Nineteen Sixty-Eight
By Jules Witcover

From Gadfly August 1998


Charles Dickens' opening line in A Tale of Two Cities, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," does not quite apply to the year 1968.

It hardly could be called the best of times for anyone except the most anarchic among us who might have revelled in the chaos that afflicted the nation in that tumultuous twelve-month period thirty years ago.

But the events of 1968—from the Tet Offensive in Vietnam that convinced millions of Americans that their country was on a hopeless treadmill in Southeast Asia, to the effective presidential abdication of Lyndon Johnson, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the election of Richard M. Nixon and Spiro T. Agnew—did put the country on a course that in time gave conservatives due cause to celebrate.

The turmoil of 1968 created a climate of despair and frustration on which the basically untrusted and minimally liked Nixon and his newly discovered political clone Agnew effectively played to fashion their law-and-order election. A key element in their success was their demonization of liberalism in general and the Democratic Party in particular that has endured to the present time. Although Nixon never rose above the 43 percent voter support in the polls that he had when he entered the presidential race in January of 1968—he finished with 43.4 percent of the popular vote to 42.7 percent for Democratic nominee Hubert H. Humphrey—it was enough in a contest in which independent rabble-rouser George C. Wallace, tapping into the same public unrest, siphoned off 13.5 percent.

Thus the Republican Party, only four years after its obituary was being read in the wake of Johnson's landslide victory over Sen. Barry Goldwater, the darling of a budding conservative movement, was already resurrected. And while Nixon the cold-eyed pragmatist certainly was not a conservative of the Goldwater mold, his election and reelection in 1972 did contribute to the emergence in national politics of the new icon of conservatism, Ronald Reagan, and to the eventual primacy of the conservative movement.

So it can be reasonably argued that if the stormy events of 1968 were not precisely the best of times for the right wing of American politics, they clearly were, taken together, major contributors to its rise. The castigation of liberals and Democrats crafted from the 1968 explosions in the streets of America's major cities, and from growing white blue-collar hostility toward blacks and the scruffy and often foul-mouthed protesters against the war, has continued to today.

As for 1968 being the worst of times, it cannot be disputed that it was so perceived for those liberals and for the Democratic Party, and for all those Americans who saw the United States mired in racial, social and economic injustice at home and in a no-win overcommitment of American military forces in Vietnam. That perception is the one that is most commonly recalled in all the retrospectives of 1968 that have been airing on television and in various forums this year. But it should be remembered that what was an historic downer for opponents of the war in Vietnam and LBJ's pursuit of it, and for the causes of racial and social equality as espoused by King and Kennedy, was a helpful if overly costly turning point in the national direction as seen, at least in retrospect, by many leading conservatives.

So what was this schizophrenic 1968 all about? For good or ill, it was the tearing apart of the American society in the realms of politics, class, racial civility and sexual, cultural and generational attitudes, all shattered by the domestic conflicts over the Vietnam war and new directions in the civil rights struggle.

The turmoil actually began in 1967, with deep unrest among liberals in the Democratic Party over the leadership of President Johnson at home and abroad. His escalating commitment to the war in Vietnam was on a collision course with his ambitious Great Society agenda for social and economic betterment of the nation's disadvantaged. Yet he insisted, in the popular rendering, that the country could afford both "guns and butter." The result was animosity among many whites who had supported black America's campaign for equal rights but saw that campaign's turn to a fight for jobs and wages as threatening to their own economic well-being.

Two American political leaders, King and Kennedy, were in the forefront of the opposition to the war and at the same time of the advocacy of policies to relieve the plight of poor Americans, both urban and rural. King had already begun preaching about the link between the two causes. In a sermon at Riverside Church in New York in April 1967, he had noted "that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. The Great Society," he said, "has been shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam."

King notably made his observation not in terms of race but of economic class, but it was a fact that more black Americans were fighting and dying in Vietnam than were other Americans. Kennedy at this time was also coming to this realization and including it in his increasingly outspoken remarks about the course of American participation in the war.

