1968 was a hinge point in history, one of the most consequential and tumultuous years in the American experience, and it changed the country forever.
Finally, under pressure from his colleagues, and sensing his domestic and global isolation, Donald Trump committed to a peaceful transition, even while repeating his claim of electoral fraud.
The events of January 2021 were significant and dangerous. There were protests in the city against the outcome of the Presidential Election, which was supposed to be certified in the US Capitol. However, protestors stormed the Capitol and the District of Columbia was placed under curfew. The mother of all democracies is not used to this, even though there is a long history of mob violence in America. The invasion of the US Capitol by pro-Trump forces has been compared to the “Colfax Massacre” in Louisiana in 1873, when a white militia overthrew a democratically elected governor and killed 100 Black freedmen.
This is the country that beckons freedom lovers and those who value the human spirit. “America the beautiful” is the shining city on the hill. The Statue of Liberty promises: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore (for) I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” As I sat up watching the events unfold “live” on television, my faith in America did not waver, but I cried for a country that I love next only to my own.
In a televised speech, Joe Biden condemned Trump for stoking the violence. “I call on this mob to pull back and allow the work of democracy to go forward,” he said. The House of Representatives has impeached Donald Trump, the first President in US history to be impeached twice. The Senate must decide by a 2/3 majority whether to evict him ex-post-facto, since it will decide after the transition.
January 2021 was 1968 all over again, only much more virulent, as it attacked the foundations of democracy. 1968 was a hinge point in history, one of the most consequential and tumultuous years in the American experience, and it changed the country forever. It was the worst year for American society since the Civil War. One traumatic event spontaneously followed another as a wide array of social and political trends that had been building for years reached critical mass. The clouds that were gathering became an electrical storm. 1968 saw a lethal cocktail of race, gender and Vietnam. America was in even worse shape than it is today. It felt like the country was coming apart at the seams, the fabric pulling apart. Within 12 months, there were two shocking assassinations (Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy), violent opposition to the escalating Vietnam war, hardening class differences, severe economic problems, and an increasingly impatient civil rights movement that gave rise to combative and angry black power militants. The national unemployment rate was 4%, for black Americans it was more than double.
The ready availability of jobs in the United States government attracted many people to Washington, D.C. in the late 19th century through the 1960s, including African American men, women, and children during the era of the Great Migration. Middle class African American neighbourhoods prospered, but the lower class was plagued by poor living conditions and fell deeper into poverty. Ghettoization proliferated.
Stokely Carmichael, the militant civil and political rights activist who had parted with King in 1966 demanded that Washington DC stores close out of respect. Although polite at first, the Stokely’s crowds fell out of control and began breaking windows. Carmichael told the rioters to “go home and get your guns”. Did Donald Trump suggest the same?
Following Martin Luther King’s assassination, violence rocked Washington DC and another 100 cities for four days.
The shocking Tet offensive by Communist Vietnamese forces drove home the un-winnability of the war, and the assassinations drove home the despair. Add to this volatile mix the rise of feminism (burn the bra or throw it in the Freedom Trash Can as a protest against the Miss America pageant), doubts about the credibility of the nation’s leaders, and a growing rebellion of young people against their parents’ values. It was the time of the birth of the hippie movement, campus revolts against authoritarian administrators and lifestyle constraints, a new sexual freedom made possible by the birth control pill and, overall, a ferocious culture war over “values issues” such as abortion, crime, patriotism, prayer in school, freedom of speech and respect for institutions. It was all dramatized and magnified by an increasingly aggressive news media eager to hold political and cultural leaders accountable for society’s shortcomings. It was also an indication of the rising power of television in shaping public opinion.
The riots devastated Washington’s inner-city economy. With the destruction or closing of businesses, thousands of jobs were lost, and insurance rates soared. White flight from the city accelerated, depressing property values. Crime in the burned-out neighbourhoods rose sharply, further discouraging investment.
America nearly lost its mind and its soul in 1968, as it had one hundred years earlier. The Civil War had been fought from 1861 to 1865 over ending slavery, and the nation remained deeply divided. Month after unsettling month, it became increasingly clear that America was losing its moorings. Overall, the upheavals made it clear that once social change reaches a critical mass, it cannot be stopped.
Adding to the concerns about violence and racial polarization, a generation gap had emerged between parents and their children over issues of war and peace, race, gender, sexual promiscuity, religion, patriotism and lifestyle. This generational divide became one of the defining features of the period. Just four years earlier, Bob Dylan had sung so presciently to American parents:
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin.
College kids became increasingly disaffected with the establishment and, on campus, many demanded a more-relevant curriculum and more student control over their own lifestyles and how their colleges and universities were being run. Feminism was on the march. A “counter-culture” bloomed in which young people defied tradition and experimented with unconventional lifestyles marked in many cases by sexual promiscuity, drug use and confronting authority.
The Sixties were all about changing norms, about egalitarian values, about respecting individuality, about everyone having an equal seat at the table where no one is left outside with their noses pressed to the glass simply because they look, act, or live differently than the mainstream.
Pop music reflected the desire for change. Among the hits were “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf, “People Got to Be Free” by the Rascals, “Revolution” by the Beatles, and “Street Fightin’ Man” by the Rolling Stones, in which Mick Jagger sang: “Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy/‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy/ Well what can a poor boy do”.
Two African American sprinters created a firestorm when they defiantly raised their fists in a black power salute at a ceremony awarding them their medals in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
As 1968 came to an end, it was not at all clear how or whether the nation would settle down. Many wondered if the country was becoming ungovernable as everyday Americans began to lose their optimism about the future. A travel ad in France summed up the mood felt by many: “See America while it lasts”.
