1968: The Year That Changed History

1968 – The Year that Changed History

This curriculum package was developed by students in the Hofstra University teacher education program including Tina Abbatiello, Arwa Alhumaidan, Ashley Balgobind, Megan Bernth, Carrie Hou, Nabila Khan, Alyssa Knipfing, Thomas Masterson, Olivia LaRocca, Kyle Novak, Marc Nuccio, Steven Rosino, Jackson Spear, and Mark Vasco.

In January 2008, The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/observer/gallery/ 2008/jan/17/1), described 1968 as “the year that changed history.” A photo essay began: “It was a year of seismic social and political change across the globe. From the burgeoning anti-Vietnam war and civil rights movements in the United States, protests and revolutions in Europe and the first comprehensive coverage of war and resultant famine in Africa. The world would never be the same again.”

Events that Shook the United States and the World

In January, North Korea seized the USS Pueblo claiming the ship violated its territorial waters and the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive including an attack on the U.S. embassy in Saigon. begins, as Viet Cong forces launch a series of surprise attacks across South Vietnam. In February, the world was shocked by a photograph of South Vietnamese police official murdering a captured Viet Cong soldier and President Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, the Kerner Commission, warned that racism was causing America to move “toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” In March, student protests sparked a political crisis in Soviet-dominated Poland; American soldiers massacred civilians in the Vietnamese village of My Lai Massacre; student at Howard University, a historically Black college in Washington, D.C., held a 5-day sit-in protesting against the War in Vietnam and demanding that the university end its ROTC program and offer more courses on the Black experience; and after a disappointing showing in the New Hampshire primary, Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would not seek re-election. In April the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee leading to riots across the country; and student protesters occupied buildings and shut down Columbia University. In May, one million students marched through the streets of Paris demanding fundamental reform; the Catonsville Nine destroyed selective service draft records in a protest against the Vietnam War. In June U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was murdered in Los Angeles and photographs of starving children and evidence of a humanitarian crisis in rebel Biafra during the Nigerian civil war became public. In July, following a coup d’état, Saddam Hussein became Vice Chairman of the Revolutionary Council in Iraq. In August the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida nominated Richard Nixon for President; 750,000 Warsaw Pact troops and 6,500 tanks with 800planes invaded Czechoslovakia crushing reform efforts; and Chicago police went on a rampage attacking anti-war protesters at the Democratic National Convention. In September, New York City teachers went on strike against community control of schools in a strike that continued off and on for months and contributed to racial tension in the country; 150 women protested in Atlantic City, New Jersey at the Miss America Pageant. In October, Mexican police and soldiers massacred hundreds of student protesters in Mexico City prior to the opening of the Summer Olympics; at the Olympics American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their arms in a black power salute on the victor’s podium; and police attacked civil rights demonstrators in Derry, Northern Ireland, leading to period that became known as The Troubles. In November, Richard Nixon (Republican) defeated Hubert Humphrey (Democrat), and George Wallace (American Independent); Yale University announced would admit women; and the first National Women’s Liberation Conference was held. In December, Apollo 8 orbited the Moon.

North Korea seizes the USS Pueblo (January 23, 1968)

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/19/opinion/remember-the-pueblo.html

USS Pueblo

The USS Pueblo on display in the North Korean capital city of Pyongyang in 2006. It was captured in North Korean territorial waters on January 23, 1968.

New York Times: “Moored on a river here in the North Korean capital is the U.S.S. Pueblo, described as an “armed spy ship of the U.S. imperialist aggression forces.” The Pueblo is the Navy ship that North Korea seized in 1968 in waters off the country’s east coast, setting off an international crisis. One American sailor was killed and 82 others were imprisoned for nearly a year and tortured into writing confessions. To signal that the confessions were forced, the sailors listed accomplices like the television character Maxwell Smart. When forced to pose for a photo, some crew members extended their middle fingers to the camera, explaining to the North Korean photographer that this was a Hawaiian good luck sign. After the photo was published and the North Korean guards realized they’d been had, the sailors suffered a week of particularly brutal torture.

