When the calendar turned from December 31, 1959 to January 1, 1960 a new decade officially began. The “Fabulous Fifties” turned into the “Swingin’ Sixties.” In American culture, we have come to think of things in terms of decades. Even high school history classes offer units on the fifties, sixties, seventies, etc. (Earlier 20th century history seems to avoid this with the exception of the “roaring twenties.”) And each decade has an image, a culture, and certainly a distinctive music that is associated with it. So when 1959 is recognized as part of the fifties, it evokes images of pompadours, rock and roll, poodle skirts and the ‘57 chevy. When the page is turned to 1960, the sixties evoke an image of long hair and beards, psychedelic rock, mini skirts, and a Volkswagen micro bus. The fifties is projected as the decade of conformity when college students “acted out” by stuffing themselves into phone booths. The sixties is the decade of protest when college students literally took to the streets to challenge the rules of the adult world. While 1960 might be quickly identified as the beginning of that tumultuous decade, in reality it was much more of a carryover from the fifties. The division of the decade is a convenience that works in many cases. For the year, 1960, it doesn’t work.
But if one looks closely at 1960, significant elements of the culture of the sixties begin to appear. In 1960, youthful exuberance would be injected into the national leadership. Sexual freedom would get a big boost. Protest, specifically active demonstration in the form of civil disobedience, would become a demonstrably effective way of bringing change.
One of the biggest events of 1960 was the presidential election. The 1950’s had been ruled by Eisenhower (see “The Year, 1959”) but all that would end with the new decade. With the passage of the 22nd amendment, a third term for Ike had been ruled out. 1961 would bring a new resident to the White House. In many ways, this election was typical of American politics. It was Republican vs. Democrat. It was the “ins” vs. the “outs.” In this case, the Republican was Richard Nixon. He had paid his political dues serving as Eisenhower’s Vice President for the past eight years. This association made him the “in.” He had won the Republican nomination with only minor opposition. The Democrat was John Kennedy. He had been a Senator, recently elected to a second term from Massachusetts. He wasn’t known that well nationally but he had family money behind him and would be one of the first presidential candidates to use a series of state primary elections to propel himself into the limelight and win the nomination from other prominent Democrats. He was a Catholic -- a Catholic had never been elected to the Presidency. Kennedy is only 43 -- he would be the youngest ever to be elected. He was the “out.”
In January of 1960, both Nixon and Kennedy announced their candidacy for their party’s nomination. Kennedy would have to challenge Adlai Stevenson (the failed Democratic candidate from ‘50 and ‘56) and the Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Johnson. Both Stevenson and Johnson had strong support within the Democratic party and Kennedy needed to garner support before the convention convened. If he couldn’t get the pledged votes, and if the convention became an instrument of the party establishment, it was likely it would turn to one of their established leaders. He entered seven presidential primaries (at this time, there weren’t as many state primaries as there are today and candidates tended to pick and choose which ones to enter -- relying more on the support of state leaders who “controlled” their states delegates) and won all of them. The West Virginia primary was of great significance -- it was a state without a large block of Catholic voters and Kennedy needed to show he could win in such a state. He decided to confront the “religion” issue head on. He convinced the voters that his allegiance to the Catholic church would in no way effect his representation of the nation’s interests. On May 10, he won in West Virginia with 61% of the vote to Hubert Humphrey’s 39%. He came to the Democratic convention as the front runner with 33% of the delegates pledged to vote for him on the first ballot. Combined with the support of delegates pledged to various “favorite sons,” he had enough to win the nomination. But just before the convention, Lyndon Johnson officially declared his candidacy. The Kennedy organization worked feverishly as the convention convened in Los Angeles in July and successfully brought off the first round victory. Kennedy then made the decision to make Lyndon Johnson his Vice President running mate. It was a controversial one (The nomination was done by voice vote and many at the convention believed the “nays” much outnumbered the “ayes.”) but proved to be a wise one as Johnson was very helpful in securing the votes of many southern states in the general election. The Republican Convention was held later in July in Chicago. Nixon had little opposition. Henry Cabot Lodge was chosen as his running mate.
The 1960 election was one of the closest ever. And it was marked by the first televised presidential debate. There were four televised debates. The first occurred on September 26th. It is significant that among radio listeners, Nixon was perceived as the “winner” of the debate. But among television viewers, it was the opposite. Nixon had been sick and was recovering from a knee injury. He refused to use any makeup. Kennedy was well rested and tanned from his campaigning in California. The visual contrast had its impact. Nixon received 49.5% of the vote to Kennedy’s 49.7%. The electoral vote went to Kennedy, 303 to 219. Very close votes in several key states could have easily changed the electoral vote. And, although there was ample evidence of vote fraud, especially in Illinois, Nixon declined to challenge the results. The year closed with a new President waiting in the wings -- a youthful, wealthy Democrat who was quite a contrast to the outgoing President Eisenhower.
