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Vail Daily column: 1968: The year that rocked our nation

Jack Van Ens

In 1968, our nation dissolved into the divided states of America.

Two American groups faced-off: Guardians of traditional morality versus protesters whose new morality questioned the status quo. Pro-government citizens gave President Lyndon Baines Johnson the benefit of the doubt in supporting a military build-up in the Vietnam War. Critics believed sending U.S. troops into this civil war provided no benefits. The president and Yippies berated each other’s patriotism.

American culture shook at its core because collegians holding anti-Vietnam War placards took to the streets. Social mavericks demolished traditional norms for right and wrong. They spurned government loyalty. Their idealism clashed with militaristic Washington politicians who supported the Vietnam War. “If the U.S. doesn’t stop the Vietcong, patriots will be fighting Communist saboteurs on the West Coast!” was the Johnson Administration’s mantra.

Shorthand for 1968: “The Tet Offensive and Vietnam.” In early January, the Vietcong surprisingly and swiftly penetrated safe U.S. havens in South Vietnam. This massive attack was called Tet. The U.S. retaliated with a Tet Offensive, a massive counter-attack to roll-back the enemy. U.S. troop strength and carpet bombing drastically increased. War debt skyrocketed. The U.S. government lied, reporting we were winning the war. Officials inflated Vietcong casualty counts and decreased soaring U.S. fatalities.

War supporters argued: We had to destroy civilian villages where the Vietcong hid in order to save Vietnam. After the Tet Offensive, anti-war activists regarded the war as idiotic. They argued that the U.S. spreading Agent Orange from the air defoliated the countryside and destroyed the nation we sent our soldiers to save.

No longer could army censors shield the American public from damaging war news. Legendary TV anchor Walter Cronkite reported the war’s stalemate up-close and personal. During Tet, the Vietcong drove south into U.S.-held territory. Then, more calamities struck. In three short weeks, the formerly gorgeous city of Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam’s intellectual/religious life, was reduced to rubble, with bodies of American and Vietnamese troops left to bloat under the boiling sun.

The New York Times graphically described what the U.S. government tried to hide. Hue had become a sinkhole of defeat. A “truckload of bandaged, weary and muddy marines rolled through cratered streets, past shattered houses. … Vietnamese on the route stared sullenly. … A marine wounded in the arm and grimacing every time the truck jolted said, ‘They all blame us.’”

After the U.S. Tet Counter-Offensive, anti-war protests mushroomed. Some anti-war parents protested with their collegians. Retaliating, government officials clamped down. They assailed the patriotism of those who dared question military strategy. Hard-liner Secretary of State Dean Rusk barked against protestors. He told Newsweek magazine editors that “pseudo-intellectual” anti-war lies hoodwinked our youth. He denounced anti-war protestors as “controlled by communists.”

Status-quo protectors loved Rusk. Anti-war protesters detested him. They reserved their hate, however, for Gen. William Hershey, director of the Selective Service, who headed the compulsory military draft. Selective service numbers of even wealthy students from Ivy League schools weren’t deferred. Acting on President Johnson’s directive, Hershey ordered local draft boards to punish deferred college students who protested campus recruitment for the Vietnam War. Their names were pushed to the top of the mandatory draft list.

Robert F. Kennedy’s protesting voice resonated with me in 1968. Turning on his nemesis President Johnson, he renounced our army’s Tet Offensive for not achieving its objective of halting communists infiltrating South Vietnam cities.

Speaking in Chicago on Feb. 8, 1968, Kennedy declared the Tet Offensive “finally shattered the mask of official illusions about the war,” demonstrating that no “part or person of South Vietnam was safe from attack. … It is time for the truth. It is time to face the reality that a military victory is not in sight and probably never will come.” Finally, a sane, honest voice.

Visiting the “1968” exhibit at the Colorado History Museum in Denver, I witnessed a grandmother showing her grandson a display of the 1968 “Bobby” Kennedy presidential campaign. The schoolboy saw the iconic picture of Kennedy’s prostrate body after he was assassinated, lying in a kitchen corridor of the hotel where he had, minutes before, given a victory speech after winning the California Democratic primary.

“Why is he sleeping with his eyes open?” the boy asked. Grandmother replied that a bad man gunned down Kennedy. Her eyes blinked tearfully, showing he still lives in her memory.

Robert F. Kennedy traveled to South Africa in 1966 when the apartheid system ruled but was faltering because of protests. Speaking at the University of Cape Town, Kennedy’s credo convinced many to work for social righteousness.

“Each time a man (person) stands for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. And crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression.”

“Amen!” we vowed in 1968. “So be it” today in working for justice and standing our ground against government that unwisely goes to war.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.


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