OPINION: Horrors of 1968

OPINION: Horrors of 1968

With last week’s commemoration of the assassination of Martin Luther King still fresh in mind, I can’t help thinking about some of the other horrors of 1968 — the only year in my memory when things were truly falling apart, the center could not hold, and mere anarchy was loosed upon the world, or at least upon the United States.

Setting the mood, perhaps, in January a U.S. spy ship, the Pueblo, was seized by North Korea, and its 83 crew members wouldn’t be released until December, so a nervous edge had been established for the year. 

On TV we watched the Tet offensive in Vietnam, which once and for all snuffed out the mythical “light at the end of the tunnel” that only the Pentagon and President Johnson had been able to see. In February the weekly body count hit a new high — 543 Americans killed in action, and 2,547 wounded. We watched as Walter Cronkite said that the war was, in his view, locked in a stalemate.

Then Robert Kennedy got into the presidential race. Then came the My Lai massacre. Then LBJ in effect abdicated, deciding not to run for a second term under the pressure of the antiwar movement.

Four days later, MLK was murdered, and what I now remember most vividly about 1968 is the smoke and the flames of April, with people rioting in Washington, Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, New York, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and dozens of other cities across the country. I remember machine gun emplacements on the steps of the Capitol, and smoke rising behind the great dome. Mere anarchy indeed, and we watched it all on TV.

Later, in August, we would watch the police rioting in Chicago, with Abe Ribicoff, Connecticut’s former governor and a member of President John Kennedy’s Cabinet, denouncing Mayor Richard Daley’s “gestapo tactics” from the podium of the Democratic National Convention. (Yrs Trly, age 19, had planned to attend that little hootenanny, but I decided to sprain my ankle instead.) Also in August, the U.S. troop level in Vietnam would rise to 541,000.

But first let’s backtrack: With the nation still reeling from the MLK murder, Robert Kennedy is fatally shot in June, after winning the California Democratic primary. His funeral train makes the slow journey from New York to Washington. 

The Democrats nominate Sen. Hubert Humphrey for president, the Republicans pick former Vice President Richard Nixon, and the independent former Alabama Gov. George Wallace chooses retired Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis E. “bomb them back to the stone age” LeMay to be his running mate. Nixon wins.

Not much else happened in 1968 — except that antiwar protesters occupied buildings at Columbia University, the U.S. and North Vietnam began peace talks in Paris, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, LBJ slapped a 10 percent surcharge on income taxes to pay for the war, Arlo Guthrie introduced a 20-minute ballad called “Alice's Restaurant” at the Newport Folk Festival, LBJ announced a total halt to U.S. bombing of North Vietnam, Andy Warhol was shot by a struggling actress and writer named Valerie Solanis, Women’s Liberation groups protested the Miss America Beauty Contest in Atlantic City, and Jackie Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis.

That’s about it.

Reach Glenn Richter at grichter@record-journal.com.


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