Fifty years ago, protest shook the world. Young people rose against tradition and authority in places as different as Berlin and Beijing. Some of the most dramatic events, however, took place in the Americas. 1968 might be a long time ago, and many people who took part in the uprisings, who helped quell them or who just watched with sympathies for one or the other side are dead by now, and most others have changed markedly since then. One thing, however, has not changed: Mention the upheaval of the 1960s and you’ll spark a debate. Many countries – including the United States – still debate the times and fight to interpret their meaning. But where did that big summer of discontent come from? What happened during the uprisings, and how did they end? This article will try to answer these questions – mostly for the United States, but to a lesser extent (due to my lack of knowledge, not for a lack of historical drama) also for Latin America.
Protest in the Making
Why did so many people all over the world take to the streets in 1968? It seems especially amazing given that most countries had experienced a long period of solid economic growth since the end of World War II. But therein lay a problem as well. Economic progress freed many people from the most gripping concerns they had had before, but consumerism could only fulfill so many of their wishes. Just as well, elites in many countries had gotten used to the constant progress and factored it into their ever grander promises of even brighter days ahead. The actual improvements could not keep up with these promises. Many young people, however – most of which had not experienced or could not remember anymore the hardships of earlier times – demanded that these promises of progress be fulfilled and the hardships of the present remedied.
The precise reasons for the protest differed from country to country. The United States were a fertile ground for widespread protest in 1968 since many Americans had already gathered experience with activism in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The Free Speech Movement on college campuses and the hippie counter-culture had experimented with various forms of dissent from the early 1960s on. The single biggest catalyst, however, was the war in Vietnam. The protesters detested the war both for moral and personal reasons. It seemed wrong that a superpower waged war against a small, poor country for unconvincing reasons and with unclear goals while employing often hideous and brutal means. At the same time, young men feared they might get drafted and sent to Vietnam themselves, and every American soldier who returned home in a casket left more people behind who questioned for what he had died. The Tet Offensive in early 1968 did not shatter the American positions in Vietnam, but it smashed the confidence of the American public in winning the war.
The Summer of Protest
The Tet Offensive did not only affect the men and women in the streets. President Lyndon B. Johnson maintained that Tet had not been an American failure, but he also declared that he would not seek reelection. This led to an open race for the Democratic nomination which exposed the internal conflicts of the party: Sitting Vice President Hubert Humphrey represented the orthodox stance and relied on the support of the party establishment as well as the labor unions. Senator Eugene McCarthy had positioned himself as the anti-war challenger even before Johnson had dropped out of the race, so he appealed to many of the activists and protesting students. Finally, Senator Robert F. Kennedy joined the race, capitalizing on the fame the Kennedy name still had five years after John F. Kennedy’s assassination – especially among Catholics, African-Americans, and other racial or ethnic minorities. The New Deal coalition which had won the presidency for the Democrats seven out of nine times since 1932 (only the immensely popular Eisenhower could beat them) broke into parts.
This rift would only come to be fully felt later. In the short term, two other events made a special impact and raised the temperature for a really hot summer of protest: Martin Luther King was shot by a white supremacist on April 4. Only two months later, on June 6, Robert F. Kennedy was murdered, too. The progressive forces in America had lost two of their most revered leaders. It seemed as only the forces of the establishment remained. In late August 1968, the Democratic Party held its national convention in Chicago to nominate the presidential candidate in this volatile political climate. Anti-war protesters flocked to the city from all over the country. They gathered in the parks and tried to march on the convention center, playing cat-and-mouse with the police tasked to keep the city quiet and prevent any kind of disturbance to the convention. Enraged protesters and a rather repressive police strategy did not mix well. While both sides engaged in violence, it was only a means to the end of favorable media coverage – for the protesters, to bring their cause to the public, for the police, to justify their hardline strategy as appropriate. The actual convention (that nominated Vice President Humphrey as the candidate) was completely overshadowed.
The Chicago convention riots were captured in a board game only two years after the events. Jim Dunnigan, the godfather of SPI wargames, had a liking for designing political conflict games as well (especially in his younger years). His Chicago, Chicago pits two players as protesters and police against each other. While the two sides clash in parks and streets (the latter being advantageous to the police, because they can pick off individual protesters there), their conflict is tightly limited – with both sides jockeying for victory points as provided by media exposure. Especially the police must be wary of escalating too much since they lose immediately if they accidentally kill a protester. Another special rule to capture the feeling of the conflict is the extremely high attrition of protesters (of whom presumably a lot go home during the conflict) which is balanced by their similarly high rate of reinforcements (representing new protesters joining the fight).
Law and Order
So far, we have only heard of the political Left, of protesters and the Democratic National Convention. What about the Right? The Republicans fielded Richard Nixon as their presidential candidate, reputed to be a tough conservative. Nixon ran on a platform of law and order at home and an “honorable peace” in Vietnam. He aimed to win the disenchanted Southern whites away from the Democratic Party. Nixon’s strategically most important coup, however – and the one that foretold his later administration style best – was in matters of foreign policy. The Johnson administration threw all their weight into bringing peace in Vietnam on the way – not only for the peace itself, but also as a boost to Humphrey’s election campaign. Nixon figured that his chances were best if the war in Vietnam showed no sign of ending. Therefore, he set up a back channel with the South Vietnamese government and urged them not to participate in a possible peace conference. Once he was elected, he promised, he’d give them better terms. The ploy worked. In fall, the potential peace in Vietnam broke into pieces just like the New Deal coalition had broken apart in summer. Nixon won a comfortable victory at the polls. Despite all its cultural leftist flair, 1968 was politically a clear victory of the Right. In the long run, the year and its cultural and political clashes inspired and vitalized the following generations on both the Left and the Right. 1968 keeps being debated and re-interpreted in America until today.
