I often wonder how much my fervid opposition to the Vietnam War 40 years ago was based on the possibility that I might be drafted. Personal jeopardy, after all, can be a strong motivating factor.
But as I look back on 1968, easily one of the most momentous years in the nation's history, it is clear that anyone alive then had to have been swept up in the tumultuous events of that year. The sense that the world was changing, that some things would never be the same, that all the rules, traditions and conventions that held us together as a society -- as a nation -- might just come unstuck, was not the stuff of fantasy but, rather, part of daily reality.
Sitting on the sidelines required an act of will. Failing to recognize that big things were happening all around us required an act of willful ignorance.
Well, not everything that occurred in 1968 was of such dramatic import. On Jan. 1, for example, Even Knievel failed in his attempt to jump Caesar's Palace Fountain. If that had been the highlight of 1968, we might still be living an updated version of the '50s.
But just four days later, the U.S. Justice Department indicted Dr. Benjamin Spock (the formerly much beloved "baby doctor") and the Rev. William Coffin of Yale and three others for conspiring to violate the draft law as an act of civil disobedience.
On Jan. 6, the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour" album reached No. 1 on the charts. It remained there for eight weeks.
On Jan. 10, U.S. forces escalated the bombing of Laos. On Jan. 19, Cambodia charged that U.S. and South Vietnamese forces had crossed the border and killed several Cambodians.
On Jan. 22, the TV show "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" premiered.
On Jan. 30, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Communist forces launched the Tet offensive, an attack on more than 100 South Vietnamese cities, including Saigon, where they briefly took control of the U.S. Embassy. Although U.S. forces ultimately would turn back the offensive, public support for the war eroded quickly after the attack.
That was just the first month of the year. As it turned out, it was merely the beginning of the flood.
After visiting Vietnam shortly after the end of the Tet offensive in late February, CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite concluded in a televised commentary during the evening news that the war essentially was unwinnable. President Lyndon Johnson, after hearing the commentary, said that if he had "lost Cronkite," he had "lost Mr. Average Citizen."
On March 12, Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, bolstered by anti-war sentiment, came within seven percentage points of beating the president in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. On March 31, in a live televised announcement, Johnson told the nation he would not seek re-election.
But the most consequential and traumatic events were yet to come. On April 4, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., only 39, was assassinated while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The next day, riots erupted across the nation.
On June 5, shortly after entering the presidential race and the day after winning the California Democratic primary, Sen. Robert Kennedy was shot and mortally wounded at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after delivering a victory speech.
The Democratic primary campaign culminated with the party's national convention in Chicago in August. Riots broke out between anti-war demonstrators and police, leaving the party sharply splintered between its liberal and conservative wings. The Democratic ticket of Hubert Humphrey and Sen. Edmund Muskie narrowly lost the election in November Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.
While these landmark events dominated the year, much else occurred, a lot of it mundane but some of it significant in its own right. Roy Jacuzzi invented the first whirlpool bath; the Chevy Blazer became the first SUV; Hewlett-Packard introduced the world's first programmable desktop calculator; members of the Living Theater were arrested in San Francisco for disrobing onstage.
It is tempting to try to draw parallels between 1968 and 2008. Forty years later, we find ourselves again at war, again involved in an exciting and perhaps groundbreaking presidential race, again beset by assassinations.
But it is almost as easy to draw contrasts. Where is the campus unrest? Maybe a renewed draft would awaken it.
We talk about the partisan rancor in today's politics, but it does not begin to equal the rancor between left and right in 1968. Thank goodness for that.
I think of the impact of Walter Cronkite's commentary on a beleaguered president and on the entire nation. That was a time when newspapers and the three national TV networks dominated the news.
That couldn't happen now, not with the Internet, round-the-clock cable news and the plethora of blogs. No one newsman or woman commands the authority Cronkite did.
We may never have another 1968, a year of such passion and pain, of such social upheaval and conflict, of such conviction and curiosity, of such excitement and dread. Maybe it is impossible to reproduce the confluence of events of 1968 and our reaction to them in a world shrunk by the ease of shared information.
In most respects, that comes as a relief. We don't want to endure another year like 1968.
But, then, I also wonder what happened to the passion.