ISR Issue 60, JulyAugust 2008
“Nineteen sixty-eight was the fulcrum year, the
year the balance scales tipped against the American war effort in Vietnam.
It was a year in which events happened so quickly, hammer blow after hammer
Zaroulis and Gerald Sullivan
1968: The Democrats and the antiwar movement
The following article is an excerpt from a new book by
Joe Allen, Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost, published by Haymarket Books.
LYNDON Johnson had been
elected in 1964 with the greatest majority since Franklin Roosevelt’s
reelection triumph in 1936. Four years later, on the eve of the 1968
election, he had become the most hated man in America. “I feel like a
hitchhiker caught in a hailstorm on a Texas highway,” he told his
press secretary. “I can’t run. I can’t hide. And I
can’t make it stop.”1
The mass opposition to the war in Vietnam was creating
a major split in the Democratic Party, yet it seemed that no one would
challenge Johnson for the party’s nomination. By the end of 1967,
after it became clear that Bobby Kennedy, the repository of all the
romantic myths of the Kennedy family, would not challenge Johnson, Eugene
McCarthy, a little-known Democratic senator from Minnesota, announced on
November 20, 1967, that he would seek the party’s nomination for
president. This came a month after the mammoth demonstration at the
Pentagon. He had been a member of Congress since 1949 and was elected to
the Senate in the Democratic sweep of 1958. He had an undistinguished
career in both the House and the Senate, and was considered something of an
outsider from the Senate’s boys’ club. Whatever his private
views, he supported the Tonkin Gulf resolution and voted for every
McCarthy was very straightforward about his political
goals—rehabilitating the American political system and getting the
antiwar protests off the streets:
There is growing evidence of a deepening moral crisis
in America—discontent and frustration and a disposition to take
extralegal if not illegal actions to manifest protest.
I am hopeful that this challenge…may alleviate
at least in some degree this sense of political hopelessness and restore to
many people a belief in the process of American politics and of American
government…[and] that it may counter the growing sense of alienation
from politics, which I think is currently reflected in a tendency to
withdraw from political action, to talk of nonparticipation, to become
cynical and to make threats of support for third parties or fourth parties
or other irregular political movements.2
Though he had little chance of winning,
McCarthy’s campaign excited many college-age activists still in the
process of a political evolution toward the left and who thought the
McCarthy campaign an opportunity to send the hated Texan back to his ranch.
Many went “Clean for Gene”—cutting their hair and wearing
suits and ties. “His mere announcement brought in a flood of money
and thousands of volunteers, a few with considerable competence. Even more
important, ten thousand students from as far away as Michigan and Virginia
came to the state to lick envelopes, draw up lists, and, critically, talk
to voters in house-to-house canvassing.”3
McCarthy’s campaign would have likely become a
footnote in history, however, if it weren’t for the Tet Offensive.
For months the administration had been proclaiming that the end of the war
was in sight; Tet destroyed all these PR efforts. The domestic
political effect of Tet was devastating for Johnson. In the New Hampshire
primary, McCarthy got 40 percent of the vote, making it clear to Johnson
that he could not be reelected. Soon after, Bobby Kennedy announced that he
would also seek the Democratic nomination for president. Faced with two
popular rivals, Johnson announced at the end of March that he would neither
seek nor accept the nomination of his party for president. The presidency
was now up for grabs. Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s vice president,
would also join the race at the end of April.
Could the party that was responsible for the war in
Vietnam sell itself as the party that would end it? The original U.S.
commitment in Vietnam was made by Harry Truman, who supported and financed
French recolonization after WWII. John Kennedy escalated the U.S. military
presence in South Vietnam and turned it into laboratory for
counterinsurgency theories and programs. And Lyndon Johnson, of course,
invaded South Vietnam with an army that would grow to half a million
soldiers on the ground, destroying large areas of that nation with heavy
bombing, killing and wounding hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. The
Democratic Party–controlled Congress funded the war year in and year
out, which included the votes of such well-known critics of war policies as
Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. How could the war party capture the
antiwar vote? This may have been a difficult game to play but it was
nothing new for the Democrats, who had been since the turn of the century
the “graveyard of social movements,”4 that is, the party
that would attempt through reforms, cooptation (jobs, money, corruption),
and repression to absorb and dissipate movements that sought greater social
reform or radical restructuring of American society. McCarthy was quite
clear about this in the speech announcing his candidacy.
