David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN July 15, 2018
It has been 50 years since 1968, especially “The Summer of ’68,” which shook up the American political system and social landscape. That year tops most lists of “most important years” with former CBS newscaster Dan Rather calling it, “one of the most transformative and consequential years in American history.”
1968 must seem so long ago to Gen Xers and Millennials. I was a high school junior then, and anyone talking about 50 years prior back then—that would have been 1918 — would certainly been considered a “square” or “out of touch.”
But the impact of 1968 is with us today. This past spring, CNN had a four-hour series subtitled “The Year that Changed America” that relived much of the tragedy, dramma, passion, and chaos of 1968.
The year 1968 may best be known for the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy or the bloody Democratic Convention in Chicago that August, but there were history-making events and people almost every day of that year.
Some may have been forgotten but several of the themes are still with us.
In January 1968, North Korean patrol boats captured the USS Pueblo, a U.S. Navy intelligence gathering vessel on charges of violating its 12-mile territorial limit. This crisis dragged on for months with the crew being released Dec. 22 in an undignified fashion. Of course, the Vietnam War dominated politics and daily lives. Our lengthy involvement destroyed lives, eroded trust in government, and disrupted the economy.
Due to political disagreement and refusal to raise taxes for increased spending, the U.S. faced a decade of inflation and a legacy of national deficits. Except for three years at the end of the Clinton administration, we have had an annual debt since 1969. An anguished President Lyndon Baines Johnson stunned the nation when he said that he “would not seek nor accept the nomination of my party to be your next president.”
That declaration set off chaos in the Democratic Party among party regulars, labors, blacks, and young voters that has yet to be healed.
Republicans were less polarized and successful in electing Richard Nixon, who had lost in 1960, in what Joe McGinniss’s “The Selling of the President 1968” describes as the prototype modern campaign of candidate-controlled events, the well-crafted vague and general stump speech, with targeted appeals to “the base.”
In October, a Senate filibuster blocked President Johnson’s nomination of Abe Fortas to replace Earl Warren as Supreme Court Chief Justice, thus giving Republican Nixon the judicial nomination that began the Republican grip on the Supreme Court.
As has occurred in most presidential elections since an independent candidate, in this case George Wallace, received enough votes to make Nixon a minority president with 43.7 percent of the vote. Theodore H. White in “The Making of the President 1968” observed that politicians classify elections as squeakers or landslides and commented, “it was a squeaker for the Republicans, and a landslide for the Democrats,” a statement that could apply as much to 2016 as 1968.
There were many non-election significant events in 1968 that drove issues still relevant today. In June, African American leaders tried to continue Martin Luther King’s influence with the “Poor People’s Campaign” while in September feminists protested the Miss America pageant. Similarly, the ’68 Olympics in Mexico City saw U.S. track medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos protest by raising their gloved fists during the national anthem at their medal ceremony, thus pre-dating National Football League players taking a knee and kneeling during the national anthem.
Much of the college student activism on college campuses, on the streets of Chicago, and in national protests apparently was fueled by the military draft.
Once the draft was ended by Nixon, protests became less frequent. Likewise, the “generation gap” was a hot topic in the late 1960s but now never mentioned.
Few college graduates in the late 1960s would have returned home and lived with their parents as is now a common practice.
A year of violence and strife ended in a hopeful peace when on Christmas Eve 1968, as he circled in the moon’s orbit, Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman read from Genesis, saying, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
Fellow astronaut Bill Anders broadcast from their capsule a series of photos now called Earthrise showing the earth rising over the moon displaying the vastness of the universe. Some consider Earthrise the most influential environmental photo ever taken.
Polarizing presidential elections, persistent national debt, and frequent social protests may have been novel in 1968, but they have pretty much been the norm for the past half century. Some say the glass is half full, some say it is half empty.
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.