One month into 1968, the Vietnamese celebrated their new year and the Viet Cong launched its Tet Offensive. The chief of the South Vietnamese national police was photographed executing a captured Viet Cong officer, horrifying viewers across the world. Communist forces rapidly overran most of Hue, and hundreds of U.S. Marines were killed taking it back over the following month. On February 27, Walter Cronkite told a stunned American public that the war could “only be ended by negotiation, not victory.” By March, anti-war sentiment in America had become mainstream.
About two weeks after the last fighting in Hue ended, Eugene McCarthy came within eight points of defeating sitting president Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primaries; a few days later, Robert F. Kennedy entered the race, and just weeks after that Johnson declared he would no longer stand for reelection.
Four days after Johnson’s announcement, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, touching off riots in more than 100 American cities that would decimate countless neighborhoods for decades to come.
At the end of April, student protesters took over Columbia University; a week later, the NYPD stormed Hamilton Hall and the Low Library with tear gas, injuring over 100 students and permanently disabling one police officer. In the weeks that followed, the Catonville Nine were arrested for marching into a draft board, seizing hundreds of draft files, and burning them with napalm.
On June 6, as he celebrated his victory in the California primary at Los Angeles’s Ambassador hotel, Kennedy was assassinated by the Palestinian extremist Sirhan Sirhan. In late August, Hubert Humphrey was nominated at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the nation watching in horror as Richard Daley’s police chased antiwar protesters through the streets of the Loop with tear gas and night sticks. On Election Day, November 5, Humphrey lost narrowly to Richard Nixon, whose own acceptance speech to the Republican convention had captured the nation’s dark mood:
As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night. We see Americans dying on distant battlefields abroad. We see Americans hating each other; fighting each other; killing each other at home.
In short, 1968 was a bad year — so bad that it has come to serve as a sort of metonym for bad years. In the long, hot summer of 2016, as fears grew of violence at the Republican convention in Cleveland, as police officers were shot in Dallas and Baton Rouge, as protests raged over a series of police killings of black citizens, and as a spate of terrorist attacks in America and Europe sent tensions soaring, pundits once again began issuing forth the inevitable comparisons to 1968.
Now, in the immediate aftermath of Monday’s shooting at a congressional baseball practice, those comparisons are cropping up again. Recalling the wave of assassinations that so traumatized the 1960s, columnist John Podhoretz asks, “Will this prove to have been a lone event? Or is it the beginning of another long hot summer my son will remember forever — the herald of a new kind of chaos with a signature frighteningly reminiscent of 1968?” Podhoretz is careful to note that the year so far has “been bad, but not 1968-level bad”; his worry is that it could quickly get that bad — that America’s political breakdown might accelerate until the bombs, the tear gas, the assassinations, and the riots begin anew.
This is unlikely. For a start, we are in a much different place as a society than we were in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Kerner Report, for instance, found that there had been 164 “disorders” reported during the first nine months of 1967, 41 of them serious or major, resulting in 83 deaths. In an 18-month period in the early 1970s, the United States saw more than 2,500 bombings. There has been nothing remotely comparable to the assassinations of King and Kennedy since John Hinckley shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981. The current round of student protests and “antifa” violence may be troubling, but it would seem quaint to the campus radicals of the late 1960s, who saw their schools flooded with tear gas and forced to close, army recruiting centers bombed and set on fire, and university researchers murdered.
But suppose, as is possible, that the worst case transpires and American peace collapses as rapidly and catastrophically as it did between 1966 and 1968. Will our future then resemble the days of Sirhan Sirhan and Bobby Seale, Bill Ayers and James Earl Ray?
Probably not. Even if American civil society does suffer some sort of breakdown, it is unlikely to look very similar to the unrest of 1968, for one simple reason: That unrest occurred largely as a result of Vietnam and the civil-rights movement, which galvanized Americans more effectively than any cause could today.
