10 Events of 1968 Which Nearly Tore the United States Apart

10 Events of 1968 Which Nearly Tore the United States Apart

Larry Holzwarth - January 11, 2018

In many ways, the United States is a misnomer and has been throughout the history of the nation. America has always been a nation in which differing public opinion has threatened the allegiance of the people to each other and to the contract expressed in the Constitution to provide for the common welfare. There are those who daily proclaim that the nation has never been more polarized than it is today. They ignore America’s history, including that of the Civil War, the socialization of society during the New Deal, and most of all the divisiveness of a single year of American history, 1968.

It was a year of suspicion the government had repeatedly lied to the American people over the conduct and course of a war which many didn’t believe America should be fighting. A nation which still hadn’t fully recovered over the assassination of its President less than half a decade earlier witnessed other leaders fall to the bullets of murderers. The process of open and free elections was threatened. A tiny and perceived to be backward nation nearly brought the United States military to its knees. American citizens in American towns were killed by American bullets fired by American police and paramilitary forces. Cities were torn apart by violent riots, incited by racial hatred and political invective.

10 Events of 1968 Which Nearly Tore the United States Apart
Armed US troops on the streets of the nation’s capital during the April 1968 riots. Library of Congress

The year 1968 brought a series of events which roiled the United States, deepened the Cold War with the Soviets and the shooting war with the North Vietnamese, and shook Americans’ faith in their most cherished institutions. Here are ten pivotal events from the year 1968.

10 Events of 1968 Which Nearly Tore the United States Apart
USS Pueblo operating off San Diego in 1967. Still held by the North Koreans the ship remains in commission in the United States Navy. US Navy

North Korea seizes USS Pueblo, January 23, 1968

On January 23 1968 USS Pueblo, an intelligence gathering ship of the US Navy operating in international waters, was deliberately attacked, boarded and subsequently taken as a prize by units of the North Korean Navy, supported by MIG 21 fighters. Pueblo was outside the internationally recognized limit of 12 miles from the Korean coastline, but the North Koreans claimed a fifty-mile limit, thereby justifying their seizure of the American ship. No US Naval vessel had surrendered to an enemy at sea since the War of 1812. One American sailor was killed in the attack.

The ship was taken into port and the crew was imprisoned. During the attack, the Americans had had little time to destroy the raft of classified data and encryption equipment aboard the vessel, largely because there was so much of it aboard. The US Navy lacked the naval assets in the area necessary to launch a rescue mission during the attack. Before the week was out the presence of Pueblo in Wonsan harbor, surrounded by North Korean naval vessels, was confirmed. American reaction was immediate. Congressman L. Mendel Rivers, a South Carolina Democrat, insisted that President Johnson issue an ultimatum demanding the return of the vessel and the crew under pain of the nuclear attack. Other leaders were more circumspect.

The crew and their commanding officer, Lt. Cdr. Lloyd Bucher, were imprisoned by the North Koreans in Prisoner of War Camps left over from the Korean War. They were routinely tortured, physically and mentally. Commander Bucher was told that he was to be executed as a spy and stood up before a mock firing squad. Crew members were repeatedly beaten by their guards. When the North Koreans staged photographs of crew members to demonstrate that they were being well treated, many of the sailors posed while giving the middle finger to their captors. The North Koreans were told that the gesture was a Hawaiian good luck symbol, when they learned the truth (from an American publication) the beatings became more savage.

Negotiations between the North Koreans and the United States for the release of the crew dragged on throughout the year. Commander Bucher, faced with the threat of watching his crew being executed before his eyes, signed a confession that his ship had been in Korean waters operating as a spy ship, apologizing for his actions, although he managed to leave enough clues in the confession to allow American analysts to determine that it had been coerced. The negotiations were further complicated by the South Koreans, who were concerned that American actions could lead to a renewed conflict on the peninsula. The crew was finally released in December, after spending nearly all of 1968 in custody. The North Koreans refused to release the ship, it remains today a museum vessel in Pyongyang, still a commissioned warship of the United States Navy.

The Pueblo affair divided the American public, some of which demanded an immediate punitive military action, while others, concerned over the quagmire of American involvement in Vietnam, counseled a more restrained response. American military prestige suffered a severe blow, and the amount of classified information lost to the North Koreans and their Soviet sponsors was devastating. Although the Pueblo affair dominated the national news in early January, it was quickly relegated to the back pages by the conflict in Vietnam, which by the end of January dealt America another shocking blow.

