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'Smithsonian Time Capsule: 1968' is the Lite Version of the Year But Still Worth Watching
May 7, 2018  | By David Hinckley

While one would not ordinarily argue with the Smithsonian Institute about American history, the Smithsonian Channel’s new documentary on 1968 requires a few asterisks.

Smithsonian Time Capsule: 1968, which premieres Monday at 8 p.m. ET, finds multiple signs of hope, achievement, and promise in that tumultuous year.

They’re mostly legitimate. They can’t hide the fact that on the whole, 1968 sucked.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, which alone would have put the whole year in the loss column. Beyond that, the Vietnam War took 16,899 American lives that year as well as large multiples of that number among Vietnamese soldiers and civilians on both sides.

President Lyndon Johnson abdicated his office, basically, because he couldn’t figure out how to either win the war or quit it. His departure cemented a political tragedy, the way Vietnam so darkly shadowed what was otherwise one of the finest legislative legacies of the century.

It also helped pave the way for the election of Richard Nixon, whose own legacy was checkered and who kept the war going for another six years and tens of thousands more deaths.

Dissent, while divisive by definition, became more aggressively confrontational in 1968: the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago, the growing militancy of the increasingly splintered and frustrated Civil Rights movement.

Urban uprisings in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination burned down large swaths of major cities like Washington, D.C. Two black U.S. Olympics medal winners, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, (below) were sent home after they raised gloved fists on the victory podium. 

The Poor People’s Campaign, a tent city in Washington designed to call attention to baseline problems like income inequality, was washed out. Literally. Striking farmworkers in California seemed to make little headway against powerful growers.

“It felt like there was no end of bad news,” Smithsonian curator Nancy Davis says in Time Capsule. “It was absolutely frightening.”

It wasn’t the kind of fear where people were afraid to go outdoors. It was more like uncertainty and tension had permeated the country and the culture. As this special correctly notes, families drew angry battle lines when their clean-cut kid came home from college with his hair over his ears.

1968 covers some of this and, in fairness, that’s all the hour-long show sets out to do. The Smithsonian Institute itself is opening an exhibition of artifacts from 1968, so the program logically focuses on what will be on display.

Just don’t look to this show for a full-service history of 1968. It does not mention Johnson’s withdrawal from the presidential race, for instance, nor does it mention Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war Minnesota senator who had already challenged Johnson for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

Time Capsule tosses in a few quick fun facts, like the rollout of the first uniformly sculpted Pringle’s potato chips and the earliest mobile phones – large, expensive, clunky devices that bear no resemblance to the smartphones of today, but nonetheless pointed an arrow to the future.

Mostly, though, this show looks for the bright side of 1968, and that’s a legitimate approach. It argues that the farmworkers laid the groundwork for significant gains in years ahead. It argues that Smith and Carlos ultimately helped push the long-game struggle forward.

More problematic, it reverently paints the Broadway show Hair as a reflection of the counterculture and the new artistic freedom it helped spawn.

Hair delivered a musical “version of rebellion that resonates with everyone,” Smithsonian tells us, and while that may have been the intent, the musical result was more like a lot of diluted clichés that found their true niche as easy-listening pop radio hits.

The show wraps up with the Apollo 8 mission, which at year’s end became the first man-made craft to circle the moon. That mission paved the way for the moon landing the following year, and at the time it had the equally important effect of reminding us that we could still perform technological miracles with exhilarating results.

There’s nothing wrong with focusing on light at the end of a tunnel. For those who were there, however, the better symbols of 1968 ran more toward Ford ruining the Mustang and the Beatles starting to break up. As Marvin Gaye would write a couple of years later, brother, brother, there were too many people dying to call 1968 anything except dark.

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