The Year the Dream Died: Revisiting 1968 in America
As news unfolds day to day, most years seem historic only in hindsight. But even as it happened, 1968 was recognized by those witnessing it as a watershed.
The drumbeat of events included a frantic Presidential campaign, the roar of Vietnam, two assassinations in two months, student rebellion, riots and cultural upheaval. Topping it all off in December, Americans saw the first pictures of earth from space. There it was, a blue-and-white ball, seemingly serene. "It looks like one planet from here," said an Apollo 8 astronaut while orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve. Two weeks later, when Life ran the earth's cerulean portrait on its cover, the headline proclaimed "'68 — The Incredible Year."
In the 30 years since, 1968 has been the subject of novels, films and several different histories. The latest history, The Year the Dream Died: Revisiting 1968: in America, offers a month-by-month account of the incredible year. Jules Witcover, longtime political columnist for the Baltimore Sun, focuses on the Presidential campaign, but spices his narrative with accounts of the civil rights movement and student unrest. And having covered the campaign as a young reporter, Witcover adds personal anecdotes that offer invaluable insight into this wild year.
January: the onset of the Tet offensive. February: the idealism of Eugene McCarthy's New Hampshire primary campaign. March: President Lyndon Johnson's shocking decision not to seek reelection. April: the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. May: the Poor People's March on Washington, D.C. June: Robert Kennedy gunned down. And on it went--one assault after another on the body politic and the culture at large.
Witcover chronicles not just the news but the characters shaped by it. His multi-mirrored narrative, juxtaposing simultaneous stories as they converge, makes even familiar events such as the King assassination seem new and vibrant. He mines the polls and newspaper accounts to reveal the year through the lens of the media, and his use of memoirs, from LBJ's to activist Tom Hayden's, creates a kaleidoscope of personal perspective.
The Year the Dream Died is a superb political chronicle. But election years, especially 1968, are more than the sum of their politics. During this incredible year, culture was reshaping American dreams even as politics was defeating them. Yet Witcover, essentially a political animal, ignores the year's wild and weird culture.
Art, literature and movies get only a passing glance in monthly chronologies preceding each chapter. Yet this was the year of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and the ukulele-strumming Tiny Tim; of the counterculture bible, The Whole Earth Catalog, and the Black Power manifesto, Soul on Ice. Witcover mentions none of these. Even Walter Cronkite's report doubting that the Vietnam War could be won, which LBJ himself recognized as a turning point in public opinion, gets no more than a sentence.
Yet what Witcover's account lacks in cultural context it atones for in a thoughtful epilogue on the year's aftermath. Witcover seems to have interviewed or read the memoirs of every major player. He also quotes current politicians, including Vice President Al Gore and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who were in college during 1968. Deftly weaving conflicting opinions, he creates a forum on 1968's political repercussions.
Wrapping up this frightening year, Witcover leaves us with suppositions. What if the assassinations hadn't occurred? Could the dream have been kept alive? What if . . . What if . . . Those who remember and those who have only heard about 1968 should revisit it, if only to wonder how we survived it all and how it changed us. For through the lens of hindsight, the final word on 1968 is Winston Churchill's comment on another pivotal year. Speaking of 1914 and the outbreak of war, Churchill lamented, "The terrible Ifs accumulate."
Bruce Watson is based in Massachusetts.