At 11 p.m. on August 20, nearly 200,000 troops, elements of 20 Soviet, two Polish, two Hungarian, and two East German divisions, and token Bulgarians, with 500 tanks and much heavy artillery, invaded Czecho-Slovakia. Trouble had been grow-deeps of the Atlantic. More than 5,000 sheep were killed near Skull Valley, Utah, when nerve gas was blown downwind from a U.S. chemical and biological warfare proving ground.By the end of the year 1.5 million acres of Vietnam would be stripped of its green mansions by defoliation spray. During the year we and the Russians competitively hurled 35 bits of bric-a-brac, each weighing many tons, into the black heavens.
Scientists were doing their best to slow down our plunge to entropy, but the impression one got was of slippage: the gains would fit in the losses' hat. In the joint U.S. - Canadian whooping-crane-survival project, ten chicks were raised, and that brought the world population of the species up to 63. Coddling moths -- cause of wormy apples -- were wiped out from a 93-acre Yakima, Washington, orchard by letting loose a million male moths who had been sterilized by cobalt radiation; their lust was still joyous but their partners' eggs were duds. A team was trying to develop biodefradable glass, so that roadside beer bottles would crumble back to nature.
How much deterioration of the cosmos around them could humans stand? A panel of scientists recommended tests over populated area to see how bad the noise pollution of supersonic planes would be. "It's not clear," said Harvard's Roger Revelle, "just how intolerable is 'intolerable.'" Los Angeles Times columnist jack Smith, on a freeway of that city, looked at the sunset through windshield and smog and wondered what someone from an earlier century would have thought: "A rational man like Dr. Johnson, must surely see that the species had at last given up its glimmer of sanity and was annihilating itself in this magnificent, psychotic Gotterdamerung ."
On July 29, Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Humanae Vitae ("Of Human Life"), gave firth control thumbs down. His view was that the threat of overpopulation came from "blameworthy indolence in confronting the efforts necessary to insure the raising of living standards of people." Reaction to the Pope, on the part of U.S. Catholics, among others, was cool. Although the U.S. was chipping in a valiant effort to keep the world census down -- American deaths alone in Vietnam in the first half of 1968 exceeded the total for all of 1967, 25,000 altogether; and the VC body count was also a help, even at a discount; and the NLF massacre of a reported 2,800 at Hue had been a contribution -- nevertheless the world population by the end of the year would reach 3.5 billion, and UN figures showed it doubling by the year 2006. Fastest gains would be in the nations least able to support their peoples. The U.S. would not double up until 2031. How nice in the 21st century to be a whooping crane.
The most natural human response in the world to all these circumstances would be just what we saw in '68 -- an orgy of grabbing while the grabbing was good; let the overcrowded unborn fend for themselves. The word NOW was more and more being capitalized. Nothing was stranger in this strange year than the comfortable coexistence in our national life of agony and the pleasure principle.
On the July 29 non-fiction best-seller list, No. 1 was The Money Game . Americans played it with both fists. In July and August they shelled out $29.1 billion and $29.2 billion, respectively, in retail stores -- over 10 percent more than they had spent in those months in 1967. American women were to be able to cover themselves, by year's end, with 10,775,000 mink pelts; sea otter fur, which had been off the market since 1911 because of the near extinction of the creatures, came back, and Nieman-Marcus of Dallas paid a top auction price of $2,300 per pelt. If only each sea otter could have known, while alive, its worth! Americans drank $19.7 billion worth of hard liquor in 1968 -- only $6 billion less than the country spent on killing in Vietnam; and this, of course, didn't count beer, of which the U.S. brewed 3.53 billion gallons, or wines -- over 200 million gallons of domestics, not to mention imports.
Records fell right and left. Arnold Palmer's earnings, after he won the Kemper Open, passed the million mark; the Doors, a rock group, were offered half a million by Universal to appear in a movie; Renoir's "Le Pont des Arts" was sold foter five minutes' bidding at Parke-Bernet for a record for Impressionists, $1,550,000.
We were indeed at Fat City USA. Stock prices went through old ceilings; the Stock Exchanges had to cut down on trading time so brokers could catch up. Gobble gobble gobble. There were 4,500 corporate mergers and takeovers in 1968; the 78 largest manufacturers earned nearly half of all manufacturing profits -- and the Federal Trade Commission decided it was time to scan the conglomerates for anti-trustworthiness.
So rampant in the land was greed that Congress was obliged to pass more and more restraints -- "truth in packaging" and "truth in lending" laws; auto safety laws; a flammable fabrics law; new meat- and poultry-inspection measures; vurbs on numerous dangerous products; new laws on mail fraud, deceptive land deals, auto liability insurances. And it imposed a 10 percent surcharge on income taxes to cool the country down.
Huey Newton, the Black Panther, is put on trial for murder. . . .Cries of "Free Huey!" . . .