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The late 1960s were a turbulent time in many countries, particularly in the United States and Western Europe – in effect, in the liberal democracies where political dissent was tolerated, if not the violence often associated with that dissent during the period in question. The motivating factors driving much of that dissent and rebellion were U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, particularly the war in Vietnam, and the gradually evolving struggles for civil and equal rights by blacks and women in the United States. U.S. military involvement in Vietnam had initially enjoyed considerable bipartisan support in the United States, a legacy of concerns regarding the spread of communism throughout the developing world and fears of Soviet- and Chinese-inspired insurgencies throughout Asia and Africa. As the number of American troops sent to Vietnam increased, however, with little sense that a military victory was imminent, and as increasing numbers of those troops returned home in body bags or without limbs due to combat wounds, public support for the war fractured, with liberals leading the effort at ending the war via withdrawal of all U.S. troops and many conservatives supporting the full use of American military power to definitively crush North Vietnam once and for all.
The seminal event of this period that marked the final break among Americans over the country’s role in Vietnam was the so-called “Tet offensive” of January 31, 1968, the start of the Lunar New Year during which North Vietnamese troops launched a major and sudden offensive against South Vietnam, with Viet Cong guerrillas spearheading the surprise attack by launching wide-scale terrorist attacks within the south’s major cities. By the time the Tet offensive ended, the Viet Cong’s once-formidable infrastructure was largely destroyed, and the U.S. and South Vietnamese Armies had successfully pushed back the North’s offensive. It was a military victory for the U.S.; it was also, however, a major diplomatic defeat for the U.S., as the scale of the offensive had been so successful in surprising the South and inflicting major damage on its cities while American newsmen reported from those cities under siege in an atmosphere of shock and humiliation. The net effect of the Tet offensive, then, was the growth among many in the U.S. and in Western Europe that the war was unwinnable, and that the United States should be pressured to withdraw. These pressures took the form throughout 1968 of massive demonstrations on university campuses as well as in the streets of the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.
In addition to the growing scale of demonstrations against the U.S. Government stemming from the war in Vietnam, the presidential election scheduled for November of that year combined with the April assassination of Martin Luther King and the subsequent assassination two months later of Senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy further threw the nation into turmoil. The Reverend King and Senator Kennedy were heroic figures to many in America, especially on the political left, and their murders were perceived as direct affronts to the political agendas of those taking part in the demonstrations. To many, both here in America and abroad, the combined effects of the Tet offensive and the assassinations marked a major turning point in U.S. history, and the domestic turbulence would reach its apotheosis during the Democratic National Convention, held between August 26 and 29, 1968, in Chicago, Illinois. The riots that broke out in Chicago at the site of the convention – with many of the demonstrators holding incumbent Democratic President Lyndon Johnson directly responsible for the escalation of the U.S. role in Vietnam – remains one of the most significant political events in American history, and remains the enduring symbol of the revolts of 1968.
With respect to the legacy of colonialism, one would have to conclude that the world would be better off had colonialism never occurred. Such retrospective fantasies, however, are completely meaningless. Colonialism did occur, and has been a feature of human conduct virtually since the dawn of time, whether the example was the Roman Empire, the British Empire, Manifest Destiny, the Soviet Union, or any of the other many instances of one nation expanding its influence and presence at the expense of another. The pros and cons of colonialism, to the extent there were “pros,” involve mainly the economic benefits to the colonial powers stemming from their access to minerals and other natural resources important to the process of industrialization and the functioning of a modern society. The vast mineral wealth of Sub-Saharan Africa was heavily exploited by the Belgians, French, British, Portuguese, and Americans, although the U.S. was never a colonial power in Africa. For the occupied, the only advantage could be the degree to which the British, and they alone, left behind well-established and relatively efficient civil service structures that helped their former colonies to continue to function in the absence of British overseers. Those who had been occupied by the Portuguese, in particular, were not so lucky, as the withdrawal of Portuguese troops and colonial administrators left behind a total vacuum of trained, experienced bureaucrats and the resulting civil wars among competing factions, usually divided along tribal lines, caused immeasurable suffering for millions of people.
From the perspective of the former colonial powers, the net effect of colonization could be considered a plus, but just barely. As noted, the advantages of access to plentiful supplies of natural resources helped them to develop economically. The negative effect would be the costs associated with waging ultimately futile wars to protect and retain colonial territories, especially the case for the British in Afghanistan, as well as the cultural transformations that resulted from massive migrations of former colonial subjects to the centers of colonial power. But that’s a matter of perspective. French resentment of the effects of enormous numbers of immigrants from its former colonies on traditional French culture could be considered a case of divine retribution.
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