1968: Smithsonian Tries to Find the Bright Side of a Rotten Year

While one would not ordinarily argue with the Smithsonian Institute about American history, the Smithsonian Channel’s new documentary on 1968 requires a few asterisks.

Image for post
Image for post

Smithsonian Time Capsule: 1968, which premieres Monday at 8 p.m. ET, finds multiple signs of hope, achievement and promise Pin that tumultuous year.

Fair enough. They just can’t hide the fact that on the whole, 1968 sucked.

Perhaps ironically, it was a good year to be alive, because there was an electricity about it, a sense that politics and culture and the world were moving so rapidly and unpredictably that you could wake up every morning thinking something was going to happen.

And it often did. Trouble is, looking back, most of it was bad.

Image for post
Image for post
Dr. King in Memphis.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, which alone would have put the whole year in the loss column. What could have happened that could have counterbalanced either of those deaths?

And speaking of deaths, the Vietnam war that year took 16,899 American lives, as well as large multiples of that number among Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. Both sides.

President Lyndon Johnson abdicated his office basically because he couldn’t figure out how to either win the war or quit it. His departure cemented a Shakespeare-level tragedy: the way Vietnam so darkly shadowed for Johnson what was otherwise one of the finest legislative legacies of the century.

Image for post
Image for post
Jim Redding looks at the uniform he wore in Vietnam in 1968.

It also helped pave the way for the election of Richard Nixon, whose own legacy was checkered and who kept the war going for another six years and tens of thousands more deaths.

Dissent, while divisive by definition, became more aggressively confrontational in 1968: the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago, the growing militance of the increasingly splintered and frustrated Civil Rights movement.

Urban uprisings in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination burned down large swaths of major cities like Washington, D.C. Two black U.S. Olympics medal winners, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, were sent home and widely vilified after they raised gloved fists on the victory podium.

The Poor People’s Campaign, a tent city in Washington designed to call attention to baseline problems like income inequality, was washed out. Literally. Striking farm workers in California seemed to make little headway against powerful growers.

“It felt like there was no end of bad news,” Smithsonian curator Nancy Davis says in Time Capsule. “It was absolutely frightening.”

It wasn’t the kind of fear where people were afraid to go outdoors. It was more like uncertainty and tension had permeated the country and the culture. As 1968 notes, families drew angry battle lines when their clean-cut kid came home from college with his hair over his ears.

1968 covers some of this, and in fairness, that’s all the hour-long show sets out to do. The Smithsonian Institute is opening an exhibition of artifacts from 1968, and this program promotes that display.

So don’t expect a full-service history of the year. The show does not mention Johnson’s withdrawal from the presidential race, for instance, nor does it mention Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war Minnesota senator who had already challenged Johnson for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination.

Image for post
Image for post

Time Capsule tosses in a few quick fun facts, like the rollout of the first uniformly sculpted Pringle’s potato chips and the earliest mobile phones — large, expensive, clunky devices that bear no resemblance to the smartphones of today, but pointed an arrow to the future.

Mostly, this show seems to look for the bright side of 1968. It argues that the striking farmworkers and their leader Cesar Chavez laid the groundwork for significant gains in years ahead. It argues that Smith and Carlos ultimately helped push the long-game struggle forward.

More problematic, it reverently paints the Broadway show Hair as an embodiment of the counterculture and the new artistic freedom it helped spawn.

Hair delivered a musical “version of rebellion that resonates with everyone,” Smithsonian tells us, and while that may have been the intent, the musical result was more like a lot of diluted clichés that found their true niche as easy-listening pop radio hits.

Image for post
Image for post
The Apollo 8 capsule, on display at the Smithsonian.

The show wraps up with the Apollo 8 mission, which at year’s end became the first man-made craft to circle the moon. That mission paved the way for the moon landing the following year, and at the time it had the equally important effect of reminding us that we could still perform technological miracles with exhilarating results.

There’s nothing wrong with focusing on light at the end of a tunnel. For those who were there, however, the better symbols of 1968 ran more toward Ford ruining the Mustang and the Beatles starting to break up. As Marvin Gaye would write a couple of years later, brother, brother, there were too many people dying to call 1968 anything except dark.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store