USS Pueblo sailors

As the first Navy vessel to surrender in peacetime since 1807, the Pueblo was a humiliation for America. And it has become a propaganda trophy for North Korea, with ordinary Koreans paraded through in organized tours to fire up nationalist support for the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il.”


1. What is the USS Pueblo?

2. Why did it become a symbol of the Cold War?

3. Why did captured U.S. sailors pose this way?

4. In your opinion, why does the Korean peninsula remain a source of international tension?

Kerner Commission Report (February 29, 1968)

“The summer of 1967 again brought racial disorders to American cities, and with them shock, fear and bewilderment to the nation. The worst came during a two-week period in July, first in Newark and then in Detroit. Each set off a chain reaction in neighboring communities. On July 28, 1967, the President of the United States established this Commission and directed us to answer three basic questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?

To respond to these questions, we have undertaken a broad range of studies and investigations. We have visited the riot cities; we have heard many witnesses; we have sought the counsel of experts across the country. This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. Reaction to last summer’s disorders has quickened the movement and deepened the division. Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American. This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible.

Our principal task is to define that choice and to press for a national resolution. To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization (division) of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values. The alternative is not blind repression or capitulation (surrender) to lawlessness. It is the realization of common opportunities for all within a single society. This alternative will require a commitment to national action—compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will. The vital needs of the nation must be met; hard choices must be made, and, if necessary, new taxes enacted. Violence cannot build a better society. Disruption and disorder nourish repression, not justice. They strike at the freedom of every citizen. The community cannot—it will not—tolerate coercion and mob rule. Violence and destruction must be ended—in the streets of the ghetto and in the lives of people. Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain, and white society condones (allows) it.

It is time now to turn with all the purpose at our command to the major unfinished business of this nation. It is time to adopt strategies for action that will produce quick and visible progress. It is time to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens—urban and rural, white and black, Spanish-surname, American Indian, and every minority group. Our recommendations embrace three basic principles: To mount programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems; To aim these programs for high impact in the immediate future in order to close the gap between promise and performance; To undertake new initiatives and experiments that can change the system of failure and frustration that now dominates the ghetto and weakens our society. These programs will require unprecedented levels of funding and performance, but they neither probe deeper nor demand more than the problems which called them forth. There can be no higher priority for national action and no higher claim on the nation’s conscience . . .”


  1. Why was the Kerner Commission established?
  2. Why were there so many urban riots?
  3. What did the Committee fear would happen if the riots continued?
  4. According to the report, what are two ways to help resolve America’s racial divide?
  5. In your opinion, has the United States achieved the objectives of the Kerner commission? Explain.

Tet Offensive (January – February 1968)

Excerpt from North Vietnamese General Tran Van Tra’s Comments on Tet ‘68.”

“Prior to the arrival of the U.S. troops, if the balance of forces between ourselves and the enemy had been viewed simply in terms of specific, material forces, who would have thought that we were strong and were capable of annihilating the puppet army and overthrowing the puppet regime? Later, when the United States sent in at the same time about 200,000 troops who had modern equipment and relied on the strength of overwhelming firepower and rapid mobility, to carry out a strategic counter offensive during the 1965-1966 dry season, we concluded that the Americans and puppets were not strong but were passive, and continued to press the strategic offensive, launched the Bau Bang-Dau Tieng offensive campaign, gained the initiative on the battlefield, and won many victories. In 1968, when the U.S. troops numbered nearly 500,000, with all kinds of modern weapons except the atomic bomb and with the purchasing of the services of lackey vassal troops in addition to Thieu’s army, we could clearly see the enemy’s weakness and our strength, and exploited that strength to a high degree in carrying out the general offense and uprising of Tet Mau Than, a unique event in the history of war. During Tet we not only attacked the enemy simultaneously in all urban centers, including the U.S. war headquarters in Saigon, the puppet capital, but also defeated the U.S. limited war strategy and forced the United States to deescalate the war, being peace talks in Paris, and adopt the strategy of “de-Americanizing the war” and then “Vietnamizing the war.” We thus smashed the U.S. imperialists’ strategic global “flexible response” strategy. The international gendarme became terrified of the role it had taken for itself; and the illusion of the “absolute military superiority of the United States” was shattered.

