Why was 1968 so explosive? The reasons are complicated, but in the United States, the sources of the upheavals can be traced back to two major forces that came together in the early 1960s: the rise of leftist politics -- particularly the anti-Vietnam War movement -- and the passage of new civil-rights legislation.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the left identified itself with communism. From the left’s perspective, the Soviet
Union’s absorption of Eastern Europe into its empire, Mao Zedong’s takeover of China and the communist coup d’e­tats in North Korea and North Vietnam were acts of libera­tion. From the left’s perspec­tive, the nations of the West, led by the United States, were aggressors and imperialists. The Vietnam War, in which the United States sided with South Vietnam against com­munists from North Vietnam, reinforced the left’s view that America was the enemy.

It may sound absurd today, after the collapse of the Soviet empire, yet 40 years ago noth­ing could shake the left’s con­viction that communism was an idyllic way of life. By 1968, the escalation of the Vietnam War and the rising casualty rate strengthened the anti-war movement in the United States: It had always been strong on college campuses; now it was finding support in other parts of American soci­ety.

In the 1950s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began a move­ment to overturn more than 80 years of discriminatory laws that had barred black Americans from the voting booth, lunch counters and water fountains, not to men­tion good schools, well-pay­ing jobs and decent housing. The success of King’s efforts, especially during the presi­dency of Lyndon B. Johnson, who had lobbied Congress to pass a host of new civil-rights legislation, encouraged Hispanics, women and homo­sexuals to begin their own anti-discrimination move­ments.

When King was assassi­nated in April 1968, sup­porters of the civil-rights movement feared they were under attack from white racists. Riots erupted in at least 60 cities across the United States as black Americans vented their grief and anger.

The assassination in June 1968 of the Democrats’ anti-war candidate, Robert Kennedy, shocked America and the world. It had been only five years earlier that Kennedy’s brother, President John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated. As a candidate for the presidency, Robert Kennedy found broad support within the civil-rights and
anti-war movements.

His murder was a crush­ing blow; and when the Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey, a senator who was not adamantly opposed to the Vietnam War, anti-war Democrats were out­raged. Outside the Democratic National
Convention in Chicago, anti-war protesters clashed with police, and anti-war demon­strations erupted across the
country.

For those of us who lived through 1968, it was unset­tling, a frightening time of violence, and of political and social uncertainty. Yet we came through it.