Is This the Worst Year in Modern American History?
Comparing 2020 to 1968 offers some disquieting lessons for the present.
The most traumatic year in modern American history was 1968. But what is now the second-most traumatic year, 2020, still has seven months to run. The comparison provides little comfort, and several reasons for concern.
How could any year be worse than the current one, in which more Americans are out of work than in the Great Depression, and more people are needlessly dying than in several of America’s wars combined?
How could the domestic order seem more frayed and failing than it has in the past week—when the filmed record of a white Minneapolis police officer calmly killing a black man, George Floyd, as other officers just as calmly looked on, led naturally to protests? Protests in some cities decayed into looting or destruction. Then in many cities, police and troopers kitted out as if for Baghdad circa 2003 widened the violence and hastened the decay with strong-arm tactics sure to generate new protests.
Most of the objects of police roundups have been civilians. But in a rapidly expanding list of cities—first Minneapolis, then Louisville, Seattle, Detroit, and elsewhere—reporters appeared to be singled out by police as targets, rather than caught up by accident. In Minneapolis, CNN’s Omar Jimenez was arrested while in the middle of a broadcast to a live national audience. Also in Minneapolis, according to Molly Hennessey-Fiske of the Los Angeles Times, Minnesota State Patrol members approached a group of a dozen reporters, all bearing credentials and yelling to identify themselves as press, and “fired tear gas … at point-blank range.” In Louisville, Kaitlin Rust, a reporter with WAVE 3, an NBC affiliate, yelled on camera, “I’m getting shot!” as her cameraman, James Dobson, filmed an officer taking careful aim and firing a pepper-ball gun directly at them. In Detroit, the reporter JC Reindl of the Free Press was pepper-sprayed in the face, even as he held up his press badge. The examples keep piling up.
According to a careful study by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Donald Trump started referring to the press as “the enemy of the people” about three years ago. It’s a vile term, with a dangerous and dehumanizing history, used during the French and Russian Revolutions, among other times, to place people beyond the pale. It’s vilest and most dangerous of all when used by people in power, while attacks are going on. Those are exactly the circumstances in which Trump used it again yesterday afternoon, in yet another tweet.
All of this is bad, and getting worse. How does it compare with the distant past of 1968? Naturally, there is no objective comparison of suffering or confusion. Fear, loss, dislocation, despair are real enough to people who encounter them, no matter what happened to someone else at some other time.
But here is what anyone around at that time will remember about 1968: The assassinations. The foreign warfare. The domestic carnage and bloodshed. The political chaos and division. The way that parts of the United States have seemed in the past week, in reaction to injustices, is the way much of the U.S. seemed day after day. I think I can remember every week of that eventful year.
The assassinations: I fear even to mention this, but America is fortunate that high-profile political murders have not been turning points in its recent political history, as they were through too much of the past century.
In April of 1968, one of the greatest leaders of America’s greatest moral struggle, Martin Luther King Jr., was shot dead in Memphis—at age 39. He was a more controversial figure at the time than is convenient to remember: Controversial among many white people as an “uppity” black man. (I remember, from very conservative elders in my conservative hometown, sarcastic references to “Dr. Martin Luther Nobel” after his winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.) Controversial even among Democrats in the year before his death, as he expanded what had been a racial-justice movement into a larger campaign against the war in Vietnam and for economic justice at home. His killing was a central event in American history—but only one of many traumas of that tumultuous year.
Two months later, Robert F. Kennedy was shot dead in Los Angeles, after winning the Democratic primary in California and becoming the leader in the race for the nomination and perhaps the presidency. No one can know how the “what if” scenarios would have played out. But perhaps if he had not been shot, there would have been no Nixon presidency, and no further five-plus years of warfare in Vietnam, and no four Nixon appointees to the Supreme Court and … We will not know. This was less than five years after American history was transformed by Lee Harvey Oswald, as it had been, a century before, by John Wilkes Booth. Politically motivated shootings were so numerous in those days—Malcolm X was killed in 1965, the American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell in 1967; later George Wallace was shot and paralyzed, in 1972—that whenever you heard “breaking news” about a politician on a newscast, you felt a split-second dread of what that news might be.
