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VVAW in Chicago, 1968
By Andrew Hunt
Reprinted from Andrew E. Hunt's The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (New York University Press, 1999) pages 28-30.
Activists began trickling into Chicago the weekend before the convention, with a steady stream arriving on the opening day, Monday, August 25. A pugnacious Mayor Richard Daley vowed that he would not tolerate unrest in his Chicago, "As long as I am mayor," he proclaimed before an American Legion meeting, "there will be law and order in its streets." Authorities guessed that fifty thousand, perhaps as many as one-hundred thousand, activists would come to Chicago. Ultimately, ten thousand did. The mayor placed his twelve-thousand-man police force on twelve-hour shifts and stationed six thousand Illinois National Guardsmen outside the city. Authorities warned police to watch for hippies, the flamboyant Yippies led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, SDS militants, and anyone who appeared subversive. An estimated ninety million Americans watched on television what seemed a city under siege. For the Vietnam veterans who drove, hitchhiked, flew, or traveled by rail to Chicago, the troops, with their rifles, gas dispensers, grenade launchers, .30-caliber machine guns, and bazookas, served as stark reminders of the war in Vietnam. Some veterans, including Bernard Harrison, a twenty-three year-old Philadelphian who went to Chicago to support McCarthy, had fresh memories of the Tet Offensive revived on the streets of the Windy City.
The veterans hoped their unique status would help them influence delegates, yet they went to Chicago with few expectations. Before the convention began, John Talbott, a physician who served in the Army in Vietnam and joined the pro-McCarthy lobbying effort in Chicago, wrote an open letter to the delegates expressing his pessimism. "I feel that the Democratic Convention is all but over, that Humphrey has all but taken control of the convention delegates and there is no way for the electorate to be heard." He concluded his letter on an even darker note: "I see us heading down the same old road to more disasters, more aluminum caskets, more craters in rice paddies, more murdered leaders, more 'blue-ribbon' commissions on riots, and more dehumanization of us all.
The convention was a disaster for the Vietnam veterans. The Democratic Party, still under the firm control of Johnson, Daley, and Humphrey, adopted a decidedly pro-war statement by a decisive vote of 1,567 to 1,041. The anti-war platform went down, and with it went McCarthy, In the streets of Chicago, meanwhile, police turned on protesters with clubs, tear gas, and mass arrests. Mike McKusker recounted:
"It was Wednesday night in Chicago. Sometimes I thought it was as bad as anything I'd seen in Vietnam, except they weren't popping rounds at us. But they came at us and they came at us hard, those Chicago cops, man. It was kind of funny, I had a friend who was with me almost the entire time. We were in Vietnam together and he had no sympathy for my anti-war attitudes. He thought I was an idiot. At the same time, he also thought I was being an idiot (for) sticking my neck out around the Chicago cops with whom he grew up. It was one of the worst police forces in the world. And so he was out there with me almost every damn day to make sure I don't get hit, so he's out in the middle of it, too."
On Thursday night, August 28, following Hubert Humphrey's nomination as the Democratic Party presidential candidate, the battle moved from the convention auditorium to the streets as many of McCarthy's young campaign workers joined the militants in battles with the police, McKusker and other Vietnam veterans found themselves in the midst of the chaos. They had received an invitation to attend a function at the home of the comedian and activist Dick Gregory. "If you were in the streets, and you moved, you were a Yippie," Gregory later said. The police arrested Gregory and a group of pro-McCarthy delegates, then teargassed McKusker and other observers. Along the way, McKusker "got clubbed in the ribs by a National Guard rifle butt." "If they hadn't gassed us, I thought some of us would've been killed," McKusker remembered. "The mob pushed in one direction, then being pushed back in another, people were going to get trampled. Then they (the police) hit the gas and everybody turned around and walked away, so it saved a lot of lives, at least."
A former helicopter crew chief and VVAW member who went to Chicago hoping to persuade a few delegates to support McCarthy found himself in the middle of a street battle, complete with a police helicopter buzzing overhead. He later recounted:
"Seeing those guys up above, looking at the troops and the cops, and knowing they were against me—for me this was as terrifying as anything in Vietnam. Somehow I had become the enemy, the Viet Cong of the United States, when all I am is a human being that wants to be human. Just because I hate this war and the kind of things that forced us into it, they've made me the enemy of my country."
The veterans left Chicago feeling depressed and powerless. Their nonviolent efforts were completely overshadowed in the press by the battle in the streets. After the tear gas cleared, a frustrated Carl Rogers dumped a large box of campaign literature out of a high office window in downtown Chicago and watched it flutter through the air to Daley Plaza below. Several dedicated VVAW activists simply disappeared following the convention and never resurfaced. "That was like the end of it for many guys. They were angry about what happened in Chicago," Rogers recalled. Sheldon Ramsdell decided to "lay low" after the convention, and others did the same, "I tried to forget Chicago," a VVAW member later said, "I never really expected anything else, anyway. America has a cancer." Jan Barry remembered that VVAWers returning home from Chicago "were totally discouraged."