exploration of new cultural options. Such a 'gap' must always be accounted for in judging acceptable behavior, whichever end of the discussion you happen to be on. Many who lived the kind of lives that made the late 60s stand out are tempted to lie or hide their past from new associates and children as if they are ashamed of the lives they led. There can be fine line between simply growing up and seeing things differently and becoming a hypocrite and denying others the same freedoms you once demanded for yourself. Many now live in circumstances personally far less free than earlier times they can remember, and prudence is necessary due to increasing intrusions into our private lives by government and business interests such as screening against cultural indications of the counterculture like smoking Cannabis. It is sad that so many tragic scenarios will have to be played out over and over again when people again get tired of living in an Orwellian society.
A book spreads its ideas through the reading populace, which by the 1960s was probably at an all time high, over a period of months. Technological advances in communications, especially the beginnings of sophisticated television coverage of events, provided a means of widely shared experience in real time. A given idea could be spread almost instantaneously, and only required one to pay attention to a screen rather than invest the effort to read. The percentage of time devoted to reading plummeted, with televisions being left on all day in many homes. Corporate interests were provided with unprecedented opportunities to see how many people they could persuade to buy their products. Moralizing was conveyed in storytelling for television, earlier principally by writers wishing to convey traditional visions of society. Later, among a lot of safe 'middle of the road' programming, a little exploitation of recognition of right and left world views could be noticed. The level of presumed understanding of the audience was steadily downgraded until by the end of the decade the news programs were generally presented at a 5th grade reading level! Ironically, as communications were beginning to allow greater awareness of world events and pave the way for a global consciousness which many seemed interested in facilitating, people were having their critical facilities, reading experience, and attention spans degraded to serve the interests of those competing for their attention. Television took the place of the radio in what many families did together after dinner, with the bright screen demanding attention by its very act of being on, especially if it was in color.
One great lesson of the late 60s was that things could be changed if enough people realized it had to happen. The process of providing short and long term feedback to the 'background machinery' of national life in order to change things was what 'the Movement' was about, at least in it's original idealistic incarnation. Today millions live differently than their grandparents did, not just because of technical progress but because of what we feel the freedom to give ourselves permission to do. The struggle between popular and institutional world views was not decided then, it was merely catapulted to new heights of awareness. The 60s marked a transition in thinking rather than an isolated period of excess as it is often portrayed. A splitting of the cultural consensus occurred, and a series of subcultures emerged which can accommodate between them a wider range of behavior than the 50's style model of conformist consumerism. Social evolution has benefited beyond measure from the variety of avenues explored and the range of existence perceived and acted upon. Society is a kind of virtual living thing which can either evolve under the directions perceived as fruitful or under a restrained range of conduct remain static like the cockroaches. In societies as well as species, most mutations are not beneficial, and many variations do not bear fruit. Some do, however, and it can make an enormous difference in unknown ways to be flexible and adaptable. The forces seeking to repress change to this day seek to pervert the technology and legal systems of the times towards their ends, and the more we tolerate invasions into our freedom and privacy the more of it they will take away from us. The struggle never ends and the outcome must never be taken for granted.
June, 2001-latest revision May 11, 2006 and January 28, 2008
Some highs of the 1960's
Beatles Ed Sullivan show debut
Satellite television signal relays
Martin Luther King's 'I Have A Dream' speech
The first man in space, Yuri Gagarin
The Phillips 'cassette' audio tape format
Apollo program, especially the first landing on the Moon
The rise of the mini skirt in 1966
The unbinding of sexual pleasure and 'The Pill'
Seeing the Earth as a globe in space
The rise of environmentalism
Giving yourself permission to be different
Cannabis and Lysergic Acid Dyethelamide
The questioning of authority
TV changes from primarily black and white to color.
