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Where were you in the 1960s? If you were a baby, or still deciding to be born, it is a fascinating period to explore. The Sixties is a 2014 10-part TV series released by CNN. Tom Hanks is one of its producers and also one of the people who offer brief commentaries on aspects of what is shown. The Sixties is educational media of a very high standard. For me it provided answers to many questions, and suggested reasons why so much of my adult life was dominated by the issues it was. This was a decade long American revolution that changed everything.
The majority of each episode consists of edited selections of current TV reportage of events in the USA, organised into themes. This is of a high technical standard, and it is hard to realise you are watching 50 year old broadcasts. The editing is done is such a way as to make each of the issues covered clear to any viewer. They have the dramatic impact of a movie, even though only 45 minutes long each. Commentators add their perspective and put matters in context. I grew up in the sixties (outside America) and like any child I suppose didn’t pay much attention to what the grown ups were doing. I found the entire series enthralling. It revealed a lot, and explained a lot of the 70s, when I did know more of what was going on, but then didn’t fully understand why.
The Kennedy murder
The key episode, one I want to focus on, is on the murder of President John F Kennedy. This takes a double episode, 85 minutes. I hadn’t realised that when Kennedy was elected in 1961 he faced so many issues: the Cold War, from 1947; the nuclear arms race and the Space Race, from 1955; the Civil Rights movement, from 1955; other minority rights movements such as for homosexuals, Hispano Americans, the various women’s movements, and the youth revolution; the war in Vietnam, from 1955; and the prevalence of organised crime. All these issues are covered in their own episode of the series except the last one.
Many of these issues originated under the administration of Dwight D Eisenhower. It seems that various government bureaucracies, CIA, Defence department, FBI and others were able to operate without a central co-ordination, and escalated their budgets and personnel accordingly, a remarkable exposition of Parkinson’s Law. Unlike Eisenhower, Kennedy thought it was necessary to curtail this administrative expansion and defuse as many of the issues as he could. The alternative seemed to be nuclear war and the end of civilisation. In so doing, Kennedy inevitably made enemies, and I think it likely one of these organised his murder. Hard to realise, but there were bullish figures in administration and government who wanted war, nuclear or otherwise, and thought America could win it.
The episode of The Sixties on Kennedy’s murder focuses for some peculiar reason on the Warren Commission, and the commentators are largely comprised of once members of this Commission, and justify their findings, as could be expected. This approach is inexact. I hadn’t realised before, but there were nine investigations on Kennedy’s murder.
1. Dallas Police investigation. This was not fully documented, evidence was incompetently organised, and the enquiry was interrupted by the FBI.
2. FBI. This was the primary organisation responsible for investigation of the murder of a President. On December 9, 1963 the Investigation was terminated by Hoover and the results were kept secret.
3. Secret Service. A man claiming to be from the Secret Service ordered Kennedy’s limousine to be washed and cleaned after the President’s body was delivered to Dallas hospital for examination. The cleaning of the car removed the only useful evidence of the fatal shots’ trajectory. Whatever enquiry the Secret Service made was kept secret.
4. CIA. The CIA were later linked by subsequent enquiries as involved in an anti Castro plot that involved the alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Their advice had earlier precipitated the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Their report on the murder was kept secret.
5. The President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy (Warren Commission) September 24, 1964. They originated the lone assassin theory.
6. Attorney General Ramsey Clark appointed 4 medical experts to investigate in1968 and they found that 2 bullets were fired from behind, one of which killed the President (as per Warren Commission).
7. The United States President’s Commission on CIA activities within the United States (Rockefeller Commission) of 1975 cleared the CIA of involvement.
8. United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (Church Committee) of 1975. This body found that FBI and CIA were deficient in their enquiry and facts had not been forwarded to the Warren Commission by the agencies. It also found that the FBI was ordered by Director Hoover and pressured by higher government officials to conclude its investigation.
9. United States House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) 1976-79, found firstly that a shot was fired from in front of the President, but this conclusion was later withdrawn for lack of reliable evidence.
