The Year That Spring Did Not ComePrint
Looking back on the turmoil of 1968
By Walter Nicklin
March 20, 2018
Imagine this: On the evening of March 31, President Trump will speak to the American people in a televised address from the Oval Office. So highly unusual, it must be important; speculation consumes the media. What is he going to announce? Something about gun control? The Dreamers? The Russia investigation? Is he going to fire Mueller?
Instead, he announces that he is, effective immediately, resigning the presidency. To give the nation a chance to heal, he says, but the stated reason (seemingly so out of character) doesn’t diminish the shock and surprise felt by all Americans. Rather, it simply fuels more speculation: He’s preempting impeachment? He’s being blackmailed? It’s a sick April Fool’s joke?
If you can imagine that scenario, you don’t need a time machine to go back a half century to the evening of March 31, 1968, in America. Nor do you need to have been alive then to feel the stunning weight of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s words, as he solemnly looked into the camera projecting himself into the intimacy of living rooms all across the country: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
If you were a U.S. Army draftee, as I was, watching stateside on a barracks TV, your initial shock quickly exploded into elation. “Unbelievable!” you likely yelled, again and again, as you pop-topped yet another can of Bud. It was especially hard to believe since the first 40 minutes of LBJ’s address sounded like a well-worn vinyl record: a troop buildup in Vietnam; a partial bombing halt to induce North Vietnam to go to the negotiating table; the need for more defense expenditures not only in Vietnam but also to meet “responsibilities in Korea.”
You were young; what power did you possess to change the world you were born into? Yet now the political fortunes of the most powerful man in the country, indeed the world, were a casualty of the antiwar movement, of which your generation was the creative force. The so-called Children’s Crusade of Senator Eugene McCarthy had, just a couple of weeks earlier, almost defeated Johnson in the Democratic presidential primary in New Hampshire. Going door-to-door in McCarthy’s uphill campaign were college students and once long-haired, unshaven hippies—who shaved, showered, and cleaned up their acts to get “Clean for Gene.” The popular folk group Peter, Paul and Mary even composed a brand-new song:
If you love your country
and the things for which it stands
Vote for Gene McCarthy
and bring peace to this our land.
You and other reluctant soldiers watching LBJ on the tube that March evening might still get shipped to Vietnam, and possibly die there, but still it felt good, so good—to see the huge political consequences of antiwar energy led by your youthful cohort. You were still too young to be convincingly cynical, so idealism felt good, too, as you saw the part played by the press—just as the First Amendment guaranteed—exposing the “credibility gap” between White House pronouncements and the reality “on the ground” in Vietnam. Hope was a “high,” like springtime itself, even better than marijuana.
Imagine, then, the crash that too quickly followed. You can’t imagine, for it was unimaginable even at the time. Only in retrospect does it not seem random, given this country’s gun culture and racism—“overdetermined,” as historians sometimes say when dismissing scenarios of what-might-have-been. On April 4, four days after LBJ’s shocking TV announcement (and less than five years after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination), Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down by a white supremacist in Memphis. Unimaginable, yes, and thus maybe not predestined; but did King himself have a premonition? From the hindsight of a half century, his speech the night before can only be read as eerily prophetic:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. … But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, 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. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Then just two months later, you woke up to the news of yet another—no!—assassination. (Oh, God, if only you could somehow just go back to sleep.) This time it was Robert F. Kennedy, who after McCarthy’s success against the incumbent president in the New Hampshire primary, had decided to mount his own challenge for the Democratic nomination. And now he had won the California primary—only to be shot dead while celebrating the victory.
So call it a false spring—those few days of hope in 1968 before King’s killing—so soon engulfed in race riots and burnings that would consume America’s cities, as angrily hot as Vietnam. What hope remained was invested in RFK’s candidacy, but then he, too, was gone. In a final disillusionment, Kennedy’s sometimes rowdy antiwar supporters—Trump resisters, take note!—may well have swung enough voters to the law-and-order message of Richard M. Nixon to ensure his election. As president, Nixon’s actions meant the Vietnam War would last another seven years.
For those of you old enough to have been young in 1968, does the shared trauma of that year “explain” the Baby Boomers? If so, as a Boomer myself, I can only say there’s hope we can be forgiven for all the selfish things we’ve done with our time on earth—leaving the country and the planet much worse than we found it.
In another 50 years, how will members of the Millennial or Gen Z generations think of this moment, the equinox between 1968 and 2068? They’ve been traumatized, too; witness all the recent mass shootings, which in effect are assassinations of future leaders. How will these and other assaults on the social fabric be imprinted on the consciousness of the newest generations of Americans? And how will they react?
Walter Nicklin is a longtime journalist and publisher who divides his time between Virginia and Maine. He can be found on Twitter @RoadTripRedux.