With Johnson out of the race, the preferred candidate
for much of the party establishment, typified by Chicago’s
reactionary Mayor Richard J. Daley, became Bobby Kennedy, who had been a
staffer for Senator Joseph McCarthy and would later become a U.S. senator
from New York since leaving the Johnson cabinet. The Kennedy family had a
long and corrupt relationship with people like Daley for years. The Kennedy
brothers were also identified with some of the worst aspects of American
foreign policy in the early sixties.
They inherited and authorized the CIA’s
disastrous “Bay of Pigs” invasion of Cuba in early 1961, the
most spectacular of the U.S. government’s failed attempts to crush
the Cuban Revolution.
But it didn’t stop there. Bobby Kennedy led a
special White House committee that presided over “Operation
Mongoose,” a wide-ranging covert program of sabotage, assassination,
blackmail, and other activities to destroy the Castro government. Bobby
declared that it was “top priority” to get rid of Castro and
that “no time, money, effort—or manpower…be
spared.”5 It ultimately failed, but resulted in untold death and
destruction across Cuba. The Kennedys’ frustrations with Cuba led to
certain “innovations” in U.S. foreign policy that would prove
disastrous to the people of many developing countries in years to come.
They created “special forces” (U.S. Army Green Berets) to fight
revolutionary guerrilla movements, they “modernized” the
training of foreign military and police forces (that resulted in military
coups and widespread use of torture) and they escalated U.S. involvement in
Vietnam. Bobby Kennedy argued to his brother, after they toppled and
assassinated the corrupt, long-standing South Vietnamese dictator and U.S.
ally Ngo Dinh Diem from power in early November 1963, “It’s
better if you don’t have him but you have to have somebody that can
win the war, and who is that?”6 While the “who” never emerged, it
didn’t stop the United States from destroying large parts of Vietnam
in order to win the war against the NLF and the North Vietnamese.
While Bobby became the inheritor of the halo
surrounding his brother, the slain former president, JFK, he still needed a
major image makeover.7 It has largely been forgotten how hated a figure he was as
attorney general. Bobby spent a lot of time trying to change his public
face in order to be a viable candidate, sometimes going to embarrassing and
maudlin lengths. He would confide to Senate colleagues or reporters such
things as, “I wish I’d been born an Indian” or
“I’m jealous of the fact that you grew up in a ghetto, I wish
I’d had that experience,” and, even more ridiculous, “If
I hadn’t been born rich, I’d probably be a
revolutionary.”8 But he did touch a chord with many Black and white
working-class people. Wherever he campaigned, frantic crowds gathered and
tried desperately to touch him. Sometimes he was a terrible public speaker
and, at other times, he could be very effective. Following Martin Luther
King Jr.’s assassination, he spoke to a predominately Black crowd in
Indianapolis, and told them he could identify with their anger because
“his brother was killed by a white man.”9
Yet this revolutionary wannabe was not known as an
opponent of Johnson’s war policies. Despite his personal hatred for
Johnson, Kennedy supported his policies in Vietnam. Bobby Kennedy never
voted against any of the appropriation bills that funded the war. I. F.
Stone, the great left-wing journalist, wrote an article in October 1966
entitled, “While Others Dodge the Draft, Bobby Dodges the War.”10 Even Bobby
Kennedy’s slavishly loyal biographer Arthur Schlesinger was forced to
admit, “Kennedy brooded about Vietnam but said less in public.”11 What were
Bobby and other Senate liberals “brooding” about? Two things:
the prospect of the United States losing the war and the growing dissent in
the country that threatened the Democratic Party’s domination of
national politics since the early 1930s. After Johnson announced that he
would not run for reelection, many people believed that Bobby could have
won both the Democratic nomination and the presidency. He never advocated
the unilateral withdrawal of American forces from Southeast Asia. He
peppered most of his speeches in 1968 about the need for
“peace” in Vietnam, but offered little more than talk of a
“negotiated settlement” to end the war, a position not very
different from what Johnson or Nixon proposed while both continued the war
against the Vietnamese people. On June 4, after winning the California
primary, Bobby’s career was cut short by an assassin’s bullet
in Los Angeles.