However, during Tet of 1968 we did not correctly evaluate the specific balance of forces between ourselves and the enemy, did not fully realize that the enemy still had considerable capabilities and that our capabilities were limited, and set requirements that were beyond our actual strength. In other words, we did not base ourselves on scientific calculation or a careful weighing of all factors, but in past on an illusion based on our subjective desires. For that reason, although that decision was wise, ingenious, and timely, and although its implementation was well organized and bold, there was excellent coordination on all battlefields, everyone acted bravely, sacrificed their lives, and there was created a significant strategic turning point in Vietnam and Indochina, we suffered large sacrifices and losses with regard to manpower and materiel, especially cadres at the various echelons, which clearly weakened us. Afterwards, we were not only unable to retain the gains we had made but had to overcome a myriad of difficulties in 1969 and 1970 so that the revolution could stand firm in the storm. Although it is true that the revolutionary path is never a primrose path that always goes upward, and there can never be a victory without sacrifice, in the case of Tet 1968, if we had weighed and considered things meticulously, taken in to consideration the balance of forces of the two sides and set forth correct requirements, out victory would have been even greater, less blood would have been spilled by the cadres, enlisted men, and people, and the future development of the revolution would certainly have been far different. In 1972, after a period of endeavoring to overcome many difficulties make up for the recent losses and develop our position and strength with an absolute revolutionary spirit on the part of the soldiers and people, our troops participated in winning victories in Kampuchea and Laos. However, not all of our main-force units could return to South Vietnam. In that situation we correctly evaluated the positions and forces of the two sides, destroyed many fortified defense lines of the enemy in Quang Tri, the Central Highlands, and eastern Nam Bo, and created many integrated liberated areas at Dong Ha, Dac To, Tan Canh, Loc Ninh Bu Dop, and northern Tay Ninh then, in coordination with the great “Dien Bien Phu in the air” victory in the North, attained our goal of smashing the American’s scheme of negotiating from a position of strength, and forced the Americans to sign in Paris, agreements, which benefited us.”


  1. According to General Tran Van Tra, what advantage did the U.S. military had in the initial conflict?
  2. What was the Tet Offensive?
  3. According to General Tran Van Tra, what was the result of the Tet Offensive?
  4. Why did General Tran Van Tra say, “the illusion of the ‘absolute military superiority of the United States’ was shattered”?
Saigon execution Murder of a Vietcong by Saigon Police Chief, 1968
South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the national police, shoots Vietcong officer Nguyen Van Lem, also known as Bay Lop, on a Saigon street on Feb. 1, 1968.

Background: After Nguyen Ngoc Loan raised his sidearm and shot Vietcong operative Nguyen Van Lem in the head he walked over to the reporters and told them that: “These guys kill a lot of our people, and I think Buddha will forgive me.” Captured on NBC TV cameras and by AP photographer Eddie Adams, the picture and film footage flashed around the world and quickly became a symbol of the Vietnam War’s brutality. Eddie Adams’ picture was especially striking, as the moment frozen is one almost at the instant of death. Taken a split second after the trigger was pulled, Lem’s final expression is one of pain as the bullet rips through his head. A closer look of the photo actually reveals the bullet exiting his skull.

Howard University

Howard University Dispute Settled After Four-Day Protest (March 19, 1968)

The four-day student protest at Howard University ended Saturday afternoon in what protest leader Ewart Brown described as “an atmosphere of fatigue and victory.” The protest, which involved over two thousand students in a massive Administration building sit-in, ended after three days of round-the-clock negotiations between the protest steering committee and Administration officials. The sit-in was brought to a close when Administration officials granted two of the four steering committee demands and promised “immediate negotiations to resolve other problems.”

