UNITED STATES HISTORY
Passing the Torch to a New Generation
*In 1960, Eisenhower would neither wish to nor be allowed to run
again. Vice-President Nixon would run against the young
senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. JFK’s VP would
be Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson of Texas, who nearly won the
presidential nomination outright, and still wanted the office.
*Although both were in their forties (it was the first time both
major candidates had been born in the 20th Century), both were
WWII veterans, and both had been Congressmen and Senators, of the
two, Kennedy seemed to represent youth and change.
*JFK would be feared because he was a Catholic. One North
Carolina Baptist preacher said ‘I fear Catholicism more than I
fear communism.’ Kennedy accused Ike and Nixon of letting
the communists get too far ahead, and with the launch of Sputnik,
the fall of Cuba, ever-escalating nuclear arsenals, and the
missile gap, it was hard for Nixon to defend his old
*In the first televised presidential debates, JFK looked young,
fit, and handsome, while Nixon looked sweaty, shifty, and
unappealing. Most people who heard the debate on the radio
thought Nixon had come off better--he had the experience and he
could be a great speaker--but most people who saw it on television
were swept away by the handsome young Kennedy. He got many
votes in the North and in big cities, he still carried much of the
Deep South, and workers, Blacks, and Catholics in all parts of the
country tended to vote for him. In Chicago some of them
voted several times. JFK won with 303 electoral votes (Nixon
had 219 and Harry F. Byrd, Senator from Virginia, with Strom
Thurmond as a running mate, got fifteen).
*John F. Kennedy thus became the youngest man to be elected
president (although TR was younger when he succeeded
McKinley). In his inaugural address, Kennedy declared that
the torch had been passed to a new generation, but said that it
also faced new challenges in the long twilight struggle of the
*Kennedy wanted to build up the military, both to close a ‘missile
gap’ between the US and USSR and to allow flexible responses to
crises by recruiting more men for the Army and Navy (especially
the Special Forces), relying less on the threat of Mutual Assured
*Closing the missile gap was necessary, because the Soviets had
tested their first ICBM in 1957--the rocket that launched Sputnik.
The US did not successfully test an ICBM until 1959.
However, for several years both countries still relied on short,
medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles.
*In 1961, American spy planes discovered that the USSR did not
have as many nuclear weapons as had been thought, and Kennedy
began discussing Krushchev's old idea of a nuclear test ban
treaty, which was signed in 1963 by the USA, USSR, and UK.
France said it would still test nuclear weapons if it wished.
*In response to Sputnik, Eisenhower had created NASA, and
Kennedy planned to expand on it.
*Laika the Space Dog became the first living creature launched
into orbit on 3 November, 1957. America would take over
three years to send an animal into space, launching Ham the Chimp
into space on 31 January, 1961, 11 days after Kennedy's
*On 12 April, 1961, the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the
first man to orbit the Earth
*The United States had been training men to go into space since
1959, and the first of them to go into space was Alan Shepherd,
launched on 5 May, 1961. He did not go high enough to enter
orbit, or stay up very long (he was only off the ground 15 minutes
and 28 seconds), but he proved that an American could pilot a
*On 25 May, 1961 John F Kennedy pledged that the United States
would place a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s.
*On 20 February, 1962, John Glenn, the third American in space,
became the first American to orbit the Earth, staying up over four
hours and circling the Earth three times. His space capsule
was recovered from the Atlantic Ocean by USS Noa,
commanded by John Exum of Johnson City.
*On 20 July, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon, and
the next day, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on
it. The USSR never landed a man on the moon, despite plans
to do so. Twelve Americans on six missions eventually did
walk on the Lunar surface; the last Apollo mission left the moon
on 14 December, 1972.
*Back on Earth, the world was increasingly seen not just as
divided between America and her allies and the Soviet Union and
its satellites, but, as Europe's colonies gained their
independence, they, and other countries, mostly poor countries in
Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia came to be seen
as a Third World between the two.
*To gain support in the Third World, Kennedy offered more American
aid and created the Peace Corps to send young Americans on
missions of freedom to foreign countries to offer technical,
medical, and education assistance.
*Kennedy was concerned about Third World countries turning
communist because Cuba had already done so after Fidel Castro led
the 1959 revolution there against the American-backed dictator
Batista, began nationalising industries and seizing plantations,
and soon afterwards sought Soviet support. Many Cubans fled
to Florida after losing their businesses, and they demanded the US
government help them win Cuban freedom again.
