By Paul Burkholder
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2012, All Rights Reserved
I was born the same year as the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable (1956), which means I grew up in the 1960s. As I reflect on the 60s, I marvel at the density of events. From 1963-68, we experienced the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and three freedom riders in Mississippi, not to mention the less tragic murder of George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party. Assassination was a common political recourse in 1960s America.
We had riots breaking out in many of our cities. I know the ‘66 Hough riots here in Cleveland were terrible, but in Detroit, where I grew up, the ‘67 riots were even worse. They raged for five days and order was restored only after President Johnson sent in 5,000 troopers from the 82nd Airborne to join the 8,000 National Guardsmen already deployed by Michigan Governor George Romney (Mitt’s dad). 13,000 armed military personnel patrolled the streets of America’s fifth largest city. Hard to believe, but it happened.
Meanwhile, the Cold War raged on, sparking wars and near wars around the globe. The Cuban Missile Crisis pushed us to the brink in ‘62 as did the uprising in Czechoslovakia in ‘68. We seemed constantly on the edge of Armageddon. I remember in elementary school having nuclear attack drills with the same regularity as fire drills. Each night throughout the decade, the Vietnam War was broadcast into America’s living rooms in full color, allowing folks back home to experience the Tet Offensive, the My Lai massacre, the bombing of the North, and the Cambodian incursion in a way American civilians had not experienced war since, well, the Civil War. Late in the decade, college campuses across the country became scenes of almost constant turmoil with bombings, riots and near riots; my recollection is that there was a general belief that there really just might be a revolution.
As backdrop to this unrest and uncertainty, we had NASA launching men into space every few months. Consider this timeline: Following the launch pad fire in January ‘67 that killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, the Apollo program was grounded while engineers worked to figure out and fix what happened. Less than 18 months later, in October ‘68, NASA launched the first manned Apollo mission into space, Apollo 7, followed in rapid succession by Apollos 8, 9, and 10, culminating with Apollo 11’s moon landing in July ‘69. That’s 5 manned space missions in 9 months – the last one putting a man on the moon.
Believe it or not, what got me thinking about the denseness of the 1960s was reading about the even greater denseness of the 1860s in the many sesquicentennial timelines crossing my desk. What an incredibly dense and complex stage of history Abraham Lincoln led this country through. Even without the accelerant of instantaneous electronic communications, events in 1861 were moving at breakneck speed. At this time 150 years ago, one of the many balls being juggled by Lincoln was the threat of European intervention on the side of the Confederacy, in particular England and/or France. That pressure peaked in the 10 months from November 1861 through September 1862 and only ended with the repulse of Lee’s northern invasion at Antietam.
This dangerous period began with the U.S. Navy’s arrest in international waters of Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell on board the British mail steamer, Trent. News of the illegal seizure cheered Union supporters at home, but enraged both Queen Victoria and England’s Parliament. The situation quickly escalated into a near state of war forcing Lincoln to walk a paper-thin line between confrontation and capitulation. “One war at a time,” Lincoln is famously quoted as saying when instructing Secretary of State William Seward to quietly release the Confederate envoys and end the impasse. (Read more on the Trent Affair.)
Dense, complex times, indeed. Makes what we’re going through now seem kind of mild by comparison, don’t you think?