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Ahlin: 1968: Lost significance

The average cost of a new house was $14,950, gas was 34 cents per gallon, movie tickets cost $1.50, the Dow Jones Industrial Average topped 900, and political dissention in the U.S. was worse than it ever had been. The year was 1968.

Good things happened in 1968: the first successful heart transplant was done, Apollo 8 became the first manned mission to orbit the moon, airbags were invented, the Boeing 747 took to the air, Emergency 911 telephone service got its start, and the first ATM was installed by First Philadelphia Bank.

Popular songs were "Hey Jude" (Beatles) and "Mrs. Robinson" (Simon and Garfunkel); popular movies were "Rosemary's Baby," "Planet of the Apes" and "The Graduate." Americans were unpleasantly surprised to discover that Jackie—the adored widow of President Kennedy—married the Greek magnate Aristotle Onassis who was 23 years her senior.

However, what put 1968 among the most significant years in U.S. history was not the good, the popular or the trivial. It was assassination, the Vietnam quagmire, anti-war protests, riots and the sense that America had stopped seeming invincible to foreign powers. Worse yet was the internal possibility that chaos—even anarchy—might prevail.

The bloodiest year of the Vietnam War was 1968: 14,584 American soldiers died. By the end of 1968, overall more than 31,000 U.S. soldiers had died and over 200,000 had been wounded. Soldiers stationed in Vietnam numbered above 500,000.

The year began with the surprise Tet offensive by the communists that had to be acknowledged as a psychological victory for them (militarily they were defeated). For Americans it was a rude wake-up call to the fact that our military leadership had been lying to us about how well the war was progressing. It was also the year of the My Lai massacre, too; however, that did not become public knowledge until 1969.

Also early in 1968, the ship U.S.S. Pueblo was captured by the North Koreans. One serviceman was killed and 82 were imprisoned for almost a year. When the Soviet military marched into Czechoslovakia in August to stamp out its democratic leanings, it seemed as if communism was ascendant across the world.

The assassinations two months apart of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy were the most stunning blows of the year—sucker punches to our national body that marked us as internally vulnerable. (As appalling as the 1963 assassination of JFK was, we had comforted ourselves that it was a one-off.) The 1968 assassinations magnified the despair of young people, which had led to hundreds of protests across the nation and in part culminated in the bloody altercation between police and protesters in the streets outside the summer Democratic convention in Chicago.

When the year ended, my friends and I agreed that America never again would have a year as threatening or divisive as 1968. Perhaps that's true. What rankles is we've never really come to terms with the history of that traumatic year.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email