10 Events of 1968 Which Nearly Tore the United States Apart
Air Force security troops defending the perimeter at Tan Son Nhut Air Base outside Saigon. North Vietnamese forces had penetrated to the runways. US Air Force

The Tet Offensive Vietnam, January 30, 1968

In January 1968 the United States launched what became a controversial aerial bombing campaign against North Vietnamese forces in the region of Khe Sanh, where US forces maintained the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB). The US Air Force would eventually drop over 100,000 tons of bombs on enemy positions in support of the KSCB, and the base would remain under continuing attack through March. Daily news reports on the evening news during those days of just three major television networks showed the severity of the fighting and the mounting casualties. American leadership, both military and political, repeatedly informed the public that the US was winning. The American public was informed that the North Vietnamese’s ability to fight the war was being systematically degraded, and victory was within sight.

In the night hours of January 30 North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong guerrillas launched a series of coordinated attacks in cities and towns across the length of South Vietnam, against US forces, Republic of Vietnam Forces (ARVN) and allied troops. More than 100 South Vietnamese towns, villages, and cities were attacked, many if not most of them successfully due to the level of surprise achieved. The attacks were the beginning of an offensive which was the largest military operation of the war to that point. The preceding month General William Westmoreland, American Commander in Vietnam, had emphatically denied the ability of the Communists to launch a major assault, telling TIME magazine that he hoped that they would try, because, “…we are looking for a fight.”

Despite the initial success of the North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong, the Tet Offensive (named for the Vietnamese New Year on which it was launched) became in many areas a protracted and bloody campaign. The city of Hue was mostly overrun by communist troops, to be slowly retaken by US Marines and ARVN troops over the course of February, at a cost of more than 4,000 casualties, more than six hundred of them killed in action. The withdrawing communist troops executed 2,500 civilians; total civilian casualties in the Battle of Hue were well over 5,000.

In Saigon communist troops who had been living in the city undercover prior to the attacks emerged to join with the North Vietnamese regular battalions attacking targets within and around the city. The communist troops were eventually defeated, but the shock value of their attack, and the number of attacks which were launched simultaneously, eroded the confidence of the Vietnamese people to resist, as well as the confidence of the American public in the veracity of their leaders on the scene and in Washington.

By mid-February, the Tet Offensive had been largely defeated, other than mop-up operations which went on through September. The casualties inflicted on the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were heavy. So were the casualties on the Americans and their ARVN allies. The Tet Offensive, though a military defeat for the North Vietnamese, was a public relations victory, as more and more Americans began to strongly resist American involvement in Southeast Asia, with protests and demonstrations against the war growing in size and intensity as the year went on.

10 Events of 1968 Which Nearly Tore the United States Apart
Smoke from fires set by rioters and looters rises behind the US Capitol in April 1968. Library of Congress

The Martin Luther King Assassination Riots, April 1968

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot as he stood on a motel balcony in Memphis Tennessee. The riots which exploded in cities across the United States represented the largest incidence of civic violence to occur in the United States since the Civil War. Riots in cities large and small saw acts of vengeance, personal violence, looting, theft, and vandalism. White businesses were frequently targeted, but individual acts of black-on-white violence were less frequent than during the widespread urban violence of the preceding summer. Over 100 cities reported acts of urban unrest. New York and Boston were largely spared, due to the quick and decisive actions of civic leadership.

Washington DC was not spared. On the night of the King assassination protesters led by Stokely Carmichael were on the march demanding that businesses close in the 14th Street corridor out of respect for the slain leader. Some businesses complied, but in a short time, they were being broken into and looted, as were those which did not comply. By noon of the following day, confrontations between rioters and police were taking place in several locations throughout the city. More than 13,000 federal troops were deployed, setting up defensive perimeters on the steps of the US Capitol and the White House lawn. Before the Washington riots were brought under control more than 900 buildings had been burned, and the damages remained visible in the city for decades.

Nearby Baltimore didn’t feel the violence until April 6, when rioters and National Guard troops faced each other in several of the city’s neighborhoods. Martial law was declared in Baltimore and Maryland governor Spiro Agnew was pointedly critical of local black leaders for not doing enough to protect their city. Agnew’s comments drew a favorable response from Republican Presidential Candidate Richard Nixon. In Cincinnati, rioters took on a definite black-on-white character when they erupted on April 8. More than 1,500 National Guardsmen were required to placate the city, leading to hundreds of arrests and at least two deaths.