As delegates headed to Chicago for the Democratic
Party National Convention in August 1968, the atmosphere was incredibly
tense. At Fort Hood, Texas, soldiers who had already been sent to Chicago
in April to put down a rebellion in the city following the assassination of
Martin Luther King Jr. were once again put on alert for possible duty at
the Democratic convention. On the night of August 23, more than one hundred
Black GIs from the First Armored Cavalry Division began protesting being
sent to Chicago. They continued to meet well into the morning hours of the
next day, when forty-three of them were arrested. They received widespread
support from antiwar activists and the Black community. This set the
tone for all that followed.
Back in Chicago, Daley turned the city into an armed
camp in preparation for the protests. “The convention site itself,
the Amphi-theater,” according to Todd Gitlin,
was sealed off with barbed wire. All twelve thousand
Chicago police were placed on twelve-hour shifts. Five to six thousand
National Guardsmen were mobilized and put through special training with
simulated longhair rioters. A thousand FBI agents were said to be deployed
within the city limits, along with innumerable employees of the military
intelligence and who knew which other local and federal agencies. Six
thousand U.S. Army troops, including units of the crack 101st Airborne,
equipped with flamethrowers, bazookas, and bayonets, were stationed in the
With Bobby gone, the party establishment swung its
support to Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Closely identified with
Johnson’s war policies, he had done miserably in the primaries.
“Although too late to enter many primaries, in those where he did
compete against the two antiwar candidates he was soundly trounced.”13 In the
remaining primaries, Humphrey won a meager 2.2 percent of the vote. Yet, by
the time he got to the convention in Chicago, he had a majority of the
delegates. Despite strong showings in several primaries, McCarthy garnered
only 23 percent of the delegates at the convention, largely due to the
control of state party organizations over the delegate selection process.
After the assassination, many delegates for Kennedy
chose to support George McGovern rather than McCarthy. The eventual
nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, was not an antiwar candidate.
Humphrey made it clear on CBS’s Face the
Nation the weekend before the Democratic
convention that he supported President Johnson’s Vietnam policies.
John Gilligan, running for the U.S. Senate, proposed to the Democratic
convention that a “peace plank” be included in its platform,
calling for an unconditional stop to all bombing in North Vietnam and a
“swift conclusion” to the war. Humphrey rejected the peace
plank, and it was defeated 1,567 to 1,041. Hundreds of delegates tied black
ribbons around their arms in protest.14
The Chicago convention is best remembered for the
police violence against antiwar demonstrators by Daley’s beefy police
and for the assault on reporters and critics inside the convention center.
The antiwar movement was greatly divided over whether
there should have been demonstrations at the Democratic convention at all,
which reflected a sometimes open, other times hidden, division over the
movement’s relationship to “antiwar” Democrats. A small
group of well-known antiwar activists led by Yippies (Youth International
Party) Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, and the National Mobilization to End
the War in Vietnam, led by radical pacifist Dave Dellinger, and former SDS
leader Tom Hayden, called for a demonstration in Chicago.
Johnson’s decision to not seek a second term
meant that the antiwar movement lacked a strong target on which to focus a
protest in Chicago. The fear of violence—deliberately stoked by
Daley—also acted as a deterrent to people showing up to protest. As a
result, only about ten thousand people (five thousand from outside Chicago
and five thousand Chicagoans) came to demonstrate. The Yippies, in
particular, played into the hands of opponents of the antiwar movement with
their amateurish and insulting behavior toward everyone who wasn’t a
Yippie. They called for a “Festival of Life,” which included
plans for “hundreds fornicating in the city’s parks and on Lake
Michigan’s beaches; releasing greased pigs all over; slashing tires
along the freeways.”15 The Yippies, who extravagantly attacked American
culture, were obsessed with orienting toward the media, hoping desperately
that the wilder their plans, the more coverage they would get. What was
needed was a well-organized and disciplined demonstration calling for the
Democrats to end the war, but what people got when they arrived was chaos
and confusion (caused, it should be added, chiefly by Daley’s thugs).
