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Guesses for an extraordinary decade

Berlin Wall

By Kim Barrington
BBC News

Predictions are a tricky business, and experts who made theirs in 1960 little realised the tumultuous decade to follow.

The Cold War would be over by the end of 1960, Africa would be decolonised and man would not get to the Moon before the decade was out.

Panorama: The Challenge of the Sixties is broadcast on BBC Four on Thursday 15 May at 2200 BST
Or catch up on the BBC iPlayer
Or visit the Panorama site

These are a few of the predictions made in a special Panorama programme broadcast in January 1960. Ushering in the new decade, its reporters asked world leaders, eminent commentators and scientists how the world might change in the 60s, from Pandit Nehru and Julius Nyerere, to Robert Oppenheimer and Jacob Bronowski.

Their predictions were made against the background of the 50s - some countries in Africa had gained independence, the launch of Sputnik had intensified the space race and Cold War tensions had eased temporarily after the death of Stalin, only to shift to a subtle global struggle.


Panorama started with this challenge, the end of colonial rule in Africa. Robin Day interviewed Julius Nyerere, who he believed would become Tanganyika's first prime minister within the decade.

Nyerere made this prediction: "Africa is committed to the achievement of complete independence from colonial rule and I think this decade should be the decade in which we should really get the whole of Africa free."

Was Panorama right about Africa?

Nearly five decades on, it's clear he was right, says Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society. The exceptions were white South Africa, Rhodesia and the Portuguese colonies in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau.

"France, Britain and Spain all pulled out of their African possessions and the rest of Africa was independent by 1970," Dowden says.

Just a few weeks after Nyerere's prediction, British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan spoke in South Africa of the "wind of change", as more and more black Africans claimed the right to rule themselves. It was a sign of the acceptance of the end of the Empire.

Only a month later South Africa was condemned internationally as police opened fire on a large crowd of protesters gathered at the Sharpeville Police Station. More than 60 were killed and 170 were injured.

The Sharpeville Massacre was a turning point in South Africa's history as the country became increasingly isolated. By 1961 the African National Congress was banned and South Africa had left the Commonwealth. It wasn't until 1994 that it was free from white rule and Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president.

Julius Nyerere became prime minister of the first government of independent Tanganyika in 1961 and the following year he was voted president in the newly-declared republic. By 1964 Tanganyika united with Zanzibar and Tanzania was born.


To address whether this struggle would continue, Panorama turned to India's prime minister Pandit Nehru, as his country was a neutral power between East and West.

"I should think not," he said. "It would be a very bad thing if it lasted. Already there are some signs of it getting less. When it will entirely cease is difficult to say, but I think progressively it'll get less and less."

The Russian ship Anosov carrying missiles to Cuba
The Cuban missile crisis was a flashpoint

Nehru was wrong. The Cold War went on for another 30 years, particularly deteriorating in the first three years of the 60s. Nehru was a member of the non-aligned movement, which refused to take sides in the Cold War. His comments should be seen in that context, says Sir Christopher Mallaby, a diplomat in the British Embassy in Moscow between 1961-63.

Nehru hoped that the United States and Russia would get rid of the fear that the other side would attack. But the fear was about to intensify.

U-2 incident: In May 1960 the world was shown pictures of the wreckage of an unarmed American U-2 spy plane, shot down while flying deep over Soviet territory.

At first the US claimed it had been a weather plane. However, the Russians produced the pilot Captain Gary Powers alive and well. In the end President Dwight Eisenhower was forced to admit the US had been on a spying mission.

Berlin Wall: On 13 August 1961, Berliners woke to a divided city. Troops in East Germany had sealed the border between East and West Berlin. Overnight, barbed wire fencing had been erected to stop the tide of refugees fleeing to the West.

Concrete blocks replaced the barbed wire and the wall became an enduring symbol of the Cold War - a permanent structure until it was dismantled in 1989.

Cuban Missile Crisis: By October 1962, the Soviets had installed nuclear missiles on Cuba, just 90 miles off the US coast. John F Kennedy imposed a naval blockade around Cuba and threatened Russia with attack if any Cuban missile were launched against the US.

The world held its breath, and Khrushchev was the first to back down. He agreed to dismantle all the Russian missiles based in Cuba if Kennedy promised not to invade the island. Kennedy agreed. It was the closest the world had ever come to nuclear war.


Then there was space exploration, at the time dominated by the Russians.

Professor Bernard Lovell, the founder and director of the Jodrell Bank Observatory, predicted that Russia had the capability of sending a man into space and orbiting Earth.

