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1968: The Year That Will Not Go Away

Few days remain in 2018 to celebrate and recall all the events on the 50th anniversary of 1968. Comparisons with the “gilets jaunes” in France have evoked some of the memories, but for those who lived through 1968 as students there are events permanently etched in our psyches that will not go away. For Millennials and the X Generation, 1968 is pre-history, ancient dinosaur time. For those who experienced 1968, it was a year of rupture and transformation.

A brief review of the major events: The Tet offensive began on January 31, leading to the first breach of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon by the Viet Cong. The February photo of the chief of the national police shooting a suspected Viet Cong officer on a Saigon street or the 1972 photo of the young girl screaming in pain from napalm consolidated in images all that was wrong with the U.S. presence in Vietnam.

The March New Hampshire primary was a turning point. Senator Eugene McCarthy came within 200 votes of defeating the sitting President Lyndon Johnson in the Clean for Gene campaign, initiating a political drive to oust the initiator of the Great Society but also the expander on the Vietnam conflict. Four days later, Senator Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy. For many, the choice between the philosopher/poet/politician McCarthy and the tough, politically opportunistic senator from New York was contentious.

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in early April in Memphis, highlighting the worst elements of America’s domestic realities. Institutional racism against African-Americans continued 100 years after the end of the Civil War. Robert Kennedy’s speech on the back of a flatbed truck in Indianapolis reinforced his position as someone who could speak to the weaknesses of the American Dream and potentially heal a divided country.

The April uprisings at Columbia University over public access to the gym in Harlem continued the ongoing student riots at Berkeley over free speech and names like Mark Rudd, Mario Savio and Tom Hayden of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) became part of the lore of student activism.

The assassination of Robert Kennedy in early June traumatized a generation that had never fully recovered from his brother’s death in Dallas in November 1963 or Dr. King’s murder in Memphis two months earlier. The riots in Chicago during the August Democratic National Convention further demonstrated a polarized country; the intransigence of Mayor Richard Daley and the trial of the Chicago Seven in 1969 epitomized the two extremes.

The Olympic Games in Mexico City in October were disrupted by Tommie Smith and John Carlos holding up their fists in black gloves in a Black Power salute during the Star Spangled Banner at their medal ceremony. Their immediate banishment from the Games confirmed a racially divided society and presaged current NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.

Any comprehensive review of 1968 should mention the implications of Richard Nixon’s November presidential victory and what it meant for the future of the United States as well as the Prague Spring and the signing of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

But for this dinosaur, a review of 1968 fifty years later revolves around Vietnam. Yes the civil rights movement was important and Dr. King was never replaced as a leader of justice for all. Many who protested against the war also were involved in civil rights activism, and vice versa. 1968 was a year of rupture about the American Dream on two fronts.

Twenty-seven years later Robert McNamara said of Vietnam, “We were wrong, terribly wrong.”  For me, he could never apologize enough for the millions of Vietnamese who were killed and suffered during the war and the ravages of Agent Orange that continue to this day. He could never apologize enough for the 58,320 names engraved in black granite on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington. He could never apologize enough to the generation of Americans who lived through that era.

To conclude, a personal story. 1999. Henry Kissinger spoke to a large and distinguished audience of diplomats and international civil servants at the Palais Wilson in Geneva. I had arranged to have the first question. What to ask Henry Kissinger? I had been waiting for this moment for years. Weeks of preparation to pose one question, a question that had to summarize my anger and contempt about all he stood for. “Dr. Kissinger, in your long and distinguished career, is there anything you regret, is there anything that you would have done differently?” He heard my New York accent – he also lived in the Bronx – he saw my age. For a moment I was back in the 60s, my hair longer, my voice more strident, screaming that Kissinger and Nixon are war criminals. Did he hear me then? Did he hear me in 1999?

He gave me a look of condescension. He made it known that the question was misplaced, irrelevant. He had no qualms about any of his actions. “Young man,” he growled. “If you mean Vietnam, it was the summit of my career.” He was applauded. At the end of the evening, people left the auditorium murmuring praise at his verbal dexterity and superficial, perverted wisdom. Where is the moral geography? Do I have it wrong? Iraq? Afghanistan? More of the hubris, more of the same. Am I a dinosaur trapped in a 1968 time warp like a tar pit?

For finally that is the question. Does anyone want to visit the dinosaur’s real Jurassic Park? In a world of instant and virtual news, in a world of Instagram and Twitter, does anyone want to revisit 1968 to be serious archaeologists about how it transformed a generation and a country?

In Paris, there is a Monument to the Deported of World War II behind Notre Dame along the Seine. It is rather small, designed to give the impression that the visitor is inside a concentration camp. When one leaves, one sees etched in rough stone above the exit “Pardon, mais n’oublie pas.” (Forgive, but do not forget.) As far as Vietnam is concerned, I’m not sure I can ever pardon. I am sure I can never forget. 1968 will not go away, even fifty years later.

 

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Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.

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