In one of the most memorable scenes in American
history, several hundred antiwar demonstrators marched down Michigan Avenue
and sat down in front of the Hilton Hotel, hoping to hear from Eugene
McCarthy. Douglas Dowd, a veteran socialist and professor from Cornell
University, was on the scene, and he recalled to Wells:
Waves of helmeted cops, “big guts”
sticking out, meaty red faces contorted with rage, filed out of buses. They
lined up, platoon-style, began jogging in place. Arms raised upward
chanting, “Kill, Kill, Kill,” the police wheeled to face the
demonstrators. They went to work.… Heads cracked, knees buckled, arms
were jerked “until they had almost left their sockets.” The
plate glass window of the Hilton’s Haymarket Lounge shattered with a
“sickening” crash; shrieking protesters and onlookers spilled
though, some sliced horribly by the glass. The cops pursued them inside,
clubbing wildly, “like mad dogs”; when they departed, seven
writhing bodies adorned the floor. For twenty packed minutes, the
bloodletting ran its course. “It was one of the most awful
experiences of my life.”16
Chicago police attacked demonstrators in front
of the international press corps, while the demonstrators chanted,
“The whole world is watching.”17 It was broadcast live on national television. Police
violence got worse as they went on a rampage all over the city against
anyone who was young and wearing long hair. One demonstrator made an
impromptu sign that read “Welcome to Czechago,”18 making a
direct analogy between the events in the world’s greatest democracy
and the crushing of the democracy movement in Czechoslovakia by Russian
tanks earlier that month. The hopes of antiwar activists to have the
Democrats nominate an antiwar candidate were literally smashed by the billy
clubs of the Chicago police and the rigged nominating process of the party.
These events helped turn a large number of activists into revolutionaries.
The police riot in Chicago was perhaps the most
extreme case of police repression against the antiwar movement, but
infiltration, intimidation, and repression were widespread throughout the
country. As the war went on, these activities mushroomed to the point where
thousands of agents were involved. In addition to the FBI and the local Red
police units set up to harass and repress radicals—the U.S. Army and
the CIA also got in on the act. “Army surveillance alone,”
write Zaroulis and Sullivan, “covered 18,000 civilians in a two-year
period ending in the fall of 1969.”20 The CIA created a special unit, later known as
Operation CHAOS, whose job was to ferret out links between domestic protest
and foreign enemies (they found none).
The purpose of these activities was primarily to
intimidate and repress the social movements rather than enforce laws or
gather information. One FBI paper confirmed that its counterintelligence
program (COINTELPRO) aimed to “enhance the paranoia endemic in these
circles—and get the point across that there is an FBI agent behind
The local police Red Squads engaged in activities as
far-ranging as surveillance of church groups to assassination of Black
Panther activists. Historian Ellen Schrecker summarizes their activities:
During the 1960s and early 1970s, maintaining order
meant repressing dissent through the intertwined techniques of surveillance
and disruption. Although much of the surveillance was undercover,
much—like the ubiquitous police photographers at
demonstrations—was overt and expressly designed to intimidate. Red
Squad activists enjoyed discomfiting their targets by addressing them by
name at demonstrations. Pretext arrests combined harassment with
information gathering and, at least in Philadelphia, may well have been
devised to trigger violence. Wiretaps, burglaries, and other covert
operations were routine, though illegal. Even in a city with a liberal
administration, like New Haven in the 1960s, the police wiretapped over a
Informers were ubiquitous, by far the most widely used
method of surveillance and disruption. Not only did they provide material
for the files, but as agents provocateurs they encouraged the groups they
infiltrated to undertake exactly those illegal and provocative activities
that would justify the continuing police attention to them. Undercover
agents found that their supervisors expected them to turn in lurid reports
and the more compliant informers often produced them, even if they had to
propose the operations themselves. This was the case, for example, in New
York, where eager police agents within the Black Panther Party planned
bombings and then supplied material for them. Equally important were the
activities of undercover agents in sabotaging their organizations’
All of these police activities—overt and
concealed—were clearly designed to destroy the targeted
In the month following the convention, “Humphrey
struggled with his Vietnam albatross. In early September, he suggested that
some American troops might be brought home in late 1968 or early 1969; he
was promptly corrected by President Johnson, who said that no such plan was
in progress.”23 The antiwar movement itself fell into a lull following the
Democratic convention; it came out of Chicago tarred by the violence
directed against it on the streets of America’s Second City.
