By any reasonable standard, the year 1968 was a wretched time in the life of humanity. In Prague, Soviet tanks wiped out Czechoslovakia's attempt at democracy. In Vietnam during the Tet offensive, a 15-man suicide squad fought its way into the U.S. embassy, making it appear that the Americans had lost a major battle. In Nigeria, a million people were starving to death as Biafra's separate state was smothered. There were campus and ghetto riots across America. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.
But if you add the right emotional and political colouring, 1968 looks like a fine, exhilarating time. Anyone who cherished dreams of revolution reacted with pleasure to student rebels from Paris to New York. Today, still-delusional 55-year-olds recall the calamities of '68 as something wonderful that happened in their youth. Perhaps they remember the fun parts, like the slogan on a wall in Paris when the soixante-huitards, as they now proudly call themselves, shut down the city: "Be realistic, ask for the impossible."
Mark Kurlansky, the author of books like Salt: A World History and Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, revisits that era in 1968: The Year That Rocked the World (Ballantine), a fact-packed account that will induce nostalgia in many survivors of the era, a shudder of horror in the rest and astonishment in those who weren't there.
Kurlansky sees it all through highly romantic eyes. He never met a protest movement he didn't like, and there were plenty of them in 1968. He makes an interesting if shaky argument for 1968 as "the birth of our post-modern media-driven world" and looks north to Canada for evidence. He sees Pierre Trudeau, who became prime minister that year, as the pioneer of a new kind of leadership, "where a figure is known by style rather than substance." Kurlansky quotes Trudeau's friend Marshall McLuhan: "The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favour of his image."
Like everyone else who lived through 1968, Kurlansky (he was 20 that year) wonders how it was that youth rebellions happened in so many different places. He settles on the convergence of four factors: Worldwide horror over the Vietnam war, the growth of the American civil rights movement, the increased power of mass media (satellite transmission of TV news began that year), and general youth alienation.
The last two were connected. Young people in Rome and San Francisco simultaneously adopted similar views because they were absorbing the same music and the same TV images. It didn't require an international conspiracy. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leader of the big Paris demonstrations, said that when 1968 began he didn't know anything about radicals outside France. "We met through television." When the BBC summoned young rebels from various countries for a broadcast discussion in London, they were an assembly of strangers.
Kurlansky gives too little attention to economics. In the 1960s the young were collectively rich for the first time in history, the beneficiaries of the enormous wealth-generation that followed the Second World War. They were the first young people in history who could take mass prosperity for granted. Naturally they regarded this situation as morally repellent, and did all they could to change it, which turned out to be not much.
Sometimes you could briefly glimpse where all this was heading. At the CBC, I interviewed some 1960s rebels as they defined their generation in angry rhetoric. After the microphones switched off I heard them comparing their new leather gear and talking about where they had bought it and for how much; already they were enlisting in the army of consumers. Others, even in rebellious moments, quietly prepared for careers. In England in June, 1968, I spent a day at an art college where students had taken control and expelled the teachers. The most enthusiastic leader told me he was giving many interviews, which he said he valued as preparation for the career in public relations that he was planning.
Still, there was a sense that something potent had started and nothing could stop it. Many thought (and many others feared) that the noisy and flamboyant New Left of 1968 would influence politics in the democracies for decades. We were all wrong. In a twinkling the time of radical change was over and the values that seemed so consequential simply evaporated.
At the beginning of 1968, radical factions like the Weatherman and the Black Panthers in the United States could count on the sympathies of a multitude. But the passions of the young, swiftly ignited, were just as swiftly extinguished; they vanished as mysteriously as they came. The remaining radicals, as they plotted their war against the Establishment, found themselves stumbling alone through an ideological desert.
At the end of 1968, in France, the Gaullists (who in springtime seemed doomed for sure) were comfortably back in power. In the United States, Richard Nixon was about to move into the White House, a residence that would be occupied by Republicans for 24 of the next 36 years. That was the last thing anyone could possibly have predicted in 1968.