To me this looks incredibly incompetent. Two things seem obvious. Firstly that some evidence was erased and/or concealed by the investigators. To do so surely is and was a criminal act under the law of any country. Secondly, there seems to have been almost certainly a conspiracy among government administrators and LBJ’s administration to put a lid on speculation and come up with a simple, reassuring solution to the murder to avoid public panic and perhaps further accusations. By the time the Warren Commission was convened, evidence had been so organised that they could come to only one conclusion: Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone, crazy assassin.
That bothers me. Not just the crazy assassin, but the big chance of hitting the wrong target, Mrs Kennedy for instance. The distance was apparently 81 meters and increasing, well within the range of the rifle that Oswald owned. But what nobody seems to have noticed is not just the likelihood of the marksmanship. Testers have hit a similar target with a similar gun at a similar range. It’s that Oswald was reportedly seen on the second floor of the Book Depository building both before and after the shooting, which was supposedly from the sixth floor. Have any testers tried running up four flights of stairs, getting off the three shots and then running down again, in just a few minutes? Seems an odd chance to take.
Would someone like Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry, who attempted to kill President Charles de Gaulle with machine gun fire in 1962 over secession of Algeria, the foundation for the book and film The Day of the Jackal 1971, have gone about things this way? Oswald left a noticeable barricade on the sixth floor, as well as his cartridge shells, and took a handy photo of himself holding the rifle that was said to have killed the President, which seems rather like a death wish. Not so much a clever assassination attempt as a plea that Jack Ruby kill him because he was guilty. Talk about a crazy assassin.
And what a crazy investigation. I found out that Secret Service operatives refused to let an autopsy be performed on the President’s body at the hospital according to state law. When officials insisted, the operatives held them at pistol point while they removed the body. Cleaning the car and then removing the body to prevent an autopsy sure looks like there was something to hide to me.
“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth” said Sherlock in 1892. He also thought that “It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment”. If Sherlock is right, then Kennedy’s murder will never be solved. I think it likely that John Edgar Hoover ordered the murders of both Kennedy brothers and of Martin Luther King. But that, like many others’ ideas, is a supposition, not even a theory. The episode that details the murder certainly conveys the shock, horror and grief felt by many Americans at Kennedy’s death. The man who was apparently solving the country’s many problems was gone, and who could replace him?
Rights for blacks
It seems a suitable title, because at the time African Americans were blacks, separated by their skin colour from other Americans. One hundred years after the Civil War, which claimed almost three quarters of a million lives and gave freedom to slaves and civil rights to African Americans who were ‘involuntary emigrants’, many people, both in the North and the South, were unreconciled to that requirement of peace. This episode of The Sixties shows how virulent race hatred was in the 60s, only 50 years ago: America was probably the most racist country on earth, and segregation, exploitation, poor housing, inadequate wages, discrimination and contempt, beatings and murder were the lot of African Americans in the USA, especially if they objected to this treatment.
Black leaders decided on a campaign of non violent protest, marches, bus rides, presence in segregated areas, publicity campaigns and lobbying. Many of the activities are chronicled in the series episode devoted to this issue. On May 4 1961 the first group of Freedom Riders, with the intent of integrating interstate buses, left Washington, D.C. by Greyhound bus which was later attacked and burned outside of Anniston, Alabama. A mob attacked the Freedom Riders upon their arrival in Birmingham. They were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, and spent forty to sixty days in Parchman Penitentiary. In December 500 protesters in Albany Georgia were arrested, including Martin Luther King.
In September of 1961 James Meredith attempted to enrol at the University of Mississippi and riots occurred during which several people were killed. In 1963 in Birmingham Alabama a group of adolescents and children marched against segregation, and were attacked by police with dogs and fire hoses. Bombs were detonated by the KKK, riots ensued, and Federal troops were sent in to restore order. Activist Medgar Evans was murdered in Jackson Mississippi in June, and only a week later President Kennedy sent his Civil Rights Act to Congress. In September a bomb killed four children in a Baptist Church in Birmingham. In August Martin Luther King led his march on Washington, and made his extempore speech beginning, “I have a dream…”. In 1965 a peaceful march in Selma Alabama was attacked by police and state troopers, inflicting many injuries on the marchers. In August the Watts riots lasted for five days in Los Angeles and 3,500 people were arrested.
