What a year it was. Fifty years ago, the world was upside down. Sound familiar? Events of 2018, as incredible as they are, seem somewhat mild in comparison to 1968.
The bright promise of the 1960s was fading into a tragic decade of harsh reality. It was a year of scientific advancement, artistic accomplishment, bold fashion statements and cultural awakening. The “Summer of Love” had faded. The year is mostly known as a year of bloodshed, civil unrest, extreme political divergence, war, and a new American President. If you were in search of a year with extreme highs and lows, this was the year for you. Was it a year of transition? It was at home and around the world politically, militarily, socially, culturally and technologically.
Let’s look at some of the events and what they meant.
Vietnam. This was the year of the Tet Offensive. The Viet Cong had quietly been moving into South Vietnam and launched a coordinated offensive against military targets, cities and civilian areas on January 30. By September, the offensive was halted and deemed a failure by the U.S., but it was a huge moral and psychological victory for the North Vietnamese. The U.S. Embassy in Saigon was under siege as battles were waged in major cities, where the fighting was block by block. The jungle battle moved directly to the streets and the U.S. base of political operations. The Battle of Khe Sanh was one of the bloodiest battles of the war and lasted nearly five months. The Marine compound was surrounded by the North Vietnamese Army and under constant attack. Supplies and reinforcements had to be sent by air. In the end, the Marines destroyed what was left the base before evacuating it. It was said that this battle distracted American forces during the Viet Cong build-up for Tet.
Photos and videos of the war’s brutality played on the nightly news. Who can forget the execution of the Viet Cong prisoner by the South Vietnamese National Police Chief. A bullet to the head at close range. The My Lai Massacre happened on March 16, the mass killing of men, women and children by American soldiers, but the world would not know of it until a year later. Other atrocities would surface, including the killings of civilians, as the casualties of war were piling up all over the place. In Vietnam, politically and militarily, the wheels were coming off with increasing speed. Protests and strikes took place with increasing frequency across the world and would shape the upcoming U.S. Presidential election. Even Walter Cronkite, in a rare commentary during his newscast, declared that the war was unwinnable. While the hawks held tight, doves were growing in number.
USS Pueblo. On January 23, the North Koreans fired on and seized the U.S. Navy vessel USS Pueblo. Accused of spying and violating North Korean waters, the crew members are held for 11 months, during which time they are beaten and forced to admit they were on a spy mission. While the crew was eventually released, the ship was never returned. It sits as a museum along the Potong River in Pyongyang, North Korea, as a symbol of victory against the U.S.
Biafra. Today, no one remembers the tiny African nation that broke lose from Nigeria in 1967. Political, military and economic struggles spelled disaster for this small nation. A blockade by Nigeria compounded health and food problems as a reported two million Biafrans died from starvation during their two years as a nation. Photos of starving children raised awareness and donations.
Assassinations. On April 4, Martin Luther King is assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. James Earl Jones is eventually arrested for the killing. King’s murder sets off scores of protests and riots across the country. On June 5, Robert F. Kennedy is shot at the Ambassador Hotel, moments after addressing the crowd following the California Primary. He dies hours later. Sirhan Sirhan is arrested at the scene for Kennedy’s murder. After the March 31 announcement by Lyndon Johnson that he would not run for re-election, Kennedy was surging ahead for the Democratic nomination for President. The funeral train transporting Kennedy’s body from Boston to Washington was met along the route by tens of thousands of mourners. This was before social media; people just felt the need to pay their respect.
Political Unrest. Not only was there protest in the U.S., but in Europe and South America where governments were balancing on the edge of revolution. In Czechoslovakia, the new leader of the Communist Party introduced a period of political liberalization, which ran counter to the Brezhnev doctrine for Soviet controlled countries. This brief period of liberalization during 1968 was called the Prague Spring. In response, Poland and other Warsaw Pact countries invaded with 700,000 troops and tanks to squash the liberalization effort. Poland was having its own problems; students marched as the government cracked down on intellectuals and students, and revenge was taken on Polish Jews in response to support for the 1967 Six Day War. There were also large-scale student protests in Yugoslavia and Brazil against their governments.
