By Regis L. Roberts
Issue date: 9/5/08
The 1960s have been said to be the decade in which America's
innocence died. It was a decade in which the nation lived through, as
the late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson put it, "both Kennedys murdered by
mutants." One of the most unpopular wars raged on in Vietnam with
repeated promises of conclusion, only to be intensified into the next decade.
The general "peace and prosperity" of the 1990s was shattered by the
events of Sept. 11, 2001. Yet another "death of national innocence"
spawned two wars that continue to be waged.
1968, one of the most talked-about years in U.S. history, was two
generations ago. Already, similarities have been commented upon. The
Iraq War has been compared by critics to the Vietnam War. A
presidential election will bring in a new administration to replace a
president whose unpopular ratings stem from dissatisfaction with war.
Sen. Robert Kennedy, the popular 1968 Democratic contender before his
assassination, has been referred to repeatedly in this year's election season.
The Battle Over Legacies
Despite initial promises that peace talks in Paris in 1968 would
bring an end to fighting in Vietnam, it became more apparent the war
was not going to end. Political science Professor Bill Byerly said
the war would only escalate from there.
Citing the ongoing conflict, President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed on
March 31, 1968, that he would not seek re-election: "With America's
sons in the fields far away, with America's future under challenge
right here at home, with our hopes and the world's hopes for peace in
the balance every day, 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."
Ninety-five-year-old Bill Sinkin is chair of the advocacy group Solar
San Antonio and an Outstanding Former Student who graduated from this
college in 1930.
"Johnson's resignation (from the election) didn't come as a surprise
because he had really just lost his popularity," Sinkin said. In
August 1968, a Gallup poll measured Johnson's approval rating at 35 percent.
President George W. Bush's approval rating in August stood at 33
percent, up slightly from a low of 28 percent. Byerly said this
slight uptick in approval might be a result of his administration
coming to an end, but is more likely because the Iraq War is going
better than in previous years. Indeed, Gallup has 48 percent of the
public saying the surge has made the situation in Iraq better. This
favorable opinion of the surge has not changed the fact that public
opinion has turned against the war.
Although disputed by many supporters of the Iraq War, the conflict in
Iraq has been compared by critics to the war in Vietnam, calling both
Public opinion has turned against the war in Iraq since it started.
When the war started, only 23 percent of the public polled said going
in was a mistake. Now, 56 percent say it was a mistake.
A January 2007 Gallup poll asked opponents of the Iraq War why they
opposed it. Eleven percent said it was "another Vietnam." Many of the
other reasons given, however, closely mirror reasons given for
opposition to the Vietnam War, such as "No reason to be
there/unnecessary/unjustified"; "False pretenses that got us
involved/misled by our leadership/not informed"; "Too many deaths."
Has Anybody Here Seen My Old Friend Bobby?
Kennedy, candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in
1968, was one of those candidates running against the Vietnam War.
His charisma, popularity among young, African-American and anti-war
voters have been pointed to as comparisons to Sen. Barack Obama,
D-Ill., the Democratic nominee for president.
These similarities were enough before the "gaff" from Sen. Hillary
Clinton, D-N.Y., when in May, she offered Robert Kennedy's June
primary night assassination as a reason not to count her out late in
the primary race.
Byerly said it was unfortunate to bring up the death of a beloved
leader. "You can't say anything anymore; God, I'd hate to be a politician."
He said people thought the world of Robert Kennedy and gravitated to him.
Summer of Love and Hate
To Sinkin, the main difference between 1968 and today is the spirit
and tone used in debate. "'68 really had a constant tone of anger and
accusations," he said. "Now, in this time, the fact that the war
became a constant issue for five years now, a lot of seniors don't
talk about it - have forgotten it almost."
He also said there is more discussion about the economy than war now
than in 1968.
Byerly, echoing Sinkin, said the economy has become much more of an
issue than the war. In 1968, Byerly said, inflation was just becoming
a major concern among economists and politicians, and matters only
became more pressing in the 1970s with the oil crisis. Today, he
said, oil prices have risen to the point where it is adversely
affecting every sector of the economy because so much of production
relies on fuel.
However, the anger in 1968 Sinkin referred to, which culminated in
riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, did not
define the entire year. After all, 1968 was nestled between the
Summer of Love in '67 and the Woodstock Music Festival in '69.
1968 was supposed to be the year when everything changed, where
things got better. By hook or by crook, through victory or defeat,
the war in Vietnam was supposed to end. Peace talks in Paris looked
promising; Richard Nixon said in a campaign ad that, if elected, he
would see to an "honorable end to the war in Vietnam," and Byerly
said Nixon constantly spoke of a light at the end of the tunnel with
Vietnam. A New Year's celebration banner in Saigon promised, "1968
will see the success of allied arms."
People were taking to the streets, demanding equal justice for black
citizens. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and leaders of the
Black Panther Party took up the cause with varying tactics.
1968 also was the year everything went to hell.
The Paris peace talks fell through, and the fighting in Vietnam only escalated.
And while key legislation was passed, the civil rights movement was
dealt a major blow in April 1968 when King was assassinated while
helping to organize sanitation workers in Memphis.
