With season six of “Mad Men” premiering on Sunday, I have a few thoughts regarding the events that will shape it. Though executive producer Matt Weiner has frequently noted that the show is not a history lesson, it is very likely that the new season will take place in 1968, as it would be surprising to produce a show about the 1960s while omitting its most eventful year. While we can’t anticipate the personal challenges that await Don Draper and the other characters, we do know the major historical events that are to follow.
Vietnam took center stage at the outset of the fateful year. Throughout the fall of 1967, the Johnson Administration repeatedly suggested the U.S. military was making progress against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army and that the nation could see “the light at the end of the tunnel.” The communist allies, however, punctured this optimism when they launched a massive attack in January 1968 called the Tet Offensive. Though the U.S. military eventually repelled it, the communists’ ability to launch a nationwide attack weakened public support for the war at home and destroyed Johnson’s remaining credibility.
In the aftermath of Tet, Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota garnered 42 percent of the vote running as an anti-war candidate against Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Though McCarthy lost, his strong performance revealed how much the war had weakened LBJ. Robert Kennedy, who had been the first choice of the anti-war forces, then entered the race, setting off one of the most dramatic primary battles in American history. With his popularity crumbling, Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election on March 31.
A week later, James Early Ray assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. King had been preparing for his Poor People’s Campaign, which was to include a march on Washington D.C. to demand greater funding for anti-poverty programs, which had been diminished by the diversion of resources to the war. In accordance with his new emphasis on economic inequality, King accepted an invitation to support the sanitation strike in Memphis, where garbage workers were fighting for better pay and work conditions. After his assassination, riots broke out in 125 cities across the country, adding to the national sense of disorder.
RFK and McCarthy continued to battle it out in the Democratic primaries. Echoing the 2008 race between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, RFK’s support came largely from blue-collar whites while McCarthy’s backing came primarily from upscale constituencies. Many viewed Kennedy as the only person who could still speak to both sides of the cultural divide in America, as he retained credibility with working-class whites as well as minorities. After winning the crucial California primary over McCarthy on June 6, RFK was shot and killed by Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles.
Even if Kennedy had lived, he would have faced an uphill battle to win the Democratic nomination. At this time, only a small number of delegates were allocated through primaries and caucuses, as party officials still controlled the nominating process. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, the choice of the establishment, was virtually certain to win the nomination.
With no real possibility of an anti-war nominee, the radical faction of the peace movement mobilized to protest at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Mayor Richard Daley and the city government refused to provide marching permits and confrontations with the local police ensued. Eventually, police and the protesters squared off outside the convention hall and a national television audience watched the cops use tear gas and violence against the militants. Humphrey received the nomination inside, but it was clear the violence outside had seriously damaged his candidacy.
The fall campaign witnessed a presidential race between Humphrey, Republican nominee Richard Nixon, and the independent candidacy of Alabama Governor George Wallace. Both Nixon and Wallace campaigned strongly on the theme of “law and order,” declaring they would clamp down on rising crime, urban riots, and anti-war demonstrators. As I pointed out in a previous post, it is important to remember than many Americans disdained and resisted the social changes of the 1960s. See http://popculturemeetshistory.blogspot.com/2012/03/mad-men-season-5-premiere-part-2.html
Well behind at the outset of the general election campaign, Humphrey began to gain traction in September after he made a speech calling for more aggressive action to achieve peace in Vietnam, distancing himself from the unpopular Johnson. His campaign started to reduce Nixon’s lead, particularly as labor unions worked to move frustrated blue-collar voters away from supporting Wallace and back into their traditional home in the Democratic Party. In the end, though, Nixon edged out Humphrey for a narrow victory in the November election.
The year ended on an upbeat note as Apollo 8, the first spacecraft to orbit the moon, sent back incredible images of Earth on Christmas Eve. Nevertheless, 1968 was a turbulent and divisive year and its repercussions would echo for decades to come. It will be interesting to see how Don, Peggy, Joan, and Roger navigate its travails.