|Early in 1962, the American nation was treated to a vision of its national leadership that would later be called “Camelot.” Hollywood had regularly provided American society with its royalty, but with the election of its youngest president, John F. Kennedy in 1960, the president and his wife, Jacqueline presented a sophisticated lifestyle to the American public that gave our national leaders a royal air all their own. On February 14th CBS broadcast a tour of the White House led by first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, then only 31 years old. The tour highlighted Mrs. Kennedy’s program for restoration of the White House and was viewed by 80 million people, a record for a documentary. The tour provided Americans an unprecedented personal view of the White House and was so well done that it prompted the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences to award Mrs. Kennedy an honorary Emmy. The calm, breathy narrative provided by the first lady and the impression of sophistication the television provided etched an indelible image on the American psyche. Although a closer look at the America of 1962 wouldn’t paint such an appealing picture, that image would persevere and help to perpetuate the “Camelot” reputation of the Kennedy years that would survive its tragic end.
In 1962, it was still peace time for the United States, but the country was unknowingly sitting on a precipice of violence, both foreign and domestic. The Cold War, the clash between the United States and the Soviet Union, between communist and noncommunist forces throughout the world, had dominated U.S. foreign relations since the end of World War II. Since the Korean conflict of the early 1950’s, the hostility had been kept from spilling out onto an actual battlefield. The two super powers had competed for world power through the stock piling of nuclear weapons and a “space race” that also had major military implications. In 1962 the United States would up the ante in both areas, and the world would come as close as it dared to an outright nuclear war. At home, the economic prosperity of the post war era continued into 1962 and on the surface, the United States seemed to be a picture of peaceful contentment. But that was mostly the view from white society, while legal segregation continued to be a way of life in the American south and de facto segregation was the fact of life in the northern cities. A society resistant to change would be pressured to make adjustments, and some of that pressure would turn violent.
“The Bomb” had been a big part of the American view of life for nearly two decades, and in 1962, the frightening mushroom cloud images would become more and more prevalent. In response to continued nuclear tests conducted in the Soviet Union, the United States routinely conducted underground nuclear tests in the Nevada desert. And in 1962, the U.S. resumed atmospheric tests. During “Operation Dominic,” 36 atmospheric nuclear devices were detonated in the Pacific. The specter of nuclear war was very real to Americans in the early 1960’s and one response was the building of “fallout shelters.” By 1962, national leaders had become increasingly aware that any nuclear detonation in the immediate vicinity would generate mass destruction and no “bomb shelter” could provide adequate protection. However, it was possible to build shelters that could protect people from the radioactive dust that was the byproduct of a nuclear bomb. The District of Columbia Office of Civil Defense (DCD) was founded in 1950 to prepare the nation’s capitol for a nuclear disaster. In 1962, it opened its first fallout shelter (by 1963 there would be 500). Although it was generally accepted that Washington, D.C. would be a primary target of any nuclear attack, and therefore, probably subjected to a direct hit which would effectively destroy everything within at least a 1.5 mile radius, the fallout shelters were built. It reveals quite a bit about the American state of mind in 1962 that when confronted with the prospect of nuclear war, the solution was to provide fallout shelters for a population that in all likelihood would be obliterated by the bomb itself. In other words, it seems that the only way to cope with “The Bomb” was denial. Nuclear testing, and denial reached its peak in 1962.
As the United States sought to maintain its half of the “mutual assured destruction” equation through its aggressive testing program, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration was making strides to “catch up” to the Russians in space. 1962 was a banner year for the program as on February 20th, John Glenn, on board Friendship 7, became the first American to orbit the earth -- he went around three times. But perhaps even more significant, on July 10th, Telstar 1, the first communication satellite was launched into orbit. On July 23rd it made its first public transatlantic television broadcast. The era of satellite communication had begun.