The foreign warfare: American combat in Vietnam had been under way for several years by that point. But 1968 is when it came to a disastrous peak. Draft calls ramped up. So did casualties. I was 18, and in my second year of college, as the year began. My public-high-school classmates were ages 18 through 20. Many of them had been drafted or had enlisted. Several of them had already been killed by the start of the year, and more would be by its end. On average through 1968, nearly 50 American servicemen died in combat in Vietnam every day—plus many more Vietnamese.
In early February, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces launched their Tet Offensive. Military historians might eventually have judged this a Pyrrhic victory for the anti-U.S. forces, from a strictly military perspective (as some have argued), but at the time, it had a huge effect in underscoring the futility of the American effort. Late in February, Walter Cronkite of CBS News, an authoritative figure for whom there is no counterpart now (imagine, perhaps, a combination of Oprah, Anthony Fauci, Tom Hanks, and Michelle Obama), delivered a downbeat newscast arguing that the military cause in Vietnam was lost. Nonetheless, U.S. soldiers fought and died there for another seven years. In March 1968, American troops committed what became the most notorious mass slaughter of civilians of that war, the massacre at My Lai. The fighting and killing went on and on.
So much time has passed that it is almost impossible now to convey how different it was, then, to have a military draft. Suppose you don’t like the president of the moment, or America’s war of the moment. Or suppose you were against the idea of armed conflict in general. Until the shift to the “volunteer army” in the early 1970s, which has had its own paradoxical set of consequences (as I have argued previously), you still would have faced the possibility of being drafted and having to fight, and potentially having to kill or be killed, in those wars.
It was different from now, and worse.
The domestic carnage: Donald Trump spoke, in his unspeakable inaugural address, about “American carnage.” Thus he prophetically began his time in office by profaning the setting from which all his predecessors had invoked American potential and American hope. Under his auspices we have seen a new kind of carnage recently.
In 1968, many American cities were literally in flames, and on a much broader scale than what we have seen in this past week. In early February of that year, three black Americans were killed and two dozen more were wounded, by highway patrolmen and police in the “Orangeburg massacre” in South Carolina, after a desegregation protest. After the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., protests and then violent uprisings broke out coast to coast, in more than 100 U.S. cities. (On the day King was killed, my father happened to be visiting me, on a business trip to Boston from California, during my spring break in college. We went into a restaurant for dinner, not knowing what had happened. When we came out, the city had erupted.) Some of the now-most-stylish neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., were occupied by armed troops of the National Guard. I spent June through September of 1968 in Alabama and Mississippi, working for a civil-rights newspaper called The Southern Courier. In the evenings, I would listen to radio shows or watch TV about disruptions in the rest of the country—including the “police riot” in Chicago at the time of the Democratic convention that summer. It went on.
The political chaos: In early March of 1968, Eugene McCarthy—then a Democratic senator from Minnesota, and an opponent of the Vietnam War—received a surprising 42 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, versus only 49 percent for the incumbent president, Lyndon B. Johnson.This was the same LBJ who had won the largest-ever share of the popular vote against Barry Goldwater four years earlier, and had seemed to have such sun-king dominance that opponents of the war such as Bobby Kennedy had not dreamed of challenging him for reelection. After that demonstration of Johnson’s vulnerability, Kennedy entered the race in mid-March—and at the end of the month, astonishing everyone, Johnson announced that he would not run for reelection. That was 52 years ago: I was a teenager then, and I am a senior citizen now, but for me nothing has ever matched the dumbfounding surprise of hearing Johnson come to the end of his speech about problems in Vietnam and utter these two simple sentences:
I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office—the presidency of your country.
Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.
To try to approximate the surprise: Imagine turning on a standard Trump rant-speech these days, and hearing something similar at the end. Imagine, also, a leader like Johnson who had spent his entire life thinking about wielding power—and who decided, in the nation’s interest, to give it up.
Then on through the campaign, and the assassinations—both King’s and Kennedy’s came after LBJ’s announcement—and the nomination of Hubert Humphrey, and the return and rise of Richard Nixon, and a hundred other convolutions and tragedies along the way. Through that fall, the most-intrusive-ever case of foreign interference in a U.S. election occurred, although it was covered up at the time. (In brief: Richard Nixon’s campaign had back-channel connections with the South Vietnamese government, and urged it to go slow in negotiations to end the war, in hopes of better terms if it helped Nixon win.)