As early as March of 1967, liberal Democrats were talking about running someone against Johnson in the 1968 presidential primaries. Two young University of North Carolina and National Student Association alumni, Allard Lowenstein and Curtis Gans, began shopping around for a candidate to take on LBJ. Their obvious target was Kennedy, whose ill feelings toward Johnson, on both personal and policy grounds, were well known. But Kennedy feared a challenge would be fruitless, would only split the Democratic Party and lead to election of the despised Nixon and—equally important in his mind—would be widely dismissed as merely a personal vendetta. So he declined.

The search finally settled, with disappointment, on Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, little known nationally but a man equally disturbed as Kennedy about the Vietnam war and Johnson's stewardship. His declaration of candidacy on November 30, 1967, noting "growing evidence of a deepening moral crisis in America," provided the framework for all that was to happen in 1968.

In the Republican Party, Nixon was attempting a comeback after his defeats for president in 1960 and for governor of California in 1962, after which he had made his memorable promise that "you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore." His only Republican challenger at the start of 1968 was former Governor George Romney of Michigan. In short order former Governor George C. Wallace of Alabama also entered the race as an independent, essentially working the same law-and-order side of the street on which Nixon trod.

The first milestone of 1968 occurred on January 30, when nearly 70,000 enemy forces launched vicious attacks on 36 provincial capitals and five major cities, and the next day the American embassy in Saigon itself was assaulted and held for several hours. The offensive was timed for Tet, a major religious holiday, and while it is argued by some military men to this day that enemy casualties were so great as to constitute a major defeat for the North Vietnamese and indigenous Viet Cong, the psychological impact in the United States was devastating. Optimistic talk from American military and political leaders was widely dismissed now as false, and both pessimism and anger set in on the home front.

McCarthy, chiding LBJ for "hollow claims of progress and victories" and backed by thousands of idealistic college students seizing on his longshot candidacy as their best vehicle for extricating the country from the war, jolted the political world on March 12 by nearly upsetting the sitting president in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. He lost to absentee candidate Johnson by only 7.2 percent, and when Republican write-in votes for McCarthy were included, he trailed LBJ by a mere 230 votes. On the Republican side, Nixon easily disposed of Romney, who actually had bowed out before the primary voting.

One immediate result of McCarthy's strong showing was Kennedy's decision to join the fight for the Democratic nomination. Informed political soundings a week before the voting in New Hampshire convinced Kennedy that LBJ was already dividing their party, enabling him to rationalize that a candidacy of his own would not be responsible for the split. In deference to McCarthy's impending strong showing—and realizing announcing his candidacy before the primary voting would only add to his longtime reputation as "ruthless"—Kennedy did not announce until the following Saturday. His entry into the race fanned Johnson's worst fears that once again his political fortunes would be detoured by a Kennedy, as they were when John F. Kennedy defeated him for the party's presidential nomination in 1960.

Kennedy's candidacy, which started like a political wildfire as he was released from all his personal and political reservations and set out to restore the Kennedy version of the mythical Camelot, came too late for him to enter the next presidential primary in Wisconsin. But McCarthy sailed into that contest a popular hero among liberals and other anti-Johnson, anti-war Democrats. He was on the verge of a clear-cut victory over the incumbent president when LBJ, on the night of March 31, shocked the nation by announcing, because he was determined not to let political interest detract from his search for Vietnam, that "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president." Suddenly both McCarthy and Kennedy were stripped of their prime campaign target and rationale for running. McCarthy two days later routed LBJ by 22 percent in the Wisconsin primary, with the first showdown between the two survivors just ahead in Indiana in early May.

Only four days after Johnson's political bombshell, the nation was rocked again. King, leading a strike of sanitation workers in Memphis, was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of his room in the Lorraine Motel. A single rifle bullet to the head killed him, triggering at the same time bloody and fiery riots in at least a dozen major American cities and more than a hundred smaller cities and towns. The eventual toll was 46 deaths and hundreds more injured. On April 5, the day after the slaying, Johnson called out 4,000 federal troops to quell the rioting in Washington and more than 20,000 Army and 34,000 National Guardsmen were ordered to anti-riot duty across the country.

