In order to write coherently and concisely about the great year of revolt 1969, 1968 needs to be seen as a backdrop to the great days of rebellion that took place in nation after nation across the globe.
Mass movements of 1968 in the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, Poland, Brazil, the United States, Pakistan, France, West Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, Spain, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere made 1968 the year when the echoes of revolution and revolt were heard around the world: “And revolution in the air…” to quote a line from Bob Dylan, and so was rebellion. Much of the developing world was being rocked in a post-World War II political, economic, and social environment in nations in Africa, Southeast Asia, Asia, Europe, Central America, and South America where the hegemony of the imperial powers was being challenged by ordinary people. A generation and people across the globe were mobilizing for change on the political, social, and economic left. Some of those movements for change would be suppressed violently. Some movements themselves had elements of violence within them, but the vast majority of protest in the U.S. was nonviolent or militantly nonviolent. The cohort of the baby boom generation, an integral part of protest that swept the globe, was coming of age.
What was being opposed? Capitalism, the morphing of communism into an intolerable totalitarianism, imperialism, racism, the lack of civil rights and civil liberties, the subservient role of women, the destruction of the natural environment, and the desire to improve the condition of life of billions of people worldwide. Does this all sound somewhat familiar? Does it sound somewhat romantic and a part of the idealism that is sometimes at the heart of the human condition?
Nineteen sixty-nine was the most significant year in my life and the year in which the political would become intensely personal. During 1968, a group at the college I attended, Providence College Students for Peace, formed in answer to the growing horror of the Vietnam War and the echo of the war’s presence on my campus in the form of the Reserve Office Training Corps brigade. ROTC was an integral part of the experience of many of the students who attended Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island. Only a few, short years earlier, ROTC participation had been mandatory at PC. PC was an intensely conservative school, run by the Dominican Friars, and the student protest group was not welcomed with open arms by either the student body, or the school’s administration. My best friend, Joe, a leader of the student group, had been called into the dean of students office several weeks before our graduation on June 3, 1969, and quizzed about the intentions of the peace group.When we took to the baseball field on campus, where an ROTC commissioning parade would take place during graduation weekend, we knew instinctively (at least that is how rumor had it) that there would be some unofficial presence in the baseball field’s stands that would monitor our actions and behavior where we stood along the foul line at third base. There were about a dozen of us protesting, which was very big news on a campus where those in ROTC often saw their belonging to this military organization as part of an unofficial compact as the children and grandchildren of immigrants in support of the government and its policies around the world. The society had rewarded many students and their families for their allegiance to its values and actions, hence, protest was seen as unpatriotic.
I knew, having been in ROTC during both my freshman and sophomore years at PC, that my membership in the protest group on campus was a signal that most of my college friendships were ending. I had been subtly admonished at a weekend party in an off-campus apartment a few weeks earlier that my membership and actions in the peace group were unwanted and that my friendship with Joe was an indication of connecting to someone who was a political outlier on campus.
Nineteen sixty-nine was never unremarkable. In June, I joined the National Guard as a way to avoid Vietnam. I was so unfit for the military that my experiences, even while waiting to leave for basic and advanced training, were more than unsettling. The monotony and authoritarianism of the military did not suit me in the least. But that is way ahead of the story of the historical and personal importance of 1969.
October 15, 1969 marked the first mass protest against the Vietnam War and by chance I would leave for basic training the next day, first to South Carolina, and then ultimately on to Augusta, Georgia. The Moratorium to End the War organized the October 15th demonstrations. The protest in Boston alone drew 100.000 people. The Moratorium’s second major demonstration in Washington, D.C., on November 15, 1969, would draw 500,000 people, but by that time I would be in Georgia and in the midst of basic training.
