The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America

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Overview

At the beginning of 1965, the U.S. seemed on the cusp of a golden age. Although Americans had been shocked by the assassination in 1963 of President Kennedy, they exuded a sense of consensus and optimism that showed no signs of abating. Indeed, political liberalism and interracial civil rights activism made it appear as if 1965 would find America more progressive and unified than it had ever been before. In January 1965, President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed that the country had ...

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Overview

At the beginning of 1965, the U.S. seemed on the cusp of a golden age. Although Americans had been shocked by the assassination in 1963 of President Kennedy, they exuded a sense of consensus and optimism that showed no signs of abating. Indeed, political liberalism and interracial civil rights activism made it appear as if 1965 would find America more progressive and unified than it had ever been before. In January 1965, President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed that the country had “no irreconcilable conflicts.”

Johnson, who was an extraordinarily skillful manager of Congress, succeeded in securing an avalanche of Great Society legislation in 1965, including Medicare, immigration reform, and a powerful Voting Rights Act. But as esteemed historian James T. Patterson reveals in The Eve of Destruction, that sense of harmony dissipated over the course of the year. As Patterson shows, 1965 marked the birth of the tumultuous era we now know as “The Sixties,” when American society and culture underwent a major transformation. Turmoil erupted in the American South early in the year, when police attacked civil rights demonstrators in Selma, Alabama. Many black leaders, outraged, began to lose faith in nonviolent and interracial strategies of protest. Meanwhile, the U.S. rushed into a deadly war in Vietnam, inciting rebelliousness at home. On August 11th, five days after Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, racial violence exploded in the Watts area of Los Angeles. The six days of looting and arson that followed shocked many Americans and cooled their enthusiasm for the president’s remaining initiatives. As the national mood darkened, the country became deeply divided. By the end of 1965, a conservative resurgence was beginning to redefine the political scene even as developments in popular music were enlivening the Left.

In The Eve of Destruction, Patterson traces the events of this transformative year, showing how they dramatically reshaped the nation and reset the course of American life.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In a thoughtful look at a tumultuous period, Bancroft Prize–winning historian Patterson (Great Expectations) asserts that 1965 was "a pivotal year in American life." He sets the stage with a picture of "buoyant and confident" white America in late 1964, before addressing the "shifts of mood... politics, culture, and foreign policies" that many found unsettling and divisive. While Patterson covers a wide range of influences, including developments in cinema and music, the bulk of his attention is turned toward the civil rights movement and racial tensions, from Selma to Watts, the Great Society programs of President Johnson and the escalation of the Vietnam War. A complex portrayal of Johnson as a flawed yet ambitious leader helps Patterson to show how cultural discord and polarizing politics made 1965 "the inaugural year of the Sixties" after which, "for better and for worse, the United States would never be the same again." Writing in an informative, accessible manner, Paterson creates a strong narrative, his recitation of facts helping to build his case that 1965—rather than 1968 or 1969—marked a political, cultural, and military turning point for America. 16 pages of photos. Agent: John W. Wright, John W. Wright Literary Agency. (Dec.)
From the Publisher

Michael Beschloss “One of America’s greatest historians makes a powerful argument that the most important historical pivot of the revolutionary 1960s was not President Kennedy’s assassination or the tumult of 1968, but the fateful moment when Lyndon Johnson, at his zenith, turned from his Great Society to escalate the war in Vietnam, and when his passage of the Voting Rights Act was quickly followed by riots in Watts.  So evocatively does James Patterson take us back into the vanished world of 1965 that many readers will wish they could travel back in time and somehow change the tragic arc of history.”

Ira Katznelson, Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, Columbia University “Based on rich learning and resonant with thoughtful interpretations, this incisive and lucid book does more than identify a point of inflection. Its fascinating chronicle captures and explains how a configuration of racial and social change, popular culture, robust legislative action, and a fierce and often brutal war as well as unrest at home decisively altered the vectors of American life in ways that simply had not been anticipated just before 1965.” 

