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Chicago's 1968 Democratic National Convention

Updated on February 18, 2008

The Vietnam War divided the United States—not only was a war being fought in Vietnam, but one was also being fought here at home. The Vietnam War debate was split into two camps: those who wanted to “End the War Now!” and those who expressed support for the war as “true patriots.”

 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, 1968
Tet Offensive in Vietnam, 1968
President Johnson listens to a tape in which his marine son-in-law describes his experiences in Vietnam.
President Johnson listens to a tape in which his marine son-in-law describes his experiences in Vietnam.
1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago
1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago
1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago
1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago

Report of the Walker Commission, 1968:

“Individual policemen, and lots of them, committed violent acts far in excess of the requisite force for crowd dispersal or arrest.”

Mayor Richard J. Daley

Learn more about the Vietnam War:

“Hell, no, we won’t go!”

Peace demonstrations began gathering more and more supporters, leading to a lot of standoffs between the “traitorous peaceniks” and the “true patriots.” A lot of students protested the war with their antidraft slogans. But, the antiwar movement really gained momentum when older protestors joined their ranks. Clergy, pacifists, housewives, antinuclear activists, and even members of the military joined the protests. Benjamin Spock and Martin Luther King Jr. are a few among the many famous people to speak out against the war.

“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

The Vietnam war was President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war. He was personally involved in the selection of bombing targets and other military operational decisions. President Johnson was faced with a growing list of American casualties while trying to ignore the growing legions of anti-war demonstrators.

In 1968, half a million American troops were in Vietnam. On January 30, both sides agreed to a truce in honor of Tet, the lunar new year observance. However, 80,000 North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops attacked over 100 targets, including the U.S. embassy in Saigon. The enemy’s ability to mount such an offensive strike stunned the American people—especially as they had been told that the United States was gaining the upper hand in the war. Many who still supported the war switched sides after the Tet offensive. LBJ found himself in a fight for the presidential nomination against Senator Robert Kennedy and losing the faith of the American people. President Lyndon B. Johnson announced he wouldn’t seek reelection on March 31, 1968.

“The whole world is watching!”

Robert Kennedy held the lead in the Democratic primaries when he was assassinated in June of 1968. This left Vice President Hubert Humphrey (who Johnson supported) as the new frontrunner in the Democratic primaries.

Shocked and furious at this turn of events, 10,000 opponents of the war gathered in Chicago in late August for the Democratic National Convention. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley denied permits to the protestors, making it so they couldn’t legally demonstrate in city parks. He backed his decision up with 12,000 police, 5000 national guardsmen, and 6000 army soldiers.

On August 28, 1968, 3000 protestors attempted to march to the convention hall where delegates were debating Vietnam policy. Police blocked the way, tossing tear gas and using billy clubs on the crowd. The police didn’t only attack the protestors, but reporters and bystanders as well.

The whole world watched these tactics as the scene was revealed on televisions. This Chicago showdown shook the movement, but in no way shattered the momentum. Activists went on to continue their peaceful marches, nudging President Richard Nixon towards a withdrawal from Vietnam.

Striking a Chord

I love studying and reading about historical events. For a while, I was a history major in college before switching to creative writing. I will always pursue my interest in history because I believe we can learn a lot from the past.

I understand that the protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago didn’t have legal permits to demonstrate or march, but that doesn’t excuse the way they were treated. The majority of protestors, then and now, are peaceful. The majority shouldn’t be punished because of the extreme minority.

Having protested and demonstrated many times myself, I know how scary it is to be surrounded by armed police officers. It is incredibly intimidated to show up as a peaceful protestor amid all of those armor clad officers. Once, I found myself in a situation where the officers separated all of the marchers into groups. We were not allowed to leave or move off of the street corners where they corralled us. We had valid permits to march, but they didn’t offer us any explanations for their actions. One man decided to leave. He pushed past the police barricade into the street. Three or four officers immediately tackled him to the ground, and then arrested him. Local news cameramen were also stuck with us—they were only there as reporters, but they couldn’t leave either. Customers in local shops couldn’t leave because the sidewalks were blockaded: protesters, reporters, and bystanders were affected. Sound familiar?

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    • FitnezzJim profile image

      FitnezzJim 

      8 years ago from Fredericksburg, Virginia

      The whole period of the 60’s was one of way too much routine violence. I lived in North Chicago at the time of the Democratic Convention demonstrations, just a youngster of 10 years old. We had an old black-and-white television that showed the news. When Mom saw the demonstrations on the news, she decided we all just had to go see, so Dad piled us all into the old Hillman Husky (a British made car as I recall, about the size of a modern Cooper), and we all went into Chicago to see. Fortunately, by the time we got there, the majority of the violence was over, and the only thing to see was large groups of demonstrators milling around. Of course, we had all expected to see far more activity than that. It was my first lesson that what we see in the news is not the norm, and that it’s normally only the sensational or out-of-norm that gets reported.

      Anyway, thank you for the good article. It brought back memories.

    • Ivan the Terrible profile image

      Ivan the Terrible 

      8 years ago from Madrid

      In Spain under Franco such protests brought out equal or worse brutality in the police, and people died for their beliefs. When non-Spaniards wonder why Spain leaned Left for so many years since Franco's death, they miss the point that Franco did not allow any dissent and had many protesters imprisoned, and a few killed.

    • Paper Moon profile image

      Paper Moon 

      9 years ago from In the clouds

      My friends and I attended a symposium in Chicago on the 20th anniversary of the convention. Most of the players in the Chicago 8 trial were there. It was a weekend to remember. One guy kept trying to give us communist literature and tried to get us to go to some meeting. We thought he was a wing nut, which was saying something because we considered ourselves to be wing nuts. Then we noticed his shoes. What we termed ‘Shiny black fbi shoes”. Some government right winger trying to see who the upcoming subversives were. Wow. We have also had many police incidents in many protests. Yes, your last story sounds familiar. Good hub. :)

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