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2020 Is Not 1968. It May Be Worse.

Niall Ferguson

By Niall Ferguson (original source Bloomberg)

“The American death toll is rising. An unpopular president fears for his re-election chances. The U.S. sends men into space. Down on Earth, the economy is in trouble. Racial tensions boil over into rallies, looting and violent confrontations with police in cities across the nation, intensifying political polarization and widening the generational divide. The president considers invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act, which empowers a president to deploy the armed forces and National Guard in any state.

Yes, as writers across the political spectrum such as David Frum, James Fallows, Max Boot, Julian Zelizer and Zachary Karabell have pointed out, 2020 is looking a lot like 1968. For Vietnam, read Covid-19. For Lyndon B. Johnson, read Donald J. Trump. For Apollo 8’s successful orbit of the moon, read the docking of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon with the Space Station. And for Washington, Chicago and many other cities in 1968, read Minneapolis, Atlanta and many other cities in the last few weeks.

Ah yes, interjected Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen, but today we are dealing with a pandemic. Actually, they had one in 1968 as well: the Hong Kong flu, caused by the influenza virus A/H3N2, which was ultimately responsible for more than 100,000 excess deaths in the U.S. and a million around the world. It’s easy to forget that Woodstock, the following year, was a super-spreader event.

True, since Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in the street outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis on the night of Monday May 25, there have been protests and riots in dozens of American cities. More curfews have been imposed than in any year since, you guessed it, 1968. But is this the correct analogy? Or is the baby-boomers’ obsession with their own exciting teenage years leading us, not for the first time, to think too much about the late 20th century and not enough about other, more relevant periods?”

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