Steven M. Gillon, Scholar-in-Residence, The History Channel“Smart, thoughtful, fast-paced, engaging, and insightful—these are just a few of the adjectives that describe James T. Patterson’s masterful new book, The Eve of Destruction. Patterson makes a convincing case that you cannot understand America today without coming to terms with this eventful, and in some cases, tragic, year.” 

David M. Kennedy, Professor of History Emeritus, Stanford University“Philip Roth once called the immediate post-World War II decades ‘the greatest moment of collective inebriation in American history.’ James Patterson’s The Eve of Destruction chronicles the origins of the awful reckoning that followed. Focusing on the single, fateful year of 1965, Patterson’s masterful account details the incipient fissures in American society that grew into gaping chasms by the decade’s end. A sobering and essential read about a world we have lost and the troubled birth of our own.”

E. J. Dionne Jr., author of Our Divided Political HeartThe Eve of Destruction is impossible to put down, an exciting but also disturbing look at 1965, the year when what we now think of as ‘the sixties’ really began. For those of us who admire the great liberal achievements of the civil rights movement, Lyndon B. Johnson, and the 89th Congress, James Patterson has written a cautionary tale, showing how and why a conservative reaction that’s still with us began building at liberalism’s zenith. And the fateful, gradual escalation of the Vietnam War haunts this account, as it came to haunt LBJ. Those who lived through 1965 will want to read this book; those who didn’t ought to read it to understand today’s political world.” 

John Dittmer, author of Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi“While in many respects 1965 was a very good year—the Voting Rights Act, Head Start, and Medicare come quickly to mind—trouble lay ahead. The civil rights coalition was starting to unravel just as the specter of Vietnam loomed large on the horizon. In this illuminating, absorbing, page-turner of a book, James T. Patterson makes the case that ‘After 1965, for better and for worse, the United States would never be the same again.’”

Alan Brinkley, author of John F. Kennedy
“James Patterson, one of the most prolific and thoughtful historians of our generation, has written a brilliant book that shows us how the 1960s became such a destructive period in our recent history. It was not because of the youth revolt, nor even because of the civil rights movement, but because of Lyndon Johnson’s embrace of the Vietnam War.”

Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post
“Reading Patterson’s chronicle, I am all too painfully put back in that terrible year [1965], with all the shock and disenchantment it brought…. The Eve of Destruction should be read… as a cautionary tale about the dangers of hubris and, by no means incidentally, the dangers of misreading election returns as mandates.”

Wall Street Journal
“Patterson argues—correctly, I think—that 1965 was one of those “hinge years” when history turns and goes in another, unexpected direction. The history of a single year isn’t easy to write, but Mr. Patterson handles the task well…. All in all, The Eve of Destruction is an illuminating look at a remarkably significant year by a master historian.”

Boston Globe
“[The Eve of Destruction] is no romantic romp of nostalgia. It is a searching look at a year that spawned Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legacy of legislation on education, civil rights, and health and produced a high tide of American liberalism even as bloody confrontations at Selma, bombings in North Vietnam, and a credibility gap in the capital showed cracks in the American edifice…. Meticulously described and deftly analyzed.”

San Francisco Chronicle
“Our yearlong pivot from self-congratulation to national turmoil and near-rupture is the topic of The Eve of Destruction, an engaging chronicle by James T. Patterson, author of the Bancroft Prize-winning Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974…. By focusing on the widening gyre of crisis – Selma, Pleiku, Saigon, Watts – Patterson persuasively argues for the inclusion of 1965 in an elite roster of transformative years. His narrative imparts the dizzying speed of events that left so many Americans wondering what was happening to their country – and whether government really could meet the era’s daunting new challenges.”

Commonweal
“Political liberals may find comfort in the disarray of today’s Republican Party. But it wasn’t so long ago that their own troubles set the stage for the Reagan Era. Historian James T. Patterson skillfully chronicles that period in The Eve of Destruction.”

Irish Times
"[An] elegantly written and finely nuanced work on the US in the 1960s.... Picking up more or less where Robert Caro left off in the latest volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Patterson makes a convincing case that the US was a fundamentally different place at the end of 1965 from what it had been a year earlier.... One of the many strengths of this graceful book... is that the author never overstates his case. In fact, and rather pleasingly, he is always keen to challenge it."

