The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas was first published in 1973 in New Directions 3. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of enormous political, social, and cultural upheaval in the United States, and most likely the events of this period influenced Le Guin’s writing of the story. America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, particularly from 1964 to 1973, caused much domestic unrest. Many young people protested the war, and these demonstrations reached their peak in 1969, when 250,000 people marched in Washington D.C. A year later, on May 4,1970, four students were killed at Kent State University in Ohio by National Guardsmen during a war protest.
The late mid to late 1960s also saw the rise of the “counterculture” in America. A movement that developed largely as a reaction against the war, the counterculture was made up of young people who called themselves hippies or flower children. Believing that it was possible to build a society based on love, happiness, peace, and freedom, the counterculture rejected materialism and traditional middle-class values. They also protested America’s involvement in Vietnam, emphasized spirituality, particularly Asian mysticism, called for a sexual revolution, and advocated the use of psychedelic drugs to expand one’s consciousness. A popular slogan of the counterculture was “Make love, not war.” It was in 1965 that American poet Allen Ginsberg introduced the term “flower power” at an antiwar protest in Berkeley, California. This term was used to describe a strategy of friendly cooperation in confronting what the flower children considered the injustices of the day. That same year, Timothy Leary, a Harvard professor, published The Psychedelic Reader, in which he wrote that he had experimented with drugs and advised readers to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” In 1966, the International Society for the Krishna Consciousness, which was founded in India in 1958, was brought to the United States and Canada. The Hare Krishnas rejected materialism and lived communally. In 1968, there were confrontations between the counterculture and the political establishment at the Democratic Party national convention in Chicago. Members of the counterculture held a “Festival of Life,” during which they protested the war, attended rock concerts, smoked marijuana, had public sex, held beach nude-ins, and burned their draft cards. Rock ‘n’ roll was an integral part of the counterculture movement, and in 1967 the first large rock gathering was held in Monterey, California. In 1969, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, an event attended by 300,000 people, was held on a dairy farm in upstate New York.
During the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson, who became president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, attempted to build a “Great Society” by passing numerous laws to advance civil rights, help the poor, and protect the environment. In 1965, the Appalachian Regional Development Act, which provided aid to that economically depressed area, was passed, as was the Housing and Urban Development Act, which established a Cabinet-level department to coordinate federal housing programs. The Medicare bill provided health care to the elderly, and the Higher Education Act provided scholarships for more than 140,000 needy students. Other legislation passed during Johnson’s administration liberalized immigrant laws, provided support for the arts, assured truth in packaging, and addressed water and air quality.
This period in U.S. history is also known for the civil rights movement. In March of 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, demanding federal protection of blacks’ voting rights; the new Voting Rights Act was signed later that year. It abolished literary tests and other voter restrictions and authorized federal intervention against voter discrimination. Also in 1965, Thurgood Marshall became the first African American to be elected to the U.S. Supreme Court. A couple of years later, in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
The feminist movement was also influential during the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the mid1960s, the birth control pill was introduced in the United States, and in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roe vs. Wade that a state cannot prevent a woman from having an abortion during the first three months of pregnancy. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded in 1966. Headed by Betty Friedan, who in 1963 published the book The Feminine Mystique, the organization’s membership included many prominent women’s rights advocates. NOW devoted most of its early efforts to alleviating discrimination against women in economic, educational, and social arenas. Numerous other women’s organizations followed: The National Women’s Law Center was founded in 1972 to protect women’s rights, and the Women’s Campaign fund was founded in 1973 to help fund the political campaigns of women candidates.
Richard Nixon was elected president in 1972. Shortly after, however, it was revealed that members of Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President had broken into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in June of that year. Nixon’s attempt to cover up the scandal led to his resignation from office in August, 1974; he became the only U.S. president to have resigned from office to escape impeachment. The Watergate affair, as well as the Vietnam War, led to an increasing disillusionment with and skepticism of American government and politics.
The period from 1965 to 1975 also saw a great deal of scientific and technological development, particularly in the area of space exploration. In 1965, the world’s first commercial communications satellite was launched; later that year Edward White became the first American to walk in space. An unmanned American space probe landed on the moon in 1967, and in 1968 the first manned spacecraft orbited the moon. Neil Armstrong became the first person to step foot on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission of 1969.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Ursula K. Le Guin, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.