The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America

The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America

by James T. Patterson


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780465064878
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 12/09/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 344
Sales rank: 598,817
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 13 - 18 Years

About 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.

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
A Note on Sources

What People are Saying About This

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.”

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.”

Customer Reviews