1960s Social Changes


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The 1960s spawned innumerable new social, political and religious movements. After the austerity of the post-Second World War period there was an economic boom in the West. The decade opened as South Africa left the Commonwealth with the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, giving his famous 'Winds of Change' speech in which he argued for a 'partnership of races' in that continent, and for inclusion of all in political and economic power. However , the struggle against apartheid and brutal white supremacist regimes was not to be complete until almost three decades later. In 1962 the USA became very nervous about the fact that the Soviet Union was building medium range missile sites in Cuba with strike capability on the USA. After supporting an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro, the US blockaded Cuba. Despite the exhortation of his chiefs-of-staff to use nuclear weapons to end the confrontation, President John F. Kennedy insisted on negotiation and averted what could have been the first (and probably last) nuclear war. In 1964 in Great Britain the Conservatives lost the general election and Harold Wilson became the first Labour prime minister since 1951. The United States became involved in a war in Vietnam, supporting a series of Saigon-based governments against rebels who appeared to have backing from Communist China and/or the Soviet Union. The US poured in resources, including up to 500.000 troops in the country at any one time. This war was one of the first in which a civilian population was attacked as much as the forces against whom was undertaken. The use of chemical weapons such as napalm (a jelly-like chemical flammable substance dropped from the air) and Agent Orange (a herbicide) did vast and terrible damage to the country, its people and the food systems that supported them. A huge popular protest movement in both the US and across Europe developed against the war. The ethic of rebellion and questioning of the traditional status quo fuelled the development of protest and alternative cultural, arts and religious movements too. These movements included the Pop Art movement, modernism and minimalism in art and architecture, the rock, soul and motown movements in music, and transcendental meditation, many cults of various kinds and the alternative lifestyle called 'hippy'. The idea that individuals should explore their own inner psyches and develop spiritually was also connected to particular drug cultures, where drugs like LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) were purported to produce the same self-knowledge and awareness as meditation and religious experience did. The chief proponent was an American psychologist Timothy Leary, who famously exhorted his followers to 'Turn on, tune in, drop out'. This decade spawned relaxation of dress codes and liberalisation of sexual behaviour, enabled by the development of a contraceptive pill, which enabled women for the first time in history to control their fertility. Despite the apparent tremendous optimism and energy with the decade opened, it closed more sombrely with the promise of wars and destruction becoming ubiquitous. The Vietnam war continued with thousands dead and opposed by violent demonstrations across the US and Europe; the six-day Arab-Israeli war occurred in 1967; in 1968 Martin Luther King, a US black rights activist was assassinated and Enoch Powell in the UK gave his notorious 'Rivers of Blood' speech opposing immigration; in 1968 also the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia after its liberal leader Alexander Dubcek had introduced the 'Prague Spring' of liberal reforms; in response to sectarian conflict over civil rights in 1969 British troops began to patrol the streets of Northern Ireland. The continuing sectarian conflict and its consequence became know as the 'Troubles', and has continued into the new century; in 1969 the there was a very severe famine amongst the Biafran people of Nigeria. For the first time television began to bring the acute suffering of people of the developing world into the living rooms of every industrialised nation