In spite of comparisons, here's why these conventions won't be like Chicago in '68
The media has been eager to paint the upcoming political conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia as repeats of the DNC convention of 1968, but is this a valid analogy? The 60’s were some of the most turbulent years in the history of the United States. The Civil Rights Movement, the sexual revolution, and the anti-war movement divided America like nothing since the Civil War, and it all came to a violent head in Chicago during the summer of 1968.
Here are the building blocks of that chaos:
1. LBJ does not seek re-election
President Lyndon B. Johnson stunned the country by announcing he would not seek re-election to the presidency. Johnson, despite passing historic civil rights legislation and furthering the integration of the South, also escalated the war in Vietnam. It was in 1968 that the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive and began the perception that the United States was losing the war. Johnson withdrew from the primaries, endorsing his VP, Hubert Humphrey, for the job.
It was during this tumultuous period that former Vice-President (under Eisenhower) Richard Nixon saw a political renaissance and re-emerged into the national spotlight. Nixon lost the Presidential election of 1960 and was famously trounced in the election for governor of California in 1962. Many thought this was the end of his political career, and as if to punctuate the loss, Nixon told the press: “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
But they would have Nixon to kick around again. His campaigning for Republican candidates helped the GOP regain seats in 1966, and Nixon believed a Democratic Party split on Vietnam could be beaten. Nixon easily beat out the other Republican candidates on the first ballot in the Republican Convention in Miami, including George Romney, Nelson Rockefeller, and a more “extremist” up-and-comer named Ronald Reagan.
2. The Democratic Party is corrupt
The 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago is probably the most infamous in American history. After Robert Kennedy was assassinated, his nearly 400 delegates were up for grabs by the other candidates. The party was in fact divided over the Vietnam War, with Humphrey running on the pro-war Johnson platform and Senator Eugene McCarthy running an anti-war campaign. Even though 80 percent of Democratic voters voted for peace candidates, the nomination still went to Humphrey, even though he didn’t enter any of the state primaries. Peace Democrats saw corruption in the party.
Outside the convention, a coalition of anti-war groups converged on Chicago. When Mayor Richard Daley learned there were upwards of 10,000 protesters outside, he organized a response consisting of 23,000 policemen and Illinois National Guard troops. Daley was worried they would try to disrupt the convention, spike Chicago’s water with LSD, or attempt to harm the candidates. the area was swarmed with National Guard troops, who formed around the convention and surrounding hotels. The Chicago Tribune called the convention site “a veritable stockade.” The stage for a battle was set.
3. Protesters fight police in Chicago
On August 28, the crowd gathered at nearby Grant Park. When one of them lowered the American flag at the park, police officers broke through the crowd and beat the demonstrator. The crowd began to throw food, rocks, and pieces of concrete at the cops. The riot broke out in front of the Chicago Hilton, right in full view of all the TV cameras, as the crowd chanted “the whole world is watching.”
Inside the convention, even journalists were roughed up. Mike Wallace, Dan Rather, and Ed Newman were all punched or otherwise assaulted in some way. Rather was famously punched in the gut by a security officer. Walter Cronkite even said of the convention, “I think we have a bunch of thugs here…” When one person tried to nominate George McGovern in a speech, he took the opportunity to mention that if McGovern were president, the police wouldn’t be using Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago.
4. Nixon wins
The police brutally beat and gassed protesters, reporters, and doctors who came to help. The incident became known as “The Battle of Michigan Avenue.” It split the Democrats in 1968 and allowed Nixon, who ran a campaign on restoring law and order and pulling out of Vietnam, to ascend to the Presidency.
This most unsteady course of events in American history altered the way the Cold War was fought, created distrust in the office of the President, and didn’t stop until after Nixon’s resignation in 1974, which ended over a decade of social unrest, upheaval, and uncertainty in the United States.