Civil Rights, Vietnam, and the Ordeal of Liberalism p.781-805

Chapter 29 Study Guide

In Chapter 29, we examine the impact of the tumultuous 1960s on American society. As can be seen in the discussion of U.S. foreign policy during this period, the containment doctrine, formulated during the Truman administration, continued to be the guiding force behind American foreign policy during the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Furthermore, the action-reaction relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union that was so much a part of the early Cold War persisted into the 1960s.

Kennedy's policies and actions in the field of foreign policy were shaped by his acceptance of the containment doctrine and his preference for a bold, interventionist foreign policy. In its quest for friends in the Third World and ultimate victory in the Cold War, the Kennedy administration adopted the goal of nation building to be accomplished, for example, through the Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps as well as through the concept of counterinsurgency. Such methods perpetuated an idea that had long been part of American foreign policy: that other people cannot solve their own problems and that the American economic and governmental model can be transferred intact to other societies.

Although Kennedy's activist approach to foreign policy helped bring the world to the brink of nuclear disaster in the Cuban missile crisis, in the aftermath of that crisis steps were taken by both superpowers that served to lessen tension and hostility between them. However, the arms race accelerated during both the Kennedy and Johnson years, and the United States and the Soviet Union continued to vie for friends in the Third World.

On the domestic scene, young African Americans, through the sit-in movement begun in Greensboro, North Carolina, in early 1960, reinvigorated the civil rights movement. Although African American civil rights leaders were committed to the philosophy of non-violence, violence began to have an impact on developments, as we see in the discussion of the Freedom Rides, the Freedom Summer of 1964, and the Birmingham Children's Crusade. At first, President Kennedy failed to press forward on civil rights issues. However, in the face of violent challenges from southern segregationists to an expanding black civil-rights movement, the Kennedy administration gradually committed itself to a decisive stand in favor of black equality. However, only because of the March on Washington, continuing racial violence, and Kennedy's assassination did Congress finally pass civil rights legislation.

The Liberalism and the Great Society covers the legislative accomplishments of the Johnson administration the most sweeping reform legislation since 1935. This legislation comprised the Civil Rights Act of 1964, establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and legislation associated with Johnson's War on Poverty. The authors look closely at the legislation that constituted the War on Poverty and discuss the problems and successes of this program.

American involvement in Vietnam deepened during the Kennedy administration to the escalation of and Americanization of the war during the Johnson administration. This discussion is based on the thesis that disaster befell the United States in Vietnam because of fear in the Johnson administration that America's credibility would suffer in the eyes of friends and foes around the world if the nation failed to achieve its stated goals in southeast Asia.

As the three branches of the federal government slowly began to deal with such long-standing American problems as poverty and minority rights, frustrations that had built up over generations of inaction manifested themselves. Events convinced civil-rights activists in the South that the power structure in American society was not to be trusted. Northern blacks began to reach the same conclusions. Both the civil-rights movement and Johnson's antipoverty programs had offered African Americans hope for a better day in American society. However, as discussion of the social, economic, and political plight of urban blacks reveals, that hope had not been fulfilled. Among other factors, unfulfilled expectations and the continued display of wealth and possessions in the consumer-oriented American society led to the urban riots of the 1960s. Militant black leaders gained prominence and questioned Martin Luther King's philosophy of nonviolence as well as his goal of integration. Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Panther party called for black power within the context of black nationalism.

Along with this revolution of rising expectations among blacks, some whites involved in the civil rights movement began to become disillusioned with American society. Although their disillusionment stemmed from different sources than that of blacks, it led to the political and social activism associated with the New Left and the counterculture. The authors discuss the emergence, characteristics, and goals of both of these groups as well as the reaction of the middle class to their attacks on traditional values. The forces of frustration, rage, and anger born of racism, sexism, poverty, disillusionment, materialism, and the revolution of rising expectations practically ripped America apart in the tumult of 1968. As the Vietnam War escalated and the New Left and the counterculture found common cause in their antiwar stance, the middle class became more and more convinced that traditional society was under siege. 

1960 Greensboro sit-in and formation of SNCC. U-2 incident. DDE warns of the "military-industrial complex."

1961-63 John F. Kennedy's presidency.

