1968 was the year the center did not hold. It was the year many Americans saw their country spinning out of control. It was a shocking time, a moment of danger, destruction and division — yet also a time of passion and possibility.
The polarization that plagues the nation half a century later was born, in many ways, in 1968.
Two of the nation’s most cherished leaders, a King and a Kennedy, were assassinated. Americans watched terrible things happen on television — shattered shop windows and burning buildings after the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the heaving grief of mourners alongside railroad tracks as Robert F. Kennedy’s casket passed by. In downtowns where people once came together, looters stole groceries and liquor and TV sets and, for many Americans, their sense of security.
But 1968 was also a shining moment, a year packed with the progress that made today better than yesterday.
Human beings for the first time saw what our planet looks like from space. The Defense Department granted a contract to a company to build the first router, a key step toward connecting computers in different locations.
A white man kissed a black woman on national television for the first time. They were in outer space, and they lived in the future, and they were fictional characters, Capt. Kirk and Lt. Uhura, but they were also on NBC, in millions of homes, in 1968.
Above all, the year divided Americans from one another, to the point that many believed the country was on the verge of chaos. Every day brought new confrontations — students against administrators, blacks against whites, workers against bosses. It was a cacophony of demonstrations, picket lines, radical manifestos, underground publications, sit-ins, be-ins, Yip-ins.
On campuses and in underground political cells, in places as different as Brooklyn, Berkeley and Birmingham, a striking number of people concluded that revolution was at hand, that the United States and probably the entire industrialized West were on the verge of collapse.
Hardly a week went by without reports of bombings and arson attacks from the left and right: San Francisco suffered a rash of explosions and bomb threats by revolutionary groups, resulting in severed phone lines, damaged electrical towers and paralyzed traffic. In Mississippi, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a synagogue. Antiwar radicals burned files at a military draft center in Maryland. That fall, there were 41 antiwar bombings and arson attacks on college campuses.
Race, sex and war
In 1968, the races clashed, college kids faced off against blue-collar workers, the young turned against the old. Parents roamed city streets searching for teenagers who’d run away to be hippies or antiwar activists or just to reject their elders and find the new thing.
The ostensible cause of the division often appeared to be the nation’s dispiriting trudge through a land war 8,000 miles away, in Southeast Asia — a conflict mainly fought by working-class and poor draftees. Young men who enrolled in college got a bye, and they were generally a more affluent and whiter slice of the demographic pie.
The culture war was about race: A white supremacist murdered black America’s strongest voice for equality and grace. At the Olympics, black-gloved fists, held up by two African American athletes for all the world to see, asserted a new dynamic in the country’s oldest, deepest conflict. In America’s cities, blacks demanded access to their share of political power, economic opportunity and cultural visibility. For six weeks in Washington, protesters, inspired by King’s call for a Poor People’s Campaign, camped out on the Mall in tents and shacks, re-christening the space as Resurrection City and demanding that the government create anti-poverty programs.
The culture war was also about sex: From the simple call to “make love, not war” to the growing rift among antiwar activists over the role of women in the movement, the children of the post-World War II baby boom led the country toward new attitudes about sex and sexuality. Women’s liberation magazines issued a battle cry: “Smash monogamy!” And in January, the government approved the IUD — intrauterine device — another big step for a sexual revolution in which lovemaking and childbirth were partially decoupled.
At Princeton, a student organization calling itself the Radical Action Group persuaded the school to relax its parietals, the rules limiting when women could visit students’ rooms. Similar changes swept the country, erasing the notion that colleges would play the role of parent.
Righteous or ‘spoiled rotten’
By 1968, the antiwar activism initiated mostly by elite intellectuals had merged with a broader countercultural youth movement that celebrated music, drugs, fashion, sexual mores and alternative media all crafted in opposition to their parents’ generation. This was “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius,” a time of “sympathy and trust abounding” when “love will steer the stars,” or so insisted the hit musical “Hair,” a show about antiwar hippies that broke Broadway taboos by featuring nudity, drug use, a racially mixed cast and a rock score. Defiance and rebellion spread through songs about revolution, via miniskirts and dashikis, longer hair and fewer shoes, X-rated movies and radio stations that told listeners where to score pot and how to get tested for venereal disease.
“They call themselves flower children,” Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate for president, said that year. “I call them spoiled rotten.”
Curiously, the culture war broke out when, on paper at least, things were supposedly going well for many Americans. Unemployment was unusually low. Gas was cheap. Cities were bursting out into suburbs, driven, in part, by the possibilities of bigger homes, safer streets and a more bucolic life.
More Americans were going to college, science and technology were making major advances, man was about to walk on the moon. The star of the year’s highest-grossing movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” was, presciently, a talking, thinking and rather self-righteous computer that turned out to have strikingly human flaws.
But progress left many behind. Those suburbs bloomed in good part because white parents decided they would rather commute long distances than have their children go to schools experiencing rapid racial change.
