Fifty years ago tomorrow, on July 20th, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon.
An estimated 600 million people worldwide tuned into flickering black and white images as, at 9:56pm Minnesota time, Armstong took “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.
In 1961, President Kennedy had said to Congress,
First, 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. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.
Now, five months before the deadline, the United States had achieved the late president’s goal. It seemed that the federal government, when it set itself a goal, could do almost anything. True, defeating the communists in Vietnam was proving difficult, but the Apollo program bade well for the War on Poverty, then still in its infancy.
“Its five three year mission…”
The moon landing came too late to save the crew of the starship Enterprise.
On June 3rd, NBC broadcast ‘Turnabout Intruder’, the last episode of Star Trek. The show had struggled in the ratings since its debut in 1966, owing its survival to letter writing campaigns by fans. The moon landing the following month set off a fad for all things science fiction which might have saved Star Trek, but the axe had already fallen.
That final season of Star Trek included, by common consent, many of the show’s lamest episodes, such as ‘Spock’s Brain’. But one episode, ‘The Way to Eden’, broadcast on February 21st, 1969, was soon to prove horribly contemporary. It told the story of Dr. Sevrin, a noted scientists turned New Age guru, and his band of followers as they hijacked the Enterprise to reach the fabled Eden. When they arrive, the planet seems beautiful at first, but it quickly emerges that the plant life secretes a deadly acid. One of Sevrin’s followers dies from eating fruit, and the rest take shelter in a shuttlecraft with their bare feet burned. Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest are called upon to save them, just as the ‘squares’ of the National Guard had to airlift food into Woodstock in August that year to keep the hippies from starving.
You didn’t need to go to the 23rd century to find lunatics posing as Messiahs.
In spring 1968, Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys picked up two female hitchhikers and brought them back to his Los Angeles home. Wilson said that after mentioning the Beach Boys’ involvement with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to these women, “they told me they too had a guru, a guy named Charlie.” In the early hours of the following morning, Wilson returned home from a recording session to be greeted on his own driveway by Charlie. When an uncomfortable Wilson asked him whether he intended to hurt him, Charlie said no and began kissing Wilson’s feet. When he went inside his house, Wilson discovered 12 strangers, mostly women. They ended up staying for months, costing Wilson approximately $100,000, including a large medical bill for treatment of their gonorrhea and $21,000 for the accidental destruction of his uninsured car. The women acted as servants for Charlie and Wilson. A lot of 1960s ‘sexual liberation’ played out that way.
Charlie was Charles Manson, a distinctly unappealing career criminal. Yet, such was the bizarre tone of the times, that he had assembled around him this cult of young, empty headed women from mostly middle-class backgrounds, and managed to wangle himself a stay at the home of a member of one the biggest bands in the world. Manson was an obvious nut who became convinced that The Beatles’ White Album was, in fact, a coded message for him predicting a coming race war in the United States which would end with his ‘Family’ in charge. Nevertheless, he was taken seriously enough as a ‘guru’ that he was introduced to some of the leading stars of the time, including actress Sharon Tate who, heavily pregnant, Manson’s ‘Family’ would butcher along with four other people on the night of August 8th.
The coup de grâce to the hippie era was delivered at Altamont on December 6th, 1969.
We don’t police things. We’re not a security force. We go to concerts to enjoy ourselves and have fun.
Well, what about helping people out—you know, giving directions and things?
Sure, we can do that.
Looking back, it seems incredible that anyone in their right mind could have imagined the Hell’s Angels functioning as Altamont’s equivalent of Walmart greeters. But how many were in their right minds?
Over the course of the day, the mood grew ever uglier. Two people were killed in a hit and run accident. Another, high on LSD, drowned in an irrigation canal. Fights broke out. The Hell’s Angels, sat along the front of the stage drinking the $500 worth of beer the Stones had paid them with ($3,489 in 2019 $), armed themselves with sawed-off pool cues and motorcycle chains. When Jefferson Airplane guitarist Marty Balin tried to calm them down, they knocked him out.
The Stones arrived late, bassist Bill Wyman had missed the flight to the venue, and an audience member punched Mick Jagger as soon as he emerged from the helicopter. Their set was frequently interrupted by fights, pauses, and pleas for calm, all of which went unheeded. Things came to a climax when 18-year-old Meredith Hunter, his second attempt to get on stage failing, was pursued into the crowd by Hell’s Angels, pulled a gun, and was stabbed to death. The whole grisly spectacle was captured on film and found its way into the concert movie.
1968 did not usher in the Age of Aquarius. That is probably why it is so celebrated. Its veterans can look back on it as the Revolution Betrayed, the stirrings of a new dawn snuffed out by Tricky Dick and a couple of hundred Chicago cops.
For a year so commemorated, 1968 is misunderstood. Mayor Daley and President Nixon didn’t snuff out the revolution. They were just symptoms. Instead, a majority of Americans, silent because nobody wanted to listen to them, saw what was going on in Watts, the Palmer House hotel, and Grant Park and said, “No thanks.” And they were right. From the glimpses we got, like the Manson Family and Altamont, the Age of Aquarius would have been the ultimate bad trip.
John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.