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Friday, January 16, 2004 - Page updated at 10:32 A.M.

Book Review
'1968': evocative, exhaustive report on turbulent year

By Bob Simmons
Special to The Seattle Times

Author Mark Kurlansky's detailed new book is about the world events of 1968.
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In the year 1968, young people in Czechoslovakia and Poland rioted against communism; in Spain and Portugal against fascism; in the United States against the Vietnam War and the capitalistic power structure overseeing it. College students and others of their age group battled police in Paris, Berlin and Mexico City.

"There has never been a year like 1968," Mark Kurlansky says, "and it's unlikely there will ever be one again."

In his new book, "1968: the Year that Rocked the World" (Random House, $26.95), Kurlansky traces skillfully the astounding streams of revolt converging in that historic year. In authority's frantic struggle to repress disorder, he spots the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union, the fall of Charles de Gaulle's right-wing French government, the loss of our disastrous war in Vietnam and a drastic reworking of electoral politics in the United States.

This was the year, the author says, when "people all at once, all over the globe, refused to be silent about the many things that were wrong with the world."

Author appearance

Mark Kurlansky will read from "1968: the Year that Rocked the World," 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Elliiott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle, free (206-624-6600 or
Kurlansky writes with a historian's diligence and a storyteller's eye. He notes, for example, Berkeley protest leader Mario Savio taking off his shoes to avoid scarring the roof of a captured police car, where he stood for hours inciting anti-war demonstrators in 1963. He also recounts the shift from Savio's gentleness to the often-aimless violence that marked the movement by 1968.

With 441 pages devoted to the story of a single year, Kurlansky has plenty of room for detail.

You may indeed wish for less detail, in pages comparing the 1968 music and theater of Europe and the U.S. But that's a minor complaint.

Otherwise it's a colorful, highly evocative report on the awfulness and the idealism of the time.

Kurlansky traces the political/spiritual path that took Martin Luther King to his death at the hands of an escaped white convict in 1968. He also shows Dr. King losing control of his nonviolent civil rights movement to the hard-line advocates of Black Power.

The chaos of the Democratic National Convention is here; Chicago police, provoked by Abbie Hoffman's "Yippies" and rioting, chasing an international press corps through the streets and bursting into Sen. Eugene McCarthy's headquarters in the Hilton Hotel to beat up members of his campaign staff.

There's Bobby Kennedy's astonishing rise to political stardom and his assassination in 1968 by a Palestinian whose motive we still don't know.

There's Mexican students protesting government corruption and being machine-gunned in their dormitories.

There's the Prague Spring of Alexander Dubcek and his bewilderment as Soviet tanks flatten the Czech movement toward liberalization.

Kurlansky offers four historic factors creating what he calls the "spontaneous combustion of rebellious spirits around the world" in 1968.

• A generation "that felt so different and so alienated that it rejected all forms of authority."

• The Vietnam War, "hated so universally that it provided a cause for all the rebels seeking one."

• The example of the civil-rights movement, both nonviolent and violent, providing a model for forcing political change.

• Television news coming of age, but not yet grown slick and timid. Young people creating turmoil in Berlin and Warsaw could watch, only hours after the fact, the tactics being used in Mississippi and California.

It was the year Walter Cronkite broke a network precedent by editorializing openly against the war. William Calley was charged with murdering innocent Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. Richard Nixon became president.

"1968 was a terrible year," Kurlansky acknowledges, "and yet one for which many people feel nostalgia."

There was in the world, he says, "a sense of hope that it has rarely had, a sense that where there is wrong there are always people who will expose and try to change it."


Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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