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1968: The Year That Rocked Our World

1968: Trauma

In this pivotal year, the nation staggered through
12 cataclysmic months. We know them well.
We were there.

Soldiers in Vietnam

American troops on the road to Khe Sanh, during the Tet Offensive. — Larry Burrows/Time-Life Pictures/Getty Images

OLIVER STONE, 61

Award-winning filmmaker who fought in Vietnam

On January 1, we were out in the bush on the Cambodian border, in these big foxholes—what they call a two-company perimeter, with artillery. We’d set up a kind of a quick LZ [landing zone], and for some reason all the packages for Christmas arrived on the 1st. I was opening all these beautiful things that were sent from home, from Mom, from my friends. Then the night came—and that was some night. We got hit with a two-battalion human-wave attack by the NVA [North Vietnamese Army]. That was a hell of a way to start the year. It was hard. But I became a better soldier that year. I learned a lot about life and the realities of dealing with other men. I saved lives. I didn’t kill people unnecessarily. I kept my soul, while a lot of people came out dead. I did not come back against the war, though. I came back in a blur. I was numb, frankly. But I knew I would never be the same again. —Oliver Stone served in Vietnam from September 1967 to November 1968 and was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart; his upcoming film, Pinkville, explores the investigation that followed the My Lai massacre.

Read more of this interview with Oliver Stone.

“I have traveled and I have listened to the young people of our nation and felt their anger about the war that they are sent to fight and about the world they are about to inherit.”

—Senator Robert F. Kennedy, declaring his presidential candidacy

LAWRENCE COLBURN, 58

Helped stop the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam

On March 16, 1968, the men of Charlie Company opened fire on some 500 unarmed civilians during a “search and destroy” mission that would become known as one of the darkest moments of the Vietnam War—the My Lai massacre. Much later, the world would discover that it was pilot Hugh Thompson, 24, who landed his helicopter between the soldiers and civilians so as to stop the massacre. Thompson ordered his gunners—Lawrence Colburn, 19, and Glenn Andreotta, 20—to fire on U.S. soldiers if they continued the rampage. Meanwhile, Thompson rescued about a dozen civilians inside a bunker and airlifted them to safety with the help of two nearby helicopter gunships. Colburn, today the only survivor among Thompson and his crew, says he’s still haunted by the nightmares:

When we had gotten the people out of the bunker and were getting ready to leave, Glenn saw movement in the ditch. So Hugh set the aircraft down again. And without any hesitation, Glenn went into that ditch, and among all the mutilated bodies there was this little boy. Glenn handed him up to me, and I grabbed him by the back of his little silk shirt, and I remember thinking, “I hope these buttons are sewn on tight.” I just had him in my left hand, my weapon in my right, and I couldn’t even feel any weight—so much adrenaline pumping. We took him to a hospital and left him with a nun, and I prayed that he was so young and so traumatized that he wouldn’t remember. The whole experience has probably made me less trustful and less happy in my life, but it is what it is. I’ve accepted it, and I don’t stand in judgment of anyone.

Read more of this interview with Lawrence Colburn.

RAYMOND DAY, 61

Reader from Bushkill, Pennsylvania

While waiting at the airport for my plane to go back to the United States, men were loading body bags. One of the bags fell open, and a head rolled out. About 150 of us were going home that day, and as the plane took off, everyone on it wept. I had wanted to be a career soldier, but the war changed all that. I wanted no more to do with the Army. All I wanted to do was go home.

“I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”

—The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. the night before his assassination

BERNESTINE SINGLEY, 59

Lawyer, writer

When I heard Dr. King had been murdered, I was 18, a Negro girl from Charlotte, North Carolina, trying desperately to make sense of my place on the campus of a tiny, white Wisconsin college. I cried so hard as I staggered to my dorm room that I don’t even remember how I got there. I walked in wailing. My white roommate was at her desk studying, and I asked her to come with me to the candlelight vigil. She said no, she had to study for exams. Then she bent back over her books. I stood there, stunned and disbelieving.

I never spoke to her again.

We kept living in the same room, but day after day I looked right through her until finally she moved out. Ironically, though that day marked the beginning of what became a decades-long habit—making callous white people disappear—I have spent far more time trying to drag them into racial consciousness, to get them to step up and do their own work around race. —Bernestine Singley is the editor of When Race Becomes Real: Black and White Writers Confront Their Personal Histories (Southern Illinois University Press, 2008).

HARRY BENSON, 78

Photographer

The night Bobby was shot, and I was standing next to him, it was like “I must not fail!” There was the memory of Dallas and how it wasn’t recorded properly. I was saying to myself, “This is for history; don’t mess up now.” I watched someone I genuinely liked dying in front of me, and five other people were shot all around me, but I couldn’t hang back. You photograph exactly what you’re seeing, good or bad. It’s a strange thing, though, with violence—you either fall to pieces or else you come out stronger than how you went in. That’s the way I’ve always felt about America—it had its nervous breakdown in 1968, but that was a bump in the road. I mean, we’re still here. —Scottish-born photographer Harry Benson has recorded history for more than 50 years for such publications as Life, People, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker. Among his iconic shots are of the Beatles' first American tour in 1964. As a freelancer he covered the Robert Kennedy presidential campaign in 1968, and he was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when Kennedy was assassinated, events documented in his book RFK A Photographer’s Journal (powerHouse Books, 2008). His website is www.harrybenson.com.

DOLORES HUERTA, 78

Labor activist and lobbyist

I can still hear the sound in that room. And then the shock and the loss. Our champion was gone. But there was no question that the movement would go on. We knew it would be a big challenge, that there would be roadblocks. But there will always be roadblocks. The work for justice never finishes. You don’t ever say, there, that’s all fixed, now I can retire to the beach or something. I have 11 children and 14 grandchildren—that’s a big investment in the future. —As co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association with César Chávez, Dolores Huerta negotiated the first NFWA contract during the Delano grape strike; she was on stage with Senator Robert F. Kennedy when he made his last speech, minutes before the shooting.

Read more of this interview with Dolores Huerta.

GLORIA ESTES, 58

Reader from Aurora, Colorado

I got married the day Bobby Kennedy died. I was 18. I was devastated. It was a day of loss—a loss of innocence. I married to leave home, because that was the only way out for so many girls at that time. So I felt the direction of my life and the direction of the country were irretrievably altered and amazingly intertwined that day. Kennedy was a last symbol of hope for my generation. We were never going to be the same in terms of trust, honesty, faith, and hope.

NEXT: ANGER>>

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