Tuesday, October 26, 2010

1968: Political upheaval like no year since

In an interview (Oct. 19, 2010) televised on MSNBC author (“Eighteen Acres”) Nicolle Wallace said, “If 2008 was about change, this year is about upheaval.”

Wallace, a former Bush White House communications director, makes a good point. But in spite of how much noise has been made by the Tea Party activists and other players this year, 2010 has been smooth sailing compared to 1968.

The events of 1968 unfolded the year after San Francisco’s Summer of Love. It was the year before American astronauts walked on the moon and the Amazing Mets won the World Series. Here’s some of how the political news played out that year, 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 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, airports were closed, as were schools, etc. (Sound familiar?)

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. Just as JFK’s death in 1963 had played into the radical escalation of the war in Vietnam, in 1968 RFK’s death meant it would go on for several more years.

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.

Antiwar Democrats were greatly disillusioned. It seemed to many of them there was no reason to vote at all. At this point, it really seemed to me the civilized world was coming apart.

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. 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.

Nixon escalated the war and it dragged on for years. Many people my age now believe that 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.

It matters who wins elections. Maybe some of the ghosts of those who died in the undeclared wars the United States prosecuted -- by choice -- over the last 50 years, will speak to you about that vital topic … if you will listen.

Via cable television news channels, vociferous Tea Party opportunists and crackpots have been telling us how bad it is with President Barack Obama in the White House. They would have you to believe that life in America has never been as bad as it is in 2010. If you tell them they should try reading some history about the Great Depression, the Jim Crow Era, WWII, the blacklisting days in the 1950s, etc., they will call you an “elite.”

For those readers who are put off by being called an “elite” by obstreperous, self-styled patriots who wear their ignorance like badges of courage, the answer is to encourage everyone they know who Tea Party propagandists would probably call an “elite” to vote early, and vote often.

-- Art and words by F.T. Rea

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