It was a year America the beautiful got ugly.

Nineteen hundred and sixty-eight.Nobody then who read and watched the news will forget that year. Everybody now is hurting for it still, even if they don't quite know what happened.

Before that time it could be said that, mostly, Americans trusted in the rightness of their country, the honesty of their leaders and the basic goodness of themselves. After it, most weren't so very sure.

And yet, in the face of a system seeming so unyielding, was there a youth who didn't believe that he, she, couldn't beat it? And didn't they? Almost to tatters. There was to him and her a sense of enormous entitlement. It was privileged white and poor black both, each saying, Look at me, I've got power, see the chaos I have caused?

That year, two civil wars were fought - a war about race and a war about a war.

For good and for bad, 1968 wrought great changes. And in the changing, somehow, this nation survived. But, oh, the costs - it costs us still.

The year really began, not on the first day of January, but on the next to last day of January - the first day of the Vietnamese lunar calendar year.

They called it Tet.

Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops launched their bloodiest offensive of Vietnam, on Jan. 30, violating the Tet truce agreement, briefly seizing the American embassy in Saigon. Immediately, public approval of the way the war was being fought, already low at 40 percent, plunged to 26 percent.

And that was the start of headlines that shocked us almost daily:

- The My Lai Massacre. A platoon of American soldiers murders 347 unarmed women, children and old men. This doesn't become known until the next year, when public support of the war, and now of the warriors, rots.

- Martin Luther King Jr. Assassinated in Memphis.

- Riots Across America. Ghettoes burn in 130 cities, where at least 48 are killed, 20,000 are arrested and damages total $100 million.

- Students Seize Universities. Protesting against everything from the war to civil rights, students shut down Columbia University, disrupt studies at Tuskegee Institute, at Ohio State, at Northwestern, at Cornell, at Trinity College, at Boston University. By the year's end, there are 150 violent campus uprisings and many more nonviolent ones.

- Robert F. Kennedy Assassinated in Los Angeles. Five years after his brother John F. Kennedy was assassinated, RFK is shot on the night he wins the California Democratic primary.

- Prison Riots Across America. The Oregon State Pen is destroyed by 700 inmates in a weekend of burning. Riots at the Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C., leave six inmates dead, 77 wounded. At Lebanon Correctional Institution in Ohio, five prisoners are shot as guards put down a riot of 250. At the Ohio State Pen in Columbus, five convicts are shot to death. At Central Prison in Columbia, S.C., 300 prisoners revolt.

- Police Riot at Democratic Convention. Thousands of anti-war demonstrators, shouting "The Whole World is Watching," are attacked by Chicago police who take off their badges and chant "Kill, kill, kill" as Hubert Humphrey wins the nomination. Mayor Richard Daley (who gives the finger to the podium) blames the police attacks he ordered on "terrorists."

- Richard Nixon Elected President in Three-Way Race. Campaigning as "the New Nixon," with a "secret plan" to end the war, he is elected on the thinnest majority of 499,704 votes. Whatever his war-ending plan, it's so secret he never tells it.

- George Wallace Shows His Muscle. For the first time, an avowed racist is a viable third-party candidate. His popularity climbs as high as 21 percent at one point and he ends his Presidential bid with 9.9 million votes, 13.5 percent of all cast.

- The Space Race. American pride and somehow American security are at stake in a race the Russians seem to be winning. On April 4, the U.S. Saturn 5 space shot is recalled because of engine failure. On April 10, the unmanned Soviet Luna 14 orbits the moon. On April 15, two unmanned Soviet Satellites named Cosmos link up automatically in space. But then, at last, on Christmas Eve, three American astronauts become the first men to fly around the moon, orbiting 10 times.

Those are only the highlights, and lowlights, illuminating a surreal landscape. All around in the psychedelic flickerings are the signs, to conventional Americans, of writer John O'Hara's damning lament: Here is a nation unique, in going from barbarism to decadence without a period of civilization.

