The ghosts of the rebellion are now 50 years old. Most of them are, in fact, so long dead that even on the political left there have been virtually no commemorative events. There was a special issue of The Nation magazine devoted to “1968, Year of Global Insurrection” (Aug/Sep 2018), but otherwise it seems that this particular half-century mark will pass without notice. So the question is, “Why wasn’t there a lasting effect?” or “What happened to the rebellion?”
I hate to turn this document into an extended list—don’t you just love it when someone says they would hate to do something, and you know that that’s exactly what they’re going to do?—but I can’t see any better way to indicate how different the year 1968 was from others before or after. The fact is, there may be other years that contained events that were perhaps more significant, but the sheer number of rebellious and/or transformative events definitely peaked in 1968 and that year has been often referenced as the inspiration for significant activions in other years. So here’s the list, as complete as I can make it:
January 5: Alexander Dubček starts the year off when he’s elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSC) and announces significant reforms, expanding individual rights and beginning to decentralize the economy. This process became a ghost in August (see below).
January 30: The Viet Cong begins the Tet Offensive, invading 13 cities in South Vietnam and leading to a month of major setbacks for United States efforts. Arguably this was only a continuation of a war that had already been taking U.S. military lives for almost a decade, but it has been recognized as a turning point, the beginning of the decline of U.S. involvement, which ended seven years later. It might be said that this rebellion succeeded, although Ho Chi Minh might not appreciate the strong capitalist elements existing in the current version of the country he helped deliver from colonialism.
February 19: Mister Roger’s Neighborhood debuts in the United States, on NET (now PBS). Not all rebellions are negative or destructive, and this one lasts until 2001. Now a major motion picture.
February 29: The influential report of the Kerner Commission is released. Officially named the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, the group of 11 officials had reviewed the causes of the “urban rebellions” that had caused mass destruction and more than 100 deaths in 160 cities during the “long hot summer of 1967”. The groundbreaking commission report lays blame on government for failed housing, education and social policies, on the mainstream media for ignoring problems and viewing the world with a “white perspective”, and more generally on ubiquitous white racism. And it warns that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” The Kerner report, a written rebellion of sorts, sells more than two million copies, a major best seller, but, unfortunately, dies not much later, with both Congress and the LBJ administration ignoring its recommendations. And two months after its release, urban riots break out again in more than 120 cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King.
March 12: Anti-war presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy comes in second in the New Hampshire primary, with 42 percent versus 49 for incumbent Lyndon Johnson. One more small rebellion, which lasts about 4 days. The McCarthy campaign is essentially derailed on March 16th when Senator Robert Kennedy enters the race. President Johnson then drops out and is replaced by Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a candidacy that anti-war activists essentially portray as the empire striking back (they don’t use those words, of course, because Star Wars episode V wouldn’t be released until 1980). As for the Kennedy electoral rebellion, that ends unexpectedly on June 6 with an assassin’s bullet at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
March 16: In a small Vietnamese village named My Lai, U.S. troops kill around 400 unarmed civilians. I mention this here, in the chronology, although the event would not be revealed to the public for another 20 months. After that, of course, news of the My Lai massacre will become yet another major factor used to fuel another (eventually) successful rebellion, the growing anti-war movement.
April 2: Two department stores in Frankfurt-an-Main are bombed by Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, who two years later would escape from jail and help form the Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhoff gang, a violent anti-capitalist group based in Germany.
April 4: Martin Luther King is killed by a sniper at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The civil rights movement continues to this day despite many setbacks from ubiquitous opposition and racism.
April 6: Armed members of the Black Panther Party are involved in a 90-minute gun battle with police in Oakland, California. Two police are injured and a Panther named Bobby Hutton is killed. In spite of opposition from police and the undercover FBI COINTELPRO program, the Panthers continue to grow and to spread to most U.S. cities, expanding into a multi-level community support organization.
April 23: Student anti-war protesters shut down Columbia University for a week.
May 13: Student riots in Paris begin a series of general strikes across France, including occupations of many universities and factories. The student actions begin as a protest of government cutbacks and expand when the police respond with violent suppression. Unions and opposition parties join in to support the protests. The 1968 French rebellion inspires later large-scale actions in Germany, Italy, Japan, and Mexico, and leads to a variety of improvements in wages, working conditions, and electoral reforms. Most of the positive effects of this widespread rebellion disappear around 1980 with the election of leaders like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl.
June 6: Robert Kennedy is killed at the Ambassador Hotel, ending his run for the presidency and hobbling the popular anti-war and anti-poverty movement he had inspired.
July 18: Intel Corporation is founded by Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore. It becomes a leader in integrated circuit production and creates the first commercial microprocessor chips in 1971. Their technology-market rebellion would lead to the development of personal computers.
August 20: The Warsaw Pact invades Czechoslovakia, effectively ending the Dubček rebellion.
August 22: A week of protests begin at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, where Hubert Humphrey receives the nomination as the party candidate for president. Violent clashes occur between the protesters and the police in an over-reaction widely characterized as a “police riot”.
September 24: The newsmagazine 60 Minutes debuts on CBS. It continues today.
October 2: A mass protest rally brings almost 10,000 people to the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, Mexico City. It is the largest of many actions begun in July, inspired by the Paris strikes and unequal distribution of recent economic growth in Mexico and the diversion of government resources to that year’s Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Mexican military and police forces attack the crowds with gunfire, killing at least 300. Many in the crowd are kidnapped and tortured by the military.
October 11: The first manned Apollo mission, Apollo 7, is launched into an 11-day earth orbit. This is the first three-man space mission and the first to include a live TV broadcast, and sets the stage for the 1969 moon landings.
October 16: Tommy Smith and John Carlos perform a silent protest on the medal podium after taking gold and bronze in the 200-meter race. Each man holds a raised fist in a black glove during the national anthem; a small silent rebellion heard around the world. In response, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) forces the USOC to expel the two athletes. Today, fifty years later, they have no regrets and now support Colin Kaepernick.
November 5: Richard Nixon defeats Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election, 43.4 percent to 42.7 percent, with help from third-party candidate George Wallace (13.5 percent).
December 9: At the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) Douglas Englebert hosts “the mother of all demos”, demonstrating the use of several new technologies. These include a chorded keyboard and hypertext and the first computer mouse, a device he had developed with technical assistance from Bill English and which, in his 1967 patent application, he described as an “X-Y position indicator for a display system.” The first mouse using a rolling ball, an inverted trackball called the rollkugel, had been introduced by the German firm Telefunken on October 2nd.
So was 1968 a big deal? Yes, even without the computer innovations and Mister Rogers. What happened to the rebellious impulses that inspired the year’s protests? Some were crushed quickly by violent or punitive responses, others squelched by government inaction or varied social concessions. The active anti-war movement in the United States understandably disbanded when U.S. forces were forced out of Vietnam in 1975. And much of the progress that had been achieved was reversed when the pendulum swung back and reactionary regimes were elected or imposed. Yes, just like after 2016, sort of. But if you pay attention you can still find remnants of the events and policies of the 1960s, and individuals who remember the year, and the era, fondly. Of course, it was fifty years ago and we are getting old, but we haven’t forgotten.