Memories of 1968

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.


Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

Seven Questions about the Bobby Kennedy Assassination

I’ve seen and heard a lot of shocking events on television over the years. I remember hearing about the death of Princess Diana one Sunday morning while I waited for the kettle to boil for a morning cup of tea. I was watching TV when 9/11 happened and watched with horror as the second tower was hit by an aircraft. The very first tragedy I learned about from the television though was the shooting of Bobby Kennedy. I was only eleven years old then in 1968 but I knew exactly who Bobby Kennedy was and that his brother, the President, had been assassinated five years before.

Bobby Kennedy was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on the 5th of June, 1968. He was celebrating his victory in the California primary the previous day. He made a speech to his campaign supporters then turned away from the rostrum. He was due to meet the press in another part of the hotel and was led away through the pantry area at the back of the hotel. As he passed through the corridors numerous people approached to shake hands with the senator and pass on their best wishes. One man stepped forward though with a gun in his hand. His name was Sirhan Sirhan. He was ahead of Bobby and he pushed forward and began firing his Iver-Johnson eight shot revolver. He was quickly grabbed and pushed down onto a nearby table. The gun stayed firmly in his grasp and he continued to fire as more people assisted in trying to subdue him. Only when all eight shots were fired was the revolver finally wrestled from his grasp. Bobby Kennedy had been injured in the head and a busboy, Juan Romero, dropped to his knees to help. He pushed rosary beads into Bobby’s hands and the injured Senator was heard to ask ’is everyone safe?’

Robert Kennedy picture courtesy wikipedia

Robert Kennedy picture courtesy wikipedia

Bobby Kennedy died the next day. It’s fairly probable that had he lived he would have succeeded Lyndon Johnson as the next President of the United States. He was a man clearly concerned about the war in Vietnam, not only the war itself but the effect it was having within the United States so one of his priorities would surely have been ending the war. J Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI had been given a special dispensation by Johnson to stay at the head of the bureau despite having reached the mandatory retirement age. Would Kennedy have retired Hoover and put his own man in charge? Would he have reopened investigations into the death of his brother John, the assassinated President? Either way, these are only speculations. Bobby died the next day.

1. The autopsy showed that Bobby was hit in the back of the head at point-blank range. The fatal shot was fired in an upward direction. How could this be if Sirhan Sirhan was ahead of Kennedy and not close enough to inflict a point blank wound?

2. Scott Enyart, an amateur photographer was in the pantry and photographed the shooting. His film and photographs could answer many questions but they were confiscated by the LAPD. Later he sued the Police department for the return of his pictures but the Police claimed they had been routinely destroyed. What happened to them? Why was photographic evidence relating to the death of a major figure in the US destroyed?

3. Sirhan Sirhan had a number of notebooks. They were filled with page after page of notations like ’RFK must die.’Robert Kennedy must be assassinated.Why did he write these things? Were they part of hypnotic techniques that compelled Sirhan to shoot Bobby Kennedy?

4. Who was the girl in the polka dot dress seen leaving the hotel with a companion after the shooting and boasting that they had killed Kennedy?

5. Why was witness Sandra Sorrano forced to change her story about the polka dot dress girl during an aggressive interview with the FBI?

6. Sirhan Sirhan fired an Iver-Johnson eight shot revolver at Kennedy and discharged all eight bullets. In 1988 examination of an audio recording made of the assassination by reporter Stanislaw Pruszynski revealed thirteen gunshots rather the eight fired by Sirhan. Who fired the other five shots?

7. On August 21, 1968, less than two months after the assassination, 2400 photographs from the original investigation were burned, in the medical-waste incinerator at LA County General Hospital. Other records were also destroyed. Why?

When I heard about the shooting of Bobby Kennedy in 1968 I went out into the back yard of our home in the suburbs of Manchester and said a prayer for him. When he died the next day I was stunned, feeling a personal loss despite being an eleven year old English boy living a thousand miles away from the United States. In the USA itself, thousands of mourners lined the path of Kennedy’s funeral train as it wound its way towards Washington where Bobby was buried beside his slain brother, the President, in Arlington National Cemetary.

Recently Robert Kennedy Jr met with Sirhan Sirhan in a California State Prison and declared he now supports calls for a reinvestigation of the murder. Read more about this in an interesting article in the Washington Post by clicking here.


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