The competition for nuclear and space superiority was the backdrop to the most well known international event of 1962, what was to become known as the “Cuban Missile Crisis.” Cuba had been an instant dilemma for the Kennedy administration, and after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the White House was continually being asked what they were going to do about Cuba. The botched invasion attempt had also added encouragement to the Castro regime to increase its defensive capabilities. The result was the installation of Soviet missile bases in Cuba. On October 15th, routine reconnaissance missions over Cuba produced photos revealing these bases. The significance of the bases was that, while it was debatable as t o whether missiles launched from the Soviet Union could accurately reach the U.S., with sites in Cuba, all major U.S. cities were in range, and the warning time of such a launch would be minimal. President Kennedy, upon being shown the photo, called together a group of his top advisors to formulate a response -- the group came to be called ExComm. After a week of deliberations and preparation, the President revealed the situation to the nation on a television broadcast on October 25th. ExComm had proposed that the U.S. impose a “quarantine” on Cuba to prevent supplies from reaching the bases, thus, hopefully keeping them from becoming operational. The nation watched with extreme trepidation as Russian ships approached the blockade line and the likelihood of a direct armed conflict between the two super powers escalated. The Russian ships pulled back at the last minute and the crisis was momentarily defused. But the ships appeared to be regrouping for another run at the blockade. Meanwhile, several diplomatic channels were used to communicate with the Soviets, attempting to resolve the issues. It was suggested that the U.S. give up nuclear bases in Turkey in exchange for the Cuban bases. President Kennedy did not want to be blackmailed into such a decision. Even though the reconnaissance photographs were considered top secret documents, the administration decided to have Adlai Stevenson reveal the photos at the United Nations and demand the Soviets remove the missiles (they had consistently denied they were there). That helped to somewhat change world opinion that the United States was the war monger. Eventually, cool heads prevailed, and Soviet Premiere, Nikita Kruschev, agreed to remove the missiles while the United States publicly stated that it would not invade Cuba. For some, the Cuban Missile Crisis became the crowning accomplishment of the Kennedy administration, exemplifying strong leadership that kept the world and our nation safe from a nuclear holocaust. For others, it was an example of “brinkmanship,” unnecessarily endangering world peace, but enhancing the president’s political position.
In July of 1962, Dr. Martin Luther King returned to Albany Georgia to support the “Albany Movement,” a coalition of local activists, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had been organized a year earlier to protest against racial segregation in the city. King had been in the city in December of 1961 to advise and support the protesters, and had ended up in jail as part of a mass arrest. The Albany chief of police, Laurie Pritchett, had taken a “nonviolent” approach to the demonstrators, making peaceful arrests and dispersing the detainees to jails throughout southwest Georgia in order to avoid overcrowding at the local detention centers. Upon the arrest of Dr. King, a national figure, the city made concessions, and Dr. King was released. After Dr. King left, those agreements were quickly ignored. In July, Dr. King was again arrested and given a $178 fine, or jail -- he chose jail. After three days, Chief Pritchett arranged for his bail to be paid and ordered his release. Dr. King commented, “We had witnessed being kicked off lunch counter stools ... ejected from churches ... and thrown into jail ... But for the first time, we witnessed being kicked out of jail.” For the most part, Chief Pritchett’s strategy proved successful. While the Albany Movement gave civil rights activists some valuable experience in nonviolent protest, it really didn’t achieve any of its desegregation goals. On the contrary, those local southern leaders who were paying attention might have learned some valuable lessons in how to deal with such protests. Dr. King claimed that the lesson to be learned by the Albany experience was that the protests needed to be more focused; rather than targeting all segregationist issues, the movement should aim at one issue, and in successfully making one change, encourage change in the other areas.
The next major incident in the civil right movement came in October when James Meredith became the first African American to be admitted to Mississippi State University. This time the focus of the movement was very narrow -- getting a black man admitted to a public university that was trying to discriminate against him. And this time, the response was violence. James Meredith, after attending Jackson State College for two years, applied for admission to Mississippi State University in June of 1962. When his race was discovered, he was denied admission. A case was filed in federal courts and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the university could not refuse him admission. Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett tried to block his admission, citing a state law that forbid anybody convicted of a state crime from enrolling -- Meredith had been convicted of violating state voter registration laws when he was trying to get blacks registered. Backed by state troopers, the governor was ready to refuse Meredith admission, but Robert Kennedy (then Attorney General) convinced Barnett that he risked federal intervention if he did not relent. On October 1, 1962, Meredith became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi -- riots followed on the Oxford campus and eventually U.S. Marshals, sent to maintaining the peace were besieged. President Kennedy ordered U.S. Army troops to the university. The riots resulted in two dead and as many as 200 wounded. Meredith spent two semesters at the university and earned his bachelor’s degree. During his time there, he endured constant harassment from white students.
