A key figure in and historian of the New Left, Todd Gitlin was president of Students for a Democratic Society in 1964–65 and helped organize the first national demonstrations against the Vietnam War. He is the author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, among many other books, and a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, where he teaches an American-studies course on the 1960s. Sasha Abramsky spoke with him in April.
Sasha Abramsky: Fiftieth-anniversary dates for the events of 1968 are rolling out thick and fast. Let’s talk about what happened at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago that summer. Perhaps more than any other protest in that momentous year of upheaval, the street fighting in Chicago in August came to symbolize the crisis at the heart of American politics. You were there during that week of protest, and you’ve written extensively about it in the decades since. What made the events in Chicago so emblematic of the broader moment?
Todd Gitlin: 1968 was the crystallization of a lot of forces. Lyndon Johnson had been president for four-plus years. He had undertaken the most sweeping policy of domestic reform since [Franklin] Roosevelt. But he had also massively escalated the war in Vietnam. And beginning in April 1965, there had been repeated mobilizations against the war. By the fall of ‘65, they had settled into a pattern—big mobilizations on both coasts in mid-April and again in October. They had grown from the 25,000 who showed up in Washington in April 1965 to hundreds of thousands.
The anti-war movement was like a counter-nation. It was everywhere: in small towns, cosmopolitan centers, in the East and the West, but also in community colleges, state schools, high schools, and in every profession—doctors and nurses, clergy, social workers, and teachers. And also in labor, even though the leadership of American labor was hostile to the anti-war movement.
By ’68, the effort to find an [anti-war] Democrat to run against Johnson in the primaries had finally become successful: Gene McCarthy declared as a candidate against Johnson. He ran in the primary in New Hampshire, and he got a substantial minority of the vote—substantial enough to worry Johnson. Then Bobby Kennedy, coming late to the parade, declared his own candidacy. So now we had two anti-war candidates.
Troop strength [in Vietnam] had now grown to half a million—by the end of the year, more than 35,000 of them would be dead. The Tet Offensive [in January–February 1968] was a big, fat “What the hell, who do you think you’re kidding?” announcement to America. In conversations, Johnson had acknowledged the war was unwinnable. On the other hand, he’d been enlarging the commitment, upgrading the intensity of the war. Anti-war sentiment, even in Congress, had been growing. And the circle of advisers around Johnson who had signed off on the war, both in formal government positions and among informal elites known as the “Wise Men”—not dovish people, but Cold War pioneers, former secretaries of state, secretaries of defense, other officials, Wall Street honchos, and so on—they had been summoned to advise about the war after Tet. Their advice was, essentially: “Trim it, reduce it, end it. The country is coming apart; the armed forces are riddled with dissension.”