One of the pleasures of middle age is to find out that one was right, and that one was much righter than one knew at say 17 or 23.
—EZRA POUND, ABC of Reading, 1934
There has never been a year like 1968, and it is unlikely that there will ever be one again. At a time when nations and cultures were still separate and very different—and in 1968 Poland, France, the United States, and Mexico were far more different from one another than they are today—there occurred a spontaneous combustion of rebellious spirits around the world.
There had been other years of revolution. 1848 had been such a year, but in contrast to 1968 its events were confined to Europe, its rebellions confined to similar issues. There had been other global events, the result of global empire building. And there was that huge, tragic global event, World War II. What was unique about 1968 was that people were rebelling over disparate issues and had in common only that desire to rebel, ideas about how to do it, a sense of alienation from the established order, and a profound distaste for authoritarianism in any form. Where there was communism they rebelled against communism, where there was capitalism they turned against that. The rebels rejected most institutions, political leaders, and political parties.
It was not planned and it was not organized. Rebellions were directed through hastily called meetings; some of the most important decisions were made on a moment’s whim. The movements were antiauthoritarian and so were leaderless or had leaders who denied being leaders. Ideologies were seldom clear, and there was widespread agreement on very few issues. In 1969, when a federal grand jury indicted eight activists in connection with the demonstrations in Chicago in 1968, Abbie Hoffman, one of the eight, said about the group, “We couldn’t agree on lunch.” And though rebellion was everywhere, rarely did these forces come together, or when they did, as with the civil rights, antiwar, and feminist movements in the United States, or the labor and student movements in France and Italy, it was an alliance of temporary convenience, quickly dissolved.
Four historic factors merged to create 1968: the example of the civil rights movement, which at the time was so new and original; a generation that felt so different and so alienated that it rejected all forms of authority; a war that was hated so universally around the world that it provided a cause for all the rebels seeking one; and all of this occurring at the moment that television was coming of age but was still new enough not to have yet become controlled, distilled, and packaged the way it is today. In 1968 the phenomenon of a same-day broadcast from another part of the world was in itself a gripping new technological wonder.
The American war in Vietnam was not unique and certainly no more reprehensible than numerous other wars, including the earlier French war in Vietnam. But this time it was being pursued by a nation with unprecedented global power. At a time when colonies were struggling to re-create themselves as nations, when the “anticolonial struggle” had touched the idealism of people all over the world, here was a weak and fragile land struggling for independence while this new type of entity known as a “superpower” dropped more non-nuclear bombs on its small territory than had been dropped on all of Asia and Europe in World War II. At the height of 1968 fighting, the U.S. military was killing every week the same number of people or more as died in the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center attack. While within the movements in the United States, France, Germany, and Mexico there was tremendous splintering and factionalism, everyone could agree—because of the power and prestige of the United States and the brutal and clearly unfair nature of the American war in Vietnam—that they opposed the Vietnam War. When the American civil rights movement became split in 1968 between the advocates of nonviolence and the advocates of Black Power, the two sides could come together in agreement on opposition to the Vietnam War. Dissident movements around the world could be built up simply by coming out against the war.
When they wanted to protest, they knew how to do it; they knew about marches and sit-ins because of the American civil rights movement. They had seen it all on television from Mississippi, and they were eager to be freedom marchers themselves.
Those born in the aftermath of World War II, when “Holocaust” was a new word and the atom bomb had just been exploded, were born into a world that had little in common with everything before. The generation that grew up after World War II was so completely different from the World War II generation and the ones before it that the struggle for common ground was constant. They didn’t even laugh at the same jokes. Comedians popular with the World War II generation such as Bob Hope and Jack Benny were not remotely funny to the new generation.
1968 was a time of shocking modernism, and modernism always fascinates the young and perplexes the old, yet in retrospect it was a time of an almost quaint innocence. Imagine Columbia students in New York and University of Paris students discovering from a distance that their experiences were similar and then meeting, gingerly approaching one another to find out what, if anything, they had in common. With amazement and excitement, people learned that they were using the same tactics in Prague, in Paris, in Rome, in Mexico, in New York. With new tools such as communication satellites and inexpensive erasable videotape, television was making everyone very aware of what everyone else was doing, and it was thrilling because for the first time in human experience the important, distant events of the day were immediate.
It will never be new again. “Global village” is a sixties term invented by Marshall McLuhan. The shrinking of the globe will never be so shocking in the same way that we will never again feel the thrill of the first moon shots or the first broadcasts from outer space. We now live in a world in which we await a new breakthrough every day. If another 1968 generation is ever produced, its movements will all have Web sites, carefully monitored by law enforcement, while they are e-mailing one another for updates. And no doubt other tools will be invented. But even the idea of new inventions has become banal.
Born in 1948, I was of the generation that hated the Vietnam War, protested against it, and has a vision of authority shaped by the memory of the peppery taste of tear gas and the way the police would slowly surround in casual flanking maneuvers before moving in, club first, for the kill. I am stating my prejudices at the outset because even now, more than three decades later, an attempt at objectivity on the subject of 1968 would be dishonest. Having read The New York Times, Time, Life, Playboy, Le Monde, Le Figaro, a Polish daily and a weekly, and several Mexican papers from the year 1968—some claiming objectivity and others stating their prejudices—I am convinced that fairness is possible but true objectivity is not. The objective American press of 1968 was far more subjective than it realized.
Working on this book reminded me that there was a time when people spoke their minds and were not afraid to offend—and that since then, too many truths have been buried.
Mexican student movement silk-screen poster with the SDS peace sign and a Cuban Che Guevara slogan “We shall win!”
(Amigos de la Unidad de Postgrado de la Escuela de Diseño A.C.)
The things of the eye are done.
On the illuminated black dial,
green ciphers of a new moon—
one, two, three, four, five, six!
I breathe and cannot sleep.
Then morning comes,
saying, “This was night.”
—ROBERT LOWELL, “Myopia: a Night, ”from For the Union Dead, 1964
THE YEAR 1968 BEGAN the way any well-ordered year should—on a Monday morning. It was a leap year. February would have an extra day. The headline on the front page of The New York Times read, WORLD BIDS ADIEU TO A VIOLENT YEAR; CITY GETS SNOWFALL.