Some lows of the 1960's
Assassination of JFK, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, Robert Kennedy
The Election of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew
The rise of organized crime drug dealers
Cuban Missile Crisis
The March 13, 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese while many watched
Charles Manson and his murderous 'family'
Massacre of unarmed student protesters at Kent State
No abortion available legally until 1973
Mao's Cultural revolution
Edward Kennedy's auto accident
Methamphetamine and heroin
The Draft and the Vietnam War
San Francisco and the Midpennensula in the late 1960's
During 1966 a kind of alternate
society began to emerge in San Francisco. Somehow the corner of
the Haight and Ashbury streets became it's symbolic center.
As word got out, runaway youth began to view the region as a friendly mecca, but it would take time for this initial trickle to turn into a flood. A group of volunteers, calling themselves 'the Diggers' after a religious group who befriended the poorest of medieval England, arose as a kind of support group for the 'society oblivious' youth culture taking form around them. Some of the 'Diggers' came from the San Francisco Mime Troupe which was about this time acquired by an enlightened businessman named Bill Graham. During a public performance some of the troupe were arrested on obscenity charges, and Graham, fiercely loyal to his people, quickly arranged a benefit concert to bail them out featuring some local bands. It became the first of a series of concerts which would become the stuff of legends. The 'Diggers' promoted spontaneous creative acts, and helped arrange events and places for people to be. Free theater on the streets and other frolicking in which people could join in on the fun were among their activities, and later larger events built on such initial precedents. They gave away truckloads of bread and served free hot meals in the 'Panhandle' district in large vats of donated food. A 'free store' where people could take and leave clothing and such also sprang up. Other people took it upon themselves to establish a 'Height Ashbury free medical clinic', where drug and VD related problems in particular could be attended to no matter how poor you were, free and with no legal hassles.
1967 saw national attention directed towards San Francisco, and a migration of a generation of runaways followed as well as the rise of professional dope dealers using brutal marketing tactics. Methamphetamine use through injection was an ill advised fad, warned against by Grace Slick in a grim public service ad played on FM 'underground radio'. One widely seen related slogan was 'Speed Kills', which shortly before was used as a road safety ad message.
There were even public service announcements on such FM stations reporting on the appearance and purity of batches of drugs going around at the time, with many a warning about deadly impurities found in this or that distinctively colored and shaped batch making the rounds.
The 'Human Be-In' on January 14,
1967 in the polo grounds of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park was
a mass gathering of the young movement. Among the cultural luminaries
present was Tim Leary, who among other things suggested that people
start their own religions. Poets Allen Ginsberg, Laurence Ferlinghetti,
Lenore Kandel (whose 'F word' laden poetry collection 'The Love
Book' had achieved notoriety that spring due to efforts to ban
it) and others addressed the thousands who spent the day there.
It was more of a shared experience than a political rally, and
the event received wide media attention. The underground newspapers
sold on street corners by colorfully adorned hippies was a phenomenon
of the times, most notably the San Francisco Oracle with it's
huge art spreads and poetry.
After the 'Human Be-In' columnist Herb Caen coined the word 'Hippies' to label those who lived in this culture, he had introduced the term 'beatnik' a decade earlier. As soon as they appeared 'hippies' attracted derision by cynics and traditionalists. Cartoonist Al Capp would draw them with flies hovering around them, and California Governor Ronald Reagan quipped that a hippie "dressed like Tarzan, had hair like Jane, and smelled like Cheetah".
Opinions were diverging about the Vietnam 'War', about what matters in life, and about ourselves. It was the cultural equivalent of the separation of dividing chromosomes during cell division.
Young men's hair began lengthening across the western world. A 'top 40' Scott MaKenzie song called on people to "come to San Francisco". Many runaways and vagabonds converged there, helping to kill the pocket of alternate society they sought. Many were hoping to meet 'hippie chicks' and take part in the media magnified 'free love'.
The rise of the professional dealers helped prompt the grim trend illustrated by popular recall that in April 1967 the 'in' drug in the 'Haight Ashbury' district of San Francisco was acid (LSD) but by that August certain people made sure it was heroin (although the process actually took closer to a couple years). Ludicrous early propaganda against Cannabis probably contributed to many ignoring better founded warnings against Heroin and other Opiates.
