Two assassinations, a bloody war, violent protests, racial unrest, colorful hippies, a celebration of sex and rebellion, and John Lennon’s countercultural anthem, “Revolution”—1968 had them all.
It was the year that shattered the fragile consensus that had shaped American society since the end of World War II. It was the year when assassinations ended the last hope of a nonviolent civil-rights movement and the creation of a new biracial political coalition. The year witnessed the coming of age of the baby-boom generation, the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, who rebelled against tradition and all forms of conformity. And it forged, for better or worse, the world in which we live today.
The 1960s began with hope and optimism, with policymakers and intellectuals celebrating the dawn of a new age of consensus. But the fragile harmony quickly began to fray. Young Americans took to the streets to protest President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to escalate the Vietnam war. African Americans had marched to end the southern system of Jim Crow. Women fought against gender stereotypes that confined them to the role of housewives. And hippies questioned the cultural assumptions that informed American life.
These political and cultural resentments simmering beneath the surface of American society exploded in 1968. Nearly every week produced news of another earth-shattering event.
The year was full of cultural expressions of change. NBC launched a new comedy, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, that upended TV conventions with its irreverent and satirical humor, providing viewers with a much-needed respite from the turmoil engulfing the nation. Movies such as The Graduate explored topics of sex and rebellion, and the original Star Trek featured an interracial kiss. “Where I come from,” declared Captain Kirk, “size, shape or color makes no difference.” It was the year that John Lennon sang “Revolution,” and Jefferson Airplane declared that “Now it’s time for you and me to have a revolution.” On Broadway, “The Boys in the Band” opened the closet door and explored the idea of same-sex attraction, while “Hair” celebrated the counterculture with its plea for “harmony and understanding.”
The year marked a milestone for the women’s liberation movement. On a sunny day in September women gathered on the Atlantic City boardwalk to protest the Miss America Beauty Contest. They threw items that symbolized oppression—girdles, curlers and bras—into a “Freedom Trash Can.” Because the boardwalk was made of combustible wooden planks, the fire marshal refused to allow them to set the can on fire, but that didn’t prevent reporters from claiming the women had “burned” their bras. Two blocks away, African-American women, who had been unrepresented in the official contest, hosted a rival “Miss Black America” contest.
The spirit of rebellion even seeped into the Summer Olympics in Mexico City where American medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists during the playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” to show their support for black power.
Perhaps the most profound image of a year came on Christmas Eve, when the crew of Apollo 8 surfaced from behind the moon to see our blue planet as it emerged over the colorless lunar surface. Their iconic “Earthrise” photo, which revealed a small and fragile planet, fed a growing environmental movement that called for preserving precious resources like clean air and water. “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark,” observed the astronomer Carl Sagan. “There is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
Nothing, however, exposed the raw nerve of discontent more than Vietnam. The year began with the United States still embroiled in a seemingly endless war. On January 31, 1968, communist troops launched an offensive during the lunar new year, called Tet. The assault killed 1,500 Americans and burst the illusion that the United States was winning the war. TV anchorman Walter Cronkite, echoing many Americans, declared the U.S. was “mired in stalemate.” At that moment, President Lyndon Johnson turned to an aide and said, “It’s all over.” If he had lost Cronkite, he had lost “Mr. Average Citizen.”
He was right. Support for LBJ’s Vietnam policy dropped to 26 percent and, with no end in sight, Johnson announced at the end of March that he would not seek reelection. Tet destroyed the Johnson presidency, but more importantly it called into question the Cold War belief that America had a mission to battle communism wherever it reared its ugly head. Over the next few decades, the two political parties would offer strikingly different approaches to the world. Many young people who protested the Vietnam War, like Bill Clinton, would seize control of the Democratic party—the party of JFK and LBJ that lurched the nation into war—and articulate a more restrained view of American power.
Republicans, meanwhile, became the new internationalists, insisting that the nation continue to flex its military muscle abroad. President Donald Trump has appropriated both messages, but more out of political expediency than conviction. He adopted an isolationist stance during the campaign, calling for an “America First” approach to world affairs, but once in office he has threatened enemies with intervention and even nuclear annihilation.
In the short run, the chief political beneficiary of the shift of opinion after Tet was Senator Eugene McCarthy, whose army of volunteers allowed him to score a psychological victory over LBJ in New Hampshire’s March primary. One of the “clean for Gene” volunteers who knocked on doors throughout the state was a Wellesley student named Hillary Clinton. Four days after the primary, however, Robert F. Kennedy, the brother of the slain president and now a senator from New York, entered the race for the Democratic nomination.
Many Democrats believed that Kennedy was the only politician in America who could pull together the fractured liberal coalition. “How do you seek to change a society that yields so painfully to change?” he asked his youthful supporters at campaign stops across the nation. Kennedy believed that convincing poor people of all colors to pursue their shared class interests offered the only solution to the deep racial hostility that was tearing the nation apart. “We have to convince the Negroes and poor whites that they have common interests,” Kennedy told a journalist. “If we can reconcile those two hostile groups, and then add the kids, you can really turn this country around.”
Kennedy was not the only voice calling for a class-based, biracial coalition that year. By 1968, Martin Luther King had abandoned his previous emphasis on dramatic confrontations and instead focused on community organizing to build a class-based, grassroots alliance among the poor. King, who spent most of the winter organizing a “poor people’s march on Washington,” argued that America’s racial problems could not be solved without addressing the issue of class. “We must recognize,” he said. “that we can’t solve our problems now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” King now considered himself a revolutionary, not a reformer.
