1968 is often called one of the most pivotal years in the second half of the 20th century.
Even by today’s post 911 standards, many key events happened that would shape the way American’s would view themselves and our place in the world. January kicked off the whirlwind of events that literally transformed us from a Post World War 2 land of American exceptionalism to a country divided like it had never been since the civil war. The Battle for Khe Sanh began on January 21st and was a precursor for the Tet offensive which started about a week later.
North Korea seized one of our surveillance ships during the same week and pictures of the mutilated ship flashed across the American landscape.
The year never did get much better.
Protests. Riots. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinated. My Lai massacre. A nerve gas leak at the US Army Proving Grounds at Dugway in Utah. USS Scorpion sinks 400 miles form the Azores. The Prague Spring ends with the arrival of 200K Warsaw Pact troops and 5000 tanks in Czechoslovakia. Northern Ireland breaks out into a new round of “troubles”. Mao Zedong starts a massive internal reeducation program. The list goes on and on and truly changed us as a nation and set in motion changes for the rest of the world.
I remember 1968 pretty well for a couple of reasons. First, I was in the eighth grade and started studying something called current events. I had saved some money from my summer job (cutting grass) and in the fall of 1967 convinced my Dad to let me order subscriptions to three magazines that would give me three views on the world. I had researched them at the school’s library but had a burning desire to have my own copies. The magazines started to arrive in January of 1968 and I devoured them from cover to cover. This seemingly harmless addiction to information is responsible for my current state of mind.
Television was really just coming into its own (spurred on my the on the spot coverage that started in the aftermath of JFK’s shooting.) The one thing that TV lacked was depth. I didn’t want a two minute segment on fluoride in the water, I wanted the hard stuff and I wanted a lot more information than Walter was willing to give me in his evening spots. The arrival of each new copy was almost like celebration since I would then be able to absorb myself into the many details that a 1000 word article could provide. I could re-read it and look things up if I wasn’t sure about some of the facts identified. Unlike most eighth graders, I could not only show you where Viet Nam was on a map, but could point to the location of many of the major battles that came blazing through my mail box.
I remember anticipating a catastrophe at Khe Sanh where the beleaguered Marines seemed to be holding off the entire Communist forces of the world. Day after day, they held off a determined enemy that, at least according to the articles, had been declared all but dead and beaten. I watched and studied in horror as the American flag at the US Embassy was bullet ridden and torn after the Tet attacks in Saigon.
The loss of the USS Scorpion was of special interest to me even though I had no inkling that I would ever become a submariner.
I do remember thinking how awful it was for the guys and their families not to know where she was and how they died. By the end of the year, I knew what the bathyscaphe Trieste II looked like and how far down it was supposed to be able to safely go.
I also learned about something called “Crush Depth” for the first time. I guess like many kids, I never thought we would design or put a submarine that could be somehow “crushed”.
The year came and went.
I got “A”s in all my important classes and really felt like I had gained something by my extra curriculum reading. One thing that did bother me though was that after a while, it seemed like all three magazines were covering the same stories. The writers were different, but the stories and themes were identical. The way the US was being portrayed was also changing. As Viet Nam played out (including My Lai and other massacres), the coverage got more cynical and discouraging. I didn’t look at the Marines or Army in my “John Wayne” colored glasses anymore. According to the magazines, they were back to being mere mortals.
The year also caused me to really wonder about the great experiment called America. Students and blacks rioting, teachers strikes, politicians being killed, civil rights being fought over, and on and on. By December when Dad asked me if I was going to reorder the magazines I said no. I was in ninth grade by then and discovering that girls were actually more interesting than I had at once thought. I had also discovered in my own mind that my opinions were probably being formed by what I read. I had no way of independently verifying what was true and what was something called bias. The new year began with a strong emphasis on my new interests.
Over the years, I read an occasional US News and World Report for additional information. The TV seemed to find better ways to give expanded coverage and frankly I got a bit passive in my political and news hunger. Programs like 60 Minutes (which also started in 1968) filled in enough of the blanks. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that they too had their own bias. After all, who selected their stories? What point of view would be presented? Somebody seemed to have to be the bad guy if the ratings were to rise.
The one magazine I really liked back in the day was Newsweek
The stories seemed to resonate with all the things going on around me. The writers had opinions and they were hard to dismiss since they seemed to be filled with enough facts to make their view plausible. It wasn’t until the Internet became really easy to use that I discovered that for every story, there are people with their own “facts” to support their own “versions” of the story. After Watergate, we had learned that the Government also had “facts” to support its own claims. Sadly, the era of mistrust caused us to even question our own government and the press watching them.
Or is it sad? Doesn’t our access to a wider variety of information make us more informed and more discerning? I for one no longer accept anything at face value if it is political or related to what the government says. I think that serves people well when we do question authority (something which is also attributed to 1968). I have my heroes. Most of them are in uniform. They are not perfect, but at least they have the guts to place their lives on the line for what they believe in.
Like so many, I lost my innocence in so many ways in the late sixties.
Its okay. I don’t miss it that much. Being a bit more aware keeps me from believing in the impossible. Like voting for someone with absolutely no executive experience and expecting them to perform at an executive level. I hope someday, the rest of the country figures out it has been manipulated and used by the very press that used to stand between us and crooked and inept politicians. I heard that Newsweek was recently bought for a dollar. I wish I had known it was for sale. I would have bought it and closed it down. Just for old times sake.