Hello, dear readers, and Happy New Year!
Let’s at least hope that it’s happier than 1968. This year marks the 50th anniversary of arguably the most tumultuous year in American history since World War II. For 51 weeks, one could forgive Americans for feeling despondent about the state of their country and planet. Only in the year’s last lurch did we near the end of the dark tunnel and find a hopeful light — ourselves.
As this year marches forward, the news will highlight many 50th anniversaries of 1968. Since PPFA always wants you one step ahead, below is a preview of some of those anniversaries. It’s also a lesson; for those who are depressed about the state of modern world and American affairs, always remember that we can be our own light at the end of the tunnel.
(Note: if you’re someone who doesn’t like to be reminded of depressing events, feel free to scroll to the bottom where I spend the most time on the year-end highlight.)
1/15: A cascade of earthquakes in Sicily kills around 400 people, injures a thousand more, and leaves a hundred thousand homeless.
1/21: The Vietnam War’s Battle of Khe Sanh begins, ultimately resulting in the deaths of about 3,000 Americans with 9,000 more wounded, while North Vietnamese losses number between 5,000 and 15,000.
1/25: The first of 1968’s four mysterious submarine disappearances, Israel’s Dakar sinks. The others will be France’s Minerve (just two days later), the Soviet Union’s K-129 (March 8), and the USS Scorpion (May 22). They respectively lost 69, 52, 98, and 99 men.
1/30: Vietnam’s infamous Tet Offensive begins. To that point, it was the largest offensive of the war, and a hundred thousand on both sides eventually die as a direct result of it.
1/31: The Massacre at Hue begins in Hue, Vietnam as North Vietnamese forces try to subjugate the city. Up to 6,000 are killed — 10 percent of Hue’s population.
2/1: One of history’s most disturbing photographs depicts the execution of a North Vietnamese soldier. The photo is credited with catalyzing new resistance to the war from the American public.
2/8: Three black college students are killed at a civil rights protest at a white-only bowling alley in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Called the Orangeburg Massacre, it’s a harbinger of later high profile bloodshed at Jackson State and Kent State universities.
2/12: More massacres on the other side of the world. Up to 79 North Vietnames dead, allegedly at the hands of US marines.
2/23: As a result of the heavy American casualty count yet in Vietnam, a new draft of 48,000 American men begins.
2/25: Another massacre in Vietnam.
It’s only February.
3/12: In the New Hampshire Democratic Primary, sitting President Lyndon Johnson barely defeats upstart anti-war US Senator Eugene McCarthy. It becomes clear that the country and the Democratic Party are increasingly split on the Vietnam War. This division will culminate at summer’s Democratic National Convention.
3/16: Another massacre in Vietnam.
3/16: Democratic Senator Robert F. Kennedy, whose brother, President John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated five years earlier, declares his own candidacy for the presidency.
3/17: Vietnam protests spread to London’s Grosvenor Square, the site of the U.S. embassy, where a melee injures 91 and leaves 200 arrested.
3/19: The start of a 5-day sit-in from black students at Howard University continues the rise of aggressive student activism.
3/24: Aer Lingus Flight 712 crashes off the coast of Ireland, killing 61.
3/31: President Johnson, a couple weeks after his New Hampshire embarrassment, declares he’s not running for another term.
4/4: One of the big ones: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated. He was 39. Riots erupt in cities across the country, resulting in 45 dead, 2,500 injured, and over 15,000 arrested. The effects were far-reaching; not only was there loss of life and destruction of property, but political divides deepened as well. Liberal and Black Power movements grew louder and more militant, while whites fled urban areas and conservatives implored for law and order. Fifty years later, these divisions persist.
4/6: A shootout in Oakland between police and Black Panthers leaves a 16-year-old dead and wounds belligerents on both sides. Meanwhile, in Richmond, Indiana, two gas explosions kill 41 and injure 150 more.
4/10: A ferry off the coast of New Zealand hits a reef and sinks, killing 53.
4/26: My mother turns 20. This is mind-blowing to me.
5/3: Braniff Flight 538 crashes in Texas. All 85 people on board are killed.
5/13: For a variety of reasons, a million Parisians begin to take to the streets in massive protests that evolve into worker strikes of millions more, shutting down a fifth of the country’s economy for weeks. President Charles de Gaulle, after police action incited more aggressive activity, eventually flees the country before calling for new elections.
5/15: A series of deadly tornadoes begin in the American Midwest, killing 72.
5/17: Maryland’s Catonsville Nine publicly burn 378 Vietnam draft cards.
