international analysis and commentary

The long wave of 1968


When we think of 1968 today, the first things that come to mind are the student movements, protests against the Vietnam War, and a new social consciousness. The year has become a synonym for a cultural shift, a breakaway from rigid traditions and a challenge to authority through youth activism on a wide variety of issues such as women’s rights, the environment and foreign policy, at the height of what became known as the 1960s counterculture.

Too often we forget just how crucial 1968 was for the broad trajectory of Western society, with regard to the political and economic transformation that took place in the ensuing years. It was not just about freedom, experimentation and demolishing rigid social norms; there was a confluence of protests revolving around the underlying theme of justice, expressed through fundamental questions such as poverty, race and war.

A scene from “The Strawberry Statement”, a movie inspired by the Columbia University student strike in 1968

Unfortunately, the potentially unifying nature of this movement was cut short, due to countermeasures taken by the establishment of the time, and to the loss of certain key leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. In the years that followed, changes began that would put us on the path to where we are today, through the shift to a post-industrial, speculation-based society that provoked an increase in inequality, as well as a return to a foreign policy based more on exploitation than cooperation for development, after the relative improvements of the post-war period.

An interesting example of the political and economic issues raised during the 1968 protests, is that of the student strike at Columbia University in New York City, one of the most celebrated instances in the US of the wave of protests sweeping the world at that time. Two immediate issues are generally recognized as having triggered the events at Columbia: first, the connection between the university and a military think tank (the Institute for Defense Analyses), thus touching the question of the Vietnam War; and second, the proposal for a new gymnasium in the Morningside Park area bordering Harlem, to be constructed in a way that meant a de factosegregation for the residents of the adjoining black neighborhood. The issues of war and race came together, leading to the occupation of various university buildings and the arrival of numerous outsiders to join the fray.

There were plenty of internal differences, including difficulties in creating a common front between black and white protestors, but one of the issues discussed was that the struggles on apparently separate points actually needed to be seen as part of a unified whole, a fight against various facets of injustice.

Economics also played a role; another dividing line in the student movement in New York City, in particular within Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), was the attitude towards labor and the working class. A sharp divide emerged between different factions of the SDS over this issue, as some students sought to engage the local population on issues such as working conditions, housing and reform of the banking system.

At the time there was a suspicion that some leaders were being manipulated, influenced precisely by the establishment forces they claimed to be fighting. This was confirmed years later by the release of declassified FBI documents from the “Cointelpro” program, which revealed FBI efforts to exacerbate divisions between black students and the white SDS, and between the Mark Rudd “action faction” group and the “labor committee” which advocated a student-labor alliance.

Considering the stakes at issue, it should be no surprise that groups such as the Rand Corporation, the Ford Foundation, and even government agencies, were involved in attempting to divert the protests for their own aims, essentially to prevent the emergence of a broad, unified movement that could effectively challenge the powers that be. Looking back, it is clear that the ultimate transformation of a protest against war, racism and poverty into one characterized more by widespread drug use, a sexual revolution, and radical environmentalism, undoubtedly led to a sigh of relief among the power brokers who considered it their right to run society.

One of the key contributing factors to the reduced effectiveness of the 1968 protest movements was the loss of some of the United States’ most inspiring leaders. It all started, of course, with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Today around the world Kennedy is seen as a symbol of an epoch, a period of hope and renewal starting in the United States. It is surprising to recall that he was President for less than three full years; and as often happens when the White House shifts hands, change was far from immediate. Kennedy spent much of his first year in office attempting to take control of policy from a recalcitrant national security establishment, for example.

JFK’s decision to end US escalation in Vietnam was certainly a threat to what his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had dubbed the “Military-industrial complex”. Yet it is important to remember Kennedy’s economic policies as well; he was a firm proponent of state investment, with increases in public spending not only on social services, but focusing in particular on advanced sectors such as the space program, producing widespread positive effects on the civilian economy. And last but not least, was his monetary policy, including the (still) controversial decision to allow the federal government to issue currency directly to jump-start the economy.

The possibility that Robert F. Kennedy could become President in 1968, certainly did not appeal to the power centers that had opposed his brother just a few years earlier. Without needing to get into a debate over conspiracies and the Deep State of the time, it is clear that the trajectory indicated by the Kennedy brothers was quite different from the one the United States actually ended up taking. Under President Johnson, the Vietnam War was expanded, and the country moved towards a “post-industrial” economy through a series of monetary and political shocks in the ensuing decade, setting us on the road towards the heightened inequality we see today.

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was an excellent example of the confluence of the three major currents discussed to this point. In 1967 King declared that although progress had been made in the fight against segregation, it was necessary to focus on “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.”[1] He refused to “segregate his moral concerns”, despite suffering criticism when he took a stand on issues beyond racism. Before his assassination in 1968, King had announced the “Poor People’s Campaign”, which shortly after his death led to a protest camp in Washington D.C. for six weeks to demand economic justice for the poor of all races. Today, it is clear that the same problem still exists: the poverty rate has changed little over the past 50 years, while deep poverty has actually increased.

The widespread protests of 1968 offered an opportunity to seek profound change in three major areas: economics, race, and foreign policy. The physical elimination of key leaders, the splintering of the movement into groups with a narrow outlook, and the concentration on shifts in personal behavior all contributed to diminishing the overall effectiveness of the protests. Fifty years later, in the middle of a revolt of voters across the Western world due to the effects of financial globalization and regime change wars, it is not hard to trace the beginnings of these trends to the period immediately following 1968, a year when the transatlantic elites succeeded in resisting the calls for fundamental change.

* The author has drawn on contributions from his father, Edward Spannaus, a participant in the Columbia University student strike and the civil rights movement in the 1960s.


[1] Martin Luther King, Jr. Speech at the Butler Street YMCA, Atlanta, Georgia, May 10, 1967.