On April 5th, 1968 I turned 18. The military draft was in force. At 18 years of age, all men had to register for the draft. The only good thing about the requirement was that you could skip school to register. Two of my high school friends also had birthdays on April 5th.
We drove to downtown Pittsburgh to the draft board to fulfill our duty.
April 5th, 1968 was the day after Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis. Cities with large black populations were on edge. Violence and the burning of buildings had taken place overnight.
As we were driving through the heart of the city, armed National Guard soldiers had lined the streets.
Two months later, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.
In addition to racial tensions and assassinations, the Vietnam War was raging. Protests over the war were a common occurrence. Before it was all over, nearly 60,000 men and eight women would have died in a war that the United States had no business being involved in.
If you want to get a sense of the tragedy of war, I recommend visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC. The sorrow of wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and children are deeply and permanently etched on the black granite panel walls. It’s a sobering experience.
We’re seeing a great deal of political and social tension in 2018. We forget how bad it’s been with two world wars in the 20th century as well as the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Pat Buchanan has a helpful historical perspective that needs to be read. While we should not acquiesce to vitriol and violence of our time, it’s important to put life into perspective. The title of Buchanan’s article is “Is This Worse than ’68?”
Saturday, in Pittsburgh, a Sabbath celebration at the Tree of Life synagogue became the site of the largest mass murder of Jews in U.S. history. Eleven worshippers were killed by a racist gunman.
Friday, we learned the identity of the crazed criminal who mailed pipe bombs to a dozen leaders of the Democratic Party, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.
From restaurants to Capitol corridors, this campaign season we have seen ugly face-offs between leftist radicals and Republican senators.
Are we more divided than we have ever been? Are our politics more poisoned? Are we living in what Charles Dickens called “the worst of times” in America? Is today worse than 1968?
Certainly, the hatred and hostility, the bile and bitterness of our discourse, seem greater now than 50 years ago. But are the times really worse?
1968 began with one of the greatest humiliations in the history of the American Navy. The U.S. spy ship Pueblo was hijacked in international waters and its crew interned by North Korea.
A week later came the Tet Offensive, where every provincial capital in South Vietnam was attacked. A thousand U.S. troops died in February, 10,000 more through 1968.
On March 14, anti-war Senator Gene McCarthy captured 42 percent of the vote in New Hampshire against President Johnson.
With LBJ wounded, Robert Kennedy leapt into the race, accusing the president who had enacted civil rights of “dividing the country” and removing himself from “the enduring and generous impulses that are the soul of this nation.” Lyndon Johnson, said Kennedy, is “calling upon the darker impulses of the American spirit.”
Today, RFK is remembered as a “uniter.”
With Gov. George Wallace tearing at Johnson from the right and Kennedy and McCarthy attacking from the left — and Nixon having cleared the Republican field with a landslide in New Hampshire — LBJ announced on March 31 he would not run again.
Four days later, Martin Luther King, leading a strike of garbage workers, was assassinated in Memphis. One hundred U.S. cities exploded in looting, arson and riots. The National Guard was called up everywhere and federal troops rushed to protect Washington, D.C., long corridors of which were gutted, not to be rebuilt for a generation.
Before April’s end, Columbia University had exploded in the worst student uprising of the decade. It was put down only after the NYPD was unleashed on the campus.
Nixon called the Columbia takeover by black and white radicals “the first major skirmish in a revolutionary struggle to seize the universities of this country and transform them into sanctuaries for radicals and vehicles for revolutionary political and social goals.” Which many have since become.
In June, Kennedy, after defeating McCarthy in the crucial primary of California, was mortally wounded in the kitchen of the hotel where he had declared victory. He was buried in Arlington besides JFK.
Nixon, who had swept every primary, was nominated on the first ballot in Miami Beach, and the Democratic Convention was set for late August.
Between the conventions, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev sent his Warsaw Pact armies and hundreds of tanks into Czechoslovakia to crush the peaceful uprising known as “Prague Spring.”
With this bloodiest of military crackdowns since the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Moscow sent a message to the West: There will be no going back in Europe. Once a Communist state, always a Communist state!
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