Thursday, March 20, 2008

40 Years Ago

(An occasional reminiscence on the events of 1968)

March was certainly an eventful month that year.

On the 12th, a hijacker commandeered a flight and ordered it to Cuba, just one of at least 19 such occurrences that year.

That day, Lyndon Johnson barely beat Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary, by 7 percentage points. Newfield: “Suddenly, Lyndon Johnson’s renomination was in doubt”.

McCarthy told his supporters that night: “People have remarked that this campaign has brought young people back into the system. But it’s the other way around. The young people have brought the country back into the system.”

On the Republican side, Richard Nixon won the New Hampshire Republican primary, with 78% percent of the vote. His chief rival for the nomination had been George Romney, but he had withdrawn from the race in February, after reaction to his statement that he’d been ‘brainwashed’ on Vietnam by the military doomed his campaign. NY Gov Nelson Rockefeller got 11% of the vote, as an antiwar write-in candidate, and became the new rival.

On March 16th, Robert F. Kennedy announced his campaign for president, in the same Senate caucus room where his brother had announced eight years before, saying “I do not run for the Presidency, merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies” Kennedy's run was a shock to those who hoped for a change in McCarthy's candidacy; it seemed to guarantee a divisive campaign.

Also that day, US troops under the command of Lt. William L. Calley Jr. massacred Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. We would not hear about this disaster for over a year. Press coverage of the incident just said: "U.S. infantrymen had killed 128 Communists in a bloody day-long battle."

On March 17, 10,000 anti-Vietnam war protesters massed at London's Trafalgar Square, where Vanessa Redgrave was one of the speakers. The demonstration then moved to Grosvenor Square, where some tried to get into the the ultra-modern new American Embassy. 200 protesters were arrested and 91 injured.

On March 19, Howard University students seized the administration building. A few days later, students protesting the Vietnam War, the ROTC program on campus and the draft, confronted Gen. Lewis Hershey, then head of the U.S. Selective Service System, and as he attempted to deliver an address, shout him down with cries of "America is the Black man's battleground!"

On March 22, Johnson announced the promotion of Gen. Westmoreland to Army Chief of Staff, relieving him of his Vietnam duties. Johnson had been studying Westmoreland's request for 206,000 more troops, on top of the 500,000 already deployed, and his advisers were telling him the additional budgetary strain of a huge troop call-up would endanger the country's financial status.

That day, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and seven other students occupied the Administrative offices of Nanterre, launching France into what would become a state of revolution in the month of May.

Meanwhile, we were settling in to life in Washington. I didn't know much yet about the city at all. I'd visited once for a few days when I accompanied my father on a business trip to check out Trinity College as a high school senior. Then my senior year of college, two other roommates and I came down to stay with a fourth roommate at her Arlington home for a weekend. That was January '67, and warm enough to tour the city in a convertible with the top down. To me, it was the South. By late March this year, we would have been enjoying a few spring flowers and slightly warmer weather.

About half our neighbors were black. We didn't spend a lot of time out in the neighborhood yet, but got to mingle with Washingtonians on the buses and at our work places. When we could, taking longer bus trips or finding people with cars to get out with, we acted like tourists, amazed by Washington's incredible scenery, especially the monuments on the mall and Capitol at night, all lit up, the crowds around the White House, the jumping bar and restaurant scene of Georgetown. Probably our first trips to the Smithsonian museums were in this period.

We had read, of course, about the demonstrations. The summer before college I'd watched the March on Washington led by Dr. King on television, aching to be there; my parents didn't want me to go. The previous fall there'd been the march on the Pentagon. I wanted to go then, too, but knew I needed to stay and make enough money picking grapes so I could move to DC when the season finished. We listened to that one on the radio, I expect, as we were tuned to a Canadian news station most days, in that vineyard overlooking Lake Ontario.

Now we were there and they were shutting down Howard University. Little did we know that the unrest would soon reach a lot closer.....



  • thnx, Liz, for giving clarity to a very merky time for me. I appreciate you bringing together the simple and the tramatic events of the late 60s. I loose perspective from this end of life and need to be reminded how things really were. And remind us how we felt.

    By Anonymous Lynne, at 11:34 PM  

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