1968: Historical Template or Sui Generis?

We shouldn’t let the 50th anniversary of 1968, one of the most consequential years of the last half of the 20th century, pass without recognizing its importance. But rather than a passive review, let’s take a deeper look at how 1968 might relate to our lives today. After all, what is history if not a disciplined interpretation of past events as a tool to better navigate contemporary life?

So, class, put away your books and put on your thinking caps. Here’s a review of the major events in 1968. Each one carries a multiple-choice answer – does the event have parallels with today or not, or is it just unclear? The “answers” are highly subjective (i.e., my opinion). You are free to disagree, rebut or discuss. Now, on with the quiz.

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  • “60 Minutes” launches on network TV.
    1. Yes, I see parallels today
    2. No, this was a unique event
    3. I’m not sure

Answer: 2 — The rise of social media, cable, DVRs and smart phones have obliterated this kind of national programming; even though “60 Minutes” remains on air, check out the kind of advertising it draws. Not sustainable.

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  • “Hair” debuts on Broadway.
    1. Yes, I see parallels today
    2. No, this was a unique event
    3. I’m not sure

Answer: 1 — “Hair” was the progenitor of even more explicit Broadway plays such as “Intimacy,” where nudity is taken to its logical conclusion.

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  • The Beatles form Apple Corp., release “Hey Jude” and the “White Album.”
    1. Yes, I see parallels today
    2. No, these were unique events
    3. I’m not sure

 Answer: 2 —  Music and culture have splintered into a thousand genres and subcultures. We’ll never again witness a singularity like the Beatles.

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  • Vietnam hovered over the country like a dark cloud. In chronological order, the war in Vietnam catalyzed these events: 5,000 women march in Washington protesting the war; North Vietnam launches the Tet Offensive, exposing the U.S. government’s prevarications regarding the course of the war; the Associated Press runs Eddie Adams’ shocking photo of a South Vietnamese police officer shooting a Viet Cong soldier at point blank range in the head on a Saigon street; the My Lai massacre; at the Battle of Ben Tre, an American officer tells the AP, “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it”; LBJ, undone by the burden of war, declares he will not run for re-election; the Paris Peace Talks begin.
    1. Yes, I see parallels today
    2. No, these were unique events
    3. I’m not sure

Answer: 1 — Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, etc. Enough already. Give peace a chance.

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  • North Korea seizes the USS Pueblo; one crewman is killed and 82 are imprisoned, leading to an 11-month standoff.
    1. Yes, I see parallels today
    2. No, these were unique events
    3. I’m not sure

Answer: 2 — It’s hard to imagine an event like the Pueblo happening today and not leading to catastrophic military action.

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  • The largest oil and natural gas discovery in North American history is made at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.
    1. Yes, I see parallels today
    2. No, this was a unique event
    3. I’m not sure

Answer: 1 — In retrospect, the Prudhoe Bay Discovery foreshadowed today’s renaissance of oil production in the U.S.

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  • Bobby Kennedy enters the presidential race, citing “deep divisions within our party and country. It is now unmistakably clear that we can change these disastrous, divisive policies only by changing the men who make them.” He is assassinated in June.
    1. Yes, I see parallels today
    2. No, these were unique events
    3. I’m not sure

Answer: 1 — Sadly, the division and violence of politics remains, amplified by 24/7 cable news and social media.

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  • Race, like Vietnam, was a dominant and volatile issue. Major events include: James Earl Ray assassinates Martin Luther King in Memphis; LBJ signs landmark Civil Rights Act; race riots continue as the Kerner Commission concludes America is “moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate but unequal”; 15,000 Latino high school students in Los Angeles walk out of classes to demand a better education; Shirley Chisholm becomes the first black woman elected to Congress; in South Carolina, police open fire on students protesting segregation, killing three and wounding 27.
    1. Yes, I see parallels today
    2. No, these were unique events
    3. I’m not sure

Answer: 1 — We’ve come so far in some respects (Obama) and yet remain haunted by the failure of the melting pot and the ideal of e pluribus unum.

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  • Students in the U.S. and worldwide protest the war and the “military-industrial complex”; in Mexico, up to 400 student demonstrators are killed by police 10 days before the Summer Olympics in Mexico City; in Chicago, students take to the streets during the Democratic Convention and the city erupts in chaos.
    1. Yes, I see parallels today
    2. No, these were unique events
    3. I’m not sure

 Answer: 3 — Are “safe places” and “trigger warnings” the analogs of 60s student activism? I think not. 

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  • Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce start a tech company called Intel after deciding that Moore-Noyce sounds too much like “more noise”; Doug Englebart demonstrates a new “hypertext” system and a prototype for a computer “mouse” at a San Francisco event that eventually becomes known as “the mother of all demos.”
    1. Yes, I see parallels today
    2. No, these were unique events
    3. I’m not sure

Answer: 1 — We all know how that ended up.

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  • The Soviet Union invades Czechoslovakia.
    1. Yes, I see parallels today
    2. No, this was a unique event
    3. I’m not sure

Answer: 1 — Crimea?

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  • Richard Nixon tries to remake his image by appearing on “Laugh-In” (which debuted in 1968) and inviting viewers to “sock it to me.”
    1. Yes, I see parallels today
    2. No, this was a unique event
    3. I’m not sure

Answer: 1 — Now, you can’t run for national office without a stop on one of the late-night shows. Nixon was an occasional genius.

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  • Yale University decides to admit women as undergrads for the first time in 267 years.
    1. Yes, I see parallels today
    2. No, this was a unique event
    3. I’m not sure

Answer: 1 — We’ve come so far since then that Yale’s 267-year misogynistic standoff seems hard to believe. And yet barriers to full gender equality remain deeply embedded in our culture and workplace.

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  • The first Rotaract Club (Junior Rotary) forms in Charlotte, NC.
    1. Yes, I see parallels today
    2. No, this was a unique event
    3. I’m not sure

Answer: 1 — America’s spirit of community engagement refuses to wither; today there are more than 9,000 Rotaract chapters with 290,000 members worldwide. More than 25 percent of Americans do some sort of volunteer work and U.S. philanthropy grew 5 percent in 2017 to a record $410 billion.

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  • The UCLA-Houston basketball game featuring the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (the “game of the century”) is the first NCAA match-up to be nationally televised, planting the seeds for March Madness.
    1. Yes, I see parallels today
    2. No, this was a unique event
    3. I’m not sure

Answer: 1 — But could any sports fan in 1968 ever have imagined March Madness today, or Joe Buck announcing golf? 

Conclusion: History may not repeat itself, but sometimes it forecasts.

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