1968: A Hinge in History

[I recently finished reading a chunk of the new biography of Walter Cronkite that deals with the events of 1968. It put me in mind of the following essay, which I wrote for my book, Covering America, but had to cut for reasons of space. Enjoy.]



This image was described in The Last Whole Earth Catalog as: “The famous Apollo 8 picture of Earthrise of the moon that established our planetary facthood and beauty and rareness (dry moon, barren space) and began to bend human consciousness.”

(photo by NASA)



By Christopher B. Daly

As the year 1968 began, the Beatles’ song from the year before was still playing on record-players and on radios:

I read the news today, oh boy…

 And what a flashing kaleidoscope of news it was. By turns amazing, shocking, depressing, inspiring, enraging, the news in 1968 seemed to have entered some uncharted realm. Things started normally enough. Americans woke on the first day of the year to read a UPI story reporting that the Census Bureau put the U.S. population at just over 200 million. During the first few days of January, they could also read about the exploits of the dashing O.J. Simpson, who rushed USC to victory in the Rose Bowl over Indiana. Newsweek reported that its own poll showed Republicans favoring Richard Nixon over his GOP rivals at the start of that presidential election year. Gary, Indiana, got a new “Negro” mayor, Richard Hatcher, whose first act was to appoint a white chief of police and order him to crack down on crime.

Then there was the news from Vietnam, all of it bad. During what was supposed to be a new year’s truce, Vietcong troops launched a sneak attack just a few minutes after midnight and “savagely mauled” ARVN forces, killing 19. The next day, the extent of the assault became clearer in a Times front-page story:

Vietcong guerrillas, attacking in regimental force, killed 26 American  infantrymen and wounded 111 early today in rubber plantation country near  Tayninh, 50 miles northwest of Saigon, United States officers said.

According to a Saigon newspaper, American psy-ops forces were blanketing Vietnam with propaganda leaflets. The only problem: six years into the war, Americans still had not learned to speak the language. The level of Vietnamese used in the leaflets ranged from “consistently awful” to “unintelligible.” From Hanoi came an AP report that North Vietnam had shot down 1,063 American warplanes in the previous year.  Trying to sum up the overall situation in a front-page piece on Jan. 1, Times correspondent Johnny Apple offered a “thumb-sucker”[i] that began this way:

SAIGON, South Vietnam, Dec. 31 — American officials at almost all  levels, both in Saigon and in the provinces, say they are under steadily increasing pressure from Washington to produce convincing evidence of progress, especially by the South Vietnamese….

So many portents and signals, and yet so much noise too. During the first week of 1968, readers could also find an AP story under the headline:


Yes, President Johnson signed a bill lifting the 15% tax, but only after having certified that there “is no known commercial production of bagpipes in the United States.” (Who knew?) The Times reported that cigarette sales were up 7.5 percent, to 46.6 billion smokes, and the paper documented the new year’s social news, noting that 29 debutantes had been “presented” at the Waldorf Astoria. The Times also took note of the fashion trend of the era, the miniskirt, and asked the classic question during periods when the hemline is up: “Will It Go Down?” The paper waffled and said only that the issue was a “cliff-hanger” heading into 1968.

Readers would have also found the following item in the Times on the first day of the year, a sort of all-purpose headline that the newspaper could have kept on file for use through the year:


There was plenty to fret about: the problems of crime, housing, violence, race, and war were not getting any better. As the year continued, the headlines from the homefront kept growing larger and larger. At the end of February, the Kerner Commission weighed in on the previous year’s urban riots. “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal,” the report warned, adding that the news media were part of the problem because “the media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world.”[ii] And, incidentally, the report pointed out that it was high time the news media hired some black reporters. Within weeks, more shocks: The U.S. abandoned the gold standard in March.

Then, in April, the news was suddenly wall-to-wall. In the estimation of the Times’ managing editor, Arthur Gelb, the first week of April 1968 was “the most crowded week of news since World War II.”[iii] It actually began on March 31. The president requested airtime on the TV networks to discuss the war. The advance text did not include the finishing lines, which were written at the last minute by LBJ himself. So, no one was prepared when Johnson suddenly announced: “… I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” A political earthquake, followed days later by the bulletins from Memphis: Martin Luther King Jr. shot – assassinated, really, almost like JFK. In no time, the fury caused by King’s death erupted in the streets – Newark, Baltimore, Chicago, Louisville, Washington, D.C., even on military bases in Vietnam

That spring, the whole world seemed to be freaking out. Students at Columbia, led by an SDS radical named Mark Rudd, took over buildings and demanded an end to Columbia’s involvement in the war and its imperial expansion into the surrounding neighborhood. A new show called “Laugh-In” – which featured drug jokes, a pop-art esthetic, non-sequiturs, and nonsense (“Sock it to me!”) – became the top hit on TV. In France, students and workers staged an uprising demanding change. The hottest show on Broadway was called “Hair,” and it had actual naked people on stage, along with some catchy anthem-melodies. Then, June 5: Bobby Kennedy won the Democratic primary in California and was making his way through a crowded hotel in L.A. when a lone gunman shot him, practically point-blank. The next day, RFK died, too. Another national funeral, another round of anguished self-examination. Were Americans “the people of the gun”?

The news kept coming. In late July, Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical condemning birth control. What a lot people heard was: sex is only for making babies. Thou shalt not have sex for the hell of it. (Well, screw that!) Within two weeks, the Republicans held their national political convention in Miami Beach, giving every possible signal that they were the party of straight, white, square people who accept hierarchy, who appreciate order, and who have no intention of turning the country over to a bunch of dirty hippies and crazy radicals. At the end of the month, the Democrats met in Chicago, and they staged a brawl inside the convention center and outside. Two gifted provocateurs, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, told the world that their Yippie Party had big plans:

            We will burn Chicago to the ground!