Anxiety and fear were palpable in much of the nation, made worse by what felt like a dizzying fall from one of the most optimistic periods in U.S. history, the postwar flush of possibilities that made the late 1940s an American golden age. To the generation that had lived through that time of victory and rising satisfaction, 1968 felt like a collapse into moral decadence, political turmoil and physical decay.
Through most of the year, the nation watched in humiliation as North Korea captured the U.S. Navy ship Pueblo, put its 83 crewmen in prison camps, tortured them and displayed them as propaganda trophies before finally releasing them shortly before Christmas.
Inside the radical movements, efforts to paper over differences between the races in goals and methods mostly failed, and men were frequently accused by women of abusive behavior.
During a takeover of buildings at Columbia University, white students tried to win support from black schoolmates by adopting the slogans of black nationalists. “Up against the wall, motherf---er,” declared an open letter from the head of Students for a Democratic Society to the university’s president. But black activists had their own concept of what needed to change, and when black students took over a university building, they asked white students to leave. Black activists said they needed to lead their own revolt.
A growing divide
The old unities were crumbling. It was still possible in 1968 to tune in to one of the nation’s hugely popular Top 40 AM radio stations and hear both “Hey Jude” (the year’s No. 1 record) and James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” both Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA” and the 5th Dimension’s “Stoned Soul Picnic.”
But over on the smoother sounding FM band, what had been a backwater for hi-fi enthusiasts suddenly morphed into a breeding ground for subcultures. In Detroit, San Francisco, Indianapolis and other cities, classical music stations switched to a format called progressive rock or free-form radio, with DJs who played what they wanted to, got high on the air and preached sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, with a hefty dose of politics.
The counterculture and its antiwar politics began to infuse major national outlets, too. Tom and Dick Smothers, hosts of CBS-TV’s weekly prime-time Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, reached for a connection with alienated young people — and angered some of their network bosses — by mixing their comic sketches with performances by the cast of “Hair,” Jefferson Airplane and Dion, who sang his mournful “Abraham, Martin and John,” a paean to the assassinated American icons Lincoln, King and Kennedy.
America’s divisions were at once serious and silly, searing and superficial.
Soldiers came home scarred by battle, and some were stunned to find themselves greeted not by parades but by strangers’ slurs and sneers. They saw their peers who had stayed home as coddled, entitled, almost criminally isolated from the realities of war.
The Yippies — the Youth International Party — were born at the start of the year, simultaneously a political party and a pot party. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, the ringmasters, were aligned against both the war and the conformity of their parents’ generation. They called news conferences, staged demonstrations and burst onto TV with slogans designed to confuse and confound their elders: “Levitate the Pentagon!” “Acid for all!” “We will f--- on the beaches!” “Abandon the Creeping Meatball!”
The Yippies wanted U.S. troops out of Southeast Asia, and they wanted the abolition of pay toilets.
The president under siege
The line between political show and the far harsher realities of war, poverty and racial discord blurred in 1968. The Yippies danced in the streets, and those same streets ran with blood at the Democratic convention in Chicago and in riots in Washington and other big cities. In Chicago, in front of a Hilton hotel, protesters chanted “pigs are whores,” and a line of police officers waded into the crowd, shouting “kill, kill, kill” as they sprayed Mace and whacked demonstrators with their billy clubs.
The scale of the confrontation was hard to fathom — thousands of police officers beating thousands of unarmed young people — but what was most novel, what oddly made it all so painfully real, was that the entire encounter, 17 excruciating minutes, was broadcast on network television. “The whole world is watching,” protesters shouted, collectively hoping that the nation was still capable of shame.
A Gallup Poll that fall found that 56 percent of Americans approved of how the police “dealt with the young people who were registering their protest against the Vietnam War at the time of the Democratic convention.”
Throughout the year, in Chicago and across the country, demonstrators chanted, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” The power of the crowd was palpable. President Lyndon Baines Johnson faced jeers wherever he traveled; he ended up making many of his speeches on military bases because they were the only places where he could avoid the anger of the people. “I felt that I was being chased on all sides by a giant stampede coming at me from all directions,” he said.
In March, Johnson announced he would not stand for a second term.
The kids on the streets — who had provided the energy for Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s insurgent antiwar campaign against his own party’s president — had won one, but nothing was settled.
On the left, activists boasted of sowing chaos, which they believed would force the end of the war and the beginning of a new society. At Columbia, after student occupiers finally left the administration building, a sign was found taped to a wall: “We Want the World and We Want It Now!”
On the right, a vengeful anger elbowed out old debates about policy. “If any demonstrator lies down in front of my car when I’m president, that’ll be the last car he lays down in front of,” said George Wallace, the segregationist who was running for president as a third-party candidate.
The Alabama governor told crowds that “there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republicans and Democrats,” a message that clicked with disaffected, frustrated white voters. He won 13.5 percent of the vote and five Southern states with an appeal — railing against elites, government and the media — that would become a mainstay of Republican campaigns from Nixon to Donald Trump.
