In this lesson, you’ll explore America of the 1960s, including the characteristics of the counterculture movement and the impact of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War on the United States.
The 1960s: A Decade of Change
Throughout American history, there have been several events and trends that changed the course of the nation. The American Revolution of the 18th century and the industrialization of labor in the late 19th century are examples of eras that dramatically changed the ways that Americans governed and worked and the resulting impact on society.
During the 20th century, the 1960s ushered in a new era of profound cultural and social change that, like the pivotal events of previous centuries, forever altered the political and societal landscape of the United States. In looking back, more profound changes occurred during this single decade than perhaps any other in the 20th century, such as the counterculture movement, civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War.
In the 1960s, some baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, rejected the ambitions, morals, politics, and social values of their parents in favor of something that was uniquely their own. In rejecting tradition, boomers and hippies defined the counterculture movement because they resisted the cultural and social standards of the time.Characteristics of the counterculture movement included adopting distinctive styles of appearance and clothing, such as long hair for men, bell-bottom jeans, tie-dye tee shirts, and peasant skirts. Students and youth drawn to the counterculture also experimented with drugs like LSD and marijuana, identified with racial minorities, and rejected monogamous relationships in favor of communal living and ‘free love’.
Instead of institutionalized religions, countercultural enthusiasts were drawn to Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Jesus Movement. Forms of creative expression included the psychedelic art frequently found on concert posters for high-profile groups of the 1960s, like the Beatles, Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane, as well as artists like Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin.Major countercultural events included the ‘Summer of Love’ in San Francisco, during which tens of thousands of youth from all around the country congregated in the Haight-Asbury section of the city, and the 3-day Woodstock Music and Art Fair of 1969 in New York, which was attended by roughly 400,000 people. Major political demonstrations took place at the Democratic National Convention of 1968 and during the ‘Days of Rage’ which was organized by the radical Weatherman faction of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1969; both events occurred in Chicago.
Civil Rights Movement
Although it had begun in the previous decade, the civil rights movement became one of the most defining events of the 1960s. Through protests, sit-ins, and marches, racial and gender minorities spoke out against the dominant culture that had oppressed them and demanded equality.In the early years of 1960s, men like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. led African Americans in a movement that openly rejected their marginalization, encouraged them to stand up for themselves, and demanded that they be treated as the equal of white Americans. Although it was often met with violence and bigotry, the civil rights movement challenged white Americans to think differently about race and ethnicity and exposed the variety of ways in which African Americans were discriminated against in the United States.
Inspired by the civil rights movement, many other minorities began to protest their marginalization and insist that they be treated equally. Throughout the decade, women, gay men, lesbians, and Native Americans used the same or similar tactics to change the ways that they were treated in the United States and to win equality in social, political, and economic areas.While the civil rights movement was at times met with violence, it was also in many ways successful.
In 1964, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, each of which in its own way made it illegal to discriminate against someone because of his or her race, ethnicity, or gender. In the years that followed, several other laws were passed to increase or uphold the equality of minorities and ensure that they had access to opportunities for things like housing and employment.
Of all the events that took place during the 1960s, there is probably none more significant than the Vietnam War. Although the American military had been involved in the conflict since the late 1950s, the troop surge of 1965 brought the nation fully into the war, and it become one of the most passionately debated issues of the decade. The Vietnam War was a proxy war in that the United States hoped to stop the spread of communism in Asia by supporting the South Vietnamese people in their fight against North Vietnam and the Vietcong.
As a result of the escalating conflict in Vietnam throughout the 1960s, young men were routinely drafted and sent to fight in a guerilla-style, unconventional war. Opposition to the war was a key issue for many campus-based organizations, including the SDS. Additionally, it was the first war fought in the age of television, and the nightly news regularly depicted its violent reality. As a result, the war became increasingly unpopular with a broad spectrum of the population until U.
S. troops were withdrawn in 1975; ultimately, over 58,000 American soldiers died in the conflict.
As one of the most pivotal decades in American history, the 1960s affected nearly every aspect of American culture, including art, dress, lifestyles, and politics. The counterculture rejected the institutions and traditional values of previous generations and instead, embraced diversity and the equal treatment of minorities. The strength of the civil rights movement and its leaders led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which made discrimination a violation of the law.
The Vietnam War was also one of the defining issues of the decade, especially for college students, and led to the deaths of more than 58,000 American soldiers until the U.S. withdrew in 1975.