Style aside, the 1960s — the era that spawned sex, drugs, and rock and roll — are still with us.

For me, the '60s began in November 1963, when I heard my mother gasp as the radio announced that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. A sense that the horizons of public life were unlimited began to darken that day, not just in my blue-collar neighborhood, but across America as well.

While politics were fractured, private life was redefined, as Pulitzer Prize–winning historian James T. Patterson argues in his insightful new book, The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America.

Patterson sees 1965 as a pivot, a point of no return. Forces, trends, undercurrents that percolated with varying intensity since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, through Truman's stormy post–World War II tenure, and into Eisenhower's deceptively placid years in office coalesced. The series of explosions that followed recast race relations, cultural norms, sexuality, and civil society.

The Eve of Destruction is not a study in determinism, as some critics have suggested. Rather, it is a bottom-up study of how mass impulse collided with received opinion. What John Kenneth Galbraith in 1958 called "conventional wisdom" splintered after 1965. For better or for worse, 47 years later we are still rearranging the shards.

The sexual revolution is a case in point. Federal regulators approved the birth-control pill for contraceptive use in 1960, but as Patterson reports, it was in 1965 that the Brown University health service became the first in the nation to prescribe its use — to two unmarried 21-year-old college students. History followed.

President Lyndon Johnson's outsized ambition provides the glue that binds The Eve of Destruction. The exorbitant promises of Johnson's war on poverty and the myopia of his strategic vision in Vietnam birthed a cynicism that is still potent today.


THE EVE OF DESTRUCTION: HOW 1965 TRANSFORMED AMERICA By James T. Patterson :: Basic Books :: 310 pages :: $28.99.


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