Last night’s episode of The Vietnam War featured the 1968 Democratic National Convention—an event that saw then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey accept the Democratic Nomination to run for president. Of course, that’s the least of what the 1968 DNC was known for. The convention was plagued with tensions, among both party members and the protestors lining the streets of Chicago outside International Amphitheater. The demonstrators numbered in the tens of thousands and echoed a growing anti-war refrain happening across the country. They were met with a sizable show of force on the part of the Chicago Police Department and the Illinois National Guard. Riots, ensued—as they often do under these circumstances.
We spoke to Michael Goldstein, a Southern California resident who attended the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and shared details of his experience with us.
In the summer of ’68 Goldstein had just completed officer basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. A recent graduate of Tulane University, Goldstein was participating in an accelerated ROTC program while in law school at the University of Missouri, which he would start that fall.
When Goldstein completed training for the summer, he headed to Chicago for an internship at an insurance agency. Goldstein’s employer had convention passes that he got from the then-Governor of Illinois, Sam Shapiro. Goldstein went with another young man who ran a radio station at Columbia University.
“We were on the floor the night of Ribicoff’s speech. The night all hell broke loose in the streets of Chicago. And I was near the Illinois delegation when Ribicoff gave his speech … It was a real tense environment being there.”
Now, if you’re a little hazy on your Election 1968 history, here’s some background. Abraham Ribicoff was then a U.S. Senator from the state of Connecticut. In the speech Goldstein referred to, Ribicoff angered some—while energizing others—when he went off-script and said:
With George McGovern as President of the United States we wouldn’t have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago. With George McGovern we wouldn’t have a National Guard. You bet.
The convention crowd received Ribicoff’s words with a mix of cheers and boos through which Ribicoff posits: “How hard it is. How hard it is to accept the truth.”
And it’s that chaos among which Goldstein found himself.
“When everything boiled over … that just set everybody on fire,” Goldstein said. “Mayor Daley was trying to run it with an iron fist.”
Goldstein recalls leaving the floor of the convention:
“I was really shook up, because Mayor Daley uttered some—and I will not repeat them—but he uttered some words towards Ribicoff that just was shocking coming from both an elected official such as himself directed to a U.S. Senator. I mean, I was just appalled by it.”
Goldstein went to a cafeteria where he watched on television the demonstrations taking place outside.
“You could hear the [demonstrators] yell ‘The whole world is watching’ and literally the whole world was,” Goldstein said. “Next to me is a Chicago police officer who kept muttering ‘Give it to ‘em, they deserve it. Give ‘em what they deserve.’”
Goldstein remembers thinking: “This was an ‘us, versus them’. That was a moment of real clarity for me … We grew up in a period of time when you respected everybody that wore a uniform—more importantly the policemen, because they were there to protect you. And I’m standing next to somebody who is now turning that upside down …That really was a sobering moment.”
Goldstein and his friend decided to head out to the demonstrations.
“I was with a guy that was with the Columbia University radio station, so he thought he might be able to go down there and start interviewing some people, but I went down just to see what happened, how people are, is there anything we could do to assist the groups. We just went there because we didn’t know what else to do.”
Goldstein notes that even though he was willing to go to Vietnam, should his military obligations take him that way, he believed it was an unjust war. And while he came from a family that instilled the importance of giving back to your country—a value he still believes in fully—the event caused his some cognitive dissonance.
He recalls the sight of the troops on the ground and the air reeking of tear gas—which Goldstein was, in fact used to. During his training at Fort Benning he had to go into a tent full of tear gas and take off his gas mask to see how long he could sit in it—an exercise intended to get one used to the fact that they may engage in chemical warfare … at some point.
“When I got in the streets of Chicago, it was like being in that tent again,” Goldstein said. “Tear gas was everywhere … Here I’m seeing military vehicles, guys in uniform with rifles, the smell of tear gas, I’m going ‘What the Hell is going on? This is Chicago.’”
In his initial message to us, Goldstein wrote: “It was disconcerting to see military vehicles in an American city, where my contemporaries were exercising their first amendment freedoms. Freedoms I swore to uphold.”
Needless to say, the convention ended. The Democrats packed up and went home, or hit the campaign trail as the case might have been. Goldstein completed his internship and headed to the law school at the University of Missouri. And in addition to whatever convention souvenirs he brought home: placards, or campaign pins, he also brought with him the realization that there are “things you can do”.
University of Missouri, 1970
After the shootings at Kent State, the students at Goldstein’s school started to demonstrate, both in response to said shootings and to Nixon’s decision to go into Cambodia. While the demonstrations remained peaceful, the school’s administration wasn’t having any of it.
“They issued an edict that said you could not congregate with more than three people,” Goldstein explained. One, that violates the first amendment, but besides the fact you congregate with more than three people going into a restaurant. You could not transport gasoline across campus. Well. What do you do about the gasoline that’s in your car?”
Well, some of the students ignored those rules, and subsequently, some were arrested. Goldstein and his friends were taking a class on injunctions and decided to serve a temporary restraining order to: the Governor of Missouri, the chancellor of the school, and the trustees.
“We sought a restraining order to prevent them from breaking up these demonstrations, and we got it!” Goldstein said.
The students were able to demonstrate again without the threat of arrest.
“I’ve always felt that maybe we saved the university from a little bit of a dust-up by being able to get that restraining order.”
Goldstein recalls going into class the next day and his professor asking him and his classmates to stand and explain to the class what they did. The professor granted them all extra credit and commended them on using what they learned for something good.
Goldstein has since left Missouri. He now lives in Newport Beach where he practices tax law and estate planning, but he also tries to give back, dedicating his time and efforts to community groups. And he still hasn’t forgotten that formative time in his life and how it shaped his thinking.
“Today, I think every veteran who fought in Vietnam needs to be revered, needs to be respected. They did what they were supposed to do. They were sent under terrible circumstances. They were hindered in what they could and couldn’t do and for them now to have this level of recognition—that maybe what they did is because their country asked them to do that, and it was our leaders who failed us. And I’m glad they’re getting this level of recognition they should’ve received many years before.”