A Ballad of Political Activism

A Review of 1968: The Year that Rocked the World
by Mark Kurlansky

Author Biography

Mark Kurlansky was born in 1948 in Hartford, Connecticut. He attended Butler University, where he earned a BA for theatre in 1970. Shortly after, he began his journalism career and became an acclaimed journalist and writer. He is the James A. Beard Award-winning author of the New York Times bestseller of Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World and other award-winning nonfiction and fiction books.

Television, sex, drugs, antiauthoritarianism, and nonconformity are just a few of the elements that describe the epic year of 1968. In his book, 1968: The Year that Rocked the World, Mark Kurlansky provides a detailed summation of the year where insanity clashed readily with sanity. Essentially a “spontaneous combustion of rebellious spirits around the world,” 1968 was one of the great turning points in American and world history.1 A time where nations struggled towards self-determination and a polarization of interests began, 1968 provided insight to what was right, wrong, and ambiguous – it was, in essence, lunacy.

In the first part of his book, Kurlansky details the beginning of 1968. France’s beginning of prosperity; violence gradually outweighing nonviolent tactics; African, Middle Eastern, and Eastern Europe conflicts; the growth of media; and the sudden influx of student demonstrations worldwide are a general kaleidoscope of 1968. Nineteen sixty-eight started out like any year, where a certain fad caught on. In this case, it was demonstrations, for “it was fun to demonstrate”2 since “conformity was out of fashion.”3 True, what seemed like an ordinary year would inevitably combust into a milestone of political polarization and increased worldwide awareness. The first few chapters of Kurlansky’s book provide an overview and solid basis of information, essential for fully comprehending Kurlansky’s ideas later on.

The second section of Kurlansky’s book addresses the spring of student uprisings worldwide. Technology helped diffuse antiwar, antiauthoritarian, and civil rights sentiments throughout the spectrum of young college students. Political awareness skyrocketed as “college demonstrations [became] a commonplace event in the United States.”4 The minute generation gap concaved into an abyssal valley––no middle ground existed since “1968 was not a year for ‘black and white together.’”5 However, Kurlansky quietly suggests that Columbia University students, after signing the Port Huron document, initiated a demonstration that catalyzed other war protests worldwide, seen most profoundly in Europe. Organized by German college students, the European antiwar movement sparked a typhoon of controversy with European students chanting “Out U.S.A....Go N.L.F.!” throughout campuses. The 180° revolution of change does not end there. The assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. allowed unconventional politicians (i.e. Eugene McCarthy) and intimidating figures of the Black Panther to rise in influence. The old days were waning, as demonstrated by the Czechoslovakian “democratic communist” policy of Alexander Dubcek, a man who undermined Soviet Russia’s standards and barely governed office without direct confrontation with Russian troops. Within this new tide of power and demonstrations lay sweeping reefs of ballads, poetry, drugs, and sex of sixties pop culture. The spring of 1968 was a spring of explosive revolution, and the summer of 1968 would cultivate the fruits of the seeded rebellion.

The third arc of Kurlansky’s book involves the climax of passionate controversy evident within movements worldwide. As student demonstrations intensified, “everything seemed to get worse in the summer of 1968” as domestic and international conflicts rose to a chaotic level of catastrophe.6 Worldwide conflicts worsened by the second while student movements took a violent turn. Nothing was static. With the death of Robert Kennedy, the Republican and Democratic parties sought out appealing candidates, hoping to control a majority of government seats by the end of the election. During the Democratic convention in Chicago, passionate demonstrators vehemently protested the presence of Lyndon B. Johnson, provoking an unprecedented action: police brutality. As police beat protestors bloody with metal rods, live television broadcasted the brutality for the world to see, raw and unscripted. Although Senator Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic candidacy, the Chicago incident sparked a question of law and order, a question that surfaced during Mexico’s preparation for the 1968 summer Olympics. Beginning with July 22, 1968, Mexican student demonstrations proliferated after a small-town incident of police brutality, seeking to protest police violence against citizens. Unlike other demonstrations, “students were shot while trying to put up posters or write graffiti on walls” in attempts to spread their message.7 The massacre at Tlateloco’s Plaza, the cornerstone of the Mexican student protest, was a devastating turning point of student movements. It was the first time any government had taken deliberate action against an unarmed group of individuals. In the end, the Mexican government silenced all student demonstrations, effectively capping off a summer of passionate revolution with bloodshed.