Protests. The year in general was marked by protest, rebellion and strikes across the globe. Vietnam sparked protests in the U.S. as well as in France, Britain and other countries. This was the year of the student protest, protesting against their government, freedoms of speech, actions against intellectuals and even against American influence. In numerous countries, strikes and demonstrations by workers were for better wages and working conditions. In France, one million people took part in the Paris Student riots. Students, teachers and workers also staged a general strike in France.
Students at Columbia University shut down the university and administrative offices.
The term, “sit-in”, became popular as a peaceful way of protesting and effective way of disrupting operations. Similar events happened at other universities. Later in the year, all hell would break out at the Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Protests in America. In 1968, there were protests over the war, civil rights, farm worker conditions and wages, sexism, poverty, old world values and virtually everything else. Anti-war movements were mixed in with political campaigns. Eugene McCarthy’s Presidential campaign focused on getting out of Vietnam. Robert Kennedy’s campaign was broader than that but it contained a commitment to leave Vietnam. Even Richard Nixon had a plan to end America’s presence there. Protests against the war expanded from students to include middle American.
During the Mexico Summer Olympics, two U.S. athletes (Tommie Smith and John Carlos), while accepting their medals, raised their gloved fists in protest, sparking tremendous controversy. Sound familiar?
In the 1960s, every home had a TV set, many in color, and the evening news brought the world, including problems in America, into everyone’s living room. It was difficult to escape the harsh realities. Families even dissected world events over the dinner table. Bring on the Alka Seltzer.
The Democratic Convention. Vietnam was not the only battle ground for Americans. Chicago became the spot where anti-war protesters and police battled in the streets, and then the action spilled into the Convention Hall. Delegates fought over party planks and candidates, and security fought with reports as Dan Rather, while he was live on the air and being physically removed from the convention floor. The Chicago police were later criticized as bullies looking for a fight. All of this played out on television.
Space Race. American and the Soviets were locked in a race to the moon. The crew of Apollo 8 orbited the Moon, traveling further than any humans in history had ever gone. President Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely, was close to being realized.
Science. Elsewhere in science. The first successful bone marrow transplant is done. The semi-conductor chip company, Intel is founded. The patient for the jacuzzi hot tub is granted, swingers everywhere rejoiced.
The Arts. It was the year of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hair, Planet of the Apes, Rosemary’s Baby, Night of the Living Dead, Bullitt and Targets. Escapism, terror and violence. Musically, it was “Hey Jude”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, “The Dock of the Bay”, “Mrs. Robinson”, “Classical Gas”, “Love is Blue”, “MacArthur Park”, “Jumpin Jack Flash”, “Magic Carpet Ride”, “Piece of My Heart”, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose”, “All Along the Watchtower”, and “Stand By Your Man”. Rock ‘n’ Roll, soul, blues and a little country. In literature: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (later known as Bladerunner), Myra Breckenridge, The Boys in the Band, The Population Bomb, Chariots of the Gods?, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, M*A*S*H. Science fiction, sexuality, and overpopulation. On television: Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, Gomer Pyle, Bonanza, Mayberry RFD, Family Affair, Gunsmoke, Julia, The Dean Martin Show, Here’s Lucy and The Beverly Hillbillies were the top ten shows. Escapism, family shows and violence. That is a great viewer cocktail.
I lived through 1968 and it was a period of confusion for a pre-teen. I saw the television news most nights and read the newspaper daily, it was hard not to know about events down the street and around the world. The Vietnam War seemed to dominate everything. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, which happened so close together, introduced a sense of anarchy. How could these events happen? Every day seemed to bring a news report of a protest, riot or march, either in an American city or in another country. The frequency of these events, and the often push-back against government made me wonder if the world order was about to collapse. The 1960s was a unique time to grow up, but the later years of the decade brought a lot of concern and questions. As I look at 1968 and 2018, I see many of the same issues and conflict points, even though we have skipped ahead a generation or two. What changed in 50 years? I am not sure.