Nineteen sixty-eight was the pivotal year of the sixties: the moment
when all of a nation's impulses toward violence, idealism, diversity,
and disorder peaked to produce the greatest possible hope—and
the worst imaginable despair. For many of us who came of age in that
remarkable era, it has been twenty years since we have lived with such
intensity. That is one of the main reasons why the sixties retain their
extraordinary power over every one old enough to remember them. The
sixties and the thirties were the only modern decades in which large
numbers of Americans wondered out loud whether their country might disintegrate.
From this distance the massive unemployment of the Depression looks
like a bigger threat than the upheavals of the more recent period. But
unlike the still puzzling moods of the sixties, the nature of American
despair in the thirties was never mysterious: People were miserable
because they were hungry, fearful because they weren't sure anyone would
ever figure out how to put them back to work again.
...Thus, as 1968 began, these were some of the sources of the malaise
gnawing away at many of the six million draft-age students in college,
the largest group of undergraduates in American history: an absence
of religious conviction; an unwanted intimacy with the nuclear void;
an unexpected familiarity with political assassination—Malcolm
X's in 1965, as well as John Kennedy's in 1963—and a yearning
for the idealism that was the most evocative part of Kennedy's presidency.
Together these disparate elements fed two seemingly contradictory but
actually complementary impulses: the desire to create our own culture,
a world of our own where we could retreat from the world of our parents;
and the need to embrace causes larger than ourselves, crusades that
would give us the chance to define ourselves as moral people.
...television news was bruising everyone's nerve endings nightly. In
1968 it brought the War in Vietnam and the war in the ghetto into every
dorm room and living room with a power no other medium could match.
The pictures Americans saw made millions of them intensely uncomfortable
with themselves: pictures of the South Vietnamese national police chief
shooting a suspected Vietcong in the head during Tet, of Martin Luther
King's casket, and of Bobby Kennedy's bleeding body on a hotel kitchen
floor; pictures of the uprisings all over America after King's death
and the worst fires in the city of Washington since the War of 1812.
Ghetto insurrections were followed by campus revolts, most dramatically
at Columbia University. For the first time since their invention, televised
pictures made the possibility of anarchy in America feel real.