The Turning Point: 50 Years Since the Year that Changed Everything

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Bill Spicuzza today. Photo: Theresa Curry.

Americans celebrating the New Year in 1968 were hoping for a better year than the one before. In the year just ending, Apollo I astronauts had burned to death on the launch pad, tornadoes had raged through the Midwest, a segregationist had been elected governor of Georgia, and conflicts over racism and the Vietnam war erupted everywhere, pitting youth against authority. 

Michael Stahl today.

But 1967 was a rehearsal, a mere foreshadowing, a blip on the national consciousness compared to the year that was to come. 

“Those who weren’t there always talk about 1968 as though it were a fun time, with great music, wild clothes and hair, and a liberated youth culture,” said Ed Piper, a retired minister and professor.  “But that’s not how it was for those who lived through it. We woke up every morning anxious and frightened about what would happen next.” 

A Washington Post article looking back from 1978 called it the “triphammer year,” delivering blows one after the other, each new one falling before the country could recover from the last.

Michael Stahl in 1970

“It was the year that changed everything,” said Michael Stahl, who will teach an OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) course, “1968: American Politics Transformed” at the Lodge at Old Trail this fall. Stahl, who has had a long career in public service, said the half-century since has borne this out. The unpopular war, racial tensions, the decision of a sitting president not to seek re-election, the unexpected emergence of a peace candidate, two stunning assassinations and the revival of Richard Nixon’s political career: all were to change our relationship to civic life in ways that couldn’t have been predicted on January first.

As the year began in Vietnam, communists mounted the Tet Offensive, which hit with an impact that shocked almost everyone with its ferocity and organization. “We always knew that something might happen, but we were surprised at the intensity and the magnitude of the separate attacks,” said Bill Spicuzza. He was stationed at Cam Ranh Bay, a major support area for the Vietnam conflict. Captain Spicuzza was charged with setting up and operating a gas depot and pipelines delivering fuel inland from the depot on the South China Sea.

Captain Bill Spicuzza in 1968.

During January and February, the Vietnamese Army and National Liberation Front attacked cities and military targets deep into South Vietnam, the most spectacular being when a group of NLF commandos breached the wall surrounding the American embassy in Saigon.

Although in the end Tet was a clear and major victory for the U.S., it marked a huge change in popular opinion. The stunning capability of the enemy belied President Lyndon Johnson’s promise that U.S. victory and withdrawal were just around the corner. Capt. Spicuzza, who now lives in Crozet, already had questions about the size and expense of the military base at Cam Ranh Bay, given that the war was characterized as being in its last stages: “It was enormous and appeared to be permanent,” he said. He also wondered about the credibility of counting the bodies of enemy soldiers as a marker of our success, the theory being that we could stand our ground against Vietnamese re-unification and the communists would eventually run out of soldiers. 

People at home were also starting to question the body count. Returning soldiers reported being pressured to report dead civilians and natural deaths, even to make up numbers. “I think most in-country and back home recognized that General Westmoreland’s ‘body count’ strategy was incredulous and led to outright lies,” Spicuzza said. Looking back, he believes that the war should have ended then, with the realization that the American people didn’t support it.

By May, Spicuzza was on his way home. His experience at Cam Ranh Bay led to increasingly responsible assignments as a commanding officer and an educator during his long career with the Army. He returned to a country plunged in anger and sorrow in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King the month before. 

Jenny Upton in 1968

“I was really young when John Kennedy was shot,” recalled Jenny Upton, who now lives in Nelson County, “so the assassination of Dr. King was one of the first national tragedies I really remember.” Upton was in her first year at boarding school: “Someone actually came into the shower to let me know,” she said. 

Upton had already rejected the racial views of her parents. “They were in most things good, kind people,” she said. “But I began to be angry and upset when I heard them speak about race.”

Mary Cunningham, who lives in Afton, said the same was true of her. She was still in middle school in 1968, but she’d moved to a new school where the student body was more diverse and sophisticated.

“I had pretty much already rejected the views of my parents and questioned their values,” she said. “But I kept it pretty quiet until I saw young people all over the country protesting the war and racism. It was like they gave me permission to rebel openly.”

