James Patterson’s controlling idea is that the 60’s became the 60’s in 1965, and that this represented an “Eve of Destruction.”  One struggles for about 300 pages trying to find out . . . destruction of what?

The title comes from a long-forgotten song by a long-forgotten singer, Barry McGuire.  “Eve of Destruction” did get to number one on some charts for a few days.  It followed an eventful three weeks, during which President Johnson “had announced a large and irrevocable escalation in Vietnam,” signed the Voting Rights Act and legislation creating Medicare and Medicaid, and watched while Watts burned down.  “Signs of cultural discord,” writes Patterson, “were appearing in popular music.”  His “cultural discord,” however, seems limited to “a marriage of rock and protest.”  The book is mostly about national politics.

“It was a wonderful time for American liberalism,” Patterson says.  That is, on the surface.  In June, LBJ had convened, under the leadership of Princeton’s Eric Goldman (whom he apparently intended to be his Arthur Schlesinger), a “White House Festival of the Arts.”  If the Kenne dys could invite Nobel Laureates and poets, Hollywood stars and musicians, novelists and artists to their parties and their beds, Johnson could do them one better and celebrate them all in the White House, and follow up with the creation of a National Endowment for the Arts, and a National Endowment for the Humanities a couple of months later.  But while intellectuals and artists generally approved of the most liberal legislation in American history, they despised the crude Texan who apparently thought he could purchase their love.  From Goldman’s point of view, the festival was a disaster.  Even the “Metroamericans,” as Goldman later called the cosmopolitan crowds who lived around cities, refused to warm up to the President’s sudden conversion to culture.  And they hated his Vietnam policy.

Patterson admires Johnson’s management of Great Society legislation, considering it the foremost liberal “achievement” of the 20th century.  “The quest for a Great Society,” the author argues, “is in truth an unusual reform movement in American history,” because it supposedly stemmed from “popular pride and satisfaction in the nation’s accomplishments” rather than from a sense of a “broken economic and social contract with its citizens.”  Furthermore, Johnson did not focus on “guaranteeing expensive entitlements—or in pioneering for a Rights Revolution—but in widening the opportunity of people who had been denied access to the American Dream.”  It was all based on a faith in triumphant liberalism.  LBJ had said, while lighting the White House Christmas tree in 1964, “These are the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem.”  He then added,

Today—as never before—man has in his possession the capacities to end war and preserve peace, to eradicate poverty and share abundance, to overcome the diseases that have afflicted the human race and permit all mankind to enjoy their promise in life on this earth.

Patterson repeatedly gives Johnson credit for all this.  He “succeeded in 1965 in becoming the most effective congressional manager in modern American history.”

This sentence sums up the author’s admiration for LBJ:

He continued to be a liberal who believed that the federal government should advance equal opportunity; he was not a radical or social democrat who sought to tame Big Business, fight against income inequality, ensure equal economic outcomes for people, or guarantee a host of special rights and entitlements.

This could be—and has been—said of every liberal Democratic president and candidate since 1933, and, in fact, Johnson was very much a product of the New Deal.  He saw himself (Patterson admits) as both in competition with FDR and as his legitimate heir.  That he truly believed in the New Deal is both self-evident and something on which all his biographers agree.  Patterson’s attempt to provide nuance to the Great Society could be done simply by saying that the Texan really was promoting a “Great Deal.”  There is a straight line from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama: the “dominant dogma of the age,” as Walter Lippmann called it in 1938, the conviction that “through the power of the state men can be made happy.”

And if one looks even superficially at 1965, the legislative achievement was not so much because of Johnson as it was thanks to his huge Democratic congressional majorities and the most liberal Supreme Court in the nation’s history.  The majorities came about not through the intrinsic appeal of New Deal ideas or LBJ’s compelling personality, but because of the assassination of a young president who became very popular after his death and the unfortunate timing of Goldwater’s emergence.  With the political advantages Johnson had in 1965, even so inept a president as Barack Obama could have gotten most of the Great Society legislation through.  As Patterson points out, that the progressive legislative thrust did not end with the Johnson presidency but continued well into Nixon’s administration is simply a matter of the Republican Party, beginning with Eisenhower, having turned center-right.

