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  • The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America by James T. Patterson
  • Maarten Zwiers
The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America. By James T. Patterson. New York: Basic Books. 2012.

According to historian James T. Patterson, the Sixties started in the summer of 1965. The riots in Watts and the escalation of the war in Vietnam signaled the beginning of the end of vital center liberalism in general, and Lyndon Johnson’s ambitious Great Society in particular. Barry McGuire captured the nationwide spirit of distress in his apocalyptic song “Eve of Destruction,” which became a #1 hit in September 1965. Patterson’s book, named after McGuire’s protest song, centers heavily on the development of the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War, especially its effect on LBJ’s government programs. These two events inaugurated the “angry, contentious Sixties” (190). [End Page 201]

Of course, other writers have tried to pinpoint the beginning of the 1960s before. Patterson acknowledges this fact, but he makes a strong case that in 1965, US (political) culture truly changed. Lyndon Johnson is the central character in Patterson’s narrative, and his career offers an effective framework to track the transformation of American society in 1965. At the end of 1964, liberalism seemed to have achieved a hegemonic position in US politics, after Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater. During the first part of 1965, LBJ managed to introduce a plethora of Great Society laws aimed at defeating poverty and securing civil rights. Patterson also discusses popular culture as a reflection of national opinion. He argues that the early 1960s resembled the consensus society of the 1950s, which could also be observed in the rather complacent nature of popular culture artifacts that appeared before the summer of 1965.

Patterson sees the radicalization of the civil rights movement and especially the growing involvement in Vietnam as major transformative events, but he also attributes it to the mismanagement of Great Society programs and the inability of liberals like LBJ to offer effective answers to the structural problems of poverty and racism in America. Johnson thought he could deliver guns and butter. By the end of 1965, however, it became clear that his initiatives in foreign and domestic policy ran into serious trouble, and that the American people had lost significant faith in the liberal agenda.

The Eve of Destruction is a well-written book about a momentous year in US history. Patterson offers his readers a great summary of the most important events of 1965, and his choice of Lyndon Johnson as the main figure emphasizes the tragedy of American liberalism during the 1960s. At the same time, this concentration on LBJ has resulted in a rather traditional political history, without any really new insights into the period. The attempts to track political and social change in popular culture are not always convincing. In the epilogue, the author actually seems to be making the case that later years might have been even more influential in the onset of disillusionment and the subsequent rise of conservatism. Patterson nonetheless demonstrates convincingly that vital center liberalism, with its focus on government activism and anticommunism, ran into its limits in the jungles of Vietnam and the ghettos of America. [End Page 202]

Maarten Zwiers
University of Groningen, the Netherlands


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