The Year that Rocked the World

The year 1968 was one of the most momentous in modern history, if not in the entire history of mankind. For much of the year, many countries, especially the US and in Europe, were gripped by protests. Depending on the government response, these protests, mostly lead by students, devolved into violent riots and brawls. Arrests are made, and sometimes lives are lost. But the people keep going back to the streets. The students keep on marching, sometimes occupying campus buildings.

The ongoing Vietnam War is the primary issue in the United States, and is central to the presidential election of 1968. Antiwar movements sprang up and mobilized all over the country, and despite occasional suppression by the authorities, they just kept on growing and kept on coming back to the streets. The assassinations of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy further fueled anger among the people, with civil rights now also a major motivation for protests.

In Czechoslovakia, a more reform-minded leader, Alexander Dubcek, came into power early in the year, and immediately set on to loosen restrictions on freedom of expression. The media, now more free to report on subjects that used to be taboo, started showing the uglier side of the government. Meanwhile, people took to the streets to demand more reforms. The now-uncensored news of widespread protests in the US have also inspired similar antiwar demonstrations in Prague.

All of these caused consternation in Kremlin. With memories of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 still fresh in Soviet leaders’ minds, they at first vacillated in how to deal with the situation in Prague, even as Dubcek himself is starting to lose control of the popular movements. In the end, the Kremlin settled for an invasion. In August tanks rolled through the streets of Czechoslovakia and soldiers used force against the civilian protesters. Forced negotiations between the Soviet and the Czechoslovakian leaders ended up with gradual rollback of the reforms already put in place.

Paris was also swept by unrest, as students opposed the very conservative norms imposed on universities. The demonstrations grew quickly, and soon workers were also organizing strikes – though the workers were doing so for their own interests, and didn’t have much sympathy for the students. Nonetheless, all these proved beyond comprehension for France’s mythical leader, Charles de Gaulle, who tried to ignore the unrest at first. Yet when it seemed the clamor for change can no longer be dealt with by his old tactics, de Gaulle instead announced new elections. Soon the protests died down, but de Gaulle’s appeal no longer held the same sway as before.

Meanwhile, in the wake of Robert Kennedy’s death, the Democratic Party was suddenly left without a strong contender for the elections. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago, meant to be the highlight of the primaries, was marred by widespread protests all over the city. The fierce mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, advocated the use of force against the protesters, which the police willingly did. For many nights, riots broke out in Chicago, and of course, the media was there to cover all these. At the same time, the Democratic Party settled with Vice President Hubert Humphrey as their standard bearer.

The Republican Party ended up selecting former Vice President Richard Nixon as the presidential candidate. Nixon pandered to the Southern voters, under the promise of promoting law and order, and states’ rights. Even with all the massive antiwar demonstrations, and the police violence towards protesters shown on TV, many Americans in 1968 still supported the war, and felt the “rioters” deserved their harsh treatment. Nixon’s eventual victory only highlighted this sentiment, and from that point on, the gap between the two political parties only kept on growing bigger. Civil rights and antiwar advocates leaned more towards the Democrats, while the white South became more closely identified with the Republicans.

Many more events happened all over the world: Mexican civil unrest ended in the grisly Tlatelolco massacre, and months later Mexico was able to host the Olympics with little unrest; Cuba under Fidel Castro further restricted “capitalist” activities, while also starting to lean more towards China, and away from the Soviet Union; the West continued massive relief aid towards the breakaway Biafran regime in Nigeria; among many others.

The story of 1968 ends with NASA’s successful Apollo 8 mission, where a spacecraft carrying three astronauts orbited in close proximity around the moon. The mission was, as with the protests of 1968, heavily broadcasted on TV. It was a precursor to the historic Apollo 11 mission the following year. And with it, the turbulent year that was 1968 came to a close, as mankind faced the new year with some sense of optimism and hope for the future.

The book 1968: The Year that Rocked the World, by Mark Kurlansky, was able to vividly narrate the history of 1968, with great focus on the US antiwar protests and election season, and on the Prague Spring and the eventual Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. There’s a lot to learn from the numerous events of that fateful year, and even today much of the issues of the 60’s continue to hound our world. And it is for these reasons that it’s all the more important to look back to those times, as foreign as it may seem to this generation, for upon closer inspection, one sees that the world, as it was, is in many ways still the same today.