On the other pages of this Chicago ’68 site I have tried to strike a neutral tone. On this page are opinions. Laura Axelrod published a different version of this interview on her Project 1968 site.
Question: Why should we be interested in 1968?
Answer: So many lines of history run through 1968 and especially through Chicago in August of 1968. To understand the social movements of the 1960s and ’70s you need to understand Chicago ’68. To understand national politics in the last fifty years you have to understand what happened at the Democratic convention in 1968.
An illustration: the Democratic party comes into 1968 as the party that starts and fights wars—WW2, Korea, Vietnam, all begun and escalated in Democratic administrations. In 1968 a peace insurgency develops in the party, in 1972 the Democrats nominate a peace candidate, and ever since the Democratic party has been essentially non-interventionist. How did that happen? How does the basic foreign policy orientation of a party turn 180 degrees like that? 1968 is the key to that. I find that sort of turning point in history fascinating.
Question: It was an election year, and every election year has more drama because of that. What else?
Answer: So much happened: a whirlwind. So much uncertainty and emotion and fear. And optimism and hope.
Carl Oglesby, who was one of the guiding lights of Students for a Democratic Society, writes somewhere about a meeting he was invited to in 1968 with a group of wealthy New York businessmen. These pillars of the American system wanted to understand what SDS stood for and how SDS analyzed the situation, because even people in business were uncertain about where things were headed or how to comprehend what was going on.
You really get a sense of the extraordinary events if you step back and look around the world. In Czechoslovakia in January the Prague Spring movement brought a few months of liberalization and reform. Late in January the three-week Tet offensive began in Vietnam; the Vietcong and North Vietnamese carried out coordinated attacks all over South Vietnam, reaching even the grounds of the US embassy in Saigon, showing that no end of the war was in sight.
In March Polish students precipitated a political crisis. In May French students sparked a nationwide general strike that brought the country to a standstill and caused the collapse of the government of Charles de Gaulle. Mexico saw nearly two months of student strikes and protests until the army killed hundreds of students in the Tlatelolco massacre early in October.
In America, our memories of 1968 are first of all of the violence—the assasinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. The typical three minute wrap up of ’68 leaves you with the impression that events were driven by the violence. That’s not the whole story. What made 1968 different was mobilization at the grassroots that drove events both within the electoral process and outside of it.
It is both perfectly simple and extraordinarily difficult for ordinary people—people far from power bestowed by high position and/or great wealth—to create meaningful social change. You just need a big group of them to see the same goal and move toward it relentlessly. For some reason that happened in a lot of places around the world in 1968. Credit the civil rights movement maybe, since it showed how mass movement tactics could be effective. Credit Mahatma Gandhi maybe, for creating a new kind of political revolution. For whatever reason, ’68 was a year people found out what they were capable of.
What also strikingly distinguishes our own time from forty years ago—and makes the ’60s difficult to fully comprehend—is the broad space of ideological views that flourished. Young Americans for Freedom, the Libertarian Party, Students for a Democratic Society, the Weathermen—all began in the ’60s. There was space for extremes. The protesters on the streets and in the parks of Chicago in August 1968 were not Democrats. Later in the week some Eugene McCarthy supporters joined the ranks of the protesters, but the political attitude of protesters tended toward the anarchist and revolutionary—a rejection of the conventional political parties. It’s so hard to make this point intelligible in our current impoverished political vocabulary, but the New Left of the ’60s and ’70s disdained and rejected the label “liberal” almost as much as Ann Coulter does these days. Liberalism was what created the war in Vietnam; the Left did not want to be liberal.
Question: But the assasinations surely had a decisive effect on what happened. The murder of Martin Luther King effectively ended the civil rights movement. Robert Kennedy was poised to win the Democratic nomination before he was killed.
Answer: I certainly don’t mean to minimize the tragic and very profound loss that the murders of King and Kennedy represented. Each of them embodied the hopes and aspirations of a great many people and each was an inspiring and civilizing voice in a time wracked by anger and division.
But the civil rights movement had been running on empty for a year or two, and was internally divided over its direction. In 1966 in Chicago, King had seen how difficult it was to meaningfully address the segregation of the Northern cities. In 1967 he tried to turn the movement from purely civil rights issues to the war in Vietnam, but faced critics from all sides for that. The movement was in difficult straits before King went to Memphis. To be sure, the problems in the movement became even more difficult after his death.
We are all familiar with the image of Robert Kennedy declaring victory in the California primary with those final words: “Now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there.” But in fact, winning in Chicago would have been quite difficult. The delegate selection process was completely different in 1968; winning primaries could help win the nomination, but guaranteed absolutely nothing. At the time of his death Kennedy had about 700 delegates, Eugene McCarthy had about 400, and Hubert Humphrey about 1000, even though he personally had run in no primaries. Humphrey was close to getting a lock on the nomination. It was quite unlikely that Kennedy or McCarthy would win at the convention in Chicago on the first ballot. Possibly one of them could win if the convention went to a second ballot. The battle in the primaries between Kennedy and McCarthy was over who could claim the peace vote if there was a second ballot.