One who publicly mourned King's death only hours after the deed was Robert Kennedy, who broke the news to an unsuspecting crowd in a black neighborhood in Indianapolis. "For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people," he said, "I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man." Kennedy pleaded with the crowd not to resort to violence, and his calming remarks were effective. Barely six weeks later, however, a similar act of violence was also to be delivered against him.

One of the other cities that felt the lash of black outrage and frustration over King's assassination was Baltimore, where black power advocates stirred residents to arson and looting. The incensed governor of Maryland, Republican Spiro Agnew, castigated the city's moderate black leadership for not interceding with greater effort and determination. It was a performance that caught the eye of Nixon, with a profound impact eventually on Agnew's political future.

Prior to this time Agnew had conducted a sort of one-man draft campaign for a reluctant Republican Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York, who had been backing Romney against Nixon. After Nixon drove Romney from the race in New Hampshire, Agnew and others mounted pressure on Rockefeller. Finally, Rockefeller said he would reconsider. Agnew was buoyant, but was soon crushed when Rockefeller again declined to run, without notifying the Maryland governor. Agnew was irate, and was recruited on the rebound into the Nixon camp. By the time Rockefeller reconsidered once again and this time entered the race, Agnew was gone.

Meanwhile, America's college campuses were aflame, literally or figuratively, against not only the Vietnam war but also what many students saw as undemocratic university policies, mirroring with campus demonstrations student outbreaks that were occurring in West Germany, France and other hotbeds of protest. Among the most serious was at Columbia in New York, where the university president, Grayson Kirk, on April 12 dismissed the behavior as anarchy.

"Our young people," he said, "in disturbing numbers appear to reject all forms of authority, from whatever source derived, and they have taken refuge in a turbulent and inchoate nihilism whose sole objectives are destructive. I know of no time in our history when the gap between the generations has been wider or more potentially dangerous." The student leaders answered with invective and finally New York police were called in to quell the upheaval, but not before it had forced a premature end to the spring semester.

Such disturbances were ready ammunition for Nixon as he breezed along in uncontested Republican primaries. He called the violence at Columbia "the first major skirmish in a revolutionary struggle to seize the universities of this country and transform them into sanctuaries for radicals and vehicles for revolutionary political and social goals." Columbia authorities, he said, should "rid the campus now [of its] anarchic students." As he spoke, more campus protests erupted—at Princeton, the University of Chicago, Northwestern, Southern Illinois, San Francisco State and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, a Poor People's March on Washington that had been planned by Dr. King continued to roll into the nation's capital, numbering about 1,500 marchers encamped in what was called Resurrection City. Rains pummeled the marchers and mired them in mud. Protest marches to government buildings led by Jesse Jackson and others were turned away, heightening outspoken anger among the marchers—and giving Nixon even more grounds to declare that the country needed a stronger hand to deal with troublemakers.

On April 27, Vice President Humphrey entered the race as the Democratic party establishment candidate, picking up much of Johnson's old support but also the political albatross of LBJ's increasingly unpopular Vietnam war policies. Humphrey, intimidated by Johnson and loyal to the man who had put him a heartbeat away from the presidency in 1964, turned a deaf ear to advisers who urged him to break with Johnson by calling for a hiatus in the bombing of North Vietnam, to get stalemated peace talks resumed.

Kennedy's highly emotional campaign surged onward, and in the Indiana primary on May 7 he defeated a stand-in for Humphrey, Gov. Roger Branigin, and McCarthy. He beat McCarthy again in Nebraska, easily, and appeared headed for a knockout blow against the Minnesotan in the next major primary, in Oregon, two weeks later. Humphrey meanwhile was eschewing the competitive primaries and accumulating delegates by picking up commitments, some of them half-hearted but dutiful, from Democratic establishment figures in most of the states.

