Chicago Democratic convention in ’68 embodies clash over future of America

Chicago Democratic convention in ’68 embodies clash over future of America

CHICAGO — On Aug. 28, 1968, the streets of Chicago exploded into violence. Antiwar protesters, defiant and bloodied, poured onto Michigan Avenue, determined to reach the International Amphitheatre, where the Democratic National Convention was in its third day.

Police officers, exhausted and at the end of their rope, didn’t hold back. They pounded into the protesters with clubs and tear gas, striking indiscriminately and pressing the crowd back into Grant Park. At the back of the park, hundreds were up against a plate glass window of the Hilton Hotel. It shattered, allowing an outlet for those being crushed and adding shards of broken glass to the bloody mix.

Television cameras captured the gruesome scenes live, as protesters chanted: “The whole world is watching.”

The violence was the climax of a week of unprecedented clashes outside a national political convention. Inside, a divided Democratic Party sought a way forward toward the 1968 presidential elections.

Party leaders had just voted down a peace plank in the party platform, infuriating antiwar delegates, when NBC News made the fateful decision to cut away from the angry exchanges on the convention floor and broadcast the violence unfolding in the streets. CBS soon followed suit. The scenes outside were visible on screens inside the conventional hall.

Sen. Abraham Ribicoff stood to nominate peace candidate George McGovern. Then he looked directly at Chicago Mayor and Democratic Party Boss Richard Daley and declared: “With George McGovern as president of the United States, we wouldn’t have these Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago!”

Daley shouted back, calling on the senator to leave the podium, and reportedly shouting epithets. The hall erupted in shouts and jeers.

The American system was faltering. And the world was watching.

A young hippie standsin front of a row of National Guard soldiers, across the street from the Hilton Hotel at Grant Park, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Aug. 26, 1968. Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress

Coming apart

It had been a year of turmoil. A dramatic and unexpected escalation in the Vietnam War unsettled the nation — and the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. It lifted the veil of an imminent victory, and many Americans began to conclude that their leaders had been lying to them. Two champions of change were assassinated, unleashing riots and clashes with police and military troops on city streets. Election-year politics mirrored that unrest, exposing deep divisions that were rumbling through the Democratic Party like an earthquake.

Some have said this was the year America came apart. If so, the Chicago Democratic National Convention was the fault line, the combustible meeting of machine party politics and an angry uprising, giving voice to ordinary citizens who had grown to feel betrayed — their war blinders lifted and race frustrations exploding.

“The 1968 Chicago convention became a lacerating event, a distillation of a year of heartbreak, assassinations, riots and a breakdown of law and order that made it seem as if the country were coming apart,” the late Pulitzer Prize-winning political writer Haynes Johnson, who covered the convention, wrote in a commemorative article for Smithsonian Magazine in 2008.

“In its psychic impact and its long-term political consequences, it eclipsed any other such convention in American history, destroying faith in politicians, in the political system, in the country and its institutions,” Johnson wrote. “No one who was there or who watched it on television could escape the memory of what took place before their eyes.”

On the streets, a cross-section of revolutionary youth tested the limits of their rights – to oppose the war, to reform racial or social injustices or to hold provocative, drug- and sex-infused theatrical events to challenge the system – all pulling at the seams of law and order.

Inside the convention was a Democratic Party in disarray. Johnson, the party leader who had swept to victory four years earlier, dropped out over opposition to the war. Peace candidates splintered the party further, and race issues led a third-party candidate to peel off the party. The old guard was holding firm to its control over choosing delegates, but demands for greater popular selection was mounting.

Daley made clear his intent: to keep control of the Illinois delegates and to keep order on the streets. Angry standoffs, the threats of violence and a sense that the system was no longer working bubbled up inside and outside.

“This was part of a clash … which was really a fight over the future of the country,” said Dick Simpson, professor of political science at the University of Illinois, Chicago, who ran Eugene McCarthy’s Chicago campaign in 1968. “And each person who was involved, whether they were in the convention hall, whether they were in the streets, whether they were police or protesters or delegates – thought that whatever happened, the future of the country depended on them and their friends. And they were angry at the other side.”

“There were few people in the middle of this question,” Simpson said, speaking in Chicago in August at a 50th anniversary event organized by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. “It was an important clarifying clash out of which our history is made.”

An eruption brewing

The year had left Americans shaken.

Television brought the war into people’s living rooms, making it impossible to ignore. The attack on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon — perhaps seen as Ground Zero for U.S. control — was broadcast live, interrupting Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” Death tolls climbed all year, beginning with the Tet Offensive in late January, when North Vietnamese forces and Viet Cong launched fierce surprise attacks on cities and bases all over South Vietnam.

