Any year examined closely looks, forty years later, pretty interesting. Modernity’s general shape can still be seen after 40 years, but enough has changed that such a moment has developed a fairly exotic patina. But even so, not all years are created equally. Generally speaking, every leap year is more interesting than non-leap years--there are Olympics and presidential elections. 1968 was these, but it was a lot more than that.
It was loaded with amazing events. While some single events stand out so strongly that a mention of the year is sufficient to reference them--1929, 1941--it might be hard to find a year with as many big events as 1968: the assassinations of MLK and RFK; My Lai and the Tet Offensive; Prague Spring and French May; the Democratic riots in Chicago and the election of Richard Nixon. LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act. Valerie Solanis shot Warhol. France detonated a nuclear bomb and becomes the fifth nuclear power. There were coups and riots all over the world (including one in Baghdad by a young Saddam Hussein), and black American athletes famously gave the Black Power salute at the Olympics. But even those events don't capture what was really important about 1968.
The history of the 20th Century swung on two hinges. The first, in 1932, was a response to the stock market collapse of 1929. It precipitated the great compression, the rise of the middle class, and the emergence of the US as a superpower. Politically, it represented a triumph for the masses over the economic and cultural elites, reorienting cultural values toward collectivism and away from individualism. Equally as radically, the period also saw the end to legal racial preferences—in place, despite a civil war, for over 150 years. The second hinge came a symmetrical 36 years later, dividing the century neatly into thirds. While the first evidence of the change came in the mid-60s, the key year was 1968, the year I was born.
There are a lot of ways to read history. As a political story, the 20th Century can be seen as a struggle of the wealthy and powerful against the poor and disenfranchised. And, while that narrative has had a powerful effect on my own politics, a more personal story—and arguably the more profoundly transformative—describes the changes in our culture. Unlike the political history, which looks like a game of tug-of-war (the wealthy winning in the first part of the century, the poor and non-white fighting back in the middle, the wealthy and white back in command by the end), the cultural history has continued to evolve.
Prior to 1932 the US, despite its lofty democratic foundation, offered the mass of its citizens not a whole hell of a lot more than, say, India. More or less, people were on their own. There was a tiny overclass, a vast underclass, and a group who were actively oppressed—in some cases enslaved. They scratched out an existence on the farms or in the factories, their kids took care of them when they were too old to work, and if they were lucky, they died of “natural causes” because they didn’t have more than a country doctor to attend to minor ailments. The radical transformation of the 20th Century came with the recognition that this Darwinian existence could be ameliorated by pooling resources.
The New Deal created for the first time in history a culture of generosity. Our well-being was interconnected. The cultural benefits this produced were profound: we built a war machine that depended on an inconceivable amount of cooperation and generosity; we built the atomic bomb; we went to the moon. So much of what came to be thought of as quintessentially “American” came from this era. The admixture of democratic values, the US’s uniquely classless orientation (whatever the reality), the explosive growth of the middle class, the moral achievements of the civil rights movement, and the monumental national accomplishments of mid-century all produced a sense of a pragmatic, generous, unified country.
And then came 1968.
Next: 1968 (Part two): descent into fear.