The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America
James T. Patterson
When I think of “the Sixties,” I think of two dates: 1963, the year President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and 1968, the year of Tet and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. James T. Patterson, author of the critically acclaimed The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America, posits that what we call the Sixties really began in 1965, the year after Lyndon B. Johnson won the presidency in his own right by a landslide.

After switching on the lights of the nation’s Christmas tree in December, 1964, Johnson noted with even more of his usual grandiosity “These are the most hopeful times in all years since Christ was born in Bethlehem. Today–as never before–man has in his possession the capacities to end war and preserve peace, to eradicate poverty and share abundance, to overcome the diseases that have afflicted the human race and permit all mankind to enjoy their promise in life on this earth.” The President had plenty of reasons to brag. The economy was booming as Congress had passed the tax cut that the late President John F. Kennedy had sought; it had also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ending legal segregation in America. Unemployment and crime were down, and America’s manufacturing prowess was the envy of the world. And yet he knew there was turmoil bubbling just beneath the surface and he would need all of his considerable political gifts would be needed to ensure it did not boil over.

While 1965 started off on a high note, two monumental events portended the beginning of the end of the smug confidence that had been so much a part of the American psyche since the end of War World II. On March 7, thousands of demonstrators were marching for African American voting rights and were savagely beaten by Selma law enforcement officers as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The following day, the first American combat troops arrived in Danang, South Vietnam, portending the escalation of the Vietnam War. The former marked a turning away from non-violent direct action as a means of obtaining civil rights; the latter helped to end the belief in American exceptionalism. By the end of the year a maelstrom of social, political and economic forces–many beyond anyone’s control–coalesced and knocked America off its axis.

The Eve of Destruction is fast paced and beautifully written. The events, people, and policies of that tumultuous year all but leap off the page. Patterson, winner of the prestigious Bancroft Prize in history, presents a finely nuanced portrait of Lyndon Johnson in all his complexity: needy, secretive, manipulative and cruel, yet genuinely concerned about the plight of the poor and the state of race relations, and confident in his belief that government could be a force for good. Although scholarly, it is also accessible to the general reader. It would be an exceptional choice for a college classroom or a book club.

The book’s title is taken from a hit rock song by Barry McGuire that criticized the “. . . materialism, militarism, and racism of American society,” and captured the sturm and drang of the time. The Eve of Destruction is an exceptionally important book in part because it does such a fine job of showing how the political polarization of the present day began.


Dr. Marilyn K. Howard earned a BA in criminal Justice from Ohio Dominican College; an MA in political science from The Ohio State University (Thesis: The Entrance of Black Voters Into the Mississippi Electorate) and her PhD in American history from The Ohio State University (Dissertation: Black Lynching in the Promised Land: Mob Violence in Ohio 1876 - 1916). She was an associate professor in the Social Sciences department at Columbus State Community College, where she now holds the same position in the Department of Humanities. Dr. Howard has twice received the Distinguished Teaching Award from Columbus State, and was twice recognized as an outstanding staff member by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. She was also named a top educator by Ohio magazine. Dr. Howard has served as an editor of the Southern Historian, a freelance book critic for the Columbus Dispatch and Ohioana Library. She has published essays in a number of anthologies, including the Encyclopedia of Racial Violence in America and the Encyclopedia of Jim Crow. She continues to conduct research on the lynching of black men by white mobs in Ohio.