1968 unfolded the year after San Francisco’s Summer of Love, it was the year before American astronauts walked on the moon. Moreover, 1968 was a year of unprecedented upheaval -- like it, or not, times were changing.
The next president will be following George Bush, who by invading Iraq made the worst American foreign policy mistake since Lyndon Johnson chose to turn Vietnam into a bloody quagmire. It’s worth noting that both wars were propped up by bogus intelligence reports, but that’s a story for another day.
Forty years ago American voters were also at a crossroads. Here’s some of how it played out, as I remember it:
Jan. 23: The USS Pueblo was seized on the high seas by North Korean forces. Subsequently, as captives, its 83 men endured an ordeal that was shocking to an American public that had naively thought its country was too strong for such a thing to happen.
Jan. 30: The Tet Offensive began, as the shadowy Viet Cong flexed its muscles and blurred battle lines with simultaneous assaults taking place in many parts of South Vietnam. Even the American embassy in Saigon was attacked/penetrated.
Mar. 31: Facing the burgeoning antiwar-driven campaigns of Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Sen. Robert Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson suddenly withdrew from the presidential race, declining to run for reelection by saying, “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination...”
Apr. 5: America’s most respected civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, was shot and killed in Memphis. Riots followed in cities coast-to-coast. The bitterness that remained after the dust settled was scary. In Richmond, it meant young whites who followed music could no longer go in the black clubs they had once patronized.
May 13: The USA and North Vietnam began a series of negotiations to end the war in Vietnam that came to be known as the Paris Peace Talks. Ironically, as a backdrop, France itself was in chaos. Workers and students had shut down much of the country with a series of strikes. The trains weren’t running, airports were closed, as were schools, etc.
May 24: Father Philip Berrigan and Thomas Lewis (of Artists Concerned About Vietnam) got six years for destroying federal property by pouring duck blood over draft files at Baltimore’s Selective Service headquarters.
June 5: Having just won the California primary Robert Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles. The hopes of millions that the Vietnam War would end soon died that night, since it’s hard to imagine that Richard Nixon would have been able to defeat Kennedy in the general election.
June 8: James Earl Ray was arrested in London. Eventually, he was convicted of murdering Martin Luther King. Yet, questions about that crime still linger today.
Aug. 21: Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush what had been a season of renaissance. As it had been with the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis, talk of World War III being one button-push away was commonplace.
Aug 28: In Chicago the Democratic convention that selected Vice President Hubert Humphrey to top its ticket melted down. With tear gas in the air and blood in the streets 178 demonstrators/bystanders were arrested. Many were roughed up on live television. As cops clubbed citizens in the streets, CBS reporters Mike Wallace and Dan Rather were punched on the convention floor. At this point, it really seemed to me the civilized world was coming apart.
Nov. 5: Richard Nixon narrowly defeated Hubert Humphrey. Although Humphrey himself was for peace, out of loyalty he refused to denounce Johnson’s failing war policy; it cost him dearly. Also elected that day was Shirley Chisholm from Brooklyn. She was the first black female to serve in the House of Representatives.
Dec. 24: After having its way with them for 11 months, North Korea released the 83 members of the Pueblo’s crew. The U.S. Navy had to just suck up the humiliation.
A lot of antiwar people, especially young people, gave up hope due to 1968’s staggering disappointments. So many bad things happened during that strange year, it seemed to the disillusioned that it wouldn’t matter -- Nixon or Humphrey, who cares? So, many simply didn’t vote.
They were wrong -- it did matter.
Nixon escalated the war and it dragged on for years. Thousands died because Nixon won instead of Humphrey. Eventually the utterly corrupt Nixon White House gave us the bewildering series of scandals that led to his forced resignation in 1974.
As wild as 2008 has been and may eventually get, voters who want to end the war in Iraq as quickly as possible should not forget -- it will matter who wins the presidency. Accordingly, they should vote for the candidate they trust to bring the troops home as fast as it can be done.
What’s been lost by going into Iraq is gone. The dead will be remembered for their sacrifice, the living still have a chance to survive Bush's colossal blunder and vote in November. Now the money we need to fix our own problems at home, beginning with health care and infrastructure, is being spent/poured down a rat hole by the billions each week.
Given our violent history, we pray no one will kill off our best hope for peace this time. But history clearly says even if that happens, no matter what happens, it will still matter who gets elected president.