First 9-1-1 call is placed in the United States


Year
1968
Month Day
February 16

February 16, 1968 sees the first official “911” call placed in the United States. Now taken for granted as first course of action in the event of emergency by nearly all of the nation’s 327 million people, 911 is a relatively recent invention and was still not standard across the United States for many years after its adoption by Congress.

As telephones became common in U.S. households, fire departments around the country recommended establishing a single, simple number to be dialed in the event of a fire or other emergency. A similar system had been implemented in the United Kingdom decades earlier, in 1936, when the code 999 was chosen for emergency telegraph and phone communications. The Federal Communications Commission decided to act in 1967, but the number itself came not from the government but from AT&T, the corporation that controlled nearly all phone lines in the U.S. via its long-distance service and ownership of local Bell Telephone subsidiaries. At the time, AT&T was considered a “natural monopoly,” a monopoly allowed to exist because high infrastructure costs and barriers to entry prevented challengers from emerging. AT&T suggested the number 911 because it was easy to remember and, crucially, had not yet been designated as an area code or other code, which would make the transition easier.

The first 911 call was placed by Rep. Rankin Fite, the Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives, in the town of Haleyville, AL on February 16th of the following year. Nome, Alaska adopted the system a week later. Still, it would years before the system was widespread and decades before it was uniform. It was only in 1973 that the White House issued an official statement in favor of 911, and even that a suggestion rather than a law or executive order. By 1987, 50 percent of the nation was using the system. Canada chose to adopt the same number for its emergency calls, and 98% of the US and Canada can now contact emergency services by dialing 911. 999 is in use in a number of former British colonies, and the number 112 is used in Russia, Brazil, and other nations, even sometimes routing to the same services as 911 in the U.S.

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Three protestors die in the Orangeburg Massacre


Year
1968
Month Day
February 08

On the night of February 8, 1968, police officers in Orangeburg, South Carolina open fire on a crowd of young people during a protest against racial segregation, killing three and wounding around 30 others. The killing of three young African Americans by state officials, four years after racial discrimination had been outlawed by federal law, has gone down in history as the Orangeburg Massacre.

After decades of protests across the country, segregation was abolished in the United States by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While its passage was a major victory, many racists throughout the South simply refused to obey it, knowing local police would not care to enforce. In early February of 1968, a group of activists in Orangeburg tried to convince one such man, Harry Floyd, to desegregate his bowling alley, but he refused. Several days of expanding protests followed, during which protesters damaged a window of the bowling alley, police responded with arrests and beatings, and unrest spread to the nearby campus of South Carolina State University, a historically black college.

The night of the 8th, officers of the South Carolina Highway Patrol responded to a bonfire on the campus. When a protester pried a banister from an abandoned house and threw it at an officer, the police opened fire. The Highway Patrol would subsequently claim, and newspapers would subsequently report, that the students had used firebombs and even sniper rifles to attack before the police fired; however, multiple investigations of the incident failed to turn up any evidence to support the claims. The police barrage claimed the lives of two SCSU students, Samuel Hammond, Jr. and Henry Smith, as well as a local high school student, Delano Middleton, who had been sitting near the protest waiting for his mother to get off work.

The killings sparked outrage across the nation, but the Governor of South Carolina blamed “black power advocates” rather than his police. The massacre is still commemorated by the university and others in South Carolina, but social commentators have noted that its place in America’s collective memory is not as prominent that of the similar Kent State and Jackson State Massacres, both of which occurred during anti-Vietnam War protests and which collectively claimed the lives of six white students in 1970. Shootings on college and high school campuses continue to plague the United States, as does police violence against African Americans—nearly 1,000 people are killed by police every year, and black people are 2.5 times more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement than white people.

READ MORE: Segregation in the United States

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Viet Cong officer is shot in the head, iconic photo taken


Year
1968
Month Day
February 02

Saigon, South Vietnam was a chaotic and bloody place in the winter of 1968. On January 30, North Vietnamese forces struck suddenly and with shocking force at targets throughout the South, taking the South Vietnamese and their American allies by surprise and turning the tide of a war that President Lyndon Johnson had assured his people they were close to winning. As the reeling South Vietnamese army worked to re-establish order in their capital, an American photographer captured an image that would come to symbolize the brutality of the conflict.