I marched down from College Hill on the East Side in Providence, Rhode Island with a mass of people, mostly students from Brown University, in a candlelight procession to the Rhode Island State House. Thousands of people gathered on the state house lawn to hear Mitchell Goodman, then charged (the case against Goodman was later dropped) with counseling men to resist the military draft along with others such as Dr. Benjamin Spock. On the Brown quadrangle, we had listened to Allard Lowenstein, the civil rights and political icon, address the crowd, admonishing the government to listen to the voices of peaceful protest if it, the government, wished the antiwar movement to remain nonviolent. Most of the movement would remain nonviolent, some militantly nonviolent, and others, a small minority of the antiwar movement, would soon turn to more violent means to stop the war.
On the morning of October 16, 1969, I would fly out of Green Airport in Warwick, Rhode Island and after stopping in Hartford, Connecticut, my unit would go on to Columbia, South Carolina and Fort Jackson, the reception station where we would remain for about a week before flying to Augusta, Georgia and Fort Gordon.
Fort Jackson was a surreal experience for me, further solidifying my revulsion at all things military that were meant for a war of aggression against a people and a government in Vietnam that wished to unify that nation. Fort Jackson was the military base that had seen the physician, Howard Levy, refuse to train Green Berets. For his resistance to the Green Beret’s role in Vietnam, he was imprisoned.
Basic training at Fort Gordon was just as horrific as I could have imagined. I did not belong in the military and had tried a last-minute attempt to get out during the intake physical at Fort Jackson the week before. But getting out of the military at that point was pretty much impossible.
The two features of basic training that stood out in my mind, besides the total loss of individuality, was the constant referral to the Vietnamese as “Gooks” and “Charlie.” That expression of racism was small potatoes when compared to the beating that the scapegoat of our basic training cycle, Alan Sturgis (a fictitious last name), would receive.
Alan was from Brooklyn and was marked and used as a scapegoat by the drill sergeants in the company in which we received our basic training. He was physically weak and made an example of at every turn in the basic training experience. He was a member of either a Guard or Reserve unit from New York (I cannot remember which) and his inability to complete the physical requirements of training ensured that he would return to Georgia and undergo a repeated cycle of basic training reserved for those whom the Army wished to make examples. Alan represented the first rule of military training: Stand out and you will be made to suffer.
A half-century later, I can’t imagine what the torment was like for Alan, but I do remember him breaking down in tears in front of the company one afternoon after that day’s training had been completed. Alan’s experiences paled, however, compared to one draftee, who shot the toes off of one foot in the last few days of the training cycle rather than go on to infantry training and the near-certainty of deployment to Vietnam. That event, sent a shiver through the line waiting outside of the mess hall one morning in December, as we learned what had happened.
Assigned to a communications unit just returned from Vietnam following basic training and advanced training in early 1970, the unit command assigned me to an honor guard that fired M-1 rifles at different military commemorations, including the dedication of a Vietnam memorial. Less than a year later, the significance of the M-1 rifle, a so-called assault weapon, and the National Guard, would be forever linked in my mind to the massacre at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.
The Vietnam War had already become a war widely televised, and although the details of massacres such as at My Lai in March 1968 were not known yet, there was evidence, both televised and by word of mouth, including from veterans of that war, that atrocities were taking place. The extent of those atrocities was not known in 1969.
At the end of basic training, getting off of the train at Penn Station in Manhattan that would carry me home for the holidays, I felt like the odd man out in my uniform as I rushed to meet a friend from college.
The protest leader Abbie Hoffman had it right as he closed a speech to students at Vanderbilt University just days before he committed suicide in April 1989. Speaking of the 1960s, he said: “We were young, we were reckless, arrogant, silly, headstrong… and we were right! I regret nothing!”
Fifty years later all of these events are as important today as they were when they happened. The generation of baby boomers was confronted with the military draft in an unpopular war. The elite knew that the draft could not continue, and the contemporary result is that resistance to war is weak on the left. Students today are generally more concerned about debt and careers than they are with issues of war and peace. Others, not of the student class, are confronted with issues of survival.
A single issue, such as the U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen, needs to make those with any kind of moral compass have their hair stand on end. But because so few have their skin in the “game,” only relatively small numbers of people care.