The riots which broke out nationwide were divisive politically. President Johnson urged local civic leaders to preemptively request the support of the National Guard or federal troops, rather than waiting for events to transpire before asking for aid. Johnson told Chicago Mayor Richard Daley that he would, “…rather move them and not need them than need them and not have them,” in reference to dispatching troops to support local law enforcement. Several cities found the response to the King’s assassination to be an excuse for the continuation of unrest triggered by other issues. Many conservatives condemned the riots as a repeat of the urban unrest of the preceding year, particularly in Detroit.

The Republican Party used the urban unrest to reinforce its position of supporting law and order, in opposition to the growing number of civil rights protests and anti-war demonstrations across the country. Republican candidates for national office, including in the Presidential election later in the year, positioned themselves as candidates who would ensure compliance with national policy and law, and respect for the institutions of government, including the military draft and civil rights laws as written.

10 Events of 1968 Which Nearly Tore the United States Apart
An SDS leader talks to the press while students occupy the building behind them, Columbia University, 1968. New York Daily News

Columbia University Student Protests April 1968

Protests against Columbia University in the spring of 1968 were a two-pronged expression of University policies on the Vietnam War and racial issues. Columbia was a major property owner in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, with many residents of the area paying rent for their residences to the University. Over the preceding decade more than 7 thousand residents had been evicted by Columbia campus expansion, more than 80% of them black or Hispanic. The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Afro Society (SAS) were separate student groups which at first worked together in the protests, later separating along racial lines when the SAS decided to stress its own position – which was anti-segregation – over that of the SDS, predominantly concerned with Columbia’s support of the Vietnam War.

The diverse nature of the protests led to poor communication between the two student groups, both of which clashed with Columbia Police and NYPD over the issue of the construction of the Morningside Gym, an allegedly segregated facility being built on Columbia property. Both the SDS and the SAS occupied several University buildings and offices, with the SAS stressing the racial issues which impacted students at Columbia. By the end of April, the NYPD had dislodged the protesters from the occupied buildings.

The main goal of the SDS was for Columbia to discontinue its relationship with the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a government-funded think tank supporting American intervention in Vietnam. Thus the two protests, which ran simultaneously, were presented to the world as being racially motivated in one case, and anti-war in the other. The students’ occupation of various buildings and offices was seen as disruptive of the educational institution and American efforts to win the war. The presence of outside activists not affiliated with either student groups or the university (such as Jane Fonda’s activist husband Tom Hayden), negatively affected public opinion.

The Columbia protests were particularly divisive nationally as they were seen as being conducted by privileged students, many of whom were from wealthy families, who enjoyed draft deferments by virtue of their being enrolled in college. The image of Columbia University suffered from the negative response of much of the public, with enrollments and endowments suffering a decline from which the school did not recover for more than two decades.

Columbia severed its relationship with the IDA in the aftermath of the protests, and both ROTC and CIA recruiting on campus came to an end. Naval ROTC would not return to Columbia until 2013. Columbia also took steps to improve its relationship with the black and Hispanic communities of Harlem, largely ending the expansion of its campuses onto properties it owned there, and shifting its expansion focus to the west. The protests of April and May became more fodder for the law and order candidates, depicting the students as shills for radicals against the government’s legal application of law.

10 Events of 1968 Which Nearly Tore the United States Apart
Anti-draft protesters picket the White House in January 1968. Draft protests took many forms, some legal, some not. Library of Congress

The Catonsville Nine May 1968

As American involvement in Vietnam increased throughout the 1960s, anti-draft demonstrations and protests grew in cities and on college campuses. An underground railroad for draft evaders was established, with safe houses and other havens identified in Canada. Protesters burned draft cards and urged others not to register for the draft, as was required by law. Inequities in the application of the draft law, including the perceived inequalities over deferments, were a major source of conflict. Protesters against the draft were not merely those of the draft age, many were from other groups, protesting the draft as a means of protesting the war.

Philip Berrigan was a former Josephite priest and opponent of the Vietnam War, who along with an artist named Tom Lewis and two others occupied the draft board in Baltimore in October of 1967, pouring chicken blood (purchased from a nearby market) on draft records. He was out on bail for this offense when he, Lewis, and seven others occupied the Selective Service board offices in Catonsville, Maryland in May 1968. All of the nine were Catholics, one, Thomas Melville, was a former priest and another, Berrigan’s brother Daniel, was a Jesuit Priest.

The Catonsville Nine, as they called themselves, removed 378 records files from the offices and burned them. Tried in October 1968, they were convicted of the destruction of government records and sentenced to eighteen years, after which four of the arsonists, including the Berrigan brothers, went underground rather than show up to serve their sentences. They would surface from time to time – especially Daniel Berrigan – to issue pronouncements or otherwise support antiwar activities. Berrigan became the first Catholic priest to ever occupy a position on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List.

The Catonsville Nine were a polarizing group in several different areas. Catholic conservatives decried their activities and their continuing evasion of the authorities. Draft opponents supported their actions while supporters of the Vietnam War and the government in general called for harsher penalties. The Nine were the inspiration for numerous anti-draft protests in which protesters took similar actions, often fleeing the site of the protest to avoid arrest (the burning of a draft card, which is an official government document, was and is a federal crime).

The Catonsville Nine and the many copycat groups they inspired further divided the American people during the summer of 1968 along the lines of support for the war in Vietnam and support of American institutions. By the end of the summer, conservatives were of the opinion any protest against government actions was unpatriotic and providing aid to the enemy, encouraging the otherwise defeated North Vietnamese to keep fighting since America was polluted with enemies within.

10 Events of 1968 Which Nearly Tore the United States Apart
Robert Kennedy campaigned for LBJ in 1964. In 1968 Johnson refused to run, fear of losing to Kennedy was just one reason. LBJ Presidential Library

The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy June 1968

At the end of March 1968, President Lyndon Johnson announced without fanfare or previous hint, that he would not be a candidate for re-election as President of the United States in 1968. Johnson had barely survived a primary challenge from Senator Eugene MacArthy and the emerging candidacy of Robert Kennedy was a challenge which he no longer welcomed. Johnson had also come to the conclusion privately that the war in Vietnam was not winnable, and whoever was the next American president would be the first to preside over an American military defeat.

Robert Kennedy offered the advantages of youth, which appealed to the increasingly active younger voters in America; the legacy of his slain brother Jack, not yet stained by knowledge of his numerous extramarital affairs; and a large campaign chest. Although he had a late start, he gained momentum rapidly, aided by his calming speech delivered ad-lib in Indianapolis on the night of Martin Luther King’s death (widely credited with preventing rioting there of the kind which broke out in so many other cities), and the steadily deteriorating situation in Vietnam.

After winning the California primary, Kennedy was shot as he transited the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, dying the next morning. The shock was profound. Besides the fact of murder coming once again to the Kennedy family, there was the developing belief that the American political and electoral system was being manipulated by the elimination of candidates through political assassination. To many people, Kennedy’s assassination was the latest in a series of murders committed by unknown entities intent on controlling who the American people could choose as their President.

The fact that his assassin happened to appear to be of Arab descent (he was Palestinian) helped feed this belief. That Kennedy was an anti-Vietnam war, anti-draft, pro-civil rights candidate also threw suspicion on the far right, the law and order claimants who believed any dissent to be un-American. With Kennedy dead and Lyndon Johnson out of the race the Democratic Party was without a leading, charismatic candidate for the nation’s highest office. The possibility of a link became Kennedy’s murder and that of Martin Luther King two months earlier was immediately the target of speculation.

The assassination of Robert Kennedy and its aftermath at the Democratic National Convention revealed a nation in which fear was becoming a dominant factor. Fear of civil rights, of a defeat in Vietnam, of an increase in lawlessness, and of the rising influence of the Arab world on America’s oil supply displaced what little optimism over the nation’s future remained.

10 Events of 1968 Which Nearly Tore the United States Apart
The riots in Chicago occurred in full view of network television cameras and were seen around the world. New York Daily News

Chicago Riots and the Democratic National Convention August 1968

When the Republican Party held their nominating convention in Miami the first week of August, the Republican nominee for president, Richard Nixon, included in his acceptance speech the statement that, “…the nation with the greatest tradition of the rule of law is plagued by unprecedented racial violence…” and that the President of the United States “…cannot travel abroad or to any major city at home…” He made clear that his administration would stand in support of law and order, the police, and other legal authorities.

Later that month the Democratic Party gathered in Chicago to nominate a candidate to oppose Nixon. They selected Hubert Humphrey, the sitting vice president. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was determined to make the convention an opportunity to show the world how well the city was run, establishing a heavy police presence outside the convention center and strong party security inside. Daley was intent in presenting party unity inside the hall, and efficient law and order outside. He perceived two organizations as a threat to his goal outside the hall, the newly formed Youth International Party – known as the Yippies – and the National Mobilization Committee to end the War in Vietnam. Both groups planned events to coincide with the convention.

