This series looks at the origins of American counterculture through the lens of Charles Manson and the murders credited to his name.
History is not foreordained, as many think. Many believe that events follow a script that is determined by outside forces, like an all-knowing God, and perhaps they are right, but the recording of events and their relationship to each other shows no such plan. There is no History, only historical events and the people who drive them, often unwittingly. No one really knows what will happen next. Cultural history is particularly unpredictable.
The history of the United States shows the development of a growing nation full of confidence in its abilities and culture. The 2.5 million people who were in the original 13 colonies swept west and cleared out North America, making a safe home for its population within the context of its governmental forms. Manifest Destiny was a cultural trend, not a law, and it carried the hardy, crazy-brave American population west at tremendous costs. It was the American civilization that made America, and truly was a civilization with distinct institutions and practices.
After World War 1, the United States took a far more active role in international affairs, and this culminated in global American dominance at the end of World War 2. Across the globe, the American military triumphed, and behind the troops came the carriers of American culture.
But then, changes began in the heart of the American image of itself. The next war was in Korea, and the American president, Harry Truman, declined to use nuclear weapons to fight the Chinese who had entered the war on the side of the North Koreans. A negotiated settlement in 1953 ended the active fighting, and the US accepted a stalemate for the first time in American history. The GI generation was not called back to service, and they were busy anyway raising an average of four kids per household at the time. The baby boom after World War 2 produced a child in the US every 7 seconds.
In the same period, a new generation of disaffected American began to publish books on alternative ways of living. These were the Beats, or ‘Beat Generation’ and their heroes were mostly young men who drifted away from adult responsibility. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs were the founders of this movement and they all advocated for a departure from the mainstream of American culture, which meant departing from work, family, and the traditional moral ideas of Christianity. They strongly believed in ‘sexual liberation’ which meant they would have many more sexual partners over a lifetime and not form traditional monogamous marriages. They would, in theory, have no kids to keep them from drifting around the country.
In a sense, the Beats were the first generational move away from the American idea of civilization and back towards tribalism. The Beats also advocated for drug use and a sort of pick-and-chose buffet of Eastern religious ideas. Jack Kerouac died on October 21 of 1969 as a result of his alcohol abuse, just 9 days after Manson was arrested for the final time.
Charles Manson was of the Beat Generation, but he did not source any of the Beat books as his inspiration. He certainly absorbed their ideals. To his great benefit, the massive wave of kids just behind him, the ‘baby boomers,’ came along and they inherited the Beat cultural themes and radically expanded them. Charlie was positioned to catch that wave perfectly.
Which brings us to the period of Manson’s peak of activity, from 1967 to his capture in 1969.
In March of 1967, Manson was released from federal prison where he had been sent for a variety of charges including an attempt to cash a stolen Treasury check. He moved to Berkeley, California and that put him there in the summer of 1967, a period known as the ‘Summer of Love.’
The ‘Summer of Love’ is characterized as a ‘social phenomenon’ that occurred in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Some 100,000 boomer kids arrived in the neighborhood and lived communally which meant they followed none of the prescriptive rules of the dominant culture. Drug use was common and there was mass sexual experimentation. There was little violence (yet), but there were the early stages of political activism that declared the American individual and capitalistic society as dangerous and wrong. Only later would it be called racist.
It was here that Charles Manson formed his ‘Family,’ which is yet another ironic turn of the wheel since the entire ‘Summer of Love’ phenomenon was wildly anti-family in any traditional sense. Manson’s was a tribal family that reflected his ideas and at the center of these ideas was himself. He was the tribal shaman, and he focused on the boomer women, who all had to have sex with him and do his bidding to gain membership to his perverted family.
And then came the year of 1968. This was a pivotal year in American history and the most consequential of the 20th century. In my book, The Educated Citizens’ Guide to Essential American History, I write about the events of 1968 and their effect on the United States. Here are a few excepts:
In January, the North Vietnamese launched a direct offensive against the forces in South Vietnam, which included the Americans stationed there. It was to coincide with the Lunar New Year celebration and was called the Tet Offensive, in reference to the festivities.
More importantly, the Tet battle plan included attacks in Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital. Attackers hit the American Embassy, where a few Viet Cong blew a hole in the fence and rushed the building. They never gained entry to the building and were quickly killed, but the sight of the North Vietnamese at the American Embassy had a galvanizing and negative effect on the American public, which began to surmise that the war in Vietnam had no path to victory.
By March of 1968, the first primary votes in the election were cast, and they revealed how weak President Johnson was with voters, mainly because of the war. Seeing the weakened state of the sitting president, John Kennedy’s brother Robert, Joe Kennedy’s third son, entered the race for the Presidency. In the meantime, students were protesting in American cities and universities and taking over school buildings and issuing lists of demands.
On April 4, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis.
In June, Robert “Bobby” Kennedy was killed by an assassin’s bullet in the kitchen of a hotel in California.
In August of 1968, Soviet forces sent in troops and tanks to demonstrate to the youthful protestors in Czechoslovakia that a rebellion would not be tolerated.
Also in the hot summer of 1968, riots broke out in Chicago, the city where Democrats held their convention. After Johnson had bowed out and Robert Kennedy had been killed, the party chose Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s pro-war vice president, to be their nominee. Anti-war protesters descended on Chicago and battled against the Chicago police for days.
The Apollo program sent American astronauts out of Earth’s orbit and humans got the first-ever look at the dark side of the moon.
In short, 1968 saw the battle with the older US and the new boomer-driven younger US locked in a pitch battle.
Which brings us to the three pivotal months in 1969.
In July, President Kennedy’s idea that the US should put a man on the moon, first articulated in 1962, was realized. ‘Silent Generation‘ standout Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon and declared it ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’ That was the forward-looking statement. Looking backwards, Queen Elizabeth declared her boomer son Charles the Prince or Wales and therefore, next in line to the ancient British throne.
On July 27, Manson Family members killed a musician named Gary Hinman, and then on August 9 and 10, they killed seven more people.
And finally, in September of 1969, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair occurred, and the ascendancy of the boomers was clear to all. The boomer ethos was taken right out of the ‘Summer of Love’ and yet, within it, was older men like Charles Manson who turned the hippie ethos to their advantage.
Throughout this period, California had a Republican governor, Ronald Reagan, who would go on to be the president in 1980. The former congressman, Richard Nixon, became the president in 1968, and he had been the congressman from San Francisco and was elected from the district that now sends Nancy Pelosi to Washington. California does not elect Republican governors anymore and has not since the office was occupied by an Austrian boomer named Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In the summer of 1969, the wheel of American history turned fast and hard. Long gone was the first generation of Americans who started life as Englishmen.
Also gone were the hardy frontier generation who walked west and forged the early American civilization in the wilderness and over the objections of the natives.
Also gone was the generation that lived through the Civil War and adjusted to the end of slavery.
Gone were the hardy cowboy generations that completed the cultural cause of Manifest Destiny and cleared the continent of any other influences.
Passed were the World War 1 group, and the Roaring Twenties group, and the Lost Generation of men like Hemingway. The Lost Generation was an early harbinger of the overwhelming loss of civilizational confidence that occurred after the bloodletting of World War 1.
And then finally, The GI and Silent Generation made their mark, but they were the parents of big families with lots of kids growing up in an America that was many times more affluent than any of the previous generations had seen. These kids were better educated formally, and they knew of no privation. Those kids were about to have a turn at the wheel of American culture and they turned it in a direction few saw coming.
Pushing as hard as he could in the direction away from mainstream American culture, the one built on the past, was Charles Manson.