Question: Why do you think people keep creating myths out of what happened in Chicago? Do you think it helps or hurts younger generations, who are struggling to learn about the events and reasons about why it happened?
Answer: Well, of course, it was a myth before it even happened. The organizing strategy of the Yippies—just a handful of people with no resources—was to create a story about what would happen in Chicago, a story so compelling that the media would communicate it to the world, and 100,000 people would come to Chicago to act out that story. Yippie was trying to use the mass media to do grassroots organizing. As a strategy that failed—spectacularly—but the storyline stayed out there. Yippie was all about theatre, artifice, and deception. So, there’s a certain sense in which you can’t be truthful to the spirit of what the Yippies were trying to do in Chicago without indulging in mythology.
But the Yippies were just a part—and not the largest part—of what went on in Chicago. It was complicated. Events took place over the space of a week. Different groups with quite different goals and tactics protested in the streets and in the parks. The Chicago police and the Illinois National Guard worked the crowds of demonstrators: very different units, under no apparent unified command, with different styles of engagement. Perhaps 1,000 undercover operatives from a variety of agencies mixed with the crowds. And a complicated mix of factions and factions-within-factions sparred over the direction of the Democratic party in the convention hall.
It was a confusing and very emotional political moment—an unpopular war was continuing to escalate with no end in sight, two national leaders had been assassinated, the Democratic party was publicly leaderless, protests and strikes by students and radicals had taken place around the world—so many possible futures seemed to open up and then shut down.
It was complicated, and human minds prefer simpler explanations, so myths have taken hold. Plus, there are plenty of folks still with us who were on one side or another of those actions and many of them have a self-interest in perpetuating one story or another about what happened. Surviving Yippies revere Chicago as the event in which Yippie was created, reached its fullest expression, and was destroyed—all at once. Surviving policemen want to finally clarify that they were not responsible for what happened. And so on.
The story of what happened in Chicago in August of 1968 is never going to be definitively stated and settled, any more than there is one accepted explanation of everything that happened near a small town Pennsylvania over three days in July of 1863. Chicago ’68 isn’t quite as complicated as the Battle of Gettysburg, but it’s a useful comparison.
And there’s another major source of the mythology and misunderstandings of Chicago ’68: the conspiracy trial. More than a year after the 1968 DNC eight people were put on trial for conspiring to incite a riot in Chicago. This was the trial of the Chicago 8 (later the Chicago 7 when the case of defendant Bobby Seale was separated from the rest). To prove conspiracy, the prosecution created a narrative of how these eight people were individually and collectively responsible for what happened.
The story that the prosecution wove in the trial has colored every account of Chicago ’68 since. The trial elevated a small group of people into the role of leaders. It obscured the role of others who were equally involved in planning for Chicago and organizing people to come to Chicago. And it obscured the decisive role of individuals in the crowds.
The real story of Chicago ’68 is about the thousands of ordinary people who refused to be intimidated and silenced, not the so-called leaders. The trial is frequently—almost unavoidably—used as a lens for viewing the events of August 1968. For instance in the movie “Chicago 10” scenes from the trial make for many moments of laughter in what would otherwise be a fairly horrific film. But the conspiracy narrative of the trial is a distortion. It assigns responsibility to the defendants for what happened in August 1968, but a dispassionate reading of the history doesn’t just fail to support the idea of a conspiracy, it doesn’t even support the role of leadership in the streets and parks that is implied by the prosecution’s case.
The crowds in the parks and the clotted humanity on Michigan Avenue—when they were not simply reacting to a nightstick swung toward them—took direction from the crowded humanity itself: from a nameless one or another who cajoled the crowd, waved a march across a bridge or up a hill, screamed at a cop, or stood toe-to-toe with a National Guardsman. By and large, people acted at the behest of no one that anyone has ever heard of. Thousands of ordinary people refusing to back down—that was Chicago ’68.
Question: If the riot outside the convention hadn’t occurred, would it have altered the outcome of the Presidential election?
Answer: First, let’s clarify what “outside the convention” means: it means “five miles away.” None of the action between protestors and police was anywhere near the convention hall.
Compare what happened at the 1968 Republican convention. There were riots in Miami while the convention was going on in Miami Beach and that rioting at one point was a mile from the convention center. No one has ever said that the Miami riots—in which four people died—impacted the presidential election. But of course there was a lot more television coverage of what happened in Chicago. And of course Chicago was different: it was mostly white people in the streets, not black people. It was about a war, not poverty and racism. It had a political point, of sorts.
But the biggest difference in Chicago was what happened inside the convention hall. The Democratic disarray of 1968 is just as much what went on inside the hall. The Democratic party had been fracturing over civil rights since 1948 and 1968 was the point of no return. The southern white wing of the party split off and supported the third party candidacy of George Wallace. Democrats were also challenged by a movement within the party to reverse course on the Vietnam War. 80% of the voters in the Democratic primaries that year voted for peace candidates. But in Chicago the party adopted a position totally re-affirming LBJ’s war policies. The convention was fractious, contentious, and disorderly. Lots of the people who had been energized by the peace candidacies of 1968 and came into the political process to support McCarthy, Kennedy, or McGovern became very disillusioned and did not support the nominee. McCarthy himself was very lukewarm toward Humphrey.