We will fuck on the beaches!

We demand the Politics of Ecstasy!

Acid for all!

Abandon the creeping meatball!



Provoked by such tactics and spoiling for a fight to begin with, the Chicago police erupted in a frenzy of beatings, letting the goddamn hippies know who was boss in Chicago. While the whole world watched, cops beat the kids – and they beat a few journalists, too, for good measure. A few weeks later, it was time to question another American tradition, the Miss America beauty pageant. Demanding an end to their “enslavement,” a group of radical feminists picketed the pageant in Atlantic City, setting up a “freedom trash can” on the Boardwalk which they filled with girdles, bras, high-heeled shoes, hair curlers and other things that pinched or demeaned women. The media went berserk, even inventing the myth that women took off their bras and burned them. In October, at the Olympics in Mexico City, two U.S. sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, went to the stand to get their medals and raised their gloved fists in a Black Power salute. Again, the whole world was watching. On Nov. 5, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew barely won the White House (43.4% for them, 42.7% for Humphrey, and 13.5% for George Wallace), but with less than 44 percent of the popular vote they got 100 percent of the power of the Executive Branch. In late November, the Beatles released another album – one with no apparent name, just a white cover – that featured a song called “Revolution.” Did they mean it?

Finally, just at the end of the year, the space program came through with some good news. Three astronauts managed to fly into space, get into orbit around the moon, see the dark side, and make it back home safe and sound. It had been quite a year.

 0   0   0   0

            During 1968, a year of miracles and horrors, something else was happening too. It never really qualified as “news,” but maybe it should have. Here are there, in twos and threes, millions of people, most of them under 30, were getting high for the first time, usually by smoking marijuana, then maybe some other psychotropic drug like hashish, mescaline, or LSD. Most of them were never quite the same afterward. Once they stepped through the “doors of perception” by deliberately altering their consciousness, they were not going to return to the “straight” world of alienated work, endless consumption, striving, conflict, and domination. Why should they? Why do that when life was a magical mystery tour, a carnival, a dream? Millions heard the call from Lennon and McCartney – “I’d love to turn you on” – and nodded. One result was a new divide in America, which had plenty of fault lines already: now the populace was self-dividing between hip and straight. These two cultures began to gawk at one another, even as they drifted further and further apart. The hip young people wanted nothing to do with the War in Vietnam, of course, but that was just the beginning. They wanted nothing to do with the whole world of hierarchy, power, Wall Street, thousand-year-old churches – basically, they rejected the idea that anyone should tell them what to do. They wanted a revolution, and it began with freeing their minds. They wrote about all manner of cosmic riddles and existential jokes: What color is time? What flavor is your hair? You ask, is the government too big? I wonder: Is the government real?

                        You tell me it’s the insti-tu-tion,

                        Well, you know,

                        You better free your mind instead…[v]

 One place to find the new culture was in music. Suddenly, the radio mattered, more than ever. New songs by Dylan or the Beatles were stunning, stopping people in their tracks. Pop music was not just silly love songs any more. Now, it could be about anything: it could be plastecine porters with looking-glass ties, or an opera about a blind boy who’s a wizard at pin-ball, or about the dark side of the moon. It could be made by men and women, it could be a sitar-player from India or an ancient black bluesman from the Delta, it could be fluffy and dreamy or it could be dark and scary, it could be the most fantastic, improvisational hodge-podge you could imagine.

Johnny’s in the basement,

mixin’ up the medicine,

I’m on the pavement,

thinking ‘bout the government…[vi]


(Who’s Johnny? What’s the government up to? Who knows? Who cares?) The thing was to open your mind, to seek, and to question everything. Music led the way.

In 1968, this music got a major new partner, in the form of a new magazine called Rolling Stone. It had been founded the year before in San Francisco, by a Berkeley dropout named Jann Wenner, but in 1968, it really began to take off, gaining national circulation – in part on the strength of young vagabonds who criss-crossed the country, following rock bands, going to concerts, always heading further down those long, long roads. They carried Rolling Stone with them, from Berkeley to Boston and from Austin to Madison, sharing it with friends, turning them on to a new voice that was right on their wavelength. Rolling Stone had caught the wave of hip culture, youth culture, and rock’n’roll. It was not the first “alternative” paper, and it was far from the only one; it was not even the only one covering the music scene, but Rolling Stone was one of a kind. It was not spying on the scene like Time or Newsweek, it was part of the scene. Like the music itself, each new issue of Rolling Stone was something of an adventure. Who would be on the cover? What taboo might fall? Whose weird new writing style might emerge from those acres of prose?

Out with the old.




[i] When a reporter goes into analysis mode – as for a Sunday “think piece” or a year-end summing-up piece – the writer is said to be preparing a “thumb-sucker.”

[ii] See Kerner Commission report, chapter 15, “The News Media and the Disorders.” Quote appears on page 366 in the New York Times edition, which includes an Introduction by Tom Wicker.

[iii] Arthur Gelb, City Room, pg. 480.

[iv] Quoted in Perlstein, pg. 291. To “abandon the creeping meatball” is, of course, nonsense, but it has a nice ring to it.

[v] Lennon/McCartney, Revolution 1, The Beatles (“The White Album”), 1968.

[vi] Bob Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” 1965.

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Filed under history, Journalism, journalism history

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