In Vietnam, 1968 had a quiet start. Pope Paul VI had declared January 1 a day of peace. For his day of peace, the pope had persuaded the South Vietnamese and their American allies to give a twelve-hour extension to their twenty-four-hour truce. The People’s Liberation Armed Forces in South Vietnam, a pro–North Vietnamese guerrilla force popularly known as the Viet Cong, announced a seventy-two-hour cease-fire. In Saigon, the South Vietnamese government had forced shop owners to display banners that predicted, “1968 Will See the Success of Allied Arms.”
At the stroke of midnight in South Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, the church bells in the town of Mytho rang in the new year. Ten minutes later, while the bells were still ringing, a unit of Viet Cong appeared on the edge of a rice paddy and caught the South Vietnamese 2nd Marine Battalion by surprise, killing nineteen South Vietnamese marines and wounding another seventeen.
A New York Times editorial said that although the resumption of fighting had shattered hopes for peace, another chance would come with a cease-fire in February for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.
“L’année 1968, je la salue avec sérénité,” pronounced Charles de Gaulle, the tall and regal seventy-eight-year-old president of France, on New Year’s Eve. “I greet the year 1968 with serenity,” he said from his ornate palace where he had been governing France since 1958. He had rewritten the constitution to make the president of France the most powerful head of state of any Western democracy. He was now three years into his second seven-year term and saw few problems on the horizon. From a gilded palace room, addressing French television—whose only two channels were entirely state controlled—he said that soon other nations would be turning to him and that he would be able to broker peace in not only Vietnam but also the Middle East. “All signs indicate, therefore, that we shall be in a position to contribute most effectively to international solutions.” In recent years he had taken to referring to himself as “we.”
As he gave his annual televised message to the French people, the man the French called the General or Le Grand Charles seemed “unusually mellow, almost avuncular,” sparing harsh adjectives even for the United States, which of late he had been calling “odious.” His tone contrasted with that of his 1967 New Year’s message, when he had spoken of “the detestable unjust war” in Vietnam in which a “big nation” was destroying a small one. The French government had grown concerned at the level of animosity that France’s allies had been directing at it.
France was enjoying a quiet and prosperous moment. After World War II, the Republic had fought its own Vietnam war, a fact that de Gaulle seemed to have forgotten. Ho Chi Minh, America’s enemy, had been born under French colonial rule the same year as de Gaulle and had spent most of his life fighting the French. He had once lived in Paris under the pseudonym Nguyen O Phap, which means “Nguyen who hates the French.” During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt had warned de Gaulle that after the war France should give Indochina its independence. But de Gaulle told Ho, even as he was enlisting his people in the fight against the Japanese, that after the war he intended to reestablish the French colony. Roosevelt argued, “The people of Indochina are entitled to something better than that.” De Gaulle was determined that his Free French troops participate in any action in Indochina, saying, “French bloodshed on the soil of Indochina would constitute an impressive territorial claim.”
After World War II, the French fought Ho for Vietnam and suffered bitter defeat. Then they fought and lost in Algeria. But since 1962 France had been at peace. The economy was growing, despite de Gaulle’s notorious lack of interest in the fine points of economics. Between the end of the Algerian war and 1967, real wages in France rose 3.6 percent each year. There was a rapid increase in the acquisition of consumer goods—especially cars and televisions. And there was a dramatic increase in the number of young people attending universities.
De Gaulle’s prime minister, Georges Pompidou, anticipated few problems for the year ahead. He predicted that the Left would be more successful in unifying than they would in actually taking power. “The opposition will harass the government this year,” the prime minister announced, “but they will not succeed in provoking a crisis.”
The popular weekly Paris Match placed Pompidou on a short list of politicians who would maneuver in 1968 to try to replace the General. Yet the editors predicted there would be more to watch abroad than in France. “The United States will unleash one of the fiercest electoral battles ever imagined,” they announced. In addition to Vietnam, they saw the potential hot spots as a fight over gold and the dollar, growing freedom in the Soviet Union’s Eastern satellite countries, and the launching of a Soviet space weapons system.
“It is impossible to see how France today could be paralyzed by crisis as she has been in the past,” said de Gaulle in his New Year’s message.
Paris had never looked brighter, thanks to Culture Minister André Malraux’s building-cleaning campaign. The Madeleine, the Arc de Triomphe, the Pantheon, and other landmark buildings were no longer gray and charcoal but beige and buff, and this month cold-water sprays were going to remove seven hundred years of grime from Notre Dame Cathedral. It was one of the great controversies of the moment in the French capital. Would the water spray damage the building? Would it look oddly patchwork, revealing that not all the stones were originally of matching color?
De Gaulle, seated in his palace moments before midnight on the eve of 1968, was serene and optimistic. “In the midst of so many countries shaken by confusion,” he promised, “ours will continue to give an example of order.” France’s “primordial aim” in the world is peace, the General said. “We have no enemies.”
Perhaps this new Gaullian tone was influenced by dreams of a Nobel Peace Prize. Paris Match asked Pompidou if he agreed with some of the General’s inner circle who had expressed outrage that de Gaulle had not already received the prize. But Pompidou answered, “Do you really think that the Nobel Prize could be meaningful to the General? The General is only concerned about history, and no jury can dictate the judgment of history.”
Aside from de Gaulle, the American computer industry struck one of the new year’s rare notes of optimism, predicting a record year for 1968. In the 1950s computer manufacturers had estimated that six computers could serve the needs of the entire United States. By January 1968 fifty thousand computers were operating in the country, of which fifteen thousand had been installed in the past year. The cigarette industry was also optimistic that its 2 percent growth in sales in 1967 would be repeated in 1968. The executive of one of the leading cigarette manufacturers boasted, “The more they attack us the higher our sales go.”
But by most measurements, 1967 had not been a good year in the United States. A record number of violent, destructive riots had erupted in black inner cities across the country, including Boston, Kansas City, Newark, and Detroit.