On beaches this summer, the "topless" bikini shows up. On Broadway, the musical "Hair" debuts, showing full frontal nudity; and another play, "The Boys in the Band," portrays a group of gay men. At the movies, in "Belle de Jour," the beautiful Catherine Deneuve plays a bored housewife who works afternoons in a brothel; in "The Graduate," the young Dustin Hoffman is seduced by another bored housewife - "Hey, hey, hey, Mrs. Robinson."

And the kids, middle-class kids, college kids and high school kids, are in the throes of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. On campuses, in city parks and city plazas, in tie-dyed mobs with American flags patched on the seats of raggedy jeans, passing joints of marijuana, right in front of cameras, they flaunt their alienation - from everybody not themselves.

"Don't trust anybody over 30," warn their Yippie gurus, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.

It is often said, then, by the counter-culture critics, that this sorry time is incapable of producing good art. Wrong. Serious craft, like trees, must root. But it's here in Norman Mailer's "Armies of the Night" and it's coming in Michael Herr's "Dispatches," in Joe Galloway's "We Were Soldiers Once And Young." And in films that can't be made yet because their writers and cinematographers are busy still with bullets: "Apocalypse Now," "Platoon," "Full Metal Jacket," "The Deer Hunter."

Still art? It's in the photography. Remember the picture of the Saigon police officer firing his little pistol into a Viet Cong suspect's head? That is snapped in '68 during Tet: a Pulitzer for the Associated Press' Eddy Adams in '69.

The immediate art is in the form the time invented: Pop, the music. There is an awesome flowering of lyrics and electric sounds, acoustics that pulse from ear to groin.

Bob Dylan, the almost off-key poet laureate of the songs of the times. John Prine, Chuck Berry, Janis Joplin, James Brown, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, the Moody Blues, the Animals, the Doors, the Who, the Band, the Kinks, the Zombies, Laura Nyro, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, the Righteous Brothers, Country Joe and the Fish, Blood Sweat and Tears, Martha and the Vandellas, Santana, Led Zeppelin, the Velvet Underground, Van Morrison, Herman's Hermits, Jimi Hendrix, the Mamas and the Papas.

The Beatles, for sure. Their White Album comes in '68.

Counter to the beat of the Beatles, from a sometimes faceless group called The Establishment, comes drumming of another sort.

A boom, boom, booming more primal than any rock beat is shaking the earth. Really serious adults have their own loud instruments - exploding man-made suns. Averaging about once every 11 days, a total of 32 times over the year, nuclear devices burst deep beneath the Nevada desert. The Atomic Energy Commission, appearing as cynical as any group of anti-war youths, keeps announcing underground blasts "for use in excavation experiments."

In Vietnam, by the beginning of the year, an estimated 220,000 enemy soldiers have been slain - some 16 times our own body count of 13,500. By year's end the count of American bodies will top 30,000.This is the peak year of the most unpopular and divisive war in American history, with 534,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam.

Insults pile on injury

At the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, America's first- and third-place winners in the 200 meters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, bow their heads and lift their fists in black-gloved, Black Power salutes while accepting their medals.

At the Republican convention, Nixon picks as running mate the almost unknown Spiro Agnew, who stumbles quickly, calling a photographer a "fat Jap" and saying "If you've seen one slum, you've seen them all." The Washington Post editorializes it's the strangest political choice since the Emperor Caligula made his horse a Roman consul.

In Greenland, a B-52 crashes, scattering and smashing four unarmed hydrogen bombs. In the Atlantic Ocean, near the Azores, the U.S. nuclear submarine Scorpion sinks, killing all 99 aboard. In the Sea of Japan, the USS Pueblo, a navy intelligence ship, is captured by North Korean patrol boats. In Puerto Rico, U.S. businesses and military installations are targets of eight bombings. In Washington, D. C., a bomb explodes at the Soviet Embassy. In New York City, a strike by sanitation workers leaves 100,000 tons of garbage piled up on city streets.

And this is the year the Heisman Trophy is won by . . . O.J. Simpson.

"And so it goes," in the ironic refrain of "Slaughterhouse 5," being written that year by Kurt Vonnegut. "And so it goes," on and on and on, long after it all happened.

