Back to the '60s

1968, by Michael T. Kaufman. Illustrated. 147 pp. A New York Times Book/ Flash Point/Roaring Brook Press. $22.95. (Ages 12 and up)

The year 1968, while every bit as notable, doesn't conjure one image but a cascade, many of them violent; the student uprisings in Paris, in the United States and in Mexico City, where the army opened fire on protesters. Both the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, running for president, were assassinated that year. Demonstrations against the Vietnam War at the in Chicago culminated in a police-protester street brawl. In Vietnam, the Tet offensive claimed the lives of tens of thousands of combatants and civilians and spelled a turning point in the war. And in Europe, Soviet tanks quashed efforts by Czechoslovakians to give socialism "a human face.

In his succinctly titled "1968," Michael T. Kaufman draws on New York Times archives, his personal experience as a young Times staffer, a wealth of historic news photographs and other sources to replay these often bloody highlights from that pivotal year. Older readers who lived through 1968 will profit from Kaufman's account, as will younger ones who can't remember who came first, President Johnson or President Nixon.

Kaufman adds just the right personal touches to his history lesson. He covered the student strike at Columbia University, where he saw teachers and students beaten by police, with some of the young women being pulled by their hair.He was in Harlem after the King assassination, waiting to report on a riot that never came. He was laboring on the newspaper's night rewrite desk in the early morning hours of June 5, when a Times California correspondent phoned in the news that Bobby Kennedy, who had just won the state's presidential primary, had been shot.

As Kaufman puts it, the world seems to have "spun faster" in 1968 than in neighboring years. Authority everywhere was under furious attack. The civil rights movement was fracturing between nonviolent and violent strategies. The North Vietnamese refused to bow to the United States, and the French government fell following a general strike and huge student demonstrations in Paris.

After a brief introduction, "1968" unpacks in chronological order. Each chapter begins with a slightly magnified Page 1 image from The Times that's relevant to its subject, giving the book the urgency and grittiness of a newsreel. At the book's end, Kaufman continues the journalistic history lesson by reprinting the big stories from those Page 1s. Contemporary readers will spot a few jarring details. For example, Times editors in 1968 thought it necessary to identify the professional football player Roosevelt Grier by race in its coverage of the Kennedy assassination. But for the most part, these breaking news stories, written on tight deadline by Times legends like Tad Szulc and J. Anthony Lukas, provide an excellent "first rough draft" of history.

Writers tend to romanticize their own experiences, especially their early, formative ones. But as one who turned 17 that year and has since become a student of the period, I find Kaufman a faithful historian and reliable witness. He ends his book with a brief, upbeat chapter about Apollo 8, whose December mission was to pave a path for a future lunar landing. It was a mission filled with "firsts." Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to escape Earth's gravitational field, the first to orbit the moon, and the first to send back images of the entire Earth from space.

During the six days that Frank Borman, James A. Lovell Jr. and William A. Anders were gone, not much changed on Earth. The Vietnam War rumbled on. Czechoslovakia was still in the Soviets' cage. Racial equality seemed as distant as ever. But it was hard to look skyward that week and not admire Apollo 8's three-man crew and think of what their accomplishment said about human potential. As Kaufman puts it, the "terrible and shocking time" that was 1968 set in motion much of the good and the bad that endure today, which helps explain why a year that is four decades distant still seems so close.

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