With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

1968: A Year of Dashed Hopes

Mourners of Martin Luther King, Jr., near the White House, April 1968. Photo National Archives

In a previous HNN article, I dealt with 1962 starting as a year of trial for the Kennedy administration and, after the settlement of the Cuban Missile in late October, ending as one of hope. Conversely, 1968 began as a year of hope, but ended--both in the USA and abroad--on a much gloomier note.

As in 1962, my own path mirrored and reflected the larger trend. There was a saying in the mid and late 1960s: “Don't trust anyone over 30.” The countercultural movement of the decade was primarily a youth movement, one that flourished on many college campuses. I was teaching on such a campus, Wheeling College, later transformed into Wheeling Jesuit University. I turned 30 in the spring of 1968, but throughout that year--the most significant of the late 1960s--I and my wife Nancy remained sympathetic to the movement.

Most of the college’s students were from white, middle-class Catholic families--we had no Black students until a small faculty group of us in late 1968 established two scholarships for them (the president of the college was the Jesuit priest Frank Haig, brother of Al Haig, later White House chief of staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford  and still later Secretary of State under President Reagan). Although the Wheeling students were hardly from a socio-economic background inclined to radicalism, they reflected the late 1960s zeitgeist. Movies like The Graduate (1967) and music like that of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and the Hair soundtrack album (from the 1968 Broadway play later made into a film) were popular with them. I remember going to a local coffee house and hearing one of the students strum his guitar and sing Pete Seeger’s 1967 anti-war song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” Many of the female students wore mini-skirts. I recall at least one male student asking me if I thought he should have his longish hair cut before he had a job interview and another expressing his anxiety about the draft once he lost his student deferment status by graduating--in 1968 almost 300,000 young men were drafted and almost 15,000 servicemen died that year in Vietnam.

That spring two of the men I most admired in U. S. public life were assassinated. They were both critics of the Vietnam War, which since the North Vietnamese launching of the Tet Offensive at the end of January had been increasingly criticized here in the USA. First the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot on April 4, and then Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Robert F. Kennedy on June 6 (the exact date, twenty-four years earlier, of D-Day). Noteworthy, for admirers of RFK, it was he who lifted our spirits somewhat just hours after MLK was shot in Memphis. In a speech in Indianapolis the senator said that King had

dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort. . . . For those of you who are black . . . you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization--black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.

RFK was right about King being against violence, and exactly one year before he was shot down on that balcony in Memphis, he spoke at Riverside Church in New York

some of the most compassionate and empathetic words ever uttered about the sufferings endured by the Vietnamese people as a result of U. S. bombs and other violence. 

He spoke of the Vietnamese, languishing “under our bombs. . . .

Primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. . . . They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers. . . .

We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. . . . We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.

Although many of the young college students opposed the war in Vietnam partly because of their own fears of some day dying there, King realized it was disproportionately the Black and poor of the U.S. who were being sent to Vietnam.

Despite King’s stress on non-violence, his assassination triggered riots in over 100 American cities. In Wheeling, however, we took a different approach. Some of us in town, including Nancy and I, formed an interracial human rights council called WE (standing for “We Exist.”)  On a warm summer evening in August of that year I was one of the speakers at a downtown WE rally, which the combined local newspaper (The Intelligencer /Wheeling News-Register) described as a “Negro ‘Solidarity’ Rally,” sponsored by a “Negro civic group.” I spoke about white fears about violence and “Black Power”:

As a nation we are not against violence . . . .Our country was born in violence; violence is being perpetrated today in Vietnam . . . [but] I’m more sympathetic to the non-violence of a true Christian like Martin Luther King than I am to anyone who off-handedly dismisses the killing of an innocent whether . . .white, black, or yellow.

My earlier HNN essay on 1962 mentioned my previous interest in racial justice, but in 1968 I had just finished a Ph.D dissertation that also touched on that topic. Only it occurred not in the USA, not in the 20th century, and not against African Americans, but in the 19th century, in the Russian Empire, and primarily against Jews.  It was titled “Vladimir Soloviev and the Russophiles.” Vladimir was the son of Russia’s leading 19th-century historian, Sergei Soloviev, author of the 29-volume History of Russia from the Earliest Times. Son Vladimir was Russia’s preeminent philosopher, an early ecumenical thinker, and the best poet of his generation. My dissertation focused on his polemics with Russian nationalists over topics such as Russian nationalism, antisemitism, and conservative ideology. A friend of Vladimir was a certain Rabbi Gets, who, shortly after the philosopher’s death in 1900 stated, “In general one can unmistakably maintain that since the death of [German writer and philosopher] Lessing [1781], there has not been a Christian literary and learned figure who could exercise such an honorable fascination and who could enjoy such wide popularity and such sincere love among the Jews as Vl. S. Soloviev.”

