The 1960s - World Events
Created | Updated Nov 26, 2008
One issue dominated world politics in the 1960s: the Cold War. The superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union faced off in a series of crises and proxy wars throughout the decade, all the while developing massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Anti-nuclear campaigners decried the threat to world peace posed by these arsenals, but some say the concept of mutually assured destruction actually helped prevent an all-out war. It is also suggested that without the impetus of superpower rivalry, the space race would not have blasted off to the same degree - the decade opened with Yuri Gagarin's orbit of the earth and finished with Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon.
Nevertheless, there were some heart-stopping moments. The Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis of the following year; the closest the world ever came to nuclear warfare. The Soviet leader at that time, Nikita Kruschev, was famous for thumping his shoe on a desk at the United Nations when challenged on the USSR's occupation of eastern European nations. In 1968, Soviet and other allied troops invaded one of those satellites, Czechoslovakia, to crush a fledging liberal movement. While occupation remained harsh in the eastern bloc, by 1969 the first tentative steps toward détente were being taken, ushering in the uneasy balance that would characterise the Cold War of the '70s.
Civil Rights was one of the most important issues of the 1960s in America. The concept of Civil Rights had accelerated throughout the mid to late 1950s (with the Brown vs Board of Education decision and the integration of Little Rock Central High). Lunch sit-ins occurred in 1960; Freedom Rides in 1963, the same year as Dr Martin Luther King's immortal 'I Have a Dream' speech, the Bus Protest and the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama; the march on Selma in 1965... protests throughout the decade.
Medgar Evans, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were all killed in the 1960s, not to mention US President John F Kennedy. Kennedy's death indirectly led to the historic passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, because Lyndon B Johnson, who took the office, pushed for the bill, and one of the memories of JFK was his position for civil rights. All these men died for Civil Rights - as well as innumerable others lynched in the south.
In US domestic politics it was a time when protesters took to the streets. At the start of the decade the issue was civil rights; segregation was still in force in southern states and most people in the rest of the country did not see the issue as important. Civil rights leaders, lawyers and protesters campaigned for reforms in the south, while events like the Birmingham church bombing (where four girls were killed) gradually attracted national attention. Martin Luther King made his 'I have a dream' speech in Washington in the same year as Malcolm X led a Muslim demonstration in New York; both men would be assassinated by the decade's end. But it was not until after the assassination of president John F Kennedy that a law was passed giving the federal government the power to end segregation.
By the late 1960s, anti-war protests had also taken hold. The US had more than 500,000 troops in Vietnam by 1968 and was drawing heavy casualties. In 1969 the capital saw what is thought to be the largest demonstration in American history, with more than 20 million people taking part in the Peace Moratorium.
Taken all into account, I'm thinking that the Sixties may have been a decade to forget in the United States. Right from the beginning of the decade you had the Cuban Missile Crisis after the fruitless invasion of the Bay of Pigs; the terrible assassination of the youthful and ever-popular John F Kennedy in 1963; the division and rancour of the devastating Vietnam War (the first modern war to take place as much in the living rooms of American viewers as on the battlefields); the racial tension of the Civil Rights Movement, especially following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr (prompting the US Democrats to lose their grip on the Southern states of the 'old' Confederacy that they'd held since the Civil War). If that weren't enough, 'Tricky Dicky' Nixon arrived to take the Presidency to the end of decade in 1969...
Certainly, despite much to be optimistic about, for some the spirit of the Sixties ended for with an incident in Altamont. As a certain Rolling Stone summarised:
A young black man murdered in the midst of a white crowd by white thugs as white men played their version of black music — it was too much to kiss off as unpleasantness.
Meanwhile, in Canada...
In 1960 the First Nations people of Canada won the right to vote in federal elections under the premiership of John Diefenbaker. But another group's fight for self-determination turned violent. A Marxist group called the Quebec Liberation Front (FLQ) came to prominence in the early part of the decade calling for the overthrow of the Quebec government and its secession from Canada. The FLQ conducted a series of bombings, hold-ups and kidnappings throughout the decade, before dissipating somewhat from 1970 as support rose for non-violent, political secessionist processes.
Also near the decade's end, Pierre Trudeau brought the issues of abortion, homosexuality and divorce law to the fore, having declared there was no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation. As prime minister he introduced bills liberalising laws in these areas. He also ensured both English and French were recognized as official languages in Canada. One researcher lists two more milestones of the time:
Canada got a new flag, the Maple Leaf, inaugurated on February 5, 1965. On 4 March, 1966, a sex-espionage scandal rocked Canada. Gerda Munsignor was caught spying for the Soviet embassy and it was ultimately revealed she'd had an affair with Pierre Sevigny, a former defence minister, in 1961.
The 'Sexual Revolution' of the decade can be attributed to one tiny thing - the arrival of The Pill. Introduced in the USA in 1960, and in 1961 in the UK, it was initially available only to married women. Though it undoubtedly brought a great deal of freedom to women, it also had a number of downsides - not least the expectation from prospective boyfriends to have sex on the first date...
Meanwhile, on 27 June, 1967, the Sexual Offences Act decriminalised sex between two consenting males of 21 years or more in private, something that had been a criminal offence (with prison as a likely sentence) since 1885 (prior to 1861s, the sentence was death). While this was greeted enthusiastically by gay men (there has never, at any point, been legislation in the UK specific to lesbiansim), it was not a complete decriminalisation of homosexuality; sex between consenting men of 16 or 17 years of age remained a criminal offence until 2000, despite the age of consent for heterosexual couples having been 16 since 1956.
