History professor looks at year that rocked the world

Professor of History Alex Bloom
Professor of History Alex Bloom

The world changed in 1968. Professor of History Alex Bloom spent this past fall semester detailing what happened, what it meant at the time, and what it means for us today in his First-Year Seminar (FYS) “1968: The Year the World Exploded.” The course offered students the chance to dive into epochal moments in modern history and discover how events in the late 1960s have helped to shape the world today. An undergraduate himself at the time, Bloom, who has been teaching at Wheaton for 35 years, said the prospect of the 50th anniversary of the events of 1968 inspired him to craft the course as well as start a new book on the topic. The Quarterly editor sat down to talk with him about the course.

Tell me about your area of research.

I’m most interested in contemporary American history and intellectual history. I like to try to understand what was going on, not necessarily only in my life but in the events that led to the moments of my life. I’ve always had a very broad view of intellectual history, in the sense that I don’t think ideas exist in vacuum but that what people think and how they conceptualize the world around them is shaped by the context in which they live. Early in my career I focused on the 1930s, as it was essential for understanding the shape of life in the post-World War II era, which is when I grew up. My most recent work has explored the 1960s, which were formative for me as a person.

What led you to teach this FYS on 1968?

This is the current area of my own research. We’re coming up on 50 years since the events of 1968. The year is quite extraordinary. All around the world events exploded. There was more happening in that year than in any other year of the 20th century. It’s not just the individual events but also that even though they were occurring all over the world, they were interconnected. The year began with the Tet Offensive in Saigon, which was a major blow to American morale during the Vietnam War, which was already quite unpopular. Tet helped intensify movements already developing—the challenge to Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam in the Democratic Party, which led to the Eugene McCarthy campaign and then the Robert Kennedy campaign. Because of this challenge, Johnson, whose nomination once seemed inevitable, went on TV on a Sunday night at the end of March and announced that he was withdrawing from the race. On the following Tuesday, he lost the Wisconsin primary. Two days later, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis. At this point, Bobby Kennedy was in the race. But two months later he was assassinated in Los Angeles. At the same time occurred the “Prague Spring,” an attempt to develop a more humane form of socialism in Czechoslovakia, in the face of Soviet resistance. This ultimately led to an invasion by the Soviets that August. Also, in April, students at Columbia University went on strike, in part because of race issues as well as student discontent. In May, Paris students’ rebellion almost brought down the government. President Charles de Gaulle amassed troops in the south of France, perhaps to send them up to Paris to take back control. In August, the Democrats gathered for their convention in Chicago. This turned out to be the most confrontational and explosive convention in U.S. history. This happened the same week as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. That September, women demonstrated in front of the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, the first major public demonstration of the emerging women’s movement. That October the Olympics were to be held in Mexico City. In the weeks before, student demonstrations led to a violent government reaction, including opening fire and killing between 200 to 300 Mexican students. All of this is happening in one year. And there was more. A wide variety of issues and movements merged in ’68—relating to the war in Vietnam, to personal situations around racial issues and women’s rights issues but also relating to the optimism of the 1960s, people believing that there was a better world coming. People in the ’60s talked a lot about “the revolution.” And they didn’t just mean the kind of revolution where you take up arms against the government. They meant a transformation of consciousness and culture. They weren’t just responding to the negative, they were pushing an idea of the positive. All these things combined to create a sense of both tension and possibility—and the need for action.

Why study 1968 in 2015?

It amazes me that the issues of 1968 still resonate through the culture, not just because we still have concerns about race and foreign involvement, for example. But some of the actual specifics of those times feel like part of what we do. We still talk about Vietnam in ways that are much more powerful and contemporary than we talked about World War I or World War II, even two decades after they were over. This is not to mention all the things like race issues, which continually re-emerge. We think we are in a post-racial America and then tragic events make us realize we are not.

Are there lessons to be learned from 1968?

When historians try to make conclusions or declarations about overt, clear messages and lessons for the present from the past, it’s always a bad proposition. History doesn’t ever quite repeat itself. There are two things one needs to understand from history: first, you must see how you’ve gotten somewhere. Americans are often very ahistorical. If they paid attention to history a little bit more (aside from “We watched ‘World War II’ on the History Channel”), if we really paid attention to the evolution of things, we’d see how we got from there to here. Events just don’t happen by themselves. They’re the results of things that have happened before. Second, history offers an understanding of the nature of the world, the interrelationship between ideas, and this tells us something. There’s a perpetual interrelation between the political and the cultural, which is often not understood. The task of the historian is to try to understand and make multidimensional and as real as possible the experience of any period. With 1968, it’s important to look at the historical events and try to explain why all of this is happening at the same time and all around the world.

What do you hope your students get out of the FYS?

I want to empower them to understand that their culture and their circumstances are not just the little world around them, but that there is a sense in which the culture that they articulate and in which they participate has international implications—that what shapes people’s lives is not just what presidents or generals or dictators do but also what they do.

Keith Nordstrom photo