Fifty Years Later, 1968’s Legacy Looms Large
By: Nick Santangelo
Our current moment in U.S. history is marked by youth-led protests, divisive politics and a foreign war with no end in sight. That means 2018 shares a lot in common with 1968. As such, History Professor Ralph Young dedicated his most recent weekly Teach-In event to the time of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War.
The War and the Media
While the Iraq War has lasted since 2001, it’s only just now reaching the length of the Vietnam War. Depending on whose definition you want to go by, America’s war to ostensibly stop communism’s spread in Southeast Asia was waged between 17 and 20 years. By 1968, many Americans had begun to question both the legitimacy and feasibility of that goal.
“1968 was a year when at the beginning of the year a majority of Americans were in favor of us staying in the war in Vietnam,” said Dr. Young, “and by the end of the year a majority were in favor of us getting out.”
As the professor recalled, it was remarkably easy to spot people—or men, at least—who opposed the war. You know the name: hippies. Their dead giveaway? Facial hair. It seems silly today, especially with how popular beards are today among people of all political leanings. And so Dr. Young had his student audience at last Friday’s Teach-In laughing when he recounted how one of his own professors told him in 1968 that “any man with facial hair can’t be trusted.” Further amusing students, the professor shared a story about a passerby pushing him against a wall and interrogating him about why he hated America—all because he had grown a mustache.
But while it was mostly “dirty hippies,” as Dr. Young jokingly called them, opposing the war in the early part of the 1960s, that all changed in ’68. On January 30, 1968, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces launched a series of attacks. It was the eve of the Vietnamese New Year known as “Tết,” normally a time of ceasefire. That meant the attacks came as a surprise for the American and South Vietnamese militaries. And despite North Vietnam eventually losing the two-month-long conflict, the heavy losses it inflicted shocked an American public that previously thought its military had the war under control. With disturbing imagery like the infamous picture of a South Vietnamese man shooting a Viet Cong man in the head in the streets circulating, opposition to the war spread far beyond hippies.
“It created this credibility gap,” said Dr. Young. “You just watched the television coverage, and it just didn’t seem they were telling the truth.”
There was at least one man on television that Americans nearly universally trusted, though. He was maybe the last before a Supreme Court ruling opened the doors for today’s era of right-versus-left media. And when even Walter Cronkite explicitly told the nation he saw no path to victory, the cries to get out of Vietnam grew louder still.
“For it seems now more certain than ever, that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate,” commented Cronkite in a newscast. “To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.” He concluded that “it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
While it may have seemed to some during the first half of 1968 as though the longest war in the country’s history was moving toward a conclusion, it wasn’t to be. Instead, “the way out” did not come for seven more years. Back at home, America was gripped by more senseless killings and hope for both a quick ending to the war and the furthering of another important cause seemed all but snuffed out.
The King and the Kennedy
“Somewhere I read,” Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly told a captivated audience at his final speech on April 3, 1968. It was a reference to the Bill of Rights granting him the freedoms to peacefully gather and voice dissent for the state of racial bias and violence in the United States. As Dr. Young played Dr. King’s powerful speech on Friday, the College of Liberal Arts students in attendance were noticeably moved. The professor gave everyone a brief moment of quiet to absorb what they’d seen before commenting on how powerful it was.
On the day following that speech, Dr. King was tragically assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. Dr. Young recounted that nearly every predominantly black neighborhood in the country erupted in riots following the civil rights leader’s death. There were fires and explosions and several people lost their lives in the chaos. For many, the way forward seemed lost.
Dr. King had successfully lobbied President Lyndon B. Johnson’s government into passing through 1964’s Civil Rights Act and 1965’s Voting Rights Act. The legislation prohibited discrimination based on race, color, sexuality, religion or country of birth as well and racial discrimination in voting, respectively. During the riots that followed Dr. King’s assassination, President Johnson also signed into law the Fair Housing Act, which mandated equality in housing opportunities. But the work that Dr. King and other civil rights leaders had begun was far from over.
Different leaders would have to carry on the cause. With President Johnson announcing the month before he would not seek reelection, another believer in civil rights seemed to have been handed the perfect platform for doing so. Robert Kennedy was running for president and was scheduled to give a speech in a black neighborhood immediately after Dr. King’s death. Kennedy was advised to cancel the speech. He did not.
“People would rush [Kennedy] like he was The Beatles or Elvis Presley or something,” recalled Dr. Young. The professor remembers Kennedy arriving to cheers before calming the crowd down to announce Dr. King’s death. He called for unity.
“What we need in the United States is not division,” said Kennedy in his speech, “what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.”
In addition to being seen as someone who would continue making meaningful progress on civil rights as president, Kennedy was also viewed as the candidate most likely to bring a swift end to the Vietnam War. Sadly, he would be robbed of the chance to make either happen. On June 6, 1968, Kennedy, like his brother John, like Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated.
“That was, to me, the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Dr. Young. “It was just one assassination too many. This is why hope in America—this is why the country that entered 1968 was not the same one that exited it later that year.”
Dr. Young explained to students that about 28,000 Americans had died in the Vietnam War prior to Robert Kennedy’s death and about another 35,000 died afterward. “So, I always think that bullet that killed Kennedy was responsible for the death of those Americans,” he added.
Several students were curious about how things could have been different had Kennedy not been shot. While admitting there’s no way to know for sure, Dr. Young believes Kennedy had “a pretty good shot” of getting the Democratic nomination for president. This was then-Republican candidate Richard Nixon’s biggest fear: facing another Kennedy in a presidential election. It wasn’t to be. But Dr. Young doesn’t believe the various 1960s movements should be seen as abject failures.
“You had the ‘60s reaction to the ‘50s and Cold War and racism and the war in Vietnam. So a very strong attitudinal movement,” he said before noting that many of the shifts Baby Boomers brought about in the ‘60s have survived to today. Americans question the government’s military actions. The movement for more equal civil rights continues. Young people view dating and marriage options differently. Fashion choices can be as wild as anyone wants them to be. But backlashes against such changes and movements continue to occur.
“Starting in 1968 you’re getting a big white backlash against the thinking of the ‘60s,” said Dr. Young. The 1960s got rid of Jim Crow laws and got the Voting Rights Act passed, but white backlash took the form of mass incarceration under the guise of the War on Drugs. And while America finally got its first black president in 2008, Dr. Young noted that his Oval Office successor seems, at least in part, a backlash against the 44th president.
Fifty years later, the legacy of 1968’s seminal events remains a complicated one.