Mary Cunningham in 1968

Like many their age, Cunningham and Upton grew more radical, experimented with drugs, listened to protest music and generally became more and more disillusioned with the status quo.

Michael Stahl, then a high school student, listened in shock to the news and decided on his own future path: “These were horrifying times,” he said. “I made the decision to go into public service to try to change what I could.” He said his OLLI course will include one session on “the loss of hope,” the despair that enveloped the country after the assassinations of the two men most admired by his generation. A third, Eugene McCarthy, was the first to announce as a peace candidate but it became clear he wouldn’t prevail against establishment Democrats.

Jenny Upton and Mary Cunningham today. Photo: Theresa Curry.

Meanwhile, Ed Piper, who retired from his Waynesboro ministry in 2013, was a graduate student in Chicago, the site of the Democratic Party’s convention, in 1968. Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in June followed Dr. King’s in April. On March 31, Johnson had made the shocking announcement that he wouldn’t seek reelection. When the Democrats convened in August to choose Hubert Humphrey, it was obvious that the country was fractured, angry—split not only by race, but by age, class and beliefs. Families were reeling as husbands and sons continued to be killed in Vietnam, and gains in racial equality were slow and bitterly resisted.

Ed Piper today. Photo: Theresa Curry.

“It was clear not only from the rhetoric, but from what we could see with our own eyes that both sides were getting ready,” Piper said. “It was like two armies amassing their troops.” On the police side were 23,000 officers with tear gas, mace and military vehicles. On the other side were 10,000 or so demonstrators with differing agendas. There were McCarthy supporters, civil rights activists, clergy and folk singers but also plenty of youth looking for confrontation, with street theater, angry rhetoric, even the farcical nomination of a real pig to insult the police as well as the politicians. 

Ed Piper in 1968.

“It didn’t go well,” Piper said. He and his wife, a nurse, left town just as Grant Square started to look like an armed camp. They were hiking in Glacier National Park when the real violence came down. Emboldened by rhetoric from Mayor Richard Daley, police advanced on and bloodied demonstrators and bystanders alike. In what was later called a “police riot,” they entered the convention hall and struck delegates and reporters. 

When he returned to the University of Chicago, which overlooks Grant Square, “It was like looking at a civil war battlefield,” Piper remembered. In his world, students and teachers were shocked and sobered by the rage of the Chicago police. Meanwhile, other people were frightened by the youthful demonstrators, their offensive language and dress, and the drug culture that influenced popular music. 

“Hair,” a rock musical that depicted counter-culture teenagers and included nudity, had been playing to packed houses on Broadway. Simon and Garfunkel released “Bookends,” an album that included the mournful “America,” at just about the time King was shot. Stahl said that the period’s contemporary music will be played at the beginning of sessions and during breaks in his class.

In October, supporters of third-party segregationist candidate George Wallace saw police beating black protesters and chanted: “Kill ’em, Kill ’em.” In November, the country elected Richard Nixon, a law-and-order candidate.

The year ended with the President-elect saying he had a “secret plan” to end the war. His Secretary of State Melvin Laird later confirmed there was no such plan. 1969 was to be more of a mixed bag, bringing Woodstock, the Beatles’ “Abbey Road,” and a man walking on the moon as well as the high-profile murders by charismatic psychopath Charles Manson.

Ed Piper went on to become a college professor and then a Unitarian minister. Jenny Upton became part of the second wave of young people seeking peace in rural Nelson County, and settled at Shannon Farm. She became a woodworker and is one of the owners of Heartwood Design in Afton. Mary Cunningham has had dual careers as a medical professional and financial advisor, owns Sherpa Financial Guides with her husband, Dave, and is an active volunteer for projects benefitting the community. 

Michael Stahl served for 31 years with the Environmental Protection Agency, retiring recently with a number of awards for his long public service. His course, “1968: American Politics Transformed,” will be offered on five Thursday morning sessions beginning Sept. 27 at the Lodge at Old Trail. Registration, which opens July 10, is at www.olliuva.org. 

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