The events that brought righteous liberalism to the eve of destruction were not legislative, however—they were “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama (March 7), and, next day, the arrival in Da Nang of the first American combat troops (3,500 Marines) to land in Asia since the Korean War, wading ashore to cheers and garlands from Vietnamese girls.  Liberal Democrats did not grasp the limits of their triumphalist faith as civil rights degenerated into a new kind of racial hatred, the primary symptoms of which were dozens of riots in American cities.  And the Johnson loyalists did not grasp the limitations of their triumphalist escalation in Southeast Asia, the primary symptom of which was the alienation of intellectuals, “Metroamericans,” and students of draft age.  Patterson is quite right in saying that the 60’s as “protest” was a product of a Rights Revolution gone bad and a duplicitous war escalation gone worse.  “The sixties,” he says, “launched above all by the American escalation of the Vietnam War, had arrived to stay.”

Patterson has written about all this before, in two large volumes that tell the American story of Grand Expectations and a Restless Giant from 1945 to 2000.  This book is a relatively fair polemic, extracted from the middle of those larger works, trying to show when the great liberal change really took place.  While he tells a good story, there are at least four reasons why that story was unlikely to be convincing.

First, to locate the argument in one year, the book should have been either much shorter—a series of suggestive polemical snapshots, a few of which it contains—or much longer, so that he could make his narrative case.  As it is, limited mostly to national politics and laced with short but unsatisfactory “cultural” comments, Eve of Destruction doesn’t give much of a picture of how “1965 Transformed America.”  In fact, only about one half of the book is set in 1965.

Second, making Lyndon Johnson the central character in what was indeed a great drama requires the author to show much more about the man than his canny politics, crude personality, and brand of liberalism.  LBJ was deeply corrupt—in his marriage, in business, in political tactics, in his use of both friends and enemies.  If he is to be forgiven much deeper character flaws than Patterson describes, the author must make clear whether the liberalism LBJ represented was independent of his character.  A similar liberalism, returned to the White House later with William Jefferson Clinton, also enjoyed some success, despite being reined in by Republican congressional majorities.  Patterson does nothing to suggest why.  What, then, was the destruction that came after 1965?

Third, Patterson seems to suggest that the liberal domestic successes of 1965 were ultimately lessened by the foreign-policy disasters, as if Johnson were one thing on American soil and another when he reached outside the country.  In fact, foreign policy always reflects domestic policy.  Ever since FDR, the desire to plan the lives of what should have remained self-governing citizens of the country has been complemented by the “responsibility” to regulate the affairs of a disorderly world.  The fact that liberal internationalism later became absorbed by managerial Republicanism should not obscure its origins.  Patterson, despite having a perfect opportunity to do so, does not discuss this aspect of the year 1965.

For those of us who lived through it, “the Sixties” were much more a cultural than a political phenomenon: sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, however one may have felt about any of them.  Despite Patterson’s occasional forays into television, movies, and pop music, the real transformations in education and religion are overlooked.  Can one imagine talking about the 60’s and never once mentioning the Second Vatican Council, which adjourned in 1965?  Or passing over the Baby Boomers, who came of age when they reached draft age in 1965?  Or—most importantly—drugs?  I graduated from college in 1962 without having ever heard the word marijuana.  By 1965 the number who could be so counted was probably less than those who had not heard of Elvis’s death by the end of 1976.  In music—especially music—it was the drugs, man!

Still, despite these criticisms, I enjoyed the book.  James Patterson is a serious historian and a fair man, and I am probably a little unfair in asking him to write the book that he didn’t write.  For those who haven’t read much about politics in the mid-60’s, The Eve of Destruction makes good reading.  For those who have—well, we shall await the full history of that difficult decade.


[The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America, by James T. Patterson (New York: Basic Books) 310 pp., $28.99]