1968 : The Year That Rocked The World, by Mark Kurlansky (Random House)

If time is a river, then 1968 was certainly a stretch of white water. There are many ways of looking at the past, at history, and the ways of looking are also a kind of remaking. Mark Kurlansky’s earlier non fiction books are all histories of the world, a large topic narrowed by the singular lenses he looks through: the role of cod, for example, in the evolution of human civilization, or salt. But unlike cod or salt, a year isn’t something you can sit down at the table and eat, and that’s the trouble at the heart of this absorbing and readable book.

Kurlansky’s central thesis, announced in the first sentence of this book, is that “there has never been a year like 1968, and it is unlikely that there will ever be one again.” It was a year packed with momentous events: assassinations (Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy), student revolts in Europe, civil rights and the women’s movement in America, the Tet Offensive, massacre in Mexico, massacre at My Lai (which a young deputy operations officer at the time, Major Colin Powell, insisted never happened), widespread opposition to the Vietnam War, the civil war in Nigeria … it was, in fact, depressingly like so many other years, with perhaps a bit more blood spilled than usual.

So what was different? Not the events, but the news of the events. The advent of cheap videotape made expensive 16mm film obsolete, and cheaper, easier film meant extended news coverage, and the increasing use of live broadcast by satellite gave the news an immediacy and impact it had never had before. Nor has it since. It’s no coincidence that the icons of the era – Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara – were instinctively media-savvy. Richard Nixon, who won the presidential election in late December more or less by default (in that most political of times, only 60% of Americans bothered to vote), was not.

Television also explains how the student protest movements around the world (which ranged across a large number of issues, but agreed on the fundamental wrongness of the Vietnam War), assimilated successful tactics so rapidly. They learned it from the news. The civil rights non-violent protest methods, which were in turn modelled on the tactics of Gandhi in India, were quickly adopted by movements everywhere: marches, boycotts, sit-ins, anything that would attract police truncheons and the attendant media. The seminal images of that year are televised ones. Those of us who are old enough to remember it will have different images: mine is of a Viet Cong prisoner being escorted down a grubby street by South Vietnamese officers. They halted in the road, and one of the escorts took a gun from his side-holster and shot the prisoner in the side of his head. One prisoner, among so many dead, but he was shot in my living room, and it made all the difference – not just to me, but around the world.

The world has had other defining years. One hundred and twenty years earlier, revolution was similarly sweeping through Europe. For Virginia Woolf, it was “on or about December 1910” that everything changed. The events of the 11th of September, 2001 continue to affect the way we live our lives, and the internet as a medium is having the same transformative effect in the new millennium that television had in the sixties. A year, any year, is an abstraction: the year 1968 is a convenient frame for Kurlansky’s purpose, but it’s not the picture.

Christchurch Press

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Tim Tweets