1968 was, in the words of Mark Kurlanksy, “The Year That Rocked the World”. It started with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, where the Vietnamese proved they were far from defeated despite being bombed “back into the stone age”, as Lyndon Johnson put it. Anti-war protests reached their height, resulting in armed student takeovers at places like Columbia.The presidential elections were shaping up to be a referendum on the war especially, but on the state of the country in general. There was a sense that things had gotten out of control. The war was going nowhere. Young people, minorities and other oppressed groups were more vocal than ever before.
President Johnson announced he would not run for president, even though he was eligible for one last term according to the 22nd amendment. He realized that Vietnam had fractured his party, his administration and his entire legacy. The Democrats would have to choose a new standard-bearer. It was clear that they were deciding on the future of the party.
Throughout the primaries, it became clear that Robert Kennedy held the future of the party in his hands. He had taken the place that Eugene McCarthy had hitherto occupied: anti-war, pro-civil rights and a darling of the younger generation. He was also an arch-rival of Lyndon Johnson, with whom he had done battle since his brother’s administration. It stuck in LBJ’s craw that Kennedy had become the presumptive nominee of their party. Kennedy hit his crescendo on the evening of Martin Luther King’s assassination. He was supposed to address a crowd in Indianapolis when he received the news of King’s death. Kennedy scrapped his prepared words and spoke from the heart, striking the perfect chord for the moment.
A few weeks later, Robert Kennedy would himself be dead, cut down by an assassin after a victory speech in the California primary. His death opened up the possibility for Eugeme McCarthy to enter back into the race, but he would have to best Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had the backing of Lyndon Johnson and the party machinery. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago would be a battle between the establishment Democrats behind Humphrey and the younger liberal Democrats behind McCarthy. It was clear that the Democratic machine intended to dominate the convention with the help of Chicago’s Mayor Daley, himself a big player in machine politics. He ensured that the police kept young protestors away from the convention. The police were given a blank check, causing a riot that would define a generation.
Humphrey received the nomination and ran on a platform identical to Lyndon Johnson’s. Richard Nixon, on the other hand, had a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam. What’s more, he even promised the “silent majority” that he was going to crack down on outspoken hippies and minorities. Nixon’s message appealed to the conservative side of the country, especially the south, and he became the first Republican to successfully use the “southern strategy” that has become the bulwark of Republican power ever since.
What we lost in 1968, with King, Kennedy and the election, was the type of leadership that confronted injustice. Never again would there be such a collection of popular, effective and visible leaders who so plainly called for equal justice for all.
What we got instead was the beginning of a long regression. Ironically, Nixon did not start that regression. By today’s standards, he would be a stark raving liberal, creating the Environmental Protection Agency and shaking hands with Chinese communists. In truth, Nixon was a transition, a springboard into a frightening new era just as obsessed with surveillance and cracking down on free speech as he was.
1968 was the end of a brave era. What has come to replace it has surpassed perhaps all of the worst nightmares of that era.