The Year That Changed Everything: A Personal Memory of 1968

I watched the news footage of Kennedy on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, bleeding to death. With his big victory in California, Kennedy would surely have sailed to the Democratic nomination and almost certainly defeated his Republican opponent. (Photo: Screenshot)

The Year That Changed Everything: A Personal Memory of 1968

No other year has left such vivid memories for me, though it may be that this year, 2018, will be even more decisive for the future of America

Fifty years have passed since the one that changed everything for my generation, the crucial turning point when the promise of the 1960s turned to a defeat and despair that still weighs on our thoughts of what might have been. It was a roller coaster year of emotional highs and lows, when unlikely dreams suddenly seemed possible, only to be dashed time and again. It marked the end of my political innocence, born in the magic of John Kennedy's Camelot. No other year has left such vivid memories for me, though it may be that this year, 2018, will be even more decisive for the future of America.

The year began with great hopes that the seemingly endless war in Vietnam might end soon. An anti-war Democrat, the cerebral Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy, had challenged President Johnson in the upcoming presidential primary election. Soft-spoken and anything but radical, he impressed on us the necessity of cutting long hair and beards and putting on white shirts and ties to go "Clean for Gene" when we knocked on doors to get out the vote. Given little chance at first, his popularity was suddenly enhanced by developments across the Pacific.

In early February, during the Vietnamese New Year's celebration, National Liberation Front (the Americans called them "Viet Cong") troops attacked throughout South Vietnam, capturing the famed "Citadel" in Hue and other prominent posts formerly thought impregnable. Although their casualties in the so-called "Tet Offensive" were enormous, the Vietnamese struck fear into American troops and their supporters back home. President Johnson had claimed we were winning the war and our enemies would soon be on their knees. There was a "light at the end of the tunnel," he said. Just be a bit more patient and we'd all see it.

But the light at the end of the tunnel turned out to be the headlights of an onrushing train. If the enemy was indeed mortally wounded, it could not have mounted so many attacks in so many places at once, often with the inside help of South Vietnamese Army soldiers thought loyal to the U.S. The American response was to inflict horrible casualties on combatants and non-combatants alike. Since it was often impossible to know which Vietnamese were loyal to us and which were not, it was deemed necessary to kill everyone who might be suspect, destroying whole villages to "save" them. Napalm, a terrifying jellied gasoline that cooked people alive, was dropped indiscriminately.

Shocking photographs surfaced, of young girls running naked from a wall of flames, of suspected traitors being summarily assassinated without investigation of their supposed disloyalty; in one case, in lurid, living color, crimson gushed like a fountain from the head of a man shot at point-blank range. These images, and the Tet Offensive, shocked many otherwise placid Americans and led to a shift in public opinion. Then too, the coffins continued to return home in large numbers, carrying the bodies of sons and husbands, fresh-faced children barely out of their teens, if that.

An anti-war activist, I was 21 then and about to vote in my first election. I began door-belling for McCarthy shortly after Tet, in Superior, Wisconsin, an industrial port city, while I was attending Wisconsin State University there. While most pollsters expected McCarthy to be trounced by Johnson in the first primary election in New Hampshire on March 14, he ran a close race trailing the President by only seven percentage points. Might he have a chance? Opportunistically or otherwise, another critic of the war, New York senator Robert Kennedy, then entered the race. Now, the leading living scion of one of America's most beloved political families was also hammering Johnson from the campaign trail.

With the Wisconsin primary scheduled for early April, I traveled to Madison in late March to meet with other McCarthy organizers. While things were looking up, we had no idea of what to expect on the evening of March 31, when we gathered in the student union at the University of Wisconsin to watch a "special announcement" from the president. First, Johnson declared a moratorium on bombing attacks on North Vietnam; the anti-war pressure was getting to him. Then, we sat in stunned silence while Johnson announced his withdrawal from the race. "I shall not seek, nor will I accept my party's nomination for President of the United States," he said, looking haggard and defeated.

It seemed unreal. Johnson had surrendered; the war would end. I think now of LBJ as the lead victim in a Greek tragedy. But for his hubris in persisting to escalate the Vietnam War, Johnson might have entered the history books as one of America's greatest presidents, carried there by his commitment to civil rights and the elimination of poverty. Instead, he died reviled and almost forgotten. Even then, I felt a bit sorry for him. But that night we dashed by the hundreds into the streets cheering, singing and dancing. No more would the anti-war protestors be chanting "Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" It was bitterly cold in the snowy streets of Madison that night, but none of us noticed. We celebrated with pitchers of beer and drove back to Superior with headaches the next day, happy to have them.

Memphis and its aftermath

On April 2, I voted in my first election ever. With Johnson still on the ballot, McCarthy won an overwhelming victory in the Wisconsin primary. Now, the contest would be between him and Kennedy, and I would have been happy with either of them. But my euphoria was short-lived. Only two days later, civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, where he'd gone to support striking sanitary workers. Some inner cities exploded in anger. In Indianapolis, Bobby Kennedy braved an angry crowd to urge the non-violence that King had espoused. The next morning a hushed pall hovered over the university student union in Superior. Several of the black students were fighting back tears; knowing the anger they must be feeling. Feared they might hold all whites responsible for the slaying. Shockingly, I also overheard several fraternity boys at one table suggesting that King had gotten what was coming to him. Their dialogue was peppered with the N word and references to "good riddance."

I found it hard to concentrate on schoolwork the rest of that semester. But despite the King tragedy, my overall mood remained hopeful. Students were beginning to exercise power in American universities, carrying out sit-down strikes at prestigious academic institutions like Columbia. Women and gays were protesting discrimination. In France, the students were joining factory workers in a general strike, and in Communist Czechoslovakia, they were deeply engaged in a reform process called "Prague Spring," which promised "Socialism with a human face." Polls began showing that a majority of voters opposed the war, and the victory of either McCarthy or Kennedy seemed almost inevitable.

In May, McCarthy soundly defeated Kennedy in the Oregon primary. But by that time, my allegiance had shifted to Bobby. I was appalled when McCarthy, after his victory in solidly white, middle-class Oregon, suggested that only the ignorant and uneducated supported his rival. It struck me as a putdown of the poor, and racist as well. I was impressed by Kennedy's compassion for the poverty-stricken miners of Appalachia, the Hispanic farm workers of California and their charismatic leader, Cesar Chavez, inner-city African-Americans and the hidden poor on Indian reservations. While McCarthy was eloquent about the fiasco in Vietnam, Kennedy offered more hope of uniting the war protestors with union members, minorities and the poor.

When school ended, I hitchhiked home to visit my family in San Francisco. I arrived in California just as its Presidential primary election was ending on June 5. The last person who gave me a ride told me Kennedy was leading in the exit polls and dropped me off at a campsite near Donner Lake, barely over the border from Nevada. The next morning, the first driver to give me a ride was surprised that I hadn't heard the news. "They killed Kennedy," he said. "Shot him in LA last night just as he was about to claim victory."

During the next week I could barely contain my grief. I watched the news footage of Kennedy on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, bleeding to death. The reports suggested a lone gunman, Sirhan Sirhan, but I suspected that someone or something must have been behind him. With his big victory in California, Kennedy would surely have sailed to the Democratic nomination and almost certainly defeated his Republican opponent.

Kennedy's funeral seemed surreal. Even Tom Hayden, the SDS radical, was a pallbearer. He had come to trust Bobby, despite the latter's wealth and establishment connections. Kennedy's brother Edward eulogized him simply as a man who "saw wrong and tried to right it, saw pain and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it."

While at home for a month, I read constantly--the literature of the New Left. A growing body of New Left analysis, including C. Wright Mills' The Power Elite and G. William Domhoff's Who Rules America? argued that our democracy was largely an illusion. A "military-industrial complex" of interlocking boards of directors containing the same elite players, dominated our politics as a "ruling class." Eisenhower had warned of its dangerous influence in his farewell presidential address. Other books documented the power of this elite over foreign policy, describing how the CIA had overthrown Arbenz in Guatemala, Mossadegh in Iran, and other elected leaders, to protect the profits of American corporations.

At the same time, most of these writers acknowledged that Soviet "socialism" was certainly no better, and probably even worse, than the corporate capitalism they challenged at home. Their hopes were buoyed by the July publication of Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov's samizdat, On Progress, Peaceful Co-existence and Intellectual Freedom. A powerful critic of Stalinism in Russia, Sakharov suggested a middle way between Communist dictatorships and capitalist inequality. It seemed to be emerging in places like Sweden and Czechoslovakia.

Beginning of the end

Back in Superior, my friends and I watched troubling news on television, when on August 21, Soviet tanks crushed the democratic uprising in Prague. A few days later, the Democratic Convention began in Chicago. While Hubert Humphrey's nomination was a foregone conclusion with Kennedy gone from the race, Eugene McCarthy still had considerable support for a floor fight. I watched with pride as Don Peterson, a Wisconsin businessman I'd worked with on the McCarthy campaign, nominated the brilliant African-American leader Julian Bond as a Vice Presidential candidate. But Humphrey and his chosen running mate, Ed Muskie, were anointed as the nominees by the Party's conservative establishment, who controlled most of the delegates.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, an old-liner, ran the convention with an iron fist. Protestors gathered outside, some of them "Yippies" (for "Youth International Party") who had nominated a pig for President. But there were many others who still believed in the system and had worked hard for McCarthy or Kennedy. They shouted their opposition to the undemocratic nature of the convention. Like Bull Connor in the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, Daley sent his police to gas and club them--an investigative committee later called the action "a police riot."

On the convention floor, Peterson and Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff rose to report that the police were beating people up outside. Mayor Daley audibly shouted a Jewish slur at Ribicoff. Reporters covering the convention were roughed up by Daley's police. The battle inside and out stretched into the night. When it was over, I felt a slow realization that the times we thought were changing would change glacially if at all.

