In American history, 1968 is a year that stands apart. It was a year of riots, political upsets, assassinations, and war—when, by almost every measure, the country was in crisis. This year is the 50th anniversary of 1968, so we’re taking the opportunity to look back. To set the stage, I called up Kevin Kruse, who specializes in modern American history, to ask why this year is so important, and what we can learn from it, 50 years later. And because this is just the beginning of the conversation, at the bottom of today’s email, we’ll ask for your help.
Why Does 1968 Loom Large in Our Memory?
I talked to Kevin Kruse, professor of history at Princeton University, about the significance of this particular year. If you’d like a refresher on the events of 1968, check out our timeline.
Caroline Kitchener: Looking back on modern U.S. history, why do we focus so much on the year 1968?
Kevin Kruse: There are two years in 20th century U.S. history when, in the eyes of people living through it, the country seemed to be coming apart. The first one was 1919, when you had everything from post-war unemployment and inflation, to the deadly flu crisis, to the so-called Bloody Summer of 1919 with all the race riots, to the labor strikes in the fall, to the Red Scare in the winter. The second is 1968. You just have to walk through the calendar of 1968 to see the way in which it was one massive event after another: the Tet Offensive, Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, urban race riots, the return of Richard Nixon and the rise of George Wallace. And against all those big events, there are a series of political, social and cultural changes going on. The sexual revolution and the gay rights movement are well underway—a more aggressive, second wave feminism is already taking shape.
Kitchener: If you had to choose one feeling that defined that year, what would it be?
Kruse: There is a sense that nowhere is safe, no one is safe, no thing is safe. Everything is up for change. After King's assassination, hundreds of cities go up in flames. In Washington, they've got troops poised on the lawn of the White House. The Situation Room is tracking, for the first time in its history, not a foreign war but a domestic crisis. Before this year, keep in mind that we were in the heart of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society: the high water mark for post-war liberalism. Then things suddenly shift and Nixon is pushing the country in a very different direction.
Kitchener: Were the conservative, sometimes racist campaigns of Richard Nixon, and particularly George Wallace, a reaction to everything else that was going on at the time?
Kruse: It's a mistake to reduce modern conservatism solely to a reactionary impulse, but I do think you can clearly see both of their campaigns in 1968 as being reactive. They are responding to feelings that Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and the Warren Court had gotten out of control. Some people felt there was a need to roll back the presidency, roll back the courts, and undo some of what they saw as damage to the social polity.
Kitchener: Do you think Nixon appealed to people because, after all this chaos and disruption, folks just wanted to get back to normal?
Kruse: Nixon calls for calm. He calls for peace—but Nixon wants to highlight the people who aren't complaining. He says, look, we've been focused too much on this fringe group—this small contingent of agitators, instigators, and rabble-rousers. Let's focus on the great “silent majority” of people who don’t protest, who play by the rules, who pay their taxes. If we can focus on them and focus on the peace in their lives, then the nation will be at peace.
Kitchener: Was there a generational divide in how people responded to these events during 1968?
Kruse: Absolutely. Chief among the reasons for that: There is a certain segment of the population—young men, age 18 to late 20s—that is directly affected by the Vietnam draft. Clearly the women in their lives, of that same generation, are just as concerned. For many in the older generation, the Vietnam War is abstract. Many of them had served in earlier wars or non-combat situations and thought serving in the military is just what you do. They didn't quite grasp that Vietnam seemed to be a different kind of a war with a different kind of rationale—or lack of one, actually. They didn't quite get the dissatisfaction.
At the same time, the sexual revolutions, the gender revolutions, are largely driven by people in their teens, 20s, and early 30s. The civil rights changes, the new militancy, is something else that I think is seen generationally. Even within the African American community, you've got an older generation that was used to making change in increments, through negotiations. There's now a younger generation that isn't willing to wait, and wants freedom now. Younger African Americans also tend to be much more drawn to theories of black separatism or black nationalism than older ones, who gravitated more naturally to King's integrationism.
Kitchener: In 1950, 3.9 million American households had a television. By 1968, that number was up to 57 million. Everyone could see all the chaos that was going on. What effect did that have on the year?
Kruse: It’s huge. The big events are witnessed broadly. The Vietnam War was known as the Living Room War because Americans watched it from their living rooms. Bobby Kennedy’s assassination happened right after the cameras are on him in California. We don't have camera footage of when King is assassinated but the photographs get replayed.
The most famous TV shot of the year is from the anti-war protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, sparked by the fact that Hubert Humphrey, who was closely associated with the Johnson administration’s Vietnam policies, became the Democratic nominee after Robert Kennedy was shot. The local Chicago police rain tear gas down on those protesters, and 17 minutes of that protest go out live on the networks, unedited. That massive new television audience is sitting at home, watching the police go to war with young Americans in the street—watching chaos.
Kitchener: What effect did 1968 have on American politics, going forward?
Kruse: It’s the moment when you see the crack up of the old liberal order. It is the rise of a new, white populist politics—and the rise of social conservatism, which, at that level, is something fairly new. It’s also the breaking point for the civil rights movement in a lot of ways. When Nixon gets elected, he says in his Inaugural address, “The laws have caught up with our conscience.” The civil rights movement, he suggests, has come to an end. Great Society liberalism has come to an end. There is a feeling that a chapter has come to an end, and a new chapter picks up.
In America, Are Things Better or Worse Than They Were in 1968?
Take this quick quiz, courtesy of our friends at Radio Atlantic. Scroll to the bottom for answers.
Income inequality today: more or less than 1968?
Median duration of unemployment: longer or shorter?
Teen pregnancy: more or less common?
Poverty rate: higher or lower?
Percent of Americans who vote: more or less?
Today’s Wrap Up
Question of the day: With this issue, we’re kicking off a longer conversation about 1968. There are three ways for you to get involved:
If you were alive in 1968, share a personal story from that year.
Find an artifact—a photograph, an article, something gathering dust in your basement—from 1968, and tell us about it.
What is one question you have about this year? We’ll try to answer it for you.
To participate, just send us an email with your story, artifact, or question.
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