US involvement in the Vietnam War peaked in 1968, with the largest number of American troops, 549,550, fighting in the country and the most casualties in a single year. On Jan. 1, the Vietcong attacked a US base, ending a previous truce, and at the end of the month they launched the Tet Offensive. On their TVs, Americans saw shocking images from the war, and soon public opinion began to turn against the effort. Student protests also picked up, and in April, Columbia University in NYC shut down for a week.
The 1968 Games in Grenoble, France, put the Winter Olympics back on the map in America, in great part thanks to the popularity of figure skater Peggy Fleming. She was the only US athlete to win gold that year and brought on the return of US figure skating after the former team had been killed in a 1961 plane crash. Following her win, she participated in TV specials and skating performances.
On May 13, almost one million students, teachers, and workers marched in Paris demanding an end to police brutality and the patriarchal society, which required women to wear skirts to work and get their husbands' permission to open a bank account. During the general strike that month, over 11 million workers — or 22 percent of France — protested, and President Charles de Gaulle even fled the country to a base in Germany. While the unrest subsided, France was forever changed, becoming more liberalized.
At 9 p.m. on March 31, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed the American people about the status of the Vietnam War. But at the end of the speech, he shocked Americans by announcing his decision to not seek reelection. The president, who had succeeded Kennedy, said: "I shall not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president." Writing 40 years later, LBJ's former chief of staff said both the president's desire to enjoy his life and family and the toll of the Vietnam War influenced his decision to step down.
After years of death threats, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead on April 4, 1968, at a motel in Memphis, TN, at the age of 39. He was killed the day after he gave the "I've Been to the Mountaintop" address. Fugitive James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to the assassination but maintained his innocence. The King family believes MLK was killed due to a conspiracy involving the US government, and sealed documents will not be opened until 2027.
April 7, 1968, was declared a national day of mourning, and on April 9, hundreds of thousands gathered for his funeral. On April 11, Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1968.
In April 1968, two classic sci-fi movies hit theaters: Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey. First on April 3, Planet of the Apes premiered to critical acclaim. Next came Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey on April 6, which was met with a polarized reception. After gaining a cult following, though, it became 1968's highest-grossing film.
On June 5 and two months after MLK's assassination, presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy was shot while exiting LA's Ambassador Hotel. He was on a campaign stop to cap off his win of the California Democratic presidential primary and died 26 hours later. Audio of the shooting was captured on journalists' tape recorders, and footage of the scene was captured on film.
On June 3, radical feminist Valerie Jean Solanas attempted to kill artist Andy Warhol at his studio. Earlier in the day, she had gone to Warhol's Factory to get back her script, which Warhol had apparently lost. She came back and shot the artist, who barely survived. As security tightened, the murder attempt led to the end of an era at the Factory.
The popularity of soap operas reached an all-time high in the late '60s. After moving to TV, soaps were broadcasted daily in 15-minute segments until the late 1960s, when they all moved to a 30-minute format. As you can see in this 1968 episode of General Hospital, the show — and the commercials — appealed to housewives.
On Sept. 7, 400 feminists came out to protest the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. A press release cautioned even male liberals to stay away (although they could donate) and listed their objections to the pageant in 10 points. Point one: The Degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol. It read, "The Pageant contestants epitomize the roles we are all forced to play as women. The parade down the runway blares the metaphor of the 4-H Club county fair, where the nervous animals are judged for teeth, fleece, etc., and where the best 'Specimen' gets the blue ribbon. So are women in our society forced daily to compete for male approval, enslaved by ludicrous 'beauty' standards we ourselves are conditioned to take seriously."
These protests also gave birth to the myth of bra burning. While no bras were burned, because police would not allow any burning, a New York Post article that read "Women threw bras, mops, girdles, pots and pans, and Playboy magazines — items they called 'instruments of female torture'" went viral.
Hawaii Five-0 began its 12-season run in 1968. The title was a reference to Hawaii being the 50th state. It's considered the original crime procedural.
Back in 1968, the Winter and Summer Olympics took place in the same year. The Summer Games happened in Mexico City, and perhaps remembered more than the sports was the Black Power salute demonstrated by American gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos during a medal ceremony. The IOC responded by suspending the athletes, and a spokesman called it a "deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit," although the same IOC president had not objected to Nazi salutes at the 1936 games. Smith and Carlos were shunned back in the States.
Months after her brother-in-law was assassinated, the former first lady married Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis on his private island on Oct. 20. America was shocked when she announced plans to marry the mysterious foreigner, who was 28 years older than her. She lost her Secret Service protection on account of it, but the protection and companionship Onassis could provide apparently appealed to her.
Former Vice President Richard Nixon took a second run at the presidency, this time successfully in 1968. The Democrats had faced much upheaval, with incumbent President Johnson's decision not to run, in part due to the Vietnam fiasco, and candidate Robert Kennedy's assassination. Nixon campaigned as the candidate of stability and appealed to Americans tired of the hippie movement. He promised "peace with honor" and an end to the Vietnam War, and he won narrowly against Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey and independent candidate Alabama Governor George Wallace.
During the 1968 political season, 60 Minutes debuted on CBS. The debut cover story was about the Republican and Democratic nominating conventions and featured a candid look at candidate Nixon.
Yale University decided to admit women in November 1968, marking a changing of the times.
The Beatles' ninth album came in the form of the double White Album. It was recorded during a period of discord for the group — Ringo Starr had quit for a bit, and many of the tracks did not include the entire band. Even so, after being released in November, it went on to be considered one of the best albums ever. Iconic songs include "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and "Blackbird."
For those feeling nostalgic in 1968, Elvis Presley made a comeback. After floundering during the "swinging '60s" (he hadn't had a No. 1 hit since 1962), he performed on NBC on Dec. 3 in a show that came to be known as the '68 Comeback Special. It became the year's highest-rated special and launched Elvis back into relevancy.
Apollo 8 astronauts were chosen as Time's "men of the year" in 1968. Apollo 8 was only the second manned mission of the space program. It launched on Dec. 21 and became the first manned spacecraft to reach the moon's orbit and return to Earth.