1968: America

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The Independent Culture
REPORTERS, we know, thrive on bad news. But covering America in 1968 was like watching the collapse of civil society. For Americans, it was quite simply one of the most distressing years in the country's history. For Lyndon Johnson, who had started so spectacularly well, the first half of the year was the harshest period a president had ever had to face.

Early in January, John Gardner, the highly respected Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, resigned, telling Johnson he could no longer unite the country and advising him not to run for re-election. On 23 January, North Koreans captured the American spy ship Pueblo. A week later, Tet communist forces attacked 80 towns and cities in South Vietnam, even invading the US embassy compound in Saigon.

America went into shock: the war had been marketed as a victory waiting to happen. On 10 March, the New York Times revealed that the generals had asked for another 205,000 troops to reinforce the 510,000 already in Vietnam. Their request had a profound effect on the course of the war and on American politics. Two days later, the anti-war candidate, Senator Eugene McCarthy, came within 230 votes of beating Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. On 16 March, the opponent the President dreaded, Senator Robert Kennedy, became a candidate; on the 31st, Johnson withdrew from the race.

On 4 April, the murder in Memphis of the apostle of non-violence, Dr Martin Luther King, touched off a wave of rioting in American cities. June saw the killing of Robert Kennedy, the one leader whose appeal crossed the racial divide. Vice-President Humphrey inherited a fractured party - and in the November election the voters turned to Richard Nixon, whom the press credited with having "a secret plan to end the war".

Instead of ending the war, Nixon tried to win it by bombing the North Vietnamese to the peace table, before settling in 1973 for the solution he could have seized in 1969 - an American withdrawal. Those extra four years of fighting cost the lives of another 20,000 Americans, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese.