1968: The battle of Chicago

August 22, 2008

FORTY YEARS ago this month, the world was shocked by the images of violence that flashed across television screens--but not from the jungles of Vietnam or the plazas of a Latin American country ruled by the generals and the CIA.

The pictures of state brutality were from America's second-largest city, Chicago.

Demonstrators came to Chicago in August 1968 to protest the U.S. war on Vietnam outside the Democratic Party's national convention, and they were met by the brutality of the city's police force, acting on the orders of Mayor Richard J. Daley, one of the most powerful leaders of a party responsible for the war in Vietnam.

Joe Allen is the author of Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost and a Socialist Worker columnist. He answered our questions about what happened in Chicago and the impact it had on the struggle against war and oppression around the globe.

1968 WAS a turning point in the U.S. war on Vietnam. Can you give a sense of where things stood leading up to the summer of '68?

WELL, THERE WAS what the liberal Johnson administration and the U.S. military told the public about the war in Vietnam, and there was what they told each other privately.

To the public, they said that the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong--the derogatory term used by the Americans and their Saigon allies to refer to the National Liberation Front--were on the retreat and that the U.S. was winning. The most famous phrase of the era was "there is light at the end of the tunnel."

In private, though, they were very pessimistic about the conduct of the war and, particularly, the ability of their Saigon ally to stabilize their regime and win broader public support. But the U.S. still thought it could win because of its massive economic and military power.

The biggest concern of the Johnson administration was the growing opposition to the war on the home front. During the course of 1967, the antiwar movement took on the characteristics of a mass movement.

Police attack protesters outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention
Police attack protesters outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention

Most famously, Martin Luther King Jr., who was still recognized as the leader of the Black community in the U.S., spoke out against war in a speech at New York City's Riverside Church in April 1967 and then led a massive 300,000-strong march against the war to the United Nations.

The following October over 100,000 antiwar demonstrators laid siege to the Pentagon which was surrounded by military policemen and soldiers. One of the outcomes of that demonstration was that many antiwar activists--because of the response of a significant number of soldiers--became convinced of the potential of antiwar organizing among active-duty soldiers.

WHAT ABOUT backdrop of U.S. politics? Who was Eugene McCarthy, and what did his campaign represent?

AS THE antiwar movement became a mass movement during the course of 1967, the prime target of the movement--President Lyndon Johnson--made it clear that he was going to running for reelection.

He had been elected president in 1964 with the biggest electoral majority since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. His liberal program--the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, the War on Poverty, and Medicare and Medicaid--were collectively known as the "Great Society."

Johnson was the last great liberal to occupy the White House. But by the end of 1967, he was the most hated man in America, primarily because of the war in Vietnam. He believed that he could deliver "guns and butter"--liberal reform at home and war in Vietnam. In the end, the Great Society was abandoned in favor of war in Vietnam.

While many liberals were unhappy with Johnson's policies--the most famous being Robert Kennedy, popularly referred to as Bobby, the brother of the slain president--it was unclear if any of them would challenge Johnson for the Democratic Party's nomination for the presidency.

Then, in November 1967, a little-known U.S. senator, Eugene McCarthy from Minnesota, announced that he would challenge Johnson. McCarthy was given no chance of winning by the political establishment or the media.

Despite his biting criticism of Johnson's policies, McCarthy was also concerned about the widespread protests against the war and growing radicalism produced by the war. McCarthy wanted in his own words to "restore belief in the American political process" among those who "make threats to support third parties or other irregular political movements."

WHAT WAS the campaign like leading up to the convention?

IT WAS a huge roller coaster ride. In late 1967, Johnson's top general in Vietnam, William Westmoreland, toured the U.S., declaring that the U.S. war strategy was working. After Westmoreland spoke at the National Press Club, the Washington Post ran a front page story with the headline "War's End in View: Westmoreland."

But the nature of the war and the whole presidential campaign was changed by the struggle of Vietnamese people against the U.S. and its allies.