In response, there was a backlash from traditionalists and conservatives. The “silent majority” of middle class and working-class Americans wanted stability and order and were deeply troubled by the swirling change and the nation desperately sought stability and some sense of normalcy. It brought Richard Nixon to power. But America got through it, because like India, it has this amazing ability to self-correct.
Many of the questions raised in the pivotal year of 1968—about what kind of country the United States should be—remain unresolved today. In 1968, Republican presidential winner Richard Nixon’s divisive campaign played on the grievances of white working-class Americans and others, as did George Wallace’s independent campaign. And they paved the way for Donald Trump’s grievance-based bid for the White House in 2016.
Donald Trump renewed the turmoil of 50 years ago with his fierce attacks on the status quo, his inexorable pugnacity toward his adversaries, the hostility he provokes in his opponents, and his polarizing policies. “He’s now president for life, president for life. And he’s great,” Donald Trump said of Xi Jinping in 2018. “And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday,” Trump said (perhaps jokingly). He led the attack on the old political system for he considers himself a disrupter of the status quo and a foe of the Washington establishment, promising to drain the swamp.
There is much that will be celebrated in the four years of the Trump Presidency. Peace in the Middle East, the obliteration of ISIS, rise of the economy, control of border immigration, confronting China, chasing criminals like Guzman El Chapo etc. But in the end, he will be remembered as a bad and lousy loser prone to self-goals.
Former White House chief of staff, John Kelly told CNN in a candid interview (with excusable hyperbole) that if he were still in the Cabinet, he would advocate the President’s removal as he is a “very, very flawed human being”, whose demagoguery, autocratic instincts, lack of compassion, assaults on truth and vanity have driven the nation to a breaking point.
When a former Republican President Richard Nixon was about to be impeached (he preferred to resign) he was reported to be talking to the portraits of his predecessors in the While House.
Euripides is believed (wrongly) to have said: Whom the Gods would destroy, they first deprive of reason.
2021 is not 1968. The violence then was spontaneous. In 2021 it was orchestrated by the most powerful man in the world. But many of the issues are the same: racism, economy, immigration, unemployment, irrational foreign policy objectives. Gender inequality in the United States continues to persist in many forms, including the disparity in women’s political representation and participation, occupational segregation, and the unequal distribution of household labour.
The World Economic Forum ranks the United States 51st in terms of gender equality out of 149 countries.
The conservatives believed then – and still believe today – that America was being undermined by the emphasis on diversity, by elites who want to impose a politically correct culture on “traditional” middle Americans who believe that Black Lives Matter activists show no respect, that gay advocacy undermines families and faith, that immigrants are interlopers, and Muslims pose an existential threat.
After the upheavals of 1968, America reinvented itself and became a more-tolerant, less-constrained place, more willing to let people express their individuality and challenge authority.
In 2021, make no bones about it, America is severely polarized, this time along ideological and partisan lines, and deadly violence erupts with shocking regularity in the form of mass shootings. Fear of US overreach and miscalculation abroad runs deep, especially in dealing with North Korea, Iran and terrorism, both homegrown and imported by the Islamic State and other anti-American organizations. Intense battles for personal rights have resumed on racial, gender, sexuality and other grounds. Values are in conflict again, as political clashes erupt between advocates of traditional marriage and organized religion and people who favour transgender protections, same-sex marriage and a more secular approach to life.
In the early morning hours of 4 March 1801, John Adams, the second President of the United States, quietly left Washington, D.C. under cover of darkness. He would not attend the inauguration ceremony held later that day for his former friend—now political rival—Thomas Jefferson, who would soon replace Adams in the still-unfinished presidential mansion. His departure from office marked the first peaceful transfer of power between political opponents in the United States, now viewed as a hallmark of the nation’s democracy. Since then, the loser of every presidential election in US history has willingly and peacefully surrendered power to the winner, despite whatever personal animosity or political divisions might exist.
World leaders reacted with horror to the January 2021 violence, and called for peace and an orderly transition of power. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned the “disgraceful scenes”. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said: “I have trust in the strength of US democracy. The new presidency of Joe Biden will overcome this tense stage, uniting the American people.” The Italian Prime Minister said: “Violence is incompatible with the exercise of democratic rights and freedoms.” Angela Merkel of Germany said she was both sad and angry. Israel’s Prime Minister commented that “lawlessness and violence are the opposite of the values we know Americans cherish”. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian condemned the “grave attack against democracy”. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canadians were “deeply disturbed and saddened by the attack on democracy”. From New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, tweeted that “democracy—the right of people to exercise a vote, have their voice heard and then have that decision upheld peacefully—should never be undone by a mob”. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison condemned the “distressing scenes” and said he looked forward to a peaceful transfer of power. The Turkish foreign ministry said it invited “all parties” to show “restraint and common sense”. The Venezuelan government said that “with this regrettable episode, the United States suffers the same thing that it has generated in other countries with its policies of aggression”. Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández and Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera also condemned the scenes in Washington. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had a good relationship with Mr Trump, said he was “distressed to see news about rioting and violence…” Orderly and peaceful transfer of power must continue. The democratic process cannot be allowed to be subverted through unlawful protests,” he tweeted. In Singapore, the country’s Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean said he had watched as the “shocking” scenes took place, adding: “It is a sad day.”
On 9/11 we were all Americans. We are again today.
Arrangements for a peaceful inauguration of the new President on 20 January 2021 have been made, with the National Guard (the equivalent of our CRPF) deployed in unprecedented strength.
I have no doubt that America will rediscover itself. Every heart in the world that beats for freedom and human dignity beats for America. Mine does.
Ambassador Dr Deepak Vohra is Special Advisor to Prime Minister, Lesotho, South Sudan and Guinea-Bissau; and Special Advisor to Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils, Leh and Kargil.