A Dialogue About History: 1968: a Pivotal Year

Student Question

The year 1968 is acknowledged by many historians to be one of the most pivotal years in the history of the United States and the World. A large number of society shaking events occurred in that year, such as the assassinations of MLK and RFK (and the ensuing chaos at the DNC in Chicago for the latter), the Tet Offensive, and the encompassing environment of rebellion and protest that permeated the United States and the world. What did Lambertville residents think about the year 1968, what do you remember observing about these events as they occurred around you, and how did these events affect you?

Residents’ Answers

  • All of Man’s inhumanity to Man leaves all of us more impoverished.
  • The same as it is now! The politicians are all crooked at some level! Watch your back as best you can!
  • Some say 1968 was the high point of American civilization, and that it has been going downhill ever since.
  • Year of lost innocence. There was a change in basic faith in our fellow man. We withdrew into music, which was also changing. Most stopped trusting their neighbors.
  • I was in the military in 1968-1970 when all of these events took place. I recall them being tragic examples about how people treat each other. At the time I recall thinking how things could never get worse. How wrong I was.

Student Response

Years which are as fundamentally transformative and earth-shaking for the globe as 1968 do not arrive very often. History can often proceed very slowly at times, and then assume a lightning speed at others. The history of the world is littered with countless examples of dark ages when progress slowed to a halt, and periods of years and decades in which society seemed at a standstill. These periods of darkness and stagnation are always abruptly awakened by a year or so of massive societal change and upheaval, change and upheaval that is never expected or foreseen, at least by the ruling class of society. Such phenomena were witnessed in 1789, 1848, 1871, 1917, among other examples. 1968 is also a year that stands out from the rest of history as a year of tumult and excitement, of hope and despair, of revolution and counter-revolution, and of humanity’s yearning for freedom, but also the imposition of slavery.

Some of the most important events of 1968 were mentioned in the original question, however it would have been impossible to contain all of the seismic events and developments which occurred in that year within a single question. The developments that weren’t listed, all of which had world ranging implications, took place in every corner of the world and were nearly always marked by the spirit of protest and rebellion that pervaded the world at the time. These were phenomena such as the Prague Spring, when the workers of Prague all rose up united, bearing nothing but Molotov cocktails, to face off against Brezhnevite tanks sent to secure the imperialist stranglehold of the USSR on Czechoslovakia. These were phenomena such as the May Events in France, when students in Paris occupied the Sorbonne and triggered a spontaneous general strike across France that threatened the existence of the conservative Gaullist state, and that not even the communist led unions could contain. Students and youth on both sides of the iron curtain demonstrated in protest against authority, power, and oppression, the Cultural Revolution was in full swing in China, and traditional seats of dominion and authority seemed to be crumbling, unable to resist the advancing tide of rebellious freedom. In general, as previously stated, 1968 was characterized by its tumultuous nature, and this tumultuousness which waged war against all sources of authority and power, unlike in 1914 and 1939, came from below, not from above.

All of the responses to the original question have been marked A1, A2, A3, and A4. Each response will be dissected and investigated with full context of the year 1968 in its own subsequent paragraph.

A1: All of Man’s inhumanity to Man leaves all of us more impoverished.

Despite the previous remarks on the character of 1968 being shaped by protest, rebellion, and a flowering of humanity in opposition to the various fetters which are bound upon it, 1968 was also a year characterized by the inhumanity that was rebelled against, and which reimposed itself against the march of progress. It was a year that had the shadow of inhuman tragedy and violence cast upon it, the shadow of man’s ability to forget that his fellows are human as well. Globally, it is impossible to disagree with this statement. The barbaric assault by the US against Vietnam continued that year, and was at its apex. The year began with the Tet Offensive, when at the end of January the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong launched a series of attacks against US and South Vietnamese forces throughout Vietnam. However, the Tet Offensive is not what evidences man’s inhumanity towards man the most in Vietnam. Man’s inhumanity to man is revealed in the My Lai Massacre, which took place on March 16 of that year. Here, American forces led by Lieutenant William Calley murdered around 400 Vietnamese civilians, many of them women and children, and proceeded to commit more atrocities to their corpses once the initial deed had been completed. Motivated by a desire to kill troops of the Viet Cong that blended with the civilian population, the soldiers’ hearts were hardened enough to the extent that they were willing to forget the fact that those on the other side of their bayonets were human creatures that were not capable of harming anyone, as can be seen with the massacre of infants. It says something about the racist chauvinism that was carried in the minds of these soldiers, that they were capable of such an act. Despite seeing poor, wretched, and destitute peasant families looking them right in the eyes, the American soldiers here were able to carry out barbarous acts of inhumanity.

