Rosy View of a Riotous Year-With Awkward Ironies Omitted

1968: The Year That Rocked the World , by Mark Kurlansky. Ballantine Books, 464 pages, $26.95.

You can still find a handful of people (many of them now tenured) who will summon a nostalgic pang for the wild slogans spray-painted around Paris during the May 1968 student uprising. Overheated, purple paradoxes like “Be realistic-demand the impossible” or “All Power to the Imagination” seemed just audacious enough to usher in the millennium if declaimed with sufficient idealistic fervor. All that fateful year, kids were surging into the streets of Prague, Warsaw, Berlin, Mexico City, Berkeley and New York. The old Cold War liberalism-anti-communist, incrementalist and shackled to the timid definition of politics as the “art of the possible”-seemed about to topple, displaced by a spontaneous youthful rebellion. The youths proposed to abolish war, racism, colonialism, injustice, sexual repression, authoritarian work relations and the discontents of affluence-without casting a single vote, or firing a single shot.

By the year’s end, these grand hopes were in ruin, pummeled into submission by riot police (or police riots) in Chicago and Morningside Heights, outfoxed by a geriatric but still swift Générale de Gaulle in Paris, shot to pieces in Mexico City and crushed under the treads of Soviet tanks in Prague. All that political purism delivered a Nixon Presidency, energized a global conservative reaction and blew out what remained of its strength in a welter of mindless anti-Americanism, terrorism and lunatic schemes for violent revolution only partially redeemed by their ineptitude. (The bomb-making Weathermen wound up blowing up no one but themselves in a West Village townhouse.) And yet, as Mark Kurlansky puts it in the concluding chapter of his clumsy attempt at generational hagiography, 1968 remains a year “that was valued and is missed.”

There are two sensible ways to explain this. For one, conflict is exciting, and makes everyday life seem drab in comparison. More substantively, the insurgent spirit of the times changed the world, particularly in the realm of middle-class manners and mores. On the eve of a student takeover of Columbia University, a Barnard student’s illicit off-campus co-habitation with her boyfriend made the cover of The New York Times for several weeks running. It’s a measure of the successful revolution that it renders the overthrown standards literally unthinkable, and this was an honest-to-goodness revolution. As it was with unmarried co-habitation, so it came to be with gay rights, women in the workplace, no-fault divorce, youth culture, a pervasive mood of anti-authoritarianism and the institutionalization of certain ethnic grievances in universities. All of these now-familiar fixtures emerged from the crucible of the 60′s. (Plus, as socialist writer and activist Michael Harrington pointed out, “Everybody was getting laid.”)

Culture warriors continue to heap praise and blame-both deserved-on the 60′s and its consequences. At its best, the movement punctured complacency, shook up tired formulas and tried to give political expression to concerns about the fate of the soul in a managerial society-all good things. But Mr. Kurlansky, best-selling author of Salt: A World History and Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World , wants to make a larger claim, which neither his writing nor the historical record can sustain.

Here’s how he puts it: “The thrilling thing about the year 1968 was that it was a time when significant segments of the population all over the globe refused to be silent about the many things that are wrong with the world …. And this gave the world a sense of hope that it has rarely had, a sense that where there is wrong, there are always people who will expose it and try to change it.”

There was a great moral drama at the heart of the movements of 1968, rooted in the continuing civil-rights struggle and in resistance to a war in Vietnam that was both a crime and a blunder. (It’s a blunder for a democracy to commit crimes, and a crime for so powerful a state to blunder with American, and other, lives.) But the conflict was not a simple morality play, and by casting it as such, Mr. Kurlansky confuses his own emotions with historical judgment.

Most of 1968: The Year That Rocked the World is a fast if not quite deft gloss, a recap of the astonishing crush of events. Mr. Kurlansky is fond of television and gives it deserved credit for spreading the mood of revolt, but insufficient blame for exaggerating the outrageous, nose-thumbing antics of the youth culture at the expense of its moral vision. The book often resembles a text-bound version of those innumerable grainy, green-toned montages familiar from a dozen television documentaries-images of miniskirts, Ho Chi Minh, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, Abbie Hoffman, the Living Theatre, a dying Robert Kennedy and Dr. Benjamin Spock rush by in a blur, with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” as the soundtrack. He hopscotches from the first stirrings of the attempted Czechoslovakian reforms known as the Prague Spring to the civil-rights movement, to the emergence of Polish dissident Adam Michnik, to the West German controversies over a too-partial de-Nazification. He cites the famous letter from S.D.S. organizer and Weatherman Mark Rudd to Columbia University president Grayson Kirk, which ended with a quotation from LeRoi Jones: “Up against the Wall, Motherfucker, this is a stick-up.” In one perplexing passage, Mr. Kurlansky claims that the Port Huron Statement’s anti-anti-communism “first started to be expressed in the 1950′s with the film characters portrayed by James Dean, Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley.”

