And what was it like, living in America then? Speaking in November 1964, after an election interpreted as a landslide victory for liberalism, President Lyndon Johnson had declared, ‘These are the most hopeful times since Christ was born.’[i] He said that and, almost immediately, everything went to shit.
Nine months later, as reported by Los Angeles television station KTLA: ‘with the suddenness of a lightening bolt and all the fury of an infernal holocaust, there was HELL in the City of Angels!’[ii] Summer is always a disproportionately violent season in urban areas—tempers rise with the temperatures. In L.A. that August of 1965, a 21-year-old black man had been pulled over by a white cop who suspected him of driving drunk. Matters escalated. Rumors spread. Word on the streets was that police had kicked a pregnant woman. Watts went up in flames.
For six days, this predominantly black and cripplingly poor neighborhood was terrorized by rioting. 12,242 National Guardsmen were brought in to subdue the crowds. The LAPD announced that they were unable to guarantee the safety of anyone within 45 square miles.[iii] The rioting, the looting, the police brutality, all of it, was aired on national TV. TRANSITION
The following summer, with the specter of Watts looming large, John Lindsay, mayor of New York City, paced Harlem trying to keep the peace simply by being present and visible and by playing with kids.[iv] Rumors flew; there were terrors both real and imagined. In Chicago, with rioting downtown and in the neighborhoods to the west, the tenements along the tracks of the el suddenly loomed sinister, sanctuaries for snipers. Commuters were reportedly crouching on the floors of trains as they passed.[v] By summer’s end, when Congress passed a referendum instituting the bussing of ghetto children into wealthier neighborhoods in an effort to integrate the schools, it provoked, in the words of historian Rick Perlstein, a new national panic: ‘that the federal government would deliver the chaos of rioting urban slums to your own quiet, bucolic neighborhood via yellow bus.’[vi]
The menacing journalistic cliché ‘roving bands of Negroes’ entered the lexicon, casting in racial terms a spreading violence that, in actuality, knew no race.[vii] In August 1966, Charles Whitman-- white, of a good family, and a former marine-- murdered his wife and mother before climbing to the top of the Main Building on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin and opening fire on passersby in the quad below. 16 killed, 33 wounded. Random violence was the order of the day.
And it didn’t get better. The following summer, rioting in Newark sparked a wave of police brutality that a historian likened to ‘a turkey shoot of grandparents and ten—year-olds.’[viii] All of this. In America, land of the free.
Increasingly, the war in the jungle was felt at home. 1965 saw a rash of self-immolations: 82-year old Alice Herz set herself on fire on a Detroit street corner in March; on 2 November, Norman Morrison, a Quaker, followed suit under the office window of Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense; eight days later, 22-year-old Roger LaPorte doused himself in gasoline in front of the U.N. and lit a match. 1,863 Americans were killed in Vietnam that year. Ladies Home Journal, WHEN?? a mild-mannered magazine targeting women interested in cooking, fashion, home décor and the hairstyles of the Kennedys, ran a graphic letter to the editor from a reader recently returned from the war-zone: ‘Before I went to Saigon, I had heard and read that napalm melts the flesh, and I thought that’s nonsense, because I can put a roast in the oven and the fat will melt but the meat stays there. Well, I went and saw these children burned by napalm and it is absolutely true.’[ix]
‘I thought that’s nonsense’… but ‘it is absolutely true.’ [x] Dr. Benjamin Spock—the nation’s leading expert on parenting, who’d written the book by which all the Baby Boomers had been raised— led an anti-war march, wearing a three-piece suit and carrying a sign that read: CHILDREN ARE NOT BORN TO BURN.[xi]
Joan Didion’s essay, ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’, published in the _____ issue of Esquire, seemed to indicate an impending moral apocalypse: ‘The centre was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled […] Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that held society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing persons reports, then moved on themselves.’[xii]
Testifying at a Senate hearing ((for what??)), Truman Capote—who’s chilling masterpiece, In Cold Blood, had recently been published— said of the country as it was then, ‘It’s almost like Alice in Wonderland…’[xiii]
There was a war in the jungle and a war at home and America seemed to be losing both. The police were shooting up old people, politicians were lying, blacks were rioting, and whites were just plain old pissed as hell. And it was on the evening news every night.
It looked bad. Even Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., usually such a voice of hope, thought disaster imminent. ‘They’ll treat us like they did our Japanese brothers and sisters in World War II,’ he worried in March 1968. ‘They’ll throw us into concentration camps.’[xiv] A columnist in the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, ‘The country doesn’t work anymore.’[xv]For all the songs about flowers and San Francisco, all the talk of peace and free love and LSD, America, as it was then, looked totally fucked.
When a friend asked Jackie whether she’d been scared during her trip to Cambodia, she replied: ‘It’s safer there than here.’[xvi]