The Longform Guide to 1968
RFK, MLK, My Lai and Apollo 8: a collection of stories about 1968.
Photo by David Lamb/AFP/GettyImages
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In the popular imagination, 1968 was marked by unusual turbulence and amazing music. Indeed, it began with the Battle of Khe Sanh and ended with the American debut of Led Zeppelin. Here are stories, speeches and transcripts that capture some of the magnificent craziness and creativity of that legendary year.
The My Lai Massacre
Seymour M. Hersh • St. Louis Post-Dispatch • November 1969
Dispatches revealing the March 1968 murder of 109 Vietnamese civilians during a search-and-destroy mission on a rumored Viet Gong stronghold, often referred to in military circles as Pinkville, actually the village of My Lai.
“I walked up and saw these guys doing strange things. They were doing it three ways. One: They were setting fire to the hootches and huts and waiting for people to come out and then shooting them up. Two: They were going into the hootches and shooting them up. Three: They were gathering people in groups and shooting them.
“As I walked in, you could see piles of people all through the village. ... all over. They were gathered up into large groups.
“I saw them shoot an M-79 (grenade launcher) into a group of people who were still alive. But it (the shooting) was mostly done with a machine gun. They were shooting women and children just like anybody else.”
Day 4: Lunar Orbits 4, 5 and 6
NASA • December 1968
From the Apollo 8 flight journal.
“076:49:56 Collins: Apollo 8, this is Houston. Over.
“076:50:02 Anders: I say how about a little bit of that news you promised?
“076:50:05 Collins: Roger. We got the Interstellar Times here, the December 24 edition. Your TV program was a big success. It was viewed this morning by most of the nations of your neighboring planet, the Earth. It was carried live all over Europe, including even Moscow and East Berlin. Also in Japan and all of North and Central America, and parts of South America. We don't know yet how extensive the coverage was in Africa.
Are you copying me all right? Over.
“076:50:38 Borman: You are loud and clear.
“076:50:40 Collins: Good. San Diego welcomed home today the Pueblo crew in a big ceremony. They had a pretty rough time of it in the Korean prison. Christmas cease-fire is in effect in Vietnam, with only sporadic outbreaks of fighting. And if you haven't done your Christmas shopping by now, you better forget it.”
Two Minutes to Midnight: The Very Last Hurrah
Pete Hamill • Village Voice • June 1968
An eyewitness account of Robert Kennedy’s assassination.
“Kennedy was lying on the floor, with black rosary beads in his hand, and blood on his fingers. His eyes were still open, and as his wife Ethel reached him, to kneel in an orange-and-white dress, his lips were moving. We heard nothing. Ethel smoothed his face, running ice cubes along his cheeks. There was a lot of shouting, and a strange chorus of high screaming. My notes showed that Kennedy was shot at 12.10 and was taken out of that grubby hole at 12.32. It seemed terribly longer.
“I don't remember how it fits into the sequence, but I do have one picture of Rosey Grier holding the gunman by his neck, choking life out of him.
“‘Rosey, Rosey, don't kill him. We want him alive. Don't kill him, Rosey, don't kill him.’
"’Kill the bastard, kill that sum of a bitch bastard,’ a Mexican busboy yelled.
"’Don't kill him, Rosey.’
“‘Where's the doctor? Where in Christ's name is the doctor?’”
Lester Bangs • November 1979
On Van Morrison’s grounbreaking album, which was released in November 1968.
“What this is about is a whole set of verbal tics—although many are bodily as well—-which are there for reason enough to go a long way toward defining his style. They're all over Astral Weeks: four rushed repeats of the phrases ‘you breathe in, you breath out’ and ‘you turn around’ in ‘Beside You’; in ‘Cyprus Avenue,’ twelve ‘way up on’s, ‘baby’ sung out thirteen times in a row sounding like someone running ecstatically downhill toward one's love, and the heartbreaking way he stretches ‘one by one’ in the third verse; most of all in ‘Madame George’ where he sings the word ‘dry’ and then ‘your eye’ twenty times in a twirling melodic arc so beautiful it steals your own breath, and then this occurs: ‘And the love that loves the love that loves the love that loves the love that loves to love the love that loves to love the love that loves.’
“Van Morrison is interested, obsessed with how much musical or verbal information he can compress into a small space, and, almost, conversely, how far he can spread one note, word, sound, or picture. To capture one moment, be it a caress or a twitch. He repeats certain phrases to extremes that from anybody else would seem ridiculous, because he's waiting for a vision to unfold, trying as unobtrusively as possible to nudge it along. Sometimes he gives it to you through silence, by choking off the song in midflight: ‘It's too late to stop now!’”
The Anguish of a Team Divided
Jack Olsen • Sports Illustrated • July 1968
How the racism of white players and coaches ruined the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals.
“’A lot of people are prejudiced,’ says Willis Crenshaw, ‘on and off this ball club. We don't expect them to change how they feel. They're too old to change. But we want them to curtail it when it hurts the ball club. Look at President Johnson. I think he's prejudiced, but he's learned to curtail it. That's all we ask.’
“Says Bobby Williams: ‘It's not that we want them to love us, but they can smooth things out a lot. It's not up to the Negroes, it's up to the whites. We're doing the best we can. We ask them not to treat us like little Greek gods, but just like people, flesh and blood people like them.’
“'We'll wait and see,’ says the respected Ernie McMillan, who serves on the park board in his own St. Louis suburb. ‘But it's important that everybody understands the issues. It isn't only that the St. Louis Cardinals lost a few ball games because of race prejudice. That's not the big loss. The big loss is this: we Negro players are automatic heroes in the Negro community, if only because we've got a certain amount of fame. People look up to us, turn to us for advice. We could be going back to the Negro community and telling them not to burn, not to riot, not to cause trouble. But what kind of hypocrites would we be to go back and tell the Negroes that a better day is coming, when that day isn't even in sight yet on the playing field?’”
I've Been to the Mountaintop
Martin Luther King Jr. • April 1968
The speech Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the day before he died.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. (Yeah) And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. (Go ahead) And I've looked over (Yes sir), and I've seen the Promised Land. (Go ahead) I may not get there with you. (Go ahead) But I want you to know tonight (Yes), that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. [Applause] (Go ahead, Go ahead) And so I'm happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything; I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. [Applause]”
Elon Green is a contributor to Longform.org.