1961 United States severs diplomatic relations with Cuba. Alliance for Progress announced. Bay of Pigs fiasco. CORE initiates Freedom Rides. The Berlin Crisis.

1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Michael Harrington publishes The Other America. Rachel Carson publishes Silent Spring.

1963 Nuclear test-ban treaty. Betty Friedan publishes The Feminine Mystique. Assassination of Medgar Evers. Martin Luther King Jr.s Birmingham Campaign. March on Washington. Assassination of President Kennedy.

1963-68 Lyndon B. Johnson?s presidency.

1964 Passage of the Wilderness Act. Civil Rights Act of 1964. Executive order establishes affirmative action. LBJ launches the War on Poverty. "Freedom Summer" in Mississippi.

1965 Supreme Court allows use of contraceptives by married couples.
Immigration Act of 1965. Voting Rights Act of 1965. Passage of Medicare and Medicaid.

1966 Formation of NOW.

1970 The first Earth Day.

Years of Rage: 1964-1974

1960 Birth control pills become commercially available.

1962 SDS issues Port Huron Statement. C├ęsar Chavez helps organize the National Farm Workers? Association.

1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Berkeley Free Speech Movement.

1964-68 Race riots in New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, and other cities.

1965 Operation Rolling Thunder begins. University of Michigan inaugurates the teach-in. Assassination of Malcolm X.

1966 Ronald Reagan wins the California governor?s race.

1967 Human Be-In in San Francisco?s Golden Gate Park.

1967 Arab-Israeli War. Antiwar march on the Pentagon.

1968 Tet Offensive

1968 My Lai massacre. Johnson withdraws from presidential race.
Martin Luther King Jr.s assassination. Robert F. Kennedy?s assassination.
Feminists demonstrate at Miss America pageant. Stanley Kubrick?s 2001: A Space Odyssey debuts. Kerner Commission reports on race riots. Richard M. Nixon elected president.

1969 Apollo 11 lands on the moon. Woodstock Festival. Rolling Stones?s Altamont concert. 1970 Premier of M*A*S*H. Invasion of Cambodia.
Kent State and Jackson State slayings. Establishment of the EPA.

1971 Nixon imposes wage and price controls to curb stagflation. New York Times publishes the Pentagon Papers. Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education.

1972 Nixon's visit to China. SALT Agreement signed. The Watergate break-in. Christmas bombing of North Vietnam.

1973 United States and North Vietnam negotiate settlement. Chile's Allende ousted in CIA-supported coup. Yom Kippur War. Ervin Committee begins Watergate hearings. Spiro Agnew resigns; Gerald Ford appointed vice-president. War Powers Act passed.

1973-74 OPEC oil embargo.

1974 House Judiciary Committee adopts articles of impeachment.
Nixon resigns; Ford becomes president. 


Politics and Citizenship: Following the 1950s, presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson committed themselves to a strong, active presidency in both foreign and domestic policy. African Americans took unprecedented steps to combat racial discrimination, resulting in federal legislation to eliminate segregation and preserve voting rights. Despite these victories, however, many civil rights advocates remained disillusioned with the slow pace of change, as economic discrimination, urban poverty, and a host of other social problems led to significant outbreaks of violence in many urban centers throughout the country. 

Reform: Lyndon Johnson undertook the most ambitious reform program since the New Deal, as his Great Society program sought to increase medical coverage for the poor and elderly, eradicate poverty, and improve housing and other social services in urban areas. While these efforts created a host of new entitlement programs and expanded the federal welfare state in a way that benefited many of the nation's poorest citizens, many of these programs also drew criticism from conservatives who objected to the expanded role of the federal government and the costs involved. Johnson was ultimately unable to balance his high domestic hopes with the need to maintain the American commitment to South Vietnam.

War and Diplomacy: The Cold War remained dangerous throughout much of the 1960s. John F. Kennedy, perceived by Soviet leaders as young and untested, faced a number of confrontations in his early years in office, the most serious of which was a showdown over the Soviet decision to place missiles in Cuba. Kennedy, reflecting the era's liberal activism and belief in the limitlessness of American resources, also vastly increased the commitment of American advisors to the defense of South Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson inherited and expanded this commitment further, leading to a disastrous war that ultimately caused many to question the fundamental premises of the containment policy that had caused the United States to enter the conflict.