He was right. Just one year later, Yuri Gagarin completed the first manned orbit around the globe. The US followed a month later as Alan Shepard became the first American in space. The following year John Glenn orbited Earth three times.

Was Sir Bernard Lovell right about the space race?

Sir Bernard, the only person interviewed who is still alive today, says the Americans had been completely surprised by the capability of the Soviets.

But his second prediction was not right, however. "I think at the present time it must be regarded as somewhat doubtful whether man will be landed on the Moon within the decade."

At the time it was assumed that the Russian lead in the space race would be difficult to overhaul. Sir Bernard revealed that he had written an article for a Russian journal which made reference to the inclusion of a manned Moon mission in the Soviet seven-year science plan. This timeframe had been left out of the published version, leading him to think there was scepticism in the Soviet space establishment about the speed with which the Moon could be reached.

But in response to the earlier Russian successes in space, President Kennedy urged his nation to land a man on the Moon before the decade was out. The Apollo 11 mission of July 1969 was a comfortable five-and-a-half months before this deadline.

"Even Bernard Lovell can't be right every time," says astronomer Sir Patrick Moore.

Below is a selection of your comments.

The most difficult and sometimes amusing part of predictions is the "revolution". If something hasn't happened then its virtually impossible to predict it revolutionising your life. On the other hand, if you put your money where your mouth is and say something will revolutionise the world, you look silly when its forgotten within a week. The space race is a good example, we do not have moon and mars bases now and it's 2007. However we have computers, mobiles and contraception.
Nich Hill, Portsmouth UK

How can you possibly state that the Cuban Missile crisis was "the closest the world had ever come to nuclear war"? World War II was a nuclear war, with over 200,000 people killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This isn't a footnote in history it is something which is crucial to the nuclear debate as these bombs were dropped by a Western, democratic nation which at that time was in the ascendancy during a global conflict. Many historians believe their use was neither tactically required nor morally acceptable. It is the papering over of incidents such as these which allows bullying neo-conservatives to inflate their defence budgets to support modern-day, illegal wars.
David, Wendlebury, England

David, it was not a nuclear exchange, nor did Japan even have the ability to hit back. That's not a nuclear war. Had we decided to launch a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, they would've launched nuclear a retaliation against us before our bombs even went off on Soviet soil. That's a nuclear war. When the opposing party can retaliate. This is not the case of Japan, where the US was the only country that even had nuclear weapons. There's a difference between a nuclear war, and a nuclear strike. Every Japanese city had seen American bombs, and were totally bombed out. They were in NO place to retaliate.
Cody Savage, Park City

I think that Sir Bernard Lovell's analysis of the prospects of a lunar landing were spot on. It was indeed unlikely at the current rate of progress that a landing would take place by the end of the decade. It took Kennedy's famous speech in September 1962 and the consequent enormous increase in effort by Nasa and its suppliers to meet this goal by a matter of months. The fact that the goal was only just met indicates that Lovell was right.
Mark Jones, London

A prediction that man would not reach the moon in the 1960s is certainly understandable. But that it would remain unvisited since then is incredible.
Simon Mallett, UK Lenham

Decades run from 1 to 10, therefore, the Americans landed on the Moon 17 months before the end of the decade and not five, as stated in your article. Just to emphasise the point, the reason the UK census is taken in a "1" year, 1991, 2001 etc, is because that represents the FIRST year in the new decade.
Zorba Eisenhower

Simon, I agree with you but there is no real viable reason to revisit the Moon. The space budget is much more effectively spent on the developing space station and on-Earth research rather than revisiting the Moon.
Cody Savage, Park City Utah, US

There's lots of things they didn't manage to predict; Valium, audio cassettes, the first computer game, Kevlar, the mouse, even barcodes. You could argue all of those things have changed the world we live in. The future is always difficult to predict, that's what makes it so exciting.
Alex, Birmingham, UK

It is rather much easier to be a pessimist or an optimist than an in-betweener when making predictions. There was enormous social change in many countries in the 1960s and I'm sure if asked, many would have predicted no change or total liberalism depending on what they hoped or feared.
Nich Hill, Portsmouth UK

They did a lot better than I could have hoped to do. It's easy to mock expert predictions that don't come true, but prediction isn't as easy as it looks. It may be easier in the future. Or not. I'm not going to commit myself.
Nigel Macarthur, London, England

I predict there will be a tomorrow. The planet will survive global warming/climate change, mankind may not.
Alan, Stoke on Trent


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