The most turbulent time in modern US history (it’s not now)

By Brandon Griggs

Published September 6, 2018

A president with low approval ratings. Tensions between the US and North Korea. Athletes protesting racial injustice. Bitter divisions threatening to rip our country's social fabric apart.

Sound familiar? But we're not talking about 2018. All this happened 50 years ago, in 1968.

Yes, it's a continuation. We're certainly still fighting many of the same battles.

Charles Kaiser

Author, 1968 in America: Music, Politics, Chaos, Counterculture, and the Shaping of a Generation

Here are five of them.


Our embattled president was warring with the media

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Lyndon B. Johnson, thrust into the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, enjoyed widespread support during his first years in office. But by the summer of 1968, his approval rating had plummeted to 35%. He also faced an increasingly hostile press corps who suspected he wasn't being candid about what was happening on the ground in Vietnam.

You can see some similarities with President Trump. His approval ratings have been low. He has an antagonistic relationship with the news media -- and he’s faced protests.


We were locked in a tense war of words with North Korea

Korean Central News Agency/AP

In January 1968, the USS Pueblo, a Navy intelligence vessel, was seized by North Korea. Its 83-man crew was transported to Pyongyang, imprisoned and tortured. The seamen were freed months later, but classified documents show tensions between the two counties got very high.

Trump taunted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Twitter, calling him “Little Rocket Man,” as Kim made threats about topping long-range missiles with nuclear warheads. The two later made plans to meet.

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Black athletes were making symbolic protests against racism

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On October 16, 1968, US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos won gold and bronze medals in the 200 meters at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City. The two raised their firsts in Black Power salutes as the national anthem played. The backlash was swift.

Almost half a century later, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick touched off another firestorm when he chose to sit -- and later kneel -- during the national anthem before NFL games to protest systemic racism in America.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images North America/Getty Images


We were traumatized by shocking acts of violence

Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

In 1968, both the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, throwing the nation into turmoil and symbolizing the end of the idealism of the era and the rise of creeping cynicism and an unease that the fabric of the nation was coming apart.

Some people have described the same destabilizing feeling as the US has been wracked by terror attacks and mass shootings. In one horrific four-month span, gunmen mowed down dozens of innocent victims in Nevada, Texas and Florida, and a man in a truck killed eight in New York.

John McCall/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/AP/FILE


Women were speaking up for their rights

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In September 1968, several hundred feminists converged on Atlantic City, New Jersey, to protest outside the annual Miss America pageant, complaining that it oppressed women and promoted misogynistic attitudes about beauty. The protest spurred a new wave of feminism that continued into the 1970s and beyond.

Signs of their efforts can be seen in the Women’s March, which drew protesters to lobby for women’s rights, and the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements to combat sexual harassment and violence against women.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images North America/Getty Images

So in 50 years, we have learned … what?

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When the fractious America of 2018 looks in the mirror, it sees traces of its younger self, half a century ago. Yes, our current period feels crazy. But if someone tries to tell you that none of this has ever happened before, remind them of 1968.