Dream of Hope, Nightmare of Despair

A Review of 1968 in America: Music, Politics, Chaos, Counterculture, and the Shaping of a Generation
by Charles Kaiser

Author Biography

Charles Kaiser was born in 1950 in Washington D.C. He attended Columbia University. He was the former media editor of Newsweek and was also a reporter for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He has taught journalism at Columbia and Princeton Universities. Since 1968 he has lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, New York City.

Sex, drugs, and rock and roll ruled the youth of the sixties. While experiencing new sexual morals and freedoms, experimenting with drugs such as LSD, and hearing the original sounds of the Beatles, this generation created a counterculture unlike anything ever before. In contrast with the previous decade, the sixties was accentuated by a strong and vocal population of youths. In 1968, Americans lived through the “most turbulent twelve months of the postwar period.”1 Charles Kaiser explores some of the greatest tragedies of this year in his book, 1968 In America: Music, Politics, Chaos, Counterculture, and the Shaping of a Generation. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. added to the hardship of the Vietnam War. Overwhelmed by the tragic events of 1968, youths turned to music to protest government choices and overcome sorrow. Songs produced by rock and roll artists of the generation “kept us [the youth of the sixties] alive, even a little hopeful, through the most terrifying year of the decade.”2 In a year stained with terror, the youths of America created a counterculture that provided them with the courage to survive.

The sixties was a time of rebellion against the established norm, an introduction to new ideas, and a movement of nonconformity. In this time of uncertainty and war, many “Americans wondered out loud whether their country might disintegrate.”3 However, Kaiser begins his book with an inspirational event: Kennedy’s election in 1960 that broke the one-hundred-seventy-one-year-old barrier of prejudice against Catholics in America. His administration provided a sense of stability and Americans looked up to the young President’s administration. After Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, his Vice President, Lyndon B. Johnson, took over. In chapter one, Kaiser discusses how Johnson was haunted by the ghost of Kennedy and was disliked by the public. When America entered the Vietnam War, “very few Washingtonians anticipated the breadth of warfare that would break out all over America in 1968.”4 In 1968, protests against the war and for the civil rights of African Americans broke out all over the nation. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus and inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. to start a bus boycott. The example of black student protests in the South, including sit-ins, influenced white students to voice their concerns about the government. As the unrest in the nation grew, Curtis Gans and Allard Lowenstein toured the country, speaking out against Johnson. The fears of doves like these increased in March 1966 when the Senate voted against repealing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave Johnson practically unlimited power in Vietnam. Hence, Gans and Lowenstein created the “Dump Johnson” movement and chose Gene McCarthy as their presidential candidate. In chapters two and three, Kaiser illustrates how McCarthy’s campaign began and grew. College students around the nation showed their support for McCarthy by getting “Clean for Gene:” shaving their beards, cutting their hair, and ditching their jeans. Though a dull candidate, McCarthy garnered substantial support. For the first time, people voted for the issue, not the candidate.

As the book continues, Kaiser traces the deepening American involvement in Vietnam. In 1967, the issue of the Vietnam War caused a split among Americans: some wanted a bigger war; others wanted an end to the war. According to chapter four, in 1968, the Vietcong used Tet, a Vietnamese holiday, as a cover-up for an attack on American troops. However, back in the United States, the government insisted that the U.S. was winning. Our “absurd technological advantage never translated into a predictable pattern of success on the battlefield” because ‘“desire,’ [was] the only thing our government was unable to manufacture.”5 Unlike other wars, Vietnam created very little desire to fight. Vietnam was also unique because of the coverage by journalists and television reporters. Events like “Tet broke the monotony for the American television viewer and newspaper reader.”6 Reporters not only covered the war, but also spoke out against it. Meanwhile, McCarthy’s campaign was slowly growing. McCarthy’s young supporters, “the kids,” felt that he “was the ideal person to lead the vanguard of a generation hoping to define itself by living outside as many norms as possible.”7 Kaiser shows how McCarthy was like the easygoing father they had never had; he was a candidate who represented what they wanted. His success was dampened when Robert Kennedy announced he would also be running as an anti-war candidate. On March 31, 1968, Johnson announced that he would not be running again. This was the end of Johnson’s presidency; “no group had played a bigger role in his demise than American youth,” through protests and vocal activism.8 Martin Luther King Jr. also spoke out against the war because the government was spending money that could have been aiding African Americans. However, the speaker’s inspirational words were put to a halt on April 4, 1968 when King was assassinated. Yet even this could not stop the powerful fight for civil rights.

