Policeman Hustles Screaming Demonstrator

A demonstrator is hustled by a Chicago police sergeant outside the Conrad Hilton Hotel, on Michigan Avenue on August 28, 1968.

(Photo: Bettmann/via Getty Images)

1968 and 2024: Déjà Vu All Over Again?

The Gaza War has not created the kind of turmoil that nearly ripped apart the country in 1968, at least not yet.

The similarities are eerie:

Then and now, student anti-war demonstrations disrupted college campuses.

Then and now, the police were called in to arrest students, and often used excessive force.

Then and now, the Democratic sitting president was unpopular, and the Republican challenger was an extreme law and order conservative out for revenge against liberals.

Then and now, there were major ideological differences about a war between the young and the old.

But these similarities are largely superficial. 1968 was different.

Then there were 536,000 U.S. troops stationed in Vietnam, and the American population was deeply divided about not only whether the war should be continued, but whether it was justified in the first place. The Vietnam War was the salient political issue of the day, and young had to decide whether to serve or dodge the draft.

So far, despite the campus protests and coverage of the devastation, the war in Gaza ranks near the bottom on the list of concerns of the average American, even among young voters.

In 1968, the anti-war movement was part of a widespread rebellion against the anti-communist, hierarchical structure of society. The edifice of traditional authority was under siege. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll were perceived as forms of liberation and a direct threat to the established order. Having long hair could get you pulled in by the police or beat up by a hard-hat.

The threat of violence was palpable, and eruptions were not rare. Two of the most prominent anti-war and civil rights leaders of the era, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, were assassinated in 1968. The Democratic Convention in Chicago turned into a sprawling police riot. Convention delegates and journalists, as well as protestors, were punched and manhandled. (I was an eyewitness to both.)

Some groups, like the Weathermen, believed that violent acts were necessary to “bring the war home.” Bank of America branches were attacked with some regularity, often by bombing.

Perhaps the biggest difference between then and now is politics. Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), the sitting president, had crushed the ultra-conservative Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, winning 60 percent of the popular vote and 496 of the 548 electoral votes. Johnson, who had been John F. Kennedy’s vice-president and took office after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, went on to pass major civil rights and anti-poverty legislation. He was viewed as the most progressive president since Franklin Roosevelt. Many believed he was even more progressive because of his courage enacting strong anti-segregation legislation that he knew would turn the Southern states away from the Democratic Party.

You want to know what fascism in America might look like? It was 1968 in Chicago.

Biden, who won a much narrower victory over Trump in 2016, has gained fame among progressives and labor leaders through the passage of his infrastructure and climate bills. He also provided more labor support in key agencies like that National Labor Relations Board, and is being hailed as the greatest labor-oriented president since Franklin Roosevelt.

Johnson’s opponent in 1968 was expected to be Richard Nixon, a polarizing conservative political figure who few believed stood a chance against such a popular sitting president. The Vietnam War, however, eroded Johnson’s popularity as he bore the blame for the continued death and destruction. The chant he often heard from protestors was, “Hey! Hey LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?!”

The political establishment in 1968, as in 2024, refused to challenge the sitting president even as his popularity plummeted. But one maverick senator, Eugene McCarthy (D: MN), threw his hat in the ring and drew the more moderate anti-war students into his campaign under the banner of “Get Clean for Gene.” By the thousands they knocked on doors during the New Hampshire primary, and the results shocked the country, with McCarthy gaining a 42 percent share of the votes compared to Johnson’s 50 percent.

Even though Johnson won New Hampshire, he was in serious political trouble. He realized he likely would lose the next primary in Wisconsin to McCarthy, and he faced a formidable challenge from Bobby Kennedy, who jumped into the race after the New Hampshire close call. Johnson then did the unthinkable – he withdrew. This was quite unbelievable. In less than four years, one of the most popular presidents in American history was forced out of office by the anti-Vietnam War movement.

Hubert Humphry, Johnson’s V.P., and former liberal senator from Minnesota, became the Democratic establishment candidate and was tightly controlled by Johnson. “I’ve got his pecker in my pocket,” Johnson supposedly said. Kennedy, who was assassinated the night he beat McCarthy in the June California primary, would have been a formidable challenger to Humphry, but McCarthy didn’t have the votes at the convention to defeat the vice president.

The Democratic convention was a nightmare, one I experienced first-hand. The police were out to beat up anyone who looked like a protester. They even pummeled reporters and attacked McCarthy delegates at the convention. You want to know what fascism in America might look like? It was 1968 in Chicago.

The Johnson/Humphry forces, fully in control, refused to compromise with the anti-war faction and shot down a rather mild platform peace plank that called for an end to the bombing of North Vietnam and a negotiated withdrawal of American troops. The anti-war delegates and protesters left Chicago with nothing, beaten and in despair.

As a result of the violent convention, captured live on TV, Nixon was way up in the polls, and seemed to be cruising to an easy victory. Even though the police caused nearly all of the violence in Chicago, it looked like an enormous breakdown of law and order, a key element in Nixon’s platform.

But in the last few weeks before the November 1968 election, Humphry moved towards the peace plank that had been rejected at the convention, and his poll numbers improved to the point where Nixon’s enormous lead evaporated. Had Humphry got his pecker out of Johnson’s pocket a month or so earlier, I’m quite certain he would have won.

Ultimately it was an election about the Vietnam War and law and order. Nixon had the edge in the former by pretending to be more of a dove than Humphry, who had so much difficulty separating himself from Johnson’s war. Nixon gained, too, on the latter issue, as images of the Chicago riots and the Black revolts in dozens of cities across the country after King was assassinated made his “silent majority” fearful.

The Gaza War has not created the kind of turmoil that nearly ripped apart the country in 1968, at least not yet. Even the current campus conflicts, fortunately, don’t match the catastrophic clashes that reached their peak in 1970 when National Guardsmen fired into a crowd of demonstrators at Kent State, killing four and wounding nine unarmed students.

Today, there are no courageous and credible Democratic challengers willing to take on a sitting president, even a president who is 81 years old and running behind the election-denying Donald Trump in the polls.

I’m struck by the contemporary sound of the words Johnson used to announce his withdrawal from his re-election campaign on March 31, 1968.

“… I would ask all Americans, whatever their personal interests or concern, to guard against divisiveness and all of its ugly consequences.

What we won when all of our people united just must not now be lost in suspicion, and distrust, and selfishness, and politics among any of our people.

And believing this as I do, I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year. …

I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office–the Presidency of your country.

Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

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