I’ve just finished reading “Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics” by Lawrence O’Donnell. Highly recommended if you lived through it or if you weren’t around. Maybe especially if you weren’t around. 1968 was one hell of a year in this country and we should know the history and try to learn from it.
Two assassinations (MLK and RFK), riots and rebellion in the streets of nearly every major US city, an utterly insane and ultimately corrupt presidential election campaign, with the relentless brutality of the American war on Vietnam providing the background cacophonous music to it all.
For those who didn’t experience 1968 firsthand, this book could prove to be an eyeopener. American society and politics were both unraveling in unforeseen ways, and they were doing so at breakneck speed. We had a president, Lyndon Johnson, who was driven mad by the determination not to be the first president to “lose” a war. So he kept bombing and bombing and bombing. We had a leading presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, who would stop at nothing to take power, including treason (a charge well documented by O’Donnell). And we had a large supporting cast of scheming, cynical politicians who darted in and out of the presidential campaign based on the day’s wind direction, looking for an opening to advance their own power. Issues? Policy? Issues are for amateurs.
And then we had an oddball poet-philosopher-Senator who decided to challenge an incumbent president of his own party solely on the basis of the war and the need to end it. Now. O’Donnell describes Gene McCarthy’s campaign platform as a simple matter of “life and death”. Indeed, he shows the entire year could be reduced to that simple formula: Choose … life or death,
But the real force that year turned out to be the still-growing peace movement. Not that it mattered, in the end, to the election results. But it mattered in the long run. It changed everything.
O’Donnell says, “The peace movement won. The peace movement drove U.S. forces out of Vietnam, not the North Vietnamese army. American politics responds slowly to protest, so it took several years for the peace movement to win. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger complained for the rest of their lives that they were not able to achieve peace with honor in Vietnam because congressional support for the war kept dropping. That is a complaint against democracy. … The millions of women and men who were active in the peace movement saved lives by forcing the war to end sooner than it would have if they hadn’t taken to the streets in protest …”
I was 16 years old in 1968 and deeply involved in both the Gene McCarthy presidential campaign and the peace movement. I’ve been a student of that era ever since. It is important — no, essential — history to grasp. Because we have the same simple yet stark choice before us right now: life or death.