1968 in America: One of the Most Tumultuous Years in US History?

Learn about eight events that characterize what is arguably the most tumultuous year in American history: 1968.

May 1, 2024By Madison Whipple, BA History w/ Spanish minor

1968 us american history


The United States was reaching new frontiers by the 1960s, with the crew of Apollo 8 orbiting the moon and Boeing’s first 747 taking flight. However, on American and foreign soil, tragedies abounded. The deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and protests of the Vietnam War were just a few of the stories that rocked the nation. Whether the year tipped toward good or evil, the United States was surely never the same. Here are eight events that would contribute to that change in 1968.


1. January 23: North Korea Captures the USS Pueblo 

uss pueblo crew captured
The surviving crew members of the USS Pueblo as they arrive in North Korea following their capture on Jan. 23, 1968. Source: National Public Radio (NPR)


The United States Navy was operating a surveillance mission from the Tsushima Strait, a channel that divides Japanese from North Korean waters. According to the Navy, the surveillance ship was called the USS Pueblo and was conducting the mission in international waters. However, the North Korean military claimed the vessel had entered its territory.


North Korea sent planes and warships to intercept the Pueblo, and in the struggle to do so, US crewman Duane Hodges was gunned down. The other 82 crew members were captured, with their ship being brought to port in North Korea. The American sailors were sent to a POW camp, where they were reportedly starved and severely beaten.


Despite their cruel treatment, the crew of the USS Pueblo was forced into a news conference, where they were to acknowledge the “kind treatment” they had received from their North Korean captors. The crew’s remarks were, however, intentionally sarcastic and mocking the North Koreans. This earned them harsher treatment once their captors had realized the mockery.

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What began at the beginning of 1968 finally concluded in the final days of the year. On December 23rd, after negotiations, the crew was allowed to return to South Korea. The United States, as a concession to North Korea, was supposed to acknowledge that the Pueblo was conducting espionage, but once the crew was safe, the government immediately retracted its concessions.


While the crew of the Pueblo made it back to the United States, their ship never did, and it is still thought to be in the possession of North Korea today.


2. January 30: The Launch of the Tet Offensive

tet offensive platoon february
A unit of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, sitting on the wall of Hue’s imperial palace after a battle for the citadel in February 1968, during the Tet Offensive. Source: NPR


The beginning of the end of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam was the launch of the Tet Offensive on January 30th, 1968. The attack, coordinated by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, was named after and carried out on Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. Previously, the two sides had observed a truce during the holiday, but 1968 changed that and took all the Southern Vietnamese forces by surprise.


Eighty-five thousand Viet Cong and Northern Vietnamese soldiers attacked 36 major cities and towns in South Vietnam, catching the United States, as well as Southern Vietnamese forces, by surprise. The media coverage of the attack also took Americans on the homefront by surprise, as their confidence in the Johnson Administration to bring victory out of Vietnam waned.


Both sides sustained heavy casualties during the attack, and by the end, both sides claimed victory. The North Vietnamese were not as weak as President Johnson had claimed, even though the United States swiftly retook all occupied cities and towns.


The Tet Offensive was not only a test of the US Military’s strength but also a test of how much the American public could support their country’s intervention in the conflict. Public support of the war only diminished after the Tet Offensive and gave way to the several large protests that would crop up throughout 1968 and beyond.


3. April 4: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Assassinated

mlk assassination lorraine motel
Civil rights leader Andrew Young (L) and others on the balcony of Lorraine Motel pointing in the direction of the assailant after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who is lying mortally wounded at their feet. Source: Thirteen


On April 3rd, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Memphis, Tennessee to prepare for a march in solidarity with striking sanitation workers throughout the city. The next night, as Dr. King stepped out onto the balcony of his room, number 306, at the Lorraine Motel, he was shot once by a hidden gunman at 6:01 PM.


Dr. King sustained injuries to the lower right side of his face, and once he lost consciousness, he never woke again. He was pronounced dead at 7:05 PM on April 4, 1968. While his fellow pioneers of civil rights begged for a nonviolent response to his death, the assassination inspired riots in over 100 cities throughout the United States.


The same night, Democratic presidential nominee Robert F. Kennedy was in Indianapolis, Indiana on a campaign stop when he received the news of King’s death. He announced the terrible news to those in the crowd who had gathered to listen to his speech. Despite the crowd’s emotional response, Kennedy urged them to embrace King’s message of love, nonviolence, and compassion. It is believed that because of Kennedy, riots were prevented in Indianapolis that night.


Two months after the shooting, police apprehended James Earl Ray at London Heathrow Airport after fingerprints had been found that linked him to the crime. Ray was a fugitive who had escaped from a Missouri prison in 1967.


After his capture and subsequent extradition, Ray entered a guilty plea to avoid the death penalty. However, shortly after he was sentenced to 99 years in prison, Ray recanted his confession and maintained until his death that he was innocent. While the FBI did perform an internal investigation after Ray’s death on behalf of the King family, no sufficient evidence was found to prompt further investigation.


4. April 23: Students Protest the Vietnam War & Racism

columbia protest april
Strikers on the ledge of Mathematics Hall, one of five buildings at Columbia University that students took over in April 1968. Source: New York Times


On April 23rd, around one thousand Columbia University and Barnard College students gathered on Columbia’s campus and began a protest that would force the university to shut down for the rest of the school year.


The students were protesting both the war in Vietnam as well as the university’s plan to build a gymnasium over Morningside Park, public land that catered to the majority Black residents of Harlem. The movement was particularly poignant on behalf of the Vietnam War, as students fought for the safety of soldiers who were, on average, their age or younger.


