James P. Freeman: 1965: A very consequential year

  “But yes I think it can be very easily done”

                                                --Bob Dylan, “Highway 61 Revisited”


Given the Baby Boomers’ irrational reverence for everything 1960s — incense, peppermints and the like -- give them their due for recalling the golden anniversary of a truly momentous year: 1965.

Camelot faded and from innocence bled armaments when the first combat troops (3,500 Marines) were dispatched in March; by November the Pentagon informed President Lyndon Johnson that it needed 400,000 personnel to vanquish the Viet Cong. Thus the stain of Vietnam became the defining event for a generation of Americans.

But the ‘60s were more than the turbulence of war. In fact, 1965 would have been memorable for casting a postmodern panorama: The Social Security Amendments (Medicare and Medicaid); The Voting Rights Act; The Immigration and Nationality Act; the first flights of Project Gemini space program; the closing of the Second Vatican Council (from which emerged three future popes); Casey Stengel’s retirement from baseball after 56 years; and television’s debut of jazz-tinged A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Hurricane Betsy, with winds of 145 mph, roared by New Orleans, killing 76, and became the first hurricane to cause a billion dollars in damage. The Gateway Arch was completed in St. Louis. Bob Dylan went electric at Newport and the Beatles went to Shea Stadium in New York. Rebellion occurred in Watts and demonstrations in Selma.

However, three unrelated, but monumental, developments — all within six weeks of each other — meant that 1965 would be the most consequential year of  20th Century American history as a predictor of the cultural, political and technological condition of early 21st Century America: the  The Moynihan Report, passage of The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and publication of Moore’s Law.

Known formally as “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” it was authored by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant secretary of labor, and, later, one of the Senate’s greatest thinkers. Originally labeled “For Office Use Only,” but released in March, it focused on the roots of black poverty in America.

Describing a “tangle of pathology,” he wrote that “expansion of welfare programs... can be taken as a measure of the steady disintegration of the Negro family structure over the past generation.” Absence of a “nuclear family” would hinder progress towards economic and political equality.

With pedagogic prescience, Moynihan illuminated the idea that such disintegration would beget social and cultural regression. In 1965, it was estimated that 23.6 percent of black children and just 3.07 percent of white children were born to single mothers. Today, those rates have been far exceeded (72 percent of black children; 29 percent of white children).

In 2012, ominously, 1,609,619 children were born to unmarried women, ushering a massive new generation reliant on civic altruism and government support. The long term ramifications are unknown but such instability is unprecedented and may help explain polarizing gaps in the normalcy of upward mobility.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was signed into law by President Johnson on Palm Sunday, April 11, a mere three months after being proposed, and is today in its ninth iteration (No Child Left Behind). At the time, it was the most expansive federal education bill -- an arena once the exclusive province of state and local educators.

Some have suggested that it marked the last time the federal government would consider any matter exempt from federal intrusion. Anything could be a constitutional imperative. It spawned the Department of Education and, more recently, Common Core State Standards Initiative. Fundamentally, it legitimized, if not anticipated, the largesse of Obamacare.

Today, the federal government allocates about $141 billion for education and, since 1965, over $267 billion has been spent to assist states in educating disadvantaged children. Despite requiring a “culture of accountability,” achievement is stagnant. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, reading proficiency of 17-year-olds has remained flat since the early 1970s.

On April 19, in the trade journal “Electronics” appeared a seminal essay, “Cramming More Components onto Integrated Circuits.” Dr. Gordon Moore, schooled in physical sciences rather than electronics, unwittingly changed the course of computing. He noticed processing speeds for clusters of transistors — the electronic engines of computers -- were effectively doubling every two years. He reasoned that such trends would continue through 1975. Remarkably, in 2015, his “lucky extrapolation” -- what became known as “Moore’s Law” -- is still relatively intact and nearly a self-fulfilling prophesy.


Americans today can trace the seemingly urgent, relentlessly constant, pace of technological change to Moore. Silicon Valley considers it a social contract, a driver of improvement. Before Moore’s observations, it was challenging to fabricate a single silicon transistor. Now, state-of-the-art advancements produce 1.5 billion transistors on a single wafer. Engineering scientists are conducting research in “self-assembly polymer molecules” and extreme ultraviolet lithography in order to extend the law.


