The explosive youth movement of the 1960s was born in the civil rights era and blossomed into a full-blown counterculture on college campuses and at music festivals like Woodstock in 1969. Young people believed they had a lot to say in the 1960s, but the voting age in those days was 21, and so one place they could not speak out was in the voting booth.
That changed 35 years ago this summer with the ratification of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18. There were many forces behind the change, but it's clear that the unpopular war in Vietnam helped make the case.
Between 1965 and 1973, millions of American soldiers--many of them under 21--were drafted or volunteered to fight in Vietnam. More than 50,000 died in what would turn out to be a failed effort to prevent a Communist takeover of the Southeast Asian country and its neighbors.
While "old enough to fight, old enough to vote" was one of the catch-phrases of the 1960s, the sentiment behind it had been expressed decades earlier during both World War II and the Korean War. But for many years there was opposition to lowering the voting age, including from The New York Times, which repeatedly argued against it. "The requirements for a good soldier and for a good voter are not the same," said a 1967 Times editorial. "For the soldier, youthful enthusiasm and physical endurance are of primary importance; for the voter, maturity of judgment far outweighs other qualifications."
But a growing youth movement started to chip away at that view. Young people had begun to assert themselves politically during the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, taking part in demonstrations against racial segregation and poverty. By mid-decade, America's continued involvement in Vietnam proved increasingly unpopular on college campuses, where students marched, held sit-ins, and occupied school buildings to protest the war and challenge authority.
"Students are in rebellion around the country," Fred P. Graham wrote in a column for The Times in 1968. "These energies might better be funneled into political participation."
When the 26th Amendment was approved by the House of Representatives and Senate and sent to the state legislatures in March 1971, it rocketed into the Constitution at record speed: The required three quarters of the states ratified it in just 107 days.
Four days after Ohio provided the crucial 38th ratification vote, President Richard M. Nixon signed a document certifying the amendment at a White House ceremony, surrounded by teenage members of a choral group called Young Americans in Concert. Many of the group's members, along with 11 million others, had just gained the right to vote.
The clean-cut young singers around Nixon, dressed in blue blazers and crisp white...