The counterculture of the youth of the sixties was accentuated by the strength to voice opinions. In 1968, “a loud, angry, and minutely scrutinized minority of middle-class kids emulated American Blacks by taking their grievances into the street.”9 Unlike the students of previous decades, the youths of the sixties were not about to sit silently while their government waged an unjust war. Between January and June of 1968, there were 221 college demonstrations. However, the most explosive uprising occurred at Columbia University in New York on April 24, 1968. Students occupied buildings of the school and a police attempt to evacuate them led to a bloody battle. Three days before this uprising, Hubert Humphrey, the vice-president, announced his campaign for presidency. Campaigning for the same issues, McCarthy and Kennedy were in strong competition. After winning a debate against McCarthy, Kennedy won the major state of California. Unfortunately, during his victory speech in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan. Throughout this year of sadness and death, the youths of America survived because of music. Rock and roll “was the transcendent achievement of the counterculture of the sixties, embodying all the virtues, shortcomings, and contradictions of that amorphous engine of change.”10 Kaiser’s focus in chapter nine is rock and roll and its meaning to the young. This genre of music crossed racial and national boundaries and united the young people of the sixties. Young Americans lived under the banner of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” and millions of them “smoked marijuana, tripped on acid, sped through the decade on superfluous amphetamines, dressed wildly, danced violently, and seduced one another assiduously.”11 Musicians expressed their wildest emotions, deepest fears, and overflowing excitement. It was in music that the young found comfort and solace.

In the background of Johnson’s war, the campaign for the presidential candidacy continued to rage on. With Kennedy dead, McCarthy now remained the sole anti-war candidate. McCarthy felt that Kennedy “kind of brought it [assassination] on himself” because of his vocal willingness to sell arms to Israel.12 Meanwhile, the Republicans nominated Richard Nixon. Humphrey shocked American doves with his support for Chicago Mayor Daley’s decision to send in policemen to attack young protesters. Soon, however, Humphrey announced that he supported the end of the bombing of Vietnam. Finally, at the end of October, Johnson ceased attacks on Vietnam and wanted to negotiate for peace. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese rejected the agreement, believing they would get a better deal from Nixon. Kaiser ends his book with the election of Nixon, signifying an end to the terrors of 1968. Since 1968, America has avoided another Vietnam War, citizens have had more power in elections, youths have had a strong voice in the government, and minorities have had the opportunity to fight for their liberties.

1968 in America retells the story of the tumultuous year in America and its influence on Americans. It aims to recreate the intensity of the decade and peer into the tragedies that shaped the year. Charles Kaiser believes that “in this century only the Depression, Pearl Harbor, and the Holocaust have punctured the national psyche as deeply as the dramas of this single year.”13 His work is written to show exactly how this is true. Kaiser’s thesis, that 1968 was one of the worst years of American history, is supported through quotes, events, and historical facts. In his writing, Kaiser assumes that no year was as awful as 1968 and its tragic events. However, his book’s main focus is on how the young were affected by these events. Because he was a college student in 1968, Kaiser writes many events in relation to the way youths reacted to them. This book was published in 1988 because a historian needs at least twenty years to accurately assess a period of time. When Kaiser was writing his book, during the late eighties, Ronald Reagan, a strong conservative, was President. An active liberal, Kaiser focused on the late sixties, a radical time characterized by liberal activism. He probably wrote this book during this time to revisit the liberal era and create a nostalgic look back. He chose to write about 1968 not only because it was a time of great change for the nation, but also because it was a time of great change for him. Kaiser believes that “twenty years later, it may now be possible to start unraveling the mystery of how its traumas and its culture changed us” and thus chose to write his work in the late eighties.14

According to a New York Times book review by Morris Dickstein, Charles Kaiser’s 1968 in America is a “mixture of history, journalism and personal recollection, [which] aims to convey not only what happened during the period but what it felt like at the time.”15 Its strengths lie within the well-chosen interviews and quotes and the extensive coverage of the McCarthy campaign. However, Dickstein believes that periodically, the book’s “personal side gets in the way” and “reads at times like personal therapy.”16 Many times the author’s personal views get in the way of a strong historical outlook. Yet, Publishers Weekly states that Kaiser has taken “a juicy look back, replete with interviews,” thereby giving the reader a glimmer of what it felt like to be young in the sixties.17

