September 2018


50 years ago

by J.C. Noreika, MD, MBA

J.C. Noreika, MD, MBA

Global warming, a polarized polity, rogue nations, and economic profligacy leave many anxious and depressed. We have survived worse

It was June 5. High school over, I labored outdoors to exercise muscles left fallow in the classroom. The job started at 7, the pay $1.50 an hour and gasoline 29 cents a gallon; I was almost 18. Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” Ann Bancroft’s eponymous role in The Graduate, played on my Pontiac’s radio.
Interrupting Billboard’s chart-topper, a news bulletin broke in with a series of staccato monotones. Robert Kennedy, senator, presidential candidate, and generational icon, had been shot as he walked through the kitchen of Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel. The black and white photograph of him lying on the damp concrete floor, the left side of his face stark white and his bright clenched fist extended crucifixion-like into the darkness, would sear a generation’s memory. Staring into the camera, a busboy, Mexican immigrant Juan Romero, knelt beside the mortally wounded Kennedy, the scene’s serenity belying its ghastly violence. It was 1968.
Fifty years is a long time. The subject of magazine covers and television specials, 1968 has been declared the most tumultuous year of the 20th century. It defined an age.
Kennedy’s was not the first assassination of 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to support sanitation workers in their prolonged strike. He delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on April 3. The next day he lay dying on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel. James Earl Ray had fired a single bullet that tore through King’s neck and lower cervical and upper thoracic spinal cord.
Following the 1966 Watts riots and the “Long Hot Summer of 1967” in which Detroit and 158 other cities burned, civil unrest broke out immediately. Scores died. A week after King’s murder, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. It did little to quell the unrest suppurating in American cities.
A third assassination intensified agitation on college campuses. AP photographer Eddie Adam’s camera bore witness to the execution of a captured Viet Cong suspect by Saigon’s Chief of the National Police as the Tet Offensive raged. This war was waged in America’s living rooms.
On January 30, 80,000 troops of the National Front for the Liberation of Viet Nam and their southern allies, the Viet Cong, launched coordinated attacks on cities below the DMZ. The U.S. embassy in Saigon was nearly overrun. Returning from Viet Nam, Walter Cronkite, “The Nation’s Narrator,” reported on CBS Evening News that “the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” After the telecast, President Johnson turned to his press secretary and said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.” On March 31, he announced he would not run for re-election.
Politics became unhinged. First Sen. Gene McCarthy challenged with an anti-war platform, then Kennedy announced his candidacy. Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s vice-president, eventually accepted the nomination in Chicago. There, 31-year-old Abbie Hoffman and 30-year-old Jerry Rubin led 12,000 Yippies, anarchists, and anti-war activists in protests culminating in clouds of tear gas and the rain of billy clubs. Television newsmen Mike Wallace, Dan Rather, and Edwin Newman were roughed up on the convention floor as cameras rolled. “The whole world is watching” reverberated for the first time. TV coverage of the anarchy helped elect Richard Nixon in November.
At Miami’s Republican convention, Dwight Eisenhower’s vice-president easily defeated Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller. Mitt Romney’s father, Gov. George Romney (R-MI), withdrew earlier. The Republican party’s platform promised a “peaceful and unified America.” Nixon defeated Humphrey in November by 800,000 votes. Opposing desegregation, Gov. George Wallace carried Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. First the vice-president, Spiro Agnew, then President Nixon would resign within 5 years.
Political upheaval, race riots, and Viet Nam threatened the fabric of America. There was more. Days before the Tet Offensive, North Korea attacked and captured the lightly armed spy ship, USS Pueblo. One American sailor was killed. Eighty-two other crew members were bound and blindfolded before the world’s cameras. They were held for 11 months. Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un, was North Korea’s Supreme Leader. Still actively commissioned, the Pueblo remains moored on the Potong River in Pyongyang.
September’s Miss America pageant earned headlines. A few hundred women marched in Atlantic City against the “Cattle Auction.” Feminism, incubating since de Beauvoir and Friedan’s nascent dissertations, found the media mainstream. On the boardwalk, undergarments and Playboy magazines were thrown into trashcans; reports of bras being burned were unfounded.
In October, Mercury Seven astronaut Wally Schirra commanded the Apollo 7 space mission; the first televised broadcast was beamed from orbit. Later, in December, Apollo 8’s Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders were the first humans to see the dark side of the moon. On Christmas eve, the crew took turns reading from the Book of Genesis. Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of American Atheists, subsequently sued the U.S. government for violating the First Amendment. The Supreme Court threw out the case citing lack of jurisdiction in outer space.
Civilization’s nervous breakdown had global ramifications. In France, violence among students and trade unionists, police and troops climaxed on “Bloody Monday.” Hundreds died at the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City. The Prague Spring came to a sudden and bitter end after the Kremlin sent tanks and 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops into Czechoslovakia to suppress liberalization.
During the Reign of Terror, Robespierre reminded that all history is fiction. In our era of existential anxiety over fake news, the despair of earlier generations is conveniently forgotten. More than 58,000 impressions on the Viet Nam Memorial Wall implore its remembrance.
In his final speech, Reverend King acknowledged how far his people had come but cautioned how much further they were to go. He reassured Americans, “But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” Truth eternally abides beyond time.

Editors’ note: Dr. Noreika has practiced ophthalmology since 1981. He has been a member of ASCRS for more than 35 years. Join the discussion on this article and others on the EyeWorld blog at

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