This book has two strikes against it from the start. It takes as its title a song that may have expressed the distress of some members of a certain generation, but which singer-songwriter Phil Ochs described as a “weak song.” Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” was called a “protest song,” but it might better be described as a contrived ballad of unfocused pessimism. It was written by Philip “Flip” Sloan, who also sang the falsetto on Jan and Dean’s “Little Old Lady from Pasadena” and wrote Johnny Rivers’ hit “Secret Agent Man.” It outlined the superficial contours of middle-class angst, spoke of racism and worried about imperialism, but offered no analysis much less a solution to the problems of American Empire in high dudgeon. As Phil put it, a soldier in Vietnam could hear the song, admit that things were pretty bad, but pick up his rifle and sadly carry on.
Patterson’s subtitle may be worse. The year 1965 did not transform America. Neither did 1929 or even 1492. Similarly, September 11, 2001 did not change either America or, as CNN would have it, the entire world. Neither did July 4, 1776.
History doesn’t work like that. Our collective lives are not packed neatly into decades, never mind specific years or weeks or days. In fact, I’m also not sure about centuries or maybe even millennia. History is tectonic. Mere volcanic eruptions are mostly show business. Transformational historical moments are “post-it” notes in immeasurably thick, multidimensional historical narratives that are filled with conflicting, contrasting “perspectives,” if not outright lies.
Using arbitrary dates as impulsive punctuation marks allows us to make the past neatly and falsely intelligible. They are the stuff of bad history courses that squeeze the past into manageable curriculum units fit only for the pedagogy of the short-answer quiz and the multiple-choice test. They may be necessary to alleviate the weaknesses of our various minds, but they distort more than they illuminate. Such calendar-based devices are expedients only. Like convenient book-ends, they are admittedly for books; however, their placement is not due to the coherence of small libraries, but to the length of the built-in shelves. Soon, I suppose, digitized communication will render even that little metaphor obsolete, but it will do so at the cost of any sense of chronology. Stashed in data banks, history may presently become contextless, recombinant fantasy and the endlessly negotiable substance of propaganda.
James Patterson’s volume disfigures, deforms, misrepresents and misleads. After all, 1965 was not only the year of Sloan/McGuire’s cri de coeur, but also of Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon’s “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” and, ironically, the year in which Frank Sinatra recorded the Grammy-winning “It Was a Very Good Year.”
That said, The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America is not noticeably worse than similar efforts at cultural reductionism. Like Pierre Berton’s pleasant confection, 1967 (1997), it is a still frame in a larger film. It is plucked from a more serious work, Great Expectations (1996). It ventures from the scholarly into the popular press and, with the bar sufficiently lowered, it is not unsuccessful.
According to Patterson, 1965 was the inaugural year of the far-famed “sixties.” Those of us who were at least sentient and verging adulthood in that year (I was turning 20) might demur. Speaking personally perforce, if called upon to play the parlor game I would say that the sixties began with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on 22 November, 1963, and ended with the killing of four American college kids at Kent State University in Ohio on 4 May, 1970. Others will differ, of course, for these are merely aesthetic judgements. They display the shape of our piety, our sense of what properly goes with what. The judgemental standards are merely individual, contingent, accidental and mainly whimsical. They reflect memory.
Memory, of course, is puzzling. I am no neurologist; so, I must rely on others to explain memory even in the shallowest of depths where I can comfortably wade. One of the more reliable voices on the subject is surely Oliver Sachs. In a recent article in The New York Review of Books (2013, February 21, p. 19), he speaks of vivid childhood memories that he later learned came from a letter he received from an older brother describing a bombing in London during the Blitz: “I accepted that I must have forgotten or lost a great deal, but assumed that the memories I did have—especially those that were very vivid, concrete, and circumstantial—were essentially valid and reliable; and it was a shock to me when I found that [they] were not.”
Our memories are combinations of appropriations and reconstructions, occasionally supported by what passes for evidence—documents, photographs, the corroboration or collaboration of others. They are not less emotionally valuable for that; they are merely less than authentic. We are what we select ourselves to be through mixtures of imagination, distortion and repression. The stark recognition of this essential quality of our mindfulness is both an auspicious and a daunting moment for historians. Our recollections of the past—both personal and professional—are part fabrication, part fiction, part fact, and part fantasy. This need not lead to industrialist Henry Ford’s conclusion that history is “bunk”; but, it does compel us to understand our obligations to the present, even as we make the past up constantly anew.
James Patterson’s memory is as good as anyone’s, I suppose. He picks his meaningful moments and annualized events according to his own sort of piety. He names the riots in Watts, the military escalation in Vietnam and the first sightings of feral “hippies” more than six blocks from the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets in San Francisco. He also recalls the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the “splintering” of the US Civil Rights Movement. I get it. I recall sitting on the cold cement outside the US Consulate in Toronto from March 21-25 while his Dr. King led march to Montgomery. I also recollect voluntarily splitting from SNCC in response to the suggestion by men like Stokely Carmichael that “white” people no longer had a place in that theatre of Black Power.