1968 would be the year in which “Negroes” became “blacks.” In 1965, Stokely Carmichael, an organizer for the remarkably energetic and creative civil rights group the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, invented the name Black Panthers, soon followed by the phrase Black Power. At the time, black, in this sense, was a rarely used poetic turn of phrase. The word started out in 1968 as a term for black militants, and by the end of the year it became the preferred term for the people. Negro had become a pejorative applied to those who would not stand up for themselves.
On the second day of 1968, Robert Clark, a thirty-seven-year-old schoolteacher, took his seat in the Mississippi House of Representatives without a challenge, the first black to gain a seat in the Mississippi State Legislature since 1894.
But in the civil rights struggle, action was shifting from the soft-spoken rural South to the hard-edged urban North. Northern blacks were different from blacks in the South. While the mostly southern followers of Martin Luther King, Jr., studied Mohandas Gandhi and his nonviolent anti-British campaign, Stokely Carmichael, who had grown up in New York City, became interested in violent rebels such as the Mau Mau, who had risen up against the British in Kenya. Carmichael, a good-humored man with a biting wit and a sense of theater that he brought from his native Trinidad, had been for years regularly jailed, threatened, and abused in the South, as had all the SNCC workers. And during those years there were always moments when the concept of nonviolence was questioned. Carmichael began hurling back abuse verbally and sometimes physically, confronting segregationists who harassed him. The King people chanted, “Freedom now!” The Carmichael people chanted, “Black Power!” King tried to persuade Carmichael to use the slogan “Black Equality” rather than “Black Power,” but Carmichael kept his slogan.
1967 poster designed by Tomi Ungerer
(Collection of Mary Haskell, copyright © 1994 Diogenes Verlag)
Increasing numbers of black leaders wanted to fight segregation with segregation, imposing a black-only social order that at least paid lip service to excluding even white reporters from press briefings. In 1966 Carmichael became head of SNCC, replacing John Lewis, a soft-spoken southerner who advocated nonviolence. Carmichael turned SNCC into an aggressive Black Power organization, and in so doing Black Power became a national movement. In May 1967 Hubert “Rap” Brown, who had not been a well-known figure in the civil rights movement, replaced Carmichael as the head of SNCC, which by now was nonviolent in name only. In that summer of bloody riots, Brown said at a press conference, “I say you better get a gun. Violence is necessary—it is as American as cherry pie.”
King was losing control over a badly divided civil rights movement in which many believed nonviolence had outlived its usefulness. 1968 seemed certain to be the year of Black Power, and the police were readying themselves. By the beginning of 1968 most American cities were preparing for war—building up their arsenals, sending undercover agents into black neighborhoods like spies into enemy territory, recruiting citizenry as a standing reserve army. The city of Los Angeles, where thirty-four people had been killed in an August 1965 riot in the Watts section, was contemplating the purchase of bulletproof armored vehicles, each of which could be armed with a .30-caliber machine gun; a choice of smoke screen, tear gas, or fire-extinguishing launchers; and a siren so loud it was said to disable rioters. “When I look at this thing, I think, My God, I hope we’ll never have to use it,” said Los Angeles deputy police chief Daryl Gates, “but then I realize how valuable it would have been in Watts, where we had nothing to protect us from sniper fire when we tried to rescue our wounded officers.” Such talk had become good politics since California governor Pat Brown had been defeated the year before by Ronald Reagan, largely because of the Watts riots. The problem was that the vehicles cost $35,000 each. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office had a more cost-effective idea—a surplus army M-8 armored car for only $2,500.
In Detroit, where forty-three people died in race riots in 1967, the police already had five armored vehicles but were stockpiling tear gas and gas masks and were requesting antisniper rifles, carbines, shotguns, and 150,000 rounds of ammunition. One Detroit suburb had purchased an army half-track—a quasi tank. The city of Chicago purchased helicopters for its police force and started training 11,500 policemen in using heavy weapons and crowd control techniques in preparation for the year 1968. From the outset of the year, the United States seemed to be run by fear.
On January 4, thirty-four-year-old playwright LeRoi Jones, an outspoken Black Power advocate, was sentenced to two and a half to three years in the New Jersey State Penitentiary and fined $1,000 for illegal possession of two revolvers during the Newark riots the previous summer. In explaining why he had imposed the maximum sentence, Essex County judge Leon W. Kapp said that he suspected Jones was “a participant in formulating a plot” to burn Newark on the night he was arrested. Decades later, known as Amiri Baraka, Jones became the poet laureate of New Jersey.
In Vietnam, the war U.S. officials were forever telling correspondents was about to end still seemed far from over.
When the French had left in 1954, Vietnam was divided into a North Vietnam ruled by Ho Chi Minh, who had largely controlled the region anyway, and a South Vietnam left in the hands of anti-communist factions. By 1961 the Northern communists had gained control of half the territory of South Vietnam through the Viet Cong, which met with little resistance from the Southern population. That year the North began sending troops of their regular army south along what became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail to complete the takeover. The U.S. responded with increased involvement though it had always been involved—in 1954 the U.S. had been financing an estimated four-fifths of the cost of the French war effort. In 1964 with North Vietnam’s position steadily strengthening, Johnson had used an alleged naval attack in the Gulf of Tonkin as the pretext for open warfare. From that point on, the Americans expanded their military presence each year.
In 1967, 9,353 Americans were killed in Vietnam, more than doubling the total number of Americans previously killed, which now stood at 15,997, with another 99,742 Americans wounded. Newspapers ran weekly hometown casualty reports. And the war was also taking a toll on the economy, at a cost of an estimated $2 billion to $3 billion a month. During the summer, President Johnson had asked for a large tax increase to stanch the growing debt. The Great Society, the massive social spending program that Johnson had begun as a memorial to his fallen predecessor, was dying from lack of funds. A book published at the beginning of 1968 called The Great Society Reader: The Failure of American Liberalism contended that the Great Society and liberalism itself were dying.
New York City mayor John Lindsay, a liberal Republican with presidential aspirations, said on the last day of 1967 that if the country could not allocate more money to cities under current spending plans, then “the obligations that the United States feels it has in Vietnam and elsewhere ought to be reexamined.”