The Tet Offensive directly countered the American narrative that the North was incapable of mobilizing in large numbers and was on the retreat. Conventional and guerrilla warriors struck targets and areas that had been considered to be safely under U.S./Southern control. As the Viet Cong overran Saigon in the first hours of the Tet Offensive, a fighter named Nguyễn Văn Lém was part of a death squad that targeted the National Police and their families. According to the South Vietnamese military, Lém’s squad had just killed 34 people associated with the police, at least 24 of whom were civilians, when he was captured on February 1st.

Lém, who had worn civilian clothes as he carried out his alleged war crimes, was brought to Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams saw the prisoner being escorted to the general and decided to take a few pictures. “I prepared to make that picture—the threat, the interrogation,” Adams recalled. “But it didn’t happen. The man just pulled a pistol out of his holster, raised it to the VC’s head and shot him in the temple.”

Adams captured the exact moment when the bullet from Loan’s Smith & Wesson entered Lém’s head at point-blank range. The image, which very much appeared to depict the summary execution of an unarmed civilian by a South Vietnamese military official, ran in newspapers around the world, causing a sensation. The story behind the photo was much more complex, but the shot came to encapsulate Americans’ darkest fears about the war: that it was a haphazard, amoral bloodletting in which the United States’ cruelty rivaled that of its enemies.

Indeed, while Lém was not the innocent victim he appeared to be, it was later concluded that his execution had been a war crime. It was far from the only one committed by American and South Vietnamese forces—just a few months later, on March 16, American troops killed somewhere between 347 and 504 civilians in what came to be known as the My Lai Massacre. “Saigon Execution,” as Adams titled his photo, became a symbol of all that was wrong with American involvement in the war and won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography for 1969. Four years later, another AP photographer would win the prize for a similar photo, “Terror of War,” which depicted terrified children fleeing after the South Vietnamese air force mistakenly attacked their village with napalm.

READ MORE: Vietnam War Timeline

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Johnny Cash performs at Folsom Prison


Year
1968
Month Day
January 13

In the midst of depression and a steep decline in his musical career, legendary country singer Johnny Cash arrives to play for inmates at California’s Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968. The concert and the subsequent live album launched him back into the charts and re-defined his career.

Despite his outlaw image, Cash never went to prison, save for a few nights drying out in various jails. It was not his own experience but rather the crime film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison that inspired him to pen “Folsom Prison Blues,” which was a modest hit for Cash in 1956. The song, characteristically mournful, is written from the point of view of an inmate “stuck in Folsom Prison” after shooting a man in Reno “just to watch him die” – Cash explained that he wanted to come up with the most senseless reason imaginable for the speaker to have committed murder. A decade later, Cash’s alcoholism and addiction to pills had taken a marked toll on his health. Cash was popular in prisons across America and was known to correspond with imprisoned fans, and first played at Folsom in 1966 on the suggestion of a local preacher. Two years later, needing something to jump-start his career, he convinced his record company to let him record a live album there.

Cash felt a personal responsibility to put on a good show at Folsom. He rehearsed feverishly in the days leading up to the concert and taught himself “Greystone Chapel,” a song written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley. Despite the presence of armed guards on the walkways above them, and the warden’s prohibition against standing during the show, Cash’s audience was raucous, invigorating the performers and lending a unique verve to the live recording. Cash tailored the setlist to prisoners, including the namesake song and ending with “Greystone Chapel.” The album went to No. 1, as did a subsequent album recorded at San Quentin, and suddenly Cash was a household name again.

The iconic performance linked Cash permanently with prisoners in the American imagination. In his 1971 song “Man in Black,” Cash explains that he adopted his trademark dark clothing in solidarity with “the poor and the beaten down” as well as “the prisoner who has long paid for his crime.” Cash testified before Congress and met with President Richard Nixon to discuss prison reform in 1972, and continued to crusade on behalf of the imprisoned for the rest of his career. Live at Folsom Prison stands as a testament to the bond he felt with inmates as well as a major entry in the canon of 20th Century American music.

