No sooner had the Voting Rights Act of 1965 been signed into law than Watts exploded in riots.

What a difference a year makes.

When Lyndon Johnson lit the national Christmas tree on Dec. 18, 1964, he declared, “These are the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” The exaggeration was pardonable. The Economy was booming, with only 4.1% unemployment and a GDP that had increased 25% in four years. The budget deficit was minuscule, as was inflation. The quest to put a man on the moon was moving along well. James Reston of the New York Times wrote that the nation was entering a new era of good feeling; Time magazine wrote that we were “on the fringe of a golden era.”

But, as James T. Patterson shows us in “The Eve of Destruction,” a year later “the Sixties” had begun. The rules-oriented culture of the postwar era was rapidly giving way to the rights-oriented culture we have lived in since, and the country was beginning to be torn apart by racial tension and the escalating war in Vietnam. Thus Mr. Patterson argues—correctly, I think—that 1965 was one of those “hinge years” when history turns and goes in another, unexpected direction.

The history of a single year isn’t easy to write, but Mr. Patterson handles the task well. Largely chronological, his narrative pauses to paint word pictures of the major figures, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and, especially, the man who so dominated that year, Lyndon Johnson.

As 1965 began, President Johnson was in a position of extraordinary political power and determined to make the most of it. He had won the 1964 election with a greater landslide than his hero, FDR, had won in 1936. Democrats held the Senate 68-32 and the House 295-140, veto-proof majorities both. Johnson felt that he had a mandate to complete the New Deal by creating a “Great Society.”

And he accomplished much of his goal in 1965, pushing legislation through Congress creating Medicare and Medicaid and two new government departments: Housing and Urban Development and Transportation. There were highway beautification and higher-education assistance acts, immigration reform, vocational rehabilitation and a dozen other measures that transformed the power and reach of the federal government. Only the “hundred days” at the beginning of the New Deal saw a comparable record of legislative accomplishment.

The Eve of Destruction

By James T. Patterson
(Basic, 310 pages, $28.99)

But the most significant act that year was the Voting Rights Act. Far more than the Civil Rights Act of the previous year or Brown v. Board of Education (1954), it put a stake through the heart of Jim Crow by enfranchising Southern blacks in large numbers and so transforming the politics of the South.

Johnson had planned to put voting rights on the back burner while he accomplished his other goals, fearing to tie up the Congress as the Civil Rights Act had the year before. But events in Selma, Ala.—very well described by Mr. Patterson—forced his hand. Rights activists led by Martin Luther King Jr. clashed with segregationist die-hards. The result was Bloody Sunday, when 60 people ended up in the hospital, and national outrage.

Mr. Patterson, an emeritus professor of history at Brown, does a masterly job describing Johnson’s formidable political talents in persuading others to do his bidding. When George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, requested a meeting after Bloody Sunday, Johnson agreed and was ready for him. “Johnson . . . had seen to it that the governor, a short man, would be seated in a low, squishy sofa where he had to lean back and look up, while LBJ [who was 6-foot-4], sitting close by, loomed above him in a rocking chair.”

But no sooner had the Voting Rights Act been signed into law on Aug. 6, 1965, than Watts, a poor black neighborhood in Los Angeles, exploded in riots. As Mr. Patterson explains, the civil-rights movement that was reaching victory had come out of the small black elite. The riots came out of the black urban underclass that was seething with anger. No black member of the Los Angeles Police Department ranked higher than sergeant. Of the 205 policemen assigned to Watts, only five were black. By the time the riots ended, 34 people were dead, 4,000 arrested and more than a 1,000 buildings damaged. The civil-rights battle won, the battle to truly bring blacks into the mainstream of American life would dominate the rest of the century.

But, of course, it was Vietnam that did the most damage to the optimism that had pervaded the country at the end of 1964. There had been 23,000 American troops in Vietnam then, dubbed “military advisers.” But on Feb. 7, 1965, the Viet Cong launched a predawn attack on an American base in Pleiku. Eight American soldiers were killed, 126 wounded and 10 aircraft destroyed. Johnson, staunchly anticommunist and determined not to be seen as an appeaser (Munich was only 26 years in the past), ordered the bombing of North Vietnam and began pouring American troops into South Vietnam. By year’s end there would be 183,000 in theater. The war had really begun, as had the destruction of Johnson’s promising presidency.

While politics dominates Mr. Patterson’s history of the year 1965, he also covers popular culture, including music—the title of the book, in fact, comes from Barry McGuire’s hit protest song of that year, “Eve of Destruction.” Television was still largely Newton Minnow’s “vast wasteland” of non-provocative network sitcoms and westerns. But Bill Cosby became the first African-American to star in a TV show, “I Spy,” that year. The movies, as well, devoid of swear words or explicit sex, resembled movies of the 1950s more than those of only a few years later, after “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” revolutionized Hollywood in 1967.

Schools still had strict rules on dress and deportment. Mr. Patterson reports that the dress code in one public school just outside of Pittsburgh ran to 103 pages, with such commands as “V-neck sweaters, if low cut, must be worn with a blouse or a scarf.” All in all, “The Eve of Destruction” is an illuminating look at a remarkably significant year by a master historian.

Mr. Gordon is the author of “An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power.”

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