Who Lost the Picture Show?
1968 was a year in which America appeared almost to be coming apart. In January, TV news footage from Vietnam of hand-to-hand combat between US forces and Communist Viet Cong within the US embassy compound in Saigon and streetfighting in cities throughout South Vietnam shocked Americans who had believed the repeated promises of President Lyndon Johnson and his military commander in Indochina, William Westmoreland, that victory was at hand. The Tet Offensive (in strictly military terms a major setback) was a huge propaganda triumph for the North Vietnamese and contributed to a hardening of opinion against the conflict among middle Americans and the liberal establishment, if only because the war seemed manifestly unwinnable. Meanwhile antiwar protest on US campuses continued to intensify. Violent battles between student protestors and police became an increasingly familiar sight. The student left’s increasing radicalism was matched by the growing militancy of the civil rights movement, now increasingly turning away from Martin Luther King’s philosophy of principled non-violence and towards the more confrontational attitudes of black nationalism, personified in the slogan of the martyred Malcolm X: ‘by any means necessary’. The two crusades – antiwar and anti-racism – were profoundly connected.
It was a year in which dramatic and tragic events followed hard upon one another in an almost apocalyptic spiral. With the Tet Offensive still raging, Johnson lost the New Hampshire presidential primary to Senator Eugene McCarthy, running on an antiwar platform – an almost unprecedented humiliation for a sitting president. On 31 March, Johnson, a haggard shadow of the man who four years earlier had proclaimed the Great Society, a programme of far-reaching liberal reforms intended to complete Roosevelt’s New Deal, announced without warning that he would not run for re-election in November. Three days later Martin Luther King, whose own liberation politics had expanded and radicalised since 1966 to incorporate both antiwar and