“At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.”
–Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
“If they [the United States] actually carry out the brutal act of invading Cuba . . . that would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear legitimate defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be, for there is no other.”
–Fidel Castro, in his “farewell” letter to Nikita Khrushchev, October 26, 1962
Fifty years ago, the three topics that seemed to permeate and dominate the popular culture of 1962 were the Cold War, the Space Race, the Civil Rights Movement. Each in their own way seemed to involve different aspects of ascendancy and convergence. In these three spheres, tensions mounted as separate worlds seemed set on unavoidable collision courses with their presumed opposites. With greater frequency, the stress arising from these conflicts manifested itself in the popular culture in one of two ways: either through sex or violence. Where humor was used as an antidote, it expressed itself in the form of black comedy or pure prime time escapism.
Consider the gulf in subject matter between the popular TV shows of that year, including The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Beverley Hillbillies, and The Andy Griffith Show versus the successful films of ’62, like The Days of Wine and Roses, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Lolita. Set against a backdrop of the United States in a seemingly pubescent state of sexual awakening–on the borderline of innocence and experience–and the events of the year are thrown into sharp relief.
In retrospect, it was a year of sowing. Many seeds were spread that year which would take deep root: Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring would become a bestseller and launch the environmental movement. Walter Cronkite would become the anchor of the CBS Evening News for the next two decades. Johnny Carson would begin his reign over late night as host of the Tonight Show for almost 30 years. Yet the longest running entertainment icon that had his debut in ’62 (aside from Bob Dylan) was none other than Secret Agent 007.
“Bond. James Bond.” was first uttered on the silver screen by Sean Connery in the fall of that year, and the Cold War took a very sexy turn. Ursula Andress was unveiled as the first Bond Girl, Honey Ryder, complete in a white bikini, accessorized with a dagger. Cold War tensions, at least in literature and film, seemed to reflect sexual ones. From Dr. No forward the Bond films were fueled by paranoia on a global scale, which readily provided justification of every male animalistic instinct. 007′s license to kill also seemed to give him lady killer status.
Bond’s rise from the printed page to the silver screen in ’62 was perfect timing. It captured the popular imagination by addressing latent fears and desires, resolving them confidently (and always with a great show of force and sexual bravado) entirely within an arena of male fantasy. And the conflicts and concerns of the time that it ignored made it, ironically, a perfect form of escapist entertainment. Yet the plot of Dr. No centered around its villainous title character who, from his own island, was interfering with American rocket launches at Cape Canaveral with an “atomic-powered radio beam”.
In October of 1962, American U-2 spy plane reconnaissance photos showed that Soviet missile launch pads were being covertly constructed in Cuba. It was soon learned that these intermediate- and medium-range nuclear missiles would have a capability of striking most of the United States and that they would be fully operational within ten days. During the crisis, President Kennedy’s Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously endorsed bombing the missile bases in Cuba, which would then be followed by a land invasion. Fortunately, Kennedy had learned from the mistakes made at the Bay of Pigs—a failed CIA operation intended to topple the Castro regime.
The decision to proceed with the Bay of Pigs was a study in groupthink. Conversely, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a textbook example of how to avoid groupthink. A constant re-evaluation of the situation as it developed, aided by the independent thinking of Kennedy and his advisors, made this possible. Kennedy wisely considered not only the possible consequences of his actions, but the likely reactions, as well as the viewpoint, of his opponent Nikita Khrushchev. One can only wonder what the outcome might have been if the Bay of Pigs had never happened.
Kennedy had also been very deeply impressed by the book that would win a Pulitzer Prize that year: Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. It was a history of the quick escalation and avoidable chain of events that led up to World War I. The President seemed to be both haunted and guided by the book at this time. Given that Kennedy quoted from it often and wanted every officer in the Army to read it, the influence of The Guns of August reinforced the young President’s patience, caution and restraint. Kennedy’s determination to not let a similar chain of events spiral out of control, aided him greatly in reaching his decision to implement a naval blockade of Cuba.
