The Whole World Was Watching

Last week, Anne and I went to see “The 1968 Exhibit” at the Missouri History Museum. As its name implies this exhibit focuses upon the year 1968 in American history. One of the defining aspects of this watershed year was that year’s Presidential election and one of the pivotal events of that election was the Democratic Convention in Chicago.

In the months leading up to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, there was much chatter on the left, to put it in today’s parlance. The anti-war movement was seeking to make a major show of force, shut down the convention and drive home the message, to end the war now. While, the Chicago police found themselves in a jittery state after the rioting on the city’s West Side following the assassination of Martin Luther King earlier that year.

Aware of the threat from the left, the police braced for battle. And the battles came, first in Lincoln Park, when the police used tear gas to clear out protesters camping there, then even more brutally in Grant Park, a few nights later. Protesters chanted before the TV cameras, “The whole world is watching!”

Inside the convention hall there were other battles, over party rules, platform planks and over the competing candidates. The anti-war plank lost, along with the peace candidates George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy. Herbert Humphrey emerged the party’s nominee, but his campaign was fatally damaged by the violence in the streets and Richard Nixon eventually became president.

In Chicago, the anti-war movement, an irresistible force collided with Mayor Daley, an immovable object. Television cameras captured the resulting clashes as national theater. It was as if the Vietnam War was being acted out in some sort of fantasy role-playing version of the war, act tough, try to intimidate, win over the center with a show of force and draw the other side into acting every bit as monstrous as you said they were. 

Much of this post is just me paraphrasing the exhibit’s cue card, including its quote of Todd Gitlin from his book, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. Still it is a story that I thought was worth the retelling and like much of “The 1968 Exhibit” contained events that were then and remain so today, deeply moving to me. I hope that you the reader found this post useful. 

Leave a Reply