By May 1968, the bloodiest month since the start of the war, the tally of American dead had reached more than 2,400. As the fighting raged and peace talks mired in stalemate, the antiwar movement only grew. Many Americans woke up to the idea that the war could not be won militarily.

“Our enemy savagely striking at will across all of South Vietnam has finally shattered the mask of official illusion with which we have concealed our true circumstances,” Robert Kennedy said in a speech in Chicago in February, weeks before he entered the presidential race promising to seek a peace settlement.

Illinois delegates at the Democratic National Convention of 1968 react to Sen. Abraham Ribicoff's nominating speech in which he criticized the tactics of the Chicago police against anti-Vietnam war protesters. Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress

Uprisings erupting in European capitals — in France, student protests led to a nationwide strike that brought its economy to a standstill — emboldened the American movement. In late April, students occupied several buildings at Columbia University for a week, forcing the campus to shut down before over 700 were arrested and more than 100 injured.

Meanwhile, Kennedy’s candidacy spurred Johnson to drop out of the race but it divided the party’s peace camp that had been backing McCarthy. Race issues had been taking a parallel but largely separate path, with Martin Luther King Jr. supporting the antiwar movement while focusing on the rights of blacks in America. His assassination in April led to unprecedented rioting across the country. Kennedy’s assassination in June was yet another jolting blow for the party and the country at large. Deep, divisive social issues were converging in the shock of a nation.

“What had been brewing in this country was this tremendous resentment that seemed to just explode with these two events,” said Bernard Sieracki, a Korean War veteran, professor and retired political lobbyist in Illinois, speaking at the Lincoln library event.

This seething storyline reached crescendo in August as thousands of protesters descended on Chicago, bent on disrupting the convention. Daley, who had responded to riots in Chicago following King’s assassination by giving police the order to “shoot to kill any arsonists or anyone with a Molotov cocktail,” called up 12,000 police officers. Backing them up were nearly 6,000 Illinois National Guard and 5,000 Army soldiers.

The International Amphitheatre was cordoned off and demonstrators were not given permits to protest.

Antiwar protesters led by New Left leaders Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden and underground magazine editor David Dellinger mobilized under the umbrella of MOBE, or the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam. They never reached the tens of thousands they’d hoped, but they were organized and had practiced street-fighting tactics and plotted methods to taunt and incite police.

Social revolutionaries and anarchists, led by Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and others, organized a “Festival for Life” under the moniker Yippies, or the Youth International Party. They nominated a pig for president and promised disruption of the political system by putting on a freewheeling countercultural theater to draw attention to their antics in the streets and away from the convention.

Police lined the streets with sticks, shields, helmets and tear gas. National Guardsmen, with heavy vehicles draped in razor wire, waited in reserve.

Both sides were agitated and ready.

“There was a swelling up of apocalyptic feeling, a sense of chaos, a sense of astonishment and shock,” Todd Gitlin, who had presided over Students for a Democratic Society in 1964 and ‘65, said in an interview in August with The Nation magazine. “Everything is accelerated; old centers are not holding. Some people think that what’s coming is a revolution. Others think that what’s coming is fascism. Whatever is coming, is coming fast and precipitously.”

From inside the hall, newsman Walter Cronkite described the scene on the streets of Chicago as the convention got under way Aug. 26.

“In the name of security, freedom of the press, freedom of movement, perhaps as far as the demonstrators themselves are concerned, even freedom of speech have been severely restricted here. A Democratic convention is about to begin in a police state.”

Inside, outside

The convention opened to what Haynes Johnson called “an abiding pessimism.”

Vice President Hubert Humphrey had sat out the primaries, but with the president’s withdrawal leaving a vacuum in party leadership, Humphrey became the establishment candidate. McCarthy had won a significant number of delegates, but party practice dictated that the winner take all the delegates and meant that the McCarthy camp was relegated to a position of protest. Sen. George McGovern, a late entry into the race, had rallied many of Kennedy’s backers, but they too were powerless.

Calls for reform in the party’s delegate selection were bubbling up to the surface. Each day, beset by the knowledge that on the other side a Republican Party rallying behind Nixon looked set to win in November, delegates and party leaders faced off in heated shouting matches that lasted into the early morning.

Hired guards on the convention floor kept tight control. The camera captured CBS reporter Dan Rather getting strong-armed as he tried to interview a delegate who was being escorted out. Rather was heard on microphone saying, “Take your hands off me unless you plan to arrest me.”

“We tried to talk to the man and we got violently pushed out of the way,” Rather said a few minutes later on air. “This is the kind of thing that has been going on outside the hall; this is the first time we’ve had it happen inside the hall. We ... I’m sorry to be out of breath, but somebody belted me in the stomach during that.”