About ten thousand members of the two groups gathered in Chicago despite Daley’s repeated pronouncements that there would be no such gatherings to “…take over our streets, our city, our convention.” Daley had 23,000 Chicago Police, Cook County Sheriff Deputies, and National Guardsmen waiting for the demonstrators. On August 28 demonstrators in Grant Park were confronted by the police, in full view of television cameras. Hubert Humphrey was taking a shower in his hotel room at the Hilton when he was affected by tear gas, so great was the amount used by the police. The confrontation was called a police riot by many observers, and the police activity was condemned inside the convention from the speaker’s dais by Senator Abraham Ribicoff, who referred to the police behavior as Gestapo tactics. Daley responded with an anti-semitic obscenity uttered on national television.

Although the riot was initiated by the police and similar tactics occurred inside the convention on the floor, most of the nation was by the end of August 1968 thoroughly tired of seeing protests and despite the clear evidence of police use of excessive force, the majority of polls taken after the fact placed the blame for the riot on the protesters. A group of eight leaders of the Youth International Party were arrested and charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot. This group became known as the Chicago Eight. Eventually, five were convicted of incitement to riot, none for conspiracy, and all of the convictions were overturned on appeal.

The Walker Report issued by a select team assigned to investigate the riot placed the blame for the violence squarely on the police and National Guard, stating the police actions were “…unrestrained and indiscriminate police violence on many occasions, particularly at night. That violence was made all the more shocking by the fact that it was often inflicted upon persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat.” The aftermath of the Chicago Democratic Convention revealed ever more clearly defined lines dividing the American populace over the direction of the nation and the application of its laws.

10 Events of 1968 Which Nearly Tore the United States Apart
The Black Power Salute drew boos from the stadium crowd and changed the lives of all three medalists. Getty

The Summer Olympics Mexico City October 1968

In the 1960s the Olympic Games did not enjoy the television coverage which they do in the 21st century, with network coverage limited and usually shown in a newsmagazine format well after the events. The Olympic games did not receive the same amount of attention as in more recent years either but in 1968 they were welcomed as a respite from the events of the year and the upcoming US presidential election, which was at the time considered to be too close to call. The Olympics were regarded as apolitical, an event for the celebration of sport.

American track runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos competed in the 200-meter sprint race, with Smith winning the gold medal and Carlos the bronze. At the awards ceremony following the race, as both runners turned to face the American flag as the US National Anthem was played, they bowed their heads and raised black-gloved clenched fists over their heads, retaining that posture until the anthem was finished. The Olympics was immediately a political event as the image of the two Americans united in a salute which symbolized Black Power was transmitted around the world.

Later it was revealed that the clenched fists weren’t the only symbols of protest present at the time, they were merely the most visible. Carlos wore a chain of beads around his neck in memory of lynching victims, as well as black victims of unsolved murders at the hands of whites. Both athletes removed their shoes for the ceremony, wearing only black socks, to acknowledge black poverty in the United States. Carlos forgot his black gloves, borrowing Smith’s left hand glove, which explains why he has his left hand raised in the photo which was soon being published in newspapers all around the world. As they left the podium and stadium they were heavily booed by the crowd.

The International Olympic Committee and its president, Avery Brundage, ordered the two athletes to be suspended and banned from the Olympic Village for making an inappropriate political statement. When the US team hesitated Brundage threatened to suspend the entire American Olympic team, The US then expelled Carlos and Smith from the Games. Brundage had been present at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and had offered no objection to the proliferation of Nazi salutes during that Olympiad, a fact which was pointed out by the few writers who came to the defense of Smith and Carlos, who found little sympathy for their actions when they returned home.

Both runners were treated as pariahs by the sports community and most journalists. TIME Magazine condemned the action and the appearance it presented of America to the rest of the world. The third man on the podium on the day of their protest was a white athlete named Peter Norman, an Australian, who was sympathetic to the Americans, and ostracized in Australia as a result. He was not selected for the following Australian Olympic team, despite qualifying for it more than a dozen times. The action of Carlos and Smith was indicative to the rest of the world of the divisiveness within the United States, as well as how that division could have an adverse impact on the rest of the world.

10 Events of 1968 Which Nearly Tore the United States Apart
US Navy bombers over Vietnam. The US dropped over 4.5 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during the course of the war. US Navy

Operation Commando Hunt Vietnam December 1968

The year 1968 in Vietnam opened with the Tet Offensive, and a goodly part of the year was taken up in dealing with the ramifications of that offensive, which though it had been a failure from a tactical viewpoint, was a major strategic victory for the North Vietnamese. American and South Vietnamese commanders had been stunned by the size of the Communist attack, which had been wholly unsuspected and supported with equipment and supplies which had been smuggled into position without prior detection by US forces or ARVN troops. The Americans were aware of the Ho Chi Minh trail, but interdicting material which moved along it was complicated by its traversal of portions of Laos.

In November 1968, knowing that the support of the American people for continuing the war was rapidly dwindling, President Johnson ordered a halt to Operation Rolling Thunder, the aerial bombardment of North Vietnam by US Air Force and Navy bombers, with the hope of bringing North Vietnamese to the peace bargaining table with more than just lip service towards ending the war. Doing so also freed American aircraft to shift their targets away from the heavily defended corridors around Hanoi and Haiphong, and towards the more vulnerable supply depots and roads on the Ho Chi Minh trail, the path down which much of the Tet Offensive had traveled.

What Commando Hunt did was shift the air war from Vietnam to Laos, at least as far as the aerial bombing was concerned. By the time the American involvement in Southeast Asia came to an end, the United States had dropped over three million tons of bombs on Laos, in attempts to destroy the communist pipeline to the south. By contrast, about one million tons of bombs were dropped on North Vietnam. Although the bombings in Laos were officially considered to be classified (as were similar operations in Cambodia) their existence was widely suspected and reported, leading the public to believe that Johnson was once again expanding the war.

When it was quietly announced that more than twenty thousand US Army and Marine troops would be subject to a second tour of duty in the combat zone it added to the perception that American involvement in the war was deepening. Anti-war protests increased, and the looming presence of the law and order candidate, Richard Nixon, became more and more of a shadow of the future. Nixon promised a secret plan to end the war.

Protests against the war increased as the backdrop to the already volatile presidential election which in its course had seen the assassination of one candidate, the withdrawal of another (who happened to be the sitting president of the United States), and the nation divided along the lines of whether support of American involvement signified patriotism or treason. For the first time in American history veterans of combat duty were ostracized upon their return by some of their fellow citizens. As 1968 drew to a close, it seemed as if the nation was irreversibly polarized.

10 Events of 1968 Which Nearly Tore the United States Apart
The Earth rising photographed from lunar orbit, December 1968. NASA

Apollo 8 and the Christmas Orbit of the Moon

In December of 1968, still, in pursuit of John F. Kennedy’s goal of sending an American to the moon and returning him safely to earth before the end of the decade, the United States launched the Apollo 8 mission. For the first time, human beings left earth orbit and traveled to another heavenly body, in a mission during which they would orbit the moon, sending back pictures of their journey, but making no attempt at landing. Apollo 8 reached the moon during the Christmas holiday which brought to a close on of the most difficult years of American existence.

During the Apollo 8 mission, which reached the moon on Christmas Eve, the three American astronauts, Jim Lovell (later to be made famous during Apollo 13), Frank Borman, and William Anders, broadcast a television presentation on Christmas Eve. They read the first ten verses of the Biblical book of Genesis against the dramatic backdrop of the Earth as viewed from the moon. At the close of a year which had seen political murders, extensive urban violence, a seemingly unending and fruitless war, racial violence, and economic troubles, it was the first opportunity for humans to see the earth rise against the lunar sky, an event shared with the world.

The returning astronauts were selected to be TIME Magazine’s Men of the Year. The mission was widely lauded as the single most important event of 1968, clearly showing the Earth as a fragile vehicle in an inexpressibly greater universe. Frank Borman reported receiving a telegram that thanked him for saving 1968. NASA readied itself for the historic lunar landing to come in just a few short months. The United States clearly established that it was, despite its internal and international difficulties, the technology leader of the world.

But it was not without controversy, as was little else in that incredibly troublesome year. The question of investing so much money and effort in what was little more – to the critics – than an entertainment and propaganda exercise was raised. Some in Congress debated whether the money could be better spent elsewhere. There were calls for the incoming Nixon administration to curtail the space program. Geopolitical pundits wondered if the United States intended to claim the moon in the manner of Columbus landing in the New World. The potential of militarization of space and orbiting bodies was fearfully raised, even before Apollo 8 returned home.

It was an appropriate end for 1968, which was clearly one of the most divisive and decisive years in all of American history. A nation at odds with itself when the year began found its ending with even greater distrust of its institutions, principles, and people. When considering issues which polarize the nation today, Americans would do well to consider that troubling year five decades ago when the nation threatened to pull apart at its seams.