In both Indiana and Nebraska, Kennedy had benefited not only from his family name but also from the presence of a coalition of white blue-collar and black voters who responded strongly to his economic message. But in Oregon he encountered a much more comfortable middle-class, suburban constituency with whom that message did not resonate. Also, Oregon Democrats had been among the early critics of the war in Vietnam, and McCarthy's willingness to take on the fight won him staunch supporters who withstood the Kennedy allure. As a result, Kennedy suffered his family's first defeat at the polls as the campaign moved to California for the final major primary, on June 4.

There, Kennedy once again found his black and blue-collar constituency, along with large numbers of supportive Latino voters. Frenetic street campaigning restored his spirits and his campaign, and on election night he was declared the winner over McCarthy, although by a margin smaller than he had hoped for. In a rousing victory speech in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Kennedy praised McCarthy but asked his supporters to join him "not for myself but for the cause and the ideas which moved you to begin this great popular movement." Although McCarthy was still in the race, Kennedy rather dismissively expressed the hope that Humphrey would join him in a dialogue or debate "on what direction we want to go in" at home and in Vietnam. Then it was, as he said, "on to Chicago, and let's win there."

The crowd's cheers were in his ears as he moved off the platform and into the kitchen area behind the ballroom, where an anti-Israel Palestinian refugee named Sirhan Sirhan waited holding a hidden handgun. He fired rapidly at point-blank range, also hitting five others, all of whom recovered. Kennedy, after desperate surgery, died the next day. This time there was no rioting in the streets; only shock and dismay, as the life of the second Kennedy brother had been snuffed out in the same way as the first.

On the day Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Scotland Yard detectives at Heathrow Airport outside London climaxed a two-month manhunt with the seizing and arrest of James Earl Ray, charged with the murder of Dr. King. Nearly a year later he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison, but conspiracy theorists, joined by the King family, have continued to today to insist that Ray did not act alone. As for Sirhan, he was also convicted of murder and the jury voted for the death penalty, but the sentence was changed to life imprisonment when the state Supreme Court outlawed capital punishment. All requests for parole have been denied.

At the time of his death, Kennedy still was considered a longshot to capture the nomination. Humphrey was closing in on a majority of the convention delegates, if indeed he did not already have them. But as the Johnson candidate with the Vietnam war hung around his neck, there were great doubts within the party about his ability to beat Nixon. Kennedy had planned to campaign aggressively in New York and elsewhere to demonstrate Humphrey's weakness in the hope of prying delegates from him. As matters turned out, McCarthy was not much of a magnet, nor did he make any serious effort to gain delegate strength after his loss to Kennedy in California and Kennedy's death.

But the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was a pitched battle nonetheless—on the convention floor between supporters of a strong anti-war platform plank and pro-Humphrey defenders of the status quo, and in the streets of the city between anti-war and anti-Johnson protesters and the Chicago police. Humphrey, with LBJ looking menacingly over his shoulder from his ranch in Texas, failed in attempts to get Johnson to ease his Vietnam policies. The anti-war plank was defeated and the protesters were beaten with nightsticks and hauled off in ugly scenes captured by television cameras that were then shown in the convention hall and across the country.

As anti-war demonstrators stood outside the Democratic headquarters hotel and chanted, "Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids have you killed today?" police fired tear gas into the crowds and rousted young college supporters of McCarthy from their hotel rooms and beds, slugging some and petrifying others.

The scenes outside the hall cast a pall over the convention, overshadowing the hapless Humphrey's moment of political triumph and further contributing to Nixon's argument that the country was out of control under Democratic leadership. This was especially so when a blue-ribbon review commission dubbed the Chicago disturbances a "police riot."