The U.S. government, involved in an intense race with the Soviet Union to be first to the moon, had been forced to cut back on its space exploration budget. Even the Department of Defense was prioritizing, asking Congress at the first of the year for permission to delay or cancel orders for hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of low-priority military equipment and facilities so that more money would be available to meet the cost of the war in Vietnam.
On the first day of the year, President Johnson launched an appeal to the American public to curtail plans for foreign travel in order to help reduce a growing deficit in international payments, which he blamed in part on the fact that Americans had been going overseas in increasing numbers. Secretary of State Dean Rusk said that tourists must “share the burden.” Johnson asked people to put off nonessential travel plans for at least two years. He also proposed a mandatory curtailment on business investments abroad and a tax on travel that Tennessee Democratic senator Albert Gore called “undemocratic.”
Many in France, where there is an understandable tendency toward a Francocentric view of events, felt that Johnson had taken these measures as reprisal against the admittedly too haughty de Gaulle. The Paris daily Le Monde said Johnson’s proposals were offering Americans an opportunity “to concentrate their resentment on France.”
With the war increasingly expensive and unpopular, U.S. government officials were under intense pressure to make it look better in 1968. R. W. Apple of The New York Times reported:
“I was in a briefing the other day,” a middle-level civilian said, “and the man briefing us came out and said it: ‘An election year is about to begin. And the people we work for are in the business of reelecting President Johnson in November.’ ”
The thrust of this new public relations campaign was to try to make South Vietnam look as though it were worth fighting for. With U.S. officials instructed to convince the American public that the South had an effective fighting force, they had to try to get the South Vietnamese army to accomplish something that could be cheered. Equally important, they had to try to clean up the embarrassing corruption in the South Vietnamese government and to somehow portray its head, Nguyen Van Thieu, contrary to all evidence, as an inspiring leader who motivated his people to sacrifice for the war effort. The already troubled relationship between the press and the U.S. government was certain to get worse in 1968.
A New Year’s editorial in the official Hanoi newspaper, Nhan Dan, stated that “our communications lines remain open as ever” in the face of bombing and asserted that “the political and moral unity of our people has strengthened.”
President Ho Chi Minh’s New Year’s message said the people of North and South Vietnam were “united as one man.” The seventy-eight-year-old president, in an at least half-accurate forecast, predicted, “This year the United States aggressors will find themselves less able than ever to take the initiative and will be more confused than ever, while our armed forces, dashing forward with the impetus of new successes, will certainly win many more and still greater victories.”
He extended best wishes to all friendly nations and to “the progressive people in the United States who have warmly supported the just struggle of our people.”
Clearly the ranks of such “progressive people,” to use Ho’s term, were growing. Not only had pollsters noted a slippage in support for the war, but increasing numbers were willing to demonstrate against it. In 1965, when the Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, had called for an antiwar demonstration in Washington, many, including some in the old pacifist movement, complained that the SDS had failed to criticize the communists, and there were many disagreements on tactics and language. Still, they had assembled twenty thousand in their April march on Washington, which had been the largest antiwar march to date. But by 1967 the SDS and the antiwar movement had avoided the old arguments of the cold war and experienced a remarkably successful year. The National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, the Mobe, a coalition of old-time pacifists, new and old leftists, civil rights workers, and youth, had mounted a peaceful demonstration of tens of thousands in San Francisco. In March, they rallied a few hundred thousand people to march behind Martin Luther King, Jr., in New York City from Central Park to the United Nations.
In the fall, for Stop the Draft Week, ten thousand mostly young antiwar demonstrators participated in what became a street fight with the Oakland, California, police. The antiwar movement was also breaking away from King’s nonviolent tactics. These protesters did not allow themselves to be dragged into police wagons. They charged police lines and retreated behind makeshift barricades in the street. Students at the University of Wisconsin tried the old tactic of sitting in at a university building, several hundred strong, to protest the presence of Dow Chemical recruitment. The Madison police did not drag the protesters away but used Mace and clubs, which so outraged the public that soon the police were fighting several thousand.
Dow, evil-corporation poster child of the 1960s, produced the napalm used against soldiers, civilians, and landscape in Vietnam. First developed for the U.S. Army during World War II by scientists at Harvard, napalm was a clear example of the military using educational institutions to develop weaponry. Originally the name napalm was given to a thickener that could be mixed with gasoline and other incendiary material. In Vietnam the mixture itself was called napalm. The thickener turns the flame into a jellylike substance that can be shot a considerable distance under pressure. As it burns with intense heat, it sticks to the target, whether vegetal or human. According to the National Student Association, of the seventy-one demonstrations that were mounted on sixty-two college campuses in October and November 1967, twenty-seven of them were directed against Dow Chemical. Only one of the seventy-one demonstrations was about the quality of education.
On a Saturday in late October 1967, the Mobe had organized an antiwar demonstration in Washington, with protesters gathering at the Lincoln Memorial and then crossing the Potomac to march on the Pentagon. An antiwar activist from Berkeley, Jerry Rubin, was there with a New York City friend from the civil rights movement, Abbie Hoffman. Hoffman managed to grab media attention during the Washington march by promising to levitate the Pentagon and exorcize it by spinning it around. He did not deliver on his promise. Norman Mailer was there and wrote about it in Armies of the Night, which was to become one of the most read and praised books of 1968. The poet Robert Lowell, linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, and editor Dwight MacDonald were among the marchers. These were more than just spoiled and privileged draft-dodging kids, which had been the popular way to characterize the antiwar movement or, as Mailer put it more sympathetically in his book, “the drug illumined and revolutionary young of the American middle class.” This was clearly becoming a broad-based and diverse movement. “Join us!” demonstrators shouted at the soldiers guarding the besieged Pentagon, as though intoxicated by their sudden power to recruit more and more supporters.
In the first week of 1968, five men, including Dr. Benjamin Spock, the author and pediatrician, and the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Jr., chaplain of Yale University, were indicted on charges of conspiring to counsel young men to violate the draft law. In New York City, Dr. Spock said that he hoped “one hundred thousand, two hundred thousand, or even five hundred thousand young Americans either refuse to be drafted or to obey orders if in the military.” Spock’s arrest in particular garnered attention because conservatives for some time had been blaming what they termed his permissive approach to child rearing for creating this spoiled and quarrelsome generation. But after the arrests, a New York Times editorial stated, “It is significant that the two best- known leaders of this challenge to the draft are a pediatrician and a college chaplain, men especially sensitive to young America’s current moral dilemma.”