On Election Day, Nixon carried 32 states and 301 electoral votes, beginning a long stretch of Republican dominance of the White House (and thus the Supreme Court). The GOP won five of the six presidential races in that period—two by Nixon, two by Ronald Reagan, and one by the first George Bush, losing only to Jimmy Carter in 1976. In that 1968 race, Humphrey carried just 13 states, with 191 electoral votes. The segregationist former Democrat George Wallace, who had been governor of Alabama, took 46 electoral votes from five states in the Deep South: Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
I was on the staff of my college newspaper during the election that fall, and I remember the editorial-board debates about whom to endorse. Humphrey, as a defense against Nixon? Nixon, to punish Humphrey for his support of the Vietnam War? Even Wallace, to “intensify the contradictions” and clarify the need for deeper change? I was too young to vote in that election—the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18, was still several years in the future—and I can’t even remember how that debate turned out. I remember going to see Nixon give an angry speech in downtown Boston, not long before the election, and thinking: He will probably win. And he did.
It was a bad, bitter time. The economy was on the upswing then, in contrast to the present collapse. But so much else was going wrong that when a pandemic occurred—a deadly H3N2 influenza wave known colloquially as the Hong Kong flu—it barely commanded popular or political attention. The country seemed to be on fire, and Richard Nixon had just taken command.
In some ways, the comparison between 1968 and 2020 might make Americans today feel better, or at least consoled on the basis that things have been terrible before.
But here are two implications that cut the other way.
First, everyone contending for power in American politics in those days was competent. They all had experienced governing. And most of them—even, arguably, George Wallace, running as a proto-Trump under the banner of the American Independent Party—recognized that a leader’s duty was supposed to include representing the American public as a whole.
Each of them had, as all powerful figures do, his vanities and excesses and blind spots, plus points of corruption. Wallace, in his flagrant and pugnacious way, and Nixon, with his smarm, preyed upon American prejudices and resentments. But all of them recognized what they were expected to say. For Johnson, this was obvious, as with his “We shall overcome!” speech. For Humphrey, whose breakthrough in politics was as a young, firebrand pro-civil-rights mayor of, yes, Minneapolis in the 1940s, the pain of being lumbered with defense of the Vietnam War was visible every day.
Nixon’s breakthrough had been as a GOP dirty-tricks hit man, and he remained a master of the destructive, divisive dog whistle. But—and this is the contrast with today—he had a broader range in his register. If you read his 1968 acceptance speech at the Republican convention, and contrast it with Donald Trump’s “I alone can fix it” monstrosity from the 2016 convention in Cleveland, you will see the difference. Trump knows only how to talk about himself, and his critics. Nixon knew how to at least feign a bring us together message, as a patina on top of relentless us versus them coding. For instance: After the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, it was Trump himself who tweeted about “thugs” and “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Nixon would not say things so crude himself. (Seriously, that convention speech is worth reading closely, 52 years later. I won’t go into it now, but this was a person who knew what he was saying, and doing.)
Agree with him or not—and mostly I didn’t—Richard Nixon was a substantial figure, as were, in their starkly different ways, other members of that year’s cast, from Johnson and Humphrey to Kennedy, McCarthy, and even Wallace. The American choice in the turmoil of 1968 was among competent exponents of different outlooks. There was no chance that the White House would end up in the hands of a clown.
The second fact worth reflecting on is a similarity between 1968 and the present. Nixon knew that the specter of disorder—especially disorderly conduct by black Americans, face-to-face with police—was one of his strongest weapons. He said as much in his convention speech:
As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame.
We hear sirens in the night …
We see Americans hating each other; fighting each other; killing each other at home.
And as we see and hear these things, millions of Americans cry out in anguish.
Did we come all this way for this?
Did American boys die in Normandy, and Korea, and in Valley Forge for this?
When people feel afraid, they want someone who claims to be strong. Law-and-order candidates rise when confidence in regular order ebbs. Richard Nixon had much more going for him in 1968 than Donald Trump does in 2020—most of all that Nixon, as an outsider, could campaign on everything that was wrong with the country, while Trump, as the incumbent, must defend his management and record, which includes record unemployment. But protests and fear of disorder—especially fear of angry black people in disorder—drew people to Nixon as the law-and-order candidate in 1968, and he clearly knew that.
Donald Trump could not put that point as carefully as Nixon, but he must also sense that backlash against disorder, from people he has classified as the other and the enemy, is his main—indeed, his only—electoral hope. Trump promised in that inaugural address that “American carnage stops right here, right now.” Now, crassly, he seems to be trying to make it worse.