COMMENTARY: The ghosts of 1968 are still with us today

Commemorations of historical events can go either way. So it is with 1968, a very active if controversial year in American and world history. Certainly one of the most consequential annum of the Twentieth Century, 1968 was recently described as alternately “wonderful” and [thankfully] “over” by representatives of a college class from that year a half-century ago. That is accurate as both memories of what happened during the year and how Americans have interpreted 1968.

Fifty years ago, the calendar started and ended with the Vietnam War. Going into 1968, there were almost one-half million American soldiers serving in South Vietnam. Through three years of active fighting, the United States suffered 16,000 fatal casualties, a figure that doubled by the end of the year. Though American and South Vietnamese forces repelled the Tet Offensive and later attacks, public opinion turned against the war, leading President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) to forsake reelection. During 1968, American policy in Vietnam changed from outright victory to “peace with honor.”

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

After LBJ’s withdrawal from the presidential race, his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, declared his candidacy and largely followed administration policy. He would be opposed on the left by Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and on the right by Republican Richard Nixon and Independent candidate George Wallace. In the wake of Sen. Kennedy’s June 1968 assassination, Vice President Humphrey was all but guaranteed the Democratic nomination, but was damaged by the riotous Democratic presidential convention in August. The Fall campaign ended with a very narrow election victory for Richard Nixon.

Violence seemed to be an inescapable theme for 1968. There were protests against the war, which grew in number and became more extreme. There were assassinations of public figures, from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to Sen. Robert Kennedy.

A half-century ago, political consciousness was very high. From the origins of the American Indian Movement, to the activities of the Black Panthers, to women advocating for an Equal Rights Amendment, something about this period of American history furnished a unique milieu for activism and action.

In addition to traditional citizenry, there were counterculture groups which flourished amid the mix of loose sex, alternative drugs, and rock music.

A final reminisce about 1968 pertains to space exploration. The year saw several Apollo launches as the effort to land on the moon continued. At the end of the year, Apollo 8 gave us the first view of Earth from back side of the moon, showing a vibrant yet vulnerable planet. Just seven months later, American astronauts stepped where no human had before.

Already during the current year, there have been comparisons to 1968, but one should not impose the conditions of one period onto another. There was a military draft to supply manpower for the war back then. Even though the U.S. has witnessed several large conflicts following Vietnam, the draft was discontinued. Like 1968, one party controls both the presidency and Congress, but the party in charge is the Republicans, not the Democrats.

Though there is no shortage of issues and policies to scrutinize today, the level of civic engagement is a far cry from the intensity of the late 1960s. Conversely, Americans enjoy more political freedoms and exhibit more diversity than 50 years ago. Finally, the U.S. space program has seen the eras of the space shuttle and International Space Station, but has not repeated the excitement of the human missions to other worlds.

The similarities between 1968 and 2018 lie in those factors which link people to each other, to their government, and to the traditions which define the nation.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Director at Delaware State University. He teaches an Honors Seminar on the 1960s and has published extensively on American history topics.

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