This is the second of two columns reflecting on the year 1968 and, more generally, the 1960s. You are invited to send your own reflections on those times to this paper at email@example.com.
My experience of the 1960s, beginning when I returned to Louisiana in August 1965 to join the faculty at LSU, was of unremitting struggle on a multitude of fronts. There was the Civil Rights movement, which was a primary motive for returning south after graduate school. But because I got into that movement through the ACLU, I had to address a broad array of civil liberties issues in addition to racial segregation — among them, those associated with law enforcement and the administration of criminal justice, restrictions on assembly and leafletting, the commitment of the mentally ill, arbitrary rulemaking by school principals and government spying on social change activists.
Then there was the war in Vietnam — that dreadful and seemingly interminable assault on a people who had done nothing to us but simply wished to determine the future of their country themselves. The carnage was never far from consciousness, not only because of the daily news and the modest local resistance in which I took part, but also because most of my male students were subject to the draft.
I was caught up in two other arenas of conflict. One was my workplace. LSU was among the last universities to end compulsory ROTC. And it was going through the same paradigm shift in its relation to its students that U.S. higher education in general went through. In loco parentis (the school’s acting in the place of a parent) yielded to treating students as adults, with the rights and responsibilities thereof, but not without internal strife. The other was the Roman Catholic Church, to which I belonged at that time. The paradigm shift in the relation of clergy to laity mandated by Vatican II was similarly traumatic at the local level, mostly because so many laity didn’t want to assume responsibility for their spiritual lives.
When 1968 came along — first the Tet offensive, then MLK’s assassination and the ensuing urban riots, Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election, Robert Kennedy’s thrilling rise and then murder, the police rampage at the Democratic convention in Chicago, Nixon’s election — it seemed anything could happen. Yet, nothing that did happen either bolstered or dashed my dreams of a new America. I had none. I was too immersed in family, work, and the struggles at hand to explore revolutionary ideologies or alternative lifestyles. My largest hopes were to create an open society in the South and end the war in Vietnam.
Both those hopes were realized. The passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act spelled the end of the Old South, and Johnson’s refusal to raise the troop levels after Tet and his initiation of peace negotiations spelled the end of any U.S. commitment to victory. But at the time I didn’t recognize those moments as decisive. The losses just kept piling up, especially in Vietnam, where Nixon killed more Vietnamese than his three predecessors combined.
So I never had a sense of closure. Nor, in a larger sense, has the nation. Most of the Boomers resumed the bourgeois lives to which they were destined, their dreams dwindling into nostalgia. Economic power concentrated in ever fewer hands. The national security apparatus, temporarily discredited, soon regained its deadly grip. I stayed in the trenches, expecting little, growing old.
Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.