Howard officials agreed to create a student judiciary committee to review charges against 37 students for disrupting a University program on March 1st. The Administration declared “unnegotiable” the student demand for the resignation of Howard President James Nabrit. They also said that the students’ fourth demand for curriculum changes “will require further discussion.”

Kenneth Clark, prominent Negro psychologist and Howard trustee, read the agreement at 2 p.m. on the steps of the Administration Building before a noticeably tired group of 2500 students. “Any interpretation as to winning or losing by either side misses the whole point,” Dr. Clark said. “We are very happy this was resolved without bringing law enforcement officers on the campus.” However, both protest leaders and the student body as a whole regarded the settlement, in Brown’s words: “(As a) victory for black students not only at Howard but at every black college.”

As 1000 students filed out of the administration building Saturday afternoon carrying blankets and suitcases, conversation centered around today’s return of Howard President James Nabrit. The resignation of Nabrit became the chief student demand as sentiment swelled during the protest. Students claimed that Nabrit spent too much time away from the campus and neglected the “problems and issues raised by the student body.”


  1. What method(s) did the Howard students use to protest?
  2. How long did their protest last?
  3. What was the student protesters’ chief demand?
  4. Why do you think the protesters considered the protest, “a victory for black students not only at Howard but at every black college?”

Echoes of a New York Waterloo – New York City Teachers Strike (September-November, 1968)

NYC Teacher Strike

A. For American cities and education, it seemed the worst of times. Pickets and the police ringed schools as onetime allies in the civil rights struggle shrieked accusations of racism and anti-Semitism at each other. The 1968 battle over school decentralization in an obscure Brooklyn district called Ocean Hill-Brownsville ripped apart New York City as nothing has before or since. Its impact on the city and beyond is hard to overstate. It played an early role in the deterioration of relations between blacks and Jews. New York liberals, previously rock-solid in their advocacy of social causes, were split into warring camps. Albert Shanker rose in stature from local union chief to hero to some and anti-hero to others, becoming a national educational leader and household name who even made his way into a Woody Allen movie.

B. And far from being a catharsis to cleanse New York City education of its poisons, Ocean Hill-Brownsville came to stand as a symbol of hifalutin good intentions gone awry — an effort to transfer power from a hidebound bureaucracy back to the people that turned into a political and educational disaster. “The New York teacher’s strike of 1968 seems to me the worst disaster my native city has experienced in my lifetime,’” Martin Mayer wrote soon after the events in a book chronicling the fight.

C. Mr. Shanker was one of the central figures in a fight with few if any heroes — a tough teachers’ union leader who shut down city schools in three bitter strikes, enraging black advocates of local control and defying City Hall and much of the political establishment. If there was one thing virtually all the participants could agree on at the beginning, it was that schools in poor, black neighborhoods were doing a terrible job. The all-powerful central Board of Education’s very address — 110 Livingston Street — had become a synonym for a vast, entrenched bureaucracy, the target of mounting black protests.

D. Anti-Semitism surfaced when a black teacher, Leslie Campbell, read a girl’s poem that included a slur toward Jews. (The school system’s underpaid staff was 90 percent white and heavily Jewish.) The United Federation of Teachers reproduced and distributed anti-Semitic leaflets it said were circulating in the schools. ”The whole alliance of liberals, blacks and Jews broke apart on this issue,” Mr. Shanker remembered. ”It was a turning point in that way. It was a fact in the late 1960’s that the African-American community was moving from the idea of integration toward the idea of black power, toward organizations like Rap Brown or the Black Panthers. Was it civil rights for minorities or civil rights for everybody?”