Michael S. Malone, without a hint of hyperbole, concluded in his book, The Intel Trinity: “It has been said that if in 1965 you had looked into the future using any traditional predictive tool — per capita income, life expectancy, demographics, geopolitical forces, et cetera — none would have been as effective a prognosticator, none a more accurate lens into the future than Moore’s Law.”


In his State of the Union address on Jan. 4  of that year, Johnson envisioned a “Great Society” whereby “society will not flower spontaneously from swelling riches and surging power.” Fifty years later, with 1965 as a catalyst, that society is largely realized.


James P. Freeman is a Cape Cod-based writer

Of factories, Florida and Alzheimer's


Many citizens wonder what to do with 19 acres of Providence land that have been made available for development by moving Route 195. What a huge opportunity!

The property is in the middle of New England’s second-largest city; alongside the East Coast’s “Main Street” — Route 95 — whose intersection with 195 created one of the East's big crossroads; next to internationally known academic institutions; spectacularly situated at the head of a great bay, and near a large hospital complex. And just down the road is Green Airport, which is being expanded to allow nonstop flights to the West Coast and Western Europe.

What to put on the property? Offices and academic facilities, especially those connected with medically related activities; design businesses (Rhode Island School of Design spinoffs?), restaurants, hotels and stores. But let’s not ignore manufacturing.

This would not be the “dark satanic mills” of yore, emitting thick pollutants into the air and water. Most American manufacturing is much, much cleaner these days. It also employs fewer people, as foreign factories and robotic systems here have taken over much of the work, though the factory workers we have are generally well paid. To make such high-end stuff as pharmaceuticals in plants on the 195 land is just common sense. Consider that the proximity of Routes 195 and 95 and Narragansett Bay’s ports makes shipping manufacturing materials into and finished products out of this part of Providence remarkably easy. And there’s lots of engineering expertise in the region.

And if you think that a factory can’t co-exist attractively with a thickly settled area, consider Genzyme’s plant in the Allston section of Boston.

But the area needs more and better mass transit to serve the neighborhood, whose warren of confusing streets could scare away car-based people. Eventually a couple of trolley lines (real ones, with rails) should run through the newly developed area to connect the old downtown, the medical complex to the south and College Hill. But let development be dense; sociological and other studies associate density with lower crime and higher urban energy. Planners for the land should keep out windswept parking lots.

All in all, the 195 land offers the biggest opportunity to raise the profile and thus the prosperity of Providence since the rivers were moved.


We just got back from Naples, Fla., where I worked and we saw relatives in one of the most demure parts of the peninsula. The overloaded airline system makes travel to and from the Sunshine State increasingly difficult. And the urbanization and suburbanization of much of Florida have tattered much of its semi-tropical beauty. Still, the warmth, the greenery and the ease of strolling compared with walking on New England’s icy streets, narrowed by inadequate snowplowing, made it seem paradisiacal. And the quiet was addictive; the sound of wind through the palms and the surf were the main background sounds as I typed in my brother-in-law’s office.

It brought back memories of a quiet, lush Florida from my childhood. I remember the smell of the orange groves, the roadside juice stands and the long stretches of unbuilt-on beach backed only with palmettos and dune grass. My first memory is of an old man throwing bread to pelicans on the beach in Siesta Key, near Sarasota. Later ones include discovering Key lime pie and stone crab, drinking from a coconut and enjoying the best roadside kitsch in America.

Parts of my family had been going to Florida for part of the winter since around World War I. Naturally they complained about its over-development. Of course, they helped start the problem. (However, they never took part in the sort of crazy land speculation immortalized in the Marx Brothers’ 1929 film “The Cocoanuts,” in which Groucho’s character keeps trying to unload swampland on unsuspecting investors. Not much has changed since then!)

When there’s something nice, we overuse it, which is what happened to Florida, especially after air-conditioning, interstate highways and jet travel made getting and staying there so much easier. The Florida that I briefly revisited the other week, just before its high season, evoked in me balmy nostalgia for a time before Florida became a mega-state.


Kudos to Cape Cod-based writer/editor/publisher Greg O’Brien, 64, who has been writing (as self-therapy) about Alzheimer’s disease since he was diagnosed with it, in 2009. One of his projects is his book “On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s.” Then there’s my friend Berna Huebner, whose movie and book, “I Remember Better When I Paint,” describe how her mother, a successful Chicago-based painter, regained some of her skills and energy after she was persuaded to return to painting after Alzheimer’s seemed to doom her to a life of, by turns, agitation and depressed passivity. We’d better be looking for many routes for relief for dementia victims — and their families -- as the number of victims swells in the next two decades.