A brief episode of benign anarchy turned into a magnet for professional hard drug dealers, pimps, and thieves. Violence and arrests became common, paranoia crept into what was left of the fabric of the underground culture. A ritualized 'Death of the Hippie' ceremony in October 1967 took place in San Francisco's golden gate park to mark the acknowledged end of the idyllic interval. When Joe Alioto became Mayor of San Francisco in 1968 he did his best to drive the hippies out of town using methods ranging from housing laws to heavy handed police tactics.
Even as the initial flash point began to flicker away, the wave of change swept across the younger generation and delayed echoes of the Haight experience ran their course in hundreds of communities and millions of hearts.
Other cities including New York and London contributed mightily to the growing 'Counter Culture' in music and in emerging cultural practices which were spottily noted and labeled by the media of the time.
Among the widest of group experiences of this emerging culture was the mass sharing of it's music. San Francisco Bay area AM radio aimed at young people was plentiful and varied in the later part of the decade. KYA had gathered a substantial audience after the demise of KEWB, a rock station patterned on the intense heavily sound effects adorned model. KYA had a number of eccentric 'Disk Jockeys' who played what they liked as much as requests phoned in by listeners. One could hear Sinatra, Ray coniff singers, movie theme songs, and even a little Henry Mancini among the old and new rock music they played. There seemed to be even then a conscious effort to keep alive the 'classics' of the past decade such as the Platters and Coasters as well as in current groups such as the yardbirds, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and of course the Beatles and Rolling Stones. KFRC emerged later in the decade as a more formal 'top 40' station, and their disk jockeys seemed to rarely take requests. They did produce quality programming over a period of many years and provided greater choice to the audience, who generally listened to one or the other station, with KFRC seemingly grabbing the balance of the audience by the end of the decade. Another rock station with character emerged in San Jose, KLIV at the far right end of the dial. One notable special programming effort they made was in the summer of 1967 with a full day dedicated to each year from 1957 onwards, nothing but music from that year heard all day including many probably never played on radio again.
An FM radio then was little more than a fairly large box in some living rooms playing classical music from a good fabric covered speaker. A San Francisco station called KMPX, under the direction of KYA veteran Tom Donahue, began to redefine to many what music could mean. Songs from albums never heard on top 40 were heard, sometimes 2 or 3 versions of the same song were played to compare the treatment, and long compositions were accommodated. This alone was a breakthrough as commercials were minimal during the next year or so on this and another station, KSAN, which was to steadily grow into a local institution over the next few years. Before commercialism reared its ugly head a kind of underground renaissance was expressed on the airwaves of these FM radio stations. Weird records and even spoken word material and live performances were heard on these stations. One might hear old blues, banjo picking, extended sitar pieces, or groups with names like Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Pink Floyd, and Moby Grape.
Concerts began to be just a little more than a place to hear your favorite musical groups, they became mass gatherings of participants in what was being recognized as some kind of community asserting it's preferences in music and behavior. On FM radio stations one could hear all of side one of the Steve Miller Band's first album "Children Of The Future", with long dreamy compositions like 'Section 43' by Country Joe and the Fish, and bizarre things blended together so you wondered if you really heard afterwards.
Bill Graham became the primary San Francisco concert organizer, who somehow balanced being a ruthless businessman and compassionate humanitarian. He enabled many wonderful events to occur which became the vehicles for countless memorable experiences. Later on a lot of ill words were said about Graham, yet for every tale of fiery rage and heavy-handedness one heard, stories of compassionate generosity, integrity, and loyalty would also emerge. If someone tried to take advantage of him, especially those who tried to take liberties with perceived free admittance privileges he would lash out mercilessly.
A typical story which placed him in perspective is that of a fan of the music standing in front of the Fillmore Auditorium panhandling for hours to try and gather the ticket price. As the concert neared, Graham suddenly motioned to the man to come in, telling the guard, "That man's on my guest list!"
He tended to hire burly mean looking black men to manage furiously impatient mobs, knowing blacks in the audience might respect such an authority figure a bit more and the whites were likely to be a bit more intimidated.
