Nineteen Seventy-Two: Year of Revolt

Just as 1968 was the year of left revolution around the world, so was 1972, both a pivotal and a lost moment in history. It was on Veterans Day and election day of that year when the entire society seemed to come crashing down. Although both Emma Goldman and Philip Berrigan, in different eras, had cautioned that if electoral politics could change anything about this society and the larger world in a material and meaningful way, then those elections would be declared illegal.

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act had gone into effect in 1971, and Veterans Day was held on October 23rd, instead of its traditional November 11th date. Senator George McGovern lost his presidential election race against Richard Nixon on November 7th.

Lyndon Johnson had squandered the promise of the Great Society in Vietnam and Laos, and Cambodia would soon follow. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been the last president to harness the power of his office to help end the Great Depression through mass programs of social and economic change. George McGovern was the last Democrat whose platform could have changed the society and the U.S. global role in demonstrable ways. After McGovern’s loss, it was a parade of neoliberal candidates and presidents who championed free-market capitalism, deregulation of business interests, and cuts in government spending. Neoliberalism was the antithesis of the social and economic programs of both FDR and LBJ. McGovern had considered a guaranteed income grant of $6,400., a radical sum for those days, but finally pared that amount to $1,000.

McGovern would have ended the Vietnam War years before 1975, and would have implemented an amnesty that would have provided for relief of those countering the military draft. His plan for military resisters was less certain, but would have been a demonstrable improvement from the Ford amnesty program that was vindictive and left draft and military resisters with less than the forgetting that is at the heart of any amnesty program. Gerald Ford granted Nixon a complete amnesty.

The political and economic systems work with the duopoly in the US to ensure that capitalism operates freely to different degrees. FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps was segregated and he would not endorse anti-lynching laws. He imprisoned Japanese-Americans during World War II. LBJ was a warmonger.

Election Day, November 7th, sent shock waves through my parents’ home in Rhode Island, as my mother, Sylvia, had been a statewide coordinator for the McGovern campaign for president. She had turned our home into a campaign center, and the distinctive green computer sheets of that era were everywhere throughout the house, a sign of her commitment to McGovern’s run for office and his promise to end the Vietnam War. On one campaign stop, at an Elks lodge, along with Senator Claiborne Pell, she was driven to tears by the angry sentiments in favor of the war and against McGovern.

Some analysts of the 1972 election believed that McGovern could have won about 10 states. He won only Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.. His campaign was stymied from its beginning by his selection of Thomas Eagleton, a Democratic senator from Missouri, as his vice-presidential candidate. Decades later, the political smear of “amnesty, abortion, and acid” was attributed to Eagleton, who was removed from the ticket after it was learned that he had received electroshock treatments for mental-health issues.  Presidents of the US have to be sane enough to support the Armageddon of nuclear war, but can’t have had mental-health issues in their past. Ambassador Sargent Shriver took his place, but the election was already lost and not because of Eagleton’s mental-health issues.

By the war’s end, over 2,000,000 Vietnamese, both military and civilians, had been killed in addition to those killed through the massive US bombing campaign in Laos. The Cambodian genocide was a result of the Vietnam War. Over 58,000 US soldiers were killed in Vietnam.

In Cambodia alone, the Khmer Rouge killed about 2,400,000 people out of a total population of 7,100,000.

My acts of protest and resistance had reached their denouement by 1972. The FBI began visiting my parents as the summer began. When they turned their attention to an aunt in the same community, who had substantial mental-health issues, I believe that one of her sons stepped in and informed on me to the FBI. Within days of the FBI’s visits to my aunt, I was arrested and the last act of my direct resistance finally took place.

Amnesty would now do no good for me and I was forced to fight it out with the government, a battle that lasted 38 years, until my record reflected nothing more than it had before my debacle in the military and my resistance to the military during the Vietnam War.

Toward the end of the war, the US military estimates that there were between 500,000 and 1,500,000 cases of AWOL and desertion in its ranks, along with the fragging of commissioned officers who ordered troops in their command into untenable actions in Southeast Asia. There were 570,000 so-called draft offenses during the Vietnam War, a figure that also gives credence to the high number of military infractions and resistance during the Vietnam War.

When I look at the US and the larger world today, it is often hard to believe that the level of resistance took place 50 years ago. The East Coast epicenter of revolt, Greenwich Village in New York City, seems like the epicenter of gentrification and consumerism today. Where hippies and Yippies and assorted counterculture masses of young people gathered a half-century ago, now storefronts are infrequently small businesses, although they exist, and the campus of New York University has expanded in octopus fashion throughout the area. Although a center for the beginning and ending of many protest marches in the past, Washington Square Park is a sad, though still beautiful, shadow of itself.

Much of the protest of the 1960s and early 1970s was driven by idealism. Some of that protest was driven by self-interest and self-preservation. Looking at the landscape of today’s resistance to the destructiveness of greed and environmental ruin, the right is very adept at maintaining the status quo or worse, while many watch on, siloed and atomized in a decaying landscape. That the world teeters so close to nuclear war through the proxy war between Ukraine, Russia, and others seems alien to me, but considering how people are channeled into narrow thought processes through the mass media and nearly unlimited consumption, it all often seems completely comprehensible.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).