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All the talk last week about the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing made me wonder what other semi-centennials we are marking this year.
Sometimes this sort of exercise turns up a pattern of deep connections and heavy portents, something that adds up and helps make sense of our current moment. (See my reflections about the year 1919 on the centennial of my father’s birth.) But that is less the case for 1969. The year certainly had its share of memorable events, but they seem a jumble, more contradictory than coherent. Or maybe the contradictions are the pattern. Maybe what we see emerging in 1969 is the grid of polarization and conflict that still haunts us today.
The other most famous event from 1969 besides the moon landing occurred a month later at the Woodstock arts and music festival, August 15-18. Those days saw an incredible string of talent and fame on stage, but Jimi Hendrix closed the show with “Purple Haze,” singing out loud what the 400,000 in attendance had amply (seen) demonstrated, that you didn’t need a rocket ship to kiss the sky. It’s a commonplace that a harsh bookend to Woodstock plunked down at Altamont, California in December, when four people were killed by the Hell’s Angels who were providing “security” for the Rolling Stones. “Sympathy for the Devil,” indeed, but that might be inevitable when you believe only, Woodstock-like, in the better angels of human nature.
The year put “radical youth” on display, then. But it also saw Richard Nixon inaugurated as president in January, with no little support from young voters—particularly from the 80% of that cohort who did not graduate from college. Even more of that demographic seem to have voted for George Wallace in the previous November’s election. Wallace’s third-party candidacy netted 13 percent of the popular vote and made Nixon a minority president (44 percent), fueling his notorious insecurities. But Nixon coopted the Wallace vote via the Southern Strategy that marks the Republican Party to this day. “Send her back!” did not just drop from the sky.
More contradictions…. John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged two “bed-ins” that year in protest of the Vietnam War, but 30,000 teenagers staged a “Rally for Decency” in Miami to protest Jim Morrison’s indecent exposure on stage there during a Doors concert. The purity party brought in the Lettermen for their music.
The Cuyahoga River caught on fire in Cleveland in June 1969—perhaps the symbolic trigger of the modern environmental movement—but all year long the USA and USSR continued underground nuclear testing. The Concorde inaugurated super-sonic air flight in January, harbinger of a future that did not come to pass. The Boeing 747, the first jumbo jet, had a much more auspicious debut in February; its 50-year service among US airlines ended only this year.
The Australian Rupert Murdoch acquired News of the World in Britain at the very start of 1969 (January 2), his first big step in constructing a worldwide right-wing media empire. Six months later the Stonewall Inn protest against police brutality in New York City gave symbolic birth to the gay-rights movement that has afforded progressive and conservative media so much to fight over ever since.
Naturally, the Vietnam War commanded abundant attention in 1969, though nothing much happened on site besides a lot of killing. Life magazine published one of its most memorable issues on June 27 when it ran a 12-page spread picturing, yearbook-style, the 242 American troops who had recently died in Vietnam in a single week. American forces had taken “Hamburger Hill” a month earlier, but the most notable battle of 1969 would involve belated exposure, that November, of the My Lai massacre some twenty months previous. Life ran the photos again, on December 5.
Antiwar protests built over the course of the year, climaxing with a march of half a million people in Washington D.C. on November 15. I was in that throng. My most vivid memories: a very cold day. My first sighting of Hare Krishnas; hope they had long-johns under those saffron robes. Troops with weapons raised atop government buildings along the parade route. A cordon of buses around the White House. Somebody carrying a sign reading “A Calvinist for Peace.” But what did it avail? The war ground on for five more years, and on December 1 the US conducted the first draft lottery since World War II. Talk about memories! Every American male my age remembers that night as vividly as the afternoon JFK was assassinated. My number? 153—limbo.
If Vietnam was same-old, the new battle gaining international attention was building in Northern Ireland. The “Troubles” technically began the year before, but in 1969 they built into a steady stream of killings, bombings, marches and counter-marches. Contradictions: Bernadette Devlin was elected to Parliament in April, a radical Catholic and the youngest (age 21) woman MP for 45 years. Shortly after, Ian Paisley, the rabid anti-Catholic preacher and politician, was released from jail where he had been remanded for fomenting terrorist acts. He went on to found today’s Democratic Unionist Party, which holds the balance of power in British politics. However Brexit–which the DUP opposes–turns out, it might spell the end of the arrangement that brought the Troubles to an end.
In other international news, Yasser Arafat was named head of the Palestine Liberation Organization simultaneously with Golda Meir becoming the first female prime minister of Israel. Hassan al-Assad came to power in Syria via a military coup; his son Bashir has retained it recently via an egregious series of war crimes. In March 1969 Chinese and Russian forces engaged in border combat that took hundreds of lives; in September Muammar Gaddafi became Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution in Libya.
In technology, geeks honor April 7, 1969 as the birthday of the internet. On Labor Day weekend the first ATM came into use, while IBM shortly after unveiled the magnetic strip that would make possible the credit card explosion. On the celebrity front, two packs of death have fascinated readers ever since: the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Charles Manson Family on August 9-10, and the drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne on Chappaquiddick Island in the company of Senator Ted Kennedy on July 18.
In culture, construction of Disney World began in Florida in late May; the first all-nude Broadway play, “Oh Calcutta,” opened on June 17. In Britain the Beatles released “Abbey Road” on September 26, and Monty Python debuted on BBC two weeks later. The Who pioneered the rock opera with “Tommy” on May 23, but the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar,” released the next day, was Billboard magazine’s Song of the Year.
In television, “The Smothers Brothers’ Comedy Hour” was cancelled by CBS in April for refusing to submit to corporate censorship of its political and cultural radicalism. It was replaced by “Hee Haw” from the other end of the spectrum. The year’s top-rated show was the leftie “Laugh In;” second and third came the traditional Western “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza, where no females were in evidence. “Scooby Doo” debuted to introduce pothead culture for those with eyes to see; “Sesame Street” debuted as the epitome of children’s broadcasting.
In movies the best-picture Oscar went to “Midnight Cowboy,” the first X-rated film to net that honor. Winning Best Actor, however, was John Wayne in “True Grit.” The New Hollywood and the Old, par excellence. The year’s box-office winner was “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” leftie values in a right-wing genre. The 1969 film that has aged most poorly, IMO, is “Easy Rider.” Beside its many other faults, its cheap shots at all things Southern invited backlash from the rising tide of the Sunbelt that would dominate American politics, religion, and other parts of the culture for the next generation.
And in religion? All quiet on the American front. Nothing in the news. You have to know to look below the surface and see the beginnings of the steady erosion of mainline Protestant church membership. On the other hand you can think of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,” just getting its legs, as the great national Sunday School of the air, taught by a mainline Presbyterian minister.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” So said the Great American Poet, Walt Whitman. If he was correct, then 1969 was a great American year. But “multitudes” might also mean “legion,” and the man by that name in the Bible was thought mad.
Where were you in 1969, and where are you today?