*On 17 April, 1961, Cuban exiles trained by the CIA invaded Cuba
at the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy had promised them air support
and other assistance, but at the last minute, he changed his
mind. Most of the invaders were killed or captured.
*The next year (1962), Nikita Khrushchev placed nuclear missiles
in Cuba, partly to protect Cuba and partly because America had
recently placed intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Turkey
and Italy, where they could strike the Soviet Union.
*This began the Cuban Missile Crisis when they were discovered by
American U-2 spy planes. Kennedy blamed Khrushchev for
bringing the world to the brink of war (a strategy later known as
brinksmanship), although he also pushed the world towards war by
blockading Cuba to keep out any more Soviet supplies (although he
called it a quarantine, because a blockade is an act of
war). For thirteen days in October, 1962, it seemed the
world might be destroyed in a nuclear war, but in the end, the
USSR backed down and removed the missiles (in exchange for the US
removing missiles from Turkey). In the end, it did not
matter much, as both sides produced ever more ICBMs that could hit
any part of the globe.
*After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US and USSR created a hot
line--a direct telephone connection between Washington and
Moscow--so that the leaders of the two countries could discuss
*Back in the USSR, Khrushchev was seen as weak for standing
down. Perhaps even worse, he had presided over the USSR
while Red China began to drift out of the Soviet Sphere, until in
1961, the Sino-Soviet Split became official. In 1964
Khrushchev was forced out of power and replaced by Leonid
*Cuba was not the only problem. In Communist East Germany, the
government claimed that too many people (and spies) were coming to
East Germany to escape the cruel, cold, capitalist West. In
fact, too many people were leaving East Germany to escape
communism. To stop this, the East German government decided
to build an anti-fascist protection wall. At midnight 12/13
August 1961, the East German army began to close the border with
guards and barbed wire. On 15 August, pre-fabricated
concrete barriers were put in place along portions of the border,
and eventually all of West Berlin was surrounded by a 12-foot wall
with barbed wire, machine gun towers, land mines, and other
security around it. Border guards were given orders to shoot
anyone who tried to escape, and about 200 people were killed
trying to do so (and many also succeeded). On the western
side of the wall there was no security, and West Berliners covered
it with graffiti.
*The West feared that East Germany and the USSR would soon try to
take over all of Berlin, and sent more troops to defend it.
In 1963 President John F. Kennedy visited Berlin and said that it
stood for all the peoples divided by the Iron Curtain: "Two
thousand years ago the proudest boast was civis Romanus sum [I
am a Roman citizen]. Today, in the world of freedom, the
proudest boast is 'Ich bin ein Berliner'... All free men,
wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore,
as a free man, I take pride in the words 'Ich bin ein
*The Berlin Wall stood for 28 years as a physical manifestation of
the Iron Curtain. Fences, guard posts, and land mines also
ran the entire length of the Inner German Border and along the
Czechoslovakian borders with West Germany and Austria.
*Kennedy also increased the support that America gave the South
Vietnam, where a pro-American government was threatened by
Communism, by sending more aid and military advisors to the RVN.
*At home, Kennedy promised a New Frontier, a term inspired by
Frederick Jackson Turner. This plan would improve the
economy, health care, education, and civil rights.
*In this he was supported by a cabinet mostly made up of young,
brilliant men, mostly educated in the Ivy League. His
brother Robert was made Attorney-General, while Robert McNamara
left the presidency of Ford Motor Company to become Secretary of
*In 1961, Social Security benefits were increased and people could
begin to receive it at 62 rather than 65, although they got a
lower monthly payment to make up for it.
*In 1961, Kennedy began making adjustments to the Fair Labor
Standards Act that raised the minimum wage to $1.25 an hour.
Over the next few years it would continue to rise.
*The Equal Pay Act of 1963 required equal pay for equal work,
primarily to get companies to pay women the same wages they paid
men. Although there were loopholes in this Act, it helped
begin the process of getting equality for women in the workplace.
*In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring,
describing the effect of chemical fertilisers and pesticides on
wildlife, particularly birds and insects. This is often seen
as the beginning of the environmentalist movement.
*In 1963 the Clean Air act began to regulate air pollution, and
many more environmental laws would be passed as the decade
*When it came to Civil Rights for African-Americans, Kennedy at
first moved cautiously, unwilling to anger Southern
Democrats. Over time, though, he did offer increasing
support for voter registration movements and for black students
who tried to enrol in white colleges, and he did ultimately
support what later became the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but did not
live to see it enacted.