Even with this cautionary measure, their were times during the crisis when Kennedy thought the odds of a nuclear exchange were “between 1 in 3 and even.” Originally, it was thought that the major conflict would occur as the U.S. Navy stopped Soviet ships and tried to inspect them for weapons and other quarantined items. (Khrushchev had warned that piracy would be considered an act of war.) In truth, a nuclear conflict was possible on several occasions over the thirteen days: A U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba and its pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson, was killed; another U-2 pilot went off course on a surveillance mission, flying three hundred miles into Soviet airspace; and, unbeknownst to Kennedy, a Soviet submarine the U.S. Navy was harassing with sonar and practice depth charges had been one vote (of three Russian officers) away from firing a nuclear torpedo.
It was the closest the United States, and the world, has ever come to nuclear war. At that time, the United States Armed Forces defense readiness condition, or DEFCON, reached, for the first and only time, DEFCON 2. To put this into perspective, the attacks of 9/11 warranted only DEFCON 3. 1, however, is an alert readiness for “imminent nuclear war”.
The song that sat at the top of the Billboard Chart for most of this period was “The Monster Mash.” (To think that the last #1 hit could have been by Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers!) It was the latest dance craze in a year full of them: the Twist, the Peppermint Twist, the Loco-motion, each with its own variation of mandatory hip-swinging. John Lennon later reflected that they had all allegedly become rock and rollers because the world might end at any minute. But, far from it, the Beatles in 1962 had coalesced into their final fab four line-up, dropping Pete Best and adding Ringo Starr. While rejected by Decca, they still managed to release their first single, “Love Me Do.”
In February, John Glenn had become the first American to orbit the Earth. Aboard Friendship 7, Glenn circled the globe 3 times in 4 hours and 55 minutes. It was followed by another historic launch in July of the first communications satellite, Tel-star. Resembling a prototype mini-version of the Death Star, the Tel-star satellite’s main functions were to relay phone calls, faxes, and, most notably, Trans-Atlantic television broadcasts. (Walter Cronkite appeared on the very first one.) By the end of the year, “Tel-star,” an instrumental by The Tornados, reached #1 on the Billboard Chart. But even before the successful launching of the Tel-star satellite, Kennedy had said late in May, before a Joint Session of Congress: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
Another American had set a goal for himself that year that appeared to some to be just as lofty. James Meredith had twice been denied enrollment at the University of Mississippi because he was black. Even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Meredith’s favor, Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett tried to pass legislation to block his enrollment. It took the intervention of U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy before the governor relented. After finally being enrolled on October 1st, riots broke out on the Oxford Campus. The Attorney General sent 500 U.S. Marshals backed by an Army Engineer Combat Battalion.
In addition to this, President Kennedy sent in Military Police, troops from the Mississippi National Guard, as well as U.S. Border Patrol Guards. If this sounds like an excessive show of force to insure one man’s right to attend college, it wasn’t. The riots resulted in two deaths, 160 injured U.S. Marshals, and 40 wounded National Guardsmen. It was the milestone event in the Civil Rights Movement that year, and was a glimpse of the violence and bloodshed that would become more prevalent the following year.
Much easier than getting Meredith into the University of Mississippi was integrating the hillbillies into Beverly Hills. On September 26, The Beverly Hillbillies debuted on CBS for what would be a nine year run—most of that time spent in the Top Twenty, and twice ranked the #1 show in America. While panned by critics, audiences loved it. “Poor mountaineer” Jed Clampett strikes oil while hunting food for his family, and “the first thing you know, ol’ Jed’s a millionaire.”
The humor of this rags to riches, fish out of water tale was primarily drawn from comedic misunderstandings based largely on cultural differences and double entendres. The sex appeal of the series centered around the Li’l Abner-esque characters of Jethro Bodine and Elly May Clampett. If female viewers were tuning in to see handsome, half-wit Jethro, then males were watching, with equal curiosity, in hopes that sexy Elly May would appear in a bathing suit down by “the cement pond”. Thanks to Li’l Abner, the sexual innuendo of The Beverly Hillbillies was socially acceptable because it was already familiar, and based in innocence and naivete.
