Dream of Hope, Nightmare of
A Review of 1968 in America:
Music, Politics, Chaos, Counterculture, and the Shaping of a
by Charles Kaiser
Charles Kaiser was born in 1950 in
Washington D.C. He attended Columbia University. He was the
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
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
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
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;
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
- Kaiser, Charles. 1968 In America: Music, Politics,
Chaos, Counterculture, and the Shaping of a Generation. New
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988, XV.
- Kaiser, Charles XX.
- Kaiser, Charles XV.
- Kaiser, Charles 23.
- Kaiser, Charles 60.
- Kaiser, Charles 61.
- Kaiser, Charles 83.
- Kaiser, Charles 128.
- Kaiser, Charles 150.
- Kaiser, Charles 191.
- Kaiser, Charles 205-206.
- Kaiser, Charles 216.
- Kaiser, Charles XV.
- Kaiser, Charles X.
- Dickstein, Morris. “One Brief, Electric Moment.” The New
York Times 20 Novermber 1988: 1.
- Dickstein, Morris 2.
- Reed Business Information, Inc. Publishers Weekly 1988: 1.
- Kaiser, Charles XV.
- Kaiser, Charles 255.
- Kaiser, Charles 255.
- Kaiser, Charles 256.
- Kaiser, Charles XV.