From the East
The Sixties were a decade of contrasts. Their three thousand, six hundred and fifty – three days were marked by some of the most tumultuous, violent and devastating, yet far-reaching, inspiring and influential events in human history. They saw enormous political, social and cultural change and have been seen as a nostalgic era of peace and liberalism, overshadowed by a dark cloud of hatred, oppression and wanton excess. They began, ominously, under the longest shadow of the Cold War. Only days after the first man rocketed into space, a newly-elected United States president and a feisty Soviet premier locked horns over the fortunes of a young Cuban revolutionary, bringing the possibility of nuclear war onto an international stage.
As the decade wore on, that very same president was publicly cut down by an assassin’s bullet – as, indeed, was his younger brother a few years later – and the Soviet leader was toppled from office in 1964, hours after bragging to the world of his nation’s latest space triumph. Elsewhere, decades of servile colonialism drew to an end as a handful of African countries finally achieved independence from European mastery; some evolving into stable democracies fit for the modern world, others degenerating into corrupt and despotic dictatorships. Younger generations, inspired by the unequal conservative norms of the time, as well as an increasingly unpopular war brewing in Vietnam, cultivated a social revolution which swept across much of the western world.
Simmering discontent in America’s black community boiled over with the 1968 murder of Martin Luther King in Memphis and, a year later, with the point-blank assassination of Black Panther Party co-founder Fred Hampton in Chicago. Meanwhile, Vietnam consumed ever-increasing numbers of lives on both sides – including, at My Lai, the infamous massacre of hundreds of unarmed civilians – and enforced conscription led to massive opposition, culminating in the 500,000-strong Moratorium protests in late 1969. Voting rights were questioned: why, asked American youth, should they die for their country if they were barred from casting at
the ballot box? Remarkably, amid all this chaos and carnage, men visited the Moon and, as one observer told Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman, saved what was otherwise the darkest point of the decade.
On the fringes of Europe, equally divisive measures were being undertaken to forcibly separate eastern communists from the democratic west. Beginning in August 1961, less than a week after the Soviets launched their second cosmonaut, East German troops sealed borders and set about building a physical barrier between the eastern and western halves of Berlin. An initial barbed-wire fence was, by 1965, replaced by one of the most hated icons of the communist regime: the 157 km Berlin Wall. In spite of its clear violation of the Potsdam Agreement (which granted Britain, France and the United States a say over Berlin’s post-war future) little effort was made to challenge the wall by force. Even President John Kennedy’s administration acquiesced that its existence was “a fact of international life’’. Closed by chain fences, walls, minefields and manned by sharpshooters, the despised barrier would divide families, friends and communities for almost three decades.
As Soviets and Americans spacewalked outside their Earth-circling ships and raced to put a man on the Moon, efforts to promote democracy in eastern communist states, including Poland and Yugoslavia, but notably Czechoslovakia, came to nothing. The optimistic Prague reforms of Alexander Dubcek in the spring of 1968 raised such alarm that 250,000 Warsaw Pact troops and thousands of Soviet tanks rumbled into the country to stifle any attempt to create a new nation of pluralism, tolerance and improved human rights. The invasion provoked widespread opposition both within Czechoslovakia – visibly expressed through the selfimmolation of student Jan Palach in Wenceslas Square in January 1969 – and from beyond, even from within the Soviet Union itself. Three hundred thousand emigrations from Czechoslovakia to the west represented an exodus so high in number that it has not been seen since. Dubcek himself was forced from office to ensure that, in future, his country would subordinate its interests to those of the Eastern Bloc.
Similar opposition and destruction, not merely of people and places, but of an entire way of life, commenced in 1966, as the abject failure of Chairman Mao’s Five – Year Plan to bring lasting economic prosperity to China culminated in the rampages of the Red Guards and the abolition of the so-called ‘Four Olds’, believed to stand in the way of socialist progress. Over the next few years, old customs, old cultures, old habits and old ideas were systematically eradicated, as the old world was smashed in favour of the new. It should have granted the Chinese people their most extensive period of free speech yet seen; in reality, it was a ‘freedom’ severely impaired by Maoist ideology, military brutality and the biggest single attempt by a nation to eliminate its own identity ever seen in the modern age.
A revolution of a somewhat different kind came one night in February 1964, with the triumphant arrival in New York of four mop-topped Liverpudlians called the ‘Beatles’; their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show transformed them overnight into one of the few British acts at the time to achieve enormous success in the United States. The so-called ‘British Invasion’ was followed by an infusion of new musical talent from across the Atlantic: the Kinks, the Yardbirds, the Moody Blues, the
Rolling Stones and the Who. Yet, although the late John Peel once remarked that his distinctive Merseyside accent alone enabled him to break into American radio, the invasion was by no means restricted to music. British movies, characters and television series, from James Bond to Mary Poppins and ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ to ‘The Avengers’, were met with great enthusiasm Stateside.
The British Invasion, though, formed only part of a wider ‘counter-culture’, which ran like a broad vein through the mid to late Sixties, encompassing demands for improved rights and freedoms for women, homosexuals and racial minorities. Rampant use of psychedelic drugs seemed to journey hand-in-hand with, and influence, the music, artwork, movies and attitudes of the time. Only months after three American astronauts died in a launch pad fire and a Soviet cosmonaut plunged to his death when his parachute failed, one of the defining moments of this counterculture came with San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love and the associated rise of the hippie movement. Two years later came Woodstock, although the infamous Tate-LaBianca killings of August 1969 provoked growing mistrust of the counterculture and its lax morals. Indeed, the excesses of the period prompted Jefferson Airplane co-founder Paul Kanter to quip: ‘‘If you can remember anything about the Sixties, you weren’t really there!’’
It is fortunate, therefore, that another of the decade’s most persistent themes will remain forever entrenched in human memory. After countless millennia spent staring up at the heavens and wondering what lay beyond the thin veil of our atmosphere, men – and, in 1963, a woman – finally broke free of their home planet. Some would spend many days circling Earth, others would open hatches and venture outside in pressurised space suits to work, still more would dock their spacecraft together and a few hardy souls would visit the Moon. By the end of the first decade of humanity’s adventure in space, men would have left their footprints in lunar dust.
We would be naive and foolish to suppose that Russia and America – communist and capitalist rivals – undertook these escapades for purely scientific and peaceful purposes, although undoubtedly both of these reasons played a part. The development of rockets capable of hurling humans into space emerged from a long-nurtured desire on both sides to send weapons across thousands of kilometres and drop them onto each other’s cities. In fact, at an August 1961 press conference in Moscow to announce the flight of the second cosmonaut, Gherman Titov, a New York Tribune journalist was not interested in the scientific accomplishments of the mission, but rather in its military implications. Was Titov’s Vostok 2 spacecraft, the journalist asked, capable of delivering bombs to pre-selected spots on Earth? The cosmonaut, with a hint of embarrassment, replied that it was not, but the question certainly demonstrated the reality that space was the new ‘high ground’ and would be exploited by both superpowers for their own ends.