Just as his appearance on the debates had an impact, the appearance of the Kennedy presidency would have much more of an impact on American culture than any of the substance of his presidency. Kennedy proclaimed his presidency to be “The New Frontier.” It was a new world where the youth would be expected to participate (the Peace Corps, “ask not what your country can do for you ....”). It was a regal presidency where high society would become the image of the White House. And when it came to its tragic end in 1963, it would be given a regal name. The same year John F. Kennedy was elected to the presidency, “Camelot” debuted on Broadway. In 1964, the days of Kennedy in the White House would start to be referred to as “Camelot.” By the end of the decade, the youth of early sixties would step up to claim a voice in the direction of the nation that they believed was rightfully theirs. After all, the President had told them so. And they had come of age when “the torch” was passed to a new generation. By the end of the decade, the torch burned in Arlington cemetery and flags burned in the streets. It wasn’t so in 1960. But those things had been put in motion.
The presidential election of 1960 tended to focus on the same issues that the nation had been grappling with throughout the 1950’s. The threat of Communism was still foremost in Americans’ minds as the U.S. / Soviet Union “Cold War” continued. The specter of Cuba loomed large as Fidel Castro, who had taken over since the successful revolution of 1959, signed a trade pact with the Soviet Union in February. Later in the year, in response to the embargo placed on Cuba in 1959, Cuba nationalized all foreign property. Relations between the United States and Cuba will continue to deteriorate. U. S. relations with the Soviet Union took another bad turn when a U.S. spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Russia in May. He was later tried and convicted in a Soviet Court and went to prison (he would serve close to two years before being released in a trade for a Russian spy in 1962). In Viet Nam, the internal situation was deteriorating as a coup led by army officers to overthrow the increasingly corruupt government of President Diem failed. The backlash of violence against any suspected supporters of the coup led many to flee to North Viet Nam. By the end of the year, the National Liberation Front had been established to support the increasing number of “Viet Cong” (Communist Vietnamese) in the South.
The other political holdover from the 1950’s was the civil rights issue. It would gain a great deal of attention in 1960. First of all, The Civil Rights Act of 1960 was enacted. It provided federal penalties for anyone who obstructed voter registration or voting. Although most Southern politicians proclaimed their disgust at its passage (it was viewed as federal interference in state affairs and they had mounted a lengthy filibuster in the Senate to stop its passage) -- it made little difference. Enforcement would have been difficult under the best of situations and the reality was that it was generally ignored. Black voter registration in the south only increased 3%.
But there was another event in the civil rights movement that did have an effect. On February 1, four black college students staged a sit-in at a “whites only” Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. They were refused service and after sitting for an hour, the manager closed for the day. Within a week about 200 had joined in the sit-in. The tactic spread to other lunch counters in Virginia, Alabama and elsewhere. CORE and NAACP called for a national boycott of Woolworth’s. In July, after losing over $200,000 in revenue, the Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter was desegregated. The “sit in” had proven to be a successful tactic. In Raleigh, North Carolina, at Shaw University a new organization came into being to coordinate the sit ins -- the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC -- pronounced “Snick”). It would go on to provide youthful leadership in the movement that was much more prone to direct action. And as the fifties turned into the sixties, “nonviolent” protests would spread from the civil rights movement into the anti war movement.
On June 23rd, 1960, a drug study which had begun in the 1930’s came to fruition when the Food and Drug Administration officially approved of “the pill,” an oral contraceptive. It was officially named “Enovid” and had been in limited use for almost three years while it was under study by the FDA. By 1960, over 1/2 million women had used it. The pill wasn’t actually prescribed as a contraceptive until 1961. It would not become legally available to all married women until 1965 and all unmarried women until 1972 and in each circumstance, take a federal court case to bring about the change.
Nevertheless, “the pill” was instantly something new, with far ranging consequences. For the first time, the contraceptive was separated from the sexual act. It was something totally within the woman’s control. And it was relatively effective. As the sixties progressed, sex would become less connected to reproduction and more to “love.”; sex would become less connected to marriage; and by the end of the decade Stephen Stills would loudly proclaim, “love the one you’re with.”
So, although “the pill” had arrived in 1960, the sexual revolution it produced would not arrive for several years. For example, sex as portrayed in the movies was much the same as it had been throughout the 1950’s. Steamy dramas such as “Butterfield 8” which won Elizabeth Taylor an Oscar in 1960 would hint at a great deal, but the sex would still take place off screen. “Operation Petticoat” with Cary Grant was typical of the comedy of the age which also titillated the imagination as the women on a submarine removed their bras to flush them into the water to signal to their attackers that they are a U.S. ship. Rising to the top, a “D” cup bra is brought to the captain of the rescue ship, whereupon he ceases the attack, proclaiming “The Japanese have nothing like this.” That was about as bold as it got in 1960.
