Thursday, January 15, 2015

Q&A with James T. Patterson

James T. Patterson is the author most recently of The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America, which is now available in paperback. His other books include Restless Giant and Grand Expectations. He is Ford Foundation Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University.

Q: While many historians have focused on 1968 as the crucial year of change, you argue that 1965 is in fact the most important. Why is that? 

A: There are a lot of books about 1968, and [other years in] the late ‘60s. For a historian to choose any given year is obviously open to question. The difference between 1965 and 1968—1968 was the most horrific year: the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the turmoil at the Democratic convention, and on and on.

Nothing quite that disastrous happened in 1965. [But] 1965 was the beginning of the 1960s. A lot of historians are aware that talking about decades as clear events sometimes works, such as the 1930s, but with the 1960s, at least until 1964 so much about American society was not that different from the 1950s. [One difference was that] the civil rights movement had surged ahead, and there had been the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

1965 saw the introduction of ground troops and round-the-clock bombing in Vietnam, the Watts riot, and the Great Society legislation for [President] Johnson. Particularly in the areas of foreign policy and race relations, the years following led to further polarization and unrest so far as Vietnam and civil rights [were concerned]. 

Q: You write of Bloody Sunday in Selma and the landing of U.S. combat troops in Vietnam, "More than any other happenings, they pulled the United States into the contentious era that Americans now think of as the Sixties." Those two events took place March 7 and 8, 1965. Would you say that two-day period marked the most important turning point for the country during the decade of the 1960s? 

A: I would say that if you want to pick two consecutive days, the introduction of ground troops and Bloody Sunday—yes, it was a very important turning point. Bloody Sunday made it certain…there would be a big struggle for voting rights, the unfinished business of the 1964 law. It brought out tensions within the movement, particularly after Watts…there was a greater degree of militancy within the movement and a sense that they should run it, not Johnson… 

Q: LBJ was torn between his goals for the Great Society and his wish not to be the president who "lost" Vietnam. In 1965, was it still possible to succeed with both? 

A: Historians are very unready to use the word “inevitable.” We talk about contingencies you wouldn’t expect. I would say Johnson’s being remembered as the president who got us into the Vietnam War—I don’t see any way this could have been avoided.

Three days after taking over [the presidency] he talks to Henry Cabot Lodge, the ambassador in South Vietnam, and says, I’m not going to be the president who loses Vietnam. Johnson was not stupid, he knew it wouldn’t be a cakewalk, he knew it would be a struggle....

Given Johnson’s being president and the advisers he had who were Kennedy hawks, Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense, Dean Rusk, the secretary of state…almost all his advisers were pushing him in the same direction. And the North Vietnamese had been fighting since 1946; they were not going to settle. It doesn’t mean I think the war was a good idea. 

Q: What is the legacy of 1965? 

A: It would be events such as the round-the-clock bombing of Vietnam, the introduction of ground troops, the vast escalation—there were 23,000 military advisors in South Vietnam at the start of 1965.

This was around 6,000 more than the 17,000 inherited from Kennedy; at the end of the year there were 184,000. At the end of 1966 there were 400,000. The escalation in Vietnam was the most important single thing for an American historian to want to be concerned with.

The other thing was the increased militancy in the Civil Rights movement, the move away from interracial cooperation, away from [consistent] nonviolence. These two things are important legacies that were playing out in more dramatic ways later in the decade. There’s also the Great Society.

About the book’s title, The Eve of Destruction—I used it as a catchy thing [when describing the book proposal to the publisher, but then didn’t want to use it]….it’s the eve of destruction in terms of what’s going on in Vietnam, but not for liberals who believe what the Great Society did was good…. Johnson got [a substantial number of] laws passed in the 1965 session. Liberalism never had a year like this. Either conservatives are running Congress or there’s polarization…. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on

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