2005; 480 pages. Full Title : 1968 – The Year That Rocked The World. New Author? : Yes. Genre : Non-Fiction; World History. Overall Rating : 9*/10.
1968 was a tumultuous year for me. I graduated from high school in June, and a few weeks later my family packed up everything, formed a U-Haul caravan with another family, and traveled the length of Route 66 from eastern Pennsylvania to the just-being-developed community of Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where my dad had been promised a job and a house.
When we arrived, there was no job and no house. So for the entire month of August we camped in tents on the sandy shores of Lake Havasu. During that time, I added a new word to my vocabulary: MONSOON, which came up every afternoon and obliterated our tents, along with everyone else’s, imbuing every possession we had with millions of grains of gritty sand. We sweated in 115° heat combined with lakeside humidity, we showered in the park’s public restroom facilities, and we cooked over a portable Coleman stove.
After 30 days, I was mercifully allowed to fly back to Pennsylvania, to start my freshman year at Penn State, and get introduced to being out on my own, a couple thousand miles from my parents and siblings. Needless to say, that too was a tremendous upheaval in my life.
I vowed never to go camping again, and never to return to the hellhole called Arizona. I am happy to say I made good on one of those two vows.
Why do I recount this? Well, according to Mark Kurlansky, the entire world was having that kind of year in 1968.
What’s To Like...
The hypothesis is given at the very start of the book: “There has never been a year like 1968”. The focus is on the unrest that was seething all over the globe that year, and the protests that seemed to spring up spontaneously therefrom.
I thought the structure of the book was great. Mark Kurlansky divides 21 chapters into four logical and chronological sections:
The Winter of Our Discontent (chs. 1-4)
Prague Spring (chs. 5-13)
The Summer Olympics (chs. 14-19)
The Fall of Nixon (chs. 20-21)
There is heavy emphasis on the history that was unfolding in 1968, which I very much liked. The main topics examined are:
a.) the reform movement in Czechoslovakia, and the subsequent Russian invasion.
b.) the worldwide protests, especially in the US, of the Vietnam war.
c.) student and worker protests in France, Poland, and Mexico.
d.) US college protests, particularly at Columbia.
e.) the genocidal war in Biafra.
f.) the violence at the Democratic convention.
g.) the rise of feminism.
h.) the civil rights movement and the rise of Black Power.
i.) the 1968 Olympics.
It was nice to “re-meet” some people that have long since slipped out of my mind. Folks like Alexander Dubcek, Abbie Hoffman, Eugene McCarthy, Stokely Carmichael, Vaclav Havel, and Betty Friedan. I enjoyed the nod to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and the kewl quotes and intriguing titles that started each chapter.
1968 ties into three other books I’ve read in recent years: Ravens in the Storm by Carl Oglesby (reviewed here); The Essential Ginsberg by Allen Ginsberg (reviewed here), and The Harvard Psychedelic Club by Don Lattin (reviewed here). Mark Kurlansky admits to being prejudiced in his viewpoint of 1968, having lived through it (he was born in 1948). I appreciated that sort of candor.
For me the best thing about the book was being enlightened by some of the background “maneuverings” that went on. For instance, picking a city for a civil rights protest was not a random selection. Martin Luther King adhered to a principle that came from Gandhi: To be successful, a non-violent protest must provoke a violent response. Otherwise, there will be no press coverage. Selma was chosen not because it was necessarily more segregated than any other city in the Deep South, but because its police chief was known to be a violent bigot. His response to a peaceful protest march was quite predictable.
Similar planning and tactics by the protest organizers ensured that the Democratic presidential convention in Chicago would be exceptionally bloody. When they chanted “the whole world is watching”, it wasn’t a spontaneous event; it was a declaration that their carefully-laid strategies had succeeded.
In June 1969 he came up with the Weathermen, a violent underground guerrilla group named after the Bob Dylan lyrics “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” In March 1970 they changed their name to the Weather Underground because they realized that the original name was sexist. In hindsight, it seems evident that a guerrilla group started by middle-class men and women who name their group from a Bob Dylan song will likely be their own worst enemies. (loc. 6504)
The year 1968 was a terrible year and yet one for which many people feel nostalgia. Despite the thousands dead in Vietnam, the million starved in Biafra, the crushing of idealism in Poland and Czechoslovakia, the massacre in Mexico, the clubbings and brutalization of dissenters all over the world, the murder of two Americans who most offered the world hope, to many it was a year of great possibilities and is missed. As Camus wrote in The Rebel, those who long for peaceful times are longing for “not the alleviation but silencing of misery.” (loc. 6948)
The Kindle version of 1968 sells for $9.99 at Amazon. Its related book, 1969, goes for $1.99, but is by a different author. It is on my Kindle, waiting to be read. Mark Kurlansky’s other e-books, all non-fiction, are in the $1.99-$16.99 price range.
Like an unnoticed tree falling in the forest, if there is a march or a sit-in and it is not covered by the press, did it happen? (loc. 769 )
Some Amazon reviewers felt that 1968 “jumped around too much”, from one topic to another. I didn’t find this to be true, and felt that the book’s timeline structure (season by season) helped link the topics to each other. For instance, at the same time the Democratic convention was going on, the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia. That certainly hurt the Democrats, as Nixon was preaching a “get tough on Communism” message. Still, 1968 is "history" for most readers, but it’s “old current events” (is that an oxymoron?) for me. Perhaps when it's before one's time, it's harder to follow.
It also should be recognized that most of the topics can’t be limited to simply events in 1968. The civil rights movement started in the 50’s; the American involvement in the Vietnam war started in the early 60’s. You can’t discuss the 1968 dynamics without first recounting the background.
Finally, the last 13% of the e-book consists of notes, a bibliography, permissions to use other people’s pictures and texts, and other books by the author. At the tail end of all that are some “extra” quotes that Mark Kurlansky thought were apropos. All those other bits of miscellany are skippable, but those final quotes are worth taking the time to look up.
9 Stars. For me personally, 1968 was a great book, bringing back memories of a pivotal year in my life. Subtract ½ star if that year is just a history lesson for you. You’ll still enjoy it, but it may not resonate quite so much.