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The counterculture of the 1960s was a cultural phenomenon that developed first in the United States and United Kingdom and spread throughout much of the Western world between the early 1960s and the early 1970s. The movement gained momentum during the U.S. government's extensive military intervention in Vietnam. As the 1960s progressed, widespread tensions developed in American society that tended to flow along generational lines regarding the war in Vietnam, race relations, human sexuality, women's rights, traditional modes of authority, experimentation with psychoactive drugs, and differing interpretations of the American Dream. New cultural forms emerged, including the pop music of the British band The Beatles and the concurrent rise of hippie culture, which led to the rapid evolution of a youth subculture that emphasized change and experimentation. In addition to The Beatles, many songwriters, singers and musical groups from the United Kingdom and America came to impact the counterculture movement.
The Cold War between communist states and capitalist states involved espionage on a global scale, along with political and military interference in the internal affairs of less powerful nations. Poor outcomes from some of these activities set the stage for disillusionment with, and distrust of, post-war governments.
The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the nation, and the world, to the brink of nuclear war in October, 1962. The assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in November, 1963, and the attendant conspiracy theories concerning the event, led to further diminished trust in government, especially among young people.
Several factors distinguished the counterculture of the 1960s from the authority-opposition movements of previous eras. The post-war "baby boom" constituted an unprecedented number of young, affluent, and potentially disaffected people as prospective participants in a rethinking of the direction of American and other democratic societies. Widespread use of marijuana and psychoactive drugs contributed to this reevaluation, and a confluence of events and issues served as an intellectual catalyst for exceptionally rapid change during the era.
In the western world, the ongoing criminal legal status of the recreational drug industry was instrumental in the formation of an anti-establishment social dynamic by those coming of age during the counterculture era. The explosion of marijuana use during the era, in large part by students on fast-expanding college campuses, created an attendant need for increasing numbers of people to conduct their personal affairs in secret in the procurement and use of banned substances. The pharmaceutical-false classification of marijuana as a narcotic, and the attachment of often outrageous criminal penalties for its use, drove the simple act of smoking marijuana, and experimentation with substances in general, deep underground. Many began to live largely clandestine lives only because of their choice to use certain substances, and their fear of retribution from their own governments. In a recapitulation of the American alcohol prohibition disaster, otherwise law-abiding citizens in democracies worldwide became nominal criminals as a result of their private behavior. Meanwhile, older citizens with political influence directed law enforcement officials to fight drug wars against a generation of young people whose values and motives were often misunderstood. The increasingly-sophisticated underground drug trade grew to provide haven for the concurrently growing network of anti-war and other activists also operating in fear of government reprisal.
Other sociological issues fueled the growth of the larger counterculture movement. One was an influential nonviolent movement in the United States seeking to resolve Constitutional civil rights illegalities, especially regarding general racial segregation, the lack of voting rights among Southern blacks, and the existing segregation in the purchasing of homes or rental housing in the North. On college and university campuses, student activists fought for the right to exercise their basic Constitutional rights, especially freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Many counterculture activists became newly aware of the ongoing plight of the poor, and community organizers fought for the funding of anti-poverty programs, particularly within inner city areas in the United States.
Environmentalism grew from a greater understanding of the ongoing damage caused by industrialization, resultant pollution, and the misguided use of chemicals such as pesticides in well-meaning efforts to improve the quality of life for the rapidly growing population.
The availability of new and more effective forms of birth control was a key underpinning of the sexual revolution. The notion of "recreational sex" without the threat of unwanted pregnancy radically changed the social dynamic and permitted both women and men much greater freedom in the selection of sexual lifestyles outside the confines of traditional marriage.
February 19th, 2013
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