1968 - A Year of Beginnings and Endings


A Year of Beginnings and Endings

by Charles Corden

The year 1968 began and ended with an ongoing war in Vietnam. A war that began quietly in the early 1960s with a few military advisors had become by 1968 the most divisive war in our history with demonstrations, both peaceful and violent, bombings, the fall of a failed presidency and the election of a very controversial President. It was a war that didn’t have to happen. If Roosevelt had not died in 1945 and since he was an anti-colonialist, he would have prevented the French from re-establishing a colonial government in Indochina. This probably would have satisfied Ho Chi Minh, a pro-American nationalist, and there would not have been a First Indochina War (1946-54) and, consequently, there would not have been a Second Indochina War. But, sadly, Roosevelt did die and President Truman could not stand up to the Francophiles in the State Department. Subsequently, the French were allowed to re-establish a colonial government which thwarted Indochinese and Ho Chi Minh’s plans for independence. For what he perceived as a betrayal, Ho Chi Minh became virulently anti-American. The Second Indochina (Vietnam) War was a certainty once France lost the first war with a defeat at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Thus, the Americans were inexorably drawn into the second war by the early 1960s.
During the course of the year, we also saw the assassination of two extraordinary men, the continuation and, probably the conclusion, of the civil rights struggle which began in the Fifties, a trip to the moon and the election of two men, one a protagonist in a Greek tragedy and the other, a crook.
The year was also a beginning and ending for me. I was assigned to a new school and teaching a new subject, English, even though History was my desired subject. The year also found me dating a woman who eventually became my wife (1972). Being who I am, I had strong opinions about many of the events: I was pro-war, anti-demonstrations against the war, pro-civil rights, and extremely interested in the election politics.
The year began with a slap in the face to the United States: the Pueblo Incident. The USS Pueblo is a naval intelligence gathering ship which was boarded and captured by North Korean forces on 23 January 1968. Incidentally, when I was in the Air Force, I probably performed the same duties that the men on the Pueblo performed. Only my intelligence gathering was land-based and located on the island of Crete. Similar to the Pueblo, we were a listening post gathering intelligence from Communist nations and other nations in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
North Korea stated that the Pueblo strayed into their territorial waters, but the United States maintained that the vessel was in international waters at the time of the incident. The Pueblo is still held by North Korea today and officially remains a commissioned vessel of the United States Navy. It is moored in a river in Pyongyang, and used there as a museum ship. The Pueblo is the only ship of the U.S. Navy currently being held captive.
On Jan. 30, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong began what is known as the Tet Offensive with a series of surprise attacks against towns and villages across South Vietnam. These were surprises because Tet is a Vietnamese holiday celebrating the lunar New Year, the Communists succeeded in a number of attacks and the offensive showed the U.S. that the enemy was stronger than expected. Eventually, the United States was victorious in beating back the attacks, though you would not know it if you were watching television or reading the papers. The media had begun its shift to anti-war opinionated reporting by claiming that the Tet Offensive was a major defeat for the Americans.
A few days later, on Feb 1, in South Vietnam a Viet Cong officer was executed by a bullet to the head from the South Vietnamese National Police Chief. The execution was photographed at the exact moment and the image was sent around the world. It goes without saying that public opinion was swayed against the war. Another event occurred on Mar 16 that also further eroded public support for the war. American troops killed scores of civilians in what became known as the My Lai Massacre. The story behind the massacre did not come to light until November 1969.
For a week, late in April, student protesters at Columbia University seized administration buildings and shut down the university. These student protests against the war by occupying colleges and universities really made me upset about what I saw. For example, many protesters in demonstrations would use their first two fingers in a V for peace sign. Today, in church when we are asked to offer peace to the other parishioners, many use the same V for peace sign. I find that to be objectionable.
On Oct. 31, President Johnson claimed that there had been progress in the peace talks in Paris which was trying to work out some sort of agreement to establish peace in Vietnam. Thus, he announced in a television speech that he had ordered a complete stoppage of “all air, naval, and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam” effective the next day, Nov. 1. However, it seemed that the strategy shifted from bombing North Vietnam to bombing a neighboring country. On Nov. 11, Operation Commando Hunt was begun to interrupt the flow of men and supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos into South Vietnam. By the end of the operation, 3 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos which slowed but did not seriously disrupt the North Vietnamese operations.
