Essays on American politics and foreign policy
By Donald E. Nuechterlein
Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist
and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the
author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy,
- Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
- America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
- A Cold War Odyssey, 1997
YEARS 1968 AND 2008: DIFFERENCES OUTWEIGH THE PARALLELS
Those Americans who are fifty and older remember vividly the tumult and tragedy that engulfed the country in 1968. It was one of the 20th century's most perilous times in American politics.
The parallels with 2008 are apparent. Both were significant election years in which neither candidate was the incumbent president: both Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon had been a vice president. Then as now, the country was at war, in Vietnam in 1968 and in Iraq and Afghanistan today. In both cases, a new generation of young people was determined to assert greater influence on national politics, the boomer generation in the 1960s and the millennium generation now.
Tom Brokaw's new book, Boom: Voices of the 1960s, offers an especially insightful account of new, radical social forces in America that led to widespread turmoil in 1968. Consider the dramatic events that happened in the first eight months.
- The massive Tet offensive in February 1968, resulting in many American casualties, persuaded President Johnson that the war was unwinable. He decided not to seek reelection and started deescalating the war.
- The assassination in May of Rev. Martin Luther King, leader of the civil rights movement, set off major violence in American cities and heightened tensions between blacks and whites across the country.
- Senator Robert Kennedy's assassination in June was a sharp blow to the hopes of many Democrats that he would win the Democratic Party's nomination and go on to be president. This tragedy followed the assassination of his brother, President John Kennedy in 1963, and it widened the split between the World War II generation and the postwar "boomers."
- The Democratic Party's convention in Chicago in August was nearly closed down by thousands of rioters who opposed the Vietnam War and other policies of the federal government. The backlash against these "counter-culture" radicals was dramatized by Chicago's mayor, Richard Daley, who sent thousands of police to brutally put down the riots and arrest hundreds of resisters.
In his account of the public's reaction to these stunning events, Tom Brokaw suggests that Nixon's victory in the presidential election that fall was influenced by widespread revulsion against excesses of counter-culture radicals.
1968 does not, however, resemble the political climate in 2008. For example:
- Antiwar activities over Iraq have been small compared with the virulent protests that swept college campuses in the 1960s and produced massive marches on Washington. In the absence of conscription, the generation of Americans reaching maturity in 2008 seems far less interested in joining political demonstrations.
- According to opinion polls, the faltering economy is now a more important issue for the public than the Iraq war. In 1968, the economy was strong and the Vietnam war was the overwhelming issue.
- In foreign policy, no great power currently threatens vital U.S. interests. In 1968, however, China and the Soviet Union challenged those interests in Southeast Asia. One overriding similarity that bridges 2008 and 1968 is this: most Americans don't approve of the way the country is being governed. Whoever occupies the White House beginning next January must find a way to restore public confidence in our government.
If John McCain emerges as the nominee of the Republican Party, voters will have to decide whether their first priority is national security and homeland defense. If the answer is yes, they will select McCain because he has a consistent record in support of the Iraq war and strong national defense.
If Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama is selected as the Democrats' standard bearer, voters will need to decide whether domestic programs such as universal health care and education are their highest priority. Both have pledged to bring the troops home from Iraq and increase domestic spending.
In 1968, when Americans demanded an end to the Vietnam war, both presidential candidates, Nixon and Humphrey, promised to withdraw the troops. Today the story is different, as the surge in troops that President Bush ordered to Iraq last year has greatly improved security there.
Voters will need to decide in November whether to keep troops in Iraq longer to help build a democratic, pro-western state, or abandon the effort and bring the forces home. A repeat of 1968 is a real possibility.
File last modified on Monday, 15-FEB-2008 09:18 PM EST