The book’s signal weakness is its (deliberate, one suspects) failure to discriminate between what Paul Berman has identified as the two completely different political revolutions of 1968. One sought to impose European totalitarianism in the Third World under the banner of “national liberation.” The other was a revolt against European totalitarianism in the Eastern bloc. Though the groovy, swirling currents of the time made them seem like a common project, the two revolutions were necessarily opposed to one another.

By 1968, a radical critique of American intrusion into places it didn’t belong had turned into the chant of “Ho, ho, Ho Chi Minh, the N.L.F. is gonna win,” and a romantic infatuation with Third World revolutionaries-Che, Castro, Mao, Ho and, unbelievably, Kim Il Sung. The irony was not lost on many observers at the time: The Czech students were fighting for the very rights-free speech and genuine representation-that American and West European students both took for granted and disdained as inadequate to a vaguely defined “participatory democracy” that had, by 1968, increasingly merged with an open embrace of Chinese- or Soviet-style dictatorship. An America swamped in a sea of its enemies became the fond hope of too many highly placed American and European radicals. Rather than parse out these nuances, Mr. Kurlansky recycles the lame rhetoric of moral equivalence, noting that the Czech protesters “were being watched by secret police, but so were American and European student demonstrators.” This is simply hopeless, an equation too silly to require debunking.

Because he fails to discriminate between the two strands of revolutionary fervor, Mr. Kurlansky runs into difficulties when he attempts to trace a direct line of descent from the movements of 1968 to the successful nonviolent revolutions that swept away Soviet communism in 1989. It was the revolution against totalitarianism that was redeemed in 1989, and not the Third World adventurism of 1968-era S.D.S. One of the heroes of many Eastern Bloc dissidents turned out to be (of all people) that bugbear of conservative reaction, Ronald Reagan, who said this of the student protesters in California while he was governor in 1970: “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.” The Eastern Bloc dissidents were perhaps deluded in their choice of heroes, but their admiration for President Reagan underscores the point that the story isn’t as simple as Mr. Kurlansky would like it to be.

Mr. Kurlansky’s account of the Presidential election of 1968 is also hobbled by his biases. Nixon’s winning “Southern strategy” was indeed based on pandering to Southern whites with thinly veiled racist appeals to “law and order.” Mr. Kurlansky puts it like this: “Republicans get the racist vote and the Democrats get the black vote, and it turns out in America there are more racist voters than black voters.” Alas, that was only half of Nixon’s strategy; the other half was to mobilize the Northern working class against the would-be revolutionary vanguard. (National Liberation Front flags-never in the majority at the anti-war rallies, but increasingly visible by 1968-only furthered Nixon’s cause.)

When the Black Panthers embraced a program of armed resistance after the death of Martin Luther King, they quickly got themselves shot or locked up in a half-dozen cities, demonstrating what ought to have been the obvious practical disadvantage of declaring war on a state which has many more guns than you have. The radical chic of violence and anti-Americanism (Susan Sontag writing that the “white race is the cancer of human history,” the New York Review of Books printing the recipe for Molotov cocktails on its front cover and so forth) took in a numerically tiny minority of the movement, but elites-by definition-have a disproportionate influence, controlling institutional structures and articulating symbols. In tune with the anti-elitist rhetoric of the time, movement leaders pretended not to be leaders; many wound up exercising power without responsibility and discredited the actions of millions. As Joseph Epstein put it in the early 1970′s, Park Avenue radicalism promised to render America a “vast desert populated by the bored rich and the nihilistic young.”

Tactical, strategic and, indeed, moral blunders go a long way toward explaining the seeming paradox, unmentioned by Mr. Kurlansky (who keeps mistaking himself and his peers for “everyone”), that as the war in Vietnam grew more unpopular, so did the anti-war movement. As former S.D.S. leader Todd Gitlin has pointed out, the largest left-wing movement in American history was not crushed by repression alone: The movement leadership actively collaborated in its own destruction.

Some readers of 1968 will cheer themselves hoarse as Mr. Kurlansky defends the undeniably brave exploits of the movement’s principle actors. But the cheering enthusiasts need their boomer self-satisfaction challenged rather than indulged. The book is full to the brim with tragedy-the senseless bloodletting in Vietnam, the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. But there’s another tragic story, an ambiguous and ironic story, that’s not told here: It’s about the premature death of a good and worthy dream, smothered in a morass of the dreamers’ own making.

Wesley Yang has reviewed books for Salon, the Washington City Paper and the San Francisco Chronicle .