With one exception, and while its impact would be felt for generations, and the scene would become a classic, it was not a “sex scene.” On June 15th, after a great deal of unique promotion (It was announced that nobody would be allowed into the theater after the movie started.) Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” debuted. The movie would become the archetype of the psychological thriller. And, of course, “the scene” is the shower scene in which Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is stabbed to death. It was a nude scene, but due to the camera angles and combinations of short cuts, Janet Leigh is not seen nude. Originally, some of the censors thought they glimpsed one of Leigh’s breasts, but upon further review, that was found to be in error. It was a bold scene and it would point to the future as many films would emulate it. But it was not very much about sex.
While in the movies we were still a long way from 1969’s “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” in which all four would get into bed together, on television, in the sitcoms of “Father Knows Best,” “Leave It To Beaver” and “The Nelsons” we weren’t even sure that mom and dad went to bed together. The 1960 premiers in the genre, “The Andy Griffith Show” and “My Three Sons” were not very good candidates for the sexual revolution as they were focused on men raising families. Even as the genre evolved, change would not be radical. One of the most sexually charged married relationships on television of the 1960’s was the Petries of “The Dick VanDyke Show” (1961 - 1966). And Rob & Laura always had separate beds. One of the other major genres of television in 1960, the Western, with such mainstays as “Rawhide” and “Gunsmoke” were set in a simpler time and generally avoided sex scenes. (As Toby Keith would point out in 1993, “He (Matt Dillon) never hung his hat up at Kitty’s place.”) “Ben Casey” debuted in 1960, and while women swooned over Vince Edwards, and may have privately dreamed of “playing doctor,” there was no on screen sex. And a show about a talking horse, “Mr. Ed” certainly doesn’t fit the image of the “Swinging Sixties.”
In the music world, Elvis Presley returned home from the army (see “1960, Introduction”) and Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” still ruled pop music’s exposure on television. The “payola” scandals of 1959 had forced Clark to divest himself of many of his music endeavors (publishing and recording) but he was branching out, premiering in and promoting a movie, “Because They’re Young.” The payola investigation of 1960 moved on to the music labels. Targeting labels such as “Laurie,” “Roulette,” and “Atlantic,” the FCC said, "this deception tends to mislead purchasers into buying the exposed records which they might not otherwise have purchased and also to advance these recordings in popularity polls, which in turn tends to increase their sales substantially." In September, the Federal Communications Commission banned payola in broadcasting.
One prominent image of the sixties is the “hippie.” While there were no “hippies” in 1960, there was the “beatnik.” The “beatnik” of 1960 took his name from Jack Kerouak’s description of disaffected writers and intellectuals of the early 1950’s -- the beat generation. By 1960 the “beatnik” had become a life style punctuated by condemnations of current society and coffee house poetry. The term “hippie” derives from an expression of the beat generation -- to be “hip” was to be cool, “in the know.” In the later ‘60’s some of the beats would migrate to the west coast. In 1965, these transplanted “beatniks” would first be referred to as “hippies.” The 1960 image of the beatnik was probably best represented by the television show, “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” One character on that show, Maynard G. Crebbs projected the popular idea of a beatnik as a modern day “bum.” Maynard was a little strange and emphatically opposed to work as he would, at the slightest hint of a request for any expression of the American work ethic, exclaim, “Work?!” (Incidentally, Maynard G. Crebbs was played by Bob Denver who the next generation would know as Gilligan, who gave his name to the famous island.) But in some cases, the media wasn’t as kind to the “beatnik.” In the movie, “The Beatniks” it was an image of violent alienation. Whatever the beatniks were, they weren’t violent. They were alienated and as much a part of the American counterculture as the hippie.
The 50 star flag made its first appearance in Philadelphia. Over 2,000 computers came into operation -- programmers saved on memory by designating years with just two digits. John Kennedy, Jr. and Sean Penn were born; Clark Gable and Ward Bond died. Broadway said hello to “Birdie.” The Everly Brothers came to England and The Beatles went to Hamburg, Germany (the group performed as “The Beatles” for the first time). Barry, Maurice and Robin joined together to form The Rattlesnakes (they’ll later adopt the name The Bee Gees); Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Joey Bishop join got together at The Sands in Las Vegas (they will be given the name “The Rat Pack”). Jack Parr walked off “The Tonight Show.” Dion left the Belmonts, Johnny Maestro left The Crests and Ben Nelson left The Drifters (he then adopted the name, “Ben E. King.”).
We have our first Domino’s pizza. We meet The Flintstones. We do "the twist." A playboy bunny serves her first cocktail. We drink soda from an aluminum can and “Xerox” a document. It’s 1960.