Have we ever experienced a year as tumultuous as 2017?
Exceptional as it was, I think there was one other year in my lifetime with powerful parallels, but let’s review the past year first.
It began with the inauguration of Donald Trump, the most divisive figure in modern American politics, which led to a deepening divide between Americans eager to “clean the swamp” in Washington and those who feel that Trump defines the swamp.
In quick succession there was a huge women’s anti-Trump march, the administration’s immigration ban and the pushback against it, and, after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, a full-fledged and ongoing investigation into allegations of collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia.
And those were just events in Washington. 2017 was also the year of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, with 59 people shot and killed at a Las Vegas concert, and other mass shootings that have become frighteningly commonplace. It was the year of heightened nuclear tensions with North Korea; the opioid epidemic; devastating hurricanes with inadequate responses. And cultural convulsions that saw NFL players “take a knee” during the National Anthem to protest racism; efforts to remove Confederate statues that led to white-nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Va; and the creation and explosive ascendance of the #MeToo movement, with women rising up against men who exploit them in the workplace.
With all of those uprisings and the daily White House drama that felt like a reality-TV “Donald Trump Show” that was oh-so-real, there was the feeling that the world was in free-fall, that our sense of political, cultural and moral balance was out of sync, and we wondered what event could possibly top that tomorrow?
That’s how much of 1968 felt like to me and millions of others. It was the pivotal year of the ’60s decade, a time when sex, drugs and rock and roll met up with an American presidential election that was totally unpredictable, amid violence at home and abroad. There were two shocking assassinations. In early April, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot by a white supremacist in Memphis, which led to urban riots and lootings around the country. Two months later, Democratic presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy was murdered in a Los Angeles hotel moments after claiming victory in the key California primary. And throughout the year, the Vietnam war grew increasingly bloody, dividing American society.
Deep Despair And Disconnection
So much has changed in the 21st century, with technological, scientific and medical advances unimagined in 1968. But 50 years later we remain a nation with deep stains of racism, sexism, prejudice and violence, with generational and political divides that threaten the very fabric of democracy that holds us together.
The emotional ties that bind 1968 and 2017, and into the present day, are those of society as we know it coming apart, a deep despair and disconnection among young people, and a fear that America’s virtues of tolerance and common decency are under assault. It’s hard to explain just how shocking and painful were the murders of King and Kennedy, two young men (King was 39, Kennedy 42) who symbolized hope and healing, and whose shattered dreams of peace disenfranchised, if not radicalized, a generation that looked up to them less than five years after JFK was killed.
Fifty years ago, the daily drumbeat of national tension was centered on a Vietnam war that was escalating even as it came to be perceived as unwinnable. Today the daily angst is a uniquely chaotic presidency that divides rather than unites the country, and a realization that the mercurial man in the Oval Office could be there for up to seven more years.Dozens of cities erupted in violence, fires and looting after MLK was slain, and more than 20,000 people were arrested. Black leaders said that hope in King’s vision of America was replaced by fear and outrage; it soon gave rise to the Black Power movement. And for many young supporters of Sen. Kennedy, whose candidacy, and life, were snuffed out on the cusp of success, the disillusionment was profound. And permanent.
While the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq drag on, they involve a relatively small segment of Americans who signed up for battle through an all-volunteer army. Vietnam was very different. The military draft was in place — it ended in 1973 — and reached across all segments of society. That meant any able-bodied male between the ages of 18 and 25 could find himself fighting in an Asian jungle halfway across the world in a lost-cause war that, by its end in 1975, claimed the lives of more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers.
In 1968, protests against the war, seen by many as having no direct impact on the U.S., were a daily occurrence and college campuses became a center of sometimes-violent anti-war unrest and calls for revolution.
‘A House Divided’
A key turning point in the war, and perceptions of it at home, came in January of ’68 when the Communist-backed North Vietnamese launched a major assault, known as the Tet offensive, against South Vietnam and its U.S. allies. The U.S. embassy in Saigon came under fierce attack and many soldiers were killed on both sides. Extensive television coverage of the fighting left the strong impression that the U.S. was far from the victory Washington claimed was close at hand.