E. Later, when the state legislature met in 1969 to consider a citywide decentralization plan, the teacher’s union was in Albany in force. ”It was horrible, a very highly charged environment,” recalled Jerome Kretchmer, then a liberal Assemblyman from the Upper West Side who backed a bill originally calling for strong community control that eventually was modified to a bill acceptable to the union, including strong job protections. “The bill that passed was Shanker’s bill, not ours,” Mr. Glasser recalled. “Real decentralization threatened two major interests, the Board and its bureaucracy, which was unalterably opposed to change, and the power of the union. It was really a power struggle in which the black kids were sacrificed.” “In the end,” said Mr. McCoy, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville struggle “had nothing to do with education; it was all politics and money.”


1.      What issue caused teachers to strike?

2.      What two ethnic groups were directly affected by the conflict?

3.      What was Albert Shanker’s role in the strike?

4.      According to excerpt E, what major interests did decentralization threaten?

5.     In your opinion, what was the underlying cause of the struggle?

Yale University Decides to Admit Women (November 9, 1968)

Source: “On The Advisability And Feasibility of Women At Yale,” Yale Alumni Magazine.

  1. “Yale may admit women,” read a headline in the New York Times.”Nothing Stands in the Way But Lack of Funds.” That was in 1891. A Miss Irene W. Coit had passed the Yale College entrance exam. It was a purely academic exercise, but President Timothy Dwight was nevertheless interested in opening a “woman’s annex.” There was no question, the Timesstressed, of men and women taking classes together. In fact, men and women had been taking classes together at Yale since 1869, the year the art school opened. The graduate school began admitting women in 1892. By the late 1960s, nearly 1,000 women enrolled at Yale every year. But in 1891, “Yale” to the Times (and most of the campus) meant Yale College. And almost 80 years would elapse between Miss Coit’s successful exam and the admission of the first female undergraduates at Yale.

A. Yale started thinking seriously about college coeducation in 1966, when Yale and Vassar decided to explore “coordinate coeducation.” The idea was for Vassar, which was then a women’s college, to sell its campus and relocate its students to Prospect Hill. Vassar would become Yale’s Radcliffe. This plan for a simple add-on — a twentieth-century “woman’s annex” — had decided political attractions. President Kingman Brewster ’41 . . . lived in “fear and trembling” about how college alumni would react to coeducation if their sons couldn’t get into Yale. Yale College was more than an exclusively male school; it was a school that cultivated and cherished a particular ideal of maleness.

B. But as the alumni resisted, the students pushed . . . Undergraduates held rallies, wrote imperious opinion pieces for the News,even organized “Coeducation Week” as a kind of pilot project. Brewster himself had unwittingly set up this conflict between the alumni and the alumni-to-be, by starting to admit college applicants based more on academic performance than on Yale family connections and where they had prepped. Yale was admitting ever-larger numbers of public school students, and most of them had never experienced sex-segregated schooling, let alone thought of it as a matter of honor.

C. Then, in November 1967, Vassar’s board turned down the merger. The move left Yale with no plan and little time. All the other Ivies except Dartmouth were by now either coeducational or preparing to become so, putting Yale at a disadvantage in the competition for academically outstanding college applicants . . . On November 9, 1968, the Corporation, Yale’s board of trustees, approved Brewster’s plan to admit 250 female freshmen and 250 female transfer students to Yale College the following September. . . There were rocky patches in the first few years. The lopsided gender ratio left some women feeling isolated, some overwhelmed by excessive male attention. Facilities were overcrowded. Brewster tried to appease furious alumni with the promise that Yale College would continue to produce “a thousand male leaders” every year. But in the end, coeducation succeeded, settled in, and became the norm. In the pages that follow, we excerpt passages from publications of the time and recent interviews with participants in the transformation.


  1. According to Excerpt A, how many years lapsed between Coit’s successful exam and the admission of the first female undergraduates at Yale?
  2. According to Excerpt B, why did Yale decide to seriously considered coeducation at the college?
  3. According to Excerpt C, what was Yale admittance traditionally based upon? How did that measure change over time?
  4. In your opinion, how did resistance to the admission of women into the university exemplify the patriarchal tones of American society? Explain.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s