*Kennedy might have done much more as president, as he hoped to
pass middle-class and corporate tax cuts, and he was becoming more
supportive of Civil Rights, but on 22 November, 1963 he visited
Dallas. While riding in an open car through the city, he was
assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald and Lyndon Johnson became
president. A few days later, Oswald was murdered while in
police custody. Although there have always been conspiracy
theories about Kennedy’s murder, the Warren Commission determined
that Oswald had acted alone.
*When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon B. Johnson became
president. He had been a Congressman and Senator from Texas
for over twenty years, and was chosen as vice-president partly to
get Southern Democrats to vote for a Northern Catholic.
*Johnson was not a traditional Southern Democrat, however.
He had played a major role in getting Congress to pass the Civil
Rights Act of 1957.
*In fact, Johnson was very effective at working with
Congress. He had been a Congressman for years and had many
connections. He knew exactly how to reach each person there,
whether with persuasion, bribery, or bullying, and won the passage
of many laws with 'the Johnson treatment.'
*As president Johnson used his connections in Congress to pass the
Civil Rights Act of 1964 to outlaw discrimination. Not only
did it help African-Americans and other ethnic minorities, but
Title VII prohibited discrimination based on sex.
*Johnson did not just want to fight discrimination, he also
declared a War on Poverty, a phrase Kennedy had used, but not done
much to turn into policy. Not only did he get Kennedy’s
proposed middle-class tax cuts through Congress, he created
programmes to improve education and provide job training for many
Americans. The Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA)
trained volunteers similar to the Peace Corps to work in poor
urban and rural areas (particularly Appalachia) to provide
educational and medical assistance.
*Johnson’s War on Poverty also focused attention (and federal
funding) on Appalachia, including through the Appalachian Regional
Commission, a group originally created by the governors of a
number of Appalachian states but which now began to receive
significant federal funding.
*Johnson also created Head Start, to help prepare young children
*The Food Stamp Act of 1964 expanded on a pilot program begun by
Kennedy and appropriated $75 million, with increasing
appropriations for future years.
*While Johnson was president, minimum wage reached its highest
purchasing power: in 1968, the minimum wage of $1.60 an hour
was equivalent to earning $11.63 per hour in 2018.
*In 1964, Johnson ran for election as president in his own right
against Barry Goldwater. Goldwater opposed Johnson’s big
spending. He thought the Federal government should do as
little as possible while people should take responsibility for
themselves. He would have lowered taxes and cut welfare and
other programmes. Despite wanting a fairly inactive
government, he did favour a very strong stand against the Soviet
Union and Communism in general (which had the most intrusive
government possible). Republicans said, 'In your heart, you
know he's right.' Democrats said, 'In your guts, you know
*Johnson’s campaign played up some of Goldwater’s extreme views,
suggesting he would end Civil Rights legislation and perhaps even
provoke a nuclear war. Goldwater lost the Election of 1964
in a landslide, but he carried five Southern states, the first
Republican to win Deep Southern states on his own.
Furthermore, his campaign was seen as the birth of the modern
conservative movement (although Goldwater eventually turned
against religious conservatives because he felt that legislating
morality was too intrusive, too).
*Among Johnson's 486 electoral votes were the 3 votes of
Washington, D.C., which had been given the right to vote in
presidential elections by the XXIII Amendment, passed in 1960 and
ratified in March, 1961.
*With Johnson elected as president and Democrats in control of the
House and Senate, they planned to expand the War on Poverty in
order to create a Great Society, in which poverty and
discrimination would end, and everyone would be taken care of.
*Johnson believed that better education and health care were
necessary to end poverty, so he created Medicare
(government-sponsored health care for the elderly) and Medicaid
(health care for the poor and disabled). He also increased
funding for education with the Elementary and Secondary Education
*To promote government construction of highways and to support
public transportation he created the Department of Transportation,
and to help house the urban poor, he created the Department of
Housing and Urban Development, with the first African-American
cabinet secretary, Robert Weaver leading it.
*The Great Society would protect the environment. Modern
environmentalism began after the 1962 publication of Rachel
Carson’s Silent Spring, describing the effect of chemical
fertilisers and pesticides on wildlife, particularly birds and
insects. This encouraged the creation of the Water Quality
Act of 1965 and the Clean Water Restoration Act of 1966.
