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In 1968, Americans Kept Wondering: What More Could Happen Next?

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember. This week on our program, we look back forty years, to a year that shook American society.

Nineteen sixty-eight began with America at war in Southeast Asia, to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam.

Many people thought the conflict would end soon. Americans had been told that the forces of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong were losing. Americans called it the Vietnam War; Vietnamese called it the American war.

The end of January was the time for the Vietnamese to celebrate Tet, the lunar new year. But the communists launched attacks throughout South Vietnam.

The Tet Offensive was a military failure. Yet in America it became a turning point in public opinion. It raised questions about whether the war could be won, and at what cost.

Supporters of the war said the United States was fighting to prevent the spread of communism. Opponents said it was a civil war and that the United States was wrong to intervene.

Antiwar protesters of all ages marched and demonstrated in major cities. In New York, Columbia University halted classes in the spring because of student protests and clashes with police.

Government officials and some influential journalists denounced the antiwar protests. They said open dissension with government policy would only lengthen the war.

The president was Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat who sent more troops to Vietnam. Johnson was formerly vice president. He became president when John Kennedy was shot in Dallas in nineteen sixty-three. Johnson was then elected the following year.

He was expected to seek re-election in nineteen sixty-eight. But on March thirty-first, as antiwar protests grew, Lyndon Johnson made an announcement.

LYNDON JOHNSON: "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."

Americans were still reacting to President Johnson's announcement when another shock followed a few days later.

ROBERT KENNEDY: "Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis…. Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort."

Senator Robert Kennedy broke the news to a crowd in Indianapolis, Indiana. The crowd, mostly black, had been waiting for Kennedy to give a campaign speech. He had served his brother John as attorney general, the nation's top law enforcement official. Now the young senator was an antiwar candidate for president.

But on this night, he was appealing for calm.

Martin Luther King Junior was in Memphis, Tennessee, to show support for city trash collectors who were on strike. A bullet hit him as he stood on the second-floor balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel. The date was April fourth, nineteen sixty-eight.

The murder of the civil rights leader led to fiery riots in African-American neighborhoods in many cities. There were no riots, though, in Indianapolis where Robert Kennedy spoke.

The following March, a white man named James Earl Ray, an armed robber who had escaped from prison, pleaded guilty to the murder. He did so as part of an agreement to avoid a death sentence and instead receive ninety-nine years in prison.

But within three days of his guilty plea, Ray withdrew his admission and asked for a new trial. No, said the courts. For the next thirty years, he would say that he was not the killer and had been tricked into a plot. A congressional investigating committee found his excuses "not worthy of belief." In the end, Ray developed liver disease. He died in nineteen ninety-eight.

In the early morning of June fifth, nineteen sixty-eight, more gunshots rang out -- this time, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The victim was Robert Kennedy. He had just won the California primary, and seemed likely to win the Democratic nomination. He died the next day.

A hotel worker was found guilty of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. Officials said Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian, was angry that Kennedy supported Israel. Sirhan Sirhan has always said he cannot remember the shooting.

In late August of nineteen sixty-eight, the Democratic Party held its presidential nominating convention. Delegates gathered in Chicago. Also gathered in Chicago were thousands of antiwar protesters and civil rights activists.

The crowds included hippies. These mostly young people rejected the values and morals of the establishment, of general society. In other words, the values of their parents. Hippie culture had its own ideas about things like drugs and sex.

In addition to hippies there were Yippies -- members of the Youth International Party. Yippies protested everything. And they made threats, like a threat to put drugs into the Chicago water supply. The Yippies later said they were joking.

But Mayor Richard Daley and other Chicago officials were not laughing. The protesters tested the limits of even a traditionally Democratic city like Chicago. The city refused permission for a march by demonstrators.

There was a heavy presence of police and Illinois National Guard during the Democratic National Convention. Some protesters threw things at the police and shouted at them.

At one point, several thousand demonstrators were gathered near a hotel. Police suddenly moved into the crowd and beat the protesters with sticks. Many people were taken to hospitals. The police also beat and arrested some people who happened to be on the street.

President Johnson ordered a federal investigation of the violence at the Democratic convention. The investigators said the Chicago police at times had been abused by protesters, but the report called the violence a "police riot."

Joel Havemann, now a Washington writer, reported on the convention for a Chicago newspaper. He remembers seeing police strike demonstrators for no reason. But he also believes that the demonstrations cost the Democratic Party the presidency.

Inside the convention hall, Eugene McCarthy, a senator who opposed the war in Vietnam, lost his campaign for the presidential nomination. Instead, the delegates chose Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey supported the war but promised to look for ways to end it.

The nineteen sixty-eight Republican National Convention took place in early August in Miami Beach, Florida. On the day it opened, Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for the party's nomination for president. But the Republicans nominated former vice president Richard Nixon. Nixon promised law and order in America and "peace with honor" in Vietnam.

Blacks in nearby Miami rioted during the Republican convention. But the convention was very different from what the Democrats experienced later in August in Chicago.

In the November elections, Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey for the presidency. Nixon would withdraw the last American troops in March of nineteen seventy-three.

The war lasted two more years, until North Vietnam captured Saigon. The South Vietnamese capital was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

I'm hairy high and low,
Don't ask me why; don't know!
It's not for lack of bread
Like the Grateful Dead; darling

Gimme a head with hair, long beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming ...

In nineteen sixty-eight, there was a sense of rebellion not just in the streets but also on a New York stage. "Hair," the play known as "The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical," moved from an off-Broadway theater to Broadway. It got a lot of attention, at least in part because it included performers wearing nothing but their long hair.

Long hair, on men and women, was a part of hippie culture. Female hippies wore flowers in their hair.

While peace activists talked about "flower power," the cast of "Hair" was singing about "the age of Aquarius."

When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars,
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars.
This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius, the age of Aquarius, Aquarius …
 

One of the most popular songs in America in nineteen sixty-eight was about "Revolution" -- in fact, that was the name of it. It was from the four-member British group the Beatles.

You say you want a revolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world …

Nineteen sixty-eight was a year of protest and change around the world.

Today, some Americans say the energy of Barack Obama's presidential campaign reminds them of the student activism of forty years ago.  Yet many of those former hippies grew up and joined the establishment.

Many are still socially active, though, but in less dramatic ways. Says one Chicago woman: "I finished college. I got married and had children. After that, I was too busy to rebel against society."

You say you got a real solution
Well you know
We'd all love to see the plan

Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.


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