READ MORE: I Went With Johnny Cash to Folsom Prison

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Mass graves discovered in Hue


Year
1968
Month Day
February 26

Allied troops who had recaptured the imperial capital of Hue from the North Vietnamese during the Tet Offensive discover the first mass graves in Hue.

It was discovered that communist troops who had held the city for 25 days had massacred about 2,800 civilians whom they had identified as sympathizers with the government in Saigon. One authority estimated that communists might have killed as many as 5,700 people in Hue.

The Tet Offensive had begun at dawn on the first day of the Tet holiday truce (January 30), when Viet Cong forces, supported by large numbers of North Vietnamese troops, launched the largest and best coordinated offensive of the war. During the attack, they drove into the center of South Vietnam’s seven largest cities and attacked 30 provincial capitals ranging from the Delta to the DMZ. 

Among the cities taken during the first four days of the offensive were Hue, Dalat, Kontum, and Quang Tri; in the north, all five provincial capitals were overrun. At the same time, enemy forces shelled numerous allied airfields and bases. By February 10, the offensive was largely crushed, but resulted in heavy casualties on both sides.

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Kerner Commission Report released


Year
1968
Month Day
February 29

The President’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—known as the Kerner Commission—releases its report, condemning racism as the primary cause of the recent surge of riots. Headed by Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois, the 11-member commission was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in July 1967 to uncover the causes of urban riots and recommend solutions.

The report, which declared that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” called for expanded aid to African American communities in order to prevent further racial violence and polarization. Unless drastic and costly remedies were undertaken at once, the report said, there would be a “continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.”

The report identified more than 150 riots or major disorders between 1965 and 1968 (including the deadly Newark and Detroit riots) and blamed “white racism” for sparking the violence—not a conspiracy by African American political groups as some claimed.

Statistics for 1967 alone included 83 people killed and 1,800 injured—the majority of them African Americans—and property valued at more than $100 million damaged or destroyed.

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USS Pueblo captured


Year
1968
Month Day
January 23

On January 23, 1968, the USS Pueblo, a Navy intelligence vessel, is engaged in a routine surveillance of the North Korean coast when it is intercepted by North Korean patrol boats. According to U.S. reports, the Pueblo was in international waters almost 16 miles from shore, but the North Koreans turned their guns on the lightly armed vessel and demanded its surrender. The Americans attempted to escape, and the North Koreans opened fire, wounding the commander and two others. With capture inevitable, the Americans stalled for time, destroying the classified information aboard while taking further fire. Several more crew members were wounded.

Finally, the Pueblo was boarded and taken to Wonson. There, the 83-man crew was bound and blindfolded and transported to Pyongyang, where they were charged with spying within North Korea’s 12-mile territorial limit and imprisoned. It was the biggest crisis in two years of increased tension and minor skirmishes between the United States and North Korea.

The United States maintained that the Pueblo had been in international waters and demanded the release of the captive sailors. With the Tet Offensive raging 2,000 miles to the south in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson ordered no direct retaliation, but the United States began a military buildup in the area. 

At first the captured crew of the Pueblo resisted demands they sign false confessions, famously raising their middle fingers at the camera and telling the North Koreans it was the “Hawaiian good-luck sign.” Once the North Koreans learned the truth, they punished the prisoners with beatings, cold temperatures and sleep deprivation, according to a lawsuit some of the Pueblo’s crew would later file against the North Korean government.

Eventually North Korean authorities coerced a confession and apology out of Pueblo commander Bucher, in which he stated, “I will never again be a party to any disgraceful act of aggression of this type.” The rest of the crew also signed a confession under threat of torture.

The prisoners were then taken to a second compound in the countryside near Pyongyang, where they were forced to study propaganda materials and beaten for straying from the compound’s strict rules. In August, the North Koreans staged a phony news conference in which the prisoners were to praise their humane treatment, but the Americans thwarted the Koreans by inserting innuendoes and sarcastic language into their statements. Some prisoners also rebelled in photo shoots by casually sticking out their middle finger; a gesture that their captors didn’t understand. Later, the North Koreans caught on and beat the Americans for a week.