6/3: Artist Andy Warhol is shot and serious wounded.
6/5: Another big one: Robert Kennedy wins the California Primary and wrests momentum from McCarthy in the 1968 Democratic nomination fight. Shortly after his victory speech at Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel, nearly five years after his brother’s assassination, and just two months after Dr. King’s, Robert is also shot and killed. He was 42.
6/23: A soccer stampede in Buenos Aires kills 74 and injures 150 more.
6/26: Brazil’s “March of the One Hundred Thousand” protests against its military dictatorship and its recent killings at smaller protests.
7/3: A Heathrow airport plane crash kills five people and eight horses. I told you this was a bad year.
7/8: Another plane crash, 11 dead.
7/13: Another plane crash, 7 dead.
7/17: Saddam Hussein, 31, helps overthrow the Iraqi government and becomes Vice Chairman of the Revolutionary Council.
7/21: Another plane crash, 14 dead.
7/23: Starting the Glenville shootout in Cleveland, police and a Black Power group exchange gunfire until seven people are dead. Riots follow and two more people are killed.
7/28: Another plane crash, 10 dead.
7/30: Another plane crash, 9 dead.
8/2: A 7.6 magnitude earthquake rocks the Philippines, killing over 200 and injuring hundreds more.
8/8: The Republican Party nominates Richard Nixon for President and Spiro Agnew for Vice President. They proceed to win and have two terms without any controversy.
8/18: Heavy rains cause mudslides that push two Japanese charter buses into the Hida River, killing 104.
8/20: The Soviet Union, with a quarter of a million soldiers, two thousand tanks and four of its allies, invades Czechoslovakia in the largest European military operation since World War II. It’s so overwhelming that defensive forces stand down, but not before 137 Czechs and Slovaks are killed.
8/24: France detonates its first hydrogen bomb. Five countries now have the largest weapons in history.
Last week of August: the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention. Though 80 percent of primary votes went to antiwar candidates, only 13 states held primaries. The other 37 states used state party conventions, which were much more controllable by party leaders. Those conventions mostly supported Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was closely tied to increasingly unpopular President Johnson and seen as a continuation of ongoing Vietnam policy. Humphrey entered no primaries and yet was going to be the nominee of the “Democratic” Party. As a result, over 10,000 protesters descended on Chicago to send a message to the party and President. Considerable clashes between them and Chicago police resulted in injuries to over 500 protesters, over 100 bystanders, and 150 police officers. Outside, police brutality was caught on tape, while inside, the party coronated Humphrey as its nominee, a striking contrast. The party’s civil war debuted to a nationwide audience, and many think swing voters, on that night, began a migration to the Republican ticket promising law and order.
8/28: US Ambassador to Guatemala, John Gordon Mein, is assassinated by rebels in Guatemala City.
9/5: My father turns 17. Again: mind-blowing.
9/11: Air France Flight 1611 crashes in the Mediterranean, killing all 95 on board.
10/2: Less than two weeks before Mexico City hosts Latin America’s first Summer Olympics, hundreds of students use the world’s attention to protest the government’s lack of democracy and social justice. The government claims instigators attacked police, which justified the Tlateloco Massacre that followed. It slaughtered up to 400 civilians.
(If it feels like there were lots of protests in 1968, you’re right.)
10/3: General Juan Velasco Alvarado overthrows the democratically elected president of Peru.
10/5: Civil rights protesters in Northern Ireland are beaten indiscriminately by police, injuring more than a hundred.
10/11: Another coup in Latin America, this time in Panama, as General Omar Torrijos overthrew a president of his own.
10/14: The US Defense Department announces that 24,000 Americans will return to Vietnam for involuntary second tours.
10/16: The Jamaican Rodney riots, which began as a protest over the banning of socialist and Black Power activist Dr. Walter Rodney from returning to the country, results in several deaths and the destruction of millions of dollars in property.
11/1: The US military ends Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam. American intelligence estimated the operation killed as many as 180,000 North Vietnamese. American casualties numbered about a thousand.
11/19: Another military coup, this time in Mali.
11/20: An explosion at a Farmington, West Virginia coal mine kills 78.
12/6: Operation Taylor Common begins in Vietnam, ultimately resulting in the deaths of 1400 North Vietnamese, 100 South Vietnamese, and 183 Americans. The whole of 1968 becomes the war’s deadliest year for US soldiers, with 16,899 killed.
