On January 31st, 1968, 400,000 Viet Cong troops overran every major city and military garrison in South Vietnam. Even our embassy in Saigon was attacked. Two days later, we all watched the Saigon police chief as he executed a Vietcong prisoner in cold blood with a pistol shot to the head. Walter Cronkite, in a CBS News special, declared the United State would have to negotiate an exit. President Johnson, who was listening, told his staff it was all over. A few weeks later he announced that he would not run for reelection.
Johnson is a classic tragic figure, a great man brought down by his own misguided judgement. He was a FDR liberal and our country remained “our country” under his leadership. He used his considerable political skills to strengthen the working and middle classes. His tragic flaw was his inability to admit a mistake in pursuing the ill-advised war in Vietnam that his predecessor John F. Kennedy had started.
Martin Luther King was murdered on April 4th. He had just begun to move beyond Civil Rights and Vietnam to poverty. King had gone to Memphis to help a garbage workers’ strike. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across America, some peacefully, many violently. Uprisings broke out in 125 cities nationwide. In many instances officials deployed the National Guard. In Washington, DC, Chicago and Baltimore, it took tens of thousands of regular army soldiers and Marines to end the violence. When it was over, 39 people were dead, more than 2,600 injured and 21,000 arrested.
The only high point in that terrible night was a remarkable speech by Robert Kennedy, Jr. On the campaign trail in Indianapolis, Indiana, Kennedy went out before a largely African-American crowd.
“I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some — some very sad news for all of you — Could you lower those signs, please? — I have some very sad news for all of you, and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world; and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.”
The crowd gasped. Robert Kennedy talked about the assassination of his brother, and added: “But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times. My favorite poem, my — my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:
‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.”
Robert Kennedy had served on Senator McCarthy’s witch hunting committee. He had been among the worst of the bad guys. But his lines from Aeschylus ran true. What impressed me during his campaign for the presidency, was his enormous capacity for growth into someone with compassion whose intelligence and political experience just might end the war and continue Johnson’s progressive legislation.
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King — yeah, it’s true — but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love — a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.”
There was no uprising in Indianapolis.
Two days later, a shootout between Black Panthers and Oakland police left several dead, including 16-year-old Panther Bobby Hutton.
White students became more confrontational. SDS had been organizing at Columbia University for several years, focusing on anti-war issues including an on-campus ROTC recruitment office and links to the Defense Department through its Institute for Defense Analyses, a weapons research think-tank that few people knew about. SDS used teach-ins, occupations and demonstrations, tactics perfected during Berkeley’s 1964 Free Speech Movement.
On April 23rd students held a demonstration at noon at the sundial in the center of campus. Then they moved to a construction site where Columbia was building a new gymnasium, using land in an existing public park. Harlem residents opposed Columbia’s seizure of their park land and SDS supported them.
A fight broke out between pro-war students, SDS demonstrators and police. SDS leader Mark Rudd suggested demonstrators move to Hamilton Hall, the university’s main building with professors’ offices and classrooms. Hundreds more students joined the occupation there. Some Harlem community organizers and the student Afro-American-Society joined as well. Four other buildings were taken over that night, including Low Library where students had to break a window to gain access. Criminal acts became more common and acceptable across America.
Both sides made abortive attempts to negotiate, but a week later Columbia officials called the police, who were itching to go. They responded with unusual brutality. Believing they represented the majority of the population (and they probably did!), they wanted to teach the spoiled brats a lesson. Police used night sticks to beat hundreds of citizens, including professors, bystanders and medical personnel. They arrested seven hundred.
Responding to police brutality, thousands more students and professors joined the demonstrators. In a second round of protests from May 17th to the 22nd, police arrested one hundred and seventy-seven Columbia and Barnard students and sent fifty-one to the hospital.
In the end, the students won. Columbia closed for the rest of the semester. The administration moved the gym building to a new location and it severed it’s ties to the IDA. The Columbia uprising became a model for student protests across America.
On June 6th, Bobby Kennedy was gunned down in Los Angeles, snuffing out the last hope that young people had for progressive change in America. The remaining Democratic candidates did not have much general support and little or no charisma.
Protesters planned to demonstrate at the Democratic Convention held in August in Chicago. Mayor Daley refused to issue permits for most of them, then ordered his police to suppress any demonstrations that took place. Chicago police attacked hippies, New Leftists, dissident Democrats, Yippies, newsmen, photographers, passers-by and clergymen. They roughed up Winston Churchill’s grandson, covering the convention as a journalist. They whacked Playboy’s publisher Hugh Hefner and maced Mrs. Anne Kerr outside the Conrad Hilton, then hustled her off to jail. She was a vacationing member of the British Parliament.
The “Battle of Michigan Avenue” ended the protests three days later. Mayor Daley had deployed 22,500 police and state troopers. They had overwhelmed approximately 10,000 antiwar protesters in what was later called a “police riot.” Extensive media coverage sent pictures of the bloody suppression across the world. “The whole world is watching,” the protesters chanted.
The whole world seemed to be in revolt in 1968. Worker and student uprisings took place everywhere. It began with Prague Spring on January 5th, 1968, when Alexander Dubček became Czechoslovakia’s First Secretary of the Communist Party and thousands of workers and students took to the streets to urge reforms. Dubček believed communism could have “a human face” and instituted many of the reforms. (In late August, Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia and put an end to them.)
In May, French students occupied universities to protest capitalism and consumerism. Their protest quickly spread to factories with strikes involving 11 million workers. The 1968 French uprising, like the movement in the United States, featured teach-ins, debates, music and singing, stunning graffiti and posters. Students and workers brought the French economy to a standstill. President Charles de Gaulle secretly left France for a few hours, fearful his government would be overthrown.
In October in Mexico, months of student demonstrations ended in a bloodbath at La Plaza de las Tres Culturas just 10 days before the beginning of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. At least 10,000 people in the plaza were attacked from helicopters which lite off flares allowing police snipers to open up on the trapped crowd. They killed somewhere between 30 and 300.
Demonstrations broke out throughout the Communist Bloc and in Brazil, Spain, Poland, China, West Berlin, Rome, London, Italy,and Argentina. It seemed for a moment as if a world-wide uprising of students and workers was taking place and Americans were part of it.