All this time, Nixon continued to sail toward nomination at his own party's convention, unimpeded by the eleventh-hour effort by Rockefeller to detour him. Rockefeller spent millions of dollars in television ads and personal campaigning in key states, in an attempt to drive his polling figures high enough to persuade Republican delegates that Nixon would lose in November, and that he was the Republican who could win. The poll numbers, however, failed to make the case and Nixon was easily nominated on the first ballot. His surprise choice of Agnew as his running mate provided the only drama at the convention in Miami.

Meeting the press, Agnew acknowledged that his was not "a household name," but it soon became one as he emerged as a slashing vice-presidential nominee in the style of Nixon himself when he ran with Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. Agnew's attacks on Humphrey gave forewarning of his later performance as political hatchetman as vice president. But in a Republican campaign with law and order as its mantra, his voice was an effective bludgeon of the Democratic opposition.

Into the fall, the presidential campaign played out against a backdrop of continued campus unrest and street protest against the Vietnam war. Humphrey, frozen in his support of LBJ's stay-the-course posture on the war, was unable to win over the timely backing either of McCarthy or his supporters, and his cause seemed hopeless. Finally, on September 30, in a speech in Salt Lake City, Humphrey made a modest break with Johnson on Vietnam, saying he would "be willing to stop the bombing of North Vietnam as an acceptable risk for peace" but would resume "if the government of North Vietnam were to show bad faith." Johnson was furious, but Humphrey began to show signs of upward movement thereafter.

In the critical month of October, both Nixon and Wallace continued to hammer at the law-and-order theme in rallies and television ads. Nixon was blunt. "The first civil right of every American," he said in one ad showing scenes of street violence, "is to be free from domestic violence. So I pledge to you, we will have order in the United States." A Wallace ad showed a woman walking down a dark street as a street lamp was smashed, with Wallace saying, "As president, I shall help make it possible for you and your families to walk the streets of our cities in safety."

Nixon, however, rightly regarded Wallace more as a menace to his own chances than as an ally. He feared that Wallace might peel off enough of the same law-and-order vote he was seeking to enable Humphrey to squeak through or deny either of them an electoral-college majority, and thus throw the election into the Democratic-led House of Representatives, where he likely would lose. Nixon charged Wallace was waging "a calculated campaign to divide this nation, to deliberately inflame the fears, frustrations and prejudices of our people, to bring this nation to the brink of broad-scale disorder." He called Wallace "the creature of the most reactionary underground forces in American life."

At the same time, Nixon refused to debate Humphrey and at one point proposed that he and Humphrey agree that the winner of the popular vote be declared elected—a transparent gambit against the possibility of the election going to the House that Humphrey quickly dismissed.

Nixon not only declined to debate Humphrey; he kept himself carefully insulated from the press corps that traveled with him to avoid questions he did not want to answer. Foremost among them was how he would, as he had promised, end the war in Vietnam. Throughout, he campaigned in a staff-constructed cocoon, making limited and always carefully crafted appearances. In 1960 against John Kennedy, he had run himself ragged fulfilling a pledge to campaign in all fifty states; this time he was marshalling his strength. Meanwhile, Humphrey continued to campaign frenetically from dawn to midnight. Television producers in New York got only the slick Nixon performances to air; from the Humphrey campaign they got warts and all, and often selected the more interesting warts to show.

As the campaign approached the final weeks and days, a scenario then known only to the participants evolved that could have changed the outcome of the election, and the series of cataclysmic political events that eventually followed. Johnson was laboring diligently to bring about the resumption of Vietnam peace talks in Paris, stalemated over various disagreements on who would participate and under what conditions. LBJ believed that Humphrey's best chance of being elected, and maybe his only chance, was to get the talks started again with the possible achievement of a breakthrough for peace.

The Nixon campaign was well aware of this possibility and his strategists talked among themselves of a possible "October surprise" by Johnson that would pull Humphrey's chestnuts out of the fire for him at the campaign's eleventh hour. It so happened that a strong Nixon supporter and campaign worker, Anna Chennault, the Chinese-born widow of the late Gen. Claire Chennault, commander of the famed Flying Tigers of World War II, had strong connections with the South Vietnamese regime.

