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The class of 1968

Fri, May 25th, 2007
Posted in Commentary

When I graduated from high school in early June 1968, Lyndon Baines Johnson was president. The awkward Texan had completed John F. Kennedy's unfinished term and was elected president over Barry Goldwater in 1964, with the highest margin of victory in American history at the time.

Despite his courageous leadership supporting civil rights and the War on Poverty, Johnson was a hugely unpopular president. Then as now, the United States was engaged in a protracted war thousands of miles away.

By 1968, things were going badly in Vietnam. Earlier that year, the Tet Offensive showed that the enemy could operate with impunity anywhere in the country regardless of what the United States' military could do to intervene. To complicate matters, we didn't know the culture, speak the language and had no way of knowing if a Vietnamese, regardless of age or gender, was an enemy or a friendly. And without US support, the South Vietnamese government would have collapsed.

The whole Vietnam War started on specious intelligence in the first place, which had the North Vietnamese firing on a US warship in August 1964; this came to be known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Johnson quickly got Congress to grant the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave the President the power to send troops to southeast Asia without a formal declaration of war.

1968 was a year of discontent, leading up to the presidential elections that November. Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis on April 4 and Bobby Kennedy on June 5; anti-war demonstrations were the norm across college campuses, culminating in the protests outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August. Mayor Richard Daley sent Chicago police in with batons after unarmed protesters, all of which was played out under the glare of national TV.

Minnesota's own Hubert Humphrey emerged as the Democratic candidate for president, only to lose by 500,000 popular votes to Richard Nixon, who ran on the platform of restoring law and order; he also had a "secret plan" for ending the Vietnam War.

Nixon would leave office in 1973 disgraced with the Watergate scandal; most US troops would leave Vietnam that same year.

When I graduated that June 1968 at the age of 17, I didn't realize that the Vietnam War would have such a tremendous impact on my generation. Three years later, at the age of 20, I would be a pall bearer at a classmate's funeral - killed in action in Vietnam. A few weeks before this, I had applied for conscientious objector status with the Selective Service.

My father had died when I was young. Like me, Charlie's father had died at an early age, and this shared experience gave the two of us a careless look at life. I first heard the Beatles "Lonely Heart's Club Band" album at Charlie's house. And the first time I travelled more than 100 miles an hour was on the back of Charlie's Suzuki S-6 motorcycle on I-90. The two of us shared a silent, unspoken brother-like trust.

He went to California, I went to college. I had heard from him that he was going in the Army so he could get it "over with." The next time we met up again was at his funeral.

My son graduated from high school last Sunday. A few months ago, as class vice-president, he helped lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery. He also brought back a rubbing of my friend's name - CHARLES H. MEAKINS - in blue chalk, from the Vietnam Wall. Charlie was a wonderful young man, so full of life and the rubbing brought back many emotions for me.

My son and his classmates enter the adult world in troubled times, as well as I did graduating in 1968. An unpopular president, a senseless war and a belief that it will be a while before things are back on track.

And I wonder what decisions he and his classmates will have to make at a young age. Will they have to make a choice about going to war? Will they need to take a moral stand about something they believe in? What will become of these young people going out in the world, so full of hope and promise?

In 40 years, what will they write about having graduated in the year 2007?

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