(In 2010, I wrote a magazine piece about this.)

Robert Whitcomb (rwhitcomb51@gmail.com), a former editor of The Providence Journal's Commentary pages,  is a Providence-based writer and editor and the overseer of  www.newenglanddiary.com. He is also a director of Cambridge Management Group (cmg625.com).

Blighted and bright college days

(comment via rwhitcomb51@gmail.com)
A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a Dartmouth College classmate about stuff that happened when we were students in 1966-70. I mentioned someone we knew in common and recalled that he was in a certain fraternity.
 The guy I was talking with, Denis O’Neil, a screenwriter who recently published a part-memoir, part-novel of that period titled “Whiplash: How the Vietnam War Rolled a Hand Grenade into the Animal House,” politely corrected me; in fact, this person was in another fraternity.
Time has fragmented and mingled stories in my memory and those of others from that era, now almost half a century ago. One could argue that it was a tumultuous era, and thus it’s easy to get things scrambled, but most times are tumultuous and transitional. Mr. O’Neil makes much of the stress caused by the fear of being drafted and sent to Southeast Asia, but as bad as that was, it was much worse for young men in World War II. Whatever. We’re all the centers of our own universes, and we create narratives to explain ourselves to ourselves and others and to place ourselves in history.
Certainly, the huge size of the Baby Boomer generation, and technological and social changes of its young times, were dramatic, though I would argue that except for improvements in the rights of racial minorities and women, the transformations caused by the Internet (which increasingly looks as if it has made things worse for most people) have been much bigger than “Sixties” changes.
Still, it’s true that in that period one had the distinct sense of living in a discrete and vivid era, which actually began about 1966 and ended about ’73. People who lived in the “Roaring Twenties” — 1924 to the Great Crash of October 1929 — told me in “The Sixties” that they had had a similar sense back in the Coolidge administration. Youth is intense, and so the memories the now-autumnal people of “The Sixties” are intense, if sometimes erroneous.
From Mr. O’Neil’s book, which centers on fun, romance (not always fun) and anxiety, you might think that 80 percent of a male undergraduate’s time was spent drunk, seeking young women to have sex with and trying to get out of the draft. In fact, even for non-nerds who disliked what we then called “booking” — has the World Wide Web come up with its own equivalent phrase? — most of the time was spent going to class, studying and sleeping, not “raging” (the word for partying). After all, a lot of students wanted to get into good graduate schools and then fancy jobs. A lot did, and went on to become perhaps the greediest generation in U.S. history.
Mr. O’Neil was wise to have constructed his book at least in part as a novel, letting his imagination and telescoping of events provide a better story for the movies, a business he knows very well. If they do make a film of his story, I’d be interested to see how much of it gives a sense of the more humdrum aspects of college life for middle-to-upper-class late adolescents back then.
Probably not much.  The famous and often hilarious (and even witty) Dartmouth pranks memorialized in "Animal House'' (and Mr. O'Neil describes some corkers, including  a great train robbery of sorts) and the stuff described above offer rich material for a film.
Still, while L.P. Hartley’s line “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” is much quoted  people don’t do things as differently as they now might like to think  they did 45 years ago.
I was working last week in Harrisburg, Pa., the capital of the Keystone State. While that recently bankrupt city has seen better days — for many decades, it was a thriving center of trade and manufacturing and is bounded by rich farmland — many of its old residential and commercial buildings are beautiful, and you get a sense that people in the region very much want the little city to come back.
Greater Harrisburg has more brick and stone houses than you see in New England, where most houses are of wood, but there’s the same sense of an almost European-style settlement pattern, with a tight city center and the countryside close by. More and more people there complain about commuting and some of the gentrification in parts of Harrisburg suggests that a lot of its aging population is getting tired of driving. Indeed, demographics may gradually undo, over the next decade, much of the social and economic damage done by developer-driven sprawl zoning.
And there’s still a lot of boosterism in Harrisburg: The small local airport is proudly called Harrisburg International Airport, with flights to Toronto providing the “international” angle. Perhaps poor little Rhode Island could use a little of what some might slur as Babbitry to help talk itself out of its inferiority complex.
Robert Whitcomb (rwhitcomb51@gmail.com) is a Providence-based editor and writer.