Johnson had her put under surveillance and she was tracked going in and out of the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington in the waning days. Taped phone conversations with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu made by U.S. intelligence agencies convinced Johnson that Chennault was working as a Nixon agent to persuade Saigon that if the South Vietnamese refused to take part in the Paris peace talks, they would get a better deal from Nixon once he took office.

At a critical point, Johnson turned over the material, which he believed confirmed treasonous conduct by Nixon or his strategists, to Humphrey. But Humphrey, according to LBJ White House aide Joseph Califano later, decided not to make it public, partly because the intelligence sources it came from could not be revealed, because Humphrey couldn't be sure Nixon was directly involved, and because he feared the disclosure might backfire against him.

"Johnson was furious," Califano wrote in his book, The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, "thinking it was 'the dumbest thing in the world not to do it.' Humphrey thought it would be 'terrible to do that sort of thing' when he wasn't absolutely sure of the facts," Califano wrote. "Johnson thought it would be worse to have a president so consumed with power that he would betray the country's national security interests, undermine its foreign policy and endanger the lives of its young soldiers to win the office."

According to Humphrey aide Ted Van Dyk, Humphrey complained that "the China lobby is going to deny me the presidency," but still he balked at using the information. On the final weekend, the South Vietnamese leaders, after first agreeing to join the peace talks and sending a rush of euphoria through the Humphrey camp, did in fact suddenly pull out of the talks, denying Humphrey the "October surprise" that could have turned the election in his favor. In the razor-thin margin by which Nixon was elected, such a disclosure could well have reversed the outcome.

Johnson wrote in his memoir, The Vantage Point, that he was convinced that Humphrey's failure to use the intelligence he had given him "cost Hubert Humphrey the presidency, especially since a shift of only a few hundred thousand votes would have made him the winner. I am certain that the outcome would have been different if the Paris peace talks had been in progress on Election Day."

Humphrey himself in his own book, The Education of a Public Man, quoted from notes he had made in his diary on election day as he awaited the results of the election: "I wonder if I should have blown the whistle on Anna Chennault and Nixon. He must have known about her call to Thieu. I wish I could have been sure. Damn Thieu. Dragging his feet this past weekend hurt us. I wonder if that call did it. If Nixon knew. Maybe I should have blasted them anyway."

For Johnson's part, Califano wrote later, Humphrey's refusal to use the information he passed on to him "became the occasion of a lasting rift" between Johnson and Humphrey. That refusal, Califano said in a later interview, "really tore it. Johnson thought Hubert had no balls, no spine, no toughness."

And so Nixon and Agnew were elected and the American role in the Vietnam war went on. Violence abroad and at home continued; just four days after Nixon's election, Secret Service agents and New York police swooped down on three men in Brooklyn, a naturalized citizen from Yemen and his two sons, and arrested them on charges of plotting to assassinate the President-elect. Although they were indicted, the informant's credibility was rated weak and the men were first freed on bail and later acquitted of all but a minor weapons charge. But the atmosphere of the year was by now sufficiently poisonous to produce such police activity.

In Detroit, a group of Yippies was held in a bombing; a warrant was issued in California for Black Panther official Eldridge Cleaver for parole violation; more demonstrations and sit-ins closed down San Francisco State; nine draft-record burners were found guilty in Baltimore; Black Panthers staged another shoot-out with police. And in Vietnam, fighting intensified with violations of the demilitarized zone on both sides and casualties continuing to mount. On November 29, Hanoi radio broadcast an order to Viet Cong troops to launch a new offensive to "utterly destroy" American and South Vietnamese forces.

In December, a Black Panthers headquarters in Newark was firebombed; more campus demonstrations and disturbances broke out at Wisconsin State, NYU, the University of Connecticut, Brown, Pembroke, Cornell, Harvard, Radcliffe and elsewhere. In Chicago, the FBI arrested thirty-two people charged with obtaining illegal draft deferments by using false identification with the Illinois National Guard. And so it went. The FBI reported in mid-December that nationally reported crime in the first nine months of 1968 had gone up 19 percent over the corresponding period in 1967, with violent crime up 21 percent. By mid-December also, American combat deaths in Vietnam had reached 30,000.