On December 23, 1968, exactly 11 months after the Pueblo‘s capture, U.S. and North Korean negotiators reached a settlement to resolve the crisis. Under the settlement’s terms, the United States admitted the ship’s intrusion into North Korean territory, apologized for the action, and pledged to cease any future such action. That day, the surviving 82 crewmen walked one by one across the “Bridge of No Return” at Panmunjon to freedom in South Korea. They were hailed as heroes and returned home to the United States in time for Christmas.

Incidents between North Korea and the United States continued in 1969, and in April 1969 a North Korean MiG fighter shot down a U.S. Navy intelligence aircraft, killing all 31 men aboard. In 1970, quiet returned to the demilitarized zone.

READ MORE: What You Need to Know About North Korea

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Tet Offensive halted


Year
1968
Month Day
February 24

On February 24, 1968, the Tet Offensive ends as U.S. and South Vietnamese troops recapture the ancient capital of Hue from communist forces. Although scattered fighting continued across South Vietnam for another week, the battle for Hue was the last major engagement of the offensive, which saw communist attacks on all of South Vietnam’s major cities. In the aftermath of Tet, public opinion in the United States decisively turned against the Vietnam War.

As 1968 began–the third year of U.S. ground-troop fighting in Vietnam–U.S. military leadership was still confident that a favorable peace agreement would soon be forced on the North Vietnamese and their allies in South Vietnam, the Viet Cong. Despite growing calls at home for an immediate U.S. withdrawal, President Lyndon Johnson’s administration planned to keep the pressure on the communists through increased bombing and other attrition strategies. General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. operations in Vietnam, claimed to see clearly “the light at the end of the tunnel,” and Johnson hoped that soon the shell-shocked communists would stumble out of the jungle to the bargaining table.

However, on January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese launched their massive Tet Offensive all across South Vietnam. It was the first day of Tet–Vietnam’s lunar new year and most important holiday–and many South Vietnamese soldiers, expecting an unofficial truce, had gone home. The Viet Cong were known for guerrilla tactics and had never launched an offensive on this scale; consequently, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces were caught completely by surprise.

In the first day of the offensive, tens of thousands of Viet Cong soldiers, supported by North Vietnamese forces, overran the five largest cities of South Vietnam, scores of smaller cities and towns, and a number of U.S. and South Vietnamese bases. The Viet Cong struck at Saigon–South Vietnam’s capital–and even attacked, and for several hours held, the U.S. embassy there. The action was caught by U.S. television news crews, which also recorded the brutal impromptu street execution of a Viet Cong rebel by a South Vietnamese military official.

As the U.S. and South Vietnamese fought to regain control of Saigon, the cities of Hue, Dalat, Kontum, and Quangtri fell to the communists. U.S. and South Vietnamese forces recaptured most of these cities within a few days, but Hue was fiercely contested by the communist soldiers occupying it. After 26 days of costly house-to-house fighting, the South Vietnamese flag was raised again above Hue on February 24, and the Tet Offensive came to an end. During the communist occupation of Hue, numerous South Vietnamese government officials and civilians were massacred, and many civilians died in U.S. bombing attacks that preceded the liberation of the city.

In many respects, the Tet Offensive was a military disaster for the communists: They suffered 10 times more casualties than their enemy and failed to control any of the areas captured in the opening days of the offensive. They had hoped that the offensive would ignite a popular uprising against South Vietnam’s government and the presence of U.S. troops. This did not occur. In addition, the Viet Cong, which had come out into the open for the first time in the war, were all but wiped out. However, because the Tet Offensive crushed U.S. hopes for an imminent end to the conflict, it dealt a fatal blow to the U.S. military mission in Vietnam.

In Tet’s aftermath, President Johnson came under fire on all sides for his Vietnam policy. General Westmoreland requested 200,000 more troops to overwhelm the communists, and a national uproar ensued after this request was disclosed, forcing Johnson to recall Westmoreland to Washington. On March 31, Johnson announced that the United States would begin de-escalation in Vietnam, halt the bombing of North Vietnam, and seek a peace agreement to end the conflict. In the same speech, he also announced that he would not seek reelection to the presidency, citing what he perceived to be his responsibility in creating the national division over Vietnam.

