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.

“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 blow.”   —Nancy Zaroulis and Gerald Sullivan

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 war-appropriation bill.

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 suburbs.12

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 Squads19—special 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 every mailbox.”21

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 thousand people.

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’ legitimate work.

All of these police activities—overt and concealed—were clearly designed to destroy the targeted organizations.22

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), www.internationalsocialist.org/resources....
  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 Kennedy, 940.
  10. Quoted in Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy, 798.
  11. Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy, 797.
  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.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Quoted in Zaroulis and Sullivan, Who Spoke Up?, 205.

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