When asked what is the most significant event they remember from their youth, most people will answer, ‘the assassination of President Kennedy’, or ‘the challenger disaster’, or ‘9/11’. For first wave boomers, who were age 15 to 22 in 1968, it wasn’t a single day. It was a year, 1968.
So far the Ken Burn’s documentary on the Vietnam War has revealed the questions and the doubts of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson as they made decisions that escalated the war. On the one hand, they were up against a growing communist movement led by the Soviet Union and China which was spreading across the world.
In 1968, over half the world lived in countries where it was illegal to go to church, where dictators ruled with iron hands, and saw the United States as their enemy. On the other hand, South Vietnam was proving to be difficult place to make a stand. The government was unstable, with protests from students and Buddhist monks challenging their leaders. They were only able to control the major cities, while the Viet Cong controlled the countryside. They were heavily dependent on the Americans to stave off the North Vietnamese who were driven to unify the country.
On January 31, the Vietnamese New Year, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong made a bold move. In the proceeding months they had secretly sent soldiers and weapons into South Vietnam with the intent of achieving final victory. They believed if they killed enough Americans and South Vietnamese troops, the people of South Vietnam would turn against their leaders and join them to unify the country.
86,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers attacked at once, hitting all the major military bases and cities in the south. During the Tet Offensive Saigon itself became a battle ground, with some Viet Cong making it into the U.S. embassy. American and South Vietnamese troops held them off, with the North having over 46,000 killed or wounded. Rather than join their uprising, the South Vietnamese people wanted no part of communism. In one horrifying display of brutality, the Viet Cong wiped out a village of women, children, and senior, executing over 2,800 people, trying to hide the bodies in a mass grave. This further cemented the fear the South Vietnamese people had of the communists.
The American military saw it as a great victory, but the American public had a very different reaction. For the first time, after seeing pitched battles broadcast on the news, they came to see the Vietnam conflict for what it was, a bloody civil war with the U.S. caught in the middle. Senator Robert Kennedy, summed it up this way, “Our enemy has finally shattered the mask of official illusion. Unable to defeat him or break his will, we must actively seek a peaceful settlement.”
One of the most surprising clips from this episode was a commentary by Walter Cronkite, the most respected TV journalist of his time. He said, “To say we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic if unsatisfactory conclusion. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.”
And this was just what happened in January and February. By March, President Johnson came to the conclusion he could not win another term and in a dramatic TV appearance told the public he would not run. Robert Kennedy, who had announced his candidacy earlier in the month, soon captured the support of young Americans who wanted to see an end to the war.
In April, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. In June, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. There were riots in the cities. American soldiers who had returned from Vietnam were asked the quell the rioters. Student protesters took over college campuses. The United States was shaken to its core. The world was coming apart.
Questions for reflection:
- What significant national events challenged your understanding of the world when you were young?
- How does your faith sustain you in times of uncertainty?
- What role should the church play when people are divided over significant political issues?
To see Episode 6 on PBS go Here.
Craig Kennet Miller is the author of Boomer Spirituality: Seven Values for the Second Half of Life. He will be sharing insights on each episode of this series. Join Miller in a three-part on Boomer Spirituality starting on October 4, at 6:30 pm Central Time. Register for the webinar series »