February 15, 2017

1968. Youth Protests Erupt Around the World

The Activist Generation
Demonstrators gather at the Place Denfert-Rochereau public square in Paris during the May protests of 1968 (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

June 3, 1968

About a dozen years ago, I remember hoping to write profound comments about the "passive generation" of college students across America. That was back in 1955 and '56 when the most exciting events reported from the university campuses were panty raids.

LSD had not been synthesized, but there was plenty of marijuana around. The world was as turbulent as it is today—if you subtract America's commitment to the Vietnam War. It was 1954 that the Supreme Court issued its now-famous school integration decision, a historic action which most college students of the time greeted with enthusiastic disinterest. Likewise, they were not much moved to raise their voices pro or con in 1956 when Egypt seized the Suez Canal and Israel invaded Egypt's Sinai desert; or when the Hungarians revolted against Soviet tanks and domination; or when the Polish workers of Poznań rose against the Communist regime and lost forty-four dead before their revolution was crushed.

What occurred to me about that "passive generation" was that no one, including themselves, seemed to know their thoughts, their direction, or their goals.

Today, most everyone is having profound and worrisome thoughts about the brothers and sisters of the passive people—for certainly there is nothing quiet and introverted about the present generation of college students.

Ex-General James Gavin, former ambassador to France and now the director of a Cambridge think tank operation, said today that the American society is in an alarmingly chaotic state, and that the continuing protest movements in the nation's colleges reflect this. International aspects of the same youth uprising have succeeded in paralyzing France, and now Italian students in Rome are rampaging.

General Gavin, who just returned from Europe, says there appears to be no ideological pattern to the university demonstrations here or overseas. Some display the red flag of communism or the black flag of anarchy, but neither is dominant. Mostly the undergrads are simply protesting against the government, the establishment, the entrenched authority.

It's a sign, the former ambassador said, that they want to participate and have a say in the shaping of their democracy. The problem, therefore, remains in how this can be done. Gavin says lowering the voting age to eighteen is one way, but there must be other actions—and quick.

I asked Gavin if he could put a label on this youth movement which has roiled the world.

"In France," he replied, "some called it the 'left of the Left.' As yet, they have developed no cohesive ideology or organization, mostly because to fight the establishment they know they must become one."

All of which leaves us just about right where we were. So it must be our reluctant observation that this "activist generation" of college students appears to suffer the same deficiency that plagued their more apathetic predecessors.

No one, apparently, including themselves, knows their thoughts, their direction, or their goals.

This is Bill Downs in Washington for ABC News.