On January 4, Bruce Brennan, a thirteen-year-old from Long Island with shoulder-length hair, was charged with truancy. His mother, who owned the Clean Machine, a shop where Bruce worked that sold psychedelic paraphernalia and peace symbols, and his father, the president of a management consulting firm, said that Bruce was being singled out because of his involvement in the peace movement. The youth said he had missed school eleven times because of illness and twice to march in peace demonstrations. The mother said her son had become involved in the movement when he was twelve.
Despite all of this opposition, Lyndon Johnson, after five years in office, seemed a solid favorite to win another term. A Gallup poll released on January 2 showed that just less than half the population, 45 percent, believed it was a mistake to have gotten involved in Vietnam. On that same day, an hour and twenty minutes before the end of the New Year’s cease-fire, 2,500 Viet Cong attacked a U.S. infantry fire support base fifty miles northwest of Saigon in an area of rubber plantations, killing 26 Americans and wounding 111. These were the first Americans to die in Vietnam in 1968. The U.S. government reported 344 Viet Cong killed. The United States had a policy of reporting the number of enemy bodies left on the field—a Vietnam War propaganda innovation called “the body count”—as though if the tally rose high enough, America would be declared the winner.
A Republican state-by-state survey released at the beginning of the year indicated that their only hope to unseat Johnson was New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. Richard Nixon, the party predicted, would narrowly lose, as Nixon tended to do. Michigan governor George Romney had become the object of too many jokes when he reversed his support for the Vietnam War, claiming he had been “brainwashed.” The dry-witted Democratic Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy commented, “I would have thought a light rinse would have done it.” California governor Ronald Reagan hoped he could step into the vacuum created by Romney. But he had been an elected official for less than a year. Besides, Reagan was considered too reactionary and would likely be completely routed, as would Romney. The Republican Party knew about routs. It was a sensitive topic. In the last election their candidate, Barry Goldwater, running against Johnson, had sustained the worst defeat in American history. He also had been too reactionary. A liberal like Rockefeller might have a chance.
In 1967 some Democrats had talked about replacing Johnson in 1968, but incumbents are hard to remove in American political parties, and “Dump Johnson” movements such as ACT, the Alternative Candidate Task Force, were not expected to have much impact. The only Democrat who was given any hope of unseating Johnson was the fallen President Kennedy’s younger brother Robert. But Robert, the junior senator from New York, did not want to step in. On January 4 Kennedy once again reiterated his position that despite differences of opinion with the president over Vietnam, he expected to support him for reelection. Years later, Eugene McCarthy speculated that Kennedy did not think he could beat Johnson. So in November 1967, McCarthy decided that he would be the antiwar alternative to Johnson, announcing his candidacy at a Washington, D.C., press conference that was said to be the most low-key and unexciting campaign kickoff in the history of presidential politics. “I don’t know if it will be political suicide,” journalist Andrew Kopkind reported the senator saying at the conference. “It will probably be more like an execution.”
Now, on the first day of the new year, McCarthy said that he was not at all disheartened by the lack of public response to his candidacy. He insisted that he would not “demagogue the issue” of the war to gain supporters and argued in his unheated prose that the Vietnam War was “draining off our material resources and our manpower resources, but I think [it is] also creating great anxiety in the minds of many Americans and really also weakening and debilitating our moral energy to deal with the problems at home and also some other potential problems around the world.”
In November 1967 McCarthy had said that he hoped his candidacy would cause dissidents to turn to the political process rather than the “illegal” protest to which they had been driven by “discontent and frustration.” But a month later, SDS leaders Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis and other antiwar figures had started planning for 1968. High on the agenda was a series of street demonstrations in Chicago during the Democratic convention the following summer.
The Yippie! movement—only later in the year was the exclamation turned to acronym by inventing the name Youth International Party—was founded that New Year’s Eve, according to the official though not entirely factual story, at a Greenwich Village party, the product—so said its founders, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin—of an evening of marijuana. “There we were, all stoned, rolling around on the floor,” Hoffman later explained to federal investigators. Even the name Yippie!—as in both the cheer and the counterculture label hippie—showed a kind of goofy brilliance much appreciated by young militants and very little appreciated by anyone else.
On the first day of the year, the United Nations announced that 1968 was to be the “International Year for Human Rights.” The General Assembly inaugurated the yearlong observations with a worldwide appeal for peace. But even the pope, in his January 1 peace message, admitted that there were “new terrible obstacles to the achievement of peace in Vietnam.”
The Vietnam War was not the only threat to peace. In West Africa the most promising of the newly independent African states, oil-rich Nigeria, had for the past six months descended into civil war between the ruling ethnic groups and the Ibo, who represented eight million of the twelve million people in a small eastern region which they called Biafra. Biafra happened to be where the oil was that made Nigeria promising.
Major General Yakubu Gowon, the Nigerian head of state, announced in his Christmas message, “We shall soon turn the corner to a happier period.” About the civil war he said, “Let’s put our shoulders to the wheel and end it by March thirty-first.” But he did little to promote national unity, never traveling outside of Lagos and rarely making himself visible there. Government officials from the east had begun a good news campaign similar to U.S. official information from Vietnam, reporting on mutinies in the Biafran army. At the beginning of the year, the government gave a news conference to present eighty-one policemen from the east who had defected to Lagos. But reporters noted that none of these defectors were members of the Ibo tribe. The government then showed small Biafran uniforms as evidence that the enemy was fighting with children.
The Biafrans were doing surprisingly well, continuing to hold most of their territory and inflicting large numbers of casualties on the numerically superior Nigerian army.
In 1960, when Nigeria had become an independent nation, it was often cited as an example of successful African democracy. But conflicts among regions and 250 ethnic groups with different languages became increasingly bitter, and in January 1966 Ibos overthrew the government and killed the elected leaders. In June Gowon came to power in a second coup and slaughtered thousands of Ibos who were resented for their ability to adapt to modern technology. The curtailing of democracy further exacerbated regional conflicts, and on May 30, 1967, the eastern region, dominated by Ibos, seceded from Nigeria and formed the Republic of Biafra.