Graham ran his concerts with a general's attention to background logistics. An extensive medical aid infrastructure made sure occasional injuries and overdoses were taken care of outside of the law. His concerts were filled with volunteer security personnel, with the uniformed security usually outside or discreetly stationed where they could be quickly summoned if need be. Usually only invasions of the stage, violence, and illegal taping was actively squelched, people brought all manner of refreshments and psychoactive substances to concerts, but suppressive measures were taken primarily in cases of people seen drinking alcohol from glass bottles, since this activity was by experience known to cause the most trouble for various reasons. You could with the flimsiest discretion smoke or ingest anything else you wanted. Even if you had a wee too much you knew you would be attended by people who were 'cool'.
'Light shows' were projected on the walls and fabric screens stretched above and behind the stage before and during the musical acts. These early visual accompaniments to the music were composed of mixtures of many layers of projected textures and overlaid colored shadows of turning paper cutout patterns, various slides, and even specially animated 16 mm films. A favorite device at that time was a thin clear 'Watch Glass', a kind of shallow glass dish like cover for large wall clocks common in classrooms. A mixture of clear oil and water mixed with liquid food color was manipulated in a watch glass with another such glass held just above the first, sloshing the mixture around with the fingers moving so as to respond in 'real time' to the music. This was laid on an 'Overhead Projector' of the type common to business presentations used to project large transparencies. A little practice and a very sensitively jiggling amoeba-like shape could be 'played' in a fairly close visual accompaniment to the music. Another favorite 'Light show' projection used elaborately overlaid strips of clear plastic oriented in different directions, then placing them between large sheets of polarizing filters. This allows under optimum conditions a display of colors so vivid as to defy the capabilities of film. The colors would cycle as one of the large Polaroid sheets were spun. Unfortunately some of the better producers of light shows tried to pressure Bill Graham to be considered on par with the musicians, resulting in their being purged from the lineup. Thereafter the light shows were de-emphasized. By 1970 slides and other less dynamic methods were used more, but the earlier light shows were quite innovative, and were geared towards the visual environment produced by and conducive to the Psychedelic Experience so many of the bands were a part of.
The role of exploring new avenues of consciousness cannot be emphasized enough, and it was not all chemical. Many discovered the value of meditative states as practiced by Eastern religious traditions. A large number of people decided they were curious about other methods of altering your consciousness besides alcohol and experimented for better or for worse depending largely on their education and location.
An interesting phenomena of the late 60's was the surge in the practice of hitch-hiking. For a few years it was common to pick up people who stood facing you with their thumbs extended. For a while I actually commuted between Mountain View and Menlo Park by hitching rides with strangers! For a brief period there was a faith and trust in human character which opened up people's willingness to share with others, but that didn't last long. With time dreadful stories spread, especially involving female hitch-hikers. One got tired of making instant character evaluations as you approached a prospective rider and the practice soon declined.
Kepler's books, in Menlo Park near Stanford University, was started by Roy Kepler, an activist untiring in his devotion to bringing about positive social change. At Kepler's in Menlo Park I first saw the Posters being made for the Fillmore and Family Dog concerts, and were immediately struck with their beauty as works of art. The building of lettering from curlicue wavy masses and the glowing colors (not fluorescent then, despite subjective memories!) and the appeal I sensed toward a sense of joyous wonder in much of the imagery made it obvious to me something was up in some artist's minds! This impression was definitely reinforced by an issue of the street paper "the Oracle" which I bought at Kepler's, proclaiming "The Summer Of Love" (probably the first use of that phrase in print) with an American Indian shown spreading his arms toward the sky with a shimmering silver moiré' pattern filling the sky behind him. There was a sizable amount of foreign magazines and many books on politics and various subjects dear to the management. There were places to sit and have coffee, and pieces of flaky baklava, the first I had seen, were displayed under a bell jar. One could buy Chinese Red Army buttons with Mao's image on them, and copies of 'Quotations of Chairman Mao Tse Tung', or 'The Little Red Book'. For a time this diminutive volume rivaled the Bible in the number of copies being printed! The New Left leanings of the management attracted occasional violence from the rabble, usually with windows being shattered. Once I stood inside reading a raunchy New York periodical called 'Horseshit' magazine when a sharp shattering sound erupted to one side of me. A small bright edged hole had appeared in the glass, someone having driven by and used a slingshot to send a lead pellet through the window. The management asked of everyone was all right, then herded customers away from that part of the store to assist the police in investigating the crime.
