Senator Robert F. Kennedy would have been the Democratic presidential nominee in 1968 had he not been killed in June of that year. Possible, but not very likely. The differences in the nominating processes of 1968 and the present are substantial and owe a lot to what happened inside the convention hall in 1968. Even as RFK won the California primary and declared his intention to secure the nomination in Chicago, Vice-president Hubert H. Humphrey had commitments for about 1,000 of the 1,312 votes needed for the nomination, while RFK had garnered only about 700. Neither RFK nor his rival peace candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy could win the nomination on the first ballot; Humphrey would have had at least a plurality of first ballot delegates. Ultimately, the contest between Kennedy and McCarthy in 1968 would have come down to which candidate was in a stronger position to claim the peace vote after the first ballot was cast. No political convention had gone to a second ballot to select the presidential nominee since the DNC of 1952. (There are some interesting parallels between ’68 and ’52.) On a second ballot the Kennedy and McCarthy forces would have had to unite behind one candidate and they would have had to pull in some delegates who had either supported Humphrey on the first ballot or been uncommitted. An eventual win by either Kennedy or McCarthy would have taken a great deal of political skill, a willingness to make deals, and a good bit of luck and momentum. President Lyndon Johnson wielded a great deal of influence with many of the delegates and would have done everything necessary to ensure that McCarthy and Kennedy were denied the nomination. But Johnson also had tactical reasons to keep the nomination in suspense as long as possible. Johnson left the door open to going to Chicago himself to accept a draft by the convention (an option that was being promoted by his close ally Texas Governor John Connally). Johnson also encouraged ally Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago to entertain the option of a Ted Kennedy draft. The votes of the Texas and Illinois delegations were left undecided until the last minute. Withholding delegate support was Johnson’s best leverage with Humphrey, ensuring that Humphrey would not deviate from Johnson’s position on the Vietnam War.
Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies organized the antiwar protests in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Sort of. The Yippies wanted to bring 100,000 or more young people to Chicago for five days of peace, love, and music called the Festival of Life—to redirect youth culture and music toward political ends. They were partly inspired by the first Monterey Pop Festival the previous year, which gathered 50–100,000 young people over three days to hear pop bands. The Yippies were just a small group of mostly New Yorkers, with very little in the way of resources. But they were brilliant media strategists. Their organizing technique was to create a story of what would happen in Chicago, a story so outrageous and compelling that the media would communicate it to the world and 100,000 people would come to Chicago to act out the story. Yippie was trying to use the mass media to do grassroots organizing. As an organizing strategy it was a magnificent failure; because the city of Chicago refused to grant the Yippies any permits for the festival, only one band (the MC5) showed up and they played for less than an hour to a crowd of a couple thousand. The Festival of Life was over before the business of the Convention got underway. The National Mobilization Committee to the End the War in Vietnam was the primary organizer of antiwar protest in Chicago, but was only somewhat more successful at gathering a mass of protestors. The MOBE rally at the old Grant Park bandshell drew about 10,000 and set the stage for the Battle of Michigan Avenue that was seen by 50 million people tuned into convention coverage on television. The antiwar protests during August 1968 have sometimes between called “massive.” Hardly. There were more police and National Guard troops in Chicago than protesters.
The violence in Chicago took place right outside the convention hall. No, not at all. The clashes between protesters and police were in Lincoln Park and Grant Park—both situated near the Chicago lakefront—and on streets near the parks. The convention was in the International Amphitheater, which was five miles away near the old stockyards. The convention was never in actual danger of being stormed by protestors, or held in siege, or any such fantasy imagined by either side. None of the protest groups ever got within eyeshot of the convention. Lots of security was deployed in and around the convention hall, and the whole compound was surrounded by chain link fencing topped with barbed wire, which is why CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite described the convention as being held “in a police state.”
The police rioted. Reality was more complicated than that simple phrase suggests. The phrase “police riot” comes from the report done by the Chicago Study Team (headed by Dan Walker) of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (chaired by Milton S. Eisenhower). The NCCPV was formed to study the assassinations and riots of 1968 and the Chicago team was charged with investigating the events of August 1968. The Chicago team compiled a fact—finding report: Rights in Conflict: The violent confrontation of demonstrators and police in the parks and streets of Chicago during the week of the Democratic National Convention of 1968. The summary to the report characterizes the acts of the police as a riot, by which it apparently meant: a minority of the Chicago police lost control of themselves under provocation by protesters and used excessive and indiscriminate force against those who provoked them. But “riot” is simply the wrong description; individual acts of spontaneous violence by the police—or a spasm of police mob violence—is not what happened. Over five successive days and nights—in Lincoln Park and its nearby streets, and in Grant Park and the nearby Chicago Loop—protesters, news reporters, photographers, and bystanders were clubbed, shoved, and hit by police. This is simply too methodical to be characterized as a riot. Undoubtedly some police actions were carried out with an excess of adrenaline-fueled zeal, but the police by and large must have been acting in accord with the wishes of their commanding officers and the mayor of the city of Chicago. The same thing happened each day for five days: if Mayor Daley and the police brass wanted a different kind of behavior from the police, they would have ordered it so and disciplined officers who disobeyed orders. Plus, when the National Guard was brought in to relieve the police, the violence subsided.