“The antiwar movement in any and all of its manifestations was
fragmented,” according to Zaroulis and Sullivan, “and, as
usual, in an election year, sapped of its energy.”24
But some of the events that fall, despite their
relative small size, foreshadowed many things to come. On October 12, the
largest demonstration that fall, fifteen thousand people marched against
the war in San Francisco, with a contingent of five hundred members of the
military. Also in October, McGeorge Bundy, a close adviser to John Kennedy
and Lyndon Johnson and one of the architects of the war in Vietnam,
announced publicly that he had changed his mind on the war. He said that
the American people would not tolerate “annual costs of $30 billion
and an annual rate of sacrifice of more than 10,000 American lives.”25 During the
first two years of the Nixon administration, large numbers of former
liberal supporters of the war would change their minds, further deepening
opposition to the war across the country and in the military.
In the waning days of the campaign, Humphrey began to
catch up to Nixon in the polls. At the last possible minute, Johnson
announced on October 31 that the bombing of North Vietnam had stopped and
peace negotiations would begin. It wasn’t enough to save Humphrey,
but it was an extremely close election, with 43.3 percent of the popular
vote for Nixon and 43 percent for Humphrey. The Republicans portrayed
themselves simultaneously as the party of “law and order” and
“peace with honor” and won the presidency.
1 Quoted in William Pfaff, “History Is Not on
Your Side, Mr. Kerry,” Observer (UK), August 15, 2004.
2 Quoted in Nancy Zaroulis and Gerald Sullivan, Who Spoke Up?: American Protest Against the War in Vietnam
1963–1975 (Garden City, NY:
Doubleday, 1984), 127.
3 Irving Bernstein, Guns
or Butter: The Presidency of Lyndon Johnson (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 484.
4 For an overview of the role of the Democratic Party
in modern politics see Lance Selfa, The
Democratic Party and the Politics of Lesser Evilism (Chicago, IL: International Socialist Organization, 2004),
5 Quoted in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times (New
York: Ballantine Books, 1978), 513.
6 Ibid., 772.
7 See Ronald Steel, In
Love with Night: The American Romance with Robert Kennedy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
8 Ibid., 121.
9 Schlesinger, Robert
10 Quoted in Schlesinger, Robert
11 Schlesinger, Robert
12 Todd Gitlin, The
Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New
York: Bantam Books, 1987), 323.
13 “Editors’ Introduction to Part IV, the
Decisive Year: 1968,” Marvin Gettleman et al., eds., Vietnam and America: A Documented History (New York: Grove Press, 1995), 341.
14 Christian Appy, Working-Class
War: American Combat Soldiers in Vietnam (Chapel
Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 309–10.
15 Zaroulis and Sullivan, Who
Spoke Up?, 180.
16 Quoted in Tom Wells, The
War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam (Berkeley
and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), 279.
17 Gitlin, Sixties: Years
of Hope, 327.
18 Ibid., 326.
19 Red Squads were created as far back as the
Haymarket Affair in Chicago in 1886, and became widespread by the 1920s.
20 Zaroulis and Sullivan, Who
Spoke Up?, 219.
21 Quoted in Zaroulis and Sullivan, Who Spoke Up?, 223.
22 Ellen W. Schrecker, “Protectors of Privilege:
Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America,” Monthly Review, (November 1991).
23 Zaroulis and Sullivan, Who
Spoke Up?, 202.
25 Quoted in Zaroulis and Sullivan, Who Spoke Up?, 205.