From Wikileaks to hot mics, you might think that the 2010s are shaping up to be a crazy decade in politics – and you’re probably right. As any Baby Boomer will tell you, however, the current decade has got nothing on the tumultuous mayhem of the 1960s. Indeed, the Woodstock and moon landing decade was also a time of political upheavals, from assassinations to scandalous love affairs, civil rights struggles to military tensions. Check out these unbelievable stories from the era of the “summer of love.” We promise that you’ll forget everything about Anthony Weiner after this list.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
The Cold War between the U.S. and Soviets was oftentimes quite warm, as can be seen in the below photo from 1962 of a U.S. Navy jet flying over a Soviet cargo ship carrying nuclear warheads. Following the U.S.’s failed “Bay of Pigs” invasion of Cuba (also covered in this list), the Kremlin sent nuclear missiles to protect its fellow communist nation.
In turn, the U.S. instituted a blockade, and, if it weren’t for President Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to talk it out, well, we might not have had to wait for climate change to say goodbye to the East Coast.
Che Guevara addressing the UN
It is not every day that enemies of the U.S. get to stand in front of the United Nations in New York City and rail against the host country (Ahmidenijaad and Qaddafi notwithstanding).
But this is exactly what happened in 1964 when the famous revolutionary Che Guevara, fresh from the revolution in Cuba, addressed the UN. His provocative appearance even led to two assassination attempts during the very hour of his speech in front of the general assembly. Click to the next slide to find out what absurd move the U.S. had taken in Cuba that led to this very moment.
The “Bay of Pigs” Invasion
Following the Cuban Revolution, President Eisenhower allocated millions of dollars to the CIA to find a way to topple Castro’s government. The plan was finally put in place in 1961 under President Kennedy, which involved the invasion of Cuba by a U.S.-trained group of Cuban dissidents at the “Bay of Pigs” beach on Cuba’s coast.
When the U.S.’s involvement became known, however, Kennedy decided to withhold additional air and sea support, leading to the eventual surrender of the dissidents after a three-day standoff. The incident was an embarrassment for the U.S. and eventually led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Kennedy – Nixon Debate
We take it for granted that candidates for the presidency of the United States duke it out in front of television cameras for our gawking eyes back home. Of course, it wasn’t always the case that political debates were televised.
The first such debate was between a young, handsome John F. Kennedy, and an older, surly-looking Richard Milhous Nixon. Interestingly enough, those who listened to the debate on the radio claimed Nixon as the hands-down winner. Those who watched the debate on television, however, were so charmed by Kennedy that it was no surprise that he would go on to win the White House.
The Greensboro Four
At the start of the ’60s, much of America, and especially the American South, operated under segregation. In February of 1960, four young African-American students decided to take a stand by sitting down at a whites-only lunch counter at a Woolworths in Greensboro, NC.
Although the young men were unsuccessful at getting service on that day, their sit-in started a movement that was instrumental in the civil rights struggle of that decade. Six months after the initial sit-in, the lunch counter was desegregated. But the struggle for civil rights wasn’t always so peaceful.
The Watts Riots
Following the arrest and alleged mistreatment of a black motorist and his family members in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts in 1965, the black community of Watts staged an uprising.
The protesters claimed that they were reacting to an onslaught of police brutality and housing discrimination. The officers claimed that they were responding to violence, looting, and arson, and enlisted National Guard units to help quell the situation. The riots eventually led to 34 fatalities and over $40 million in property damage. Despite this neighborhood’s grief, however, the struggle for civil rights was not always so violent.
George Wallace at the University of Alabama
One of the staunchest anti-integrationists of his time was Governor of Alabama George Wallace, whose signature motto was “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Following the Supreme Court ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, which stipulated that all public schools were to be integrated, a defiant George Wallace made his stand at the University of Alabama schoolhouse door in the summer of 1963, barring two African American students, James Hood and Vivian Malone, from entering the premises. Despite his show of political will, the Kennedy White House sent National Guard units to ensure the safe entry of the two students into the school.
MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech
The turning point in the civil rights struggle came when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the “March on Washington” at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
His impassioned plea for respect for all, despite race, and his call for America to fulfill its promise of freedom for individuals of all races continue to inspire the world to this day. What is not so well-known is the fact that the famous “I have a dream” refrain was added by King as an improvised element following his more scripted comments. Other forms of political communication, however, were quite deliberate.
LBJ’s “Daisy” ad
The era of bombastic, over-the-top political television ads was ushered in with the famous “Daisy” or “Peace, Little Girl” ad put out by the Johnson presidential re-election campaign against Republican Barry Goldwater.
In the months leading up to the ad, Goldwater exhibited a willingness to be more hawkish in Vietnam and even entertained the possibility of using nuclear weapons. The Johnson campaign seized on this rhetoric by putting out an ad in which a little girl is shown picking petals off a daisy followed by footage of a nuclear explosion. The ad worked, giving Johnson the second-highest voter lead in U.S. history.
Hostilities in South Vietnam – 1965
The Vietnam War had escalated under the Johnson administration in 1965. Weapons, equipment, and soldiers were being flown in en masse to defend the disintegrating South Vietnamese government. During its early days, most of the political establishment, as well as the American public, supported intervention in Vietnam.
Johson’s escalation of the war effort also foreshadowed its eventual failure. The war-of-attrition strategy (i.e., “hitting them with everything we got”) proved ineffective against the guerrilla-like maneuvers of the North Vietnamese. But, especially among college students, anti-war demonstrations were becoming increasingly vocal and public.
