Blogging, or my interpretation of blogging, is about expressing your own interests and a lot of my posts on A World Affair include snippets of topics I have studied so far in my university life which have shaped my outlook on certain regions and periods.
1968, however, was a topic covered in a single lecture during my first year at university, yet its historical significance continues to amaze me.
I’d like to introduce the scope of events which occurred in this year, but I’d also like to address the main contentious themes that were enveloped into almost every form of activism: the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Cold War.
Key Events of 1968:
- The Prague Spring, Czechoslovakia
- The Tet Offensive launched by the Viet Cong
- Martin Luther King Jr assassinated
- Civil Rights Act
- Grosvenor Square Protest
- Paris Protests
- Black Power salutes of Tommie Smith and John Carlos
- “I’m Backing Britain” Campaign
The Vietnam War (1955-1975) was a proxy conflict fought between America against the Viet Cong, who were Communist insurgents operating in Northern Vietnam with financial backing from America’s adversaries: China and the USSR. The Vietnam War, however, was more than just a military conflict and in fact was a catalyst for protest that was reproduced in various formats throughout the Western world.
The Vietnam War was a costly affair; by 1967, 15,085 troops had been killed and the conflict on average was costing $25 billion a year. The anti-war liberal movements which emerged during the sixties which were connected to the stereotypically renowned “hippie” era, originated as student movements opposing the strictness and archaic nature of university life, including the restrictions on freedom of speech. These protests often drew on the ethical underpinnings of the Vietnam conflict, opposing the credibility of the Domino Theory as an ultimate ideological cover-up for U.S imperialism.
The conflict itself was American hypocrisy at its most blatant. The draft which was enforced by the U.S government disproportionately affected the population, with 76% of American troops coming from the lower working classes. The disproportionate nature of the conflict, however, is exemplified by the conscription of African-American who were often exposed to more dangerous forms of combat than their Caucasian counterparts.
The Vietnam War was the trigger which exposed the mockery of U.S foreign and domestic policies; ultimately, African-American’s were fighting in a war for a government that historically had oppressed them, and in the name of ‘liberty’ despite the denial of an identity beyond the derogatory, and outright racist umbrella term of ‘nigger’.
The injustice couldn’t be more overt.
Europe experienced its own 1968 with protests spanning all across the major cities evolving around a originating with student activists concerned with liberty. Europe’s year of protest, however, can be distinguished slightly from the U.S seemingly because of the influence of its Fascist past and the trauma of the Second World War which it was still attempting to overcome.
The German protests of 1968 illustrate this. The inheritance of Fascism and the genocidal baggage associated with the war years was the antithesis of the modernist political make-up of the post-war generations, who had an undeniably tense outlook towards governmental authoritarianism and the presence of former National Socialists in civil and governmental institutions. The relations between the West German government and the U.S was also incorporated into an anti-American discourse, accusing the U.S of imperialism and encouraging political instability in Indochina with their militaristic campaign. This diplomatic acquaintance was argued as evidence of German support for American intrusion and aggression against the Vietnamese people, thereby delegitimising the ethical status of the authorities.
Their 1968 was consolidated round student activism against the political framework of West Germany, but there also existed a subliminal and violent nature enveloped within some protesters; the arsonist attacks on two Frankfurt department stores by original members of the terrorist group, The Red Army Faction (RAF), in retaliation against police brutality and the Vietnam War discredits any assumption of a peaceful year of protest commonly associated with hippie activism. The fact that Andreas Baader and Gundrun Ensslin went on to form one of the deadliest terrorist organisation of the New Left who favoured a guerrilla insurgency in the FRG, and who also supported the outlawed PLO and the Viet Cong, ultimately symbolises the diversity of 1968.
1968 also found significance beyond the parameters of the West and was replicated in the oppressive scenery of Eastern Europe with the Prague Spring. Czechoslovakia was formerly integrated into the Warsaw Pact, and was firmly, therefore, at the mercy of Moscow and its paradoxical Communist-Imperialist agenda. Governmental ambitions to liberalise the press by introducing a level of free speech, as well as a decentralisation programme, was ultimately perceived as weakening the Eastern Bloc who were competing against the West for military and economic superiority. These ambitions were doomed to fail with Hungary 1956 being more than a credible example of the oppressive implications of such a liberalist outlook.
“May ’68” was France’s definitive moment of 1968, originating as a student protest movement against the imprisonment of individual students and the police presence at French universities, until eventually evolved towards a national crisis; strikes at the Renault Plant intensified to the extent that roughly two-thirds of France’s working population went on strike over worker’s rights. The protests subsided after May, but the main theme remained: dissent and injustice felt at the expense of the authorities.
You may have wondered why I have bothered to lecture you with a brief history lesson regarding a year our parents were probably born in (I know mine was), and what the significance of these events really was.
1968 was a transnational year. The anti-war and civil rights protest in the U.S which transgressed the Atlantic and emerged within Europe, with a European agenda, defied any expected consequence of these predominantly American issues; the different social movements mutually influenced each other regarding methods of activism, and they also merged to protest against the issues of liberty and oppression which eventually culminated into a global insecurity for Western governments – this is a scenario I personally couldn’t imagine happening today.
Some may argue it is the ‘year of the Left’, or that these protests were hippie-inspired with no fundamental meaning. They were Left-inspired, but they were also against societal conditions we today would be opposed to living in.
I personally would have thrived on an opportunity to experience the political activism of this year and have encountered the reality of some of the issues described, but unfortunately, this transnational nature just isn’t as resonant in the 21st Century hence my belief in the historical significance of 1968.