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Hippies and the Revolution of a Culture Essay

“Tune In, Turn On, and Drop Out” was the motto of the hippie movement, a significant countercultural phenomenon in the 1960s and early 1970s that grew partially out of young America’s growing disillusionment with U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Hippies were mainly white teenagers and young adults who shared a hatred and distrust towards traditional middle-class values and authority. They rejected political and social orthodoxies but embraced aspects of Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism. Many hippies also saw hallucinogenic drugs, such as marijuana and LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), as the key to escaping the ties of society and expanding their individual consciousness.

The immediate precursor to the hippies was the so-called Beat Generation of the late 1950s, including the poet Allen Ginsberg, who became a hippie hero. But where the coolly intellectual, black-clad beats tended to keep a low profile and stay out of politics, the hippies were known as much for their political outspokenness as for their long hair and colorful psychedelic clothing. Their opposition to the Vietnam War became one of the most significant aspects of the growing antiwar movement throughout the latter half of the 1960s.

To express their protests, and to “turn on” others, the hippies used art, street theater and particularly music. Folk music and psychedelic rock-the Beatles album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a prime example-were both crucial aspects of hippie culture. This culture reached its peak in the summer of 1967, when a concert in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park kicked off the start of the so-called “Summer of Love.” The event introduced the music and aesthetic of the hippies to a wider audience and inspired thousands of young people around the country to head to San Francisco, some wearing flowers in their hair, a reference to Scott McKenzie’s version of the John Phillips song “San Francisco,” a ubiquitous hit and a kind of hippie theme song. In 1969, more than 500,000 people attended the Woodstock Music and Art Festival in Bethel, New York, an event that for many epitomized the best aspects of the hippie movement.

There was a dark side to hippie culture, however, and it went beyond the panicked disapproval expressed by conservatives about the “immorality” of the hippie way of life. A Time magazine article in 1967 quoted San Francisco’s public health director as saying that the city was paying $35,000 per month for treatment for drug abuse for the city’s 10,000 hippies. To Joan Didion, who wrote about her time in San Francisco for her acclaimed 1968 essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” the hippies were “missing children” who were the most conclusive proof that “the center was not holding” in American society. To the hippies, their behavior was the one truly authentic reaction to the oppressive forces of consumerism, imperialism and militarism embodied by America in the 1960s.

By the mid-1970s, the hippie movement was on the wane, though many aspects of its culture-particularly music and fashion-had worked their way into mainstream society. The fraught atmosphere of the 1960s that had created the hippie counterculture no longer existed, particularly after the Vietnam War ended, and with the advent of punk and disco music the earnest hippies were often seen as ridiculous. Still, their ideals of peace, love and community became the enduring legacy of the hippie movement, and even today there are a few “neo-hippies” to be found on college campuses and communes across the country and around the world.

The Tet Offensive

The Tet Offensive was a large-scale series of battles launched by the Vietnamese Communists (or Viet Cong) against American and South Vietnamese troops during the Vietnam War that resulted in both a military failure and a psychological victory for the Communists. The multi-part campaign was known as Tet because it was scheduled to start on January 31, 1968, the Vietnamese New Year holiday known as Tet. As a diversionary tactic, North Vietnamese units attacked the Marine base at Khe Sahn shortly before Tet and approximately 50,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese forces were involved in defending the base and other sites nearby. Subsequently, the Americans and South Vietnamese were surprised by the Tet Offensive, in which over 100 cities and towns and several dozen airfields and bases throughout South Vietnam were attacked.

However, the U.S. and its ally quickly fought back and the Viet Cong, who suffered massive casualties, were unable to hold most of the captured territory for long. In the United States, people were stunned by the intensity and widespread nature of the attacks. Graphic images of the fighting were shown on American television and for the first time, criticism of the war mounted on a national scale. General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. military operations in Vietnam, requested over 200,000 more troops, believing it would be possible for the U.S. to finally wipe out the enemy in their weakened condition.

However, President Lyndon B. Johnsons new defense secretary, Clark Clifford, convinced the president to reject Westmorelands request and in March 1968, Johnson stated that the United States was committed to a de-escalation of the conflict. Johnson also announced he would not seek a second term as president. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese launched additional Tet campaigns in May and August of that same year. American combat units finally withdrew from Vietnam in 1973 and South Vietnam fell to North Vietnam in 1975.

Vietnam War Protests

Opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War began slowly but grew steadily throughout the second half of the 1960s, eventually becoming the largest and most powerful anti-war movement in American history. By the time U.S. planes began regular bombings of North Vietnam in February 1965, liberal public opinion had begun to question the government’s assertion that it was fighting a democratic war to liberate the South Vietnamese people from Communist aggression. The anti-war movement then began in earnest, mostly on college campuses, as members of the leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) began organizing “teach-ins” to express their opposition to the way in which it was being conducted.

