The Real Legacy of 1968

1968 may indeed have been the historical lynchpin in which the ‘Age of Aquarius’ transformed American culture, but not in the way retro celebrations want us to believe. The real-world impact of 1968 was the birth of the Reagan Revolution.

1968 might be the most celebrated year on record. Every ten years, we see exhibitions and retrospectives in which ever older hippies show us fading pictures or film of themselves protesting, turning on, tuning in, or dropping out. They tell us that 1968 not only was an important year, but remains so because, not-too-deep down, they never gave up “the struggle.” In 2018, we’re at it again, with the Minnesota History Center hosting The 1968 Exhibit. What is so special about 1968?

From Hue to Chicago

In the United States, 1968 was dominated by the Vietnam War and the presidential election. Both were closely linked. On January 30th, Vietnamese Communists launched the Tet Offensive, a wave of coordinated strikes against American installations all over South Vietnam. The assault was a military disaster for the communists—50 were killed for every American lost at Khe Sanh—but it reaped massive political dividends. The American media went into meltdown. They falsely reported that the North Vietnamese captured the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and on February 27th, prominent CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite declared the war “unwinnable.” On March 31st, President Lyndon Johnson, elected in a landslide just four years earlier, stunned his party by announcing he would not seek reelection, throwing wide open the Democratic Party’s nomination for that November’s presidential election.

The Democrats had controlled politics in America for most of the period since Franklin Roosevelt’s first victory in 1932 through a powerful New Deal coalition that consisted of northern liberals, organized labor and white southerners. The aftermath of the 1964 presidential election saw this coalition as dominant as it ever had been. Conservative Republican Barry Goldwater had wrested the nomination from the GOP’s liberal wing only to be annihilated by Johnson, winning just 36 percent of the vote, the lowest share a major party candidate had won since the four-way election of 1824. New York Times columnist James “Scotty” Reston wrote that Goldwater “has wrecked his party for a long time to come and is not even likely to control the wreckage.”

But even this massive victory exposed signs that the coalition was fraying. At its August nominating convention in Atlantic City, the Mississippi Free Democratic Party—composed of mostly black civil rights activists—demanded to be recognized as the state’ official delegation over the entirely white official one. After refusing attempts at compromise, they walked out, claiming that the system was hopelessly rigged. Even though the Johnson administration would pass a Civil Rights Act in 1964, a Voting Rights Act the following year, and vastly increase social spending as part of its Great Society program, activists like Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee would claim that blacks “could not rely on their so-called allies.” The Democratic Party now included an aggrieved fringe of angry activists.

Vietnam added to this. As U.S. involvement escalated after 1964, an increasing number of Democrats came to see a candidate’s attitude towards the war as the only criterion on which to judge him. In May 1967, 40 board members of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), a key institution of the liberal left, passed a resolution to back any candidate in 1968 who was committed to ending the war, even a Republican. Older, establishment Democrats urged that the party take Johnson’s domestic record into account. Veteran union man Gus Tyler warned that the “monomania” with Vietnam risked isolating the ADA “from the mainstream of American politics, and from the vast body of liberal voters in America.” Tyler was backed by a number of union leaders, including Walter Reuther of the powerful United Auto Workers (UAW).

Nevertheless, by 1967, a young Democrat activist named Allard Lowenstein was running a “Dump Johnson” campaign which Joe Rauh, ADA vice president and chief counsel to the UAW, warned would wreck “the liberal-labor-Negro coalition that had elected every liberal president and made possible every liberal advance since the 1930s.”

In July 1967, these groups convened at the Palmer House hotel in Chicago for the National Conference for New Politics, to “discuss bringing peace activists and civil rights activists together to influence and perhaps make inroads into the Democratic Party.” The event rapidly descended into farce. While Martin Luther King, Jr. opened the convention with pleas for a new coalition based on non-violence, young militants outside chanted, “Kill Whitey!” A splinter Black Caucus was formed that issued a set of demands including 50 percent black representation on all conference committees, efforts to “humanize the savage and beast-like character that runs rampant throughout America, as exemplified by George Lincoln Rockwell [head of the American Nazi party] and Lyndon Baines Johnson,” and acceptance of all resolutions passed at a Black Power conference which, Walter Goodman noted for the New York Times, “nobody in the Palmer House that Saturday had read.” The demands were accepted by a three to one vote. One attendee described the convention as filled with “white middle-class radicals with guilt feelings about Negroes.” Another attendee noted that the white delegates had “voted to castrate themselves as organizers…because they accepted the responsibility and guilt of American racism.” A third white attendee replied, “After four hundred years of slavery, it is right that whites should be castrated!”

With the election looming, anti-war Democrats were split between those who disdained any compromise with the Party and those who decided to give it one last go. Carl Oglesby, head of Students for a Democratic Society, lambasted the latter for selling out to the system of “corporate liberalism.” But the “Dump Johnson” crowd had found their candidate in Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy. They shaved and bought suits, going “clean for Gene,” and descended on New Hampshire for the March 12th primary. They were rewarded with a strong showing, 42 percent to Johnson’s 50. This humiliation for a sitting president was a major factor in convincing Johnson to withdraw. But it also prompted Bobby Kennedy to enter the race. The anti-war Democrats were now split, bitterly so, between those who supported Kennedy as the most plausible candidate and those who stayed loyal to McCarthy and saw Kennedy as a spineless latecomer. Kennedy and McCarthy slugged it out that spring and summer. Then, on June 4th, Kennedy was shot dead by Sirhan Sirhan, a Jordanian immigrant apparently motivated by Kennedy’s support for Israel.

