Thursday, June 2, 2016

1968: When the World Was Watching

Opening a Senate investigation of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in early March 1968, Senator J. William Fulbright described what was taking place across the country as a "spiritual rebellion" of the young against a betrayal of national values. The Resolution, passed in 1964, had given President Johnson a blank check to wage war against Vietnam, based on a trumped-up military incident. Subsequently, over half a million troops were mobilized to prevent a North Vietnamese victory, using fears of communism and falling dominoes to rationalize what soon became a major invasion. 

By 1968, the operative logic was that it might be necessary to destroy the divided Asian nation in order to save it.

Back in the US, anti-war and "stop the draft" protests were on the rise. Even members of the Johnson administration and media establishment were having second thoughts. On returning from Vietnam, Walter Cronkite, the nation's TV "uncle," announced that the only "rational way out" was to negotiate a settlement. Meanwhile, the president's "wise men" advised that a change of policy was unavoidable.

But other forces were also at work. Responding to campus and New Left activism, the FBI concluded that a counter-intelligence program was needed to "expose, disrupt, and otherwise neutralize" the growing anti-war movement. Suggested tactics included instigating personal conflicts and animosities, spreading rumors that movement leaders were Bureau informants, arresting activists on marijuana charges, using "misinformation" to "confuse and disrupt," sending damaging anonymous letters to parents and officials, and exploiting "cooperative press contacts." If anyone was bringing the war back home, it was the FBI.

In mid-March, Eugene McCarthy, an ardent opponent of the war, won an astonishing 42 percent of the Democratic primary vote for president in New Hampshire. Four days later, Robert Kennedy entered the race, and by the end of the month Johnson announced he wouldn't seek re-election. But on the same day that Kennedy made his move, US soldiers lined up hundreds of old men, women, and children in the South Vietnamese village of Mai Lai and shot them dead, one of several massacres that remained secret until the end of the decade.

Just as the US was looking for a way out, it was losing its soul.

"Everywhere we talk liberty and social reform," wrote the prescient muckraker I.F. Stone in the midst of growing chaos, "but we end up by allying ourselves with native oligarchies and military cliques – just as we have done in Vietnam. In the showdown, we reach for the gun."

On April 4, a shot rang out in Memphis, ending the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Afterward, riots erupted in 125 cities, resulting in over 20,000 arrests and the mobilization of federal troops and the National Guard. Two months later, Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, just after winning the California primary race. By July, there had been over 220 major demonstrations on campuses across the country. Despite clear signs of deepening social conflict, however, the war overseas continued to escalate. In the first five months of the year, almost 10,000 soldiers died in Vietnam, more than in all of 1967. At home, the violence and repression were just beginning.

"Keep clean for Gene" buttons were a familiar sight at the 1968 Democratic National Convention that August. But the protesters maced and beaten outside the meeting hall knew that McCarthy, the peace candidate, and his supporters inside were symbolically undergoing the same ritual. Barbed-wire fences around the amphitheater had led to the grim joke that the delegates were all prisoners in "Stalag 68." Keeping clean obviously wouldn't be enough.

Many who went to Chicago that summer and witnessed what became a police riot emerged either broken or radicalized. For them, the power structure had crossed a basic boundary, moving dangerously close to fascism. Even after McCarthy's headquarters was raided, the Democratic candidate for president, Hubert Humphrey, couldn't bring himself to criticize Mayor Daley's Gestapo tactics. Meanwhile, the party's plank on the war offered little solace, supporting the logic of its most hawkish elements. In short, the war was destroying the country, just as the US military was destroying Vietnam.

In the months that followed the 1968 Democratic Convention, activists preached liberation with even greater zeal. But the obstacles also increased, including a crescendo of busts aimed at leaders of the expanding movement. The FBI's counter-intelligence program was starting to take hold. Several pretexts were used for the arrests, among them dope, assault, obstruction of justice, and an “anti-riot” law. There were also lesser charges, such as "Failure to fasten the seat belt on a Rochester-Buffalo flight" – filed against the Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, vandalizing a representation of Smokey the Bear, and disrespect for the flag by hanging it as a curtain – even though advertisers were using the same design to sell canned tomatoes and deodorant. Apparently, it was all a matter of "intent." Using the flag to sell products was patriotic, but hanging it across a window was disrespectful, an un-American act.

In November, Richard Nixon profited from the polarization and disillusionment, winning the presidential election in one of the closest votes in US history. During his campaign, he promised to end the war "and win the peace." Once in office, he quickly reversed himself, expanding it into Cambodia with over a year of secret bombings. Meanwhile, his attorney general, Richard Kleindienst, called anti-war activists "ideological criminals."

Before the end of the decade, the list of martyrs included Che Guevara, executed in Bolivia after a misguided attempt to export the Cuban revolution; Andreas Papandreou, the Greek reformer overthrown in a military coup that put CIA agent George Papadopoulos in power; Kwame Nkrumah, the brilliant anti-imperialist president of Ghana whose socialist leanings sparked another CIA-backed military takeover; and Fred Hampton, the Chicago Black Panther leader who was shot in his bed on December 4, 1969 as part of the FBI's obsessive crusade to destroy militant black groups.

Historian Eric Hobshawm wrote, "If there was a single moment in the golden years after 1945 which corresponds to the simultaneous upheaval of which the revolutionaries had dreamed after 1917, it was surely 1968, when students rebelled from the USA and Mexico in the West to socialist Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, largely stimulated by the extraordinary outbreak of May 1968 in Paris, epicentre of a Continent-wide student uprising."

In France, student strikes sparked a nationwide revolt that demolished the liberal myths of permanent stability in advanced societies. In Czechoslovakia, reformers defied Soviet power during the revolt known as Prague Spring. In Brazil, Chile, and Mexico, student uprisings challenged authoritarian rule. But the backlash was fierce and deadly. As Soviet tanks canceled reform in the East Bloc, soldiers opened fire on hundreds of students in Mexico City, and legalized repression came to the United States. 

Half a century on, the wounds still haven't healed and the betrayals and lies continue.

From Dangerous Words: Part eight of “In the 60s: Education of an Outsider.” 
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