For an American high school student, with an interest in politics and history, 1968 could not have been a more provocative year—but not one that would necessarily make one sanguine about the future. News about the Vietnam War was on the TV every evening and the news was not good. Indeed, all the previous reports from the American government about how the war was being won suddenly seemed massively misleading with start of the Tet Offensive in January. And there was little to be positive about domestically: The Democratic Party was coming unglued; there were student protests throughout the country, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and race riots in major cities.
Ironically, for more than half of 1968, the most positive news came from behind the Iron Curtain. In January ‘68, Alexander Dubcek was selected to lead the Czechoslovakian Communist Party. The Prague Spring had sprung and, like all springs, there was a sense of something revolutionary in the air. It was indeed revolutionary but, of course, not all revolutions succeed and the Soviet Union made sure it wouldn’t with the invasion of the Red Army in August.
For this high school student, 1968 was, as we say in the US, “a real learning experience.” And the two key lessons learned were: the “promise” of liberal democracies is something that constantly needs attending to but the freedom to do so cannot ever be assumed when despotic powers hold sway.
Gary Schmitt (1952) is resident scholar in strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He’s held senior staff positions in the US Congress and the White House.