Though the vast majority of the American population still supported the administration policy in Vietnam, a small but outspoken liberal minority was making its voice heard by the end of 1965. This minority included many students as well as prominent artists and intellectuals and members of the hippie movement, a growing number of young people who rejected authority and embraced the drug culture. By the end of 1967, the Vietnam War was costing the U.S. some $25 billion per year, and disillusionment was beginning to reach greater sections of the taxpaying public. More casualties were reported in Vietnam every day, even as U.S. commanders demanded more troops. Under the draft system, as many as 40,000 young men were called into service each month, adding fuel to the fire of the anti-war movement.

Heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali was one of the more prominent Americans who resisted the draft system, declaring himself a conscientious objector and earning a prison sentence (later overturned) and a three-year ban from boxing. On October 21, 1967, one of the most prominent anti-war demonstrations took place, as some 100,000 protesters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial; 30,000 of them continued in a march on the Pentagon later that night. After a brutal confrontation with the soldiers and U.S. Marshals protecting the building, hundreds of demonstrators were arrested. One of them was the author Norman Mailer, who chronicled the events in his The Armies famous book of the Night, published the following year to widespread acclaim.

By early February 1968, a Gallup poll showed only 35 percent of the population approved of Johnson’s handling of the war and 50 percent disapproved (the rest had no opinion). Joining the anti-war demonstrations by this time were members of the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War, many of whom were in wheelchairs and on crutches. The sight of these men on television throwing away the medals they had won during the war did much to win people over to the anti-war cause. After many New Hampshire primary voters rallied behind the anti-war Democrat Eugene McCarthy, Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection. Vice President Hubert Humphrey accepted the Democratic nomination in August in Chicago, and 10,000 anti-war demonstrators showed up outside the convention building, clashing with security forces assembled by Mayor Richard Daley.

Humphrey lost the 1968 presidential election to Richard M. Nixon, who had promised in his campaign to deal with the extreme elements of the population-namely the radicals and the hippies-more effectively than Johnson had. Nixon’s war policies divided the nation still further: In December 1969, the government instituted the first U.S. draft lottery since World War II, inciting a vast amount of controversy and causing many young men to flee to Canada to avoid conscription.

Tensions ran higher than ever, spurred on by mass demonstrations and incidents of official violence such those at Kent State in May 1970, when National Guard troops shot into a group of protesters demonstrating against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, killing four students. By the time the war finally ended, after North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon in 1975, the plaintive anti-war slogan “What are we fighting for?” seemed a prophecy come true, as veterans returned home from Vietnam to find their own nation still bitterly divided.

My Lai Massacre

On March 16, 1968, a group of U.S. soldiers attacked the South Vietnamese village of My Lai, believed to be a Communist stronghold, and killed between 175 and 400 civilians as well as committing rape and other crimes. U.S. helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson and two crewmen, who were flying a reconnaissance mission over My Lai, saw the dead bodies and stopped to investigate. In the process, they managed to rescue a group of Vietnamese civilians from American troops.

Although Thompson reported the incident to his superiors, the American public didnt learn about it until over a year later, after a former soldier named Ronald L. Ridenhour wrote letters about what happened at My Lai to President Richard Nixon and other government officials. Ridenhour had found out about the events a month after they occurred from soldiers who were there. The Army eventually launched an investigation that led to the conviction of platoon leader Lt. William L. Calley, Jr., for the murder of 22 unarmed men, women and children. In 1971, Calley was sentenced to life in prison, which was later reduced to 10 years. Ultimately, he served three years under house arrest.

The My Lai massacre left many Americans further disillusioned about the Vietnam War. People were horrified that U.S. soldiers had committed atrocities against innocent civilians and were angered at the potential military cover-up, as well as the fact that Lt. Calley was the only person convicted for the murders.

Music and Hippies

The American music scene during the first part of the 1960s was dominated by male vocalists such as Elvis Presley, Motown artists like Diana Ross & The Supremes and folk performers such as Bob Dylan with their acoustic-based protest songs. By the mid-1960s, though, psychedelic rock had taken root as an intrinsic part of the growing hippie movement.

The Flower Power generation was interested in freedom and self-expression and the kind of mind-altering experiences that could be achieved through the use of psychedelic drugs such as marijuana and LSD. Psychedelic rock, which often used electronic sound effects and was sometimes influenced by music from India, attempted to recreate and enhance the feelings resulting from hallucinogenic drug use. Groups including Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin and Big Brother & the Holding Company were pioneers of psychedelic rock. They all lived in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, which became the epicenter of the hippie scene.

The Beatles were at the height of their popularity throughout the 1960s. After bursting onto the scene in their native England in 1962, the band made its first appearance on American television in 1964, on The Ed Sullivan Show, and generated a massive audience. By the second half of the decade, the band’s pop rock sound had become more experimental and psychedelic. In June 1967, the Beatles released their eighth album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band, considered one of the most important records in rock history. Many of the album’s hit songs, such as “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” were allegedly filled with drug references.