As 1962 drew to a close, it could be said that the Kennedy led nation was progressing towards what he had dubbed the “New Frontier.” Nuclear war had been avoided and peace preserved, and there was tangible evidence that we could become a nation that actually practiced what it preached: “that all men are created equal.” In 1962, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public transportation was unconstitutional. In 1962, countries such as Algeria, Burundi, and Rhwanda gained their independence, controverting the constant communist railings against “Western Imperialism.” But in the very near future, these visions would prove to be foggy at best. An actual war against communism, and rioting on a far greater scale than Oxford, Mississippi were on the horizon.
American’s connection to these events came through the box in their living room -- in 1962, 90% of American households had televisions. The tv set was a source of news, and 1962 was the first time that news on CBS was presented by Walter Cronkite. But Americans mostly turned to television for entertainment. “The Jetsons,” and “McHale’s Navy” debuted. Westerns still ruled the airwaves as “Wagon Train,” “Bonanza,” and “Gunsmoke” were the top three ranked shows.
Americans went to the movies to see such films as “Lawrence of Arabia,” and “The Longest Day.” “Dr. No” was the first James Bond movie and the sizzling “Lolita,” (novel by Vladimir Nabokov, 1955) was brought to the screen by Stanley Kubrick. 1940’s screen star Bette Davis returned to popularity in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” and Broadway musicals were well represented by “The Music Man.” And on the lower end, there was “King Kong vs. Godzilla.”
The sale of 45 rpm records reached a new high, 687 million, in 1962 (a 7% increase over 1961) and many of them were dance records as the twist craze of 1961 peaked and spawned a collection of new dances including “The Locomotion” by Little Eva, “The Mashed Potatoes” by Dee Dee Sharpe, and “Wah-The Wahtusi” by The Orlons. Our entrance into satellite communications was celebrated by the British group, The Tornadoes, with their #1 instrumental hit, “Telstar.” They were the first British group to reach #1 in the United States, predating the British Invasion of 1964. The Beatles, the group that would lead the invasion were introduced to Brian Epstein in 1962 and would have their first record released on October 5th, “Love Me Do,” backed by “P.S. I Love You” -- it peaked at #17 in the U.K.
In addition to the Telstar satellite, there were other developments in 1962 that had significant implications for the future. The Phillips Company of the Netherlands invented and released the first audiocassette. The light-emitting diode (LED) was invented by Nick Holonyak at General Electric. H. Ross Perot formed a computer company in Texas, Electronic Data Systems. The first Wal-Mart store opened in Rogers, Arkansas and the first K-Mart in Garden City, Michigan. On New Years Day, The Beatles auditioned for Decca records, performing 15 songs in an hour. Decca later declined to sign the Beatles.
We said hello to the Clampetts (“Beverly Hillbillies”) and goodbye to the Andersons (“Father Knows Best)”. The Tonight show replaced Jack Parr with Johnny Carson and The Beatles replaced Pete Best with Ringo Starr. Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” to the President in May and then committed suicide in August. The Supreme Court told us that state legislatures had to be apportioned on the basis of “one man, one vote,” (Baker vs. Carr), and that mandatory prayer in the schools wasn’t permitted (Engel vs. Vitale). Richard Nixon loses his bid for California Governor and quits politics (he’ll be back). “My Fair Lady” closed on Broadway and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” opened. The Rolling Stones became a band and Allen Zimmerman became Bob Dylan. Columbia Records signed Barbara Streisand. Andy Warhol first displayed his paintings of Campbell’s soup cans. Tom Cruise and Garth Brooks were born. Eleanor Roosevelt and Ernie Kovacs died. Adolph Eikmann was executed in Israel.
We visit Taco Bell for the first time. We see Spider Man for the first time. Volkswagen tells us to “think small” and Avis says “we try harder.” We learn how to limbo. It’s 1962.