Almost a quarter of a century after the victory of World War II, the establishment of a bipolar geopolitical order, and the beginning of the Cold War, Americans have become accustomed to relative stability. Barry Goldwater (2019) made strong claims in his 1964 presidential speech for restoring strict opposition against domestic violence, promising the Americans freedom and order. It is not surprising that many witnesses of the upheavals of 1968 thought that the world had simply gone crazy. Power elites everywhere were at a loss. The world was already split by the Cold War, and then the foundations of both socialist and capitalist states shook overnight. The events of the 60s became the turning point in the process of shaping of American society, building new foundations for the next era of its development.
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Surprisingly, the countries that found themselves on the verge of revolutions and civil wars in 1968 – such as USA and France – approached them against a rather solid background of stable economic growth. There was a real improvement in the position of the notorious “masses,” as well as a strong, dynamic, and enterprising government, which, apparently, cared about the “universal welfare.” Thus, in the United States in 1961-1966, the gross national product grew steadily every next year, outpacing previous five or so years, and the unemployment fell to a record low. The administration of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson publicly announced an unprecedented task, shaking the society further. By rapidly increasing social spending, it was going to completely eliminate poverty, create public education and pension systems, and finally destroy the system of racial segregation in the bud (Johnson 2019). However, the events of 1968 shook the confident position of the Democrats in the society, giving Republicans a solid chance to win in the race for power.
After World War II, the United States found itself in the position of a superpower. Thus, the state entered the Cold War with the USSR and a number of conflicts in Asia, including the wars in Korea and Vietnam. In the fall of 1962, the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba became the pretext for the Caribbean crisis, when the USSR and the USA came close to starting a nuclear war. In domestic politics, the beginning of the period was marked by the persecution of the communists and all those suspected of collaborating or sympathizing with them. The phenomenon was called “McCarthyism” – after the most famous politician who made a career on such accusations, Senator Joseph McCarthy. The late 1950s and 1960s were a time of conflict in the south of the country and the dismantling of the segregation system. It was a period of struggle for the civil rights of African Americans, and movements arose to fight the White power.
The 1968 presidential election was one of the most intense in US history. It put an end to the era of the dominance of the Democratic Party in the political life of the country. Baritono (2020) states that “in the election campaigns of 1968, 1972 and 1980 the political debate was waged in harsh terms with no holds barred” (160). Under the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, President Lyndon Johnson was eligible to run for another presidential term. However, the United States were torn apart by racial confrontations after the assassination of Martin Luther King, as well as actions against the Vietnam War, which provoked discontent of the Democrats actions in society. Robert Kennedy became one of the most promising candidates for presidency, adored by the people for his passionate anti-war and anti-racism speeches (O’Donnell 2018). Thus, in 1968, Senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy, decided on a bold act: he challenged his fellow party president and entered the fight for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States.
McCarthy understood that he had little chance of winning the title from Johnson, but he sought to force Johnson to take a more “left-wing” stance in the presidential election against a Republican opponent. It should also be noted that in the beginning, anti-war activists of the so-called “Dump Johnson” movement approached Robert Kennedy with the idea to oppose Johnson, but he refused. From there, McCarthy agreed to lead the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party. At the time, the election of the Democratic nominee was extremely undemocratic in its nature. Only a third of the so-called delegates were chosen through democratic primaries, while the rest was the result of agreements and secret deals on the sidelines of the party. That meant, in essence, that the democratic electorate had practically no influence on the choice of a candidate from the party.
1968 became the last year when the primary elections were less significant than intra-party behind-the-scenes intrigues. As the Americans became more and more invested in the domestic politics of the States, a conservative image began solidifying in the society. As a result, Republican Richard Nixon won the election, promising the Americans to restore “law and order” in the country. He outrun Democrat Hubert Humphrey by a narrow margin, while the most popular Democratic candidate, Robert Kennedy, who had a high chance of winning, was assassinated five months before the election. It was during these years that such concepts as “state” and “power” were called into question. Such an international outburst against the state, when suddenly many people realized that the state is a service thing, not a priori, was a very important moment in the U.S. history.
Baritono, Raffaella. “Delegitimization and US Presidential Electoral Campaigns, 1896-1980.” American Studies in Scandinavia, vol. 52, no. 2, 2020, pp. 145–162.
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Goldwater, Barry. “Republican Nomination Acceptance Speech (1964).” The American Yawp Reader, Stanford University Press, 2019.
Johnson, Lyndon B. “Lyndon Johnson on Voting Rights and the American Promise (1965).” The American Yawp Reader, Stanford University Press, 2019.
O’Donnell, Lawrence. Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics. Penguin Books, 2018.