Fifty years since the world transformed itself

Arguably, it could be the most remarkable year post-WW II. What happened in 1968 and how they crafted the US and human history

I don’t claim remembering 1968. I was too young. I don’t think that matters. Everybody knows 1968. It was known to be one of the most remarkable years in world history. The year was so significant that TIME magazine called it the knife blade that divided the past from the future. “It had the vibrations of an earthquake about it…” TIME went on, “…America shuddered. History cracked open; bats came flapping out, dark surprises. American culture and politics ventured into dangerous and experimental regions: upload of new enlightenments, some people thought, and quagmires of the id. The year was pivotal and messy. It produced vivid theatre. It reverberates still in the American mind.”

Exactly 50 years later, in retrospective, we see the true impact of 1968 on American society. Before 1968, dominant white US voters would never have elected Barack Obama as their president. It was just inconceivable. Before 1968, a mega enterprise like Microsoft would not have appointed Indian-born Satya Nadella, with a first degree from a developing country and migrated only in his twenties, as its leader. Before 1968, an American President would not have visited Cuba, North Korea or any country that seemed even remotely hostile. America, Europe and the world were very different before 1968. It was the year that changed everything. Perhaps it was not just what happened within a year. For more than two and half decades, the stage was being set. The year 1945 saw the end of the deadliest war in human history. It was the most global war involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries.

The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. The fatalities were estimated to be 50-85 million,
most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. WW II also included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war. So at the end of it, the world was naturally looking for a break. Only, that break came more than two decades later.

Then there were other interesting developments. In 1960, the FDA approved the birth control pill, granting greater reproductive freedom to American women. This was to bring a freedom so far unknown to half the population: sex without the risk of pregnancy. Out of 80,000 species of vertebrates – 5,000 are mammals – Homo sapiens can cheat nature now. In other words, now, females can enjoy risk-free sex, a luxury previously available only to its counterpart. This brought no small change to human history.

The pill wasn’t the only victory for science and technology. A ‘race for space’ was on in the backdrop of the cold war between the US and the USSR. It began in 1957, when the Soviet Union beat the US with Sputnik 1 orbiting space. In 1961, USSR put the first human in space. The ‘race’ was so intense that President John F. Kennedy, in 1962, made his famous speech to a large gathering at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas, hinting that an American would set foot on the moon before the end of the decade. That made the 60s the space decade for the US.

These exciting advances led to a striking culmination in 1968. They made this a remarkable year. Some of the key events of the year – such as the seizure of the American intelligence ship by North Korea – would have happened in any other year, but the rest were inevitable. The world was screaming for a change, and that was exactly what 1968 brought. The scream and transformation came in multiple ways. In the middle of Vietnam War, for the first time in human history, a section of the community was directly opposing the war efforts of its own nation.

President Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election in March 1968 as there was ‘a division in the American House’. The war in Vietnam was fouling American life with US presence in Vietnam having grown to 525,000. Already, 19,000 Americans had died there. A popular street slogan of the times: “LBJ; How many kids did you kill today?”

Martin Luther King-Jr., an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement from 1954, was assassinated in April 1968. This again became a major turning point for the US and world history. Following that, Senator Robert Kennedy, at a famous speech in a largely black neighborhood in Indianapolis, said that violence breeds violence and only a cleansing of the whole soul can remove the sickness. Barely nine weeks later, he too was assassinated. The struggle for human rights though was stronger.

Not to be outdone, across the Atlantic, youth in France triggered a series of events that were more persuasive than the French Revolution two centuries earlier. The volatile period during May 1968 was punctuated by demonstrations and massive general strikes, as well as the occupation of universities and factories across France. At the height of its fervor, it brought the entire economy of France to a standstill. The protests reached such a point that political leaders feared civil war or a revolution; the national government itself momentarily ceased to function after President Charles de Gaulle secretly fled France for a few hours. While violence evaporated almost as quickly as it arose, it marked the very first anti-system expressions at large.

So far, the protests were against governments, not the system. This counter-culture sprit was apparent in everything and everywhere in 1968. The Beatles, an English rock band with estimated record sales of over 800 million physical and digital albums worldwide since, was at the zenith of their popularity. In 1968, following a seven-year break from live performances, Elvis Presley returned to the stage in the acclaimed television comeback special, Elvis, which led to an extended Las Vegas residency and a string of highly profitable tours.

Finally, Stanley Kubrick, inspired by Arthur c. Clarke’s short story ‘The Sentinel’ made the movie that moved the world to modernity: 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film, which follows a voyage to Jupiter with the sentient computer HAL after the discovery of a mysterious black monolith affecting human evolution, deals with themes of existentialism, human evolution, technology, artificial intelligence and the possibility of the existence of extraterrestrial life. The film is noted for its scientifically accurate depiction of spaceflight, pioneering special effects and ambiguous imagery. Today, we don’t see many of the above events as marvels. They look so natural. In the linear of human history, they would have happened at some point. True, but they happened in 1968. That was what makes it so special even 50 years later. After all, not all years make history the way 1968 did.