Will our future then resemble the days of Sirhan Sirhan and Bobby Seale, Bill Ayers and James Earl Ray? Probably not.
In 1968, close to 17,000 Americans died in Vietnam, hundreds of thousands were drafted, and tens of thousands fled across the Canadian border to avoid conscription. Connected to the horror of the draft and the widespread media coverage of the war, with its napalm bombings, burning villages, and arbitrary executions, was a belief among many young Americans that our actions in Vietnam constituted genocide. The March on the Pentagon drew a 100,000 demonstrators; when Students for a Democratic Society organized a strike in April 1968, almost 1 million students skipped class.
Likewise, the enormous social changes associated with the successes of the civil-rights movement inspired millions of young Americans in the early 1960s — the Freedom Riders who risked prison or worse to desegregate buses in the South, the hundreds of thousands who marched to hear King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall in 1963, the sit-in movement that spread across dozens of cities. By the late 1960s, as social conditions continued to deteriorate for African Americans, urban crime increased, and rioting became a regular phenomenon in neighborhoods such as Harlem and Watts, the movement’s optimism faded, and disillusioned activists channeled their passions into increasingly radical political organizations.
At that point, radical sentiments were widespread to a degree almost unfathomable today: A Gallup poll in 1970 found that 44 percent of college students felt that violence was justified in order to effect social change, 40 percent thought revolution was necessary in the United States, and 1.7 million considered themselves revolutionaries. In 1972, almost 20 percent of America had a positive opinion of Soviet Russia — as opposed to 1.9 percent in 1956, or 4 percent in 1980. Philip Roth’s great tale of late 1960s radicalism, American Pastoral, repeatedly references a telling quote from Weatherman John Jacobs: “We are against everything that is good and decent in honky America. We will loot and burn and destroy. We are the incubation of your mothers’ nightmares.” So they were.
On the other hand, the mainstream of American civil society was tremendously antipathetic to many of the changes of the 1960s. As late as the December of 1966, 50 percent of whites thought that King was hurting the civil-rights cause, as opposed to 36 percent who thought he was helping it. In January 1967, 83 percent agreed that “Negroes would be better off if they would take advantage of the opportunities that have been made available rather than spending so much time protesting.” In 1968, 81 percent of respondents thought “law and order had broken down in the United States”; only 39 percent agreed that “college student protests were a healthy sign for America.” Somewhat hilariously, 71 percent of parents said they would forbid their children from “going to a hippie ‘be-in.’”
1968 saw hundreds of thousands of Americans willing to risk their freedom, their health, and sometimes their lives protesting, campaigning, or even murdering in the service of enormously controversial beliefs that were strongly held to a degree almost unimaginable today. Millions of others, meanwhile, saw such activism as an almost existential threat to American well being. The fundamental conflict between the two groups was what made for such unusually intense chaos.
The differences in American politics now break down differently. There is nothing like Vietnam that threatens the lives of millions of Americans and is seen as a moral problem by countless others; there is no sweeping change afoot comparable to that occasioned by the civil-rights movement, which reorganized enormous swathes of American society in a very short time. University students are well to the left of most Americans, but they are not, by and large, Marxists and Maoists. Most American parents are not concerned that their children will go to a hippie be-in and disavow capitalism. Many hold passionate views on abortion and immigration and police brutality, but only a relative few of them could be characterized as radical. It was never too hard to understand why university students would riot over the draft; it’s much harder to imagine a breakdown in law and order over the issue of single-payer health care.
American society has instead begun to fracture along partisan lines that mirror its broad sociocultural differences, rather than along ideological lines. We can see this in the way that voters of both political affiliations swap their beliefs to align with their parties, or in the way that parents are increasingly unwilling to countenance their children’s marriage across party lines. We can see it in the various ways that cultural indicators are predictive of voting behavior. These are worrying trends, indeed, and they may portend a dangerous era in American history.
But even if they do, it’s unlikely to look much like 1968.