Going into the convention in Chicago in late August, the fault lines in the party were brutally laid bare as McCarthy’s anti-war liberals were confronted by New Deal traditionalist Hubert Humphrey and his “politics of joy.” Radical activist Tom Hayden, traveling to Chicago, announced, “We are coming to Chicago to vomit on the ‘politics of joy.’” Once in the Windy City, the anti-war activists set up camp in Grant Park. They raised the flag of the Vietnamese communists, who, at that moment, were killing working class American boys who, unlike the protesters, had neither the money nor the grades to get a draft deferment. The Chicago police, drawn from the same working class as many of those conscripts, on the orders of old school Democratic city boss, Mayor Richard J. Daley, were sent in to remove them. What followed was later described as a “police riot” as the cops clashed violently with activists. Hayden claimed that America was at the same stage as pre-Nazi Weimar Germany, a sentiment echoed in the convention hall by South Dakota Senator George McGovern.

Fresh from this beating, the activists then had to watch McCarthy lose to Humphrey. That November, Humphrey was defeated by Richard Nixon. It was more than most of them could bear.

From Roosevelt to Nixon


The Minnesota History Society says that it’s been 50 years since “the Vietnam War, protests, assassinations…peace signs, love-ins, psychedelic rock.” But these were the minority pursuits of the losers of 1968, the supporters of Kennedy or McCarthy and the protesters of Grant Park. Nixon won, but his supporters, and those of third party candidate George Wallace who took a swath of formerly Democratic southern states, are absent from these commemorations. There were more Okies from Muskogee than flower children.

Most Americans in 1968 never made a peace sign or went to a love-in. They preferred Paul Mauriat or Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, both of whom scored number 1 albums that year, to Jefferson Airplane. They bought Arthur Hailey’s potboiler Airport, which outsold Gore Vidal’s gender-bending Myra Breckinridge. If they were feeling a little “freaky” they might have tuned in to Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, the top-rated show in 1968-1969, but otherwise they watched western series, Bonanza and Gunsmoke (starring Minnesota’s James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon) which had been on the air since 1955 and 1959, respectively. The second rated show was Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., which chronicled the comic adventures of a sweet-natured gas station attendant who joins the Marines. Like the fourth-ranked show, Mayberry R.F.D., it was also a spin-off from The Andy Griffith Show which had been televised since 1960.

Judged by their music, reading habits, or TV viewing, the majority of Americans in 1968 were a culturally conservative bunch, despite what the commemorations suggest. Nixon appealed to them with a platform of “law and order,” which to this day liberals interpret as coded language and racist “dog whistles.” It rarely occurs to them that “law and order” meant just that. Considering that the homicide rate multiplied by two and a half times between 1957 and 1980, from a low of 4.0 per 100,000 to a high of 10.2, and with major race riots in Los Angeles in 1965 (34 dead), Detroit and Newark in 1967 (43 and 26 dead), and Baltimore and Washington, D.C. in 1968 (6 and 12 dead), it should. It is also understandable that so many ordinary Americans voted for it.

Commemorations of 1968 make little attempt to engage with this mainstream current of American life. In his book Boom!, Tom Brokaw reminisces about the period with a string of old hippies like Jane Fonda, who in 1972 went to Vietnam and posed for photographs at the controls of an anti-aircraft gun that fired on American airmen. Nowhere does he speak to a steel worker, for example, a patriotic, working-class American whose family had been Democrats since Roosevelt, and who voted for Nixon out of disgust at the antics of activists, such as Fonda—someone like Joe, played onscreen by Peter Boyle in 1970. Their most eloquent spokesman was former actor and Democrat-turned-Republican governor of California, Ronald Reagan, who said: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.” Nixon called these forgotten Americans the “silent majority,” but it wasn’t so much that they were silent as that few in the media cared what they had to say. They still don’t.

From Nixon to Reagan

In 1966, Buffalo Springfield sang “There’s something happening here/ What it is ain’t exactly clear.” 1968 was the year it started to become clear. What was happening was the political birth of Reaganism. That was the true meaning and legacy of 1968.

After 1968, many on the anti-war left diagnosed a particularly acute case of “false consciousness” among the American working class. Marvin Garson, once of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, said, “The next time some $3.00 an hour AFL-type workers go on strike for a 50 cent raise, I’ll remember the day they chanted ‘Burn Hanoi, not our flag,’ and so help me I’ll cross their f***ing picket line.” Some, like President Obama’s friend Bill Ayers, believed it incurable by political means and abandoned political action for terrorism.

Others stayed with the Democratic Party and, in 1972, they finally got their man, George McGovern, nominated. McGovern was christened the “Triple A” candidate—Abortion, Amnesty (for Vietnam draft dodgers), and Acid. Hunter S. Thompson liked him, but the general public was less keen.

