It was a turning point in US history, a year of triumphs and tragedies, social and political upheavals that forever changed the country…
By any measure the leap year of 1968 was a remarkable year, arguably one of the most historic years in our modern history. It was called “The year that rocked the world” by New York Times best-selling author, Mark Kurlansky.
Six days after President Lyndon Johnson delivered the State of the Union address on January 17, North Korean patrol boats captured the USS Pueblo, a US Navy intelligence gathering vessel and its 83-man crew, on charges of violating the communist country’s 12-mile territorial limit. This crisis dogged the US foreign policy team throughout the year.
At half-past midnight on January 31, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive at Nha Trang. Nearly 70,000 North Vietnamese troops took part in the broad action, taking the battle from the jungles to the cities. The offensive carried on for weeks and was seen as a major turning point for the American attitude toward the war.
On April 4, tragedy struck the nation. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was standing on the second floor balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee when a bullet struck him at 6:01 p.m. The 39-year-old civil rights leader was rushed to nearby St. Joseph’s Hospital but never regained consciousness. He was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m.
On the same night King was assassinated, Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy arrived in Indianapolis on a campaign stop. Upon hearing the news Kennedy informed a crowd of listeners about King’s death. They reacted with gasps and cries. Kennedy urged the crowd against bitterness, hatred, or revenge, calling on them instead to embrace King’s message of love, wisdom and compassion toward one another. Kennedy’s speech is believed to have prevented rioting in Indianapolis on a night where similar events broke out in major cities across the country.
Just two months later on June 5, an assassin at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles gunned down Kennedy himself. The attack took place shortly after Kennedy had wrapped up a speech in the hotel ballroom. As he made his way through a kitchen corridor on his way to another part of the building, a Jordanian born Palestinian named Sirhan Sirhan opened fire, striking Kennedy in the head and back. He collapsed and was rushed to the hospital where he underwent brain surgery. Twenty-six hours after the attack he died. Kennedy was 42 years old.
Still another wave of shock and grief left the nation numb.
Three days later, James Earl Ray was arrested for the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The nation of Israel also marked the 20th year of statehood in the land of new light and restored glory. According to the newly released Israeli Statistical Yearbook for 1968, 17 percent of the world’s Jewry were residents in Israel in 1966. The total number of Jews in the world in 1966 were 13.5 million, of whom 2.3 million were in Israel. By contrast, in 1900, Jews in the Holy Land formed one-half percent of world Jewry, and on May 15, 1948, 5.7 percent.
In this, his last year in office, President Lyndon Johnson made a landmark move in U.S.-Israeli relations. He agreed to a longstanding request by Israel for Phantom jets. Up to this point, the United States had avoided becoming Israel’s arms supplier because it wanted to reduce the risk of a U.S.-USSR confrontation in the Middle East. Additionally, France had been supplying weapons but imposed an embargo during the Six-Day War that Charles de Gaulle refused to lift.
From this point on, however, the United States became the principal arms supplier to Israel and adopted a policy of maintaining Israel’s qualitative military advantage over its neighbors.
It’s worth mentioning that on September 24, “60 Minutes” made its debut on CBS television and is still on the air to this day. That’s staying power.
On November 5, 1968, America elected a new President. Republican challenger Richard M. Nixon defeated the Democratic candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and American Independent Party candidate George C. Wallace. Nixon ran on a campaign that promised to restore law and order to the nation’s cities, torn by riots and crime.
In December, the 11-month crisis that threatened to worsen already high Cold War tensions in the region came to an end. After months of negotiations, North Korea agreed to free the 82-crew members of the USS Pueblo seized in January. On December 23, the crew was allowed to safely return to South Korean territory and was home in time for the Christmas holidays. However, the United States Navy had lost a highly sophisticated intelligence-gathering ship.
1968 was more than the year of sex, drugs and rock and roll. It was a turning point for a generation coming of age and a nation at war. The social forces that swirled through the turbulent 1960s crested in 1968. We experienced the anti-war movement, the Tet Offensive, assassinations, and riots in the streets. Social demonstrations were in vogue, from volatile student unrest on college campuses to Black Power assertions and feminist demonstrations at the Miss America pageant. Tumultuous times indeed.
As one of the most turbulent and tragic years in American history drew to a close, millions around the world were watching and listening as the Apollo 8 astronauts-Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders became the first humans to orbit another world.
Apollo 8, the second human spaceflight mission in the U.S. Apollo space program, was launched on December 21 and was the first manned spacecraft to leave earth’s orbit. Apollo 8 took three days to travel to the moon and orbited ten times over the course of twenty hours.
It marked the first time humans had travelled to the far side of the moon and we were given the first photos of earth taken from deep space, including the now iconic “Earthrise.”
It was Christmas Eve and the crew was about to make a television broadcast to the largest audience that had ever listened to a human voice. The only instructions the astronauts received from NASA was “to do something appropriate.” They did.
The crew of Apollo 8 read in turn from the creation story in the Book of Genesis as they orbited the moon. Anders, Lovell, and Borman recited verses 1 through 10 from a King James Version of the biblical text. Their message appeared to sum up the feelings that all three crewmen had from their vantage point in lunar orbit. Following the reading, Borman stated, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you-all of you on the good Earth.”
The amazing and joyous mission was a rare high note in a year filled with historically tragic events. The astronauts received countless telegrams after they returned safely home. But one stood out from all the others. It said simply: “You saved 1968.”
Christmas at the moon was a good closing act.