Without question, most of 1968 was, to say the least, rough. We could forgive its people fearing the next morning’s headline. Dr. King gets shot, Bobby Kennedy gets shot, hundreds of American young men are coming home in coffins each week, there are coups in Latin America, protests and massacres around the world, earthquakes killing hundreds, a dormant volcano wakes up, planes are going down, subs are going missing, the Soviets are going into central Europe, and race relations tear at the fabric of the American quilt.
But then. THEN!
It was as if 1969 arrived a week early.
When it comes to NASA’s hallmark Apollo missions, most of our attention rightly rests on Apollo 11 (the first manned mission to land on the moon) and Apollo 13 (the first manned mission to feature Tom Hanks). However, I’ve long had a soft spot for Apollo 8.
Every Apollo mission was the first to do something. The one-line summary of Apollo 8’s achievement is that it was the first mission to orbit the moon. To me, however, it represents so much more.
It blasted off from Florida on December 21, 1968. (I love that it was the winter solstice, a day that marks the end of creeping darkness and the beginning of longer, more promising days ahead.) Sitting on top of the Saturn V rocket’s harnessed explosion were three astronauts: Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot Bill Anders. Three hours after achieving Earth orbit, Houston informed them they were a “Go for TLI” — the first trans-lunar injection in human flight. In one of the more remarkable and certainly nervous moments experienced by a human, Apollo 8 fired burners that, for the first time ever, rocketed three men on a path away from their home planet.
Though Houston called the shots from the ground and Commander Borman had the last word in the capsule, I see CMP Lovell as the solar system’s most stressed individual. As the crew’s navigator, it would be his responsibility to set the course of the ship if the crew lost contact with Mission Control. The instrument of his trade lay by his side: a sextant that could help him navigate by the stars. A sextant! This wasn’t Magellan crossing the Pacific in 1520; it was Apollo 8, four-and-a-half centuries later, crossing a quarter million miles of airless space.
Fifty-five hours into their 70-hour outbound journey, the crew of Apollo 8 crossed another unprecedented threshold: less than 40,000 miles from their destination, the gravity of the moon overpowered the gravity of the earth. As a result, they became the first humans to not be pulled toward their home planet. Thirteen hours after that — Christmas Eve — they became the first humans to arrive at a heavenly body. The brightest disc in the night sky, an orb about which we had dreamed and over which we had theorized since the dawn of man hundreds of thousands of years ago, was almost within reach.
Then it was time for — you guessed it — another first: they rounded the moon to its far side. In the process, they lost contact with Earth. No one had ever been so isolated from their home planet. (Apollo 11’s CMP Michael Collins would soon steal that mantle when he, too, circled the far side of the moon and lost contact. Unlike the three men in Apollo 8, Collins, whose crew mates Armstrong and Aldrin bounded below on the lunar surface, was truly alone with the universe.)
Making the moment all the more stressful was that the Apollo 8 astronauts, in order to achieve lunar orbit, needed to be perfect with their next execution. They had to fire the right amount of fuel for the right amount of time to slow the craft into a perfect trajectory for orbit. Erring in either direction could crash them into the moon, or put them into a life-threateningly long elliptical orbit, or skip them into the vastness of space until their life support ran out. And they had to do this without Mission Control walking them through it.
Then, in a year where everything went wrong, something went right. They executed the burn flawlessly. Mankind was in orbit around another celestial body.
As they emerged from the moon’s far side and back into radio contact, the crew snapped a series of photographs. One shot from Bill Anders is considered among the most iconic in history. As millions of humans either shared Christmas Eve supper or squinted into the lunar-lit sky, Anders took a picture of them.
“Earthrise,” it was later called. Perfect.
We could not have a better reminder — simple and profound, all at once — about who we were: one species as ambassadors for countless others living transient lives on a small, fragile blue pearl surrounded by the lifelessness of black space. How did we allow the Cold War, with its thousands of nuclear weapons, threaten that fragility? Who do we think we are dividing ourselves by race, politics, and religion? Apollo 8 saw neither borders nor skin colors. It saw one planet, and it was the only one we had.
For the rest of Christmas Eve and much of Christmas Day, Apollo 8 overcame a truly depressing year and gave humankind one of its greatest success stories. The three astronauts orbited the moon 10 times in 20 hours before departing for their homeward journey. They returned home without incident, splashed down on December 27th, and became 1968’s Time Persons of the Year. Seven months later, Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, but not before Apollo 8 had already made a giant leap for mankind.
Surely times are uncertain right now for too many people, but so was 1968. Maybe we’ll get our own Apollo 8 moment. Here’s to hoping it’s a happy new year.