1968 was a turbulent year with a plethora of changes in politics, culture, and youth. Kaiser provides the reader with a chance to experience the same intensity, hope, and terror those alive in the sixties felt. His use of quotes and powerful interviews supports his arguments and connects the reader to the past. However, in many places the work gets confusing because it is not written in chronological order. Kaiser skips around and then tries to get the reader to form connections with the past chapter. This leaves the reader somewhat baffled. One refreshing and unique part of the book, however, is the chapter titles, which are inspired by famous rock and roll songs from the sixties. Kaiser also does a decent job of telling the story of “what happened to America in 1968, the most turbulent twelve months of the postwar period.”18 Kaiser focuses most of his attention on the youths of the sixties, making for a unique historical viewpoint. It’s not just a story of politics or the recounting of history; it’s a glimpse into the lives of people growing up in the sixties. Overall, this book provides an interesting take on the sixties and gives an idea of what it felt like to be part of that generation.

The turmoil of 1968 brought about great change in political, social, and cultural history. According to Kaiser, the “generation’s finest achievement” was that there “have been no more Vietnams since 1968.” 19 Because of the strong vocal activism of the young doves of the sixties, America has avoided a war like the Vietnam War. People of the sixties showed that the government does not have the power to just send its citizen to war; people will speak out against it. Thus, in the sixties, through a long grueling process, the doves showed how American presence in Vietnam was wrong and that it should never happen again. The sixties was also a time in which people strongly voiced their political views; the people were part of the government like never before. Familial relationships also changed as “parents gave up trying to enforce the social norms they had grown up with,” causing a striking difference in the morals of the nation.20 The prevalence of sex, drugs, and rock and roll were unlike anything ever before. The sixties was a time of social protest and activism that opened up the gates for other groups to protest for equality and rights, including the physically handicapped and deaf. Because of the ceaseless fighting by African Americans, minorities today can voice their opinions and urge change in the nation. According to Kaiser, the sixties brought about long-lasting change to the state of America and its citizens.

Influences of the sixties can still be felt in society today. The music, style, and culture of that generation permeate the world. The Beatles, blue jeans, and marijuana are still evident in communities. The daring changes of the sixties, such as vocal college students and the Voting Rights Act, affect our lives today. The counterculture of the sixties changed the way America viewed youths. The young were no longer seen as shapeless people ready for molding, but as valid human beings with opinions that mattered. The strength and bravery of the Americans in the sixties made the “dream to make a better world…become vivid.”21

A time of great change, terror, hope, optimism, and fear, the sixties altered every aspect of society. Dominated by the counterculture of the youth, 1968 was the turning point of the decade. It brought about the end of the Vietnam War, a new President, and the climax of college riots. 1968 was the “pivotal year of the sixties: the moment when all of a nation’s impulses toward violence, idealism, diversity, and disorder peaked to produce the greatest possible hope—and the worst imaginable despair.”22

review by Karine Matevossian

  1. Kaiser, Charles. 1968 In America: Music, Politics, Chaos, Counterculture, and the Shaping of a Generation. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988, XV.
  2. Kaiser, Charles XX.
  3. Kaiser, Charles XV.
  4. Kaiser, Charles 23.
  5. Kaiser, Charles 60.
  6. Kaiser, Charles 61.
  7. Kaiser, Charles 83.
  8. Kaiser, Charles 128.
  9. Kaiser, Charles 150.
  10. Kaiser, Charles 191.
  11. Kaiser, Charles 205-206.
  12. Kaiser, Charles 216.
  13. Kaiser, Charles XV.
  14. Kaiser, Charles X.
  15. Dickstein, Morris. “One Brief, Electric Moment.” The New York Times 20 Novermber 1988: 1.
  16. Dickstein, Morris 2.
  17. Reed Business Information, Inc. Publishers Weekly 1988: 1.
  18. Kaiser, Charles XV.
  19. Kaiser, Charles 255.
  20. Kaiser, Charles 255.
  21. Kaiser, Charles 256.
  22. Kaiser, Charles XV.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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