Looking Back at 1968 History professor Bruce Schulman talks about the importance and impact of 1968, a year he says forever changed the American landscape. And he says 1968 was actually the first year of the 1970s.
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Looking Back at 1968

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Looking Back at 1968

Looking Back at 1968

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Here's one prediction for the New Year that is a pretty sure bet. In 2008, I think we're going to hear a lot of talk about 1968. '68 has been called the year that changed everything. Assassinations altered American politics and race relations. Riots reshaped American cities. And of course, a war overseas resonated throughout America.

(Soundbite of song, "Street Fighting Man")

Unidentified Man: Military police got back into the compound at the two and a half million dollar embassy complex at dawn.

Mr. WALTER CRONKITE (Journalist): It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people.

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

Mr. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR (Civil Rights Activist): So I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Senator ROBERT KENNEDY (Former U.S. Senator and Attorney General): My thanks to all of you. And now, it's on to Chicago and let's win there.

NORRIS: Historian Bruce Schulman calls 1968 the year of miracles and horror. Schulman is a professor of history at Boston University. He's also the author of "The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society and Politics." Professor, welcome to the program.

Professor BRUCE SCHULMAN (American History, Boston University; Author, "The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society and Politics"): Thanks, Michele. It's nice to be here.

NORRIS: Now, you've actually said that 1968 was the first year of the 1970s. What do you mean by that?

Prof. SCHULMAN: Well, we tend to remember 1968 for those dramatic, tumultuous events - the assassinations, the riots, Chicago, Columbia. But in many ways, subtler ways, there were broader cultural and political shifts that signaled the end of an era, the end of the long post-war era and all that it involved, and the beginning of something new. In many ways, it's not only the opening of the '70s, a very different era, but in many ways, the opening of our own time.

NORRIS: Now, we're going to get to politics and culture in just a minute. But I want to begin by talking about the war in Vietnam. It seems like there are a lot of milestones that year in Vietnam. Which among these were seen as major turning points in America?

Prof. SCHULMAN: Well, perhaps the most important turning-point comes early in the year at the end of January on the occasion of the celebration of the Vietnamese New Year, Tet. On that day, the enemy - the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong - attacked up and down the length of South Vietnam, even leading an audacious attack on the American Embassy in Saigon, proving that there was a lot of fight in the enemy yet, that the war was not anywhere near its end. And almost overnight in the month after the war, there was a tremendous shift in public opinion. Before the Tet offensive, about twice as many Americans called themselves hawks, supporters of the war, as called themselves doves. But by a month after the war, those numbers were equal and policy was shifting.

NORRIS: It seemed like Vietnam was the backdrop for almost everything in America at that point, from culture to political life, particularly in political life. It led to the end of President Johnson's career. He announced to the public in a rather surprising way that he did not intend to seek reelection. RFK, Bobby Kennedy, picked up the mantle. His career was on the ascent as President Johnson's career was heading toward the sunset. And it was also a year where the word assassination really became permanently affixed to American culture.

Prof. SCHULMAN: Yes. In April of 1968, Martin Luther King, perhaps the figure who, more than any other, represented the utopian idealistic hopes for productive, peaceful change, was assassinated while he was in Memphis, Tennessee. The worst fears of so many Americans seemed to come true. And rioting erupted in dozens of cities around the nation. And I think a lot of the hopes for peaceful reform and change that had been embodied by Martin Luther King then came to rest on Bobby Kennedy. And of course, in June, an assassin raised a snub-nosed pistol causing fatal injuries to Bobby Kennedy. And after that, many observers thought that the dreams of the '60s had expired.

NORRIS: You know, in terms of race relations in America, if you look at the assassination of Martin Luther King as a line of demarcation, what changed after that?

Prof. SCHULMAN: Well, in the aftermath of the King assassination, many Americans, including many African Americans and other racial minorities, began to rethink the entire goal of integration. They began to ask who is being integrated into what. And to worry that racial integration might just mean assimilation into white society and culture. And so we're really seeing the aftermath of the King assassination, the flourishing of African-American cultural nationalism, of the desire to retain, preserve and express a distinctive black culture.

And this ideal will not only be accepted but be embraced by many other groups in American society, first by American Indians and by Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans. But then, even by white ethnics, there will be a white ethnic revival in the years after the King assassination as many more Americans come to see asserting their distinctive heritage, their distinctive culture, the idea of a multicultural nation trumping the idea of a melting pot into which everyone would be integrated.

NORRIS: Professor, I'd like to turn to culture, if we would. This was such a vivid year in terms of cultural milestones, and it was a year we saw the sort of beginning of that mix of politics and pop culture. And at the Republican National Convention in Miami in August - in the Republican ticket, you saw Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. Later that fall, Richard Nixon makes a brief appearance on this new program called "Laugh-In."

Prof. SCHULMAN: There is Richard Nixon, perhaps known as the squarest man in America saying sock it to me with raised eyebrows, trying to show America that he wasn't square. And that is one of the first times ever that a presidential candidate appears on an entertainment program. And of course, as we all know, since then that's become a regular feature of presidential campaigns and of political life where entertainment and politics have merged in ways that no one could have expected in 1968.

NORRIS: Now, an invitation was also extended to Hubert Humphrey.

Prof. SCHULMAN: Yes. And Humphrey declined the invitation. I think Humphrey didn't understand what was changing in political life and in the culture.

NORRIS: In terms of its pictorial history, there are so many iconic images from 1968, that famous photo of the Olympic gold medalists raising their fists. The pictures of the riots. Was there something that was going on in terms of mass media that led to this, these images, sort of, lasting in our memory all these years?

Prof. SCHULMAN: Well, I mean, one of the things that Hubert Humphrey didn't understand when he refused the appearance on "Laugh-In" was the extent to which mass spectacle was becoming a defining feature of American life. But you're right, 1968, I think, marks a watershed in which people sitting in their living rooms watching will define their experiences. And it's no accident that the slogan of the protesters culminating with the violent protests at the Chicago convention in the summer of 1968 was "The Whole World is Watching."

And so a world that was mass-mediated and that in which images would - as much if not more than words - come to define how people understood their culture and their politics that was taking shape in that dramatic year as well.

NORRIS: Professor Schulman, thanks so much.

Prof. SCHULMAN: It was my pleasure.

NORRIS: That was Bruce Schulman. He is a professor of American history at Boston University, and he's also the author of "The Seventies: The Great Shift In American Culture, Society and Politics."

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