After six months of fighting, the war had reached a stalemate. Lagos itself was only once under attack when a plane exploded while attempting a bombing mission over the city. But reporters were finding that the hospitals were filled with wounded soldiers, and that the military put up roadblocks to confiscate the heavier, better-built cars for use at the front. At the outset of the war international observers had thought that Gowon would be able to control his troops so that there would be relatively few civilian casualties. But by January 1968, it was reported that more than five thousand Ibo civilians had been slaughtered by angry mobs while Nigerian troops looked on. Nigerian troops took the Biafran port town of Calabar and shot at least one thousand and according to some reports as many as two thousand Ibo civilians. As is often true of civil wars, if this war continued, it seemed certain to be a particularly vicious and bloody conflict.
In Spain, Generalissimo Francisco Franco was in his twenty-ninth “year of peace” since seizing control of the country during its civil war. Still a repressive dictatorship, Spain was credited with being less repressive than its neighbor Portugal, which was ruled by the autocratic António de Oliveira Salazar. In recent years resistance to the Franco regime had been crushed by bloody purges in which thousands of Spaniards were shot or imprisoned. The resistance having been destroyed, the repression eased. Some of the refugees from the civil war had even returned. But in 1967 a new generation—students—began demonstrating against the regime. They threw stones and shouted, “Liberty!” and “Death to Franco!” On December 4, Franco’s seventy-fifth birthday, students put up a poster that said, “Franco, Murderer, Happy Birthday.”
1968 did not begin peacefully in Spain. At the University of Madrid, the School of Technical Sciences was closed by police after students protested against the regime. This in turn led hundreds of medical students to demonstrate the following day, angrily throwing rocks at police. By mid-January, the government had closed the Schools of Philosophy and Letters, Economics, and Political Science because of anti-Franco demonstrations. Having won the right to student organizations in 1967, the 1968 students were demanding that the student leaders imprisoned after the 1967 demonstrations be released and that the government agree never again to allow police to invade the sanctity of university campuses, a historic principle recognized in most of Europe. But students were also becoming more politically involved in noncampus issues, especially issues of trade unions and worker rights.
On New Year’s Eve, Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban urged the Arabs of the Middle East to “assert their will” and demand that their leaders negotiate a peace with Israel. In June 1967 Israel had gone to war with its Arab neighbors yet again. De Gaulle was furious because, as a close ally of Israel and a supplier of Israeli weapons, he had demanded that Israel not go to war unless attacked. But the state of Israel had already suffered attacks by the Arabs on several occasions since its creation, and once the Egyptians blocked the Gulf of Aqaba, the Israelis became convinced that another coordinated attack by the Arabs was about to be launched. So they attacked first. De Gaulle reversed French policy from pro-Israel to pro-Arab. Explaining this new policy at a November press conference, the General referred to Jews as “an elite people, self-assured and domineering.” In 1968 de Gaulle was still trying to explain the statement and assure various Jewish leaders that it was not an anti-Semitic remark. He insisted that it was a compliment, and he may have thought it was, since the adjectives so perfectly described himself.
The Soviet Union, another former ally of Israel until 1956, also was upset. It had armed the Arabs and supplied their battle plans and was embarrassed to see Israel defeat Soviet-backed Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in only six days.
The Israelis had tried something different. In this war they confiscated land—the green Golan Heights from Syria, the rock-bound Sinai from Egypt, and the West Bank of the Jordan River, including the Arab-held sector of Jerusalem, from Jordan. Then they tried to negotiate with the Arabs, telling them that they would give back the land in exchange for peace. But to their complete frustration, the Arabs showed no interest in the offer. So on New Year’s Eve, Abba Eban delivered a radio message in Arabic stating, “The policy adopted by your leaders for the last twenty years is bankrupt. It brought continuous catastrophe upon all the people of the region.” 1968, he insisted, should be the time for a change in Arab policy.
In the meantime, the Israeli government appropriated 838 acres from the former Jordanian sector of Jerusalem to establish a Jewish settlement in the Old City. Fourteen hundred housing units were planned, including four hundred for Arabs who were removed from the Old City.
Like the words black and Yippie!, Palestinian first entered the popular vocabulary in 1968. Previously, there had not been a separate cultural identity for these people, who had not been thought of as a distinct nationality, and the usual phrase for Arabs living in Israel had been just that, “Arabs in Israel.” It was less clear what an Arab in the West Bank of the Jordan River was since this area was thought of as Jordan, and hence Arabs there, culturally identical to those on the other bank of the Jordan, were thought of as Jordanians. When an American newspaper reported from the West Bank, the dateline read “Israeli-occupied Jordan.”
At the beginning of 1968, the word Palestinian was generally used to refer to members of Arab guerrilla units, which were also frequently referred to in the Western press as terrorist organizations. These groups used the label Palestinian, as in the Palestine Liberation Front, the Palestinian Revolution, the Palestine Revolutionary Youth Movement, the Vanguard for Palestine Liberation, the Palestinian Revolutionaries Front, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. At least twenty-six such groups were operating before the 1967 war. In the leftist counterculture, these groups were termed “nationalist” and were gaining support, though they had little backing from the mainstream in Western countries. The support of such groups by SNCC was further isolating the once leading civil rights organization.
A week before the year 1968 began, Ahmed al-Shuqayri resigned as leader of one of the dominant Arab groups, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, PLO, founded in 1964. He was most famous for his unfulfilled threat to “drive the Jews into the sea.” Accused by fellow Palestinians of failing to deliver on his promises, and of deceptiveness and sometimes outright lying, a rival organization, Al Fatah, rejected the leadership of the PLO under al-Shuqayri. Al Fatah, which means “Conquest,” was led by Abu Amar, who had become legendary among Arabs as a guerrilla fighter since al Fatah’s disastrous initial raid in 1964 when they tried to blow up a water pump but failed to detonate the explosives and were all arrested when they returned to Lebanon. Abu Amar was a nom de guerre for a thirty-eight-year-old Palestinian whose real name was Yasir Arafat.