For what went down, in that time, now a generation gone, people are paying and paying. . .

Guns and butter

The last year this country had a balanced budget was 1968. That's not to its credit. That year witnessed the sort of spending that would lead to the deficits of today.

LBJ wanted "guns and butter." He bought us both, but even the 10 percent surcharge he piled on everybody's income taxes couldn't pay for it all, so he put us in the hole.

The president had his war in Vietnam - and he also had his war on poverty, war on hunger, war against racism, war (make that government spending program) against almost every social ill. "We're on our way," he promised, "to the Great Society."

But it was too many wars.

The money LBJ lavished on his foreign war while buying presents to keep home life happy superheated America's credit. In 1968 the $890 billion U.S. economy grew at a breathtaking 9 percent, inflation was at 4.6 percent and rising. It would be the last full year of the longest economic expansion in American history, a 116-month run begun in 1961.

The bills didn't come due until LBJ was gone. From the time the federal government first went into the red in 1790 on assuming the debts of the Revolutionary War until Johnson left office at the start of 1969, the United States had rung up a total national debt of $369 billion.

Now all presidents and Congresses wanted their guns and wanted their butter, too, each passing their debts to the next and to American taxpayers yet unborn. When Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974, the national debt had risen to $484 billion. It soared to $2.6 trillion under Ronald Reagan. And even though Bill Clinton promises a balanced budget by next year, the national debt on his watch has climbed to $5.5 trillion to date.

The Vietnam syndrome

Walter Cronkite went to war and no American war would be the same.

He wasn't there long - a quick trip of assessment in the aftermath of Tet - but he soon sensed that television had seriously misled the American people.

Cronkite came home and delivered his judgment on TV: "To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion. It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out will be to negotiate, not as victors. . . . "

As David Halberstam writes in "The Powers That Be": "It was the first time in American history a war had been declared over by an anchorman."

A number of other strange effects came out of Cronkite's assessment.

It presaged the emergence of the anchorman as Big Mouth - though Cronkite was reported to be uncomfortable with having done that.

Because now they know perceptions make for realities, war leaders of today are far more cautious than those of Vietnam about engaging in any military action that doesn't have clear objectives, and a national interest, and limits on commitment, and an explainable purpose.

Debate begins this month in Congress on whether to keep troops in Bosnia. President Clinton thinks they need to remain, perhaps another year. But Clinton didn't serve in Vietnam, which dogs him. Today there are those in Congress who did and some of these aging warriors and others still hear the ghost of Vietnam going boo.

Burn, baby, burn

The bullet that killed Martin Luther King Jr., as he leaned over the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968, did worse than smash his jaw.

It shut him up.

His was the only voice that articulated the dreams of most black Americans of the time and was heeded by most white Americans, too. Who speaks so now? Where is that bridge? Ask yourself: How often these days do you hear the word "integration?

King was, above all, an integrationist. Who knows if this preacher's son with his shiny shoes and his middle-class belief in sharing the American dream could have, today, articulated the wants of alienated black people? Who knows, though, if blacks would have become as alienated but for a silencing 30.06 bullet?

By dying, King did accomplish one more of his goals. The Fair Housing Act was enacted six days later, prohibiting racial discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. Congress, which long had stalled the measure, had to do something that might forestall more rioting.

It's not that every augury of '68 came to pass. The Kerner Commission's report had said the two emerging black and white societies were "separate and unequal." Yes, but as it's turning out, not nearly as unequal as they were then.

Princeton's John Dilulio has compiled impressive figures on improving black conditions. In a single year, 1995, annual personal incomes of black Americans rose 13 percent. Average spending of black households on clothes, computers and new cars has doubled every year since 1993. And since that year black home ownership has been increasing twice as fast as white home ownership.

If Black America were a separate nation, concludes Dilulio, "it would easily be one of the richest in the world."

Still, that's not the perception, of whites or blacks. One reason could be one bullet shot in 1968.

We listen now for anyone who speaks of great dreams in a way that holds our attention and touches hearts and moves minds, as King did. What have we been hearing since that pump-gun was fired in 1968? Only the echoes.