Following are the main points of Decades of Change: 1960s-1980s taken from US History Book by State Department.
Table of Contents
The energy and sensibility that fueled the civil rights movement, the counterculture, and the New Left also stimulated an environmental movement in the mid-1960s.
Many were aroused by the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which alleged that chemical pesticides, particularly DDT, caused cancer, among other ills.
Public concern about the environment continued to increase throughout the 1960s as many became aware of other pollutants surrounding them — automobile emissions, industrial wastes, oil spills — that threatened their health and the beauty of their surroundings.
On April 22, 1970, schools and communities across the United States celebrated Earth Day for the first time. “Teach-ins” educated Americans about the dangers of environmental pollution.
In 1970, Congress amended the Clean Air Act of 1967 to develop uniform national air-quality standards. It also passed the Water Quality Improvement Act, which assigned to the polluter the responsibility of cleaning up off-shore oil spills. Also, in 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created as an independent federal agency to spearhead the effort to bring abuses under control.
KENNEDY AND THE RESURGENCE OF BIG GOVERNMENT LIBERALISM
By 1960 government had become an increasingly powerful force in people’s lives. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, new executive agencies were created to deal with many aspects of American life.
Most Americans accepted government’s expanded role, even as they disagreed about how far that expansion should continue.
Democrats generally wanted the government to ensure growth and stability. They wanted to extend federal benefits for education, health, and welfare. Many Republicans accepted a level of government responsibility, but hoped to cap spending and restore a larger measure of individual initiative.
The presidential election of 1960 revealed a nation almost evenly divided between these visions. John F. Kennedy, the Democratic victor by a narrow margin, was at 43 the youngest man ever to win the presidency. On television, in a series of debates with opponent Richard Nixon, he appeared able, articulate, and energetic.
Kennedy wanted to exert strong leadership to extend economic benefits to all citizens, but a razor-thin margin of victory limited his mandate. Even though the Democratic Party controlled both houses of Congress, conservative Southern Democrats often sided with the Republicans on issues involving the scope of governmental intervention in the economy. They resisted plans to increase federal aid to education, provide health insurance for the elderly, and create a new Department of Urban Affairs. And so, despite his lofty rhetoric, Kennedy’s policies were often limited and restrained.
The overall legislative record of the Kennedy administration was meager. The president made some gestures toward civil rights leaders but did not embrace the goals of the civil rights movement until demonstrations led by Martin Luther King Jr. forced his hand in 1963.
He gained only a modest increase in the minimum wage. Still, he did secure funding for a space program, and established the Peace Corps to send men and women overseas to assist developing countries in meeting their own needs.
KENNEDY AND THE COLD WAR
In the fall of 1962, the administration learned that the Soviet Union was secretly installing offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba. After considering different options, Kennedy decided on a quarantine to prevent Soviet ships from bringing additional supplies to Cuba. He demanded publicly that the Soviets remove the weapons and warned that an attack from that island would bring retaliation against the USSR. After several days of tension, during which the world was closer than ever before to nuclear war, the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles. Critics charged that Kennedy had risked nuclear disaster when quiet diplomacy might have been effective. But most Americans and much of the non-Communist world applauded his decisiveness. The missile crisis made him for the first time the acknowledged leader of the democratic West.
In retrospect, the Cuban missile crisis marked a turning point in U.S.-Soviet relations. Both sides saw the need to defuse tensions that could lead to direct military conflict. The following year, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain signed a landmark Limited Test Ban Treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere.
Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia), a French possession before World War II, was still another Cold War battlefield. The French effort to reassert colonial control there was opposed by Ho Chi Minh, a Vietnamese Communist, whose Viet Minh movement engaged in a guerrilla war with the French army.
Both Truman and Eisenhower, eager to maintain French support for the policy of containment in Europe, provided France with economic aid that freed resources for the struggle in Vietnam. But the French suffered a decisive defeat in Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. At an international conference in Geneva, Laos and Cambodia were given their independence. Vietnam was divided, with Ho in power in the North and Ngo Dinh Diem, a Roman Catholic anti-Communist in a largely Buddhist population, heading the government in the South.
THE SPACE PROGRAM
During Eisenhower’s second term, outer space had become an arena for U.S.-Soviet competition. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik — an artificial satellite — thereby demonstrating it could build more powerful rockets than the United States. The United States launched its first satellite, Explorer I, in 1958. But three months after Kennedy became president, the USSR put the first man in orbit.
Kennedy responded by committing the United States to land a man on the moon and bring him back “before this decade is out.” With Project Mercury in 1962, John Glenn became the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth.
After Kennedy’s death, President Lyndon Johnson enthusiastically supported the space program. In the mid-1960s, U.S. scientists developed the two-person Gemini spacecraft. Gemini achieved several firsts, including an eight-day mission in August 1965 — the longest space flight at that time.
The three-person Apollo spacecraft achieved Kennedy’s goal and demonstrated to the world that the United States had surpassed Soviet capabilities in space. On July 20, 1969, with hundreds of millions of television viewers watching around the world, Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the surface of the moon.
In the early 1970s, as other priorities became more pressing, the United States scaled down the space program. Some Apollo missions were scrapped; only one of two proposed Skylab space stations was built.
DEATH OF A PRESIDENT
John Kennedy had gained world prestige by his management of the Cuban missile crisis and had won great popularity at home. Many believed he would win re-election easily in 1964. But on November 22, 1963, he was assassinated while riding in an open car during a visit to Dallas, Texas. His death, amplified by television coverage, was a traumatic event, just as Roosevelt’s had been 18 years earlier.
LYNDON JOHNSON AND THE GREAT SOCIETY
Lyndon Johnson, a Texan who was majority leader in the Senate before becoming Kennedy’s vice president, was a masterful politician.
Johnson took office determined to secure the passage of Kennedy’s legislative agenda. His immediate priorities were his predecessor’s bills to reduce taxes and guarantee civil rights. Using his skills of persuasion and calling on the legislators’ respect for the slain president, Johnson succeeded in gaining passage of both during his first year in office. The tax cuts stimulated the economy. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the most far-reaching such legislation since Reconstruction.
By the spring of 1964, he had begun to use the name “Great Society” to describe his socio-economic program. That summer he secured passage of a federal jobs program for impoverished young people. It was the first step in what he called the “War on Poverty.”
In the presidential election that November, he won a landslide victory over conservative Republican Barry Goldwater. Significantly, the 1964 election gave liberal Democrats firm control of Congress for the first time since 1938. This would enable them to pass legislation over the combined opposition of Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats.
Medical care came next. Under Johnson’s leadership, Congress enacted Medicare, a health insurance program for the elderly, and Medicaid, a program providing healthcare assistance for the poor.
In September 1966, Johnson signed into law two transportation bills.
In 1965, Congress abolished the discriminatory 1924 national-origin immigration quotas. This triggered a new wave of immigration, much of it from South and East Asia and Latin America.
The Great Society was the largest burst of legislative activity since the New Deal. But support weakened as early as 1966. Some of Johnson’s programs did not live up to expectations; many went underfunded.
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