Outside, clashes between protesters and police were growing increasingly violent. Protesters rallied, gave speeches and some played cat-and-mouse with police, defying curfews, trying to break through cordons and throwing things to try to anger them.

With growing frequency, the National Guard were called in to replace exhausted city cops who grew increasingly violent.

Young anti-war protesters raise their arms in the air and taunt bayonet-armed National Guardsmen Aug. 28, 1968, near Michigan Avenue in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention. The Vietnam War became the catalyst for rebellion among the nation's youth. AP

Taylor Pensoneau, a political author and retired professor who covered the 1968 convention for the St. Louis-Post Dispatch, said the Guard under the command of Brig. Gen. Richard Dunn performed as they had been trained. Though many were also just kids, they maintained discipline and refrained from using live ammunition.

Police, however, “took the taunting and insults [only] so long, and their patience ran out,” Pensoneau said at the Lincoln library event. “It was my impression they felt they had a green light from Mayor Daley’s office to forcibly try to suppress the disruption of the convention.”

By Wednesday, the anger had reached a climax inside and outside the hall.

Inside, it became clear that the party bosses were going to maintain control. The antiwar voice was being quashed and the fighting grew more bitter.

“We were in a struggle over the future of democracy,” said Simpson, a McCarthy campaigner. “What was our city, our state, our nation going to look like? Which kind of president were we going to elect? Were we going to continue the war in Vietnam? Were we going to continue racial discrimination in its worst form? Were we going to continue the imperial presidency when the president could get away with the kinds of things Nixon got away with at Watergate?”

Outside, the protesters attempted to march down Michigan Avenue to the International Amphitheatre and the television cameras turned on them live.

Ron Ferrizzi, a helicopter chief fighting in Vietnam, was in Australia for R&R that week. Ferrizzi, who was featured In the PBS documentary “The Vietnam War,” described thinking the Russians had invaded Czechoslovakia when he turned on the TV and saw a storm trooper “smacking a kid with a bat, and there’s blood everywhere and rioting.”

Then he realized this was Chicago.

“At that moment I was politicized,” Ferrizzi said in the documentary. “I realized that anybody who really cared for America was sent halfway around the world, chasing some ghost in the jungle, killing somebody else’s grandmother for no reason at all and in the meantime, my country is being torn apart.

“I saw somebody who looked like my dad hitting somebody who looked like me. Oh my God, whose side would I be on?”

On the last night of the convention, after Humphrey was selected, Kennedy supporters stood and repeatedly sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” refusing to sit down. Humphrey supporters started booing. Then fights broke out.

The party bosses had won. The war would go on for several more years. And the hopes for change from the establishment had been quashed.

Inside and outside, a national wound was exposed.

“The violence ... throughout that week, much of it captured live on television, confirmed both the Democrat’s pessimism and the country’s judgment of a political party torn by dissension and disunity,” Haynes Johnson wrote.


For many years after the convention, Nixon and the Republican Party appeared to be the big winners, with Nixon sweeping the electoral votes in 1968 and trouncing McGovern in 1972.

President Donald Trump is now the sixth Republican president since 1968; there have been half as many Democrats.

Within the Democratic Party, the fault line that cracked wide open led to significant reform of the electoral process with the introduction of primaries, so that the selection of the party nominee would no longer be governed solely by the insider establishment. But the new system has its own issues, and super delegates could be considered another form of at least partial establishment control.

The wound that opened in August 50 years ago continues to fester.

Dean Blobaum, who created a comprehensive website documenting that 1968 week in Chicago, likes to compare the Democratic National Convention of 1968 to the Battle of Gettysburg. Not because the events themselves were similar but because neither can be summed up in a single conclusion. They were both complex events coming together in a stunning and devastating point in time that changed American history but left it permanently scarred.

Like Gettysburg, the divisions that came into such stark focus in 1968 for all the world to see did not start then. In the wake of the Great Depression, President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal became a lightning rod for vehement criticism from opposing sides. Liberals said the program did not do enough for the poor, while conservatives called it socialism in disguise. Race issues had been festering for years and continue to erupt to this day.

“It didn’t start in ‘68,” Blobaum said. “I understand the impulse to put it in ‘68, because it was so stark. But I think it’s of a piece with more of American history.”

The parties that came together in such combustion in Chicago in 1968 arrived from opposite ends of the spectrum and left the way they came — just more battered.

Whether the rift that was exposed was new or had deepened is still under contention 50 years later. But the wounding events of that August political convention were broadcast live for the world to see. Today, they remain an indelible and memorable mark not just on American politics but on a society that has never again been able to define itself so completely.

By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 5, 2018