Author Meacham: 1968 Still Casting A Long Shadow Today

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Jon Meacham. (Courtesy photo)
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September 18, 2018 - 6:45am

It’s been a half-century since one of America’s most influential years, 1968. It was the year of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy and general unrest across the nation. At the 23rd Annual Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities in Lincoln on October 9, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Jon Meacham will talk about that pivotal year and how it still casts a long shadow today. NET’s Jack Williams spoke to Meacham about why 1968 was so important.  


NET News: There are years that stand out in American history, and 1968 is one of them. Were there any rumblings that 1968 would be the watershed year that it was or was it just the convergence of unexpected events that turned it into the tumultuous year that it was?

Jon Meacham: Well, war is the most chaotic of forces and we tend to forget at the half-century mark how deeply and significantly Vietnam roiled the country. You had an extraordinary level of violence at home, obviously with the death of Dr. King and the death of Senator Kennedy. There were people when Richard Nixon ultimately won and went into office in 1969, there were White House aides who thought we were on the verge of an armed revolution. I think anyone closely following the course of the war in Vietnam probably saw that given the continuing escalation of American involvement and because of the draft, you had the war reaching into every neighborhood in American.

NET News: It was a year that also saw massive student protests on a variety of issues and progress in the feminist movement and civil rights. How did all these major battles all converge at one time? Did one give strength to another and so on?

Author Jon Meacham.(Photo by Gasper Tringale)

Meacham: Absolutely. I think it was, you know, we now talk about tipping points. But I think the overall theme was that the old order, the New Deal order, the establishment order, however you want to define it, an era of basically of consensus, that a largely white, largely patriarchal, certainly hierarchical set of decision makers would determine who was going to be on a presidential ballot, who was going to get hired, who was going to go to war, how money was going to be spent, who could marry who, who could sleep with who. Every conceivable sphere of life had largely been dominated by an establishment that was white and male, and for a series of reasons in kind of a cascading effect, that began, in a serious and discernible way, to break down and it came to a fever-hot pitch in 1968, largely in the political arena. This was a year that was shaped in the streets of America, in the deltas of Vietnam and the power was flowing from traditional corridors of influence to everybody and we continue to see that democratization of influence and power unfolding a half-century on.

NET News: Do you see any parallels at all with the events of 1968 and what’s going on today in politics and the stark divide that we see?

Meacham: Absolutely. In many ways, the 1960’s have never ended. What President Trump’s election has done is, it has shown us there are an enormous number of white Americans who are deeply concerned and unsettled by the demographic destiny of the nation, which is that we are not going to be a white-majority nation, we are not going to be a country that looks the way it did in 1968, or 1958 or 1948. It’s going to be different. It’s going to be more diverse. It’s going to be more culturally fragmented and the question we have to address as a country every day now, is can there be strength from that fragmentation, that is, is there E pluribus unum, in having many different cultures as opposed to this idea that there’s one big national culture and there are some exceptions to it and that’s the drama of the next 10, 20, 30, even 50 years.

NET News: 1968 cast a long shadow. How are things that happened 50 years ago this year still influencing us today?   

Jon Meacham: If you look at those Chicago cops and those protestors in Grant Park and Lincoln Park in Chicago in 1968, you see a vivid and violent manifestation of the same kind of conflict that elected Donald Trump and we see playing out every day. It’s a cultural struggle, that while settled for many people, for many others, it’s not over and they’re still fighting a rear-guard action and trying to hold onto a country that they think existed say under Dwight Eisenhower that suddenly did not exist in their view under Lyndon Johnson.


The 23rd Annual Governor's Lecture in the Humanities featuring Jon Meacham is October 9 at 7:30 p.m. at the Lied Center for Performing Arts in Lincoln, Nebraska. The lecture is sponsored by Humanities Nebraska, the E.N. Thompson Forum on World Issues and the University of Nebraska. The event is free and open to the public.   

Editor's Note: By way of full-disclosure, NET receives funding from Humanities Nebraska for humanities reporting. 

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