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Anti-war protests, a Chicago DNC: Is it 1968 all over again? Some historians say no

In late April, with election season in full swing and pro-Palestinian demonstrations sweeping college campuses across the U.S., a historian named Keith Orejel voiced an observation.

"I just can't believe the parallels with 1968," the Wilmington College professor wrote on X, formerly Twitter. "I mean ok, Columbia has unrest and there's widespread anti war activism, that might be coincidence. But there is a guy named Robert Kennedy running for president and the [Democratic National Convention] is in Chicago. Like is this a bit?"

That question seemed to resonate, and not just among the more than 8,000 people who liked Orejel's post.

It has appeared in a growing number of think pieces and political interviews in recent weeks, especially with the school year ending and the general election — along with this summer's political conventions — fast approaching.

Many see parallels between the political and cultural events of 1968 and 2024, especially with the Democratic National Convention happening in Chicago in both years and against the backdrop of extensive student protests against U.S. involvement in foreign wars — the Vietnam War then and the Israel-Hamas war now.

In fact, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said this month that the conflict in the Middle East and the U.S. response to it "may be Biden's Vietnam."

"Lyndon Johnson in many respects was a very, very good president," Sanders told CNN. "He chose not to run in '68 because of opposition to his views on Vietnam, and I worry very much that President Biden is putting himself in a position where he has alienated not just young people but a lot of the Democratic base in terms of his views on Israel and this war."

In 1968, that left incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey, anti-war Sen. Eugene McCarthy and former U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy vying for the Democratic primary nomination, until Kennedy's assassination that June.

The Democratic National Convention that August was tumultuous inside and out. Chicago police were seen on live TV beating, tear-gassing and arresting hundreds of protesters on the streets, while the convention itself was marred by infighting between competing slates of delegates and among party members over the (ultimately rejected) Vietnam "peace plank" of the party's platform.

Humphrey somewhat predictably won the nomination of a profoundly divided Democratic Party but eventually lost the general election to "law and order"-focused Republican Richard Nixon. His presidency kept the U.S. in Vietnam for another five years and ushered in a turn to conservative politics that would persist for some three decades.

"A lot of folks sort of see the choice people are being presented with in 2024 as a similar thing," Orejel told NPR in an interview, pointing to the rematch between Biden and former President Donald Trump.

Thousands of voters opposed to Biden's handling of the Israel-Hamas war voted "uncommitted" in their state primaries, earning at least eight delegates for the DNC. It's unclear how many of those voters will support Biden in November; several have told NPR that they don't know yet.

It's not just politics that seem to be repeating. Both years also saw new Planet of the Apes movies, Summer Olympicsand U.S. moon missions (though we're still far from another moon landing).

And yet, Orejel says, 2024 is by no means a replica of 1968, which is widely considered one of the most tumultuous years in recent American and global history.

That's an assessment shared by all three historians NPR interviewed for this story, who acknowledge some similarities between the years but caution against relying too closely on 1968 as a guide.

Marsha Barrett, a professor of history at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, says it makes sense that people are looking for historical examples to understand what's happening now. But 1968, she argues, may not be the best one to use.

"Maybe making a comparison helps you to make it clear why this moment is different or what was unique about that past moment in time," she says. "But I think there's too many factors that have changed between now and 1968 [for us to] really look to 1968 to help us understand what's going to happen next."

The wars — as well as the protests against them — differ in some key ways

Both years involve impassioned demonstrations — including many on college campuses — against U.S. involvement in foreign wars. But the dynamics of the wars and the scopes of the protests against them are very different, historians say.

For one, the U.S. sent troops directly into Vietnam, starting in 1965. Nearly 500,000 American service members were in Vietnam by 1968. The following year would see a peak in troop numbers and the reintroduction of the draft lottery.

All told, some 58,220 Americans were killed in the conflict.

"That is just a drastically different level of involvement than clearly what you have now, which is the U.S. providing weapons, providing military aid and providing diplomatic support [to Israel]," Orejel says.

The current Israel-Hamas war dates back months, not years, to Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Many Americans have lost family members abroad, though U.S. troops aren't directly being deployed.

The U.S. has since provided military assistance to Israel and sent troops to the Middle East amid growing regional tensions, but the Biden administration maintains that U.S. troops won't set foot in Gaza — instead, the military is constructing a pier off the coast to deliver humanitarian aid.

"There is an argument ... that the proportionality is out of whack in those similarities, right?" Orejel says. "That what the U.S. was experiencing in '68 over Vietnam seems to be on a much different scale than its level of involvement in what is currently going on in Gaza at the moment."

He acknowledges the ongoing conflict is "dramatically galvanizing" people in the U.S., especially students and activists.

But he says today's protests are generally much smaller than the sustained anti-war demonstrations of the 1960s, which in some cases drew as many as hundreds of thousands of people.