That November, Nixon won every state but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Survivors of McGovern’s blowout, like Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham, decided that they needed to tack back toward America if they were ever going to win power again. When Jimmy Carter, a religious peanut farmer from Georgia, was elected president in 1976, it was on a Democratic platform vastly different from McGovern’s.

But the changing politics were only the crust atop a shifting cultural magma below.

Bob Dylan had spent 1967’s Summer of Love in a basement recording folk songs with The Band. In 1968, he emerged to release John Wesley Harding. Eschewing the psychedelic excesses of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Dylan’s album was a stripped down set of folk ballads and songs recorded with top Nashville session musicians. The following year he recorded a country album, Nashville Skyline. Other acts did the same. The Byrds followed 1967’s psychedelic Younger Than Yesterday with the country-tinged The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Country rock became one of the dominant sounds of the 1970s.

In cinema, the “New Hollywood” era dawned with 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde.
It told the story of two Depression-era crooks played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, a far more attractive pairing than the real-life version. The movie sided with them, even when they shoot an elderly bank teller in the face at point blank range. They are rebels, free spirits, mistreated, in Bonnie’s case, by an abusive parent, and their death in a hail of bullets was portrayed as a tragic, romantic ballet.

But as the backlash grew, these films drew a response. In 1971, Clint Eastwood introduced Detective “Dirty Harry” Callahan to American cinema. A San Francisco cop trying to bring a serial killer to justice, he is hampered at every turn by laws stacked in favor of the killer. “Now, the suspect’s rights were violated under the 4th and 5th and probably the 6th and 14th Amendments,” Callahan is told at one point. “And Ann Mary Deacon, what about her rights?” he asks. “She’s raped and left in a hole to die. Who speaks for her?” Blunter still was Death Wish, released in 1974, the story of a mild-mannered “bleeding heart liberal,” played somewhat implausibly by Charles Bronson, who turns vigilante on the streets of New York after his wife and daughter are brutally attacked. The blurb on the paperback version of the book asked, “What do you do when your life lies in ruins and fear clutches at your heart? Do you shun the city and flee from its violence? Or do you do what Paul did—get a gun, learn to use it and start fighting back?” Critics attacked both films. Pauline Kael opened a long running feud with Eastwood by branding Dirty Harry “fascist.” Vincent Canby said of Death Wish, “It’s a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, over-simplified answers.” Both were hugely popular with the public, and cheers broke out in cinemas whenever a bad guy was dispatched.

On television, 1971 saw the debut of All in the Family, which served up the blue-collar bigot Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O’Connor, as the butt of jokes by his clever, liberal son-in-law, played by Rob Reiner. The theme tune, Those Were the Days, ran:

Boy, the way Glenn Miller played Songs that made the hit parade Guys like us, we had it made Those were the days! And you knew where you were then Girls were girls, and men were men Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again Didn’t need no welfare state Everybody pulled his weight Gee, our old LaSalle ran great Those were the days!

But, to the producers’ shock, lots of Americans felt like this and Bunker struck a chord with them. They had expected the country to snigger along with Reiner. Instead it nodded along with O’Connor. On November 2nd, 1980, two days before Ronald Reagan was elected president, millions wept along with Archie as he confronted the death of his beloved wife, Edith. Things came full circle in 1982 when Family Ties debuted. Here, the target of the humor was the grumpy dad, an aging hippie who worked for public television. He was constantly bemused, as Archie Bunker had once been, by his son Alex Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox, an ambitious, would-be millionaire entrepreneur who quoted Milton Friedman.

Here’s to the silent Americans of 1968

1968 did not usher in the Age of Aquarius. That is probably why it is so celebrated. Its veterans can look back on it as the Revolution Betrayed, the stirrings of a new dawn snuffed out by Tricky Dick and a couple of hundred Chicago cops.

For a year so commemorated, 1968 is misunderstood. Mayor Daley and President Nixon didn’t snuff out the revolution. They were just symptoms. Instead, a majority of Americans, silent because nobody wanted to listen to them, saw what was going on in Watts, the Palmer House hotel, and Grant Park and said, “No thanks.” And they were right. From the glimpses we got, like the Manson Family and Altamont, the Age of Aquarius would have been the ultimate bad trip. As it was we got stagflation and disco, which was bad enough.

Barry Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964 might have been the first step on the road to 1980, providing the ideas with which Reagan would eventually win. But 1968 was another crucial step on that road. The voters who swung it for Reagan were the old “silent majority” Nixon had won that year.

In 1711, the Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift wrote, “It is the folly of too many to mistake the echo of a London coffee-house for the voice of the kingdom.” It’s the folly Clint Eastwood’s bête noire Pauline Kael fell for when she supposedly said after the 1972 election, “I can’t believe Nixon won. I don’t know anyone who voted for him!”

Familiar faces get to tell us again about how groovy 1968 was because, deep down, they are still in the struggle. The silent Americans of that year remain unheard. To understand that tumultuous year, to really commemorate it and grasp its significance, lend them your ears.