1968 and 2020

A lot of people asking whether 2020 is like 1968, most of them saying that they weren’t there. I was there – not in the riots, but rather focused on my own life. A few years married, in a job at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory that was below my capabilities but learning a lot about reactors. Just moved into a new house. I was not very political, although the Vietnam War was part of every young person’s consciousness.


In 1968, 400 Americans were dying every week in Vietnam. In 2020, more than 1000 Americans are dying every day from COVID-19. In both cases, disproportionate numbers of Black and Latino people are among them. In both cases, the feeling of danger is palpable across the population.

More people are out of work now than in the Great Depression.

We are still at the beginning of the summer of 2020. The summer of 1968 played out over several months.

April 4:  Martin Luther King assassinated

April 4 – 5:  Riots, particularly in Detroit

June 6: Robert Kennedy assassinated

August 26 – 29: Democratic Convention and police riot

Presidential Situation

President Lyndon B. Johnson announced on March 31, 1968, that he would not run for another term as president. He recognized that his handling of the Vietnam War would make for a divisive convention and campaign. “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” His vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, became the presumptive candidate, challenged by Eugene McCarthy, who opposed the war. Humphrey was not able to separate himself adequately from Johnson’s handling of the war. Richard Nixon claimed he had a secret plan to end the war.

Donald Trump is a sick human being who is incapable of presidential duties. He has damaged the United States government and sowed division among the American people. His tweets during the riots have been incendiary. Republican elected officials back him unconditionally. The presumptive Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, is a compassionate person with long experience in governing. At this moment, opinion polls show Biden winning decisively in November.

Communications and Media

We have smartphones now. Countless photos and videos of provocateurs and police misconduct are circulating on Twitter. Demonstrators are able to communicate with each other better, as are the police. Many more sources of information, bad and good, are available now to the public. It is harder for the media to overwhelm with conventional wisdom, although Trump’s Twitter feed provides too much distraction. Smartphones also allow for greater surveillance. Influential people in the media seem to be recognizing the problems and are beginning to speak out. Other nations are inserting disinformation.

The Protesters

My sense is that more white protesters are involved this time around, but it’s hard to be sure. Otherwise, the protesters are similar. People who feel they’ve been betrayed, who feel endangered, who feel they have nothing to lose, who feel things must change. Provocateurs are at work, probably were in 1968, but the lack of smartphones allowed them more latitude. We need to understand much more about who has been in these demonstrations.

The Police

In both years, the police response too often is racist. The demonstrations a few weeks ago by armed white men were treated carefully. The police seem to be rioting, as they did in August 1968, during the current protests. More of their animus now seems directed toward reporters. Police are much more militarized today, both in training and equipment, as a result of the reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001. In a few places like Flint, Santa Cruz, Miami, Fargo, and Atlanta, the police have demonstrated sympathy with the demonstrators and avoided the worst violence. I don’t recall that from 1968.

My Reactions

By the time the 1968 Democratic Convention blew up, my overwhelming feeling was that we had lost the good things that the early sixties won. The early sixties were about opening opportunity and removing barriers, particularly for Black America, but also for women. The later sixties were about reactions to the war, both protests and the retreat to hippiedom and drugs. Everyone lost in the summer of 1968.

I feel more optimistic today, even with the damage of the past few days. We are on the way to removing a disastrous president, and there seems to be increasing recognition that many other things need to be righted.

We have five months to the election, though. There will be another wave in the pandemic. There will be more damaging actions, at home and abroad, from Trump and his allies. There will be more disinformation. White supremacists will continue their activities. There will be more protests.

It’s not possible to predict how things will turn out. My sense, although it coincides with my wishes and is therefore suspect, is that we will remove Trump and rebuild a better America.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice

One comment

  1. The Blog Fodder · May 31, 2020

    I only hope you are right.


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