Digital History 

The 1960s

The 1960s was a decade when hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans gave new life to the nation's democratic ideals. African Americans used sit-ins, freedom rides, and protest marches to fight segregation, poverty, and unemployment. Feminists demanded equal job opportunities and an end to sexual discrimination. Mexican Americans protested discrimination in voting, education, and employment. Native Americans demanded that the government recognize their land claims and the right of tribes to govern themselves. Environmentalists demanded legislation to control the amount of pollution released into the environment.

Civil Rights

Early in the decade, African American college students, impatient with the slow pace of legal change, staged sit-ins, freedom rides, and protest marches to challenge segregation in the South. Their efforts led the federal government to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting discrimination in public facilities and employment, and the 24th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, guaranteeing voting rights. The examples of the civil rights movement inspired other groups to press for equal rights. The women's movement fought for equal educational and employment opportunities, and brought about a transformation of traditional views about women's place in society. Mexican Americans battled for bilingual education programs in schools, unionization of farm workers, improved job opportunities, and increased political power. Native Americans pressed for control over their lands and resources, the preservation of native cultures, and tribal self-government. Gays and lesbians organized to end legal discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The Vietnam War

Between 1945 and 1954, the Vietnamese waged an anti-colonial war against France, which received $2.6 billion in financial support from the United States. The French defeat at the Dien Bien Phu was followed by a peace conference in Geneva. As a result of the conference, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam received their independence, and Vietnam was temporarily divided between an anti-Communist South and a Communist North. In 1956, South Vietnam, with American backing, refused to hold unification elections. By 1958, Communist-led guerrillas, known as the Viet Cong, had begun to battle the South Vietnamese government.

To support the South's government, the United States sent in 2,000 military advisors--a number that grew to 16,300 in 1963. The military condition deteriorated, and by 1963, South Vietnam had lost the fertile Mekong Delta to the Viet Cong. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson escalated the war, commencing air strikes on North Vietnam and committing ground forces--which numbered 536,000 in 1968. The 1968 Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese turned many Americans against the war. The next president, Richard Nixon, advocated Vietnamization, withdrawing American troops and giving South Vietnam greater responsibility for fighting the war. In 1970, Nixon attempted to slow the flow of North Vietnamese soldiers and supplies into South Vietnam by sending American forces to destroy Communist supply bases in Cambodia. This act violated Cambodian neutrality and provoked antiwar protests on the nation's college campuses. From 1968 to 1973, efforts were made to end the conflict through diplomacy. In January 1973, an agreement was reached; U.S. forces were withdrawn from Vietnam, and U.S. prisoners of war were released. In April 1975, South Vietnam surrendered to the North, and Vietnam was reunited.

Vietnam was the longest war in American history and the most unpopular American war of the 20th century. It resulted in nearly 60,000 American deaths and in an estimated 2 million Vietnamese deaths. Even today, many Americans still ask whether the American effort in Vietnam was a sin, a blunder, a necessary war, or whether it was a noble cause, or an idealistic, if failed, effort to protect the South Vietnamese from totalitarian government. The Vietnam War cost the United States 58,000 lives and 350,000 casualties. It also resulted in between one and two million Vietnamese deaths.Congress enacted the War Powers Act in 1973, requiring the president to receive explicit Congressional approval before committing American forces overseas. 

Biography of America

The Sixties (series 24)

Professor Scharff weaves the story of the Civil Rights movement with stories of the Vietnam War and Watergate to create a portrait of a decade. Lyndon Johnson emerges as a pivotal character, along with Stokely Carmichael, Fanny Lou Hamer, and other luminaries of the era.

Lecture Outlines

The Tumultuous 1960s

The Vietnam War 1964-1973


The Civil Rights Movement

The Sixties

The Vietnam War and the My Lai Massacre 

PowerPoint Presentation

The Path to War Understanding Vietnam 1954-1975