As we watch the fall of Afghanistan with horror and come out of the second summer of important but complicated protests, in a divided country, it’s a good time to look back on what it felt like the last time similar events were to shape a generation.
Let’s remember what it felt like when we first thought the world was listening, the lessons we learned when we realized it wasn’t, and ponder if we can’t finally think about how to stop the hamster wheel of history.
Here’s a look back on how the events of this date, 53 years ago, affected one family with a child on the brink of adulthood. What are we saying to our children and grandchildren today about why we don’t seem to be able to change the world? Because the whole world is still watching.
They always say that Vietnam was the first war we saw in our living rooms as we watched the nightly TV news. I don’t recall those images as much as I should have, but I absolutely remember the night I watched the war at home—as I sat on the ’60s-splashed orange-flowered couch in the living room—when the police jumped out of the paddy wagon and began beating young people. This was happening in my hometown, only an hour from the suburb where I lived. And I was watching it with my mother—a World War II veteran. It was when the generation gap disappeared for us for a brief moment. It was the first time we agreed in months, and the last time we’d agree, for a long, long time. This was inexcusable. This was not America.
Another Anniversary from the Year that Turned the World on Its End
It was 53 years ago that the Democratic Convention in Chicago was held, finishing off a long reign of the Democratic Party that began with the great hope of John Kennedy and ended in tragedy—with major achievements undermined by an inability to end the Vietnam War. It also shattered the image of Chicago as the City that Worked, super-charged the antiwar effort, and polarized the nation.
Until the violent images appeared on television, I remember that, though the war was heavy on our minds, it was hard to get really engaged around the convention. It seemed the country’s leaders were offstage or running out of gas just when we needed them the most. The two candidates of hope were gone or fading. Bobby Kennedy had just been assassinated, and after that, Gene McCarthy seemed to have lost heart and energy. We were left with Hubert Humphrey, the VP of a president that by this time was so reviled and exhausted he gave up and didn’t even try running for another term—and Nixon. I was too young to vote, but I knew that whatever happened, it would be my age group the next administration would be putting on the line.
Meanwhile the Vietnam War was Raging
Over the years there’s been a lot of coverage talking about the specifics of what happened here in Chicago during that time, and why. Three years ago, The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern hosted a remarkable series on “The Media Legacy of Chicago ’68,” that reminded us that this is where the phrase “The Whole World Is Watching” began. The convention was also the first instance of politicians claiming what we now call “fake news” and vilifying the media. It was the event that caused police to be trained ever after in crowd control and, significantly, it was the first time raw footage went right to broadcast: No editing, no editorializing—YOU WERE THERE. Twenty seconds of film of cops jumping out of a paddy wagon and clubs doing what they shouldn’t be doing, and more and more after that. We’d see worse soon enough at Kent State. But this was first. This got the attention of the world. This was a police state in Chicago: Vietnam on Michigan Avenue.
We Were Already Pretty Spooked
By the time of the convention, we were in the eighth month of a year that every quarter had brought us a new horror—from the Tet Offensive to two assassinations. We weren’t numb yet; your faith that regular life would—had to—prevail was still pretty strong. You felt like if you just kept your head down… you could duck until it all settled back into rationality.
I’d just graduated from high school and made a bargain with myself to get the thing I most wanted—the future promised by a college education—but from the military, the entity that was involved in what was to become the greatest tragedy of my generation. A year later, the “deal” seemed almost Faustian to my teenaged self. But at the time I was trying to make it work. My induction ceremony had taken place only a few weeks earlier.
My mother had encouraged/pushed the move (it’s what she’d done), and she wasn’t broaching any second thoughts. Both my parents were vets from “The Good War” and couldn’t really see that you couldn’t say that about this war… until we saw the paddy wagon pull up.
I remember my mother covered her mouth with her hand and held it there, long after the clip played—this woman who had weathered twenty-hour surgery shifts in field hospitals on the front and the liberation of a Nazi prison camp. We were both stunned, both grasping for a comment that would encompass the horror of the moment. When her hand came down, she couldn’t look at me—her gaze was still fixed on the screen. There was just a deep, long sigh. I joined her. We sighed and nodded. Words wouldn’t bridge the gap, but this did.
My Coming of Age
I think it happened in that moment, quick and profound. I spent the rest of the summer winnowing the piles of what I was planning to bring to my new dorm, from clothes to record albums. I fixated on those, for some reason. I knew the Beatles had to come with me, but I was going to college, maybe I should listen to more grown-up music—maybe it was time to give up childish things.
I chose a Johnny Mathis album, one of Sinatra’s, and gave The Association Greatest Hits to my ten-year-old brother.
Nothing changed between my mother and me, but when we argued in the future, we were both aware we knew better. We were aware that way down deep we agreed at least on this one fact— “my” war was nothing like “her” war.
Eventually, I gave up my military scholarship and took back my Association album. My brother called me an Indian-giver, and I bought him a new one. We both still have them.