American History Magazine
“Voting rights acts, Medicare and Medicaid, Vietnam, protests, riots—it was a helluva year, and it set in motion the sea change that created today’s relentless confrontational politics.”

Publishers Weekly
“A thoughtful look at a tumultuous period.... Writing in an informative, accessible manner, Patterson creates a strong narrative, his recitation of facts helping to build his case that 1965—rather than 1968 or 1969—marked a political, cultural, and military turning point for America.”

Kirkus Reviews
“Patterson’s sketch of an agonized Johnson perfectly mirrors the nation’s descent from smug self-assurance to puzzlement, peevishness and, finally, anger. A useful time capsule that explains the social fragmentation, political polarization and tumultuous mood swing of a pivotal year in American history.”

Kirkus Reviews
A Bancroft Prize–winning historian revisits the year the '60s truly began. Lighting the National Christmas Tree in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared these "the most hopeful times…since Christ was born in Bethlehem." Nobody laughed. Near the end of the ensuing year, the nation's political and social consensus had unraveled to the point that a protest song called "Eve of Destruction" topped the charts. Again, nobody laughed. Patterson (History Emeritus/Brown Univ.; Freedom is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America's Struggle over Black Family Life from LBJ to Obama, 2010, etc.) traces the cracks in the cultural zeitgeist, when Sinatra gave way to the Rolling Stones, when TV news exploded into color, when The Sound of Music made room for James Bond and Thunderball, when the feel-good Beatles turned pensive, when Dylan went electric. The author's at his best, though, tracking the year's political developments. During a period of unprecedented economic prosperity, Congress enacted transformative legislation covering immigration, employment, voting rights, health care and education. At the same time, Selma, Ala., became infamous, and Watts erupted in riots. A baffled Johnson wondered how this was possible. More than anything, the military escalation in Vietnam accounted for the growing unrest. Loath to jeopardize his Great Society programs with an open debate on the war and unwilling to "lose" Vietnam, the president gradually increased the bombing and the troop commitment. The "Credibility Gap" between the president's words and deeds in Vietnam helped supercharge peace demonstrations that would ultimately overwhelm his presidency. Patterson's sketch of an agonized Johnson perfectly mirrors the nation's descent from smug self-assurance to puzzlement, peevishness and, finally, anger. A useful time capsule that explains the social fragmentation, political polarization and tumultuous mood swing of a pivotal year in American history.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465013586
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 11/27/2012
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 344
  • Sales rank: 715,194
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

James T. Patterson is Ford Foundation Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University. Author of Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore, Brown v. Board of Education, and the Bancroft Prize–winning Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974.

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Table of Contents

Preface: 1965: Hinge for the Sixties

1. High Expectations: American in Late 1964

2. Gathering Storms: Politics in Vietnam in late 1964

3. LBJ: Big Man in a Big Hurry

4. Out-Roosevelting Roosevelt: Johnson and the Great Society

5. Bloody Sunday: Struggles for Justice in Selma

6. Fork in the Road: Escalation in Vietnam

7. “Maximum Feasible Participation”: Complications on the Domestic Front

8. A Credibility Gap

9. “The Times They Are A-Changin’”: Technology, Music, and Fights for Rights in Mid-1965

10. Bombshell from Saigon

11. Violence in the Streets: Watts and the Undermining of Liberalism

12. Eve of Destruction: The Rise of Unease

13. From Crisis to Crisis: The Great Society and the Challenge of Government

14. America at the End of 1965

Epilogue: 1966 and the Later Sixties
Acknowledgments
Notes
A Note on Sources
Index

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 21, 2013

    great perspective of a pivotal year.

    I loved this book. From what I can personally remember of year 1965 I think events were truly shattering to our culure and political system with escalation of war in Vietnam being the centerpiece. This book helps to describe and explain it all. Thanks.

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    Posted September 11, 2013

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    Posted February 28, 2013

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