Many have debated whether 2017 was the most chaotic, traumatic, crazy year in recent American history. But as its 50th anniversary dawns, the searing events of 1968 remind us that no other year has come close in terms of dividing, traumatizing and polarizing Americans.
As 1968 began, the Beatles’ song from the year before could still be heard on record players and on radios:
I read the news today, oh boy…
And what a flashing kaleidoscope of news it was. By turns amazing, shocking, depressing, inspiring, enraging, the news in 1968 seemed to have entered some uncharted realm.
Things started normally enough. Americans woke on New Year’s Day to discover a UPI dispatch reporting that the Census Bureau put the U.S. population at just over 200 million. During the first few days of January, they could also read about the exploits of the dashing O.J. Simpson, who rushed the University of Southern California to victory in the Rose Bowl. Gary, Ind., got a new “Negro” mayor, Richard Hatcher, whose first act was to appoint a white chief of police and order him to crack down on crime.
During the first week of 1968, the Associated Press reported that President Lyndon Johnson had signed legislation lifting the 15 percent tax on bagpipes (Bagpipes? Who knew?).
The New York Times reported that cigarette sales were up 7.5 percent, to 46.6 billion smokes. The paper also took note of the fashion trend of the era, the miniskirt, and asked the classic question during periods when the hemline is up: “Will It Go Down?” The paper waffled and said only that the issue was a “cliff-hanger” heading into 1968.
Stuck among this usual kaleidoscope of news was one Times headline that would turn out to be applicable throughout the year:
TOP OFFICIALS FRET OVER NATION’S ILLS
There was plenty to fret about: the issues of crime, housing, violence, race and war were not getting any better. And that was just the first week.
The situation in Vietnam had been bleak for a while. Trying to sum it up in a front-page piece on Jan. 1, star Times correspondent R.W. “Johnny” Apple led with:
SAIGON, South Vietnam, Dec. 31 — American officials at almost all levels, both in Saigon and in the provinces, say they are under steadily increasing pressure from Washington to produce convincing evidence of progress, especially by the South Vietnamese ….
But in late January, the lid flew off the official version in Vietnam.
Suddenly, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army were attacking everywhere at once. They were fighting in the daytime, with big units in regular formations. They must not have listened to Gen. William C. Westmoreland’s briefings — the top U.S. military guy in Vietnam had been saying for months that the war was just about over. But now, the Americans and the ARVN forces were taking grievous losses in just about every province.
In the weeks following the Tet Offensive, the G. I.s and their allies fought back, of course, and they eventually retook all the lost territory. But these successes did little to restore any real confidence among Americans that there was a military solution in Vietnam. In the end, it took Walter Cronkite to look Americans in the eye and level with them: Vietnam was a stalemate, and we might as well bail out.
As the year continued, the headlines from the home front kept growing larger and bleaker.
At the end of February, the Kerner Commission weighed in on the previous year’s urban riots. “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal,” the report warned, adding that the news media were part of the problem because “the media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world.” And, incidentally, the report pointed out that it was high time the news media hired some black reporters.
Within weeks, more shocks: The U.S. abandoned the gold standard.
Then, in April, the news was suddenly wall-to-wall. In the estimation of the Times’s managing editor, Arthur Gelb, the first week of April 1968 was “the most crowded week of news since World War II.”
The chaos actually began when the president requested airtime on the TV networks on March 31 to discuss the war. The advance text did not include the closing lines, which were written at the last minute by Johnson himself. So no one was prepared when Johnson suddenly announced: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
It was a political earthquake, followed days later by the bulletins from Memphis: Martin Luther King Jr. shot — assassinated, almost like President John F. Kennedy. In no time, the fury caused by King’s death erupted in the streets: Newark, Baltimore, Chicago, Louisville, Washington, even on military bases in Vietnam.
That spring, the whole world seemed to be freaking out. Radical students at Columbia took over buildings and demanded an end to Columbia’s involvement in the war and its expansion into the surrounding neighborhood.
Then came June 5. Bobby Kennedy won the California primary and was making his way through a crowded hotel in Los Angeles when a lone gunman shot him, practically point-blank. The next day, he died. Another national funeral, another round of anguished self-examination. Were Americans “the people of the gun”?
The blows kept coming. In late July, Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical condemning birth control. What a lot people heard was: Sex is only for making babies. Thou shalt not have sex for the hell of it.
Within two weeks, the Republicans gathered in Miami Beach, and their convention clearly exposed that they were the party of straight, white, square people who accepted hierarchy, who appreciated order and who had no intention of turning the country over to a bunch of dirty hippies and crazy radicals.
At the end of the month, the Democrats met in Chicago, and they staged a brawl inside the convention hall and outside. Two gifted provocateurs, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, told the world that their Yippie Party had big plans:
We will burn Chicago to the ground!
We will f — k on the beaches!
We demand the Politics of Ecstasy!
Acid for all!
Abandon the creeping meatball!
Provoked by such tactics and spoiling for a fight to begin with, the Chicago police erupted in a frenzy of beatings, letting the godd — n hippies know who was boss in Chicago. While the whole world watched, cops beat the kids — and they beat a few journalists, too, for good measure.
The media were horrified, but many Americans applauded someone finally giving the hippies what they deserved.
A few weeks later, it was time to question another American tradition, the Miss America pageant. Demanding an end to their “enslavement,” a group of radical feminists picketed the pageant, setting up a “freedom trash can” on the Atlantic City Boardwalk which they filled with girdles, bras, high-heeled shoes, hair curlers and other things that pinched or demeaned women. The media went berserk, even inventing the myth that women took off their bras and burned them.
In October, at the Olympics in Mexico City, two U.S. sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, went to the stand to get their medals and raised their gloved fists in a Black Power salute. Again, the whole world was watching.
On Nov. 5, Richard M. Nixon and Spiro Agnew captured the White House — but with less than 44 percent of the popular vote.
In late November, the Beatles released another album — one with no apparent name, just a white cover — that featured a song called “Revolution.” Did they mean it?
Finally, just at the end of the year, the space program came through with some good news. Three astronauts managed to fly into space, orbit around the moon, see the dark side and make it home safe and sound.
It had been quite a year.