The North Vietnamese and the NLF launched the Tet Offensive in late January 1968. Their combined forces attacked more than 100 cities, provincial capitals and even the citadel of American power in Vietnam, the U.S. embassy. The ancient capital of Hue was occupied by the NVA/NLF for over three weeks. It was only the massive use of American military power that staved off collapse.

Public opinion shifted massively against Johnson and his policies. The war went from being "winnable" to a "quagmire" in the public mind. McCarthy went from being perceived as a Don Quixote-like figure to a credible candidate. In the New Hampshire primary, held two weeks after Tet began, McCarthy got 40 percent of the vote. Johnson won, but McCarthy's showing was seen as a rejection of Johnson and foreshadowed his political humiliation.

Bobby Kennedy, who had announced that he wouldn't challenge Johnson hours before the Tet Offensive began, changed his mind in mid-March. Soon after, Johnson himself announced that he wouldn't seek the nomination for reelection, nor accept the Democratic nomination. Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, then announced that he would run in Johnson's place.

But the hammer blows kept coming. Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis within a week of Johnson's speech. Over 100 cities saw rebellions in the wake of his death. Two months later, in early June, Bobby Kennedy won the California primary, making him the probable, though not certain, presidential nominee. After his victory speech, he was assassinated.

It seemed like the whole political system was coming unglued.

WHAT HAPPENED AT the convention? Is it true that the number of protesters was smaller than expected?

TENSION HAD been building in the months leading up to the convention, scheduled for the end of August.

The city's reactionary Democratic mayor, Richard J. Daley, made it clear that he would tolerate no demonstrations or other activities directed at the convention. He mobilized his police force--well known for its racist violence and corruption and backed up by National Guard and other military units--to intimate prospective demonstrators.

The Democrats were the war party, but the withdrawal of Johnson from the campaign created something of crisis for the antiwar movement. The most hated figure was gone, but who would replace him?

As the convention neared, it became clear that Humphrey, who received a miniscule amount of primary votes and once boasted that he had given hundreds of speeches in favor of the Vietnam War, would be the nominee. The party establishment, which controlled the bulk of delegate votes would support Humphrey and marginalize the McCarthy forces. Convention delegates actually voted down an antiwar resolution put forward at the convention.

The antiwar movement, led by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, did call for demonstrations at the Chicago convention, but the withdrawal of Johnson and the threats from Daley made it unclear how many activists would come out.

Students for a Democratic Society, the largest radical student group in the country, decided to send people to Chicago to convince the young McCarthy supporters of the need to build a movement outside the Democratic Party, but it didn't mobilize for any of the planned demonstrations.

The Yippies, led by Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, planned what were essentially publicity stunts to attack the Democrats and the war--like announcing that they were running a pig for president.

In the end, about 20,000 demonstrators came to Chicago to protest, despite the city denying permits to protest outside the convention or any of the candidates' headquarters.

From the moment they arrived, they faced the full fury of the Daley machine. Cops beat, maced and arrested demonstrators for perfectly legal activities. Reporters and McCarthy supporters were targeted by police. Photographers had their camera broken and film confiscated. The violence spilled onto the floor of the convention itself. One speaker denounced Daley's "Gestapo tactics" from the podium.

What took place was later called a "police riot"--but to those present, it was clear that the police were acting at all times under the control of the officers and city officials.

WHAT IMPACT did Chicago have on the election, and more broadly on those coming around the radical movement?

WHILE THE events had some effect on the presidential election, the bigger albatross around Humphrey's neck was his support for the war in Vietnam. The Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, promised "peace with honor" and gave the impression that he had a secret plan to end the war--none of which was true, but which gave him the edge.

It was only late in the campaign that Humphrey began to break with Johnson's policies, and the election got too close to call. In the end, Nixon won the election by a close margin--almost the same margin he lost by in 1960.

The effects of Chicago on young activists was historic. Many had gone "Clean for Gene," cutting their hair and wearing suits and ties to support McCarthy's challenge against Johnson. The nomination of Humphrey, the violence of Daley's police and the continuation of the war turned a generation of radical activists into revolutionaries.

This political development was also shaped by other international events. The May general strike in France, the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and the Tet offensive convinced this generation that radical change was possible, but could only be achieved by a revolutionary restructuring of society.

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