Flashing the Peace Sign at Woodstock, 1969.
The spirit of protest grew revolutionary with the expansion of U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. The fatal shooting of a student at Kent State University by the National Guard was an appalling turn of events: Four Kent State University students were killed and nine were injured on May 4, 1970, when members of the National Guard opened fire on a crowd gathered to protest the Vietnam War using live ammunition. Known for crushing dissent, President Nixon was believed responsible for “Four dead in Ohio.” The Peace Movement was suddenly now in reactionary mode, along with its own symbol.
As the 1960’s progressed, social unrest developed concerning other issues: Human sexuality, women’s rights, experimentation with psychoactive drugs and traditional modes of authority. Two generations were now divided: The establishment class was considered “square,” while their children were “hip.”
The era really began with the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, on Nov. 22, 1963, shocking the world. Also slain was his brother Robert Kennedy and Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Gun violence was new to American society. But Kennedy’s promise of reaching the moon was realized just as he said by 1969, with the Apollo mission. The termination of U.S. combat involvement in Southeast Asia came in 1973, ending the draft. The right to vote was lowered to age eighteen. President Richard Nixon was disgraced, and forced to resign in August of 1974, following the Watergate cover-up bringing the ten-year era to an end.
The many key movements born of or advanced during the 1960’s cultural phenomena are relevant to a much larger picture, growing from an unusual convergence of circumstances, ideologies, issues and modern technology. These served as intellectual and social catalysts for rapid change during the era. Perhaps the greatest legacy of all is the wonderful music, which has survived the test of time.
|Carlos Santana – Soul Sacrifice (‘Woodstock’-1969)|
By the later 1960’s, FM radio replaced AM radio as the focal point for the ongoing explosion of rock and roll music, and became the nexus of youth-oriented news and advertising for the generation. Communes, collectives, and intentional communities regained popularity during this era. Early communities, such as the Hog Farm, Quarry Hill, and Drop City in the US were established as straightforward agrarian attempts to return to the land and live free of interference from outside influences. As the era progressed, many people established and populated their own cooperative communities in response to disillusionment with standard community forms, but also with dissatisfaction with certain elements of the counterculture itself.
Eastern mysticism and expanded spiritual consciousness, yoga, the occult and increased human potential helped to shift views on organized religion during the era. In 1957, 69% of US residents polled by Gallup said religion was increasing in influence, but by the late 1960’s, polls indicated less than 20% still held that belief.
The “Generation Gap“, or the inevitable perceived divide in worldview between the old and young, was perhaps never greater than during the counterculture era. A measure of the generational chasm of the 1960’s and ’70’s was born of rapidly evolving fashion and hairstyle trends that were readily adopted by the young, but often misunderstood and ridiculed by the old. These included the wearing of very long hair by men, the wearing of natural or “Afro” hairstyles by Blacks, the donning of revealing clothing by women in public, and the mainstreaming of the psychedelic clothing and regalia of the short-lived hippie culture. Ultimately, practical and comfortable casual apparel, namely updated forms of T-shirts (often tie-dyed, or emblazoned with political or advertising statements), and Levi Strauss-branded blue denim jeans became the enduring uniform of the generation. The fashion dominance of the counterculture effectively ended with the rise of the Disco and Punk Rock eras in the later 1970’s, even as the global popularity of T-shirts, denim jeans, and casual clothing in general have continued to grow.
For those born after World War II, the emergence of television as a source of entertainment and information – as well as the associated massive expansion of consumerism afforded by post-war affluence and encouraged by TV advertising. Key components in creating disillusionment for some younger people and in the formulation of new social behaviors, even as ad agencies heavily courted the “hip” youth market. In the United States, live news coverage of the Kennedy Assassination, the civil rights movement of the Birmingham Campaign, the “Bloody Sunday” event of the Selma to Montgomery marches, and graphic footage from Vietnam brought horrifying, moving images of the reality of conflict into living rooms for the first time. The quest for peace continued.
Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and their Harvard team had hopes for seeing potential changes in society with the use of psychedelics. Their research began with the “magic mushroom,” psilocybin synthesized by Sandoz for the Harvard Project. Among many subjects chosen for this research were convicts at the Concord Prison. After the sessions, Leary did a follow-up. He found that 75% of the turned on prisoners who were released had stayed out of jail.” He believed he had solved the nation’s crime recidivism problem, but many officials were skeptical, and this breakthrough was not promoted.
Albert Hofmann of Sandoz Laboratories discovered the LSD molecule in 1943, the most powerful chemical known to man. Medical research on this and other psychedelics began in the 1940’s and 50’s.
Because of the personal experiences with these drugs, Leary and his many outstanding colleagues, Aldous Huxley (the Doors of Perception) and Alan Watts (the Joyous Cosmology) believed that these were the mechanisms that could bring peace to not only the nation but the world. Peace in a time of war, their timing seemed to be perfect. As their research continued the media followed them, published their work and documented their behavior. The trend of counterculture drug experimentation began. Reality eventually proved that the potential they thought was there could not be reached, at least in this time. The change they sought for was not permitted by the political system.
Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters helped shape the developing character of the 1960s counterculture when they embarked on a cross-country voyage during the summer of 1964 in a psychedelic school bus named “Furthur”. Beginning in 1959, Kesey had volunteered as a research subject for medical trials financed by the CIA’s MK ULTRAproject. These trials tested the effects of LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and other psychedelic drugs. After the medical trials, Kesey continued experimenting on his own, and involved many close friends; collectively they became known as “The Merry Pranksters”. The Pranksters visited Timothy Leary at his Millbrook, New York retreat, and experimentation with LSD and other psychedelic drugs, primarily as a means for internal reflection and personal growth, became a constant during the Prankster trip.
The Pranksters created a direct link between the 1950’s Beat Generation and the 1960’s psychedelic scene; the bus was driven by Beat icon Neal Cassady, poet Allen Ginsberg was on board for a time, and they dropped in Beat author Jack Kerouac – though Kerouac declined to participate in the Prankster scene. The Pranksters returned to California and popularized the use of LSD at so-called “Acid Tests“, held at Kesey’s home in La Honda, California, and then at many other West Coast venues.
In the United States, the movement divided the population. To some Americans, these attributes reflected American ideals of free speech, equality, world peace, and the pursuit of happiness; to others, they reflected a self-indulgent, pointlessly rebellious, unpatriotic, and destructive assault on the country’s traditional moral order. Authorities banned the psychedelic drug LSD, restricted political gatherings, and tried to enforce bans on what they considered obscenity in books, music, theater, and other media.
The counterculture has been argued to have diminished in the early 1970s, and some have attributed two reasons for this. First, it has been suggested that the most popular of its political goals—civil rights, civil liberties, gender equality, environmentalism, and the end of the Vietnam War—were “accomplished” (to at least some degree); and also that its most popular social attributes—particularly a “live and let live” mentality in personal lifestyles (the “sexual revolution“)—were co-opted by mainstream society. Second, a decline of idealism and hedonism occurred as many notable counterculture figures died, the rest settled into mainstream society and started their own families, and the “magic economy” of the 1960s gave way to the stagflation of the 1970s—the latter costing many in the middle-classes the luxury of being able to live outside conventional social institutions. The counterculture, however, continues to influence social movements, art, music, and society in general, and the post-1973 mainstream society has been in many ways a hybrid of the 1960s establishment and counterculture.