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1968: The Year that Changed the Nation

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  • 0:06 A Year of Discontent
  • 0:45 January to March
  • 3:20 April to June
  • 4:55 July to September
  • 6:50 October to December
  • 7:57 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The year of 1968 was a year of war in Southeast Asia, domestic clashes over racial equality and war and fallen leaders, including Dr. King and Robert Kennedy. Learn more about the year that changed the nation in this video lesson.

A Year of Discontent

Protestors at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention exclaimed that all international eyes were on the United States. Their contention made sense, considering 1968 in the United States represented the most tumultuous year experienced by the nation since its birth. While the year opened with the thrilling Super Bowl II victory by the Green Bay Packers and closed with exhilarating images of Earth from American astronauts in orbit, the interregnum was stained with war, violence and fallen leaders. America had become severely polarized pitting left versus right, pro-war versus anti-war, old generation versus new generation and black versus white.

January to March

American combat troops had been waging war against the North Vietnamese in the Vietnam War since March 1965. President Lyndon B. Johnson, and his trusted advisers, believed that the war had turned in favor of the United States, and a favorable outcome could be obtained by the end of 1968. How wrong he was!

Johnson was faced with a minor hiccup halfway through January of 1968. An American battle ship, the U.S.S. Pueblo, was captured by North Korea on January 23. Johnson attempted to enter into negotiations with the North Koreans, but the crew of the Pueblo was held hostage until December 23, 1968. Yet, this was a minor issue compared to what the United States experienced in Vietnam.

1968 marked the Tet Lunar New Year in Southeast Asia, and, therefore, the United States agreed to a temporary ceasefire with the North Vietnamese to celebrate the holiday. Unfortunately, North Vietnam did not adhere to the commitment. On January 21, the North Vietnamese launched an attack against American Marines stationed at Khe Sanh. This siege witnessed extreme fighting with the siege lasting until April 8. However, this was only the beginning.

On January 30, the North Vietnamese, along with the Viet Cong, launched a massive offensive, known as the Tet Offensive, against major cities in South Vietnam. Saigon, Hue and Pleiku saw heavy fighting between American and North Vietnamese forces. Fortunately, American servicemen and their South Vietnamese allies were able to repel the attack and issue a staggering defeat to North Vietnam. Yet, it is important to remember that perception is everything.

Americans at home witnessed the vicious fighting against an enemy that they were told was close to defeat. The general American discontent concerning the war was summed up by famed journalist Walter Cronkite when he concluded that the war was a stalemate and that a negotiated settlement was the only real solution left for the United States. President Johnson noted that losing Cronkite meant that he lost the American public and ultimately the war. While the Tet Offensive was an American military victory, the North Vietnamese had won the psychological battle.

By March, Johnson curbed troop requests in favor of turning more of the war effort over to the South Vietnamese. Simultaneously, members of the Democratic Party openly criticized Johnson for the war effort and encouraged an intraparty challenger to contend for the presidency. Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota answered the call by winning the New Hampshire Primary on March 12 with 42% of the vote. Johnson, demoralized by the Tet Offensive, announced on March 31 that the bombing of North Vietnam would be halted, and, more importantly, that he would not seek re-election as president of the United States.

April to June

The months spanning from April to June proved to be the most violent and deadly of 1968. In April, famed civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to support a sanitation strike led by black sanitation workers and to begin organizing for the Poor People's Campaign to bring about economic justice to poor Americans. Sadly, King was assassinated on April 4 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis by white Southerner James Earl Ray. Ironically, if you are familiar with the story, King professed on April 3 that he did not believe he would see racial and socioeconomic justice for deprived Americans.

Needless to say, the United States erupted into violence following the untimely death of King. Black neighborhoods throughout the nation turned into zones of destruction and violence. Washington, D.C., Newark, New Jersey and Detroit, Michigan were in flames. Roughly 40 people were killed during the rampage, and the United States was forced to unleash the National Guard to quell the violence.

The horror of Dr. King's assassination still loomed large within the United States during June. New York Senator Robert Kennedy, brother of former President John F. Kennedy, decided to campaign for the democratic nomination for the 1968 presidential election. After providing a moving speech just before midnight on June 4 in Los Angeles, California, Kennedy was shot several times in the early morning hours of June 5 by Palestinian immigrant Sirhan Sirhan; Kennedy was pronounced dead on June 6. It has been suggested that the conspirator took offense to many of Kennedy's proposed Middle Eastern policies. Notwithstanding, the United States once again entered into mourning.

July to September

Since the Tet Offensive became public knowledge overnight, the anti-war sentiment in the United States became fervent. Individuals such as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Tom Hayden all committed themselves to anti-war activism. In fact, Abbie Hoffman warned in July that the Youth International Freedom Party (its members known as Yippies), was going to descend on Chicago during the Democratic National Convention in August.

Prior to the Democratic National Convention, the Republican Party held its nominating convention for the republican challenger. Former Vice President Richard Nixon and California Governor Ronald Reagan squared off to win the nomination. Both individuals strategy for racial equality was somewhat ambiguous; however, Nixon's policy for honorably ending the Vietnam War propelled him to the top. On August 8, in Miami, Florida, Nixon won the republican nomination for the Presidential Election of 1968.

North of Miami, in Chicago, Illinois, on August 26, Vice President Hubert Humphrey contended with democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy for the Democratic Party's nomination for president of the United States. While the republican convention in Miami operated smoothly, the same cannot be said for Chicago. As promised, Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies descended upon Chicago and organized the 'Festival of Life,' an anti-war counter to what many believed was the 'Convention of Death,' or supporting the continued war effort.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley cracked down on the often rowdy protestors, unleashing the Chicago Police Department onto the opposition. The most gruesome violence occurred on August 28 when the Chicago police brutally attacked protestors outside of the convention site. Over 100 protestors were sent to the hospital and upward of 200 individuals were arrested, including the famous 'Chicago 7' of Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines and Lee Weiner. These men were charged with attempting to incite a riot across state lines. Notwithstanding the showdown, Hubert Humphrey won the democratic nomination on August 29.

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