The final part of the book details the wavering end of 1968 when movements lost vivacity and fervor. Richard Nixon, the newly elected president, was a political milestone for the Republican Party. He essentially “reshaped the Republican Party”8 into a “far more ideological party, [or] a conservative party in which promising moderates [were] marginalized."9 As the new president, Nixon flushed out the remnants of the liberal Warren Court, setting a conservative precedent for future American politics. Student antiwar demonstrations came to a sudden halt in the road. All conflicts that began before and during 1968, all that were to be “resolved” by government response to student movements, were left lingering. The Vietnam War escalated by the second and racism still saturated city districts while political apathy replaced political activism. Now, the future American public would progress towards a politically inanimate consensus.

In the introduction, Mark Kurlansky establishes his thesis, commenting that 1968 was a time of rebellion and “was not planned [or] organized.”10 Indeed, 1968 marked a milestone of rebellious restlessness worldwide, and Kurlansky attributes the Vietnam War as the unifying element of all these movements. Directly or indirectly, the Vietnam War sparked a passion in the antiwar movement, enough to create a wave of similar movements domestically and internationally. Kurlansky argues that the Vietnam War, a war so ugly and corrupted, created public outcry of atrocity broadcasted via satellite television. The war was horrendous enough to undermine the anticipated Great Society program of Lyndon Johnson, a man who would degenerate into the hated and hawkish figure of corruption. With the whole world watching live broadcasts of bloodshed and news anchor editorials, it was inevitable that a global wave of antiwar movements would conglomerate, crashing down upon the stony conventions of political unity and conformity. Of course, Kurlansky notes that his book is extremely subjective, commenting that “fairness is possible but true objectivity is not;” thus effectively establishing his liberal bias.11 Kurlansky is sympathetic towards the antiwar movements, even praising radical turning points –– for instance, Kurlansky glorifies the incident when Columbia University students blocked all access to an important facility after a peaceful demonstration got out of control. In effect, Kurlansky downplays the significance of sixties pop culture, quickly attributing its formation to the rise of antiwar movements. In defining 1968, Kurlansky assumes the importance of the antiwar movement and insignificance of other movements (civil rights, feminist) and events (African and Middle East conflicts over self-determination and nationality).

Kurlansky wrote this book in the post-September 11th period, where political and emotional fervor was at an exceptional high. This period of time reflected many events of the sixties, such as the falsified pretexts for war created by Lyndon B. Johnson (compared to that of George W. Bush) and the theme of self-determination evident in both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Arguably, the post-September 11th is a nearly-perfect reflection of the international conflicts of America in the 1960s; therefore, it’s safe to assume that Kurlansky, nostalgic about the tragedy of 1968, was inspired to retell the events in his own words. “I was of the generation that hated the Vietnam War,” states Kurlansky, a definitive confirmation of his liberal bias throughout the book. Since the Vietnam War encompassed his life growing up, Kurlansky likely found it more appropriate to address what he witnessed as a young, open-minded individual before the tides of time slowly shaped his mind; however, due to his personal take on the events of 1968, reviewers have criticized the structure and style of Kurlansky’s book.12 Jesse Kornbluth commented, “he chose to write a lesser book: a chronology of great interest to those too young to have been there; a trip down memory lane for those who remember 1968 with nostalgia.”13 Rebecca Graber remarked, “An over-reliance on headlines seems not only to have affected the general content of the book, but compromised the author’s ability to bring a fresh perspective to the events of the day.14 Critics generally praise Kurlansky’s book for its nostalgic take on 1968, but condemn his lack of revolutionary ideas or perspectives involving the events. Most agree that 1968: The Year that Rocked the World is a good read for details, but not for innovative contemplations.

