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Published:March 10th, 2008 03:58 EST
The Memorable Year of 1968

The Memorable Year of 1968

By Krzys Wasilewski

Sometimes one year, one event, can affect many decades. In 1914, a mentally-ill man in Sarajevo was able to plunge the entire continent into a four-year long war that claimed over 10 million human beings. The grievances that followed the Great War resulted in an even greater conflict. The trenches and concentration camps of the Second World War annihilated some 50 million lives and divided Europe for almost half a century. The year 1968 wasn't as tragic as 1914 – or even 1939 – but was no less revolutionary in its consequences.

The first days of 1968 showed that it would be an extraordinary 12 months. On January 5, communist Czechoslovakia elected Alexander Dubcek, who was considered a liberal among the ruling party's apparatchiks, for its leader. This decision wasn’t welcomed by Moscow and, after several months of verbal warnings, the Kremlin decided to send the Warsaw Pact forces and bring Czechoslovakia to her knees. Over 200,000 troops from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Hungary, and Poland marched into the defenseless country in August; around 100 people were killed in flare-ups in Prague and other major cities.

February was full of paradoxes. While South Vietnam – with the growing presence of American military – was striving for life, the rest of the civilized world tried to forget the Cold War reality, enjoying the Winter Olympics in the picturesque French city of Grenoble. One week before the sportsmen finished their competition, the first clashes between Israel and Jordan threatened the fragile peace in the Middle East.

March of 1968 will be remembered as the month when Europe walked on the verge of chaos. Hundreds of thousands of leftist students took to the streets of Paris, Bonn, Warsaw, and other European capitals to protest against conservative authorities and ossified social structures. In France and Germany, the protests resulted in the change of governments to more liberal entities. In Poland, the only country on the eastern side of the iron curtain where the protests occurred, the striking students were brutally quelled by the police and expelled from universities. Soon after, the Communist regime launched an anti-Semitic campaign against Polish Jews, who were disposed of their citizenship and forced to flee their homeland. Over 15,000 Poles of Jewish origin left Poland, never to come back; among them were many professors and artists who would later become Nobel Prize winners.

In April, American students stood up against the political establishment. On April 4, Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of the anti-segregationist movement, was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, an act which sparked waves of protests across the entire country. Three weeks later Columbia University was paralyzed by the students' occupation that demanded President Lyndon B. Johnson pull out American troops from Vietnam.

In May, Paris was burning, with massive student and worker strikes almost toppling the democratically elected government. Undaunted by similar events at home, the Italian Christian Democrats won the parliamentary election, gaining a slight victory over the Communist Party. Aldo Moro, a long time leader of the Christian Democrats, preserved the premiership which he would hold, with short breaks, until 1976. In 1978 he was kidnapped by communist militia, tortured and eventually executed.

In June, America was in the limelight again; and again it was a political murder. On June 5, Robert Kennedy, who joined the presidential race three months earlier, was shot while staying in his hotel room in Los Angeles, California. He died the next day. Kennedy was considered the front runner in both Democratic and national polls, and his assassination turned the 1968 presidential election upside down. On June 23, in the capital of soccer, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 74 people were trampled to death and over 150 were wounded in a stampede that erupted after a game between River Plate and Boca Juniors.

On the first day of July, the CIA launched its infamous Phoenix Operation that was to search South Vietnam for alleged Communist-supporters and neutralize them – by force if necessary. Also in July, Saddam Hussein was appointed the vice chairman of the Revolutionary Council in Iraq after his secular forces ousted the regime of President Abdul Rahman Arif. On July 25, the Vatican released an encyclical in which Pope Paul VI criticized birth control and banned Catholics from using contraception.

In August, the United States Republicans and Democrats were electing their presidential candidates. The first chose the former vice president, Richard M. Nixon, with Spiro Agnew as his running mate. The Democratic Party, still in disarray after the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the pull-out of President Lyndon B. Johnson, picked the incumbent vice president, Hubert Humphrey, who at that time was leading in most opinion polls.

In comparison with other months, September passed almost unnoticed. The small kingdom of Swaziland, located in southern Africa, gained independence with Sobhuza II as its absolute monarch. In Greece, the US-sponsored military dictatorship won a popular referendum that sanctioned the coup from 1967.

October witnessed the first manned Apollo mission – number 7 – which produced pictures of the moon and checked the system later used by Apollo 11. On October 11, Colonel Omar Torijos toppled the righteous government in Panama and established the rules of military. One day later, the XIX Olympics Games began in Mexico. Unlike the previous games, political events dominated the Mexican tournament with three African-American sprinters raising their right hands in the black power salute during a medal ceremony. Also in October, the Johnson Administration announced that it would send 24,000 troops to South Vietnam.

In November, Americans got their new president. Republican Richard M. Nixon narrowly defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, who ran on the American Independence Party's ticket. Despite many successes in foreign policy, such as the establishment of diplomatic relations with communist China, the Nixon Administration will always be remembered for the Watergate scandal that affected the way Americans looked upon the next presidencies.

December of 1968 lacked major breakthroughs, but the past 11 months had a great impact on world history. Student strikes in Europe changed the continent's political life and allowed new leftist parties to emerge. The assassination of Robert Kennedy opened the way to the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, who began the new period in American foreign and domestic policy.

The world as we know it now began in 1968.