Home > Uncategorized > My 1968 – posted 8/22/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 9/2/2018

My 1968 – posted 8/22/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 9/2/2018

This piece was published in the Concord Monitor under the title “The Spirit of ’68”.

50th anniversaries prompt historical look backs. This year is the 50th anniversary of that watershed year, 1968. It still stands as a uniquely transformative year.

1968 is justly recognized as a year of radical rebellion internationally. I think of the events in Prague, Paris and Mexico City. Young people took it to the streets.

In May of that year, ten million workers joined students in a general strike that nearly brought down the French government.

Here in the United States, the war in Vietnam defined the backdrop to our lives. Maybe never before in American history was a war hated so much by so many. The military draft loomed large and young men faced critical decisions about participating in a war that lacked even paper thin rationale.

The war was daily body counts, the credibility gap, pictures of napalmed children, and “we had to destroy it in order to save it”. For people of my generation, Vietnam was defining, birthing a mass anti-war movement.

In January 1968 came the Tet Offensive, an illusion-shattering event. At the time there were over 540,000 American troops in Vietnam. Contrary to the predictions of American military commanders like General Westmoreland, Tet demonstrated that there would be no military victory for the U.S.. By February 1968, half the American public viewed the war as a mistake. Then in March came the My Lai Massacre where hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians were murdered by U.S. Army troops.

President Johnson withdrew from the presidential race shortly after facing a surprisingly competitive challenge in the New Hampshire primary by the anti-war insurgent, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy. Then in March, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy joined the presidential race.

The war shook and shredded old world views. Previous certainties unravelled and new perspectives opened. The Movement, black liberation, and women’s liberation all emerged, along with the 1960’s counterculture.

I was 17, a senior in a private school just outside Philadelphia. Personally, it was a transition time as I prepared to leave high school and head to college in Hartford, Connecticut. I remember:

  • my sister Lisa and I putting a flower petal “Gene McCarthy for President” bumper sticker on the back of my dad’s convertible. We did not have to go “clean for Gene” because at that point we were pre-hippie radical.
  • hearing racist students at my high school applaud the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Anger in black communities erupted in over a hundred cities all across America.
  • listening to the unforgettable music. Bob Dylan had already released John Wesley Harding. 1968 meant Marvin Gaye singing “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, Janis Joplin wailing on “A Piece of my Heart”, Jimi Hendrix doing “All Along the Watchtower” and Phil Ochs singing “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”.
  • staying up late watching returns from the California primary and hearing the devastating news that Robert Kennedy had been assassinated.
  • the student occupation of buildings at Columbia University, freaks and straights, underground newspapers and Liberation News Service and R. Crumb
  • joining the Students for a Democratic Society (also known as SDS) chapter at my college and being given a list of books to read by another student that were not on any college syllabus. Some of the books on the list were: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Fanshen by William Hinton, The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon and The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills.
  • marching across Hartford at night with my SDS chapter to demonstrate against the presidential candidacy of Richard Nixon who had a rally at the Hartford Armory shortly before the November 1968 election.

Most shocking that year was the Chicago Democratic Convention. I was not there but I watched the events unfold on television. It is often remembered for the police riot where Mayor Daley unleashed his police force to attack demonstrators and anyone with long hair.

While the attack on demonstrators was undeniably brutal, that does not explain why Chicago was such a breakaway political experience for so many young people. There was a deeper set of issues at play.

The Democratic primaries in 1968 featured the rivalry between Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy. Both candidates were anti-war and collectively they won an overwhelming majority of the Democratic popular vote during the primary season. After the withdrawal of President Johnson from the race and after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, the Democrats were thrown into total disarray.

The Party establishment responded by choosing Senator Hubert Humphrey to be the Democratic party standardbearer in the general election. Humphrey was Johnson’s Vice-President. Although he had a generally progressive record on civil rights and domestic policy, he was a supporter of Johnson’s hated Vietnam policies. As such, he was a wildly unpopular choice, especially among young people.

These events pushed a chunk of my generation leftward and raised fundamental questions not just about the war but about American society. Why were we in Vietnam anyway? And why were we as a society so unable to tackle poverty and racism? And also, given political realities, how did someone live a life of integrity?

After the summer of 1968, it was hard to see life in quite the same way. I did not know what I wanted to do with my life but I knew I wanted to connect it to the sixties movement for social change in some capacity. I think the uneasiness of this time was best captured in a little-known out-of-print book, A Name for Ourselves, written by once SDS President Paul Potter. Potter critiqued the hyper-individualism in American life and argued for a more communal and collaborative way of life.

1968 was high energy: an exciting, questioning activist time. While I have seen 1968 argued as having an ambiguous legacy, as we face extreme economic inequality, unprecedented corruption and venality, the climate crisis, the resurgence of white racism, and the tremendous threat to women’s reproductive rights, we could use some 1968-like spirit right now.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Sue Hunt
    September 2, 2018 at 3:51 pm

    I read your piece in the Monitor Online this morning. Smith ’68 over here in Alexandria. Our class motto was, The year that changed the world. Dated a fellow who was Trinity ’65 so spent a bit of time in Hartford.
    So tired of all the Facebook rants about our current political situation. No one’s mind is changed, they just sow more of the division engendered by our current president.

    • September 2, 2018 at 8:16 pm

      Hi Sue – I never knew Smith had that class motto..pretty cool

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