In 1992, the year George H.W. Bush was defeated for re-election by
Bill Clinton, Democrats and Republicans were neck and neck in
favorable public opinion, according to the polling group Gallup, at
54 percent and 53 percent, respectively. Now, 16 years later,
Democrats poll at 54 percent favorable and Republicans have a 39
percent favorable opinion rating, one of the lowest points for the
party in Gallup's poll.
Polling is not the only indication of trouble for the GOP. The 2006
midterm election saw the Democrats overturn comfortable majorities by
the Republicans in the House and Senate, and this year, Republicans
lost special congressional elections in seats long occupied by
members of the party. With Democrats poised to gain more seats in the
House of Representatives and a presidential election on the line
between Obama and McCain, party battles are on display for everyone to see.
Sinkin is a lifelong Democrat. He experienced firsthand the rift
between the liberal and conservative wings of the party in Texas
during the 1960s.
He and his fellow liberal Democrats were called Communists on several
occasions, he said. He remembered an incident when he was face to
face with Allan Shivers, a prominent leader of the conservative
branch of the Texas Democrats and governor of the state during the
1950s. Sinkin remembered asking Shivers, "'Why do you call me a
Communist?' And he looked at me and he said, 'If the shoe fits, wear
it,' and just walked away."
Real Drama in Chicago
After Kennedy's death, Hubert Humphrey, Johnson's vice president, was
poised to receive the nomination at the Democratic National
Convention in Chicago in late August.
Humphrey was seen by opponents of the war as an undesirable choice,
considering his position in the administration that had escalated the
Vietnam War far beyond the involvement carried out by Dwight
Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
Robert F. Kennedy had been the anti-war voters' preferred choice and
the other strong anti-war candidates, Eugene McCarthy and George
McGovern, were being pushed out by the party establishment and old
nomination rules, Byerly said.
He said one of the major problems with the nominating process in 1968
is that it used a "unit rule," meaning that delegates were chosen at
state conventions where the candidate who received a majority of the
vote - even if they won by just one vote - were awarded 100 percent
of the delegates for that state.
What resulted, he said, was that the Democratic National Convention
was not representative of Democratic voters; it was comprised of
almost all older, white men who supported Humphrey.
Anti-war voters, he said, tried to make the case that because a
majority of voters wanted an anti-war candidate, that sentiment
should have been reflected in the candidate who received the nomination.
Anti-war voters were not satisfied with Humphrey as the Democratic
nominee, and they wanted to show that dissatisfaction with protests.
The city of Chicago, however, would not grant the protesters permits.
That did not stop them, and the protesters showed up outside the
Confrontations with police ensued, and Byerly said television feeds
switched back and forth between the convention proceedings and the
riots - images of cars being overturned and burning, windows being
smashed. This coverage spawned spontaneous chants of "the whole world
Similarly, the presidential nomination process for the Democratic
Party was under more scrutiny and received more interest than normal
in an election year, Byerly said.
This summer, supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton's bid for her party's
nomination protested the Democratic National Convention, saying that
their candidate had the nomination stolen from her. These supporters
protested despite the fact that Clinton has told them to stop what
they are doing and support Obama. Clinton even made a motion on the
floor of the convention to stop counting delegates and nominate Obama
Other protests, conducted by the Recreate '68 Alliance, have stressed
their belief that Obama is as imperialist as John McCain.
Byerly said that the Recreate '68 Alliance, whose slogan is "The
whole world is watching," is "one of the dumbest things I've ever
heard in my entire life."
If these demonstrators are against the war, they are messing with the
chances of a candidate who has said he wants to end the Iraq War, Byerly said.
In 1968, the unpopularity of Johnson and dissatisfaction with the war
made Humphrey low in the polls during the summer, he said. "Johnson
and Humphrey were in such a horrible situation with the war, whereas
Nixon's like, I see a light at the end of a tunnel," he said.
However, Humphrey began to creep up on Nixon in polls, until, that
is, the rioting in Chicago. Seeing those images on TV affected
people's opinions in the election away from Humphrey, he said.
Byerly is convinced that if the rioting at the convention did not
happen, Humphrey would have caught up with Nixon and won the
election. The final results were Nixon with 43.4 percent of the vote
and Humphrey with 42.7 percent.
If the protesters now really want to "recreate '68," Byerly said,
they are hurting the candidate who said he wants to end the war in
Iraq. He said he thinks McCain is a good person but is on the
opposite side of those who are against the war.
The Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., was met on its
first day, Sept. 1, with protesters clashing with police and
Minnesota National Guard. Officers in riot gear used tear gas to
subdue the more rowdy protesters, including masked anarchists,
scattered among the peaceful demonstrators. Of the roughly 10,000
protesters, 284 were arrested the first day, almost half of those
looking at felony charges for actions such as acts of vandalism.
In contrast to 1968 and the Republican National Convention, protests
at the Denver convention were calm and in cooperation with police and
This brings perhaps the starkest contrast between 1968 and 2008, as
Sinkin said. Those 40 years have changed the face of organizing: From
burning cars to blogging; from taking the fight to the street to
taking the fight to the Web; from Students for a Democratic Society
to MoveOn. The boomer generation has passed the reins to the millennials.