Another major story of 1968 involved the Civil Rights movement. A great deal of the progress in obtaining equal rights for all U.S. citizens had been achieved by 1968, but there was much more that had to be done. For example, on Feb 8, a civil rights protest at a white-only bowling alley in Orangeburg, South Carolina was broken up by highway patrolmen; three college students were killed.
Then for five days, March 19 to March 23, students at Howard University in Washington, D.C., introduced terms such as Afrocentrism and Black Power to Americans: they staged rallies, protests, and a sit-in occupying the administration building. They shut down the university in protest over its ROTC program and the Vietnam War. The students also demanded a more Afrocentric curriculum.
Then, on April 4, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee where he had spoken to striking municipal workers. As a result, riots erupted in several American cities, including Waterbury, many lasting for several days. His killer, James Earl Ray, was arrested on June 8 while trying to flee to England.
A week after King’s death, on April 11, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This legislation was designed to reduce discrimination in the purchasing, renting, and leasing of housing by members of ethnic and racial minorities.
There have been few election years as disruptive to the American ethos as 1968 (1800 and 1860 were two). On March 31, after a nationally televised speech about progress in the Paris Peace Talks, President Johnson paused, removed his glasses and spoke into the camera. He stated that he would not seek re-election. Unspoken was the fact that he had just lost the New Hampshire Primary to Senator Eugene McCarthy, a vocal Vietnam War opponent. The anti-war movement claimed its most important victim.
With Johnson’s withdrawal, the focus centered on Robert F. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy’s brother. Shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968 in Los Angeles during the campaign season for the Presidency and after winning the California and South Dakota primaries for the Democratic nomination for President, Kennedy had just finished a speech and was leaving the Ambassador Hotel by walking through the kitchen when he was shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian-Jordanian. He was seized immediately. Kennedy died twenty-six hours later.
Almost as an anticlimax, the Republicans held their convention in Miami Beach and nominated Richard M. Nixon, former Vice-President, for President and Spriro Agnew, Governor of Maryland, for Vice President. In time, it was clear that Nixon, by any measure, became a very good President but there is a fate which overpowered his “good” character. In a Greek tragedy. poor judgment by the protagonist causes a fall from grace. Poor judgment is a tragic flaw which leads to personal catastrophe and unintended harm to others. Hubris, or excessive pride or arrogance, is the most common type of flaw. This misfortune by the hero is an example of human fallibility. Therefore, Nixon’s distrust of others (his flaw) led to Watergate (his catastrophe) and his eventual resignation (the fall from grace). Nixon was the embodiment of a tragic Greek hero.
Spiro Agnew was in a different type of trouble with tax evasion and other charges. In March 1973 as part of a plea bargain with the U.S Attorney General in which he would avoid the more serious charges of extortion, tax fraud, bribery, and conspiracy, Agnew was allowed to plead no contest to a single charge that he had failed to report nearly $30,000 of income when he was Governor of Maryland, with the condition that he resign the office of Vice-President. President Nixon named and the Senate approved Gerald Ford, Republican leader in the House of Representatives as the new Vice President.
The Democrats held their convention in Chicago and even before the opening of the proceedings, police clashed with anti- war protesters. With chants such as Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh and Hey! Hey! LBJ. How many babies did you kill today, the protesters made the area around the convention into a battle zone with Molotov cocktails and jars with tarantulas being thrown at the delegates. And inside the convention hall, things were not much better. Chicago mayor Richard Daley tried to run the proceedings in a dictatorial manner. I have a lasting impression of Daley attempting to shout down Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut for what he, Daley, had deemed to be a breach of convention rules.
In the end, the convention nominated Vice- President Hubert H. Humphrey for President and Sen. Edmund Muskie for Vice-President. Two decent men but their campaigns were seriously hampered by the anti-war riots and Humphrey’s ties to Lyndon Johnson.
Personally, as a veteran, I considered the anti-war protestors poor examples of American citizens, if not traitors.
But not everything was negative. On Dec. 24, the U.S. spacecraft Apollo 8 entered into an orbit around the Moon. Astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders became the first humans to see the far side of the Moon and the planet Earth as a whole. It was Christmas Eve and, fittingly, the crew read passages from Genesis.
1969 had to be a better year. It was.

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