Nixon won because the Democrats lost the support of many Southerners who voted for third-party candidate George Wallace, because they lost some support among Northern blue-collar workers who voted for Wallace or Nixon, and because they lost support of the emergent peace wing of its own party. Had they held on to any one of those Humphrey could have won. Had everything happened as it did, but the demonstrations in Chicago had been peaceful and orderly, I do not think that would have substantially altered what happened inside the convention. The party would still have splintered and there may have been no difference in the outcome of the presidential race.
Wallace was the wild card. He bolted from the Democratic party and took Southern voters with him, just as Strom Thurmond had done in 1948. It’s often said that if Wallace had not been in the race, his votes would have gone to Nixon. But if Wallace had not been in the race, the Democratic ticket might have looked different; Democrats often added a southern Democrat to the ticket in an attempt to retain that bloc of votes.
It was an extraordinarily complicated election cycle. Less than six months before the convention the presumptive Democratic nominee drops out of the race. Less than three months before the convention a strong contender is killed. And all the while the party is under pressure from a breakaway third-party insurgency on the right and a leftwing insurgency within the party. Who could have held the party together under those conditions?
But the disorder in streets didn’t help. “Law and order” was an important issue that year, and even though the issue was really about three years of riots in the urban ghettoes, the Chicago disorder dovetailed effectively. Nixon got some great visuals to use in his law-and-order TV ads. Democrats couldn’t stop disorder in Vietnam, in the cities, in Chicago, or even on the floor of their own convention.
Question: What lessons do you think Americans still have to learn from that year?
Answer: How to accommodate dissent. During political campaigns and conventions, the right to publicly assemble and protest has been significantly limited. When the Democrats finally came back to Chicago for their convention in 1996, protesting was limited to a prescribed area, out of eyeshot of the convention hall. In New York in 2004 an antiwar march was prevented from marching anywhere near the site of the Republican National Convention. For the DNC in Boston in 2004 the city erected fencing beneath a freeway and permitted protest only within what was dubbed “the pen.”
In 1968, protesters were clubbed to control them, these days they are surrounded, encapsulated, and fenced in. Free speech is muzzled in either case. The message that our civic institutions convey is that if you are not expressing your opinion within the means that the System favors, your opinion has no right to be heard. We seem to think that democracy is supposed to be quiet and efficient. Sometimes it’s messy and loud and intrusive. Political parties cannot contain the political ideas and aspirations of everyone. Those outside the traditional political institutions are suppressed.
Question: I know that you were an organizer for the 20th anniversary conference of 1968. Can you talk a bit about that? What were your impressions of the event and the people involved?
Answer: The Chicago 68+20 Conference brought together some of the participants of Chicago ’68 to discuss what happened and the legacy of the events. David Dellinger, Abbie Hoffman, and Bobby Seale were there. Paul Krassner did some standup comedy. Writers like John Schultz, James Miller, and Todd Gitlin participated. Chicagoans Abe Peck, Don Rose, Studs Terkel, Paul Sequeira, and Quentin Young added their voices. And others.
The whole thing took place in the International Amphitheatre, which was where the 1968 DNC was—so the elusive goal of the people trying to march on the streets in 1968 was finally reached twenty years later. (Mythology!) It was a raucous, sometimes contentious revisitation of 1968. This took place in 1988, when counterinsurgency wars were going on in El Salvador and Nicaragua. In some respects, that was a time not unlike today, when antiwar activists struggled to alert and mobilize an all-too-often apathetic public to oppose an overseas war. So, the conference veered between semi-sober reflection and call to arms.
What became apparent to me personally from the event were the differences between people and groups that came to Chicago. It’s one thing to understand that intellectually and another to watch the legacy of ’68 contested by its participants. What impressed me in particular was the oratorical brilliance of Abbie Hoffman and the incredible personal strength of the pacifist David Dellinger—if you had an army of pacifists each with the strength of a Dellinger the war machine would be stopped in its tracks, I have no doubt.
Question: Finally, if you were in your 20s in August of 1968, would you have been in the streets or in the Amphitheatre?
Answer: I was thirteen years old in 1968, growing up in a town of about 30,000 in Iowa. At the end of 1968 an antiwar committee formed in town and I joined a small group of people who organized local demonstrations for the fall 1969 moratoriums and beyond. That’s an example of how deeply into the heartland of America the antiwar movement reached. It was not an elitist, isolated, bicoastal, college campus phenomenon like some people try to portray—it bubbled up in the cornfields of Iowa and the wheatfields of Kansas. There were factory workers and farmers for peace, as well as students and freaks.
On the other hand, I supported and worked for Eugene McCarthy when he ran in the Iowa caucuses in 1972. But, when I had a chance to ask McCarthy a question, I asked his opinion of the demonstrations that antiwar activists were planning for both political conventions that year. This is just to say: I could have ended up either on the streets, or in the convention hall, and would have preferred to have an eye in each.
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