It was the year that was, an astonishing 12 months that began with the Tet offensive and ended with men circling the moon—a once-in-a-life-time extravaganza of events that bedazzled Americans, enraged them, brought them to tears and to their feet and, at last, left them wondering about their invincibility, about their future, about almost everything.
Crazy for commemorations, we are awash these days in memories of 1968. Broadcast specials, magazine covers, the Smothers Brothers, Laugh-In—the time machine is jammed in reverse and running full speed. “Look out! Here come the sixties!” declares the slick New England Monthly. A color photo shows a fellow pulling open his buttondown oxford to reveal a T-shirt emblazoned with a clenched fist. Around his neck, the man wears love beads and a peace symbol.
Dream on. Intrigued by 1968 we may be, but no one is calling for a repeat performance. There was electricity in the air back then and murder in the news as well. Martin Luther King went down, and then Bobby Kennedy. The boys were dying by the hundreds in Vietnam—just kids, remember, 18 years old, 19 years old, sons and brothers who should have been home washing their cars or whistling at cheerleaders, or studying for a psych exam, or sitting under the stars on a summer night, catching their first glimpses of eternity.
In August police clobbered demonstrators who had come to razz Democrats convening in Chicago to nominate a presidential candidate, and there was America wearing a veil of tear gas again—America! Some of us lamented, some said “big deal.” A few said that the revolution was on its way, better lay in the supplies. Stock the shelves with organic peanut butter and unsulphured molasses and, maybe, a little of the weed—marijuana, friend of freedom fighters everywhere.
To the surprise of few, the revolution never came. Instead of insurrection, we got Richard Nixon and a vice-president by the name of Spiro Agnew. Lyndon Johnson had been driven from office and poor old Hubert Humphrey just couldn’t make the country believe he had the right stuff. Richard Nixon was the man of the hour. He had a plan for ending the war but couldn’t provide details at the moment. Trust him. Hehheh. We did.
The good old days were crammed with sorrow and pity and ought not to be romanticized. There is nothing glorious about assassination, war, civil strife or duplicity in high places. In 1968 America was divided as perhaps it had not been since the Civil War. We looked at each other with blood in our eyes—kids against cops, hardhats against peace freaks, whites against blacks, and, in many households, parents and children against one another.
Many sensed another conflict, as well—government against the people. It was a minority view, to be sure, offered mainly by what mainstream Americans described dismissively as the “far left.” But while centrists rebuffed the upstarts and questioned their loyalty, the notion had a pervasive quality. “My country right or wrong ” was an article of faith for most Americans, and the extent to which we believed in our own primacy cannot be overstated. God was
One need not glamorize the 1960s to wonder how the enthusiasm might he recaptured without the attendant trauma
on our side, Jake, better believe it. And yet, yet . . . there was Vietnam, and the stark, shameful blight of the ghettos, and the increasing sense that speaking up for your rights might not be such a good idea after all. Suddenly, the government’s ears had grown ungodly big and it was possible for the truculent citizen to get himself in considerable hot water. The folks in Washington weren’t taking prisoners but they certainly were taking names.
Soon enough, Americans fell a little out of love with themselves. To those who see us as privileged, smug and chronically self-absorbed, it may seem unlikely that we endured a period of honest introspection. But it happened in 1968. Yes, some Americans cried “Love it or leave it” but, across the political spectrum, thousands of others looked at their country squarely for the first time. Since childhood, we had been told we were special and now, incredibly, we seemed something less.
There has been a retrenchment, of course. Some of 1968’s folk heroes have lost their energy and their direction, but what would we expect? Others
have endured and kept true to the course. Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. attorney general, now argues civil liberties cases as a Manhattan lawyer. Bella Abzug, the antiwar congresswoman, devotes herself to foreign policy questions. Peter, Paul and Mary, still in tune, sing about civil rights— and about Central America. Dr. Benjamin Spock has plenty of moxie at 85 and said recently he thinks of himself still as “a rabble-rouser.”
In general, though, the country is beset by vapors. One need not glamorize the 1960s to lament the dreary selfabsorption of the 1980s and to wonder how the verve and enthusiasm of past times might be recaptured without the attendant trauma. We have grown timid and content, eager for pleasure, keen on second homes, luxury sedans, exercise salons and French dessert wine. Confrontation is out. Complacency is in. Wary of rocking the boat, we are reluctant to leave the dock.
This brave new world of peace and quiet is not a shining place, however. In New York City, health authorities want to give drug addicts sterile hypodermics as a means of curbing AIDS. Youth gangs hustling crack rule portions of Los Angeles. Despite Jesse Jackson’s impressive performance during the Democratic primaries, the country is engaged in serious debate as to whether, in its third century, America is “ready” for a black president.
It sometimes seems we are doubling back on ourselves—getting nowhere and not caring. A young woman at a large Midwestern university said recently that a Peace Corps volunteer had visited one of her classes but generated little interest. She said that after the volunteer’s presentation, students commented to one another that the Peace Corps is just about the last thing they would consider after graduation. Who needed two years in a place with swarms of mosquitoes but no MTV?
Not everyone joined the Peace Corps in 1968, and despite all the right-on rhetoric there was plenty of apathy then, too. Still, the year, sad and spectacular, had a remarkable driving force. History was caught in the whirlwind and, briefly, so were we. Recalling the mood of America two decades ago will not ignite our spirit or rally our sense of decency, but, in these days of Camembert and couch potatoes, it’s a start.
Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
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