In April, while in Memphis to support striking garbage workers, King reaffirmed his faith in the possibility of racial justice: “I may not get there with you. But we as a people will get to the promised land.” The following day, April 4, a bullet fired from the gun of a white ex-convict ripped through King’s neck, killing him instantly.
With King dead, RFK became for many disaffected people, black and white, the only national leader who commanded respect and enthusiasm. But Kennedy suffered the same fate as King, gunned down by an assassin’s bullet that tore through his brain after he had won the crucial California primary.
The bullets that killed MLK and RFK snuffed out any hope of forging a new progressive coalition. For a generation, progressives have been left wondering: What if they had lived? Would Kennedy have gone on to secure the nomination and win in November? Would King’s “poor people’s march” have succeeded in sending a powerful signal about the possibility of forging a black-white alliance? We will never know the answer to those questions. Instead, their deaths were a potent reminder that bullets, not ballots, would shape the future of American politics. The assassinations demoralized young people who had protested the war, and guaranteed that the old guard would solidify their control over the party.
The old and new came together in Chicago for the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It proved a combustible mix. When the convention approved a plank supporting LBJ’s Vietnam policy, anti-war activists donned black arm bands and remained in their seats, singing “We Shall Overcome.” As dramatic as these events were, the real action was taking place outside the convention hall where the police assaulted a group of peaceful demonstrators. With no attempt to distinguish bystanders and peaceful protesters from lawbreakers, the police smashed people through plate-glass windows, fired tear-gas canisters indiscriminately and brutalized anyone who got in their way. “These are our children,” New York Times columnist Tom Wicker cried out as the violence swirled around him.
The public’s reaction to the police riot gave an indication of the American mood in 1968: Most Americans sympathized with the police. In a poll taken shortly after the Democratic convention, most blue-collar workers approved the way the Chicago police had handled protesters; some thought the police were “not tough enough” on them.
1968 not only muted two powerful voices advocating for social change and witnessed the implosion of the Democratic party; it gave birth to a new form of social populism that would be the mainstay of the Republican party for the next five decades. The most direct appeal for the hearts of angry white folks came from American Independence Party candidate George Wallace, whose symbolic stance in a university doorway had made him a hero to southern whites. In 1968 Wallace’s anti-establishment populism also appealed to many northern Democrats angry over the party’s association with protest and integration. One survey showed that more than half the nation shared Wallace’s view that “liberals, intellectuals and long-hairs have run the country for too long.”
Joining Wallace in pursuit of the hearts and minds of America’s angry white voters was the Republican nominee, Richard Nixon, who after losing the presidential election and a race for governor earlier in the decade, famously retired from politics. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” he told reporters in 1962. Sensing an opportunity, Nixon changed his mind and jumped into the race. Nixon promised that he had a plan—never specified—to end the war in Vietnam; but his top priority, he declared, was the restoration of law and order. Nixon appealed to those he called the “silent majority,” those whose values of patriotism and stability had been violated by student protesters, urban riots and arrogant intellectuals.
The significance of Nixon’s victory that November transcended the narrow margin of his victory. His election revealed a shift in the tectonic plates of American politics. For the previous three decades, the Roosevelt coalition, forged during the depth of the Great Depression, fueled the Democratic party and allowed it to set the agenda in Washington. In 1968, Nixon employed the language of social populism to lure away disaffected white voters in the growing suburbs and bring them into the Republican fold. His strategy invigorated the Republican party and cemented a new conservative coalition that would endure long after his disgraced presidency ended.
Echoes of 1968 reverberated through the 2016 election, during which Donald Trump channeled both George Wallace’s blatant racism and Richard Nixon’s appeal to the “silent majority.” Trump, who led the campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the nation’s first African-American president by charging that he was not a U.S. citizen, tapped into deep resentment among voters who cling tenaciously to an older world view. He announced his candidacy by attacking immigrants, calling them rapists and drug dealers, then moved on to Muslims, who he wanted banned from entering the United States, before widening his reach by using well-tested racial “dog whistles” to appeal to white voters. His nostalgia for an America before anti-war rallies and civil-rights protests found expression in his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Hillary Clinton, like 1968 Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey, was eminently qualified for the presidency, but ran a passionless campaign for a party that had lost its progressive voice.
1968 forged a cultural struggle that continues to shape American society today. The civil-rights movement dramatically increased options for African-Americans, and along the way, spearheaded other empowerment movements, especially for women and the LGBTQ community. The range of choices expanded beyond political rights into the world of culture. A generation of young people came of age in the 1960s questioning all forms of authority, loosening the rules of behavior that had guided their parent’s generation. These dramatic changes prompted a backlash among traditionalists who complained that “counterculture” values had seeped into every institution of American society, breeding permissiveness and eroding the moral glue that held society together.
Now, five decades later, despite all the changes that have taken place, the nation remains trapped in this ongoing struggle for the hearts and minds of the American people. We are still living in the long shadow of 1968.
Steven M. Gillon, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, is the Scholar-in-Residence at HISTORY. He has authored numerous books on American history, including the recent Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism, (Basic, 2018)
History Reads features the work of prominent authors and historians.