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When America Turned

Reckoning with 1968

David Wyatt

Publication Year: 2014

Much has been written about the seismic shifts in American culture and politics during the 1960s. Yet for all the analysis of that turbulent era, its legacy remains unclear. In this elegantly written book, David Wyatt offers a fresh perspective on the decade by focusing on the pivotal year of 1968. He takes as his point of departure the testimony delivered by returning veteran John Kerry before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1971, as he imagined a time in the future when the word “Vietnam” would mean “the place where America finally turned.” But turning from what, to what—and for better or for worse? Wyatt explores these questions as he retraces the decisive moments of 1968—the Tet Offensive, the McCarthy campaign, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the student revolt at Columbia, the “police riot” at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, Lyndon Johnson’s capitulation, and Richard Nixon’s ascendency to power. Seeking to recover the emotions surrounding these events as well as analyze their significance, Wyatt draws on the insights of what Michael Herr has called “straight” and “secret” histories. The first category consists of work by professional historians, traditional journalists, public figures, and political operatives, while the second includes the writings of novelists, poets, New Journalists, and memoirists. The aim of this parallel approach is to uncover two kinds of truth: a “scholarly truth” grounded in the documented past and an “imaginative truth” that occupies the more ambiguous realm of meaning. Only by reckoning with both, Wyatt believes, can Americans come to understand the true legacy of the 1960s.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-x

In the writing of this book two friends gave me essential support. Howard Norman cheered me on at every turn and urged me gently but firmly to revisit many missed opportunities. I will always remember with a smile his morning greeting, on those days when I stayed over at his home in Chevy Chase, as he met me at the stairs waving pages of manuscript and...

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Preface: Two Speeches

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pp. xi-xvi

This is a book bracketed by two speeches, one given by Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and one not given by John Kerry in 2004. Each of these will be discussed in the pages that follow. I want to begin, however, with another pair of speeches, one given and one not given. In the yet-to-be-given speech, an American president refuses to enter a land war in Asia because of “the hard...

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Introduction: The Turning

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pp. 1-10

I turned twenty in 1968, the year in which the country, perhaps once and for all, broke its own heart. In reflecting back on that gone time at the age of sixty-three, it is now clear that a great divide then began to open up in American life, one that seems to grow deeper with every passing day. What came to feel like a long, complicated, and bitter divorce has left our children...

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Chapter 1. Tet

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pp. 11-35

In Vietnam, before the American War changed everything, Tet was the biggest holiday of the year. From all over the country, as the twelfth lunar month neared its close, people returned to their home villages to honor the family tombs and to feast on rice cakes and soybean soup. As a defense against ill fortune, some families erected a tree made from bamboo branches. At the...

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Chapter 2. The Movement and McCarthy

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pp. 36-62

In 1987, Eugene McCarthy wrote that his 1968 run for the presidency “probably had little or no effect on how the Vietnam War was conducted and how it finally ended.” To those who worked for McCarthy in the snows of New Hampshire and the suburbs of Oregon, the claim may come as a surprise. After studying the histories of the campaign, however, the comment registers...

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Chapter 3. McNamara, Bombing, and the Tuesday Lunch

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pp. 63-86

On February 28, 1968, in the East Room of the White House, Lyndon Johnson presented Robert McNamara with the Medal of Freedom. McNamara was to retire as secretary of defense on the following day. Johnson makes no mention of these ceremonies in his memoir, The Vantage Point; the fact of Clark Clifford’s succeeding McNamara as secretary of defense is consigned to...

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Chapter 4. Thirty Days in March

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pp. 87-112

On March 31, 1968, I flew from Los Angeles to New York and caught a limousine to New Haven, where I was returning from spring break to finish my sophomore year at Yale. In Davenport College I shared a two-bedroom suite with a philosophy major, an urban studies major, and an engineer who was also battalion commander of Naval ROTC. My best friend at the time...

