Module 05: 1968 — A Generation in Revolt?


As you have now seen, the ideas, motivations, and actions of those involved in the chaotic challenges of 1968 differed significantly, yet drew from a common well of grievances. The outcomes of the events in each location were also both similar and different. In the last thirty years, significant debate has ensued over the legacies of 1968. Indeed, many would argue that the so-called "culture wars" that emerged from the conflicts of the seventies have become a defining aspect of current national and international debates.

Yet we can draw several conclusions from our study of the "revolutions" of 1968. First, most governments responded during the late 1960s and 1970s to protesters' demands for access to higher education, one of the greater causes of contention. In the United States, Britain, and elsewhere in Europe, authorities increased funding for existing universities, opened admission to larger portions of the electorate, and embarked on extensive building sprees. Although the reforms did increase enrollment, they did not fundamentally restructure higher education.

Second, if 1968 can be viewed as a component of the Cold War, the legacies of the year of protest prove more divergent, more subterranean, and perhaps more profound. Although Humphrey lost the 1968 election to Richard Nixon, the crises of 1968 meant that America's time in Vietnam was limited. In 1973, the United States finally withdrew from Vietnam, an act that precipitated the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975. Czechoslovakia returned to the Socialist fold after the invasion of 1968, yet many have argued since that the ideological roots of the fall of the Berlin Wall took shape in the fertile soil of Prague Spring.

Finally, while the revolutionary dreams of students in Paris and Chicago failed to come true at the time, many of the protest movements of the last 30 years trace their roots to the calls for revolution by the student revolutionaries of '68. The feminist movement, the modern environmental movement, the squatters movement, and the human rights movement all trace their intellectual heritage, at least in part, to the barricades constructed in the sixties. In Prague, dissidents continued to act as a thorn in the side of the Communist Party throughout the seventies and eighties. One such participant of Prague Spring, Vaclev Havel, even rose to lead the country after the fall of communism.