1968 In America

  • Category: American History
  • Words: 1400
  • Grade: 80

1968 in America

        In Charles Kaiser's book "1968 in America", he writes of the turbulence of a single year in history. He believed that the events of that year were the most pivotal in changing the political and social nature of our country. His quote that 1968 was "The moment when all of a nation's impulses toward violence, idealism, diversity and disorder peaked to produce the greatest possible hope-and the worst imaginable despair", sums up his beliefs in a single sentence.(introduction xv) What follows is a summary of his arguments and my feelings about his statements.

The Politicians
        1968 was an election year and the country was smack dab in the middle of the Vietnam conflict. Vietnam was very much in the minds and the hearts of the American public during this election year. Lyndon Johnson, the current president, was a supporter of the war in Vietnam. In February of that year, the TET offensive occurred in Saigon. The communists attacked the American Embassy and had control for seven hours. Six Americans and 19 Veitcong were killed in the foray. Johnson had had the American public convinced that we were winning the war in Vietnam, this attack on our Embassy gave them the first hint that maybe things were not going as well as they were being led to believe. Yet the attack on our embassy was just a small part of the Tet Offensive. The Vietcong had targeted many parts of Saigon and fighting in the capital city ensued for 26 days. All in all, 142 Marines had been killed and 857 seriously wounded, and through the media coverage, it was happening in everyone's living room.
        Walter Cronkite was giving nightly updates on the war and on February 27th, reporting from Saigon, he told viewers that he felt that we were at a stalemate in Vietnam. He said "It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could"(page 77). This was the first time that an influential, respected journalist was vocal about the war. Lyndon Johnson was devastated by this report. For he knew that if he lost the media, he lost all hope for reelection.
        Eugene McCarthy, a presidential candidate was running an anti-war campaign during this time. He was gaining considerable support from young people across the country. They were labeled "The Kids", and were drawn to McCarthy's cause and were empowered by the strength of their voice. According to Kaiser, "It was probably the last presidential campaign in which most participants were driven by an issue, rather than drawn to a particular personality".(page 83)
        McCarthy's movement gained momentum after he won the primaries in Minnesota and New Hampshire. It was at this time that Robert Kennedy decided to also run for the democratic nomination. This was bad news for McCarthy, who had been told by RFK that he wouldn't run. McCarthy tried to strike a deal with Kennedy so they wouldn't be running against one another for the same issue, but Kennedy wouldn't hear of it and put himself into the fight anyway. During the same time period Lyndon Johnson stunned everyone by declaring that he would not run for re-election.
There was a hard fought battle between McCarthy and Kennedy for the states delegates. Kennedy won Indiana, McCarthy won Oregon. Kennedy had previously stated that he would pull out of the race if he lost California. McCarthy and Kennedy debated before the California election and Kennedy seemed to win this debate. He in fact did win the California primary, but only by a few percentage points. That evening after he had given his victory speech, he was shot and killed by a Jordanian, Sirhan Sirhan.
With the death of RFK, the fight for the democratic nomination took a turn. McCarthy was still in the battle, but not whole-heartedly. Hubert Humphrey, the vice-president, was running against McCarthy and took up some of McCarthy's positions. It ended up that Humphrey won the democratic nomination at the convention in Chicago, but ended up losing the presidential election to Richard Nixon.

The Riots
        Another of Kaisers points in the book is the state of violence that the country was in during 1968. Not only was Kennedy assassinated, but also the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The assassination of King led to riots in the nations capitol.
        Riots also took place in other cities across the nation. One of the most notorious ones was at Columbia University in New York City. Two groups the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Students' Afro-American Society (SAS), joined forces in protesting the building of a gym for the college in a city park. This action coupled with the ongoing protests about the war brought about a virtual take-over of the university. The SDS called for an indoor demonstration, which was not allowed on campus.
        On April 23rd, four hundred students gathered in the commons of the university to hear speakers from the SDS and the SAS speak about the war and the gym. One thing led to another and the students occupied one of the buildings on campus. This led to the take-over of more buildings and they stayed occupied by the students for six and a half days until over one thousand New York City policemen marched onto campus and emptied all the buildings of their occupants.
        The black students that had occupied Hamilton Hall, surrendered without incident. However, the rest of the campus did not go as easily. "There was great violence" was the conclusion of the Cox Commision. (Page 163) Stories by the NY Times started another confrontation at Columbia, which led to fires and the arrest of 177 students with sixty-eight injuries.
        During the Democratic National Convention in August of 1968 in Chicago, another scene of rioting took place. Mayor Daley had refused to allow any city permits for people to camp in the city parks. The day before the convention was to begin, Daley ordered the police to clear Lincoln Park. This led to the first ugly confrontation between war protesters and the police. Riots and police brutality continued for the entire length of the democratic convention.

Music and other issues
        Kaiser also points out the diverse and changing music scene during this time period. Rock and Roll bands, folk singers, black jazz singers and others were commanding the airwaves. Many of these groups had political and social messages to their songs. Bob Dylan wrote often about the Vietnam war and the Beatles also sang about currents events of the time.
        The drug scene was also starting to come to the forefront of the new generation of young people. The "hippies" were rejecting the life that their parents had lived and were experimenting with sex, drugs and rock and roll.
Many adults felt that the kids had no morals and that the country was going downhill fast.

        Although 1968 did see a lot of changes that did indeed shape the future, I feel that taking any single year and analyzing it will lead to similar results. It did see the deaths of two very influential men and at any time that there is a war, the country will be changing. I actually was alive during 1968 although I hardly could have been aware of what was going on around me. If you ask me about the 80's, I could tell you how that era has changed the country. Charles Kaiser was 17 years old in 1968, this is a pivotal year in anyone's life. Most 17-24 year olds are idealistic and still believe that they can change the world. Even as adults most people will look back and think that their young adulthood was the greatest time in their lives. I can't help but feel that Charles Kaiser has done the same thing with the year 1968.
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