The Sixties reached their climax in 1968, a year when momentous events succeeded each other so rapidly that the foundations of society seemed to be dissolving. Late January 1968 saw the Tet offensive, in which Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops launched well-organized uprisings in cities throughout South Vietnam, completely surprising American military leaders.
The United States drove back the offensive and inflicted heavy losses. But the intensity of the fighting, brought into America’s homes on television, shattered public confidence in the Johnson administration, which had repeatedly proclaimed victory to be “just around the corner.” Leading members of the press and political establishment joined the chorus criticizing American involvement. Eugene McCarthy, an antiwar senator from Minnesota, announced that he would seek the Democratic nomination. In March, aided by a small army of student volunteers, McCarthy received more than 40 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. With public support dissolving, Johnson rejected the military’s request to send 200,000 more troops to Vietnam. In March, he stunned the nation by announcing that he had decided not to seek reelection Peace talks soon opened in Paris.
Television brought the Vietnam War into Americans’ living rooms, helping to spur antiwar sentiment. The woman seems to have taken a break from washing dishes to watch the news.
Striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. As their signs suggest, they demanded respect as well as higher wages. Having traveled to Memphis to support the strikers, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Meanwhile, Martin Luther King Jr. was organizing a Poor People’s March, hoping to bring thousands of demonstrators to Washington to demand increased antipoverty efforts. On April 4, having traveled to Memphis to support a strike of the city’s grossly underpaid black garbage collectors, King was killed by a white assassin. The greatest outbreak of urban violence in the nation’s history followed in ghettos across the country. Washington, D.C., had to be occupied by soldiers before order was restored. As a gesture to King’s memory, Congress passed its last major civil rights law, the Open Housing Act, which prohibited discrimination in the sale and rental of homes and apartments, although with weak enforcement mechanisms.
At the end of April, students protesting Columbia University’s involvement in defense research and its plan to build a gymnasium in a public park occupied seven campus buildings. New York police removed them in an assault that left hundreds of protesters and bystanders injured and led to a strike that closed the campus. In June, a young Palestinian nationalist assassinated Robert F. Kennedy, who was seeking the Democratic nomination as an opponent of the war. In August, tens of thousands of antiwar activists descended on Chicago for protests at the Democratic national convention, where the delegates nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey as their presidential candidate. The city’s police, never known for restraint, assaulted the marchers with nightsticks, producing hundreds of injuries outside the convention hall and pandemonium inside it.
A later investigation called the event a “pohce riot.” Nonetheless, the government indicted eight political radicals for conspiring to incite the violence. They included Tom Hayden of SDS, yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, and Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers. Five were found guilty after a tumultuous trial. But an appeals court overturned the convictions because Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation to Abbie Hoffman) had been flagrantly biased against the defendants.