(This essay was originally published as “1968 was the high water mark in a decade of discord,” by the Newport Daily News on June 12, 2018.)
Fifty years ago Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, having just won the California Democratic primary. Sirhan Sirhan, a Jordanian and resident alien, shot him in the head with a .22 cal. pistol.
This was only one of many significant events of the 1960s—tragic, turbulent years in which American civilization seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Americans were divided like no other time since the Civil War. For those of us who lived through it, it was a decade in which we knew history—for good or bad—was being made, and we were witnessing, living, and even making it.
The year 1968 was the high water mark of the decade for our discord and disunity, and for some the height of their hope for a new America, indeed a new world. It was as if a volcano of turbulence, its core temperatures beginning to rise in the 1950s, its lava beginning to flow at that lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, spewed forth its molten lava in the 1960s and reached its furious peak in 1968.
Twenty years later, Lance Morrow, writing of the year in Time, said: “…the air of public life seemed to be on fire, and that public fire singed the private self.” … “Nineteen sixty-eight was a knife blade that severed past from future.”
There were significant events in 1968 for all the major “movements” of the decade: anti-Vietnam War, civil rights and social equality, counter-culture, and women. (The environmental movement was inchoate.) Thanks to TV, Americans watched these events unfold in their living rooms.
On January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces launched a widespread offensive against South Vietnam, including attacks on 36 of 44 provincial capitals. The Tet Offensive belied statements by American officials that we could see “the light at the end of the tunnel” of this war. Trusted and venerable news anchor Walter Cronkite was incredulous and asked: “What the hell is going on?”
Weeks later President Lyndon Johnson signaled his personal disillusionment and defeat when he announced on national TV: “… I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President ….”
On April 4, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preacher of non-violence and beacon of the black civil rights movement was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis, TN. Race riots erupted across America in 130 cities, including Newark, NJ, 20 minutes from my home.
Nineteen days later, radical students at Columbia University, NYC, began occupying five buildings on the campus, continuing for almost a week. The students moved into the office of the university president and smoked his cigars. Columbia student Mark Rudd wrote an open letter to him and ended it with: “Up against the wall, m——-r, this is a stickup.”
As America was falling apart in the spring and summer, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel sang out forlornly in their song, Mrs. Robinson: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio/A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” The hit “rock-musical” Hair opened on Broadway in April 1968 and sang of the “age of Aquarius.” When the stars are aligned properly: “Then peace will guide the planets/And love will steer the stars.”
In August, young protestors in the streets of Chicago demonstrated and taunted police during the Democratic National Convention. Eventually they were violently assaulted by police with tear gas and nightsticks, and over 1,000 were injured.
In early September, members of the National Women’s Liberation Party picketed the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, NJ, denouncing it as degrading to women. At the same time there, the first Miss Black America pageant was held in protest against the all-white pageant.
In October at the Olympics in Mexico City, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medal winners in the 200-meter race, raised their fists in a Black Power salute as the national anthem played.
With the election of Richard Nixon to the presidency in November, the volcano began to subside. In a few months the Democrats departed the White House and a new Republican Administration arrived with a new mindset and a new cast of characters, including Henry Kissinger, John Ehrlichman, and John Mitchell. There was still much turmoil to come in the early 1970s: the invasion of Cambodia, Kent State, and Watergate; however, American civilization had been through the worst of it.
The year ended on an upbeat note. On Christmas Eve astronauts Frank Borman, William Anders, and James Lovell made revolutions around the moon in Apollo 8. Lovell later said: “It was the final bright star in the last gasp of 1968.”
For me personally, it was the year I began my junior year at West Point, thus committing myself to West Point and at least five years of service to this fractured country.
Fred Zilian (Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University and a monthly columnist.