When Walter Cronkite, the CBS news anchor and most respected voice in America, went to Vietnam in February 1968 and reported that the war could not be won militarily, the national tide turned. President Lyndon Johnson, who might otherwise have been embraced by liberals for his forceful role in civil rights legislation, was the target of anti-war activists. He shocked the nation by announcing in late March that he would not seek re-election, citing what he called “a certain restlessness” across the country. “A house divided against itself is a house than cannot stand,” he said, noting that “there is divisiveness among us all tonight.”
Johnson’s decision led to a dramatic struggle within the Democratic party among Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, whose quixotic anti-war campaign and early primary success ignited young supporters and prompted Sen. Kennedy to join the race. Kennedy’s big primary win in California in early June made him the front-runner, but moments after declaring victory, he was shot and killed by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian-American who later said he associated Kennedy with support for Israel. (The shooting took place on the first anniversary of the outbreak of the Six-Day War.)
Coming so soon after MLK’s murder and growing despair over the Vietnam war, RFK’s death sent new shock waves across the country. There was a palpable feeling that America’s violent streak could not be contained, that society had become unmoored. The image of three women in their 30s — Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, accompanied by Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of the president, and Coretta King, the widow of MLK — flying to Washington from Los Angeles with RFK’s body, symbolized the optimistic dreams of Americans that had become living nightmares.
Hubert Humphrey, the former liberal senator from Minnesota who as LBJ’s vice president had become tethered to the war in Vietnam, emerged as the Democratic presidential candidate to run against Richard Nixon. But not before a shockingly violent Democratic National Convention turned Chicago into a police state in August. Thousands of city police were joined by the National Guard to confront thousands of young anti-war and counter-cultural protesters in the parks and streets nearby. For several August nights, live TV showed the riots, with club-wielding officers beating unarmed youth as blood flowed in the streets and Richard J. Daley, the combative Chicago mayor, cursing critics inside the convention.
On Election Day, Humphrey and Nixon each received 43 percent of the vote, with third-party candidate, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, winning 5 percent through his pro-segregationist gains in the South. Nixon was victorious in the close contest, pledging law-and-order, a return to societal normalcy and “peace with honor” in Vietnam. But it took six long years and thousands more U.S. deaths before the war ended in an ignominious U.S. retreat — a year after Nixon resigned as a result of the Watergate scandal.
Rebellions, Real And Anticipated
I was a student at Yeshiva University in 1968, more observer than participant in the youth-driven activism that dominated the domestic news.
In the spring, when Columbia University students held a campus-wide, anti-war-driven revolt against the school in particular and the establishment in general, I, along with several classmates, rode the subway from Washington Heights to Morningside Heights, only a 60-block ride but a world away — to experience the vicarious thrill of rebellion.
There was nothing secondhand, though, about the possibility of our being drafted and sent to Vietnam. Many students took part in anti-war rallies. Some recent graduates discussed moving to Canada while others enrolled in the growing number of small rabbinical schools to assure a draft deferment. Many of us felt varying degrees of relief and guilt in imagining others taking our place on the front lines.
Then and now the debates and divides across the land were about raw political power, moral authority (of the lack thereof) and the sudden, dark surges of violent acts that claimed some lives and transformed countless others.
We fought and feared those who saw things differently. We woke up each morning wondering what unknown trauma would take place that day, and worried about the future. We yearned for a return to some sense of normalcy, dreading that no such equilibrium would ever be recaptured.
Still, for all of the similarities that shook us to the core in 1968, our democratic institutions held. LBJ, losing his grip on the electorate, did not attack the press, the voting process, the courts or the facts. Rather, he voluntarily ceded his hold on the White House; the electoral process, frenzied as it was, went forward.
Five decades later, one hopes the pillars of our democracy can maintain their resilience.