The strengths and weaknesses of Kurlansky’s book revolve around his nostalgic take of 1968. His reflective approach on the tragic year provides a subtle, personal touch to the book, allowing the reader to emotionally connect with the tragedy, sadness, and anger of Kurlansky and others during a time of rebellious fervor. Quotes like “in a closed society, the most successful politicians operate out of the public eye” give a wise man’s touch, the touch of one who has been there, done that, and has the scars to prove it.15 In this case, the scars are Kurlansky’s experience and encompassment of the political protests of the sixties. Throughout the book, events are retold in a moving, engrossing fashion, stylized with a hint of humor and cynicism. Kurlansky provides excellent descriptions of details, never imparting a boorish doctrine of right and wrong; his book is all about a lively revolution of passion and controversy. However, since it is Kurlansky’s nostalgic take on the antiwar movement, 1968: The Year that Rocked the World lacks ground-breaking insight on monumental events. Some events are vaguely mentioned and overshadowed by others, rendered “unimportant” since they were not the headlines of 1968. In the end, Kurlansky’s book boils down to emotional connection and awareness, not contemplative ideas or musings. Additionally, Kurlansky’s loose structure and grouping of events throws off the flow of the book, jumping around small details and tangenting off into redundant information. Kurlansky’s organization can be confusing at times, muddling up his main point and resulting in an inconsistent pace throughout the book. This organizational setback is, perhaps, one of the biggest inhibitors of Kurlansky’s book, preventing Kurlansky from clearly channeling thought-provoking ideas.

According to Kurlansky, 1968 was the turning point of political awareness and political apathy in the general spectrum of American history. The Vietnam War was significant because it was ugly and the American public did not glorify it. Rather, they condemned the atrocities they saw on television, horrified by the disfigured corpses of Vietnamese children sprawled upon dirt. From this public outcry sprang the origins of student antiwar movements, setting a precedent that the government can be criticized openly by its citizens. While the antiwar movements did not directly or significantly influence government policy (with the exception of Johnson’s withdrawal from re-election), they did mark a time of unprecedented activism of the American public––never before had people taken the initiative to directly change the government. With the advancement of technology, live broadcasts were readily available, resulting in the increase of sensationalist news stories. After all, violence and suffering made good television. With the growth of subjective editorials (initiated by Walter Cronkite), the media “produced a complete rift between reporters and the U.S. government,” which was, in extension, a rift between the American public and government.16 To Kurlansky, the nonconformist pop culture was a by-product of the antiwar movements and various student demonstrations, a popular symbol of rebellion against the old-school conventions of government.

Nineteen sixty-eight was a milestone in the political fervor of the late 1960s and early 1970s. A tragic war proceeded as two great American figures were murdered and various movements sparked an unprecedented political awareness within the American public. The 1950s bubble of safety and conformity popped under the pressure of revolutionary movements; global awareness and revelation exploded with the help of advanced technology, ultimately connecting a worldwide network of antiwar movements; and college campuses broke away from old conventions of thought, exploding in a radiant spectrum of liberalism. Ignorance was unacceptable. However, the nonconformist pop culture was not a by-product of the antiwar movement; rather, it replaced student activism after political apathy saturated American college campuses. This widened the generation gap between old and young, conservative and liberal, short-haired and long-haired, and “those who lived the new way and those who were desperate to understand it.”17 Consequently, the wide left-swing of 1968 led to the wide right-swing in later presidencies to come.

1968: The Year that Rocked the World is a history book that reads like an old photo book: it’s not innovatively new, but it’s heart-warming and emotionally connective. Mark Kurlansky does a fine job of inducing a subjective, personal take on 1968 that “ended like Dante’s traveler who at last climbed back from hell and gazed on the stars.”18 Nineteen sixty-eight is, indeed, a year of memorable chaos.

review by Quyen Le

  1. Kurlansky, Mark. 1968: The Year that Rocked the World. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2004, xvii.
  2. Kurlansky, Mark 33.
  3. Kurlansky, Mark 20.
  4. Kurlansky, Mark 81.
  5. Kurlansky, Mark 200.
  6. Kurlansky, Mark 253.
  7. Kurlansky, Mark 336.
  8. Kurlansky, Mark 268.
  9. Kurlansky, Mark 265.
  10. Kurlansky, Mark xvii.
  11. Kurlansky, Mark xx.
  12. Kurlansky, Mark xix.
  13. Kornbluth, Jesse. “1968: The Year that Rocked the World.” 1 Jan 2006. 29 May 2006. .
  14. Graber, Rebecca. “1968: The Year that Rocked the World.” 1 Jun 2004. 29 May 2006. .
  15. Kurlansky, Mark 23.
  16. Kurlansky, Mark 60.
  17. Kurlansky, Mark 183.
  18. Kurlansky, Mark 383.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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