A new history — featured at this month’s Miami Book Fair- dissects one of America’s most turbulent years
1968 was a tumultuous time. It was a year that marked the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the bloodiest 12 months in that conflict’s history, and it was also notable for other tragedies; from the Biafran civil war, in which a million children starved to death, to the political assassinations of leading American progressives Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, both murdered in their prime. The Soviet Union brutally repressed liberalization movements in Czechoslovakia and Poland, while the Chicago police rioted and did their best to smash free speech at an American political convention. The feminist movement was born, Yasir Arafat took over the PLO, student riots swept not only America but also European capitals, and Richard Nixon was elected President.
It is hard to write about 1968 and do the year and its many sweeping events justice, but award-winning author Mark Kurlansky does just that in his book 1968: The Year That Rocked the World (Ballantine Books, $26.95). Emphasizing politics, he also covers the great social changes marked by sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. 1968 is especially relevant given our new quagmire in Iraq, the polarization caused by another Republican President, and the social unrest in the U.S. marked by issues such as inadequate health care and a lack of jobs. Kurlansky, who will read at this year’s Miami-Book Fair on November 14th, took time out for a free-flowing interview.
GERALD POSNER: Some commentators are comparing the U.S. involvement in Iraq to the morass in Vietnam that reached a crescendo in 1968. Fair comparison?
MARK KURLANSKY: In a broad sense, certainly. They have things in common. Both were started on premises that turned out to be lies. And both had no real way out. The government’s lies these days are similar to the Vietnam lies, that we are building democracy and that we have popular support. No one wants to say that in Iraq, as in Vietnam, there are two sides, one trying to drive out a foreign power and the other quislings jockeying for position by collaborating with the invader. A lot of innocent people in the middle are getting killed.
TRISHA POSNER: Well, where do you think we are in comparison with Vietnam?
In terms of where the war is in Iraq, it’s 1966. Still early. As for the antiwar movement, it is further along, largely as a direct result of Vietnam and the 1968 movement. A lot of us around did all this before, and we are the parents of a lot of young adults now. I recently went to one demonstration when the Republicans were in New York [for their national convention in August). I was trying very hard not to get arrested, as I was leaving with my family for a vacation that night, and a young guy told me his parents would be very disappointed if he was not arrested.
GP: In your book you point out that the draft during the
Vietnam War brought the issues home to college students. [More than 40,000 young men were being called up a month, and Lyndon Johnson had announced an end to the student deferment for graduate studies, subjecting another 150,000 graduate students to the draft starting in July 1968.] Will today’s young generation get as motivated about Iraq if there is no draft?
Yes, definitely. That is not to say it will be 1968 again. Young people are concerned and motivated, but would definitely be more committed if there was a draft. Today they organize on the Internet, not on the street. Bush and the Republicans fear that and they are right. They are scared about Internet sites like moveon.org, and the way it is organized on the Net, it can tap into young people, even if there isn’t a draft.
GP: But certainly without a draft, there can’t be as much personally at stake for young people.
That is true. I just don’t think the draft is a prerequisite to getting young people involved against Iraq. But without a draft, it does lower the level of intensity.
TP: Moving away from Vietnam to the year’s two political assassinations, which had the most devastating impact on the U.S.: Martin Luther King, Jr., or Robert Kennedy?
I couldn’t say. They each had a very different type of impact. If King had lived, he would still be around and would have had a major effect on American history. What would the Clinton administration have been like if Martin Luther King was alive? If Kennedy hadn’t been killed, he might have become President, and that would have taken this country in a completely different direction, but King had a lot to do with Bobby’s direction, anyway. Until 1968, King had a much bigger impact on the U.S. and the world. During the recent Democratic Party primaries, it was absurd to say that Al Sharpton is the best black leader in the country. It’s a misrepresentation of black leadership.
GP: After Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4th, the stock market declined less than one percent and then recovered its losses in one day. When Nixon resigned as President in 1974, the stock market lost 27 percent in a straight three-month decline. What does this tell you about stock investors?
It tells you that they are white.
GP: If the Black Panthers were around today, would they just be another hip- hop group with the guns but without the political commitment?
The Black Panthers are around. They are doing other things. One of them is now a Congressman [Bobby Rush, an Illinois Democrat]. They are a very difficult thing for people in the movement to assess and deal with. Too much violence, and most people agree violence is one of the things that was exploited by the right wing and got Nixon to power. On the other hand, a huge amount of violence was used against them. They are difficult and complicated to assess.
GP: One million children starved to death in Biafra in 1968 and it was a shocking event. The BBC reported last year that upward of 38 million Africans in six countries could face famines in the near future and it barely caused a ripple. Why have Westerners become completely desensitized to successive African famines?
Two reasons. One is that Biafra drove home the crisis of Africa. People forget that during the decolonization of the 1950s and 1960s, everyone expected Africa to do much better than it did. And Biafra was in Nigeria, which people expected to do very well. People have sunk into this view of Africa that famine is part of what Africans do-they starve to death. And like so many things in 1968, the media covered it in a way that they had never done before. The pictures of starving children had great impact.
GP: The media started something else in 1968, quite different from the grim reality of African famine. It introduced talking heads. Was that the year’s worst contribution to our society?
One of them. (Laughs] Might well be. Actually, thinking about it, the worst contribution from the year was Richard Nixon.
TP: A lot of people in South Florida are weak on their religious history. What do you have to say to those who think Bob Dylan was writing an ode to Florida’s oldest city with his hit ‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’?
What can I say of the people of Florida? I just hope they punch their ballots as they intend to during this election.
