THE EVE OF DESTRUCTION: HOW 1965 TRANSFORMED AMERICA
By James T. Patterson
Basic Books, $28.99, 344 pages
The old Roman Empire had it right. Conquering generals receiving a triumph were required to have a slave riding with them in their chariot whispering “Sic transit gloria” (All glory is fleeting). Presidents who are re-elected need a similar reminder. Since the presidential election of 1964, every president who has been re-elected has claimed some kind of a “mandate.” Nearly all have come to grief in their second terms. President Reagan and President Clinton survived with their reputations tarnished by Iran Contra and the Lewinsky debacle respectively; in Mr. Clinton’s case he just barely survived. Watergate destroyed President Nixon. However, no one was so consumed by the hubris of a huge re-election mandate more than Lyndon Johnson after his 1964 landslide. “The Eve of Destruction” is largely the tale of that fall from grace. President Obama should read this book.
I was a sophomore in high school as 1965 dawned. The nation was in good shape economically. My family was fully employed. The country was well on its way to putting a man on the moon. I wanted to be an astronaut, and hoped to walk on Mars someday. By the end of the year, events had been set in motion that ensured neither I nor any other American in my lifetime would reach Mars, and that the country itself — from 1965-1970 — would be launched into the most chaotic time since the Civil War.
Although Lyndon Baines Johnson is the central actor in this book, he had a lot of help in beginning the nation’s plunge into the chaos that became the 1960s. After Johnson’s historic civil rights legislation, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, black activists grasped defeat from the jaws of victory by fragmenting themselves. Blacks rioting in Watts turned many fence-sitting moderates among the white population into frightened card-carrying conservatives.
James T. Patterson, an award-winning author with several well regarded books to his credit, also explains the cultural and social changes that began to manifest themselves, ranging from the Rolling Stones’ edgy “Can’t Get No Satisfaction” to Barry McGuire’s dark “Eve of Destruction.” It was also the year that the Beatles went bad, drifting away from happy love songs into drugs and dark social commentary. The times were truly changing as Bob Dylan foretold.
However, first and foremost, the book is the story of Lyndon Johnson’s overreach in 1965, as he tried to achieve ground-breaking social legislation while disingenuously hiding the real costs of the Vietnam War from the public.
The flurry of non-civil rights legislation that Johnson pushed through the Democratic Party-dominated Congress ultimately was beyond the capabilities of the “best and the brightest” who remained from the Kennedy administration. The late president’s brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, proved to be a better cheerleader than administrator in leading the War on Poverty, which became the first of many subsequent “wars” on inanimate beings to fail in subsequent decades. A seemingly endless alphabet soup of new agencies (OEO, HUD, VISTA, etc.) proved to be ungainly and chaotic creatures that soon gave the conservative cause ammunition to use against government bloat.
As Johnson tried to have guns and butter simultaneously, many of his liberal allies turned against him. By the end of the year, he was a pariah among many liberals, and many of his allies in the fractured civil rights movement had abandoned him. Johnson became an increasingly isolated and embittered shell of his former self.
My primary criticism of the book is while Mr. Patterson does a good job of chronicling the political, social and military roots of the tectonic shift that began in 1965, he generally does not consider the influence of the baby boomers. This is unfortunate. Many young men of my generation evaded military service on the pretext that the war in Vietnam was immoral. During World War II, and even Korea, they would have been branded cowards or shirkers. Wrapping themselves in the mantle of righteous anti-war rhetoric, many were merely saving their precious skins. Some are our most respected national leaders today.
Perhaps the saddest legacy of 1965 is the despicable way the black community has treated the memory of Lyndon Johnson. While a good argument can be made that many of his domestic and foreign policy actions were disastrous, no American, including Martin Luther King Jr., did more than Lyndon Johnson to advance civil rights. What he achieved in 1965 is worth remembering.
Gary Anderson, an adjunct professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, is a retired Marine Corps officer.