Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America

Thursday evening January 24, 2013, Brown University historian James Patterson gave a presentation at the Fabre Line Club (200 Allens Avenue) in Providence about the year 1965, and why it is so pivotal in understanding the transformative decade of the 1960s. The talk also happened to be the topic of his most recent book, The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America. Dr. Patterson, Ford Foundation Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University, is also the author of volumes 10 and 11 in the Oxford History of the United States series -- Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1974 (published 1996), and Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore (published 2005).

These well-received overviews of US history since WWII (Grand Expectations won a Bancroft Award in 1997) have made Patterson eminently qualified to speak on what he has identified as the "hinge year", the turning point where post-World War America shifted from the conformist “All-American” culture of the ‘Long 1950s’ (which began perhaps in 1945 with the end of WWII) to the explosive counterculture of the 1960s. While many commentators on the period tend to point to the assassination of JFK in November 1963 as the “end of innocence,” or the arrival of the Beatles in America in early 1964 as the crucial cultural turning point, Patterson argues that the real “sixties” doesn’t begin until 1965. The “decade approach” to American history works for some periods – the 1920s, the 1930s, and possibly the 1980s and 1990s tend to fall into ten year chunks, but the 1950s and 1960s are problematic in this regard. Patterson’s take is that 1965 is really the beginning of the 1960s that looms large in the public imagination – the protests, the violence, the Vietnam war, the counterculture, the music and Woodstock.

Patterson began his talk at the Fabre Line Club with the confession that he is not the first to describe 1965 as the “hinge” year of the 1960s. In 1995, the renowned conservative George Will had pointed out 1965 as a pivotal turning point in American history, not to mention the much-less regarded conservative, Newt Gingrich, has done so as well.

Patterson’s argument is that the triumph of liberalism was at hand in 1964. With his landslide victory over Barry Goldwater (486 to 52 in the Electoral College), and the domination of the Democratic Party in both houses of Congress, Johnson’s hubris brought him to make this almost surreal speech at the lighting of the national Christmas tree in December 1964:

…These are the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem.

Our world is still troubled. Man is still afflicted by many worries and many woes.

Yet today--as never before--man has in his possession the capacities to end war arid preserve peace, to eradicate poverty and share abundance, to overcome the diseases that have afflicted the human race and permit all mankind to enjoy their promise in life on this earth.

At this Christmas season of 1964, we can think of broader and brighter horizons than any who have lived before these times. For there is rising in the sky of the age a new star--the star of peace.

By his inventions, man has made war unthinkable, now and forevermore. Man must, therefore, apply the same initiative, the same inventiveness, the same determined effort to make peace on earth eternal and meaningful for all mankind.

Grand expectations indeed. From there, Johnson, consummate master of Washington politics and Capitol Hill, took full advantage of his election mandate. LBJ’s Great Society picked up where FDR’s New Deal left off: Medicare, Medicaid, immigration reform, the Voting Rights act of 1965, the War on Poverty, the Education Act of 1965 – a stunning feat of serial legislative engineering that remains unparalleled to this day.

But at the Christmas tree lighting of 1965, Johnson did not follow up on his bombast from the year before as the liberal triumphant. What had humbled him? Patterson carefully expounded on the escalation of war in Vietnam, Selma, the rise of Black Power and the open fragmentation of the civil rights movement, the Watts riots which exploded only days after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the first teach-ins, the rise of the SDS and resistance to the draft… all this violence and discontent turned the country almost on a dime.

The “grand expectations” of America were brought to heel in a flood of uncertainty that really began, Patterson convincingly argues, in 1965. The year began with the Beatles “I Feel Fine” as the number one song in America. But by late September, P.F. Sloan’s "Eve of Destruction" as sung by Barry McGuire was number one. Patterson then played a cassette tape (which is in itself an analog relic in this age of digital music) of McGuire’s hit song while the room quietly listened.

The eastern world it is explodin',
violence flarin', bullets loadin',
you're old enough to kill but not for votin',
you don't believe in war, what's that gun you're totin',
and even the Jordan river has bodies floatin',
but you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
ah, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction.

Don't you understand, what I'm trying to say?
Can't you see the fears that I'm feeling today?
If the button is pushed, there's no running away,
There'll be no one to save with the world in a grave,
take a look around you, boy, it's bound to scare you, boy,
and you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
ah, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction.

