History Today subscription

The Times They Were A Changin’

A fascinating, multi-authored study seeks to make sense of a momentous, tragic year.

Pigasus, the ‘Presidential Candidate’ for the Youth International Party, is ‘arrested’ in Chicago, 23 August 1968.

‘Has this country gone mad?’, declaimed the Democratic politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Saturday Evening Post during May 1968. To find the answer, all he needed to do was turn on the television, tune into the news and drop into a frenzy of political assassinations (including Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King), violent and nonviolent protests, an overseas war that was turning sour and a generation of young Americans seemingly hell-bent on summoning the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Fifty years later, historians still wonder about the meaning of this tortured year. Separated into three sections, Reframing 1968 cleverly refrains from a predictable plod through the overfamiliar events of the year. Instead, the collection’s authors rethink and reposition 1968 in terms of both its context and its meaning.

Reframing 1968 starts by covering the year’s ideological and political upheavals, discussing the fissiparous tendencies of the new right and new left and the year’s impact on the lives of individual activists. Here, 1968 appears both as an end – for the youth political movement – and as a beginning, as the Tet Offensive revealed the Vietnam War to be unwinnable but paradoxically led to a future where war became a permanent feature of US foreign policy.

Section two moves to the physical and institutional spaces in which protest took shape. For Daniel Matlin this space is the American city, whereas Stefan Bradley argues that African-American students were the principal actors and university campuses their stage. Martin Halliwell moves even further, provocatively questioning the potency of public performances as ‘vehicle[s] of social transformation’, while citing the Yippies’ nomination of a pig for president as a key moment. For Sharon Monteith, cinema was the defining space and 1968 the year in which tradition and rebellion clashed in such films as Night of the Living Dead.

The final section considers America’s marginalised communities – African Americans, homosexuals, women and the poor – with each author keen to show that 1968 demonstrates both change and continuity in the development of popular protest.

Astute readers will note that certain themes run through and unite these sections, including the impact of successive generations of historical writing on our understanding of 1968, an interrogation of the nature and value of protest and the relationship between the American experience and the ‘global 1968’. Consistently fascinating, Reframing 1968 is an excellent primer for readers seeking both a guide to this crucial year and a wider examination of major trends in American social, cultural and political history. It deserves a large audience.

Reframing 1968: American Politics, Protest and Identity
Martin Halliwell, Nick Witham (eds)
Edinburgh University Press 332pp £24.99 

Joe Street is a senior lecturer in History at Northumbria University. His books include Dirty Harry’s America: Clint Eastwood, Harry Callahan, and the Conservative Backlash (Gainesville, 2016).

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week
X