Smoke rises visibly above the U.S. Capitol on 8 April in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Smoke rises visibly above the U.S. Capitol on 8 April 1968 in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

I was at a history-related gathering earlier this week, present at which was a representative of a New York-based military heritage organization. This gentleman was in his seventies and had obviously been involved in his organization’s activities for many years, if not decades. What struck me was that as he was discussing his group’s plans for the WW1 centennial in 2017-18 he made reference to the 1960s. Specifically he was explaining what a tough sell the Great War was at the time given the events of the period. One can imagine that it was.

Those who followed the Civil War sesquicentennial are aware that the 150th was a conscious effort to correct the failures of the centennial. The pageant that such organizers as Ulysses S. Grant III envisioned quickly collided with the realities of the Civil Rights Movement. Instead of a Cold War celebration of national strength and unity, it all turned into a convoluted mess. And for good reason. The same thing happened, in a slightly different way, for the Great War 50th. Nineteen sixty eight was the year of the Tet Offensive, the MLK Jr. and RFK assassinations, the rioting at the Democratic National Convention and so much else. The 50th anniversary of the Armistice fell obviously on November 11, 1968, less than a week after the election that put Richard Nixon in the White House.

France too was turned upside down at this time. The Events of May brought down Charles de Gaulle and nearly the Fifth Republic. What is more, in the late 1960s the French were only just grappling with the occupation–and the collaboration–they had lived through under the Germans during the Second World War, less than twenty-five years earlier. The Great War has a larger place in the memory of the French than the Americans; this is understandable given that most of the fighting on the Western Front took place in France. Given all that was taking place at the time however, I don’t know if the French had the heart to look back and commemorate the Great War. Maybe they did, finding in it some unity and solace. Again, I don’t know. It would be interesting to have a compare-and-contrast between how the Americans and the French looked back at the war through the lens of the turmoil of the late 1960s.

(image by Marion S. Trikosko / Library of Congress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)