Man’s indifference to harming his fellow man was not unique to the United States at this time. The Soviet Union had changed since its original inception, and no could no longer be claimed to be the standard bearer for the cause of the oppressed and freedom. Instead, Soviet imperialism stretched over the peoples of Eastern Europe and held them in an iron grip meant to feed the Soviet recovery from the Second World War, and to maintain a colonial economic relationship with Eastern Europe. Obviously this was not a beneficial situation to the people of Eastern Europe, and they always bore a strong resentment to the social imperialists that ruled over their countries. The wave of protest and rebellion was not confined to the Western world in 1968, and spread across the iron curtain to the Eastern Bloc. Perhaps in no other place in the Eastern Bloc was this resistance to Soviet imperialism and this desire for self determination better exemplified than in Czechoslovakia and Prague in 1968. After a period of political liberalization undertaken by Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubček, the Soviet Union invaded the country in an attempt to reassert their control. In the city of Prague, where resentment against the Soviets was perhaps at its highest throughout all of Czechoslovakia, protestors battled for days and weeks against Soviet tanks, armed with nothing but Molotov cocktails. The images of the resistance in Prague to the Soviet invasion spread across the world, in which men in armored vehicles and hidden behind riot shields crushed a people’s yearning for freedom. These pictures would be a stark reminder of the acts that man is capable of carrying out, if ordered to do so.

A2: The same as it is now! The politicians are all crooked at some level! Watch your back as best you can!

While 1968 saw the surging of various movements of protest against ruling political bodies, structures, and institutions, many of these upsurges were eventually defeated or subsided as conservatism came to dominate the political atmosphere. The events of May through June of 1968 in France suffice to demonstrate this trend. As well, they reflect the sentiments expressed in the response, that the politicians are all crooked at some level. Though they had a huge impact both in France and across the world, the student and worker uprising in France is not often mentioned in normal historical discourse. Therefore to summarize these events, in May of 1968 France was in a period of tumult. Riots and protests were commonplace, and unrest was alive throughout the country. In early May students occupied the Sorbonne, and a wave of spontaneous actions by the people of France followed suit throughout the month and early June. Factories were seized and taken over by their workers, cities fell to popular revolutionary council governments, and workers demonstrated and walked off their jobs. At one point, 11 million workers, or 22% of the population of France was on strike. The various social democratic, socialist, and communist labor unions could not contain the workers, and were ignored when they appealed for the workers and students to cease their radical demands. Charles De Gaulle, the ruling president at the time, fled to a French military base in West Germany. It seemed that France was on the verge of yet another one of their revolutions. However, order was eventually restored, and snap elections were called for the 23rd of June, in which De Gaulle’s party emerged stronger than before. France would return to a state of normalcy, in which the workers returned to their jobs, demonstrations decreased, and a wave of political conservatism ran over the nation. As a result of all of this protest, the former ruling politicians still came out as the winners, and De Gaulle would continue to rule France for a long period of time to come in the future. The imposition of order upon France by the politicians would return in earnest, and the former radical demands for human autonomy and liberty were to be brushed aside.

A3: Some say 1968 was the high point of American civilization, and that it has been going downhill ever since.

