1968, a year of uprisings and dashed hopes

By AFP   March 21, 2018 | 07:15 pm PT
1968, a year of uprisings and dashed hopes
Visitors offer flowers at a war memorial dedicated to the victims of the My Lai massacre in the village of Son My during a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the massacre on March 16, 2018. Photo by AFP/Nhac Nguyen
Fifty years ago the world was rocked by revolt and dashed hopes.

Here is a look back at the dramatic year of 1968.

Vietnam: U.S. backs down

Washington had been pouring troops into Vietnam since the early 1960s to back the South Vietnamese against guerrillas supported by the North.

But a major offensive in early 1968 forces it to reassess.

Starting from the Vietnamese New Year holiday Tet in late January, thousands of North Vietnamese forces attack southern towns, including the cities of Hue and Saigon.

The surprise coordinated assault is ultimately beaten back but it turns public opinion against U.S. involvement in the conflict.

By late March, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson announces a partial halt in U.S. bombardments of the North.

It is the start of a long process of U.S. disengagement from Vietnam, which culminates with the fall of the Southern capital Saigon in 1975 and the reunification of Vietnam in 1976.

Talks open in Paris in May, as the French capital is rocked by student protests.

Youths rebel

Anti-war demonstrations that had started in the mid-1960s on university campuses in the United States and Europe with chants of "U.S., go home!" take on a new dimension in 1968.

Youths pour into the streets around the world to vent anger at the war and the capitalist status quo, but also to demand sexual freedom, feminism and - even then - protection of the environment.

In Germany, the attempted assassination in April of radical leftist student leader Rudi Dutschke unleashes a riot in Berlin. The unrest spreads to dozens of German cities.

In France, students demonstrate in Paris on May 10, battling police through the night. Two days later, workers join in and a strike paralyses the country for weeks.

President Charles de Gaulle dissolves the National Assembly on May 30 but his party comes back even stronger than before in June legislative elections.

The social movement is echoed in Italy, Turkey and Japan.

Spring crushed

The winds of revolt reached communist Czechoslovakia, where Alexander Dubcek became head of the ruling party in January and tried to introduce reforms for "Socialism with a human face."

But the Prague Spring was unacceptable to Moscow, which still dominated Eastern Europe. In August, it sent in tanks and soldiers, including from its communist allies, that crushed hopes for change.

Poland had its own "spring" in March, a student revolt that was swiftly repressed by the harsh regime. As several of the student leaders were Jewish, the authorities launched an anti-Semitic campaign which saw thousands quit the country.

Mexico Olympics, a stage

In Mexico, police cracked down on protesting students just ahead of the October Olympic Games. Many were killed: officials put the toll at 33, while foreign witnesses gave a figure of between 200 and 300.

There was more defiance at the Games: medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the podium in a Black Power salute that puts the spotlight on discrimination against African-Americans.


It was a dark year for the fight against the racial segregation plaguing the United States. Martin Luther King, a black pastor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was assassinated on April 4 by a white escaped convict.

His murder unleashed demonstrations across the country. Soon afterwards the president, Johnson, signed one of the last laws on civil rights demanded by the celebrated activist, an act that ended discrimination in housing.

On June 5, another political assassination rocked the United States: presidential hopeful Bobby Kennedy was shot by a Palestinian immigrant. The younger brother of president John F. Kennedy - himself assassinated in 1963 - died the following day.

Biafra disaster revealed

In 1968, the world awoke to the humanitarian disaster in Biafra, which was battling Nigeria to maintain the independence it declared the previous year.

Images of starving Biafrans emerged and mobilized a new kind of international humanitarian effort, leading soon afterwards to the formation of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).

The 30-month conflict and a Nigerian blockade eventually claimed a million lives, many from starvation.

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