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THOMPSON: Looking back at America in 1968

June 11, 2018 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


A half-century ago this past week, I was graduated from high school in the Florida town where I was born and raised. It was a turbulent and challenging time…but hope and optimism were alive if not completely well. The evening of June 6, 1968, as I sat with 512 fellow classmates waiting to cross the stage and receive a diploma, the mood was more somber than it might have been.

The very night before, Senator Robert F. Kennedy won the California Democratic primary and was the party’s likely nominee to run against Richard M. Nixon in the November general election. Just minutes after speaking to cheering supporters, Kennedy was one of six people gunned downed as they passed through the kitchen to the back entrance of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles…an assassin’s bullet in his head.

Some 26 hours later - in the early morning hours of my graduation day - Sen. Kennedy was pronounced dead. Just two months before - on April 4 - Dr. Martin Luther King had been murdered in Memphis. That was enough to put a damper on the evening…but there was more.

America the Beautiful...was pretty ugly in 1968. In that pivotal year, Americans seemed to lose some innocence…and as trust in leaders and doing the right thing simply because it was right…waned. America was losing its mojo…and a lot of young people - me included - were trying to figure out, “What next?”

The year’s headlines shocked Americans and others worldwide. Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops overran and briefly captured the American Embassy in Saigon during the Tet Offensive…and a war that had only 40 percent of the American public’s support in January…shrank to 26 percent by my graduation.

Walter Cronkite - “the most trusted man in America” and CBS News Anchor in 1968 - told America on Feb. 22: “It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out will be to negotiate, not as victors."

On March 16 of that year, a U.S. Army platoon from “Charlie Company,” First Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Americal Infantry Division murdered 504 unarmed women, children and old men. It would become known as the “My Lai Massacre.”

Actually, 347 civilians died at My Lai, the largest of four hamlets that formed the village of Son My in Quang Ngai Province, and another 157 died at My Khe, one of the other hamlets. There would have been hundreds more killed had not Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson (no relation), a U.S. Army helicopter pilot, landed between those fleeing and the soldiers firing at them.

Then, Thompson and his crew flew dozens of surviving Vietnamese women and children to a Mobile Army Surgery Hospital for medical care. Fearing a scandal, 11th Brigade officers conspired and covered up the bloodshed in the months that followed.

A young enlisted man, Ron Ridenhour, a gunner on another helicopter crew - also in the 11th Brigade - flew over My Lai two days after the killings…saw the bodies…and started asking questions and gathering evidence. Ridenhour wrote detailed letters to officials at the Pentagon, his Congressman, the Secretary of Defense…even a letter to President Richard Nixon.

But until Seymour Hersh, an independent investigative reporter, filed a cable through the Dispatch News Service on Nov. 12, 1969 - five days after I joined the U.S. Air Force - the American public knew nothing…and nothing in the way of justice to that point had happened.

Even then, of the 14 officers and men eventually charged, only one - Lieutenant William Laws Calley Jr. - was found guilty of 22 first-degree murders. Sentenced to life in prison, it was reduced to 20 years…then 10 years. Ultimately, he served just three years…not in prison…but under house arrest in a sentence commuted by President Richard Nixon.

Excuse, my slight digression…but I’ve found most people don’t know the truths about the “My Lai Massacre.” But, back to 1968.

Vietnam was not the only war that year. There were riots in 130 cities in America after Dr. King’s murder. Mostly Black neighbourhoods were burned…48 people were killed and more than US$100 Million in property destroyed. More than 20,000 people - mostly Black - were arrested.

College students were taking over campus offices in protests for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam at Columbia University, Boston University, Northwestern, Ohio State, UC Berkeley and Cornell, to name a few.

Riots weren’t confined to the streets and campuses either. Numerous prisons from Oregon to North Carolina and Ohio to South Carolina left dozens dead, hundreds injured and millions of dollars in property damage.

With the hopes and dreams of many young people dashed with Sen. Kennedy’s assassination, Richard Nixon won the November election by fewer than half a million votes. Nixon promised a “secret plan” to end the war. Apparently it was so secret it never came out. Openly racist candidate George Wallace became America’s first viable third-party candidate, garnering 9.9 million votes…13.5 percent of all votes.

Nixon chose Spiro Agnew as his vice-presidential running mate…who soon after called a press corps and veteran photographer a “fat jap” among other gaffes. The Washington Post called Nixon’s choice the oddest pick since Roman Emperor Caligula made his horse a Roman Consul.

I voted for Sen. Eugene McCarthy…unable to stomach Nixon. I always remember my working-class father’s advice with a smile: “Son, if you want to live like a Republican…you better vote Democrat.”

The military and nation suffered beyond Vietnam…with a B-52 crashing in Greenland with four unarmed hydrogen bombs. The USS Pueblo - a Naval Intelligence ship - was captured by North Korea patrol boats off the Japanese coast. The U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarine Scorpion sank off the Azores losing all 99 sailors and officers. Eight bombs - what would now be called terrorist acts - exploded at military installations and at corporations with military contracts.

If all of that were not enough…there was an underground nuclear bomb test in Nevada every 11 days…yes…32 nuclear explosions in 1968. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote that year in “Slaughterhouse 5”…“And so it goes.”

Those not alive in 1968…or forgetful…cultural norms were no less under the pressures of change. It was a time of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Did I say rock and roll? Yeah, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, the Moody Blues, Country Joe and the Fish, James Brown, Santana, Led Zeppelin, Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix. Oh, and the Beatles released their “White Album.”

And, in sports, the Heisman Trophy for college football’s best player…went to O.J. Simpson. The Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City witnessed African-America sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos proudly accept their first- and third-place medals in the 200-metre dash with gloved, Black Panther salutes. Black protests then - about jobs, housing, education, unfair policing and justice - was looked upon by white America much like it is today.

So, reflecting on 1968 as I wrote this…and wondered, “How did we get through it?”  Somehow, the question…not even the answer…lets me sleep somewhat better. The president a half-century later reminds me of Nixon…not as smart…and even more dangerous. This, too, shall pass.

Half a century later. I still have hope…and somehow…I remain an optimist.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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