1968 was certainly a year of immense importance for American civilization, however one does not commonly hear people designating the year as the high point of American civilization. Nonetheless, assertions such as these are not made without reason or motive. Before the Tet Offensive, which began on January 30 of 1968, American victory in Vietnam did seem possible and plausible to much of the country. It seemed reasonable that American forces should be able to put down the poor, peasant militia of the Viet Cong, and retain imperial control over half of Vietnam. After all, all that those in charge of fighting proclaimed was that they were winning. Victory seemed to be so close. America was a global military power that had taken over the role of governing the former European colonies, and it seemed as natural as Manifest Destiny to assume that America would be able to conquer all who stood in her way. In addition, the US had not yet experienced any major military defeat that would go on to haunt the nation’s collective conscience and warn it against future military endeavors abroad. Korea was able to be looked back upon as a successful example of keeping the radicals at bay, and it was then naturally supposed that the model would work in Vietnam. It is known today the end result of Vietnam. It is known how after the Tet Offensive, the turning point for American morale in the war, that the prospects for victory, or at least some sort of solution that retained a state in South Vietnam, diminished ever more rapidly. After the defeat in Vietnam, the American conscience was defeated and depressed. The empire had been beaten, and it seemed that American civilization and military prowess no longer held the commanding authority which it once wielded. This was a sentiment that all Americans shared in. It was unavoidable, and raised questions about the fundamental role that America should play on the world stage militarily, if any. Therefore, it is in this light that it can be stated that 1968 was the high point of American civilization, and that it has been on the decline since then.

A4: Year of lost innocence. There was a change in the basic faith in our fellow man. We withdrew into music, which was also changing. Most stopped trusting their neighbors.

1968 was certainly a year in which Americans lost their innocence. It was a year of violence, upheaval, and chaos. Two popular figures that represented the hope and optimism carried by the younger, more radical generation were murdered. Martin Luther King Jr. was a champion of the oppressed and downtrodden in America. He was a firm believer not only in the advancement of rights and equality for African Americans, but also later in his life he became extremely critical of US military adventurism abroad, the capitalist economic system, and the efficacy of nonviolence. In the last years of his life he coordinated anti war activism and worked to organize poor black sanitation workers to fight for dignity and better conditions. He was a bright light for America, a symbol of hope in a nation that was engaged in mass murder abroad and enforcing oppression at home. On April 4, 1968 he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet, revealed to be orchestrated by the FBI in a 1999 civil court case waged by King’s family. Regardless of the killer, his death rang loudly in the nation’s ears. A principled, courageous man who stood up to injustice was struck dead, and the nation was at a loss to respond. The following days witnessed African American riots across the country, in which years of pent up rage at the slow pace of change for equality was released in an awesome flurry of popular revenge. The nation seemed to be tearing itself apart, falling apart at the seams.

Robert F. Kennedy was also assassinated that year. RFK was also an embodiment of the young movement against war and injustice. He offered an alternative to those who traditionally inhabited the halls of power, and presented the option of bringing a voice of peace and change to the oval office. He was popular as well, and would have won the Democratic nomination had it not been for his assassination after the California primaries. Not only did his death enrage even higher numbers of Americans and to an even greater extent, but it also seemed to delegitimize the political process for huge numbers of Americans who saw their efforts at reform fail. At the DNC Convention in Chicago that summer, protestors angry with the nomination of Hubert Humphrey as the Democratic candidate for president took to the streets. Many were affiliated with the Students for a Democratic Society, and belonged to a variety of strands of political radicalism. However regardless of their political affiliations, the nation witnessed videos of cops freely employing violence and force against protestors, as the events in Chicago were broadcast to the nation. The Chicago police were indiscriminate in their attacks against the protestors, jailing and beating those who had broken no laws and sometimes weren’t even protestors but simply lived in the area. The American people were broadcast these videos, and they had a deep impact on a great many people who felt, just as with the aftermath of the MLK assassination, that the nation was falling apart at the seams, and innocence was lost.

The US and the World were both invariably affected by the events of 1968. Tumultuous, chaotic, traumatic, optimistic, revolutionary, radical, solemn, and despairing are all words that can be used to describe that year. The year witnessed a flowering of culture, freedom, and humanity, but also the crushing of hope, failure of revolutions, and the reimposition of authority. It does seem that the spirit of 1968 is still present in society however, and that perhaps one day it will blossom forth more colorful than ever before. It will be up to future historians to judge to what extent our period can be characterized as being similar to that turbulent year, however strikes are on the rise, the political climate is divided between reaction and progress such as has not been seen in a long time, and fundamental questions of American identity and World structure are being questioned. Perhaps 1968 will unmask itself yet again in American history, or perhaps it was an anomaly, and a year entirely unique to itself.