The Fall of our discontent

That fall, my friends and I continued to organize vigils and protests. Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee for President, promised a "secret plan" to end the war while condemning antiwar protestors in the name of what he termed "the silent majority." Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate, was a mixed bag at best, in the thinking of my friends and myself. We admired his earlier stand for civil rights, dating back to 1948. He was also a strong advocate of anti-poverty measures. But he'd stuck with Johnson on the war. I made up my mind to vote for a third-party candidate, the comedian Dick Gregory. But considering the alternative of a Nixon presidency, I still hoped Humphrey would prevail. He didn't; in November, Hubert Humphrey lost by a whisker to Nixon.

Salvador and Luz

At the end of the month, I was invited to attend an event called the Hemispheric Conference Against the War in Vietnam being held in the Canadian city of Montreal. A group of us from Superior joined another from our twin city of Duluth, Minnesota, for a long bus ride to the conference. It was held in a cavernous auditorium with perhaps a thousand people in attendance. Speakers included well-known American radicals such as the Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver. Their rhetoric was loudly anti-American and pro-socialist. The war in Vietnam was described as an imperial venture fought for oil and other resources. The most revered of the speakers was a man I'd never heard of until then. An elderly and elegant gentleman wearing a fine wool sweater and dark-rimmed glasses, he spoke in Spanish, with translation. His speech was strongly-worded, but thoughtful and not merely rhetorical. I was able to shake his hand later and tell him I appreciated it.

His name was Salvador Allende, and he was, at that time, a senator in the Chilean government and the leader of its Socialist Party. Two years later, he would be elected president of Chile, thus setting off a three-year American effort to destabilize his government. He died in the bloody military coup that overthrew him on September 11, 1973. I will always consider it an honor to have met him.

But what I remember most from the conference was the small, sad-eyed young woman from Mexico that I also met there. She had short dark hair and big eyes that seemed to be searching for something far away. In broken and halting English, she told me a story. Her name was Luz, which means "light" in Spanish, but her story was decidedly dark.

Two months earlier, on the night of October 2, she and other Mexican university students had gathered in a great open space called the Plaza of the Three Cultures near the center of Mexico City. They had marched there from several universities to protest the upcoming Olympic Games, which had displaced hundreds of poor Mexico City residents from their homes. Their protest was completely peaceful, but the response of the police and guardsmen sent by the government to control them was not. Snipers fired randomly into the crowd, killing hundreds of students and bystanders. With the size of the crowd, it was difficult to flee. Some of her friends were killed; she watched their blood darken the stones in the plaza before finally escaping the violence.

She was fighting hard to hold back tears as she told me her horrifying tale. I found her inexpressibly lovely and wanted only to tell her things would be all right. She had come to the conference with several other student leaders from the Olympic protest. I told her I had watched the games on television and she brightened when I mentioned the black-gloved protest by two of the United States' finest sprinters, Tommie Smith and Jon Carlos, as they received their medals on the podium while the Star-Spangled Banner blared behind them, a protest similar to Colin Kaepernick's half a century later. Luz, too, had watched it. It was her only positive memory of the games.

I never saw Luz again after that night. On the long bus trip back to Wisconsin, I couldn't get her out of my mind and a song came to me. I wrote it down as soon as I got back home, and later sang it for my friends in the little coffeehouse on campus.


From the bridges of Prague

To the boulevards of Paris

To the dusty streets of Mexico,

And all across my country from Boston to Berkeley

There's a feeling of change in the winds that blow.

There's a generation looking for a new beginning

And a glimmer of hope in the rising sun

And our sparkling eyes and songs prophesize

That a whole new way of life has begun.

And you in your city and I in mine

Are adding our bodies to the protest line

And dreaming of a time when all humankind will be free.

Oh, but in between, so many troubles you've seen.

So many many many shattered dreams...

In the Three Cultures Plaza you gathered to meet.

They met you, but with snipers, and left your friends all dead in the street.

"Now don't disturb the Olympics," the imperial orders came,

"Anybody who protests will receive still more of the same,

We'll stop your life's flicker and we'll even erase your name."

They released the doves to fly. You watched them in the sky

And you wanted to try to catch what they symbolize.

But your dove couldn't sing. She had blood on her broken wing

And you started to cry, but now dry out your eyes.

For maybe tomorrow you'll wake up and find

The long years of sorrow were worth all the pain

For all of your struggles have been left behind

Though memories remain, it wasn't in vain.

And because of you, and what you've been through,

The ones who are born then will sing in the rain.

I wanted to believe the words of the song were true, but I really didn't feel that way. A month later, a year that began with great hope, ended with little. The New Left would splinter and descend into violence as Nixon escalated the war. Forty years would pass before I would experience again the hope I had before August of 1968, before we would dance in the streets again, as so many did when Obama was elected. Suddenly it was possible to believe again, but the forces of hate and greed did not go quietly into that magic night. They have come back with a vengeance and a cruelty that makes Nixon seem benign by comparison.

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