In Soloviev’s critique I saw parallels with my own less notable opposition to racism and conservative nationalism, and throughout 1968 in speeches and as a panel participant I attempted to battle against racism and nationalism. In the spring at a meeting of the West Virginia Historical Association, I proposed (and it was adopted unanimously) that the association urge our U. S. senators and representatives to support “civil rights” legislation. And then, following my WE speech in August, in September and October, I spoke on a panel addressing the topic “The Race Against Racism,” and gave a talk on “The Jews in Russia,” both appearances at Wheeling’s Jewish Woodsdale Temple.

Following RFK’s death in early June, right after he had won the California Democratic Primary, I supported Sen. Eugene McCarthy, whom many of my friends had backed since he announced his presidential candidacy in late 1967. But things did not go well for him. Despite President Johnson’s announcement at the end of March that he would not seek another term as president, McCarthy was defeated at the Democratic National Convention in August by Johnson’s vice-president, Hubert Humphrey. 

Outside of the convention itself, in Chicago where it was held, Mayor Richard Daley unleashed a few thousand police officers in riot gear, who utilized their clubs to disperse anti-war and other protesters (for a recent depiction of some of the protest leaders see the film The Trial of the Chicago 7). The mayor was not following  Bob Dylan’s advice to politicians in “The Times They Are A-Changin’”:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall


There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’.

The whole scene in Chicago that August revealed just how split Democrats were. One of the results of that rift was the November election of Republican Richard Nixon, who won 32 states (George Wallace, running as a third-party candidate, carried five states, all in the south). 

And it was not just the Democratic Party that was divided. The rebellious spirit that affected so many students on U. S. college campuses also displayed itself in numerous other countries, especially in Europe, where students, and sometimes others,  protested for various reasons. In May, French student-worker demonstrations almost toppled Charles de Gaulle’s decade-long government and produced what one journalist called “a watershed in French life, a holy moment of liberation for many,” but for others “anarchy and moral relativism, a destruction of social and patriotic values.” 

As one who taught Russian history, I was especially concerned with the USSR’s reaction to a Czechoslovakian reform movement led by Communist Party head Alexander Dubček. In mid-1968 he aimed to create “socialism with a human face.”  But, like Putin today, Soviet leader Brezhnev exaggerated Western leaders’ influence over the government of a neighboring country not sufficiently pliable to his wishes. He was also mindful of Czechoslovakia’s crucial strategic position, forming a corridor between the USSR’s Ukrainian republic and West Germany. In mid-July, he and some other leaders of Eastern European communist governments sent a letter to Czechoslovakia’s communist leaders. It stated that “it is our deep conviction that the offensive of the reactionary forces, backed by imperialism . . . threatens to push your country off the road of socialism and thus jeopardizes the interests of the entire socialist system. . . . We cannot agree to have hostile forces push your country from the road of socialism.”

In late August more than a half-million troops from the USSR and other Eastern European communist countries invaded Czechoslovakia. But, unlike the Ukrainians today, the Czechoslovakians offered only passive resistance. By the end of 1968, with foreign troops still on their soil, the reform movement in Czechoslovakia had been extinguished.

To depress progressives even more, the final month of the year ended with still one additional setback--the mysterious death on 10 December in Thailand of the 53-year-old Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton. Along with Dorothy Day, whose newspaper, The Catholic Worker, published some of his essays, he was a leading Catholic critic of the Vietnam War. Earlier, in March, his “The Vietnam War: An Overwhelming Tragedy” had appeared in her paper. (It, along with his “The Hot Summer of Sixty-Seven” and many other essays dealing with war and racism, were later collected together in his The Passion for Peace: The Social Essays.)

In my earlier HNN essay on 1962, I indicated how as an idealistic young Catholic I was very hopeful by the end of that year with John Kennedy as president and the reforming John XXIII as pope.  But by the end of 1968, both men had been dead for five years. Our new president, replacing President Johnson, was going to be Richard Nixon, and the then pope was the more conservative Paul VI. Moreover, MLK, RFK, and Merton were also dead. The anti-war, anti-racism, pro-reform hopes that I shared with others had suffered serious blows, and a certain youthful idealism--and at times naivete--had drained from me.

What was needed then--and in succeeding decades as political defeats, deaths, and other setbacks continued to erode our optimistic ideals--was to keep hope and courage alive. As usual, my wife Nancy helped keep me positive. By the end of the year, she was seven months pregnant, and we were looking forward to our second child. And as a historian I could always look to the past for encouragement. For example, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the dark days of June 1941, when Nazi forces still threatened Britain, spoke to the House of Commons: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’” More recently demonstrating great fortitude in opposing Vladimir Putin and Russian forces, it has been Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian people. As psychologist and futurist Thomas Lombardo has stressed, we want to confront life, with all of its difficult challenges, with hope and courage, not fear and doubt.

Editor's Note: The first part of this two-part essay, on the hopefulness of 1962, can be read here