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Tet Offensive ends


Year
1968
Month Day
February 22

The American war effort in Vietnam was hit hard by the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive, which ended on February 22, 1968. Claims by President Lyndon Johnson that the offensive was a complete failure were misleading. Though the North Vietnamese death toll was 20 times that of its enemies, strongholds previously thought impenetrable had been shaken. The prospect of increasing American forces added substantial strength to the anti-war movement and led to Johnson’s announcement that he would not seek re-election.

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Soviets test supersonic airliner


Updated:
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Year
1968
Month Day
December 31

The Soviet Union’s TU-144 supersonic airliner makes its first flight, several months ahead of the Anglo-French Concorde. The TU-144 so closely resembled the Concorde that the Western press dubbed it the “Konkordski.”

In 1962, 15 years after U.S. pilot Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier, Britain and France signed a treaty to develop the world’s first supersonic passenger airline. The next year, President John F. Kennedy proposed a similar U.S. project. Meanwhile, in the USSR, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ordered his top aviation engineers to beat the West to the achievement.

There were immense technical challenges in building a supersonic airliner. Engines would need to be twice as powerful as those built for normal jets, and the aircraft’s frame would have to withstand immense pressure from shock waves and endure high temperatures caused by air friction. In the United States, Boeing tackled the supersonic project but soon ran into trouble with its swing-wing design. In England and France, however, early results were much more promising, and Khrushchev ordered Soviet intelligence to find out as much as possible about the Anglo-French prototypes.

In 1965, the French arrested Sergei Pavlov, head of the Paris office of the Soviet airliner Aeroflot, for illegally obtaining classified information about France’s supersonic project. Another high-level Soviet spy remained unknown, however, and continued to feed the Soviets information about the Concorde until the spy was identified and arrested in 1967. On December 31, 1968, just three months before the first scheduled flight of the Concorde prototype, the fruits of Soviet industrial espionage were revealed when the Soviet’s TU-144 became the world’s first supersonic airliner to fly.

In 1969, the Concorde began its test flights. Two years later, the United States abandoned its supersonic program, citing budget and environmental concerns. It was now up to Western Europe to make supersonic airline service viable before the Soviets. Tests continued, and in 1973 the TU-144 came to the West to appear alongside the Concorde at the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget airport. On June 3, in front of 200,000 spectators, the Concorde flew a flawless demonstration. Then it was the TU-144’s turn. The aircraft made a successful 360-degree turn and then began a steep ascent. Abruptly, it leveled off and began a sharp descent. Some 1,500 feet above the ground, it broke up from overstress and came crashing into the ground, killing all six Soviet crew members and eight French civilians.

Soviet and French investigators ruled that pilot error was the cause of the accident. However, in recent years, several of the Soviet investigators have disclosed that a French Mirage intelligence aircraft was photographing the TU-144 from above during the flight. A French investigator confirmed that the Soviet pilot was not told that the Mirage was there, a breach of air regulations. After beginning his ascent, the pilot may have abruptly leveled off the TU-144 for fear of crashing into this aircraft. In the sudden evasive maneuver, the thrust probably failed, and the pilot then tried to restart the engines by entering a dive. He was too close to the ground, however, and tried to pull up too soon, thus overstressing the aircraft.

In exchange for Soviet cooperation in the cover-up, the French investigators agreed not to criticize the TU-144’s design or engineering. Nevertheless, further problems with the TU-144, which was designed hastily in its bid to beat the Concorde into the air, delayed the beginning of Soviet commercial service. Concorde passenger service began with much fanfare in January 1976. Western Europe had won its supersonic race with the Soviets, who eventually allowed just 100 domestic flights with the TU-144 before discontinuing the airliner.

The Concorde was not a great commercial success, however, and people complained bitterly about the noise pollution caused by its sonic booms and loud engines. Most airlines declined to purchase the aircraft, and just 16 Concordes were built for British Airways and Air France. Service was eventually limited between London and New York and Paris and New York, and luxury travelers appreciated the less than four-hour journey across the Atlantic.

On July 25, 2000, an Air France Concorde crashed 60 seconds after taking off from Paris en route to New York. All 109 people aboard and four on the ground were killed. The accident was caused by a burst tire that ruptured a fuel tank, creating a fire that led to engine failure. The fatal accident–the first in the Concorde’s history–signaled the decline of the aircraft. The last Concorde flight was on October 24, 2003. 

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