1968: a Dress Rehearsal for 2020

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Around this time of year, there will be speculation about how 2020 was a special year. People will point to the pandemic as a unique experience, not lived through since the pandemic of 1918. Comparisons will be made with World War II. And what about the Great Depression of 1929 or World War I?

What do all these events have in common? They all point to destabilizing moments, moments that saw a radical rupture from how people lived before. In each of the periods mentioned, people said that life was never the same after.

And what about 1968? There are advantages of living to an old age. I lived through all of the following events. Recounting them here brings back flashbacks (most popular for other reasons at the time) of trauma and anxiety. I was a senior in college at the time, mostly worried about finishing a thesis and trying to figure out what to do after university. In retrospect, that year was a fundamental disruption of accepted norms; it set the stage for future events. Life was never the same after.

In chronological order: Early 1968 saw the de facto leadership of Alexander Dubcek in Czechoslovakia and hope that the power of the Soviet Union was diminishing. The Prague Spring would be crushed when Soviet troops entered the country in August in a cruel reminder that the Cold War was not frozen. In January 1968, there was momentary hope that the good guys were winning the ideological and geopolitical battle. The Prague Spring was a fleeting glimpse into the unexpected fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent implosion of the Soviet Union.

The Tet offensive in late January surprised the world as the North put to rest any illusions that the Americans could easily win the war in Vietnam. Students in the U.S. continued protesting, partially worried that if the war continued they would be called up for military duty. For many, Tet was the turning point in the war and, from a larger perspective, the beginning of the end of the American century. The example of Vietnam was an obvious lesson not learned in places like Afghanistan.

Under increasing pressure from the failure of the war, President Lyndon Johnson in March announced he would not run for re-election. Celebrations gave way to a Democratic cat fight between the idealist, Senator Eugene McCarthy (akin to Bernie Sanders) and the more establishment figure Senator Robert Kennedy (closer in his views to Joe Biden). The Democratic Party was torn between left wing and centrist factions. The Democratic Party’s tent continues to bulge at the seams.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on April 4. At the same time students were riveted by the Vietnam War and the draft, the civil rights movement also undercut the narrative of American exceptionalism. Many students left university to participate in Freedom Rides in the South. The assassination was a stimulus as well as precursor of the global Black Lives Matter movement 50 years later with the killing of George Floyd and too many others.

Protests broke out at Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley. The university became the symbol of authority and all that was wrong in society. More protests followed in Europe. May 1968 represented a young generation challenging authority and the accepted order. Universities became more democratic as the students who revolted in 1968 switched places and took over the classrooms and curricula.

Robert Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles on June 5 while continuing his appealing run for the presidency and died one day later. Only two months after the assassination of King, the turmoil of the Vietnam War, civil rights unrest and college shutdowns, the assassination was further proof of American violence. Years later, gun violence continues to plague the U.S. with assaults on schools, churches and individuals.

The August Democratic Convention in Chicago turned into urban warfare as the Chicago police battled protesters in the streets of America’s second largest city, further highlighting the evils of authority and the martyrdom of the left with figures like Abbie Hoffman and the Chicago Seven. The riots in the streets between forces of order and protesters look very much like the 2020s manifestations. According to a recent article in The New York Times; “another wave of protests a half-century ago was exploited to gain the protections that now often allow officers accused of excessive force to avoid discipline.”

The 1968 Summer Olympics held in Mexico in October were highlighted by Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ giving the Black Power salute on the victory podium. They were quickly sent home. It was not until 50 years later and the Black Lives Matter movement that social justice protests, such as Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem, become accepted in the sports world. After initially condemning Kaepernick’s actions, sports authorities joined the movement as sports and politics became intertwined. Smith and Carlos were pioneers.

Richard Nixon was elected president of the United States on Nov. 4, 1968. “Tricky” Dick was in many ways the Donald Trump of his time. He came to symbolize corruption in politics and was forced to resign in 1974 after the Watergate scandal. His mentor, the lawyer Roy Cohn, was a major influence on Donald Trump and his followers with conspiracy theories and dirty tricks part of the Republican Party’s unofficial, continuing platform.

Were the totality of these events as destabilizing as the current pandemic? Can 1968 be compared to 2020?  While each event of 1968 had global implications, they were not as directly worldwide as the current pandemic. But it is hard not to remember that millions of Vietnamese died in the war as well as 57,000 Americans. The United States’ moral authority has never been the same. The decline of American hegemony, anti-establishment protest movements and calls for social justice were present in 1968. Today they are global realities. Will the pandemic be as relevant as those movements 50 years from now?

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