by Wiliam H. Benson
December 25, 2008
On January 20, 1968, the Vietcong attacked five of Vietnam’s six major cities, most of its provincial capitals, and fifty towns. The Tet Offensive caught the American and South Vietnam forces by surprise, but within a week they had taken back all the cities and towns that had been lost. It was not the spectacular defeat that the media suggested it was.
In the following weeks, Congressmen, Senators, and members of the media, such as Walter Cronkite, began to call for an end to the war. Cronkite suggested that negotiation was “the only rational way out.” Public opinion swayed against the war.
In early March at the New Hampshire primary, the relatively little known Senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy, won 42% of the vote, nearly defeating President Lyndon Johnson. McCarthy was running for President with only a single idea: if elected he would end the war in Vietnam immediately.
On March 16, Robert F. Kennedy announced that he too would run for President, terrifying Johnson, who understood that Bobby’s political draw was greater than even McCarthy’s. Aides to the President told Johnson that he would lose the Wisconsin primary on April 2.
On Sunday morning, March 31, Martin Luther King gave a moving sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C.: “It seems to me I can hear the God of history saying, ’That was not enough! But I was hungry and ye fed me not. I was naked and ye clothed me not . . . “
That same Sunday, at night, LBJ spoke to the nation on television and announced that he would stop bombing almost all of North Vietnam, and that he was inviting the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table. Then, he surprised everyone when he said, “I shall not seek and will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” Knowing he could not win the election, LBJ chose to step aside.
On Wednesday, April 3, in Atlanta at the Masonic Temple, Martin Luther King gave another rousing sermon: “Because I’ve been to the mountaintop, . . . And He’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I have seen the promised land.”
The next day, Thursday, April James Earl Ray, an escaped convict, shot and killed Martin Luther King while he was standing on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel.
On June 4, Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian, shot Bobby Kennedy while he was walking through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, just minutes after he had given a speech to his supporters for winning the California primary election.
Later that summer of 1968, the Democrats convened in Chicago. Anti-war protestors marched in Grant Park until Mayor Richard Daley sent in his henchmen to club and gas these Yippies. The mayor was denounced from the podium of the Democratic convention for “Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago.”
In November the republican candidate, Richard Nixon, won the election, and little did the American public know, but he would greatly expand the war, resume bombing North Vietnam, and even send in troops into Laos and Cambodia.
On December 21, 1968, three men—James Lovell, William Anders, Frank Borman—atop Apollo 8 blasted off a Florida launching pad, bound for the moon, 240,000 and three days away. They would orbit the moon in a rehearsal for a lunar landing next summer.
“All of a sudden,” Lovell said, “just sixty-nine miles below, the ancient craters of the far side of the moon were slowly slipping by. We forgot the flight plan. We were like three kids in a candy store window.”
On Christmas Eve these three astronauts, the first men to be in a lunar orbit, took turns reading to an estimated billion people who were listening back on Earth the first ten verses of the first chapter of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. . . . And God saw that it was good.”
The year 1968 had been a horrible year—a divisive unpopular war, political maneuvering, student unrest, and two horrific assassinations—and yet the year ended on a hopeful and positive note, like a band that has missed all the notes in the song except the last one.
Have a very Merry Christmas, and may your 2009 be a very happy one.