War, elections, fallen heroes: 1968 echoes in 2008

April 3rd, 2008 - 8:58 am ICT by admin  

By Pat Reber
Washington, April 3 (DPA) The US in 1968: Short skirts, long hair, the Rolling Stones and half a million US troops fighting halfway around the world. Baby boomers who had already lost two leaders to assassins - President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X in 1965 - would lose another two by the year end: Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.

President Lyndon Johnson would withdraw from presidential elections, and race and student riots would stir the worst civil unrest since the US Civil War.

This was 1968, and the year still echoes as the US fights another unpopular war and prepares to choose another president this year.

The seeds of rebellion were planted in the 1950s, when Rosa Parks rode the segregated bus and got arrested, and when the US sent its first military advisors to South Vietnam, the would-be front against communism.

By 1968, the fight for racial and social justice had attracted young white students to the “I have a dream” vision of Martin Luther King.

The defiance of oppressive segregation laws in the south inspired others to question restrictions in their own communities, such as the free speech movement in Berkeley, California.

Women, empowered by easy birth control, started thinking about the discrimination they faced.

Finally, the escalating Vietnam War provoked strong resistance against the military draft and spread the anti-war mood into middle America’s living rooms with nightly scenes of US soldiers torching village huts and shooting the enemy.

The year opened ominously, with the New Year’s Tet Offensive - the collaboration of the North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong and the war’s turning point. US losses were enormous. Feeling the heat, President Johnson, who insisted the US was winning, planned to draft another 300,000 men.

Tensions escalated in Washington. In early March, Congress hauled Secretary of State Dean Rusk into hearings over the war, allowing an unusual live telecast.

With a 78-percent war disapproval rating, Johnson entered the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary and nearly lost to an unknown peace candidate, Eugene McCarthy. Sensing the possibilities, Bobby Kennedy, brother of the slain JFK and a civil rights and anti-war advocate, jumped into the race.

The growing challenge unsettled Johnson. Although being the incumbent may have carried him to victory, Johnson threw it away with his stunning announcement on March 31 that he would withdraw from the presidential race and start immediate peace negotiations.

Anti-war activists celebrated.

But just five days later, on April 4, came the crashing blow, with the slaying of civil rights giant King during a labour strike in Memphis, Tennessee.

Within a political split-second, focus shifted from the bloody foreign war to a budding race war at home.

Riots, rage, grief and arson burst across black communities in 100 cities. At least 46 people died and National Guard troops were deployed. In Chicago, mayor Richard Daly issued a shoot-to-kill order against arsonists.

By late April, the war and civil rights stirred students to action nationwide against universities’ seeming indifference to the plight of the inner cities around them and their cooperation with military draft boards to identify failing students. At New York’s Columbia University, activists seized five buildings for a week.

Towards summer, the mood lifted as Kennedy gained momentum in his presidential bid as the only viable alternative to vice president Hubert Humphrey, the party’s heir-apparent.

But once again, a killer intervened. On June 5, Bobby Kennedy, the last hope for 1968’s activists, was mowed down at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, after giving his California primary victory speech. In typical fashion, he was greeting kitchen workers when shot and he died the next day.

In August, 10,000 anti-war protestors descended on Chicago at the Democratic convention. Chicago police outnumbered demonstrators two-to-one and badly beat them.

Humphrey captured the nomination in a back-room deal and lost to Republican Richard Nixon, who ran on a law-and-order ticket, capitalising on the backlash against the Democratic Party chaos.

It would take another seven years until the US was routed from Vietnam, with a final death toll of two to four million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans.

Much of the pent-up anger and bereavement of 1968 got channelled by activists into changing US society. Within the Democratic Party, rules were democratised to give elected state delegates a true say about nominating a candidate.

While Republicans still use a winner-take-all system in state by state primaries, Democrats apportion exact percentages to each candidate, resulting in the neck-and-neck Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton presidential nomination wrangle that could carry on until the party’s August convention in Denver.

The close Democratic race has raised hopes and fears for the centre-left party: hopes for the first woman or black in the White House, a fulfilment of 1960s equality movements; fears that Republican John McCain will exploit the divisiveness and win the White House, as Nixon did in 1968.

Bennie Thompson, 59, an African-American Congressman, expressed even darker worries, especially about Obama, in a recent letter to the Secret Service urging tight candidate protection.

Citing the slayings of King and Kennedy, he wrote that he knew “personally that the hatred of some of our fellow citizens can lead to heinous acts of violence”, according to excerpts published in the New York Times.

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