THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT
The things of the eye are done.
On the illuminated black dial,
green ciphers of a new moon-
One, two, three, four, five, six!
I breathe and cannot sleep.
Then morning comes,
saying, "This was night."
-Robert Lowell, "Myopia: a Night," from For the Union Dead, 1964
THE WEEK IT BEGAN
The year 1968 began the way any well-ordered year should - on a Monday morning. It was a leap year. February would have an extra day. The headline on the front page of The New York Times read,
world bids adieu to a violent year; city gets snowfall.
In Vietnam, 1968 had a quiet start. Pope Paul VI had declared January 1 a day of peace. For his day of peace, the Pope had persuaded the South Vietnamese and their American allies to give a twelve-hour extension to their twenty-four-hour truce. The People's Liberation Armed Forces in South Vietnam, a pro-North Vietnamese guerrilla force in the South popularly known as the Viet Cong, announced a seventy-two-hour cease-fire. In Saigon, the South Vietnamese government had forced shop owners to display banners that predicted, "1968 Will See the Success of Allied Arms."
At the stroke of midnight in South Vietnam's Mekong Delta, the church bells in the town of Mytho rang in the new year. Ten minutes later, while the bells were still ringing, a unit of Viet Cong appeared on the edge of a rice paddy and caught the South Vietnamese 2nd Marine Battalion by surprise, killing nineteen South Vietnamese marines and wounding another seventeen.
A New York Times editorial said that although the resumption of fighting had shattered hopes for peace, another chance would come with a cease-fire in February for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.
"L'année 1968, je la salue avec sérénité," pronounced Charles de Gaulle, the tall and regal seventy-eight-year-old president of France, on New Year's Eve. "I greet the year 1968 with serenity," he said from his ornate palace where he had been governing France since 1958. He had rewritten the constitution to make the president of France the most powerful head of state of any Western democracy. He was now three years into his second seven-year term and saw few problems on the horizon. From a gilded palace room, addressing French television - whose only two channels were entirely state controlled - he said that soon other nations would be turning to him and that he would be able to broker peace in not only Vietnam but also the Middle East. "All signs indicate, therefore, that we shall be in a position to contribute most effectively to international solutions." In recent years he had taken to referring to himself as "we."
As he gave his annual televised message to the French people, the man the French called the General or Le Grand Charles seemed "unusually mellow, almost avuncular," sparing harsh adjectives even for the United States, which of late he had been calling "odious." His tone contrasted with that of his 1967 New Year's message, when he had spoken of "the detestable unjust war" in Vietnam in which a "big nation" was destroying a small one. The French government had grown concerned at the level of animosity that France's allies had been directing at it.
France was enjoying a quiet and prosperous moment. After World War II, the Republic had fought its own Vietnam war, a fact that de Gaulle seemed to have forgotten. Ho Chi Minh, America's enemy, had been born under French colonial rule the same year as de Gaulle and had spent most of his life fighting the French. He had once lived in Paris under the pseudonym Nguyen O Phap, which means "Nguyen who hates the French." During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt had warned de Gaulle that after the war France should give Indochina its independence. But de Gaulle told Ho, even as he was enlisting his people in the fight against the Japanese, that after the war he intended to reestablish the French colony. Roosevelt argued, "The people of Indochina are entitled to something better than that." De Gaulle was determined that his Free French troops participate in any action in Indochina, saying, "French bloodshed on the soil of Indochina would constitute an impressive territorial claim."
From the USA hardcover edition. Excerpted from 1968 by Mark Kurlansky Copyright © 2003 by Mark Kurlansky. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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