1968: A Year that Left Scars
After the Vietnam War, I foolishly thought I'd never see my country mired in a long, unpopular war again. Of course, before the Bush administration’s power-grabbing reaction to 9/11, I never anticipated such a thing as a never-ending war on a tactic -- the War on Terror.
Thinking about how wrong well-meaning people can be about about the justifications of a war reminds me of 1968, a year that began with most Americans supporting their nation’s undeclared war in Southeast Asia. We were being told the war was winnable and it was necessary. Supposedly sovereign countries were being seen then as dominoes in a theory about world domination. My generation's able-bodied men were being told that we had face down the communists in Vietnam, in order to keep the hungry USSR from gobbling up the entire Free World.
The toll 1968 took on what had been as America’s collective sense of self-confidence put all such thinking about fighting a war Vietnam in a different perspective. With the still-escalating war in Vietnam as a backdrop, the stormy events of America’s 1968 unfolded the year after San Francisco’s Summer of Love. It was the year before our swashbuckling astronauts first set foot on the moon.
Jan. 23: The USS Pueblo was seized on the high seas by North Korean forces; at least that’s the story I got. At the time I was in the Navy and I had little doubt we would rescue the Pueblo’s crew, even if it meant another war.
Subsequently, as captives, the Pueblo’s 83 men endured an ordeal that was shocking to an American public that had naively thought its Super Power status meant such things could not 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.
Mar. 16: Some 500 Vietnamese villagers -- women, children and old men (animals, too) -- were killed by American soldiers on patrol in what came to be known as the My Lai Massacre. It would be another 20 months before investigative journalist Seymour Hersh would break the horrifying story of the covered-up massacre, via the Associated Press wire service.
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. 4: 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 ended an era. Young adventurous 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, the airports were closed, as were schools, etc.
May 24: On the same day I was discharged from the Navy, Father Philip Berrigan and Thomas Lewis (of Artists Concerned About Vietnam) got sentenced to six years for destroying federal property, stemming from an incident where duck blood was poured over draft files at Baltimore’s Selective Service headquarters.
June 3: Artist Andy Warhol nearly died from wounds received from a gunshot fired by Valerie Solanis. She was a sometime writer and one of the many off-beat characters who had occasionally hung out at Warhol’s famous studio, The Factory.
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.
Just as JFK’s death in 1963 had played into the radical escalation of the war in Vietnam by his successor, in 1968, RFK’s death meant that war would go on for several more years. A lot of money was being made by companies supplying the war effort.
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.
July 23: After watching “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the Westhampton Theatre, I saw The Who play live on stage at the Mosque (now the Landmark Theatre). Looking at the line to get into the concert I was quite surprised at how many hippies there were in Richmond. This was in the period the band was into smashing up its equipment to finish off shows.
The acid I took that day served me well.
Aug. 20: 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.
Watching the riots surrounding the Democratic convention on television, I began wondering if those who were saying our society was coming unglued might be right. Consequently, for the first time my political ideas were aired out in a newspaper, when my letter to the editor was published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. That experience began a love affair with seeing my name in print.
Oct. 18: At the Summer Olympics at Mexico City, American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the medal ceremony for the 200 meter race. Smith and Carlos wore black gloves (and other symbolic accouterments) for a protest gesture that was widely seen as a “black power” salute.
Nov. 5: Richard Nixon (depicted above) 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. 21: The first manned space mission to escape Earth’s gravity and orbit the moon began with the launching of Apollo 8.
Dec. 24: After having its way with them for 11 months, torture and mock executions included, North Korea released all of the members of the Pueblo’s crew but kept the ship. Although the U.S. Navy seemed to blame the Pueblo’s captain, Commander Lloyd Butcher, for the entire painful fiasco, mercifully, the Secretary of the Navy called off any official punishment.
After 1968, the general public’s perception of the antiwar movement’s protests as being unpatriotic began to kaleidoscope into something new. The government’s veracity came into question, more and more. The nature of true patriotism in postmodern America came into question, too.
In June of 1969 LIFE Magazine published “The Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam: One Week’s Toll.” It was a ten-page story that featured photographs and the names of 242 men who had just died in the war in one week. Looking at all those hopeful young faces was too much for millions of Americans at home to bear. That, when everyone knew each coming week’s grim action in that far-away land was going to snuff out the lives of another two or three hundred young men.
The Hawks' picture of how a victory in Vietnam would look had faded into a blur. The Doves had won the propaganda war.