TP: Is there any truth to the British conspiracy theory that the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, secretly forced fashion designers to lower the hemlines of the London-invented miniskirt because the government was losing money on sales of the mini?
It is absolutely true they were losing money because of the measurement of the skirt. Children’s clothing was exempt from the British sales tax, then 12.5 percent. So if a skirt, under their law, wasn’t at least 24 inches from waist to hem, it was considered a children’s size and didn’t get taxed. So the mini was tax-free. It was a real serious thing to the government. You’re British, so maybe you know something I don’t, but I wouldn’t give much credence to the conspiracy theory, however.
TP: What is your favorite song from 1968?
“I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish. [In 1968, Kurlansky writes that song was a "grizzly anti-Vietnam War satire." For any of us who have listened to it, it could only be your favorite song if you hated the war. Both of us would have a tough time choosing a single best from a year of great hits, including Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "Hey Jude" by the Beatles, Otis Redding's "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay" "Mrs. Robinson' by Simon and Garfunkel, "Jumpin Jack Flash" by the Rolling Stones, and "Dance to the Music" by Sly & the Family Stone.]
It was a terrible year for movies. A lot of friends really, really liked Night of the Living Dead, thought it was a great movie, but their opinions might have been partly drug-induced. [Again, Kurlansky might be giving the movie industry short shrift here. There were some memorable films such as Rosemary's Baby, Bullitt and Planet of the Apes, but 1968 should be remembered most for Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, which caught the essence of the time, that changing technology was our friend but could eventually become our enemy.]
One of the best was Allen Ginsberg’s Planet News: 1961-1967. And although Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel/The Novel as History is actually about 1967, it was published in 1968, and is wonderful. And you can’t overlook Julius Lester’s Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!
TP: Norman Mailer also wrote Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968 that year. Even though half of it is about Miami, how many Miamians do you think have read it? Heard of it?
(Laughs] 3,500 have read it. And of those, only 20 remember today of hearing of it.
TP: By the way, you’ve won the prestigious James Beard award for best food writing for your book Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, and were a finalist for several awards for another food-related tome, Salt: A World History. What was your food connection to 1968? Sprouts?
I suppose brownies.
GP: If 1968 had been copyrighted, what would have been your second ‘best- year’ choice from the 1960s?
1964. But 1964 isn’t nearly as interesting since it is all about the U.S.-the Gulf of Tonkin, the election with Goldwater and Johnson, the Mississippi Freedom movement, the Civil Rights Act, “Dancing in the Street’-great, all of it, but all American.
TP: Was the Democratic Convention In Chicago-with its massive demonstrations and police riots-the last great political convention we will see, especially now that in a post-9/11 world, demonstrators have to be corralled several miles away from the candidates and delegates?
It is actually the last convention of any interest that will ever happen. I don’t know why anyone bothers to cover conventions anymore.
GP: We can’t have a 1968 interview without one drug question. Marijuana was possibly even more popular in 1968 than it is today. The average ounce of high- grade sinsemilla then cost about $30, versus a going rate today of 5600. Based on inflation, it should cost 5160. So is this evidence the war on drugs is working and making supply scarce and prices high, or did drug dealers Just get too greedy, starting with the Reagan boom years of the 1980s?
My understanding is, without much expertise in this area, it is a triumph of modern agriculture. Today, grass is evidently much more potent. You used to have to smoke half a joint to get the effect from a few puffs today.
TP: Obviously it’s not possible to cover everything that happened in a year, but why did you leave out Jackie Kennedy’s 1968 marriage to Aristotle Onassis?
No particular reason. I actually felt sorry for this woman, who had her husband murdered in front of her and had blood spattered all over her dress and got little sympathy for it. She saw the U.S. as a hopelessly violent country and thought Bobby would get killed. She was trying to get away from America by marrying Onassis.
GP: How do you explain the sweeping sexual liberation of 1968, the free-love movement, to a new generation that has grown up in a post-HIV/AIDS world?
My research assistant just graduated from college and did the book’s index for me. She put all the feminism stuff under ‘sexual revolution’ and I then realized she didn’t understand ‘sexual revolution.’ But the sexual morals that college kids live with today are about the same as those in 1968. They might be a little more careful because a deadly disease is around, but they aren’t shunning sex.
TP: Why did hippies have no fashion sense?
They were too stoned.
GP: Is the country more religious today than in 1968, and is that good or bad?
The U.S. is more religious than in 1968, more religious, actually, than any other Western democracy. By and large, it is a pretty negative thing. If religion is a way of narrowing your mind, it is going to lead to political repression and all sorts of negative things. Someone told me 48 percent of Americans believe in the Biblical version of creation, so no wonder they can believe the lies of George Bush. You can be a thinking religious person, but that is the minority, and the growth of religion in America has been of the narrow-minded type.
TP: You end your book by writing that the Apollo 8 space mission mesmerized the world, and temporarily took people’s minds off all the planet’s problems. Is there an equivalent event today that could shove aside, even for a moment, Iraq, famine, AIDS, the slaughter in Sudan, the continuing conflict in the Middle East?
I am not sure if people are agonizing over these issues as much as they should be. I don’t know if they feel they need that relief. In 1968 people were physically and emotionally spent, but they aren’t today. The election allows us to say that Bush is the problem and we must get rid of him, so there is a catharsis to this type of thinking. But if we get rid of him, we will still be in Iraq and still have millions of people who supported him. In 1968, people thought differently. In 1968 it was easy to get involved. We need a dose of it today, and that is why I wrote a whole book about it.