The Midpennensula Free University was another local institution of note. It was a collection of individuals holding classes in everything from Greek Dancing to I Ching and even the primitive computers of the time. Once they got the attention of the FBI because they held workshops in obtaining abortions, which in those pre Roe vs. Wade days was considered a serious crime! Many eccentric geniuses congregated around the MFU, based then at a tiny storefront on El Camino Real just north of Keplers. Inside was a dimly lit carpeted and pillowed interior, incense burners along along the walls and strings of beads forming insubstantial doors. My membership card for the Midpennensula Free University bore a picture of an Indian multi-armed Shiva statue with the words 'Today is the first day of the rest of your life' creating a circular border.
The MFU had a nice little magazine, and inquiries led to my doing an art piece for the center spread of one issue. This art was of an Earth like world of a red giant-white dwarf system like Mira Ceti (which Chesley Bonestell had painted) with exotic buildings and flying reptiles drawn among the tall rocks and billowy clouds.
Inside the 'Free U' University building, in racks near the windows, were the first 'Zap' comics I had ever seen. The first issue I looked at was 'number 0', and the art inside was intriguing! The Zap 'Comix' line contained several brilliant artists, and although few in number easily radiated the influence to my generation that the 'E.C.' comics had to the generation before, with profound redefinitions of the use of that medium. In especially the later issues the content often dove headlong into areas forbidden to comics bearing the 'Comics Code' seal. During the McCarthy era comics were persecuted then censored, pinching off the expressive and influential 'E.C. comics series, with only 'Mad' surviving. E.C. comics contained stories with graphic content. Comics bearing the 'seal' could not show substantial blood, gore, too much of breasts, etc., or show policemen in a bad light. Zap and many of the subsequent explosion of comics of all grades of quality gleefully flaunted their lack of such seals in often gratuitous fashion. Many wonderfully drawn 'flights of fancy' also appeared. Some admittedly made more sense when under the influence of LSD!
Another local institution influential to me was 'Portola Institute', which published 'The Whole Earth Catalog'. This catalog series contained mounds of information on resources meant to encourage choices in living and learning. Self sufficiency from central power grids as well as from centralized mass culture was preached with excellent practical advice towards such ends offered in abundance. The theme of the Whole Earth Catalogue's covers were Earth photographs taken from space. A couple years before, members of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters (a zany LSD saturated commune in the redwood forested midpennensula hills at La Honda, famous for the wildly painted bus they cavorted around in) carried signs at a public occasion saying "Why aren't there any pictures of the whole Earth yet?". Stewart Brand then mailes buttens with this question to prominent thinkers he knew. One of these, Buckminster Fuller of Geodesic Dome fame, replied that of course you know you can never see more than half the Earth at one time! Soon afterwards the Applications Technology Satellite returned high definition television pictures from 22,000 miles. This pictorial milestone photograph appeared on the cover of the first Whole Earth Catalog in an immense black field. On the back cover of another early issue of the widely influential Catalog was a mosaic of pictures of the Milky Way and a quotation by Carl Sagan describing various splendors of the universe. The Apollo missions soon added to the available 'Whole Earth' images. Editor Stewart Brand often brought to this publication the sense of wonder of space often absent in other contemporary progressive literature. Large posters of Apollo 8 color Earth photos graced the walls of the Whole Earth Truck store, which sold a selection of the books and items described in the ongoing series of Catalogs. The 'Whole Earth' group was among the first to make use of the Internet with the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, or WELL, among the earliest 'on line' communities.