The students occupied five buildings on Columbia’s campus for nearly a week before university officials called in the NYPD, who beat and arrested several hundred protestors. According to former Tactical Patrol Force officer Mike Reynolds, who was involved in the bust, “We thought the students were a bunch of spoiled kids…who needed a good spanking.”


Even after the violent bust of the occupation, Columbia students refused to go to class, forcing the university to close for the remainder of the school year. This inspired a wave of student activism worldwide, with demonstrations in Mexico City, Paris, Italy, and West Germany, among others.


In Paris, particularly, the students and police clashed on what is now known as “Bloody Monday” for the hundreds of injuries incurred. Eventually, when workers joined the movement, President Charles de Gaulle dissolved the National Assembly and threatened military intervention if the demonstrations did not stop.


The Columbia occupation inspired an era of student-led movements, where the young people of America and beyond could fight for the rights of themselves and others.


5. June 5: Robert F. Kennedy Assassinated

rfk speech ambassador hotel
Senator Robert F. Kennedy gives a speech at the Ambassador Hotel shortly before being shot and killed. Source: Politico


Shortly after being confirmed as the Democratic primary winner in California and South Dakota on June 4th, Robert F. Kennedy gave a speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. After the speech, Kennedy’s security detail led him out of the hotel through the kitchen, citing the need to protect the presidential candidate by taking him out of a back entrance.


However, in a hallway of the Ambassador’s kitchen, Sirhan Sirhan, a 25-year-old Palestinian man, shot Kennedy three times, once in the head and twice in the back. Five others were shot at the same time, all of whom recovered except for Kennedy. Robert F. Kennedy was pronounced dead almost 25 hours later at Good Samaritan Hospital.


Sirhan was apprehended immediately and, although he confessed on record, entered a not-guilty plea, resulting in a large, highly publicized trial. Sirhan was convicted of the murder and given the death sentence in 1969. However, his sentence was commuted as a result of People v. Anderson. He remains in prison in California, serving a life term. As of April 2023, his request for parole has been denied 17 times.


Kennedy’s death prompted the Secret Service to begin protecting presidential candidates and was the last of four monumental assassinations to occur in the 1960s.


6. September 30: Boeing’s 747 “Jumbo Jet” is Launched

first 747 jumbo jet
The Launch Day of the 747 Jumbo Jet with several airlines’ flight attendants posing with the aircraft. Source: Northwestern University


Air travel experienced such a boom in the 1960s that companies who manufactured planes, like Boeing, had to come up with new and creative ways to fit more passengers and make more journeys. Thus, the 747 Jumbo Jet was born.


Unveiled in September of 1968, the 747 was the largest commercial plane on the market at the time. It had a capacity of 374 passengers, stood six stories tall, and weighed around 300 tons. The superjet made air travel more feasible for the average American, which made way for the modern relative ease of travel that we experience today.


The 747, however, was not simply a phenomenon of the 1960s. Over 50 years after its unveiling, the 747 is still one of the most widely used aircraft for commercial flights.


7. October 16: United States Athletes Protest at the Olympics

Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) raise their fists in protest after winning the 200-meter race at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Source: New York Times


During the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, two American athletes changed the nature of politics in sports forever. Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals, respectively, for their participation in the 200-meter race. As they were awarded the medals, the two athletes lowered their heads and raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner.


All three athletes on the podium, including silver medalist Australian runner Peter Norman, wore the badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which fought against segregation and racism in sports. Smith and Carlos wore no shoes and black socks, which they said symbolized Black poverty. Smith’s raised right fist symbolized Black Power, while Carlos’s raised left fist stood for Black unity, and together, the fists formed an arch of unity and power.


As they walked away from the ceremony, the athletes were booed and were subsequently cut from Team USA. Many felt that the display unnecessarily brought politics into sports and dampened the spirit of the Olympics. Smith, however, countered this sentiment by saying, “If I win I am an American, not a black American…But if I did something bad then they would say ‘a Negro.’ We are black and we are proud of being black.”


The two athletes were stripped of their status but ultimately returned home as heroes of the African American community, and their protest became one of the most famous images in sports history.


8. December 24: Apollo 8 Becomes the First Manned Spacecraft to Orbit the Moon

earthrise photo apollo 8
“Earthrise,” the most iconic photo taken on the Apollo 8 mission of December 1968. Source: The Guardian


On Christmas Eve of 1968, three astronauts became the first humans to travel to the moon. Bill Anders, Frank Borman, and Bill Lovell orbited the moon ten times, with Lovell reporting back after their reappearance from the dark side of the moon, “Houston, please be informed there is a Santa Claus.”


The week-long mission came after an intense “space race” with the Soviet Union and was full of firsts for space exploration. Apollo 8 was the first mission where humans took photos of Earth from deep space, including the iconic “Earthrise” photo; it was the first time the surface of the moon was broadcast on live television, the first time humans had gone to the dark side of the moon, and reached a record rocket speed of 24,200 miles per hour.


NASA was eager to fulfill former President Kennedy’s wishes to land on the moon by the end of the 1960s, and the Apollo 8 mission was a necessary first step that led to the Apollo 11 mission to the lunar surface seven months later.


Apollo 8 was a high point in an otherwise tragedy-filled year. According to his book A Man on the Moon, Andrew Chaikin claims that the astronauts received several thousand telegrams after the mission, but none that affected them as much as a simple one that read “You saved 1968.”

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By Madison WhippleBA History w/ Spanish minorMadison is a contributing writer with specialties in American and women’s history. She is especially interested in women’s history in the context of the American Civil War. In her free time, she enjoys going to museums, reading, and jogging.