While Patterson does not descend to the level of tour guides who still offer free flowers and a gab by “hippie hostesses” on bus trips through Haight-Ashbury fifty years after the fact, he does end up with something more akin to a “time capsule” than a fixed, focal fulcrum—a definitive case that this particular year was unique.
There were, of course, memorable “ups” and “downs.” The “ups” included President Johnson’s masterful political manipulation in getting the Voting Rights Act passed through Congress. There was also the start of the “war on poverty” and the seemingly plausible first steps toward “The Great Society,” which seemed like a very good idea at the time. It was the year that Bob Dylan (now nominated for the 17th consecutive year for a Nobel Prize in Literature) went electric. It was the year that Mick Jagger couldn’t get no “Satisfaction.”
The “downs” included the US invasion of the Dominican Republic in support of the successful overthrow of the democratically elected government of President Juan Bosch and the year that Bob Dylan abandoned the acoustic guitar.
According to Patterson, 1965 contrasted mightily with 1964. Only 39 days after Kennedy’s execution, Patterson saw the beginning of a joyful, optimistic year. I know we were living in the same universe, but I wonder about the lenses through which we viewed it. In contrast to Patterson’s celebration of 1964, I recall the first “negative” political ad on television. It showed a little girl with a daisy—just before nuclear annihilation. It more than hinted that a vote for Barry Goldwater was at least a vote for an escalation of hostilities in South-East Asia, if not global Armageddon. It’s hard to believe now (and should have been hard to believe than) that Lyndon Baines Johnson was the “peace” candidate. It’s especially hard to believe that the offending ad only appeared once on TV (excluding countless re-runs on “public affairs” programs). To me, for better or worse, those years were almost seamless.
Patterson may nonetheless have a point. As he lit the National Christmas Tree in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson said that we were living in “the most hopeful times…since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” There was neither sarcasm nor any hint of irony. No one sneered. Johnson’s optimism soon turned to denial, delusion and desperation.
While I am convinced that Patterson is on shaky historical ground, he is not without zeal. He proclaims rather loudly the matchless importance of the twelve months in question. He distinguishes them from an earlier age of almost indolent innocence—despite the Cuban missile crisis, the first Kennedy assassination, the ubiquitous threat of nuclear war and, for the more attentive, the murders of Patrice Lumumba and Ngô Đình Diệm, the ouster of Cheddi Jagan, not to mention the rise of the National Security State, the Korean War, the military confrontation between President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 101st Airborne Division and the National Guard of Governor Orval Faubus over the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School … and so on.
John Wilson, writing in the Christian review Books and Culture (2012), also has a point. He reminds us that, in 1965, James Patterson was thirty-years-old, had just won his first good job as an Assistant Professor at the University of Indiana and was a brand-new first-time father. Was 1965 a turning point in Patterson’s life more than in America’s culture? Was Patterson’s book just an instance of psychological projection, a bit of a meta-memoir and an expression of understandable worry? To speculate about such matters is, of course, rather pointless, but it does not add to our confidence in Patterson’s main thesis as a valid historical account. It carries the intimation that Patterson has swung his bat rather wildly and hit a foul ball.
I know I’d do the same about my transformative year 1967-1968, if I can be permitted to use an academic instead of a calendar year. I’d cite attending the first free rock concert in Toronto featuring the Jefferson Airplane, revisiting the City Lights book store in San Francisco, taking up my first academic employment in the Department of Political Science at the University of Hawai’i. I’d bring up the Tet Offensive and the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. I might also reveal some dreadfully personal stuff, but I haven’t yet fully re-written the script and probably never will, for time is running out. James Patterson jotted his version down while some people were still young enough to care. He should be commended for that. He has allowed us, in Leonard Cohen’s youthful words, to “compare mythologies.”
Marcia Angell, also writing in the New York Review of Books (2013, May 9, p. 23), lately repeated the common realization that “nearly everyone over a certain age observes that time seems to pass more quickly … the rush of my days is in stark contrast to the magically endless days of my girlhood. … It’s particularly disquieting to recall that many people and places I knew no longer exist, except in my memories.” It is no less disquieting to realize that they never did.
As for Patterson’s particular revisionism, we continuously reinvent ourselves and our world—past and present. It is in our nature to tell each others stories. None are objectively true, though some may be less false than others. We are more-or-less at liberty to can call them as we see them, though some of us may feel constrained to at least try to be honest. In any case, there’s nothing to be gained by tossing James Patterson an ontological knuckle ball for a called third strike.
Angell, M. (2013, May 9). What is a good life? The New York Review of Books, 21-23.
Berton, P. (1997). 1967: The Last Good Year. Toronto: Doubleday Canada.
Patterson, J. (1996). Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1975. New York: Oxford University Press
Sacks. O. (2013, February 7). Speak Memory. The New York Review of Books, 19-21.
Wilson, J. (2012). Eve of Destruction [Review of the book The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America by James Patterson]. Books and Culture: A Christian Review, Retrieved 22 December, 2012 from www.booksandculture.com/articles/webexclusives/2012/december/eve-of-destruction.html.
Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.