It’s an odd thing for an author to disavow his chosen title in the introduction, but that’s just what Jon Margolis does in his account of America in 1964, The Last Innocent Year. A nation like America cannot seriously consider itself to have ever been innocent, according to Mr. Margolis. After all, America began as a slave society determined to exterminate the people who got here first. One need not feel guilty about this history to recognize it and to acknowledge its inconsistency with innocence, argues Mr. Margolis.
The argument of Mr. Margolis’s book is that while America was never truly innocent, Americans were able to indulge in a delusion of innocence that ended in 1964. The events of that year and their long lasting effect on American society were certainly profound; whether or not they destroyed America’s belief in its own innocence, they certainly changed the country.
While many things happened between the assassination of President John Kennedy, where Mr. Margolis’ book begins, to the presidential election the following November, 1964 is at heart the story of Lyndon Johnson. 1964 saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the arrival of The Beatles in America, the rise of Barry Goldwater conservatism in the Republican Party, the beginnings of the feminist movement, the free-speech movement and the hippies, the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, and the Tonkin Bay offensive in Vietnam that paved the way for full-scale U.S. military involvement in South East Asia.
All of this, and more, is covered in Mr. Margolis’s entertaining and enlightening book, but the star of the show, the man of the year, is clearly Lyndon Johnson. Like Richard Nixon who followed him, Lyndon Johnson made tape recordings of just about every conversation that took place in the Oval Office, both in person and via telephone. Mr. Margolis does not state whether or not he had access to these tapes, but his detailed descriptions of the negotiations President Johnson had with congressmen involved in passing the Civil and Voting Rights Acts suggests he has made use of the tapes. Johnson is known as a president who could get bills passed and he does. It’s refreshing to read about a president who is able to push his agenda through a reluctant congress. Very refreshing. Even if part of that agenda included expansion of the U.S. role in Vietnam.
Some historians, like Mr. Margolis, believe that certain points in history, certain years, are pivotal ones. Mr. Margolis makes a strong case for the importance of 1964 in American history. Whatever side you come down on the current political divide, whether you long for a Lyndon Johnson or a Barry Goldwater, even if you’re more interested in the music scene than politics or history, you’ll find both rewards and food for thought in The Last Innocent Year. It’s the sort of entertaining history that I wish we had read in high school, the sort that breaths life into the story it tells.
I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2011 when then president Barack Obama was having difficulty getting things past a Republican senate. Funny how that has worked out lately. I wonder if anyone connected with the current administration looks at LBJ with stars in their eyes. It should be said, that he worked long and hard on both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, much longer than three or four weeks. The man knew how to twist arms, and twist them he did. He also knew that his actions would likely end up costing him votes, lots of votes. I think that’s one thing I admire most about him. How many presidents since LBJ would do what’s right at the great political cost to themselves or their own party. He knew what he was doing would lose the south for at least a generation, but did it anyway.
I would like to apologize for the slight dig at my high school history teachers in the last paragraph here. I’ve lost all patience with people who blame their teachers. Truth is, there was nothing keeping me from reading better history books at any point in my life, certainly not in high school. Nothing but my own addiction to fantasy epics and the college bound recommended reading list.