Considering the timing of The Beatles’ arrival in America in 1964 and the beginning of what would become known as the “Anti-Establishment” Generation in the 1960s, it is easy to understand why so many people look back and credit The Beatles with creating that rebellious young generation. Without discrediting the unique talent and innovative style of The Beatles, the belief that they inspired a young generation to reject and rebel against the Establishment in such a profound manner is a simplistic view of what happened. Technically, the generation known as the Baby Boomer generation was biologically created at birth, but emotionally, it was a generation that wasn’t really born until the mid-60s.
So, who is the Baby Boomer generation? Baby Boomers are your fathers, mothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles or maybe you. The phrase “baby boomer” was first used in 1970 in an article that appeared in the Washington Post. The phrase applied to about 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. It was a generation too young to have personal memory of World War II, but old enough to experience the positive aspects of postwar America. This was a young generation that witnessed a growing and prosperous nation when the American Dream seemed within reach of almost everyone.
As America reaped the benefits of the peace and prosperity that followed the end of World War II, this country was also experiencing tremendous growing pains and moral and emotional battles over key issues about rights and personal freedom.
In the years prior to The Beatles’ arrival in America, there were social debates that were beginning to define a new direction for America. These battles pitted the Moral Majority against activists that were fighting for more personal freedoms and equality. As the 1960s began, America’s Moral Majority condemned the use of birth control pills on the basis that removing the consequence of pregnancy from casual sex would cause sexual promiscuity to escalate. In 1961, the use of artificial birth control was a crime in Connecticut and a lawsuit over the constitutionality over declaring birth control pills illegal went to the Supreme Court. The High Court would ultimately rule that banning birth control pills was unconstitutional based on right to privacy. By 1963, 2.3 million America women were on the Pill. In relation to the population at the time, that was a bigger percentage of the population than it would be today.
In 1962 and 1963, two landmark decisions by the Supreme Court banned school-led prayers in public schools. The decisions to ban school-led prayers are still viewed by many in today’s new Establishment as the flashpoint in time when the social and moral demise of America began.
Along with the legalization of artificial control and the banning of school-led prayers form public schools, two significant controversies that signaled a nation on the threshold of change, the fight for equal rights for blacks in America was strongly supported by a young generation that sensed the cruel injustice of segregation.
Adding to the social and legal debates about freedom and equality in the early 60s, there was the ever-present threat of a nuclear war that would almost completely destroy the United States. Schools held drills to instruct young students what to do if the Soviet Union dropped a nuclear bomb on our country. There were a few families in my neighborhood that had bomb shelters installed in their backyards that would help them survive a nuclear war, but those shelters actually provided more of a sense of security than practical protection from nuclear fallout. The fear of instant destruction was part of life for a young generation that may have seemed too young to be aware of precisely what the threat meant.
A young generation was quietly and subconsciously absorbing the constant talk of nuclear war on the news and in living room conversations with parents and neighbors. In those days, parents did not consider the impact the news or negative conversations were having on their children’s generation. It was a different time.
In the fall of 1962, America faced an imminent threat of nuclear war when it was discovered that the Soviet Union was building missile sites in Cuba that would contain missiles with nuclear warheads aimed at the United States. The Soviet Union took this action in response to the United States placing nuclear weapons in Turkey that were aimed at Moscow. These actions attest to the volatile and sensitive nature of the Cold War.
President John F. Kennedy announced to the world that the Unites States would not allow the Soviet Union to place nuclear missiles so close the U.S. The Soviet Union did not back down. President Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba and U.S. warships took up positions around the communist island. For 14 days, Americans lived with the strong possibility that the confrontation would erupt into the nuclear war the world most feared.
Before the crisis was averted, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev sent a letter to President Kennedy stating that the U.S. blockade of Cuba was an aggressive act that could propel “human kind into the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war.” The crisis dominated the evening news nightly and parents were constantly talking about how real this threat was to life in America.
Though a young generation might have appeared to lack a true understanding of the potential consequences, I have a vivid memory of sitting in my grammar school class drawing a detailed picture of U.S. warships surrounding Cuba. I may not have been aware of the specifics, but I was keenly aware of the fact that my security and the security of my family and this country were facing a threat that if not resolved, could lead to the destruction of America.
The Soviets did back down and agreed to remove all of their offensive weapons from Cuba. In exchange, the U.S. publically declared that it would never invade Cuba, but privately, the U.S. also agreed that it would dismantle its nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy that were aimed at the Soviet Union.