Anti-Vietnam Protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention
By the late 1960’s, counterculture figures and rebellious youths – often aided with rock and roll and psychedelic enhancements – had created a vast sea of opposition to the government’s policy in Vietnam and the lingering racism following Johnson’s civil rights reforms.
All of these factors converged in Chicago for the Democratic National Convention during the final weeks of August 1968. The violent protests and the equally violent response to them by the Chicago police eclipsed the convention. It was said that rather than helping to elect Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic choice for president, the Chicago protests ultimately led to the election of Republican Richard Nixon.
This famous image from 1967 came to symbolize the “Flower” generation. Photographer Bernie Boston was sitting on the wall of the Pentagon when a squad of military police descended on a group of young anti-war protesters making their voices heard in the nation’s capital.
Rather than respond with aggression, however, a young man took the opportunity to express his views by planting flowers in the guards’ gun barrels. The message was clear: love can also be a useful weapon. Boston’s photograph would go on to be nominated for the Pulitzer.
Thurgood Marshall Sworn into the Supreme Court (1967)
This iconic shot captures Thurgood Marshall during his swearing-in ceremony as the first African-American Supreme Court justice. Following his appointment to the United States Court of Appeals by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s subsequent decision to appoint him as the Solicitor General, Marshall was finally nominated by Johnson to the Supreme Court upon the retirement of Justice Tom C. Clark.
After being overwhelmingly approved by the Senate, Marshall would go on to champion liberal causes such as abortion rights and opposition to capital punishment. Pictured above is Marshall, alongside his family, standing on the threshold of history.
Barry Goldwater’s KKK problem
The “Daisy” ad wasn’t the only assault on his campaign by Lyndon Johnson that Barry Goldwater had to contend with. Following a string of endorsements by the Klu Klux Klan (one of which is pictured here) Barry Goldwater became tarred with an image that he could never quite free himself from, despite repeatedly distancing himself from the KKK and their beliefs.
On his end, Johnson seized the opportunity to cast Goldwater as a racist bigot with the full backing of a racist organization. Johnson ultimately defeated Goldwater, proving once again that, in politics, it’s not who you are that matters, but who endorses you.
That Time When Sinatra and JFK Had a Falling Out
Frank Sinatra prided himself on his friendship with John F. Kennedy, even before Kennedy became president. Kennedy and Sinatra would reportedly go out drinking and womanizing, and Sinatra was tapped as the organizer for Kennedy’s presidential inauguration dinner.
But the relationship would not last long. Following allegations that Sinatra had ties to the Mafia, the Justice Department advised the president against staying with Sinatra at his Palm Springs home. Sinatra didn’t take it well, having reportedly smashed up his newly-constructed presidential helipad with a sledgehammer. But it wasn’t just Sinatra’s mob connections that caused JFK to snub him.
The Marilyn Monroe – JFK Love Affair
John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe certainly had a sexual tryst on at least one occasion. According to inside sources, Peter Lawford, who was Kennedy’s brother-in-law, arranged for a meeting between the president and the actress in the Palm Springs home of actor Bing Crosby.
Note that this was when Sinatra was expecting to host the president at his Palm Springs home! Allegedly, JFK and Monroe were only intimate on that one occasion, and, much like with Sinatra, JFK ended up snubbing Monroe to focus on more urgent state matters.
JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” Speech
Hostilities between the communist East Germany and the democratic West Germany were at a fevered pitch. Less than two years before Kennedy’s 1963 Berlin speech, Soviet and American tanks eyed one another across the dividing barrier, the Berlin Wall, making Kennedy’s trip to Germany not just another ordinary diplomatic trip.
To this day, Germans remember Kennedy’s visit as an important milestone in the backing that the country needed to resist the communist influence. Kennedy’s famous phrase, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” or “I am a Berliner” (despite contentions that it translated to “I am a jelly doughnut”) still resounds as a universal call for freedom.
Dallas, November 22, 1963: Lee Harvey Oswald, a worker at the Texas School Book Depository, aimed a sniper rifle and shot President Kennedy from a depository window while Kennedy’s motorcade was passing by (pictured here).
The memorable scene still plays out in the American mind: A horror-stricken Jacqueline Kennedy, in fear for her husband’s life, scrambling for help; the tearful eyes of mourners across the nation, not knowing what will become of their president; the weight on Lyndon Johnson’s shoulders upon being sworn in as the new president. Sadly, other American tragedies were ahead, including more assassinations.
On April 4, 1968, the civil rights leader and clergyman Martin Luther King was shot on the balcony of a Memphis, TN hotel. King was pronounced dead later that evening. The suspected assassin, James Earl Ray, was shortly apprehended at London’s Heathrow Airport.
King had inspired a nation to reflect on itself and, in so doing, to extend civil rights to all individuals, regardless of skin color. Although taken before his time, King’s legacy of nonviolent civil resistance continues to inspire millions across the world. It is still, however, a point of controversy as to whether the U.S. government had any role in King’s assassination.
Nixon and Watergate
Yes, we know that the Watergate scandal technically happened in the 1970s, but the fact that the “gate” suffix is used to refer to any and all political scandals warrants its inclusion on our list.
What started this scandal was a break-in at the Democratic National Committee office at the Watergate complex. When apprehended, it was discovered that the offenders were funded by top operatives in the Nixon White House. Later congressional investigations revealed that the president himself was involved in a number of attempted cover-ups pertaining to those involved. Stemming an inevitable conviction, Nixon resigned from office on August 9, 1974.