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Chapter 5. Fourteenth Street

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pp. 113-136

A week after Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, on a cold January morning, I drove up Fourteenth Street, which runs due north through Washington, D.C., passing a few blocks to the east of the White House and bisecting the Mall, at its southern end, alongside the Washington Monument. It was not a street I knew well, despite having spent the middle of my work week for...

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Chapter 6. RFK

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pp. 137-157

In the summer of 1968, the last one spent living in my parent’s house, I walked the hot streets of San Bernardino campaigning for Eugene McCarthy. My canvassing took place on the eastern outskirts of the city where the houses gave way to vacant lots and tumbleweeds. Air conditioning had not yet colonized the Inland Empire, so most homes were equipped with swamp...

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Chapter 7. The Ditch

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pp. 158-183

Scattered throughout Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods (1994) are seven chapters called “Evidence.” The evidence given in the fourth of these chapters is about the My Lai massacre. O’Brien’s reader has known for some time that such evidence is looming and has begun to suspect, perhaps as early as page 10 of the novel and if he knows anything about the case, that John Wade’s...

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Chapter 8. Columbia

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pp. 184-205

“Then Rudd did the thing at the King Memorial Service,” James Kunen writes, in The Strawberry Statement, his journal-like account of the developments taking place at Columbia University in April and May 1968. Kunen’s “then” will prove telling. For those who lived through that New York spring, event followed upon event in a “then”-like sequence. Many of the surviving testimonies...

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Chapter 9. Nixon and Occupatio

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pp. 206-230

“I was born in a house my father built,” RN begins. The theme of self-making and the self-built threads its way through much of what Richard Nixon did and wrote. In his ongoing act of self-fashioning through words—no American president since Theodore Roosevelt had been so prolific an author—the place of origin, figured in the opening sentence of the memoirs as a house, plays...

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Chapter 10. Chicago

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pp. 231-254

On the evening of Wednesday, August 28, 1968, Tom Hayden found himself in Chicago’s Grant Park, disguised in a false beard and a football helmet. A few hours earlier his friend Rennie Davis had been clubbed to the ground by Chicago police. Hayden then urged the assembled demonstrators to break into small groups and to make their way to the Conrad Hilton Hotel. Blocked...

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Chapter 11. Kissinger and the Dragon Lady

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pp. 255-278

As Richard Nixon writes in RN, he and Henry Kissinger saw themselves as people who “made history.” The phrase refers to their power to shape events on the national and international stage. But Nixon and Kissinger made history in another sense—by writing it. They did so in memoirs of almost crushing length; Kissinger’s White House Years (1979) exceeds...

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Chapter 12. Swift Boat

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pp. 279-304

One may as well begin by quoting from President Nixon’s Oval Office conversation with Charles Colson, on April 28, 1971:

COLSON: This fellow Kerry that they had on last week—
PRESIDENT: Yeah. Yeah.
COLSON: —hell, he turns out to be, uh, really quite a phony. We—
PRESIDENT: Yeah, I know.
COLSON: The story we’re getting...

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Afterword: In Vietnam

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pp. 305-312

On January 17, 2012, my wife, Ann, and I arrived in Hanoi. We were traveling with our friends Jay and Ann Hill and had come overland from northern Thailand to a port on the Mekong, down the river by slow boat to Luang Prabang, and then by prop plane to Noi Bai Airport. For the Hills, the trip had been a sentimental journey back to Chiang Mai, where they had worked...

Notes

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pp. 313-340

Works Cited

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pp. 341-354

Index

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pp. 355-366

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About the Author, Back Cover

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David Wyatt was born in Lynwood, California, in 1948. He received a BA from Yale University in 1970 and a PhD from UC Berkeley in 1975. He is the author of two books on his native state, The Fall into Eden and Five Fires, and of a memoir about living through the fall of 2001 called...


E-ISBN-13: 9781613762905
E-ISBN-10: 1613762909
Print-ISBN-13: 9781625340603
Print-ISBN-10: 1625340605

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas

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Subject Headings

  • United States -- History -- 1961-1969.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1963-1969.
  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- Influence.
  • United States -- Civilization -- 1945-.
  • Nineteen sixty-eight, A.D.
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