The protesters wanted violence on the streets of Chicago. The protesters were not a monolithic group; they had a wide variety of reasons for being in Chicago (from supporting peace candidates to revolution in the streets) and supported a wide variety of tactics (from Quakers who practiced non-violence to anarchists who would rather break windows and stone police cars). All wanted an end to the war in Vietnam, but some favored change through the System, while others were convinced that the System was incapable of change. Some protesters provoked the police with profanity, insults, and a few thrown objects. Some protesters believed that violence from the police would serve to exhibit the essentially militaristic nature of the political system and the Democratic Party. In other words, police violence would expose the naked brutality of the System, similar to the way that violence toward civil rights protesters in the south had exposed the naked racism of southern institutions. Similar to the way the Vietnam War had exposed the imperialism at the heart of Cold War liberalism. The provocation by protesters is further complicated by the fact that an estimated one in six protesters was an undercover agent for the police, the army or navy, or the FBI—the possibility that some of these were acting as agent provocateurs cannot be dismissed.
Because of the protests in Chicago, Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential election. Not all that simple. A lot of things happened at the 1968 DNC. The Democratic party was in the final stage of the collapse of the New Deal coalition. The party had been splitting on the issues of race and civil rights since 1948 and 1968 was the point of no return. White Southern Democrats deserted the party, giving their electoral votes to third-party candidate George Wallace, an erstwhile Democrat. (Until Barack Obama’s election in 2008, no northern Democrat had won a southern state since 1960, except that Humphrey won LBJ’s Texas in 1968.) The disorder on the streets of Chicago was matched by the disorder inside the convention hall. A sizable minority, at least, of Democrats opposed the party’s policy on the Vietnam War and were extraordinarily disaffected by the events inside the convention hall, most of all by the defeat of the peace plank on Vietnam; if Humphrey had put more distance between himself and LBJ on the war, he may have motivated more of these Democrats to vote. If the protests in Chicago had been quiet and orderly, but everything else unfolded as it did, Humphrey might still have lost the election. Bottom line: the truth is more complex than simply blaming the protesters.
1. The delegate count comes from In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy by Joseph A. Palermo (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001; p. 254). The most complete account of the changes to the nominating process put into motion in 1968 is Quiet Revolution: The Struggle for the Democratic Party and the Shaping of Post-Reform Politics by Byron E. Shafer, (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1983). The comments about Kennedy, McCarthy, and Johnson strategy are strictly conjectural.
2. Chicago ’68 by David Farber (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988) is the best one-stop source for information about the Yippies and MOBE in the run-up to the 1968 DNC. An eyewitness account of the MC5’s performance is in The MC5’s Kick Out the Jams by Don McLeese (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005). The most commonly cited source for the events in the streets and parks of Chicago in August 1968 is the official report of the Chicago Study Team submitted to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence in December 1968: Rights in Conflict: The violent confrontation of demonstrators and police in the parks and streets of Chicago during the week of the Democratic National Convention of 1968. A little-remarked fact of Chicago ’68 is that about 1,000 people from the American Friends Service Committee and other pacifist groups marched within half a mile of the convention site, before they were halted by the police and arrests were made. An account of that march is in The Chicago Anti-Vietnam War Movement by Bradford Lyttle (Chicago: Midwest Pacifist Center, 1988)
4. Rights in Conflict called the Chicago events “a police riot.” This interpretation is contested in No One Was Killed: Documentation and Meditation: Convention Week, Chicago—August 1968 by John Schultz (Chicago: Big Table, 1969, reprinted by the University of Chicago Press in 2009.) and in a different way in Battleground Chicago: The Police and the 1968 Democratic National Convention by Frank Kusch (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2004, reprinted by the University of Chicago Press in 2008.).
5. The estimate that one in six demonstrators was an undercover agent comes from Christopher Pyle, Military Surveillance of Civilian Politics, 1967–1970 (Garland Press, 1986). After service in the Army, Pyle worked as an investigator for the Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights when it was chaired by Senator Sam Ervin.
6. Eugene McCarthy very reluctantly endorsed Hubert Humphrey late in the fall. The literature on the politics of 1968 is sizable, including many memoirs by activists in the McCarthy campaign, whose disaffection after the DNC is apparent.
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