*The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 allowed far more
immigrants (particularly from Eastern Europe and Latin America) to
come to the US. Since the 1920s, only Western Europeans had
been encouraged to move to the US.
*In many ways, Johnson’s War on Poverty and Great Society were
successful: between 1960 and 1970, the percentage of
Americans living in poverty dropped from 22.2% to 12.6%.
*Johnson and the Congress were not the only reformers of the
1960s. The Supreme Court, under Earl Warren (known as the
Warren Court), also changed society. Cases such as Baker
v. Carr (1962) and Reynolds v. Sims (1964) required
states to make sure that electoral districts were equal, reducing
the voting power of rural areas, which had gotten more voting than
their population should have—Charles Baker, a Shelby County
Tennessee Republican, for example, complained that electoral
districts in Tennessee had not been redrawn since 1901, and did
not reflect the urbanisation that had taken place in the
intervening six decades.
*Accused criminals were given more rights, too. Clarence
Gideon was accused of breaking into a pool hall and looting a
cigarette machine, juke box, and cash register in 1961 based on
the testimony of one witness. Unable to afford an attorney,
he represented himself but was found guilty and sent to prison,
but appealed, doing his own research in the prison library and
writing to the Supreme Court on prison stationery. Gideon
v. Wainwright (1963) and later cases said that the accused
had a right to a lawyer (even if the public had to provide one).
*In 1960, Danny Escobedo was accused of shooting his
brother-in-law, and during 14½ hours of interrogation during which
he repeatedly asked for a lawyer, he admitted to knowledge of the
crime, which was interpreted as an admission of guilt. 1964,
Escobedo v. Illinois determined that people held by the
police had a right to an attorney during police questioning, too,
as well as during their trial.
*In 1963, Ernesto Miranda was accused of the kidnapping and rape
of an 18-year-old girl. After two hours alone in police
custody, he signed a written confession of his guilt and was
sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison. However, in 1966, Miranda
v. Arizona overturned the conviction because he had not
known he had the right to remain silent or the right to have an
attorney present. Furthermore, the case decided that accused
criminals had to be informed of their rights under the V and VI
*Earl Warren’s court also supported separation of church and
state. They decided in Engel v. Vitale (1962) that
requiring students to pray in public schools violated the First
Amendment. In 1963, Abington v. Schempp decided that
reading the Bible in public schools violated the First Amendment
*Both these decisions made many Americans fear that the government
(or at least some politicians) were opposed to religion and were
trying to destroy its role in public life. This was also
part of the inspiration of the modern conservative movement, which
hoped to reverse this trend and preserve the Christian elements of
*Although the new conservative movement tended to favour
Republicans, in some ways, Johnson was still a very conservative
Democrat, at least when it came to communism.
*Johnson escalated American involvement in Vietnam throughout his
presidency to contain Communism in Southeast Asia.
*As the war in Vietnam dragged on, and America seemed more
aggressive in Latin America, other nations of the world grew
increasingly critical of America’s actions. Peace Corps
volunteers were expelled from other countries. Charles De
Gaulle, President of France, removed France from NATO’s military
alliance and ordered NATO troops out of France in 1966, while
simultaneously developing France’s nuclear weapons programme
(which had tested its first three A-bombs in the Algerian Sahara
*With the US busy in Viet-Nam, the Soviets took advantage of the
situation to gain increased influence in the Arab world,
especially in Egypt. This was not enough to let Egypt beat
Israel in the Six-Day War in 1967, however. In June, Syria,
Egypt, and Jordan attacked Israel after a series of border
incidents. Although the Arabs were armed with new Soviet
planes and other weapons, they were unable to take over Israel
(who had American weapons of their own). Instead, the
Israelis seized the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the Gaza
Strip, and the West Bank of the Jordan, which they soon began to
settle with Jewish farmers.
*In January 1968, USS Pueblo was operating off the coast
of North Korea, in international waters, spying on the North
Koreans. On 23 January, Pueblo was attacked and
captured by the North Korean navy. The sailors were
interned, and later released after being starved and
tortured. Pueblo is still held by the North Koreans, and is
only the second US warship captured since the Barbary Wars (USS Wake
was captured by the Japanese in WWII). This was a major
embarrassment to the United States, and in the vast propaganda war
for the hearts and minds of the world, every embarrassment was
*As time passed, American involvement in Vietnam would become
increasingly embarrassing, and would lead to Lyndon Johnson's
decision not to seek a second term of his own in 1968.
This page last updated 20 November, 2020.