In July 1967 there were riots in Detroit Michigan which lasted five days, and ended with over 7,000 arrests. This is considered the worst riot in American history. In 1968 Martin Luther King was murdered, and riots broke out in many cities across the United States, as African Americans saw their hopes destroyed. Two months later Robert Kennedy was also murdered, as he campaigned for President, shot in a crowded room where he had no protection, as was Jack Ruby. The decade ended with a number of demonstrations at universities as students took an active role in protest.
Protests and killings have continued up to the present. Racism is a current issue, and has not been solved. Watching the live footage of the events I have described made all this seem real to me. It was a horrifying experience, but also a moving one, as leaders took their lives in their hands and spoke for justice, and the award of their constitutional and lawful rights from bodies who wrongly denied them, and who thought nothing of attacking unarmed men, women and children with fire hoses, truncheons, tear gas, police dogs, and guns.
The series has episodes on other issues of the 60s. Following the progress made in the Civil Rights movement and the prestige given Martin Luther King, many other suppressed minority groups found their voice: homosexuals; the growing environmental protection movement; a number of women’s movements; and teenagers, whose culture in the 60s was vastly stimulated by the Beatles, and led to flower power, Woodstock, and the belief they could transform society, with the help of a few drugs. Like racism, these are issues still with us. Is there now more toleration for homosexuals? Have we succeeded in preventing industry from destroying the environment? Are women respected as equal but different? For all these issues it is probable that you can legislate, but it is much harder, and slower, to change ingrained attitudes. Teenage culture has become just a ‘market’, and drugs consumed to opt out of an undesirable reality, not to change it. These are all revolutions which in some sense failed, at least in part. But their effects transformed the world of the 70s and beyond.
The episode on the Cold War was chilling to watch, as it seemed the world then came very close to a nuclear, and final, war. Kennedy, at first misled by unreliable CIA and Defence Department information, started as a ‘cold war warrior’ and avid anti-communist, and was out bluffed by Premier Khrushchev on several occasions. These were exciting times, and not knowing the future, anxious times, and this anxiety makes for gripping television. On top of the Cold War came the insane proliferation of nuclear weapons. Nobody knew how destructive nuclear power was then, despite the experiment made at Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of WWII. Even now, with large areas of the USA rendered sterile because of nuclear waste, the only policy has been to ship warheads to allied powers, so they can share in the problem. Nuclear war and nuclear waste are the same problem. And we have it still. From the Cold War also came the Space Race. Sadly that was mere competition, and it is doubtful if we have learned more about outer space than we have from telescope observation over the centuries, and from the mind experiments of Einstein and his heirs.
In 1968 there was almost civil war in America, fuelled by involvement in the war in Vietnam, which Kennedy earlier had decided was unwinable in any form. His projected withdrawal of military involvement was cancelled by LBJ and the war was intensified, to the violent objection of the great majority of citizens, to the point where Johnson thought it expedient to resign. The whole futile process had no effect on the spread of Communism, and fuelled protest in the USA already in hysteria over the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy. 1968 is still with us, in a certain caution observable in every US President since Kennedy, which modifies every policy of their administration. An episode on American television and the world it depicts shows an idyllic never-never land that viewers switched to after watching the News: Leave It To Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show, Dean Martin, Laugh In and many of the greatest products in television history, screening at the same time the world was falling apart.
Overall, a good introduction to issues we are still trying to deal with today, told with a dramatic flair and expert presentation that make it also good entertainment.
(Broadcast order is different from DVD packaging order. Here I list them as I happened to watch them)
Assassination of President Kennedy (85 m)
Long March to Freedom (85 m) civil rights
The Times They are a Changing (43 m) gay rights, women’s rights, environmentalism
The British Invasion (42 m) pop music
Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll (43 m) teenage rights, the hippies
World on the Brink (43 m) Cold War
The Space Race (43 m)
War in Vietnam (42 m)
1968 (43 m) world unrest and revolution in the USA
Television Comes of Age (43 m) consumerism.
©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.