At the outset of 1968, eight of these Palestinian organizations announced that they had established a joint command to direct guerrilla operations against Israel. They said that raids would be escalated but would not be directed toward Israeli civilians. Their spokesman, a Palestinian heart surgeon, Isam Sartawi, said that their organization sought “the liquidation of the Zionist state” and would reject any proposal for a peaceful solution to the Middle East. “We believe only in our guns, and through our guns we are going to establish an independent Palestine.”
More bad news appeared on the cover of the January issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The hands of a clock on the cover showed seven minutes to midnight. The clock, which symbolically indicated how close the world was inching to nuclear devastation, had said twelve minutes to midnight ever since 1963. The Bulletin’s editor, Dr. Eugene Rabinowitch, said the clock had been reset to reflect the increase in violence and nationalism.
On the other hand, on the first day of the year, Eliot Fremont-Smith began his New York Times review of James Joyce’s resurrected Giacomo Joyce by saying, “If beginnings mean anything, 1968 should be a brilliant literary year.”
After considerable debate in 1967, the British announced on the first day of 1968 that they would replace John Masefield as poet laureate with Cecil Day-Lewis, a writer of mysteries and an Oxford poetry professor. The poet laureate is an official member of the queen’s household with a ranking somewhat above caretaker but below deputy surveyor. When Masefield died in May after being poet laureate for thirty-seven years, many said that in the late 1960s the whole idea of an official poet was old-fashioned.
In the first week of 1968, Bob Dylan was back, having vanished for a year and a half after breaking his neck in a motorcycle accident. His new album, John Wesley Harding, was welcomed by both critics and fans because after his foray into “folk rock,” the term used when he started to accompany his songs with electric guitar, he began 1968 true to his folk-singing roots, with acoustic guitar and harmonica, and with piano, bass, and drum backup. Time magazine said, “His new songs are simple and quietly sung, some about drifters and hoboes, with morals attached, some with religious overtones, including ‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ and a parable about Judas Priest. The catchiest number is the last, a swinging proposal called ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.’ ” But it was Dan Sullivan for The New York Times who pointed out that the Texas outlaw John Wesley Hardin had no g in his last name and suggested that Dylan, after depriving so many words of their final g, “apparently felt he should return one.”
Football was beginning to threaten baseball as the leading American sport. On January 1, 1968, 102,946 people, the largest crowd ever to attend a Rose Bowl, saw an extraordinary University of California player named Orenthal James Simpson score two touchdowns for a total gain of 128 yards and defeat Indiana 14 to 3.
“The big cliffhanger for 1968,” wrote Bernadine Morris in The New York Times, “is whether hemlines, officially poised above the knees for several seasons, are ready to take a plunge of a foot or so to calf level.” A story circulating in January that the Federal Housing Administration had issued a wordy directive to employees stating that wearing miniskirts in cold weather would lead to a buildup of fat molecules on the legs turned out to be a hoax.
However, it was true that the British government was losing tax revenue on miniskirts. The 12.5 percent sales tax charged on skirts, in order to exempt children’s clothing, specified that only skirts that measured twenty-four inches waist to hem were taxable. The fashionable women’s skirt length in Britain in the winter of 1968 was between thirteen and twenty inches.
But the leading fashion concept for 1968 was that there were no limits or taboos. Conformity was out of fashion, and writers were predicting a continuing trend toward a liberating diversity in what people could wear.
It was an important year for women, not because of skirt lengths but because of events such as Muriel Siebert announcing on January 1 that she had become the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange in its 175-year history. Seibert, a thirty-eight-year-old blond woman from Cleveland known to her friends as Mickey, had decided to ignore the advice of numerous men in the financial world that it would be wiser to let a man buy the seat. “It was last Thursday,” she said. “The board of governors approved my membership. I went to the exchange and handed over a check covering the balance of the $445,000 seat purchase plus the $7,515 initiation fee. I walked outside and bought three bottles of French champagne for the people in my office. I still couldn’t believe it was me. I was walking on cloud nine.”
It seemed little would be without controversy this year. The good news might have been that Christiaan Barnard of the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, had successfully transplanted the heart of a twenty-four-year-old into Philip Blaiberg, a fifty-eight-year-old dentist. This was the third heart transplant, the second by Barnard but the first that medical science regarded as successful. Barnard started 1968 and spent much of the year as an international celebrity, signing autographs, giving interviews with his easy smile and quotable statements, which from the outset in January was frowned upon by his profession. Barnard pointed out that despite his sudden fame he still earned only his $8,500 yearly salary. But there were also doubts about his feat. A German doctor called it a crime. A New York biologist, apparently confusing doctors with lawyers, said that he should be “disbarred for life.” Three distinguished American cardiologists called for a moratorium on heart transplants, which Barnard immediately said he would ignore.
In theory, the operation involves two doomed patients. One gives up his heart and dies but would have died in any event; the other is saved. But some doctors and laymen wondered if doctors should be deciding who is doomed. Shouldn’t everyone hope for a miracle? And how is it decided who receives a new heart? Were doctors now making godlike decisions? The controversy was not helped by Barnard, who said in an interview in Paris Match, “Obviously, if I had to choose between two patients in the same need and one was a congenital idiot and one a mathematics genius, I would pick the latter.” Controversy was also fueled by the fact that Barnard came from South Africa, the increasingly stigmatized land of apartheid, and that he had saved a white man by removing a black man’s heart and implanting it in him. Such an irony was not likely to be overlooked in a year like this.
Ever since Fidel Castro’s 1959 New Year’s victory, the beginning of every year has been marked in Havana on January 2 with an anniversary celebration in the broad, open space known as Plaza de la Revolución. In 1968, for the ninth anniversary of the revolution, something new was added—a sixty-foot-high mural of a beautiful young man in a beret. This young man was the thirty-eight-year-old Argentine Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who had been killed in Bolivia two months earlier while carrying out the new Cuban approach to revolution.
