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Viewpoints: August 1965: The month that changed America

“The drama of August, 1914 …
whose results determined the shape
of the world in which we live today.”
– Barbara Tuchman on the start of
World War I in “The Guns of August.”

The start of World War I during Aug. 3-4, 1914, or “The Great War,” as it was originally known, is widely acknowledged to be a “huge” turning point of the 20th century.

There were nearly 20 million military and civilian casualties and the “Black Plague,” undoubtedly worsened by war-time conditions, killed millions more. Called “the war to end all wars,” it didn’t: The ambiguous ending of the First World War led directly to severe economic and social problems in Germany, the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Second World War.

Several classic poems titled “August, 1914” have been written. (“The sun sank slow by the shell-swept height, the guns had prepared a way, and a soldier turned to sleep that night … Who would not wake for the day … ”)

As it happens, the month of August would also turn out to be a turning point in American history – August 1965, to be specific. In that month, three issues that would greatly affect American life – war in Southeast Asia, race relations and the increasing cost of living – (literally) exploded into the public consciousness.

In early August alone, the Vietnam War saw a huge escalation of American soldiers, the Watts riot in Los Angeles showed that racial troubles were not limited to the South and the Commerce Department reported that prices in the summer of 1965 were increasing at a surprising rate. These three problems would bedevil the nation in the 1960s and beyond.

A different time

More than 50 years later, it is hard to recall the optimism of the early 1960s. Lyndon B. Johnson was an “accidental” president: For those too young to remember, LBJ was put on the Democratic ticket in 1960 as a Southern, Protestant moderate to balance out Yankee liberal John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism. As the vice presidential nominee, Johnson helped the Democrats win a majority in the South – and the election. He ascended to the presidency when JFK was assassinated in November 1963.

When LBJ suddenly became president, some liberals worried that he would be a Southern reactionary. However, he quickly passed the Civil Rights bill that Kennedy had been negotiating in the Senate and generally calmed the nation’s fears in a performance that Theodore H. White called “superb.”

Most voters agreed: Johnson’s record-breaking 61.1% landslide over Barry Goldwater in 1964 showed the strength of LBJ’s “consensus.” When LBJ began his second term in 1965, the economy was humming on all cylinders as the inflation rate then was just 1.6% and the unemployment rate was only 4%, numbers most Americans would love to see today.

(Today’s “official” unemployment stats don’t reflect that another 20 million Americans aren’t working).

Johnson’s slogan was “60 months of prosperity” and his Great Society programs were about to disburse billions of dollars to America’s poor. Since he had also just cut taxes for business and the middle class, the Johnson administration truly had something to offer everybody.

In a year-opening editorial titled, “1965 – The Prime Task,” the editors of The Nation wrote that President Johnson must have been Time’s “Man of the Year” by acclamation:

“No one else was in the running. If the President continues at the pace he has set, he may emerge, at least from a material standpoint, as the most successful leader of a great country in this century.

“The cup runneth over. One can almost go along with Johnson’s words as he lit the White House Christmas tree: ‘These are the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem.’”

Beginning in 1961, both the gross domestic product and the number of jobs set new records every year in what was probably the greatest creation of wealth since the Roman Empire. And this prosperity was broadly shared thanks to the power of organized labor where roughly half of all workers in “industrial” states like New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan were union members.

Besides the economic boom, LBJ was the greatest legislative magician since Franklin Roosevelt. A partial list of his bills would include: the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the Open Housing Act of 1968; Medicare; Medicaid; federal aid to education; the 1965 Immigration Reform Act; the most national parks created since Theodore Roosevelt; and vast amounts of federal funds for (suburban) highways, housing projects and assorted anti-poverty programs.

(Much of this was done with little added debt because President Dwight Eisenhower had left a surplus in 1960). On Jan. 20, 1965, it seemed that America’s future was unlimited.

Change in fortunes

Taking LBJ at his peak in the winter of 1965, he seemed headed for Mount Rushmore. But less than three years later, it was all in ruins – literally. And it was in the summer of 1965 that all the dangerous trends accelerated.

In “The Neo-Conservatives,” Peter Steinfels theorized that there were “two Sixties.” The first half of the decade was a time of peace, prosperity and progress while the second half featured war, race riots, anti-war demonstrations, anti-hippie “police riots,” and economic turmoil. He called 1965 “the pivot of the decade.” Steinfels is right and here is how it went down in the summer of ’65.

