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The Sixties

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Jon Margolis' book, "The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964 (The Beginning of the Sixties)":

There never was an innocent year.

...But there was a time when the delusion of innocence was easy to believe, when the myth was at least as useful as it was deceiving. That time ended when 1964 did.

If the delusion of innocence ended in 1964, something else began: the Sixties. The calendar tells us decades begin when the next-to-last number of the year changes. We know better. When Americans at century's end hear that now-cliched term the Sixties, the hopeful and relatively placid years of John Kennedy's campaign and presidency do not come to mind. Their tumultuous aftermath does. If the tumult did not start in 1964, it blossomed then...

From every perspective except the calendar's, 1964 started forty days early, when John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. The wonder is that the belief in American innocence was not murdered that day, too. In retrospect, perhaps it was, but because beliefs do not die as cleanly as people do, their deaths can escape recognition. America spent the months after John Kennedy's death in denial. A few clung to the idea of an ersatz resurrection by hoping that Kennedy's successor would choose Robert Kennedy as vice president. Almost everyone tried to tell him or herself that the assassination, for all its horror, was an aberration, that the country and its culture remained strong, healthy, and essentially unchanged. They were wrong. On January 1, 1964, the dourest observer of the passing scene could not foresee a country in which students would rise up against their elders, city dwellers would set fire to their neighborhoods, large numbers of privileged young people would openly flout the law, and women would begin to wonder whether the male sex was their oppressor. By year's end, the most optimistic observer of the passing scene would have wondered about all that—if an optimistic observer could be found. For 1964 was the first year since the end of World War II, if not in the twentieth century, in which events challenged, if they did not overwhelm, America's habitual optimism. Sure, there had always been naysayers and grouches—from Thoreau to Mark Twain to Ambrose Bierce—but these had been a minority even among the intellectuals. The prevailing ethos had been that although there were problems aplenty, they could all be solved thanks to democracy, freedom, the market economy, and plain old American know-how. That ethos was not destroyed in 1964, but it was shaken, and the shaking came from the American people themselves, who rose up—not as one, but as many diverse, disagreeing (and disagreeable) factions against the elites who had been governing them. For the first time, some even wondered whether America's problems should be solved. These uprisings destroyed the consensus.


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