Yeah, my blood's so mad, feels like coagulatin',
I'm sittin' here, just contemplatin',
I can't twist the truth, it knows no regulation,
handful of Senators don't pass legislation,
and marches alone can't bring integration,
when human respect is disintegratin',
this whole crazy world is just too frustratin',
and you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
ah, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction.

Think of all the hate there is in Red China
Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama!
Ah, you may leave here, for four days in space,
but when you return, it's the same old place,
the poundin' of the drums, the pride and disgrace,
you can bury your dead, but don't leave a trace,
hate your next-door-neighbor, but don't forget to say grace,
and you tell me over and over and over and over again my friend,
you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction.
no no you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction.

I have used this song myself in teaching the 1960s – musically the song is a brilliant piece of folk-mainstream crossover -- a pastiche of Dylanesque protest folk with its acoustic guitar, harmonica, nasally vocals and references to Vietnam, Selma, and nuclear annihilation. Ironically, by the time McGuire’s song had replaced the Beatle’s pot-addled “Help!” in September 1965 as the number one song in America, Bob Dylan was in the midst of rejecting his identity as the voice of the 60s folk generation, plugging in at Newport and returning to his rock’n’roll roots by going on tour with The Band…

The questions and answer session after Patterson’s talk was nearly as interesting as the talk itself. He pointed out as the Q&A began that it appeared everyone in the room had lived through the year. I looked around in agreement – I was probably the youngest in the room, so I can attest that he was correct. I have to admit though I was alive in 1965, I can’t say I remember anything about 1965. I know I turned one that year. I had not yet quite reached my six month birthday on December 18, 1964, the day that Johnson compared his administration to the birth of Christianity. It was very enlightening to listen to people whose memories of the year were considerably more detailed than mine. For the most part, audience members saw their experiences as a microcosm located on Patterson’s larger canvas. The most
remarkable exchange in the Q&A came when one gentleman, who had known Barry Goldwater personally, took exception to Patterson’s characterization of the Arizona senator as a deeply flawed candidate. Patterson listened politely then definitively tossed Goldwater back into the dustbin of history, pointing out the folly of Goldwater’s screed against the TVA in Tennessee, how his offhand remarks about nuking Vietnam and the Kremlin terrified millions and played right into Johnson’s hands, and the political suicide of calling for the abolition of Social Security while campaigning in Florida.

After the Q&A, I walked up to Dr. Patterson and introduced myself. We spoke about P.F. Sloan’s song and how emblematic it is as a cultural touchstone for this shift in the 1960s. I also explained to him that the history department where I teach has decided to use his Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1974, as the thematic source for teaching this period of American history, as well as a basis for students’ research papers. He was genuinely pleased to hear a high school program was using his book, and asked me to let him know how it turned out. But like 1965, we will have to live through 2013 before we can evaluate its success.

For those who were not able to catch James Patterson’s talk at the Fabre Line Club on The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America, David Scharfenberg conducted a short interview with James Patterson in the Providence Phoenix in December 2012. Patterson also appeared on BookTV’s After Words, an hour-long program recorded in November 2012, where Professor Daryl Scott and Patterson explore in depth many of the themes only briefly touched upon herein. Both are recommended followups to this essay.

____________________________________________________________________ Sources

James T. Patterson, The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America. New York: Basic Books, 2012.

-- Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Lyndon B. Johnson: "Remarks at the Lighting of the Nation's Christmas Tree.," December 18, 1964. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

P.F. Sloan, Eve of Destruction Recorded by Barry McGuire, © 1965 MCA Records Inc. Lyrics transcribed by Manfred Helfert

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Adventures in Archiving: Work Spaces and Public Places

After recommending to the board of the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society that we should establish both a work space to process the manuscript collection, and a place
for the public to be able to sit down, access and use the collection, I am happy to report that my recommendations were accepted and work has begun to create such a space.

One of the problems I began to run into this past fall was that the work space I was utilizing was only temporary (see photo left). I was setting up in the "military room" (so-called because of the civil war uniforms, swords, and other military memorabilia on display) which was open to public tours. I could not simply leave folding tables and chairs in the middle of the room with whatever papers and manuscripts I might be processing laying about.

So there was a set-up and break-down process every time I came to work on the collection of about 30-40 minutes in toto. This meant that if I had a free hour where I could go work on the collection, most of that time would be spent simply carrying everything out of the library room, then putting it all back into storage a few minutes later (see photo right).

