Excerpt from 1968 by Mark Kurlansky, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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    Dec 2003, 441 pages
    Jan 2005, 464 pages

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After World War II, the French fought Ho for Vietnam and suffered bitter defeat. Then they fought and lost in Algeria. But since 1962 France had been at peace. The economy was growing, despite de Gaulle's notorious lack of interest in the fine points of economics. Between the end of the Algerian war and 1967, real wages in France rose 3.6 percent each year. There was a rapid increase in the acquisition of consumer goods - especially cars and televisions. And there was a dramatic increase in the number of young people attending universities.

De Gaulle's prime minister, Georges Pompidou, anticipated few problems for the year ahead. He predicted that the Left would be more successful in unifying than they would in actually taking power. "The opposition will harass the government this year," the prime minister announced, "but they will not succeed in provoking a crisis."

The popular weekly Paris Match placed Pompidou on a short list of politicians who would maneuver in 1968 to try to replace the General. Yet the editors predicted there would be more to watch abroad than in France. "The United States will unleash one of the fiercest electoral battles ever imagined," they announced. In addition to Vietnam, they saw the potential hot spots as a fight over gold and the dollar, growing freedom in the Soviet Union's Eastern satellite countries, and the launching of a Soviet space weapons system.

"It is impossible to see how France today could be paralyzed by crisis as she has been in the past," said de Gaulle in his New Year's message.

Paris had never looked brighter, thanks to Culture Minister André Malraux's building-cleaning campaign. The Madeleine, the Arc de Triomphe, the Pantheon, and other landmark buildings were no longer gray and charcoal but beige and buff, and this month cold-water sprays were going to remove seven hundred years of grime from Notre Dame Cathedral. It was one of the great controversies of the moment in the French capital. Would the water spray damage the building? Would it look oddly patchwork, revealing that not all the stones were originally of matching color?

De Gaulle, seated in his palace moments before midnight on the eve of 1968, was serene and optimistic. "In the midst of so many countries shaken by confusion," he promised, "ours will continue to give an example of order." France's "primordial aim" in the world is peace, the General said. "We have no enemies."

Perhaps this new Gaullian tone was influenced by dreams of a Nobel Peace Prize. Paris Match asked Pompidou if he agreed with some of the General's inner circle who had expressed outrage that de Gaulle had not already received the prize. But Pompidou answered, "Do you really think that the Nobel Prize could be meaningful to the General? The General is only concerned about history, and no jury can dictate the judgment of history."

Aside from de Gaulle, the American computer industry struck one of the new year's rare notes of optimism, predicting a record year for 1968. In the 1950s computer manufacturers had estimated that six computers could serve the needs of the entire United States. By January 1968 fifty thousand computers were operating in the country, of which fifteen thousand had been installed in the past year. The cigarette industry was also optimistic that its 2 percent growth in sales in 1967 would be repeated in 1968. The executive of one of the leading cigarette manufacturers boasted, "The more they attack us the higher our sales go."

But by most measurements, 1967 had not been a good year in the United States. A record number of violent, destructive riots had erupted in black inner cities across the country, including Boston, Kansas City, Newark, and Detroit.

1968 would be the year in which "Negroes" became "blacks." In 1965, Stokely Carmichael, an organizer for the remarkably energetic and creative civil rights group the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, invented the name Black Panthers, soon followed by the phrase Black Power. At the time, black, in this sense, was a rarely used poetic turn of phrase. The word started out in 1968 as a term for black militants, and by the end of the year it became the preferred term for the people. Negro had become a pejorative applied to those who would not stand up for themselves.

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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