A rare bright spot came on December 21, when the Apollo 8 spacecraft blasted off, bearing three astronauts on the first orbit of the moon, which they accomplished on Christmas Eve, just as a holiday truce was being observed in Vietnam. But three days later, as the space ship returned home safely, the American command in Saigon reported that the truce had been violated by 140 enemy engagements, forty-seven of them resulting in casualties. So 1968 ended as it had begun—in violence and, for many, a widespread sense of hopelessness in spite of the election of a new president.

For many others, however, Nixon's election brought hope and even expectation that his firm words about restoring law and order would produce a more civil society at home, and that his unspecific promise to end the war in Vietnam also would be realized in the year ahead. Instead, tensions rose even higher as Agnew ranted against "radical liberals," more and larger anti-war demonstrations were conducted and Nixon sent American troops into Cambodia in 1970, firing up the campuses again, notably at Kent State, where trigger-happy National Guardsmen fired on crowds of students, killing four of them.

Meanwhile, however, a voice from the failed Goldwater campaign of 1964 was being heard increasingly in the land. Ronald Reagan, now governor of California, was emerging as the darling of a resuscitated conservative movement that, with a major helping hand from Nixon, was reaping the political rewards of the public alienation against the street excesses of 1968.

In 1974, however, Nixon's disastrous Watergate scandal drove him from office, giving Democrat Jimmy Carter a temporary lease on the White House in 1976. But by the time he sought reelection in 1980, Reagan and conservatism had moved commandingly onto the scene. The demonization of liberalism and the Democratic Party, facilitated by the turmoil of 1968 that offended a whole generation of Americans, became an effective tool in Reagan's election and eventually in the takeover of Congress by the Republicans for the first time in 40 years in 1994.

Not all of this, certainly, could be attributed to the mayhem in the streets of 1968. But it clearly did feed the public yearning for domestic order and security that was a core value of the conservative movement, and of Reagan himself. If 1968 itself was not the best of times for that movement, it did help foster the public attitudes on which first Nixon and then Reagan fashioned much of their political success.

As for the liberals and the Democratic Party generally, there is less room for argument that 1968 was not the worst of times. The year saw a turning to the political process by critics of domestic conditions and conduct of the war, college students particularly, to bring about change, and the failure of that process to achieve their goals. In their efforts, the Democratic Party was torn asunder, the Vietnam war only intensified, and two of liberalism's most prominent and charismatic leaders—King and Kennedy—were snatched away in violent acts that seemed especially to underscore a national malaise.

Many of the young reformers continued their efforts, but many also gave up on the political process and dropped out in despair. For them, the dream of a more peaceful and equitable society was smashed by the events of 1968. At the same time, those others of more conservative bent who thought they had seen the fire of their own political dreams thoroughly doused in the Goldwater debacle of four years earlier suddenly saw a stirring in the ashes.

In any event, 1968 left in its wake an intriguing array of speculations. What if King and Kennedy had lived? Would the cause of civil rights have remained on a more nonviolent path against the pressures of the black power movement? Would Kennedy have been nominated and elected? Would American participation in the Vietnam war have ended more quickly? What if Kennedy had supported McCarthy, thus unifying the anti-war vote, rather than running against him and splitting that vote? What if McCarthy had endorsed Humphrey earlier and possibly provided him the narrow margin he needed to beat Nixon? And what if Humphrey had used the information Johnson gave him to charge Nixon with sabotaging the Vietnam peace talks in the campaign's final hours?

All such conjecture is, to be sure, idle. In any event, as 1968 actually did play out, it was a year not many Americans would want to go through again, whether as liberals and Democrats whose political hopes and dreams were smashed, or as Republicans and conservatives who survived and went on toward the realization of theirs.