• Vietnam: Upon becoming president, LBJ inherited a commitment to defend South Vietnam – and a deteriorating situation there. In March 1965, Johnson decided to increase American involvement in Southeast Asia and launched “Operation Rolling Thunder,” a massive bombing campaign that would eventually see more explosives dropped on North Vietnam than on Japan in World War II.

But in the spring of 1965, a negotiated withdrawal was still possible as numerous American ground forces hadn’t started fighting yet. All through June and July, the situation worsened, and in late July and the first week of August 1965, Viet Cong guerillas attacked key American bases. In response, Johnson announced the dispatch of 50,000 more American ground troops (“Additional forces will be needed later, and they will be sent as requested”).

This escalation would be repeated until 500,000 American soldiers were in Vietnam. By the fall of 1965, the United States was involved in a major Asian land war. In 1967, the American commander Gen. William Westmoreland told the Senate he “saw light at the end of the tunnel.” Less than a year later, the Tet Offensive showed that the War was not going well. After being held below 50% in the 1968 New Hampshire Primary, LBJ announced his retirement. (The war went on until South Vietnam’s final surrender in 1975).

• Watts: The passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act gave most Americans hope that racial equality could gradually and peacefully be achieved. “Give us the vote and we’ll finish the job,” said Martin Luther King Jr.

A successful black middle class quickly emerged and grew. But benefits were slow to trickle down to the inner-city poor who demanded change immediately and, frankly, were often mistreated by local police. On Aug. 11, an arrest of a young black man in the Watts section of Los Angeles on drunken driving charges exploded into a full-fledged riot with some black residents chanting “Burn baby, burn,” which ended with 34 killed (all black).

Watts directly led to the political rise of a forgotten actor named Ronald Reagan, who rode the reaction against disorder into the California governorship (and a national career) a year later. And Watts was not an isolated incident: Race riots became a part of American summers almost as much as baseball: virtually every Northern city experienced violence, with Detroit, Newark, Chicago, Baltimore and Washington particularly taking heavy damage.

The most destructive riots occurred after King’s assassination in April 1968, prompting Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley to tell his police to “shoot to kill arsonists and shoot to maim looters” if it ever happened again. The “white backlash” was on, as many white voters applauded Daley’s statement, a sentiment that kept Northern liberal Democrats from winning the presidency from 1968 until 2008. And more than 50 years later, urban poverty is just as bad as ever.

• Inflation: Also in early August, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the increase in the inflation rate had doubled from the summer of 1964, thus beginning to erode the wages of working people and the elderly on fixed incomes.

And the increase in the rate of the cost of living would double again from 1965 to 1968 (helping Republican Richard Nixon win in 1968) and double again in the 1970s (thus helping Republican Ronald Reagan win in 1980). The stock market peaked in 1966 and stalled there for many years. Taxes eventually went up to pay for the war and, along with inflation, created a double whammy of lower take-home pay and diminished purchasing power for the working and middle classes.

Samuel Lubell once called inflation “the Democratic breaking point” because it made grass-roots voters angry at the federal government. The high cost of living broke the Democrats, all right, in the ’60s and ’70s.

A different country

Ken Burns, the filmmaker whose 2017 documentary on Vietnam won numerous awards, commented that the war “broke the American presidency.” That is undeniably true of all the traumas of the ’60s, although the Watergate scandal of the 1970s undermined faith in government even worse.

In 1964, roughly 75% of Americans trusted that the government would do what was right “all or most of the time.” By the end of the 1970s, that figure was down below 30% – where it has pretty much stayed except for a brief time after 9/11. What unfolded in the summer of 1965 – a stalemated war, continued racial troubles, inflation eroding living standards – began that process of the public losing faith, confidence and optimism, a problem very much in evidence today, when a record-low 19% have faith in government.

And the three problems of that summer were all related: the war caused LBJ to have less time for urgent domestic problems and the increased spending for a war in Southeast Asia and a War on Poverty at home led to higher inflation.

August 1914 was a pivotal year in world history. Half a century later, another August would be a pivotal year in American history – and the country has never been the same.

Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant in California. He is the co-author of “California After Arnold” and the author of the forthcoming “21st Century America,” a study of national politics.

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