LOVE . . . and fear
Americans in 1968 looked around their country and saw different realities.
“Hell, no, we won’t go,” one side shouted.
“America, love it or leave it,” the other replied.
Each camp told its story in its own way. Underground newspapers blossomed — the Berkeley Barb, the East Village Other, the Los Angeles Free Press. The Whole Earth Catalog, a print precursor to the freewheeling crowdsourcing of the World Wide Web, debuted, offering back-to-the-earth gardening and home-building instructions, utopian philosophical tracts and survivalist tips.
The fringes of the culture quickly blended into the mainstream. The American Broadcasting Company, seeing a way to make money on the revolt against the establishment, dumped classical and Broadway music on ABC’s seven FM stations and premiered a format called LOVE. “We’ll be in the progressive rock bag,” wrote the creator of the format, Allen Shaw, “but the music is only an indicator of a more deeply rooted set of changes in our society.”
The pitch to potential advertisers was classically American — at once revolutionary and reactionary, both accepting and co-opting the rebellion. “You’ll hear things you may not like,” ABC told advertisers. “LOVE is a feeling, an understanding and caring for humanity.” But face it, the network said: Young people are also “establishing brand preferences, obtaining credit cards, and starting new careers and families.”
The situation in Vietnam pressured all kinds of institutions — churches, colleges, professional organizations, the news media — to take a stand. Walter Cronkite, who would go down in history as the nation’s most trusted newsman, ended a CBS special on Feb. 27 with the only commentary he ever delivered on the war. He said it was time to get out: “It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out will be to negotiate . . . as an honorable people who . . . did the best they could.”
On the right, as well as the left, there was a new urgency to identify and connect with like-minded people. In a Wallace for President ad, a woman walks alone on a suburban street at night, the click of her heels the only sound. An announcer intones: “Why are more and more millions of Americans turning to Governor Wallace? Take a walk in your street or park — tonight.” Whereupon the camera zooms in on a streetlight. A gun fires. The light shatters. The footsteps stop.
Fear metastasized that year. The Gallup Poll found that the number of people who called crime or violence during racial unrest the country’s most important problem tripled over the course of the year. An average of 46 Americans a day were dying in Vietnam, and 1968 was the first year that a majority of Americans told Gallup that the war was a mistake.
Fifty years ago, in ways that echo today, the nation was divided against itself, polarized by politics and geography, race and class. Increasingly, people subscribed to different versions of reality, ascribing venal intent to leaders of the other side. People who had never gotten involved in politics before took to the streets. If Americans shared anything, it was a sense that the country was in deep trouble, perhaps doomed.
A few days after King was killed, Jackie Kennedy, the president’s widow, told a historian that a virus of violence had overtaken the country. “Do you know what I think will happen to Bobby?” she asked about her brother-in-law. “The same thing that happened to Jack. There is so much hatred in this country.”
Two months later, it happened.
“America is in trouble today,” Nixon said in a campaign ad jammed with stark images of bayonets, gutted buildings, soldiers in anguish, burning cities. “We see Americans hating each other, fighting each other, killing each other at home. We see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. . . . Did we come all this way for this?”
In the ad, a plaintive flute whistles tones of disappointment. A picture of a battered, twisted baby doll freezes on the screen. But Nixon won not only with such portraits of American carnage. Against the chaos of 1968, he also posited a different America, one that pushed back against discord and disorder.
In a time of anxiety and division, Nixon chose a surprisingly gentle appeal to the people’s belief in themselves. Over photos of smiling workers and families, he summoned “the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators. . . . They are black, and they are white, native-born and foreign-born, young and old. . . . They are good people, decent people. . . . They know that this country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless it is a good place for all of us to live in.”
Was this Madison Avenue trickery, an expression of faux empathy, or was it a genuine appeal to America’s better angels? In 1968, a year of violence and flower power, delirium and demons, it was hard to trust the words of a man who would be remembered as a cynical practitioner of the darkest arts of politics.
Sales job or plea for unity? Who could tell, especially in a year when everything changed, and yet people wondered: Had anything really changed?
About this story
Pop culture photos by Associated Press, NASA, Silver Screen Collection via Getty Images, Sunset Boulevard via Getty Images and Michael Putland/Getty Images. Social upheaval photos by Dave Pickoff/Associated Press and Steve Northup/The Washington Post. Daily life photos by Steve Northup/The Washington Post. Politics photos by Bob Daugherty/Associated Press, Associated Press and Steve Northup/The Washington Post. Vietnam photos by CBS Archive via Getty Images, Art Greenspon/Associated Press, John Lent/Associated Press and Eddie Adams/Associated Press.
Photo editing by Robert Miller and Nick Kirkpatrick. Produced by Julie Vitkovskaya. Edited by Mary Hadar. Design and development by Jake Crump.