This new approach had been described in a book called Revolution in the Revolution by Régis Debray, a young Frenchman who had become enamored of the Cuban revolution. The book, translated into English in 1967, was a favorite of students all over the world, with its premise certain to appeal to the impatience of youth. Debray wrote of tossing out the old Marxist-Leninist theories about slowly fomenting revolution. Instead, according to Debray, revolutions began by taking the initiative with an army raised from rural people. That was Castro’s strategy in the mountains of his native Oriente province. And it was what Che was doing in Bolivia. Only in Che’s case, it had not worked out well, and in November a photograph circulated of a Bolivian air force colonel displaying Che’s half-naked corpse. Debray, too, had been caught by the Bolivian army, but rather than killing him, the Bolivians kept him in a prison in a small town called Camiri. In the beginning of 1968 Debray was still there, though the Bolivians allowed his Venezuelan lover, Elizabeth Burgos, to come to the prison so the couple could be married.
So in 1968 Fidel Castro’s close friend and co-revolutionary became a martyr, a canonized saint of the revolution—forever young, to borrow a phrase from Bob Dylan, bearded and bereted, with those smiling eyes, the pure revolutionary in deeds and clothing. At the José Martí International Airport in Havana, a poster of the martyr appeared with the message “Youth will intone the chants of mourning to the chatter of machine guns and cries of war. Until victory, forever.”
All over Cuba the phrase was written, “Until Victory, Forever.” Sixty thousand students in gray high school uniforms marched past Castro’s reviewing stand, and as each group passed they declared, loudly and enthusiastically, “Our duty is to build men like Che.” “Como Che”—to be like Che, to have more men like Che, to work like Che—the phrase filled the island. The cult of Che had begun.
Castro announced that this year the celebration would not include a display of Soviet weapons, explaining that such a parade was too expensive, in part because the tanks tore up the pavement on the Havana streets.
There were other troubling signs for Moscow, which began the year with a shaky economy and an unpopular trial of four intellectuals accused of spreading anti-Soviet propaganda after they campaigned in favor of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, two writers in prison for the past two years because they had published their work in the West. The Six Day War in the Middle East had been a humiliation for the foreign policy of Leonid I. Brezhnev, chief of the Soviet Communist Party, at a time when collective farming was failing, attempts at economic reform had fizzled, youth and intelligentsia were growing restless, and nationalist movements such as that of the Tatars were becoming troublesome. The people of the Soviet bloc, especially young people, were increasingly rejecting the stances and language of the cold war. Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito had long annoyed Moscow with an air of independence, but now Romania’s Nicolae Ceaus¸escu had begun to exhibit the same tendency. Even in Czechoslovakia, where the Soviets had their most loyal and pliable leader, Antonín Novotny´, the population seemed restless. In April 1967 the Bratislava Pravda, the Slovak Party organ, had conducted a poll in Czechoslovakia and found a shocking general rejection of the Party line. Only half blamed the Western imperialists for international tension, and 28 percent said that both sides were responsible. Perhaps most shocking, only 41.5 percent blamed the United States for the Vietnam War, a stance with which even the populations of America’s closest allies would not have been in agreement. By the fall, Czech writers were openly demanding more freedom of expression, and students from Prague’s Charles University were demonstrating in the streets.
In the fall of 1967 a series of meetings of the Czechoslovakian Central Committee had gone very badly for Novotny´. His slavish loyalty to Moscow had been rewarded by his appointment as first secretary of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party in 1953. In 1958 he had become president of Czechoslovakia. Now, an increasing number of Central Committee members, reacting in part to Novotny´’s relentless hatred of the 4.5 million Slovaks who constituted a third of the nation’s population, felt he should give up one position or the other. The president barely managed to save himself in a December meeting of the ten-member presidium of the Communist Party by closing the session “because it was Christmas.” The committee had agreed to reconvene the first week of January.
In the meantime, Novotny´ plotted. He tried to intimidate his opponents by spreading a rumor that the Soviet Union was poised to step in to preserve his position. But this backfired, turning key figures against him only further. He then plotted a military intervention that would affirm his positions and arrested his opponent, the Slovak Alexander Dubek, whom he despised. But a general informed Dubek of the plot and Novotny´ was outmaneuvered again.
So President Novotny´ began the new year with a broadcast to the nation that was intended to be conciliatory. He promised that Slovakia, always at the end of Prague’s priorities, would suddenly be a leading concern in all economic planning. He also attempted to placate writers and students by promising that everything progressive, even if from the West, would be permitted. “I do not mean only in the economy, engineering, and science,” he added, “but also in progressive culture and art.”
The Central Committee met again on January 3 and removed Novotny´ as first secretary of the Party, replacing him with Dubek. There was not enough consensus to remove him as president, but Novotny´ had suffered a major and bitter defeat. The people of Czechoslovakia were not told that their world was about to change until Friday, January 5, when Radio Prague announced the “resignation” of Novotny´ as first secretary and the election of Dubek. Czechs had not realized Novotny´ was in trouble, and most of them had no idea who this Alexander Dubek was. In a closed society, the most successful politicians operate out of the public eye.
But while all this was happening, curiously little was heard from the ironfisted Soviet leader. Brezhnev had visited Prague in December, and it had been widely reported that he had made the trip to ensure the preservation of the beleaguered Czech leader. But in fact, when Novotny´, whom Brezhnev never liked in spite of the Czech leader’s vaunted loyalty, was removed, Brezhnev told Novotny´, “Eto vashe delo”—That’s your problem.
In Washington, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara was preparing his annual report to Congress, in which he wrote, “In the 1960s the simple bipolar configuration which we knew in the earlier post–World War II period began to disintegrate. Solid friends and implacable foes are no longer so easy to label, and labels which did useful service in the past, such as ‘free world’ and ‘iron curtain,’ seem increasingly inadequate as descriptions of contending interests within and between blocs and of new bonds of common interest being slowly built across what were thought to be impenetrable lines of demarcation.”
On Friday, at the end of the first week of 1968, the weekly summary of Vietnam casualties showed that 185 Americans, 227 South Vietnamese, and 37 other allied servicemen had been killed in action. America and its allies reported killing a total of 1,438 enemy soldiers.
That was the first week, and so 1968 began.