Riots in Chicago fracture the Cold War consensus - HISTORY
Year
1968

Riots in Chicago fracture the Cold War consensus

At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, tens of thousands of protesters against the Vietnam War battle police in the streets while the Democratic Party tears itself to shreds concerning a platform statement on Vietnam. In one day and night, the Cold War consensus that had dominated American thinking since the late 1940s was shattered.

Since World War II ended and tensions with the Soviet Union began to intensify, a Cold War consensus about foreign policy had grown to dominate American thinking. In this mindset, communism was the ultimate enemy that had to be fought everywhere in the world. Uprisings in any nation, particularly in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, or Latin America, were perceived through a Cold War lens and were usually deemed to be communist-inspired. In Chicago in August 1968, that Cold War consensus began to crack and crumble. The Democratic Party held its national convention in Chicago that year. Problems immediately arose both inside and outside the convention. Inside, the delegates were split on the party’s stance concerning the ongoing Vietnam War. Many wanted a plank in the party’s platform demanding a U.S. withdrawal from the bloody and frustrating conflict. Most of these delegates supported Eugene McCarthy, a committed antiwar candidate, for president. A majority, however, believed that America must not give up the fight against communism. They largely supported Vice President Hubert Humphrey. As the debate intensified, fights broke out on the convention floor, and delegates and reporters were kicked, punched, and knocked to the ground. Eventually, the Humphrey forces were victorious, but the events of the convention left the Democratic Party demoralized and drained.

On the streets of Chicago, antiwar protesters massed in the downtown area, determined to force the Democrats to nominate McCarthy. Mayor Richard Daley responded by unleashing the Chicago police force. Thousands of policemen stormed into the crowd, swinging their clubs and firing tear gas. Stunned Americans watched on TV as the police battered and beat protesters, reporters, and anyone else in the way. The protesters began to chant, “The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching.”

The world–and the American nation–was indeed watching that night. What they were witnessing was a serious fracture beginning to develop in America’s previously solid Cold War consensus. For the first time, many Americans were demanding that their nation withdraw from part of its war against communism. North Vietnam, instead of being portrayed as the villain and pawn of its Soviet masters, was seen by some as a beleaguered nation fighting for independence and freedom against the vast war machine of the United States. The convention events marked an important turning point: no longer would the government have unrestrained power to pursue its Cold War policies. When future international crises arose–in Central America, the Middle East, or Africa–the cry of “No more Vietnams” was a reminder that the government’s Cold War rhetoric would be closely scrutinized and often criticized.

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