My recommendation to the September 2012 board meeting was to convert the military room to a work space that would be closed to the public, but that idea was voted down because closing it off would interrupt the flow of traffic on museum tours, which is circular and does not require visitors to retrace their path through rooms they have already visited. It was then suggested to me that part of the "music room" (so-called because of the nineteenth-century musical instruments and players on display, such as this Edison music player, below) be turned
over for a permanent work-space that would not have to be broken down every time I worked on the archive. One issue I realized as I considered that plan was the lack of light control -- the room's windows face south and west and the space receives direct sunlight for the afternoon hours; at the least new blinds and lighting would have to be purchased and installed. That could get expensive.

As I began to think more about the future of this project and not just my immediate needs in processing the collection, I realized that the Society should also have a place where the public can come in, sit down, and use the collection. This public access area should provide for some supervision of public usage -- a desk where someone from the WRICHS can comfortably watch people using the collection to ensure its safe handling and security, but also be where an archivist can work, answer questions, pull records out of storage and return them. I went back to the board with the suggestion that the military room be re-purposed into a work-space that would remain open to public tours; guides would simply inform visitors not to disturb the work in progress. Then the room would be re-purposed again into a public access space once the work on cataloging and arranging was complete.
The other advantage is that the windows in the military room face north, so direct sunlight is not an issue. I went back to the board with my ideas and a floor plan schematic (right).

The response was that the military room would be too small a space; that the public reading table/work space would take up too much room and it would be a cramped area for people to work in or tour through. This a valid point (see the first photo above). But providing public access to the collection is fundamental to the mission of the Society, and therefore it was decided that the music room should be entirely re-purposed into a permanent work-space now, that will become the public access room later. With light-blocking window shades, sunlight can be controlled and artificial lighting installed that would not damage the collection. I drew up a new floor plan (below), which has become the blueprint for what is now the WRICHS Archive Cataloging, Conservation and Public Access Project, and the board pledged funds for the project that hopefully can be matched by philanthropic grants. The essential plan is to catalog and arrange the collection in 2013 and 2014, with a tentative opening of the archive to the public sometime in the summer of 2014.

On December 28, 2012 several WRICHS members met to begin moving the "music room" collection and making an archival work space. We were joined by Andrew Boisvert, Archivist of the Old Colony Historical Society in Taunton, Massachusetts, who wanted to photograph us working on the project for a book he is putting together about public history in the area, Below are photographs of the music room before we began relocating the furnishings and musical collection.

Below is the room later that day, re-purposed for the archive. The case that is currently exhibiting old children's games (above) is slated to be used to display interesting parts of the WRICHS archive collection. I am looking forward to arranging the first archival exhibit in time for the 28th Annual Preservation Works on Saturday, April 27, 2013. This is a statewide historic preservation conference sponsored by Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission (aka Preservation RI) that this year is focused on the Pawtuxet River Valley and West Warwick, RI (which, as Rhode Island's youngest town, is celebrating its 100th birthday this year). One of the locations conference-goers will visit is the Paine House Museum -- this conference will be the first time that the new archival floor plan will be used by the public. I have also created a website for the archive that will be eventually placed under the domain, and a WRICHS Archive twitter account that has already started attracting a following.

The other work being done on the archive is as equally important if more prosaic; securing donations and funds for light control, archival-quality storage and a computerized cataloging system. I have discovered that JC Penney has blackout roller shades that should block the rays of the sun, and they are only $10 apiece -- definitely in our price range. Currently I am using my personal laptop and Excel spreadsheets to record the catalog, but I downloaded the freeware version of the Museum Archive Software to check it out. It looks like it would work well for us, the premium edition upgrade is eminently affordable at $24.95, and so far everyone I have talked to that has used it says that it is a great little program. Computer software engineer extraordinaire James Pansarasa is donating a computer system to us, and I have applied for an ADDD Media Project Grant from the Rhode Island Foundation to help us purchase acid-free folders and boxes. At the moment we are using relatively inexpensive bankers boxes and folders purchased from Staples, which are better nothing but aren't of archival quality, and there are still parts of the collection that aren't yet stored at all. Even so, when I look back on this past year at what we have done for this collection, I am so pleased to see that it is in a much better state now, and on track to become a viable historical resource for researchers, genealogists, and the general public.