Richard Nixon gives his “victory” sign on the campaign trail, 1968
Nineteen sixty-eight was one of the most consequential and tumultuous years in our national history. Americans thought the country was having a nervous breakdown: 12 months of credibility gaps, generation gaps, gender gaps, racial gaps, economic gaps, and military gaps, mixed with shocking violence, and portrayed dramatically in an increasingly sensationalistic and anything-goes popular culture. The impact, both positive and negative, has endured for the past 50 years.
It began in January when communist forces in South Vietnam launched the devastating Tet offensive, which finally persuaded many Americans the war in Vietnam was unwinnable. Several weeks later, Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for re-election, stunning the nation and generating a near-chaotic political dynamic.
April saw the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, which ignited riots across the country. In June, Robert Kennedy was murdered after winning the California Democratic presidential primary. To most, it felt as if a toxin of hatred, bitterness, and divisiveness was spreading across the land.
That summer the Democratic National Convention was marred by rioting in the streets of Chicago, and the year ended with the impending inauguration of Richard Nixon as president. Despite a pledge to bring the country together, he made matters worse. America ultimately made it through 1968—but how, and at what price?
Author, journalist, and historian Ken Walsh reviews the extraordinary events of a year Americans of a certain age will never forget—and that holds lessons to remember as the nation faces new political and social turmoils.
In an article for Smithsonian magazine, Haynes Johnson, who covered the 1968 Democratic National Convention for the Washington Star, analyzes the forces that coalesced to create a political event unlike any the nation had witnessed.