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Protest and Politics

1968, Year of the Barricades


In 1968 an unprecedented number of youth-led popular uprisings swept the globe in places as disparate as Japan, the United States, Poland, Brazil, Italy, France, Northern Ireland, Czechoslovakia, Mexico, Spain, Germany, Ecuador, Chile, Yugoslavia, and England. Protestors raged against governments from democratic to autocratic—and in each case, the state raged back. Stalwartly, en masse, students demanded change from institutions and leaders who, in return, fiercely fought to maintain the status quo. Why 1968? How could so many young people in so many societies be so angry—and so willing to dissent?

Demographic trends, such as a post–World War II population boom, had created an unusually large cohort of young people. They came of age in a time of unprecedented economic growth and rapid technological innovations. International events, such as the Vietnam War, provided shared provocations for the protest movements of 1968. Another unifying factor was the example of African Americans’ struggle for civil rights in the United States, which lent inspiration and tactics to protestors worldwide. Each movement also had its unique historic antecedents and national circumstances, however—and a particular government response with which to contend. The news media, through its increasing ability to swiftly and graphically cover 1968’s many incendiary happenings—including the protests—transcended the role of chronicler, becoming a force that was shaping history.


Political Developments 
The tumult of 1968 exists on a longer continuum of history that included two world wars fought by major European powers, the United States, Japan, and other nations. Key political developments after the World War I included the Russian Revolution, which overthrew the Czar and instituted a communist state; the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into nations such as Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia; and the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. The major European powers remained heavily involved in imperial enterprises in colonial outposts, particularly in Africa, Asia, and the West Indies. The United States became a significant player on the world stage.

The 1930s saw the Japanese invasion of China, the rise of fascism in Europe, and the Nazi invasion of multiple sovereign European states, leading to the most global war in history, World War II, which also saw the first use of nuclear bombs, by the United States. The Soviet Union, under Stalin, fought with the Allies against the fascist Axis powers, defeating the Germans and capturing Berlin. After the war, however, tensions mounted between communist and democratic nations, and much of the world aligned into separate spheres of influence of the two emerging “superpowers”: the United States and the Soviet Union. Other political developments included the formation of Israel and the division of Berlin into four sectors: British, American, French, and Soviet. World War II helped bring the world out of the economic depression of the 1930s, but left much of the war-torn world facing the challenges of massive reconstruction and the reknitting of family life.

The standoff between the two superpowers became known as the Cold War, though hostilities heated up into bloody and extended conflicts such as the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War. Colonialism sparked violent conflict as well, such as the Algerian War of Independence, fought between Algeria and France in the 1950s and ’60s.

Mexico had gained its independence from Spain in 1821, but would continue to be beset by major conflicts, and, ultimately, entrenchment of single-party power. The 1910 revolution ousted the three-decades-long rule of dictator General Porfirio Díaz but the country soon fell into counterrevolution, with leaders divided against one another and many years of fighting. Mexico adopted a constitution in 1917 and enacted social reforms in the 1920s and ’30s and nationalized the oil industry. During World War II, Mexico supported the Allies with raw materials, support flights, and troops.

Mexico benefitted economically from World War II, and leaders in the increasingly urban society continued to fund social programs, such as public health efforts. Mexico was gaining a place on the world stage, and, in 1958, was selected as the site of the 1968 summer Olympic games. The ruling party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary party), though, had an authoritarian streak, as seen in its brutal crushing of a railroad workers’ strike in 1959. Mexicans came to refer to the PRI as “el sistema,” or “the system,” and its centralized power gave monarch-like authority to the president.

The Civil Rights Movement in the United States 
One of the main forces that developed in post-World War II years in the United States was the push by African Americans for equal rights. While jurisprudence in the United States was overturning “separate but equal” institutions and mandating equal rights in decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954), society remained heavily segregated, and blacks suffered from myriad instances of mistreatment, racism, and injustice. In response, a movement took shape in which ordinary citizens staged non-violent protests. In 1955, Rosa Parks, an African American woman refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white person in Montgomery, Alabama—an act that led to a city-wide bus boycott. In 1960, four university students staged a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, a tactic that quickly spread to other cities. The movement was full-blown by the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, in which more than a thousand out-of-state volunteers, mostly young people, went to Mississippi in an organized attempt to register blacks to vote. Some of these activists would go on to participate in the protest movements of 1968.

The non-violent protest movement, based in the South and taking inspiration and leadership from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., often met with police brutality and fierce counter-protest. Neither government action nor non-violent protest tactics were alleviating the discrimination blacks faced or improving the plight of those who lived in poverty. Increasing anger and tension boiled over in events such as the 1965 six-day Watts Riots in Los Angeles in which 34 people died, and multiple race riots in U.S. cities in 1967. In 1968, King was assassinated and the militant Black Power movement gained prominence with a variety of leaders and groups advocating a range of ideas, from separatism to violent revolution. One notable group, the Black Panther Party, favored arming black citizens as a a way to challenge police brutality, but also initiated community outreach, such as the Breakfast for Children program in Oakland, California.

The many events and activists of the Civil Rights movement were covered in the media—in newspapers, magazines, and on radio and television—and served as models for other protest movements at home and abroad.

