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1960 1961 1962 1963 1964 1965 1966 1967 1968 1969

The 1960s in its most obvious sense refers to the decade between 1960 and 1969, but the expression has taken on a wider meaning over the past twenty years. The Sixties has come to refer to the complex of inter-related cultural and political events which occurred in approximately that period, in western countries, particularly Britain, France, the United States and West Germany. Social upheaval was not limited to just these nations, reaching large scale in nations such as Japan and Mexico as well. The term is used both nostalgically by those who participated in those events, and pejoratively by those who regard the time as a period whose harmful effects are still being felt today. In Australia, this decade was called the Swinging Sixties.

Popular memory has conflated into the Sixties some events which did not actually occur during the period. For example, although some of the most dramatic events of the American civil rights movement occurred in the early 1960s, the movement had already began in earnest during the 1950s. On the other hand, the rise of feminism and gay rights began only in the very late 1960s and did not fully flower until the Seventies. However, the "Sixties" has become synonymous with all the new, exciting, radical, subversive and/or dangerous (according to one's viewpoint) events and trends of the period.


Events and trends

Many of the trends of the 1960s were due to the demographic changes brought about by the baby boom generation, the height of the Cold War, and the dissolution of European colonial empires. The rise in social revolution, civil rights movements, human rights movement, anti-War movements, and the Counterculture movement are only some of the characteristics that defined the 1960s. Many experts attribute the 1960s "counter-culture revolution" as being the result of the major social and political factors that rose in the 1950s like brinksmanship, continued fighting in the 3rd world, and a return to pre-WWII lifestyle. The new generation was determined to reject a pre-WWII conformist lifestyle with men in suits and women in the kitchen. While many believed it to be just a "Western" phenomenon, the '60s revolution spread far beyond the borders of America and Western Europe. In South America, revolutions were at a height, in the Eastern Bloc, movements were made inspired by the Hungarian Revolution to reject Soviet domination, and in the Middle East attempted to resist Soviet and American domination (see Non-Aligned Movement). Overall, the '60s affected almost the entire globe. It was during this time that protectionist, command, and mixed economies reached their peak.


Buzz Aldrin on the Moon
Buzz Aldrin on the Moon


War, peace and politics




Big changes during the Sixties

In the United States

The movement for civil and political rights for African Americans (in the early '60s usually called Negroes and in the later '60s Blacks), initially a non-violent movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Gandhian figures but later producing radical offshoots such as the Black Power movement and competing with the Black Panther Party and the Black Muslims for primacy in the African-American community.

The beginning of what was generally seen as a new political era with the election of President John F. Kennedy in 1960, and its ending in tragedy and disillusionment with Kennedy's assassination in 1963, the assassinations of King and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, and the collapse of Lyndon Johnson's presidency.

The rise of a mass movement in opposition to the Vietnam War, culminating in the massive Moratorium protests in 1969, and also the movement of resistance to conscription (“the Draft”) for the war. The antiwar movement was initially based on the older 1950s "Peace movement" controlled by the Communist Party USA, but by the mid '60s it outgrew this and became a broad-based mass movement centred on the universities and churches.

Stimulated by this movement, but growing beyond it, the radicalization of large numbers of student-age youth, beginning with the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley in 1964, peaking in the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois and reaching a tragic climax with the shootings at Kent State University in 1970.

The rapid rise of a "New Left," employing the rhetoric of Marxism but having little organizational connection with older Marxist organizations such the Communist Party, and even less connection with the supposed focus of Marxist politics, the organized labor movement, and consisting of ephemeral campus-based Trotskyist, Maoist and anarchist groups, some of which by the end of the 1960s had turned to terrorism.

Rioting at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, 1968
Rioting at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, 1968

The overlapping, but somewhat different, movement of youth cultural radicalism manifested by the hippies and the counter-culture, whose emblematic moments were the Summer of Love in San Francisco in 1967 and the Woodstock Festival in 1969.

The rapid spread, associated with this movement, of the recreational use of cannabis and other drugs, particularly new synthetic psychedelic drugs such as LSD.

The breakdown among young people of conventional sexual morality and the flourishing of the sexual revolution. Initially geared mostly to heterosexual male gratification, it soon gave rise to contrary trends, Women's Liberation and Gay Liberation.

The rise of an alternative culture among affluent youth, creating a huge market for rock and blues music produced by drug-culture influenced bands such as The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane and The Doors, and also for radical music in the folk tradition pioneered by Bob Dylan.

In other Western countries

The peak of the student and New Left protests in 1968 coincided with political upheavals in a number of other countries. Although these events often sprang from completely different causes, they were influenced by reports and images of what was happening in the United States and France. Students in Mexico City, for example, protested against the corrupt regime of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz: in the resulting Tlatelolco massacre hundreds were killed.

The influence of American culture and politics in Western Europe, Japan and Australia was already so great by the early 1960s that most of the trends described above soon spawned counterparts in most Western countries. University students rioted in London, Paris, Berlin and Rome, huge crowds protested against the Vietnam War in Australia and New Zealand (both of which had committed troops to the war), and politicians such as Harold Wilson and Pierre Trudeau modelled themselves on John F. Kennedy.

An important difference between the United States and Western Europe, however, was the existence of a mass socialist and/or Communist movement in most European countries (particularly France and Italy), with which the student-based new left was able to forge a connection. The most spectacular manifestation of this was the May 1968 student revolt in Paris, which linked up with a general strike called by the Communist-controlled trade unions and for a few days seemed capable of overthrowing the government of Charles de Gaulle.

In non-Western countries

In Eastern Europe, students also drew inspiration from the protests in the west. In Poland and Yugoslavia they protested against restrictions on free speech by Communist regimes. In Czechoslovakia, 1968 was the year of Alexander Dubček’s Prague Spring, a source of inspiration to many Western leftists who admired Dubček's "socialism with a human face." The Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August ended these hopes, and also fatally damaged the chances of the orthodox Communist Parties drawing many recruits from the student protest movement.

In the People's Republic of China the mid 1960s were also a time of massive upheaval, and the Red Guard rampages of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution had some superficial resemblances to the student protests in the West. The Maoist groups that briefly flourished in the West in this period saw in Chinese Communism a more revolutionary, less bureaucratic model of socialism. Most of them were rapidly disillusioned when Mao welcomed Richard Nixon to China in 1972. People in China, however, saw the Nixon visit as a victory in that they believed the United States would concede that Mao Zedong thought was superior to capitalism (this was the Party stance on the visit in late 1971 and early 1972). The Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara also became an iconic figure for the student left, although he was in fact an orthodox Communist.


World leaders

Writers and intellectuals

Sports figures


Woodstock: the iconic Sixties event
Woodstock: the iconic Sixties event

See also

Further Viewing

To see examples of the idealism of the Sixties, view the Woodstock Movie.

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