Not as bad as 1968…yet
In the past days, 1968 has emerged as a meme, a way to understand what we’re living through right now.
• Zachary Karabell
[In 1968] the report of the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to examine the causes of race riots in American cities in previous years, declares the nation is…”moving toward two societies, one black, one white–separate and unequal.”
• Matthew Twombly
• • •
At Politico, Zachary Karabell reminds us that there have been worse years in American history.
The worst one I’ve lived through was 1968.
For certain, 2020 has been pretty much a total downer so far — pandemic, economic fall off the cliff, election year animus and claptrap, political and cultural leadership of questionable (at best) character and quality, racial strife, riots and trouble in the streets of major U.S. cities. And it’s only June.
However, by June in 1968, the year Smithsonian Magazine called “The Year that Shattered America,” our country was mired in an increasingly unpopular war, some of her clearest moral voices quieted by assassination, her cities on fire, her politics in chaos, and her people divided by race, generational disputes, and a multitude of cultural issues.
In January, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive, which the U.S. and S. Vietnam fended off, but at the cost of American support for a difficult, extended war. This became a turning point for both public and troop morale with regard to Vietnam.
Also in January, N. Korea attacked and captured the USS Pueblo. Her crew was not released until December.
On February 1, two black Memphis sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death while taking refuge from a rainstorm in a garbage truck. For years, sanitation workers had fought for safer working conditions and better wages. The deaths of Cole and Walker sparked a strike and protest that brought Dr. Martin Luther King to town in April.
On February 8, the Orangeburg Massacre took place in South Carolina when police opened fire on students protesting segregation at a bowling alley, killing 3 and wounding 27. All police officers charged were acquitted.
In March, President Lyndon Johnson shocked Americans by announcing he would not run for reelection, declaring, “There is division in the American house now.”
I believe that we must always be mindful of this one thing, whatever the trials and the tests ahead. The ultimate strength of our country and our cause will lie not in powerful weapons or infinite resources or boundless wealth, but will lie in the unity of our people.
This I believe very deeply.
Throughout my entire public career I have followed the personal philosophy that I am a free man, an American, a public servant, and a member of my party, in that order always and only.
For 37 years in the service of our Nation, first as a Congressman, as a Senator, and as Vice President, and now as your President, I have put the unity of the people first. I have put it ahead of any divisive partisanship.
And in these times as in times before, it is true that a house divided against itself by the spirit of faction, of party, of region, of religion, of race, is a house that cannot stand.
There is division in the American house now. There is divisiveness among us all tonight. And holding the trust that is mine, as President of all the people, I cannot disregard the peril to the progress of the American people and the hope and the prospect of peace for all peoples.
So, I would ask all Americans, whatever their personal interests or concern, to guard against divisiveness and all its ugly consequences.
Fifty-two months and 10 days ago, in a moment of tragedy and trauma, the duties of this office fell upon me. I asked then for your help and God’s, that we might continue America on its course, binding up our wounds, healing our history, moving forward in new unity, to clear the American agenda and to keep the American commitment for all of our people.
United we have kept that commitment. United we have enlarged that commitment.
Through all time to come, I think America will be a stronger nation, a more just society, and a land of greater opportunity and fulfillment because of what we have all done together in these years of unparalleled achievement.
Our reward will come in the life of freedom, peace, and hope that our children will enjoy through ages ahead.
What we won when all of our people united just must not now be lost in suspicion, distrust, selfishness, and politics among any of our people.
Believing this as I do, I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year.
With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office–the Presidency of your country.
Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.
[Would that we had a president who could see things this clearly and speak so eloquently today.]
Also in March, American Lt. William Calley and his company entered My Lai village in S. Vietnam and massacred 300 apparently unarmed civilians including women, children, and the elderly. The public did not learn of this until the fall of 1969.
On April 4, the Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis, where King had traveled to support the sanitation workers’ strike. In the week following, riots in more than 100 cities nationwide left 39 people dead, more than 2,600 injured, and 21,000 arrested.
On May 17, the Catonsville Nine — nine Catholic activists — went to the draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, took 378 draft files, brought them to the parking lot in wire baskets, dumped them out, poured over them home-made napalm, and set them on fire. This sparked more than 300 such attacks on draft boards in the next few years.
On June 4, Robert F. Kennedy, surging as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, won the California Democratic Primary. Immediately after the victory celebration, Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan as he left the lectern of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
And the year was only half gone.
Oh, the things still to come during that fateful year! The Glenville Shootout and riots in Cleveland. The tumultuous Democratic Convention in Chicago. The raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Olympic Games in Mexico City. The election of Richard Nixon as POTUS.
We have not even touched on other crises around the world: the Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Paris riots, plane crashes and sunken submarines, earthquakes, the Biafran humanitarian disaster, executions in Rhodesia, political crises in Poland, violent riots in London, insurgencies in Malaysia, mass demonstrations in Brazil, the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico, Israeli air attacks in Lebanon.
And, oh yes, we had a flu pandemic in 1968 — the “Hong Kong” flu killed an estimated 1 million people worldwide and 100,000 in the U.S. until the outbreak faded in 1969.
Today is June 2, 2020. Fifty years from now, will people still be comparing this year to 1968? Will the events of this year turn out to be as apocalyptic as that fateful span of twelve months?
Perhaps we have returned to singing 1968’s most portentous song.