As the Cuban Missile Crisis played out on a public stage, a young generation was subconsciously sensing the ambience of an unsafe world that their parent’s generation was in charge of and this was the mood in America that proceeded the moment that would prove to be the tipping point in the birth of the anti-Establishment generation of the 60s.
On Friday, November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. America and the world were stunned by the news that the President of the United States had been murdered in public in front of countless witnesses. If the technology of today’s media and social media were part of the world in 1963 – the President of the United States would have been killed on live television as a nation watched. However, even with the media of that era, it wasn’t long before America witnessed the visuals of the assassination. While a young generation was sat in the background, their parents didn’t realize how that moment would dramatically change their children’s generation.
The assassination of the President carried a crystal clear message to an innocent young generation – the Establishment was no longer able to provide a sense of security. Though the effects of the news of the assassination may have been subtle and even subconscious to a young generation, those effects were nonetheless profoundly unsettling.
With the seed of distrust of the Establishment planted in the collective subconscious of a young generation, their minds were fertile and waiting to be tilled by anything they could use as to distinguish their generation from their parents’ generation, which they felt had let them down.
Less than three months after the assassination of President Kennedy, The Beatles hit America on February 7, 1964. On February 9, 1964, television host Ed Sullivan spoke the words that would live in infamy for an entire generation – “Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles!” And in that moment, a young generation had unknowingly discovered the beginning of a new identity that would lead to a rebellion and the title of the anti-Establishment generation.
The Beatles’ appearance and sound defied the Establishment. Looking back at pictures of that young rock band from England, it is challenging to think that their haircuts and music were so revolutionary, but relative to the times, The Beatles represented a defiance that would help a young generation distinguish itself from their parents’ generation – the Establishment.
Pictures of the early Beatles, based on today’s world, show a group of clean-cut lads in tailored suits who appear to be anything but rebellious. However, in the context of the world in 1964, their mop-top, unruly hair styles and their unique, new sound were rebellious and revolutionary. There is always a tendency to justify that past trends and behavior are tame in comparison to present day, however, as with the hair styles of The Beatles, everything must be judged against the backdrop of society at the time in which it was first introduced.
Today’s Establishment - the Baby Boomer/anti-Establishment/rebellious generation of the 60's - has a collective concern about the bad boys and bad girls of pop culture today with an amnesiac attitude. Much of today’s new Establishment rationalizes their influences as being much tamer than today’s negative influences, but relative to the times – The Beatles were viewed as having a negative impact on a young generation.
The press reflected the reaction of parents in criticizing the appearance and sound of The Beatles in discrediting something that was totally unfamiliar and seemed to represent rebellion.
Humans instinctively remember whatever is first in a category – often not even remembering what is second or third. Most Americans remember the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong – but do not remember the second man to walk on the moon which was equally an incredible accomplishment. The Beatles have gotten so much attention and credit for changing America, but they were only the first of a long list of British groups that made up the British Invasion.
As we relive the earliest impression of The Beatles on the 50th anniversary of their arrival in America, let’s recognize just how rebellious and outrageous they were in the context of the society in the mid-1960s – and not compare their music and image with the image and music of bands and performers today.
I continually refer to myself as a hostile witness to the Baby Boomer generation because I have noticed that many of the judgments of pop culture today by the new Establishment are hypocritical.
The Beatles have been credited with changing America and creating a young generation that rebelled against the Establishment like no other young generation, but the social mood of the country that was defined by the debates over the Pill, prayer in public schools, the fight for personal freedoms and equality, the ever-present threat of nuclear war and ultimately the assassination of the President of the United States created the perfect moment for something a young generation could rally around as they declared their independence.
This is a good time to admit how rebellious today’s Establishment was after The Beatles arrived in America and understand that even though everything is different today – relative to the world they are now growing up in – the influences that many fear are having such a negative impact on the current young generations may actually be quite similar to what we put our parents’ generation through 50 years ago!
This article led me to reflect on my life as a baby boomer because I lived the aforementioned. Great article. Love it! It's well written and precisely touched on the period in which I lived and experienced in Louisiana. Thanks for the reflection.
Thoughtful and enjoyable piece. Thank you, Scoot, for being a unique voice on the radio.
I always enjoy the way Scoot weaves the past into