by Joseph Bottum and Justin L. Blessinger
Ever feel like 2018 is 1968 come back from the grave? Hello Darkness, my old friend, Simon and Garfunkel sang in the 1960s, I’ve come to talk with you again. Fifty years on, as 2018 winds down to a sour expiration, like the taste of acid reflux, it’s worth remembering that 1968 is the year that gave us Night of the Living Dead. Gave us riots in Washington, Chicago, Baltimore, Kansas City, Wilmington, Louisville, and Chicago for a second time, just to be sure.
This was the year we got the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and even Andy Warhol, just to be sure. The Israelis lost a submarine on January 25, killing 69. The French lost a submarine on January 28, killing 52. The Soviets lost a submarine on March 8, killing 98. And the Americans joined in on May 22, when their own nuclear submarine went down, killing 99.
And, of course, The Graduate, with a Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack, filled theaters at the beginning of January, with Disney’s The Love Bug closing December. Oliver! won the Oscar for best picture. Rock Hudson headlined Ice Station Zebra. The Troubles in Ireland began. As much as 2018 seems a curdled year, clotted and congealed, 1968 was far worse. Its horrors may seem to have returned, but compared to the Real Thing—I’d like to teach the world to sing!—2018 has only the pale ghosts of the violence, emotion, and absurdity of 1968.
Around the world, 1968 produced the Paris student uprisings. The year began with the Prague Spring promise of Dubček’s doomed attempt to de-Stalinize Czechoslovakia. And the year ended with Mao Tse-tung ordering that urban college students be sent to re-education camps in the countryside, the better to learn farming and the Communist self-abasement of abject confession, with wooden guilt placards tied to their necks.
In the American context, however, the year really began with Khe Sanh, when the North Vietnamese tried to overrun two regiments of American Marines and a handful of South Vietnamese at a U.S. combat base on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, north of Da Nang. In the three-month battle, over 100,000 tons of bombs were dropped, with perhaps 12,000 casualties on the Allied side and an estimated 10,000 on the North Vietnamese side. General Westmoreland ordered nuclear weapons moved into the area for a last line of defense should the base fall. In the end, the attack was turned back, although the United States would subsequently abandon the destroyed base.
And 1968 ended with the winding down of the Tet Offensive, which saw the Viet Cong and regular North Vietnamese army elements launch assaults on 36 of South Vietnam’s 44 provincial capitals. Saigon itself saw attacks on the president’s palace, the U.S. Embassy, the central police station, and the National Radio station. The city of Huế was essentially destroyed in a battle that lasted 26 days and saw the Huế Massacre, in which the Communists purged nearly 10 percent of the city’s population, killing, torturing, and even burying alive as many as 6,000 South Vietnamese.
But perhaps the most curious component—the most telling representation of the strangeness that was 1968—comes with the fact that the United States won both the Battle of Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive. Or won them as military campaigns, at least. The United States lost both of them as sociopolitical campaigns, however, and with that cultural rout, America’s defeat in the Vietnam War was essentially decided. On October 31, President Johnson ordered a halt to “air, naval, and artillery bombardment” of North Vietnam.
This pattern—victory wearing the death mask of defeat—would be repeated throughout 1968. The year was thick with fluttered American retreats, leaving behind open gates through which opportunists and rebels alike would march. Student protesters took over the administration building at Columbia in April. Protesters disrupted the Democratic party’s national convention in Chicago in August. Norman Mailer published The Armies of the Night, his “non-fiction novel” about his participation in a 1967 anti-Vietnam march on the Pentagon. Somewhere around eight thousand demonstrators tried to storm the American Embassy in London in March.
The 62-year-old tycoon Aristotle Onassis somehow managed to marry the 39-year-old Jacqueline Kennedy. Congress passed a major gun-control act, largely as a response to the 1963 assassination of JFK. Led Zeppelin gave their first live performance. The Beatles released their all-time bestselling single, “Hey Jude”: And anytime you feel the pain, / hey Jude, refrain. Republican Richard Nixon won California and Oregon in the November presidential election. Democrat Hubert Humphrey won Texas. And George Wallace, running as an independent, nearly swept the Deep South, gaining 13.5 percent of the popular vote, the last independent to win Electoral College votes.
Some of America’s most shameful assassinations occurred in 1968. The first was in April, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Is it a sign of the continuing absurdity bequeathed to us by 1968 that the Lorraine Motel is today the site of the National Civil Rights Museum (which is in fact not a federal museum but run by a Memphis-based foundation)? Tours include opportunities to visit the balcony where King was murdered and even, at the museum’s most cringe-worthy, to look through the bathroom window from which James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot. Ray’s car is displayed on site, as well, for those who feel the need to see it.
Two months after King’s murder, Bobby Kennedy was shot down at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles—by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian outraged (in a ululation that would be heard again after 1968) by Kennedy’s announcement that he agreed with American support for Israel. The hotel avoided most of the macabre theater of subsequent remembrance, before it was embroiled in a drawn-out legal battle in 2010 that ended with the demolition of the hotel to make way for the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex (which set a record as the nation’s most expensive school, costing some $578 million dollars).
Easily forgotten, between these two high-profile assassinations, was the shooting of pop artist Andy Warhol by the radical feminist Valerie Solanas. Warhol survived, but the national conversation provoked by the incident would lead Ti-Grace Atkinson, president of the New York chapter of NOW, the National Organization for Women, to declare Solanas “the first outstanding champion of women’s rights” and “a heroine of the feminist movement.” Solanas was released from prison only three years later. Is it a surprise that she returned to stalking Warhol?
The year did feature the publication James D. Watson’s memoir of scientific triumph, The Double Helix, but really 1968 was a time of popular quackery pretending to be science, with Paul R. Ehrlich—a man wrong about every word of prediction he ever made, including “and” and “the”—publishing his doomsday book, The Population Bomb. The same year saw Erich von Däniken produce Chariots of the Gods?, his nutball claim that ancient architecture was inspired by visits from extraterrestrials. For that matter, 1968 gave us Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan, about how a Native American taught him that peyote is the gateway to spiritual enlightenment.
Was there ever a more lunatic year? A more violent year? A more consequential year? You may think 2018 was bad, from January’s total lunar eclipse to the recent Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, but it ain’t got nothing on 1968.
In the opening credits of The Graduate, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” plays as Dustin Hoffman rides through the Los Angeles airport, standing on a moving walkway: a people-mover, as Tomorrowland called them in those days. An underappreciated element of the turmoil of 1968 is its turn against the modern age. Its sense that something had gone astray—something dehumanizing, isolating, and soul-deadening had entered the world. And the people bowed and prayed / To the neon god they made.
It had a kind of strange naiveté about it, missing from 2018: a kind of earnestness that didn’t require the reflexive retreat into irony that we all have now, fifty years on. But perhaps that’s what let 1968 slip so easily into violence. And perhaps that’s what caused authority figures, from college administrators to American presidents, to retreat so quickly in defeat even when—as with Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive—they had actually won the battle.
And thus they lost the war.
Joseph Bottum is director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University, and Justin L. Blessinger is Professor of English at Dakota State University.