Like media outlets all over the country, Texas Standard is working on its “Year in Review” show in the remaining weeks of 2018. But these final days of the year are also a last chance to reflect on what was happening in the country 50 years ago. 1968 was a tumultuous year and a turning point in American history, and the University of Texas at Austin’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History has an exhibit that takes a deep dive into it.
Briscoe Center Associate Director for Communication Ben Wright says 1968 left a deep imprint on the American psyche. The year began with the Tet Offensive – a surprise attack by North Vietnamese forces against the South. Then it continued with momentous events on many fronts, including in war and politics. Wright says the Briscoe Center organized its exhibit by month in order to better capture what happened.
“If you look at 1968, something’s happening each month,” Wright says. “It’s just hammer blow after hammer blow, but Vietnam kind of is a thread that runs throughout the whole year, as is politics.”
Two months after Tet, President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek re-election, which came, in part, because Americans deeply criticized how he handled the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Wright says Johnson also believed leaving the political scene would give Democrats a better chance of winning the White House again. But that didn’t happen; Republican Richard Nixon was elected president in November.
In 1968, political assassinations also shocked the nation. First, Martin Luther King, then Robert F. Kennedy, were gunned down.
“These two assassinations are, in many, ways the fulcrum of the year,” Wright says. “It leads to disillusionment among minority communities, obviously, and then RFK’s [shooting] leads to massive disillusionment among young Americans of all stripes. … In the fight between progress and foul play, foul play is winning.”
Despite constant turmoil, and growing of cynicism among Americans after these horrific events, Wright says 1968 ended on an inspirational note. NASA launched Apollo 8, which orbited the moon. Wright says Apollo 8 was both a major media event and also a cause for optimism, as the astronauts captured photos of Earth from above.
“Rather than assassinations or protests or beleaguered politicians, you see the world’s first selfie,” Wright says. “You see the big blue marble in the sky.”
The Briscoe Center’s 1968 exhibit runs through Dec. 20 in Austin.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.