I have a lot of memories of childhood, like everyone I suppose but a lot of those memories, certainly my earlier ones, I would be hard pushed to link them to a certain date or time. The first memories in which I can actually do that are those from 1968. Surprisingly for someone who has never even visited the USA, a lot of my 1968 memories concern, yes, the USA. Lyndon Johnson was the President of the USA in 1968. He had inherited the presidency from John F Kennedy on that fateful day in Dallas in 1963 when Kennedy was cut down by an assassin’s bullet. He won the election in his own right in 1964 easily beating Republican opponent Barry Goldwater.
1968 was different though. Johnson’s domestic policies and reforms known as the Great Society had been overwhelmed by the Vietnam War. People were looking at the casualties and asking what is going on? Why are we even in Vietnam?
In 1963 President Kennedy stated in a TV interview with respected TV anchor Walter Cronkite ‘in the final analysis, it’s their war; they are the ones that have to win it or lose it.’ He was talking about the Vietnamese not the USA. Kennedy later issued NSAM (National Security Action memorandum) 263, in which he approved the implementation of plans to withdraw 1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963.
On November 26, 1963, only four days after taking office in the most tragic of circumstances, President Johnson approved NSAM order 273 reaffirming the U.S. commitment to Vietnam. Johnson unlike Kennedy, was not withdrawing troops, he was sending more.
Perhaps Kennedy was backing away from Vietnam, perhaps not. Historians differ on their assessment of what Kennedy would or wouldn’t have done. Either way, the Johnson Administration became more and more involved in the war, sending more and more troops into South East Asia. The country became split over the issue. Students were protesting, university campuses became battle grounds between Police and students. Vietnam was a big issue at school over in the UK as I remember. Many of our morning services talked about the issue and I vividly remember one morning when our headmaster played a pop tune over which were read the names of soldiers killed in Vietnam.
Johnson had won by a huge majority in 1964 and appeared confident of winning again in 1968. However a shock awaited him in the first primary in New Hampshire on March 12th when anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy won 42 percent of the vote to Johnson’s 49 percent, a shockingly strong showing against an incumbent President.
McCarthy’s campaign was boosted by thousands of young college students who shaved their beards and cut their hair to be ‘Clean for Gene’. Those students organised voting drives, rang doorbells, distributed McCarthy buttons and leaflets, and worked hard in New Hampshire to bring the vote home for McCarthy.
Robert Kennedy was a notable critic of Johnson’s policies and he had initially declined to run against the President but seeing the success of McCarthy he announced his candidacy for the Presidency on March 16th.
Over on the Republican side, Richard Nixon, the big loser in the election of 1960, had staged a major comeback and was the front-runner in the Republican Primaries ahead of his closest rival Governor Ronald Reagan.
On March 31st President Johnson made a televised speech to announce he had cancelled all bombing of North Vietnam in order to help ongoing peace talks. At the end of his speech he dropped a political bombshell by announcing he would not run for President in 1968. Some have said he was scared of losing to Kennedy, some have said he was just tired and was worried about his health. In fact he died only some five years later on January 22nd, 1973.
On April 4th Martin Luther King was shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee. He had made a speech earlier that day in which he spoke of his happiness at reaching the promised land.
“Like anybody,” he had said, “I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight.”
Robert Kennedy heard the news of the murder when he arrived in Indianapolis that night. He was scheduled to give a speech in a predominantly black neighbourhood and the Police tried to dissuade him from speaking saying that they could not protect him in the event of a riot.
Kennedy announced the death of King and those assembled for the speech were understandably shocked and grief-stricken but Kennedy went on, speaking only from a few notes he had jotted down during the ride from the airport.
‘For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.’
His speech was credited with preventing rioting in Indianapolis on a night when riots broke out in many other parts of the country.
Many in the Democratic Party felt that Kennedy had only entered the election when McCarthy’s performance showed there was support for an anti-war campaign; nevertheless, he won a number of the primaries although he was defeated by McCarthy in Oregon.
In the UK it was a hot summer as I remember and I went with one of my friends to see the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was a stunning visual feast although I later had to buy the book by Arthur C Clarke to understand a lot of it. My Mother was amazed. I can still hear her now: ‘A beautiful hot day and you have spent it in the picture house?’
On June 4th Kennedy beat McCarthy in a close contest in California. After a brief victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel he was shot by an assassin shortly after midnight on the 5th. I was 11 years old at the time, an English schoolboy a thousand miles away in England and shocked by the shooting. I remember hearing the news on television sometime in the afternoon or early evening. It was a Wednesday, not that I remember that, I had to look it up, and I slipped out into the garden to say a silent prayer for Kennedy hoping he would live. He died in hospital some hours later.
Robert Kennedy’s funeral mass took place on June 8th and then his body was taken by train to Washington. Thousands of mourners lined the tracks to pay homage as the funeral train passed by.
On August 20th Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia and Premier Alexander Dubcek was deposed. Dubcek had initiated a series of reforms that became known as the Prague Spring. The Soviet Union was nervous of his reforms and the invasion was designed to return the country to its previous oppressive regime. Dubcek was eventually replaced by Gustáv Husák. He returned firm party rule to the country and ‘normalised’ relations with the Soviet Union.
On the 28th August the Democratic National Convention opened in Chicago and television viewers were shocked to see Chicago Police brutally beating anti-war protestors with clubs and tear gas. The crowd chanted ‘the whole world is watching’ as the violence went on.
Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic Party nomination but on the election day of November 5th it was Richard Nixon who emerged triumphant. He would be forced to resign in 1973 because of the Watergate Scandal.
On December 24th, Christmas Eve, the Apollo 8 spacecraft made a TV broadcast from lunar orbit. The crew of Borman, Lovell and Anders were the first in history to leave the planet Earth for another celestial body and the first to see the phenomenon of earthrise. In 1968 a number of things were the focus of my life. One of them was science fiction and here was something not so different but factual, not fictional. I was glued to the BBC broadcasts by Cliff Michelmore and James Burke. On the TV transmission Commander Borman introduced his crew before they took turns to read from the book of Genesis. He finished by saying ‘And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you—all of you on the good Earth.’
Even today, years later, if I ever hear those words on some documentary programme or a YouTube video, I am transported back to 1968, listening with wonder that men could reach the moon, that space travel was possible and that the things I had seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey could one day come true.