One non-musician who was an important part of the ’60s music scene was concert promoter Bill Graham, whose San Francisco auditorium, The Fillmore, became a major venue for psychedelic rock groups such as Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Grateful Dead and Big Brother & the Holding Company, among others. In 1968, Graham opened the Fillmore East, which became a showcase for counterculture musicians in New York City. In June 1967, the Monterey International Pop Music Festival, the first widely promoted rock fest, took place in California. Over 200,000 people attended the event, considered a highlight of San Francisco’s “Summer of Love.”

Jimi Hendrix and The Who made their first big U.S. performances at the festival, which also showcased performers such as Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and Ravi Shankar. John Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas, who helped organize the festival, wrote a song, intended as a fest advertisement, called “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).” Sung by Scott McKenzie, “San Francisco” became a Flower Power anthem.Monterey was a precursor to the Woodstock Festival, which took place in August 1969 on a 600-acre farm in Bethel, New York. An estimated half a million young people turned up for the event, which featured the key musicians of the time, including Hendrix, Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Joan Baez, Sly and the Family Stone and Crosby, and Stills Nash & Young, among others. Woodstock later came to be viewed as one of the ultimate events of the hippie era.

1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City

Controversy surrounded the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City before the Games even began. Athletes were concerned about Mexico City’s high altitude and thin air. Human rights activists were outraged when the Mexican military opened fire on thousands of college students during a campus protest in Mexico City shortly before the opening of the XIX Olympiad. After the Games began, one of the most notable events was the Black Power salute by two African-American athletes during their medal ceremony.

On October 16, 1968, Tommie Smith, the gold medal winner in the men’s 200-meter race, and his team member John Carlos, the bronze medalist in the same event, stepped up to the podium shoeless and wearing black socks, civil rights buttons and one black glove each. The lack of shoes and black socks were meant to symbolize poverty among African Americans. When “The Star Spangled Banner” was played, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and each raised a fist in the air, in a gesture of protest against racism in America. Australian Peter Norman, the 200-meter silver medalist, wore a human rights badge on the podium as a sign of solidarity.

International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage, who believed the political gesture was inappropriate for the Olympic Games, an event meant to be free of politics, suspended Smith and Carlos from the U.S. Track and Field team and barred them from the Olympic Village. Back home in America, Smith and Carlos faced criticism and even death threats for their actions. However, others praised the men, both of whom went on to graduate from San Jose State, play professional football and later become track coaches.

Robert F. Kennedy

Robert Francis Kennedy, the crusading U.S. attorney general, senator from New York and presidential candidate, was instrumental in helping protect and shape civil rights law in America during the 1960s. Kennedy, born November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Massachusetts, attended Harvard University and University of Virginia Law School and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He served as U.S. attorney general during the presidential administration (1961-63) of his elder brother John F. Kennedy.

As attorney general, Bobby Kennedy championed social justice causes and later helped draft the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Kennedy announced his presidential candidacy in March 1968 and spoke out against urban poverty and the Vietnam War during his short-lived campaign. In the early hours of June 5, 1968, after giving a speech to his supporters at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Kennedy, a father of 11, was shot by Palestinian immigrant Sirhan Bishara Sirhan. Kennedy died the next day and was buried near John F. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery.

Democratic National Convention

Politics turned violent when local police clashed with anti-war demonstrators and journalists at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which took place in Chicago from August 26 to August 29. The convention, held to select a Democratic nominee for the U.S. presidency, occurred during an already tumultuous year that had seen the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, as well as growing disillusionment with the Vietnam War by many Americans. During the convention, Democrats were divided over Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, an anti-war candidate, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was associated with President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War policies. In a symbolic gesture, political activist Abbie Hoffman and his fellow Yippies nominated a pig called Mr. Pigasus for commander-in-chief.

Humphrey won the nomination, but would go on to lose in the general election to Republican Richard Nixon. Following the convention, Democrats instituted reforms in the nomination process which overhauled the methods for delegation selection and put greater emphasis on primaries. hicago Mayor Richard Daley, a powerful, hardheaded figure known to dislike hippies, vowed to use whatever means necessary to control the crowds of demonstrators who had threatened to shut down the convention. Daley ordered a large police presence, instituted an 11 p.m. curfew and refused to grant permits for rallies and marches.

The police took an aggressive stance, attacking and clubbing protestors and journalists on a nightly basis outside the convention hall and in nearby Lincoln and Grant parks. The violence was broadcast on national television, stunning Americans and leaving a black mark on the city of Chicago. Remarkably, no one was killed. A group of protestors that included Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden and Black Panther Bobby Seale and became known as the “Chicago Eight,” were arrested and charged with conspiracy to incite a riot. The men, later referred to as the “Chicago Seven” when Seale was tried separately, were ultimately acquitted or had their convictions overturned.


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