This polarization is also imminent in the board games covering the events. Another Jim Dunnigan game – one of his very first designs – that dealt with the protests at Columbia University proved controversial from the very beginning. I admit, it was not only because it featured a very recent political conflict very unlike the usual SPI fare of pushing tanks over the battlefields of World War II. It might also have helped that Dunnigan made some unconventional suggestion for the playing pieces in the rules – Seconal sleeping pills for the authorities, marijuana seeds for the radicals. But let’s face it, the single biggest reason for the game’s notoriety was its name: “Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker!” SPI decided not to put a game with such a potential to offend into its Strategy & Tactics magazine. Just some subscribers were sent a free copy of the game to gauge interest (and level of offense taken). The game never made it to the magazine, but it could be purchased separately.
Latin America: Protest in Authoritarian Regimes
1968 was a year of protest south of the Rio Grande as well. Most of the Latin American countries, however, were not exactly model democracies in the late 1960s, so protest was always a riskier business there. My knowledge of Latin American history is regrettably limited, so I’ll just focus on two very prominent cases: Mexico and Uruguay.
Mexico had been ruled by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI, “Institutional Revolutionary Party”) for almost forty years. Economically, the country had seen quite some success in the years leading up to 1968, and it was about to make history by being the first country of the Third World to host the Olympic Games (scheduled for October 1968). Growing prosperity and international prestige could not fulfil all desires, though. Especially the Olympics were often regarded as a mere publicity stunt that would do nothing to improve the situation of the populace. Instead the protesters demanded political change – especially more personal liberties: “¡No queremos olimpiadas, queremos revolución!” (“We don’t want Olympics, we want a revolution!” – an affront to a ruling party that had the claim to revolution in its very name). The International Olympic Committee, ever concerned with having undisturbed games, threatened to move the games to Los Angeles on short notice if the unrest kept growing. Under this kind of pressure (and heightened global attention), the Mexican government ordered tough measures to be taken against the protesters. On October 2 the police and the army surrounded the crowd of 10,000 gathered in the Tlatelolco neighborhood of Mexico City and opened fire. Hundreds were killed, thousands wounded or arrested. The Tlatelolco Massacre ended Mexico’s 1968 protests. Ten days later, the Olympics commenced as planned.
Uruguay’s case is rather special. The Uruguayan challenge to traditional authority did not come from spontaneous civilian discontent, but rather from an organized guerilla movement. The Tupamaro movement had been founded as a leftist political movement in the early 1960s already, adhering to a creed of “propaganda of action”. The more they clashed with the Uruguayan authorities, the more violent this action became. By June 1968, the Uruguayan president declared a state of emergency. Now the Tupamaros went underground and turned themselves into a fully-fledged urban guerilla group. They robbed banks to finance their fight and help the urban poor on whose support they depended, they orchestrated jailbreaks of their incarcerated comrades-in-arms, and they kidnapped or assassinated high-ranking Uruguayans and foreigners (including the consul of Brazil and a CIA agent who had been instructing the Uruguayan police about torture methods). This struggle of an urban guerilla group inspired many European left-wing radicals who subsequently shifted to armed violence as well (with not quite as much success), and also is behind Brian Train’s board game Tupamaro (BTR Games). The game is entirely de-territorialized – players do not fight to control ground, but social groups. They use their tongues as well as their fists to gain the allegiance of the populace and erode their opponent’s public support. Support, however, is not a zero-sum game – it is entirely possible that the populace becomes disenchanted with both sides and scores race towards the bottom. Whoever loses all their popular support also loses the game – as in real history, the Tupamaros faltered under their being rejected by the urban population as well as the heavy casualties and arrests among their fighters in 1972.
The anti-war protest and urban guerilla movement did not remain confined to America. The next article of this series will deal with the 1968 protests in Western Europe.
Twilight Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games)
Chicago, Chicago (Jim Dunnigan, SPI)
Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker! (Jim Dunnigan, Columbia Daily Spectator)
Tupamaro (Brian Train, BTR Games)
Mark Kurlansky gives a collage of the events, focused on how much they were globally inspiring each other via television in 1968: The Year that Rocked the World, Random House, New York City, NY 2005.
If you’re interested in how the idea of “change” lost to the idea of “law and order”, see Suri, Jeremi: Power and Protest. Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA/London 2003.
A short account of the ongoing debate over how to interpret 1968 in the US is Gitlin, Todd: USA: Unending 1968, in: German Historical Institute Bulletin Supplement, 6, 2009, online here.
1. This North Vietnamese success showed that the North Vietnamese understood the conflict and their enemy a lot better than the Americans did conversely, as Olivia Garard has shown here.
2. It has been speculated if this unabashedly graphic name was a snub at Avalon Hill, a company so concerned with their image as a producer of family-friendly fun that they changed the name of their racing game “Grand Prix” to “Le Mans” out of fear not-so-language-savvy shop assistants might mispronounce the French name.
3. If you’re interested in another article on protesting under authoritarian rule, see this one on the Eastern European Communist regimes in 1989 (heavily featuring the game 1989 (Ted Torgerson/Jason Matthews, GMT Games)).