It remains to be seen, Orejel adds, how far protests might spread beyond college campuses this summer and whether they will unfold not only at the DNC but at the Paris Olympics, as they did in Mexico in 1968.

Anthony Michael Kreis, a constitutional law professor and political scientist at Georgia State University College of Law, says both 1968 and 2024 are "pivotal moments in the sense that I think people's sense of real changes are afoot."

"But you really can't compare, I think, aptly, a handful of very important, salient, deeply divisive protests and counterprotests to the kind of rampant and seemingly nonstop political violence and social unrest that was 1968," he says.

1968 was a year of nearly unprecedented turmoil in the U.S.

While the news cycle — especially online and across social media — can feel tumultuous and relentless these days, historians stress that 1968 was a uniquely turbulent year in American politics and society.

It began in January with the Tet Offensive, a series of coordinated attacks on the U.S. and South Vietnamese militaries by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces, which represented a major escalation of the war and U.S. public opinion against it.

"And then from there on, throughout that entire year, it just continues to be one sort of upheaval after another," Orejel explains.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., in April, prompting the eruption of riots in over 100 cities across the U.S. and galvanizing the more militant Black Power movement.

RFK threw his hat in the Democratic primary to challenge establishment favorite and heir apparent, Humphrey, and had generated considerable momentum before he was assassinated in June on the night he won the California primary.

RFK's death brought an end to the feeling of optimism that had defined the 1960s for many young people. In fact, Kreis says, many began to feel "that the world was just unraveling."

And part of that, he says, was the unraveling of the dominant political order.

The New Deal coalition — the voting bloc of union members, ethnic and religious minorities, white Southerners and others who had effectively powered the Democratic Party since 1932 — began to fall apart, weakened by splits over issues such as Vietnam, civil rights, immigration reform and urban riots, as well as "white flight" to the suburbs.

"At the core of them all was just this ticking time bomb, this kind of political powder keg, where people were really fighting over the nation's identity and what it meant to be an American," Kreis explains.

Kreis doesn't think the U.S. is in exactly that position today, though he sees similarities in the growing divisions within the Democratic Party, especially when it comes to the young anti-war protesters who make up a crucial part of its voting bloc.

He'll be watching to see how Democrats reach out to disillusioned voters — especially young and Muslim voters — in the months ahead and how party and city officials respond to expected protests at the convention.

One big takeaway from 1968, Kreis says, should be to let protesters air their grievances "without turning the entire convention into a story about protests."

"I do think it could be problematic for the Democratic Party if there isn't a better threading of the needle on this issue," he adds.

The dynamics of the parties and their conventions have changed

The Democratic Party that embarked on the 1968 convention looked very different from the one that emerged from it afterward — and from the version of the party that exists today.

Heading into the election, the party faced major criticisms from within for a lack of transparency in how it chose delegates, Barrett says, and for keeping people with a more "activist-minded approach" away from power.

The internal chaos of that convention ultimately prompted a series of rule changes that reformed the nominating process and gave more young people, members of racial minorities and women a role, from 1972 onward.

"The party changed in response to those activists, and the legacy of that remains," Barrett says. "And that's a main reason why the Democratic Party remains much more diverse today than it was then."

Another difference this time around lies in the options — and lack thereof — available to disillusioned voters.

In 1968, anti-war Democrats could throw their support behind McCarthy, who campaigned on a swift end to the war in Vietnam, or Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, another anti-war candidate who briefly jumped into the race as a stand-in for RFK.

Today, Barrett says, "there is no alternate choice."

Third-party candidates, like Jill Stein and Cornel West this year, are widely seen more as spoilers than viable alternatives. And the 2024 Kennedy candidate — RFK Jr., who is now running as an independent — is hovering around a 40% favorability rating in national polls.

Democrats still risk losing voters — but the dangers are different than they were half a century ago.

In 1968, Nixon capitalized on the disarray in the Democratic Party and the contrast between their convention and the orderly Republican proceedings in Miami. Some Democrats who were already drifting to the right saw Nixon as a viable option and voted for him in the general election as part of what he called the "silent majority."

Barrett thinks it's less likely that disappointed Democrats will similarly back Trump.

And when it comes to the convention itself, she says, "Considering how the party functions today [and] who is involved," it's not likely to devolve into chaos on the floor, even if there are protests outside.

"I think many Americans, they're both bracing for the possibility of some unscripted chaos and perhaps also hoping for it, maybe, because it means that maybe the democratic process has been reactivated in some way at the convention that has become pro forma," she adds.

Became pro forma, that is, in the aftermath of 1968.

Barrett says there's no single year that can offer a precise blueprint for what to expect this time around, though the Supreme Court's role in the 2000 election could be worth studying in light of the presidential immunity case now before it.

Instead, she's looking more at changes over time, especially when it comes to voting-age Americans' likelihood to vote, faith in democracy and views of things like the Electoral College and money in politics.

"Paying more attention ... to where we are in that longer history," she says, "could maybe help us to make sense of where we are right now."

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.