Elly May, for example, was too involved in her tomboy activities and her “critters” to recognize male sexual advances as such. And yet she could easily manhandle any man who was inappropriately forward, whereas many of Jed Clampett’s exchanges with city folk bordered on burlesque routines. 1962, more than any other year in U.S. History, demarcates the line between innocence and experience. The country, whether it realized it or not, was in the process of shedding its collective adolescence. (In the heat of July, David Rose’s “The Stripper,” an instrumental to accompany striptease, became a #1 hit.)
On Christmas Day, the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill A Mockingbird was released. The book’s narrator, Scout Finch, is now a grown woman remembering her rural upbringing in Depression era Alabama. However, the story and its message could not have been more timely. Scout’s father Atticus is a white lawyer defending a poor black man accused of raping a white woman. Since To Kill a Mockingbird is Scout’s story, it is largely told from a child’s perspective. Again, innocence is being forced to confront harsh realities of racism and ideals under fire. The heart of the story lies in the relationship between Scout and Atticus, for it’s through their conversations that the meaning of the story unfolds. When Scout, along with her brother Jem, attends the trial, she views it from the segregated balcony. And when Atticus makes his closing remarks in defense of Tom Robinson, he’s not only addressing Scout and the jury–he’s also addressing the moviegoing audience.
Curiously, this year of racial devision and conflict was rung in with a South African Zulu hunting song sitting in the #1 position on the U.S. Billboard Chart. Its repeated chant of “wimoweh” was actually a misunderstanding of the word “uyimbube,” which in Zulu means “You are the lion.” When Alan Lomax found the recording and passed it along to his friend Pete Seeger (who recorded it with The Weavers), it would still be another decade before a couple of RCA Record Producers would give it a new doo-wop arrangement for the Tokens. The producers hired a Juilliard-trained musician and lyricist who romanticized the song by adding the lines: “Near the village, the quiet village/The lion sleeps tonight…Hush, my darling, don’t fear, my darling.”
Seeger thought the song was using the motif of “the sleeping king” –who in this case would rise to lead the Zulu warriors to victory against their imperialist oppressors. Another folklorist, however, said it was based on a childhood incident of the song’s original creator, Solomon Linda, and his killing of a lion cub. Either interpretation seemed applicable to the Civil Rights Movement at that time. (As apt a metaphor, perhaps, as Lee’s mockingbird.)
The same week Kennedy first announced his plans to put a man on the Moon, a birthday gala was held in his honor at Madison Square Garden. Although the entertainment that night included Jack Benny, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Durante, and Peggy Lee, the evening is almost exclusively remembered for the singing of “Happy, Birthday (Mr. President)” by Marilyn Monroe. Wearing a dress Adali Stevenson described as “skin and beads,” Monroe was the equivalent of the girl who traditionally popped out of the cake at a bachelor party.
After being introduced ironically as “the late Marilyn Monroe” by Peter Lawford (she would be dead in three months), she dropped her fur wrap to reveal the skin-tone sequined dress she was sewn into, wearing nothing underneath, to seductively sing to the President. As soon as she finished, a huge birthday cake was brought in on a litter. The President then immediately took the stage to deafening applause. “I can now retire from politics after having had Happy Birthday sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way.” (Mrs. Kennedy, you will note, was not in attendance.)
It is largely forgotten that the performer who had preceded Monroe was a singer and civil rights activist in exile from South Africa, Miriam Makeba. As the first African performer to popularize authentic African music to the U.S. it was fitting that she sang “Mbube” to the President. The original version of the song that was a number one hit for the first two weeks of the year: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
Years later, after the seeds of 1962 had been sown and the ’60s as we know them had come to fruition, the Apollo astronauts would listen to this song on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.