These 12 News Clips Show Why 1968 Was So Extraordinary

When I chose Haight-Ashbury as the setting for a murder mystery, one of my first decisions was that the story would take place in 1968.

You’d have thought 1967 would have been a more obvious choice, during the Summer of Love and the zenith of the flower power movement.

But 1968 felt better for a crime novel like The Haight. Haight-Ashbury was becoming a darker, tenser place and crime was rising. The Summer of Love was becoming a memory. With troop levels in Vietnam reaching half-a-million, it was becoming harder to ignore the war.

What’s more, 1968 was a year in which the world changed. In the U.S., two great Americans were assassinated within weeks of each other, and Richard Nixon was elected President. The Soviets took control of Czechoslovakia and Pierre Trudeau won his first election in Canada.

In politics, science, the arts, and global affairs, 1968 was one of the pivotal years in American and world history. As such, it provides a magnificent stage for fiction.

Here’s a look at what was happening in the world 50 years ago, using news reports from 1968 found on YouTube.  I’ve chosen 11 highlights, arranged roughly in chronological order.

1.       The Tet Offensive, January 30.

The North Vietnamese offensive initially caught the South Vietnamese military and its American allies by surprise as it occurred during the Tet holiday. It was the largest military operation in the war up to that point and helped to turn popular opinion in the U.S. against the war.

2.       Lyndon Johnson Rules Out Re-Election, March 31.

LBJ already had a couple of challengers for the Democratic nomination, including his bête noire Bobby Kennedy. He shocked the nation when he ended a televised address on the Vietnam War by stating he would not seek another term as President.

3.       Pierre Trudeau Wins Canadian Election, June 25.

Trudeau had succeeded Primer Minister Lester Pearson in 1967, then the charismatic young intellectual took the country by storm in a general election. His Liberal Party took 131 of 258 seats. This clip tells the story of Trudeaumania.

4.       Assassination of Martine Luther King, Jr. April 4.

America’s greatest civil rights leader is gunned down at a hotel in Memphis. Walter Cronkite seems unduly dispassionate in this clip. 

5.   In the Heat of the Night Wins Best Picture Oscar, April 10.

With one of the greatest fields ever for Best Picture, the Academy Awards had to be delayed two days following the King assassination. In the Heat of the Night won five Oscars – Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing and Best Sound.

6. Protests in Paris, May.

Known as the May 1968 protests, the student unrest and general strikes brought the French economy to a virtual stand-still and sparked fears of a civil war. The protests spurred an artistic movement and are said to have changed life in France.

7.       Assassination of Robert Kennedy, June 6.

The standard-bearer of the Kennedy family had just finished his victory speech after winning the Democratic primary in California. Exiting through the kitchen at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles he was shot in the head and died two days later. The night of June 5-6 is the climax of The Haight.

8.       Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia, August.

The Czech government under Alexander Dubček had brought in a series of liberal reforms during the Prague Spring that challenged the authority of the Soviet Union. In August, a coalition of Warsaw Pact armies led by the Soviets invaded the country and removed the government.

9.       Riots at Democratic Convention, Aug. 26-29.

Without Kennedy, the Democrats ended up choosing Vice-President Hubert H. Humphry of Minnesota at their presidential candidate. But what the convention is remembered for is the violent clashes between the anti-war protestors and the Chicago police.

10.       Aretha Franklin Hits her Stride.

What was the single music highlight of 1968? The release of the White Album? The Band upsetting the music world? It might have been Aretha reaching her peak, even singing the national anthem at the Democratic convention. In 1968, she released two of her greatest albums, Lady Soul and Aretha Now.

11.       Richard Nixon Is Elected President, Nov. 5.

Having to run on LBJ’s record, Humphry was unable to over-power the Republican nominee Richard Nixon. They were divided by less than one percentage point in the popular vote, but Nixon claimed 301 of the 538 electoral votes.

12.   Apollo VIII Orbits the Moon, December 21-27.

A precursor to the more famous Apollo XI mission eight months later, this mission during Christmas marked the first time humans circumnavigated the moon. The three-person crew circled it 10 times in 20 hours.

Peter Moreira