Despite the traditional image of the British male, it wasn't just Canadian politicians getting caught with their trousers down. Indeed, the British obsession with political sexual shenanigans began in the 1960s with the scandal surrounding John Profumo, the secretary of state for war, who was discovered to have been embroiled in controversy amid rumours of an affair with a showgirl named Christine Keeler. He told Parliament there was 'no impropriety' in their relationship, but 10 weeks later was forced to admit he had lied and would resign. Adding fuel to the fire, it was revealed Keeler had also been sleeping with a naval attaché at the Soviet embassy. An official report criticised the government for its handling of the scandal, but found there had been no breach of national security. Nevertheless, within a month, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had quit (citing ill health) and the following year Harold Wilson's Labour party was in power.
Macmillan is best known for his claim that 'most of our people have never had it so good'. But his reign in the '60s, compared to his time in office in the late '50s, did not quite live up to his own diagnosis. Having earned the nickname 'Supermac' during his first term for his policy successes, he became known as Mac the Knife in the '60s a drop in government popularity led him to sack and replace one-third of the Cabinet in a single night. He also had an attempt to join the European Common Market rebuffed by France. Wilson suffered a similar setback later in the decade.
One of the most enduring symbols of the Cold War took shape in 1961 when Berliners awoke to find a six-foot fence dividing the city. The fence soon evolves into a concrete wall with gun positions and towers and comes to represent the division of Europe itself between NATO and Warsaw pact nations. The year 1968, often dubbed the 'year of the barricades', saw student protests break out in Paris, Rome and Warsaw, with buildings occupied and universities closed. Workers joined the action in France, resulting in a two-week strike that paralysed the country and saw tanks sent to Paris' outskirts in fear of revolution. The government of General Charles de Gaulle called an election and was returned with a huge majority. The government of General Franco remained in power in Spain but had pledged to liberalise the economy. The pace of reform remained slow and it was not until the 1970s that the country began to resemble a modern industrial economy.
Around the World in 3653 Days
In Asia, another country was attempting to reorder its economy, although not along market capitalist lines. China was two years into its 'great leap forward' by 1960, but widespread flooding and the withdrawal of Soviet advisers led to the plan's failure and the retirement of Chairman Mao. He returned to power four years later at the helm of the 'cultural revolution', an ideological purge of Chinese society to remove 'bourgeois' influences. Tens of thousands were executed and millions were forced into manual labour. Meanwhile south-east Asia became an increasingly heated theatre of the Cold War. The domino theory, which held that if one nation in a region 'fell' to Communism the rest would follow like dominoes, brought the US into conflict by proxy with the Soviet Union in Vietnam. The conflict spread to neighbouring Cambodia and Laos before the eventual American withdrawal.
Withdrawals were taking place on a larger scale in Africa. Independence movements were taking hold across the continent and colonial masters were being forced out. Belgian Congo gained independence in 1960, renaming itself Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), with Algeria following suit in 1962 after a vicious civil war. By the middle of the decade most African nations were self-governing, but the sudden transition and lack of assistance led to continuing turmoil on the continent. South Africa had declared independence in the late 1950s, but only for whites. In 1964, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned after his trial for sabotage. He would not be released for 25 years.
In South America, the 1960s saw a domino effect of dictatorships storm to power. This was another region to become a staging ground for Cold War politics, with generals seizing control to prevent Communist influence pervading the countries; at least that was the pretext. There were military coups in Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala and Peru, while in Argentina a series of dictators and civilian presidents came and went in between the reigns of Juan Peron in the 50s and 70s. Leftist rebels started their separatist movement in Colombia, but Venezuela proved the exception to the region's rule. Having shrugged off its dictatorships in 1958, democracy returned to the country early in the decade.
It was just as turbulent a time in Middle East, with coups, repressions and border skirmishes punctuating the decade. In Egypt in 1964, a charter was established for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation which declared Israel an illegal state and vowed its destruction. Israel raided Egyptian targets three years later fearing an Arab attack was imminent, starting what became known as the Six-day War. A ceasefire was brokered after Israel had captured the Golan Heights from Syria, Gaza and the Sinai from Egypt and Old Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan. The United Nations passed a resolution calling for Israel to withdraw from those areas, at the same time implying its enemies should recognise its right to exist. The precise meaning of the resolution has fuelled debate ever since, although some territorial disputes have since been resolved to varying degrees.
... and Down Under
I know this beach like the back of my hand.
Quote attributed to Australian Prime Minister, Harold Holt.
Australia saw one of the more bizarre successions of world politics at the time, when prime minister Harold Holt disappeared after going for a swim off a Victorian beach. A three-week search failed to find a body, prompting theories to emerge that the PM had been kidnapped by Communist agents, or that he had in fact been an agent himself. Some, less optimistic, commentators have noted darkly that with so many sharks in those waters, anyone who gets into difficulty out there wouldn't have long to wait before they became part of the food chain...
Holt had famously pledged to go 'all the way with LBJ'. Australia had introduced the draft to service its troop commitment in Vietnam to fulfil that promise. There is one other quote used to epitomise Australian politics at the time. Lyndon Johnson was visiting the country in 1966 and was travelling in a car with then New South Wales premier Robin Askin when the path was blocked with protesters. Askin is said to have remarked to the driver: 'Run over the bastards'.