The Vietnam War 
In the ongoing Cold War, the United States was involved in numerous regions around the world to prevent the spread of communism. Vietnam had been torn by an almost decade-long war with colonial power France and had, at the end of the war in 1954, split into two countries: North and South Vietnam. The United States had been involved in Vietnam during the presidency of John Kennedy in mostly covert operations, with thousands of military personnel and advisors in Vietnam, and some U.S. casualties. Not long before Kennedy’s death in 1963, the chaos in Vietnam deepened with the assassination of its President Ngo Dinh Diem and the advances of the Viet Cong into the south. The U.S. government remained fearful that the country and the region would turn communist. In August 1964, President Lyndon Johnson used the alleged attack on a U.S. naval vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin as reason to embark on open warfare. Over the next 11 years, the war escalated: the number of American soldiers in Vietnam rose from 25,000 in 1965 to 543,000 in 1968. The war resulted in almost 60,000 U.S. dead. The United States retreated after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

The Vietnam War became known for many tragic hallmarks: guerrilla-style attacks, rampant bombing, the destruction of Vietnamese villages, large numbers of civilian deaths, the young age of U.S. soldiers, and the high incidence of psychological problems among veterans (what came to be known as post-traumatic stress disorder)—to name only a few.

Another hallmark of the war—one that helped to bring it to an end—was the protest movement that emerged in the United States and spread internationally. University students played a major role in the movement, staging anti-war teach-ins, attacking campus ROTC centers, and protesting university connections to industries such as Dow Chemical, the producer of napalm, which U.S. forces used in Vietnam. During 1968, one of the bloodiest years of the war, graphic images and video footage of violence and despair regularly entered people’s homes. Protests on campuses and in the wider society ramped up. Around the world, people who opposed the United States’ intervention in Vietnam also took to the streets. In Paris and Berlin in February 1968, tens of thousands marched against the war, and in March, the tamer Mexican student movement demonstrated.

Societal Shifts 
As important as the unfolding of political events on the national and international scene were the socio-cultural changes that were taking place after World War II. One major factor was a population boom, in which a large generation of people would come of age in the mid-1960s in many European countries, the United States, and Mexico. Population growth was less of a factor in some of the Soviet Bloc countries.

After the war, economies were expanding rapidly, giving people previously unheard of discretionary money to spend on consumer goods. In the West, product manufacturers and services providers lost no time in perfecting marketing that would fuel consumer desire and demand. At the same time, the increasing mechanization of work, including domestic chores, left these younger, wealthier individuals with more leisure time than other generations had known. The GI Bill greatly expanded access to higher education.

In many nations, more and more students were being admitted into the university system, stretching physical capacity to the limit. University years offered many young people a period between adolescence and adult life in the workforce, a time in which many experimented with lifestyles that challenged previous cultural norms and mores. As this new, larger, more diverse generation of students matriculated, they began to question the hierarchical nature of the education system and demand a say in everything from housing to curriculum. They also questioned the appropriateness of academic ties to corporate and military entities. In societies worldwide, this generation also began to doubt the integrity of their governments, and speak out against policies with which they disagreed.

The Media 
In the late 1960s, television was undergoing a technological transformation from the use of cameras that shot 16-millimeter film, an expensive medium that needed to be processed before being aired, to videotape. Videotape was cheaper, so more footage could be taken. The year 1968 also saw the first satellite transmission of videotape: for the first time ever an event could be broadcast around the world on the same day it happened. This new ability of TV to capture and transmit international happenings—in some instances unedited—coincided with catastrophic developments such as the Tet Offensive and record-high numbers of Vietnam casualties. Some twenty million viewers saw broadcasts of the Tet Offensive and, at the war’s peak, approximately 600 media representatives were working in Vietnam. TV cameras also became riveted by the spirited, iconoclastic worldwide youth protest movement.

Still photography also played an important role in informing people about this increasingly violent year. In 1968, for the first time, The New York Times published multiple photos in a “spread.” The magazines Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly each published an issue focused on the Vietnam War, with graphic imagery. Time magazine printed color pictures of dead U.S. soldiers. An NBC photographer, Eddie Adams, took an especially upsetting sequence of photographs depicting the execution-style killing of a Viet Cong by the South Vietnamese Chief of Police.

Photography and television broadcasts were seen around the world by increasing numbers of people. For example, in the United States, TV ownership grew from nine percent to 95 percent of households from 1950 to 1970. At the beginning of the 1960s, about ten percent of Mexican households owned a television; by 1970, 90 percent owned one. TV producers knew that dramatic events “played well” on screen and created a shock value. Protestors quickly learned, too, that outlandish behavior, emphatic slogans, and violence would get the cameras’ attention, potentially mobilizing the viewing public.

In countries of the Soviet Bloc media was controlled or monitored by the Communist Party, and access to international media was restricted—to greater and lesser degrees in different places. One of the factors that would contribute to Czechoslovakia’s volatile 1968 was an unprecedented freedom of the press, and access to Western print media. Another influential force in Czechoslovakia and the rest of the Soviet Bloc was Radio Free Europe, a broadcast service funded by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and run out of Berlin. Created in 1949, Radio Free Europe used émigrés from various communist countries as information gatherers and on-air presenters. Radio Free Europe was intended to win the hearts and minds of those living under communism, but also to gather intelligence from behind the “iron curtain.” Broadcasts covered local news—such as protests—not covered by state-controlled media, as well as international news, sports, and banned music and books. Through RFE, residents of one Soviet Bloc country could learn about protest movements in other countries of the Bloc and in the Western world.

In 1968, people were inundated with images of and information about world events from multiple sources, and the dramatic nature and historic importance of these events was thus continually reinforced. Worldwide, the increasing access to all these forms of media generated a greater level of awareness of events and fostered a cultural consciousness of protest that was infectious.

Grade Level

Middle & High School

Classroom Connections

English Language Arts
Social Studies
U.S. History
World History

Curriculum Snapshot

  • Student protests and worker strikes in France
  • The “Prague Spring,” the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and anti-Soviet youth protest
  • Student protest in Mexico
  • Columbia University student protests

Video Connection



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