Thomas Sowell

This 40th anniversary of the turbulent year 1968 is already starting to spawn nostalgic accounts of that year. We can look for more during this year in articles, books, and TV specials, featuring aging 1960s radicals seeking to relive their youth.

The events of 1968 have continuing implications for our times but not the implications drawn by those with romantic myths about 1968 and about themselves.

The first of the shocks of 1968 was the sudden eruption of violent attacks by Communist guerillas in the cities of South Vietnam, known as the "Tet offensive," after a local holiday.

That this sort of widespread urban guerilla warfare was still possible after the rosy claims made by American officials in Washington and Vietnam sent shock waves through the United States.

The conclusion that might have been drawn was that politicians and military commanders should not make rosy predictions. The conclusion that was in fact drawn was that the Vietnam war was unwinnable.

In reality, the Tet offensive was one in which the Communist guerilla movement was not only defeated in battle but was virtually annihilated as a major military force. From there on, the job of attacking South Vietnam was a job for the North Vietnam army.

Politically, however, the Tet offensive was an enormous victory for the Communists -- not in Vietnam, but in the United States.

The American media, led by Walter Cronkite, pictured the Tet offensive as a defeat for the United States and a sign that the Vietnam war was unwinnable.

That in turn led to the second shock of 1968, President Lyndon Johnson's announcement that he would not run for re-election. He knew that public support for the war was completely undermined -- and that is what in fact made the war politically unwinnable.

Think about it: More than 50,000 Americans gave their lives to win victories on the battlefields of Vietnam that were thrown away back in the United States by the media, by politicians and by rioters in the streets and on campuses.

Years later, Communist leaders in Vietnam admitted that they had not defeated the United States militarily in Vietnam but politically in the United States.

The next great shock of 1968 was the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The after-shocks included riots that swept through black ghettos across the country.

These orgies of mass destruction, vandalism, looting and deaths have likewise been seen nostalgically as mass "uprisings" against "the system."

But "the system" did not kill Martin Luther King. An assassin did. And the biggest losers from the 1968 riots were the black communities in which they occurred.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate