How the Fourth of July Was Celebrated (and Protested) in 1968

Headlines from The New York Times reveal how the nation and the world commemorated Independence Day in what had already been a tumultuous year

A U.S. Marine carries an American flag on his rifle during a recovery operation
A U.S. Marine carries an American flag on his rifle during a recovery operation in summer 1968 AP Photo/Henri Huet

By July 4, 1968, America was exposed to the brutal reality of Vietnam’s Tet Offensive and My Lai Massacre. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated; riots broke out across the country. Young Americans snubbed tradition and authority. Despite the gains made earlier in the decade in the Civil Rights Movement, racial unrest bubbled in urban centers. For many Americans, this Fourth of July wasn’t marked by Sousa marches and patriotism, but rather a skeptical view of the government’s actions, domestically and abroad, let alone of traditional American values and celebrations. The air simmered with escalating violence, impatient protestors, hardened social classes and new social movements.

As summer started that year, a Gallup poll found that 36 percent of Americans believed the country had a “sick society.” An earlier poll in the spring found that they were closely divided on the issue of the Vietnam War, which by the end of 1967, had seen 11,363 servicemen lose their lives. In that poll, 48 percent believed the war was a mistake and 40 percent believed it wasn’t. By the end of the summer, the number of dissenters increased to 53 percent, while 35 percent held to their convictions that the war was justified.

The New York Times headlines documenting the events of July 4, 1968 illustrate a glance into a world frustrated with the Vietnam war, politics and the state of American society.

That issue of the Times provides a veritable snapshot of how Americans squared the narrative of celebrating independence with the tumult happening in the nation. These dispatches present an America divided, all-too-familiar to today’s readers:

In California, a crowd of 5,000 filled Berkeley’s Telegraph Ave., soft drinks and ice cream in hand. Flowers were distributed and children played with firecrackers while the Young Socialist Alliance hosted a peaceful rally and spoke about the Vietnam war and the new French government.

New York City was relatively quiet, as many New Yorkers spent their vacation elsewhere. Aside from small observances, New York had no official city celebration, leaving the streets “deserted.” Even the beach was gloomy with the “sun peaking out from the clouds only sporadically and grudgingly.

In Washington, 150 protestors came to the capital to “dramatize the plight of the poor” and continue the mission set out by the Poor People’s Campaign – a six week political demonstration on the National Mall created to redress employment and housing issues of America’s diverse impoverished population. The Campaign’s protest camp, “Resurrection City,” had been dismantled for just over a week, yet the demonstrators were not finished. Twenty-three of the Campaigners broke through a police line blocking the demonstrations, sat down to eat watermelons and were quickly arrested. Later, across from the White House, 35 Quaker protestors quietly demonstrated in solidarity with the Campaign in Lafayette Park.

In San Antonio, Texas, President Lyndon Baines Johnson chastised protestors in Minnesota who, a day earlier, disrupted a planned speech by presidential candidate George Wallace. “Americans of every viewpoint must be deeply concerned over the intolerance that prevented Mr. Wallace from speaking,” the president said. “It is from our diversity, our tolerance of diversity, our reasoning together from the many different convictions we hold that the chief strength of our people derives.”

Over in Philadelphia, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, delivered the city’s annual Fourth of July speech before 20,000 at the famed Independence Hall. Humphrey was also vying for the nomination to replace Johnson on the Democratic ticket, and in a preview of the unrest to come later that summer at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, several dozen in attendance held signs saying “Stop Hubert.” Supporters of Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, Humphrey’s rival for the nomination and an anti-war advocate, were joined by compatriots across the street who chanted, “End the war now!”

As the protestors shouted, Humphrey pointed to the building behind him and proclaimed, “The document signed here 192 years ago declared that the inalienable rights we sought – of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – were the rights of that ‘humanity which is above nations.’’ As if responding directly to the McCarthy supporters, explaining his support for the war, he continued, “Now, only eight years before our 200th birthday, I declare this nation’s dedication to securing those rights not only for ourselves, but for that humanity which is above nations.”

Internationally, anti-war protesters used the Fourth as an opportunity to express their displeasure. In Melbourne, about 2,000 Australians smashed the windows of the U.S. Consulate. They painted the building’s steps red and tore down the American flag. In Brisbane, 10,000 people lined the streets to watch an anti-war parade. In Stockholm, Sweden 2,000 people marched in their own anti-war parade.

Independence Day traditions, though, were not totally shunned.

In Denmark, where celebrating the Fourth of July has become an annual event, more than 8,000 revelers gathered, even though the main speaker, Premier Hilmar Baunsgaard, exclaimed that the Danish government did not agree with U.S. policy in Vietnam. “Even the strongest critics of the United States must recognize that America must remain on the world scene,” he equivocated.

West Berlin celebrated with a parade that brought 10,000 Americans and Germans together, and the U.S. embassy in Moscow hosted its traditional celebration, complete with hot dogs and ice cream.

In many parts of the States, too, festivities were classically joyous where annual rites were kept untouched by the residual effects of 1968.

As highlighted in the Times, Gowrie, Iowa, a small-town of 1,100 people, celebrated with 5,000 neighbors from other communities, enjoying a celebration reminiscent of what John Adams said he would have wanted. A parade, a fried chicken dinner, baseball games, square dancing and fireworks ensued.

“We do love our country, it’s been good to us. We know things are wrong with it, but we still feel we can right these wrongs through the ballot box and not through all this carrying on burning and rioting,” said Mrs. Mark Vernon, a local of Gowrie, to the Times.

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