Posted by: erniejshannon | June 14, 2018

A Park for the Ages

Chicago’s “front yard”, Grant Park, has witnessed many historical events during its 174-year life span. Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession through the city originated there in the spring of 1865. One of the oldest air shows transpired there in 1911. Later in the 20th century, Pope John Paul II, the great disturber of the Soviet Union, conducted a mass in the park in 1979. Just a decade ago, President-elect Barack Obama spoke in Grant Park just after his 2008 on election night following his victory over Senator John McCain.

However, of all the history-making events to occur in Grant Park, the most impactful for the city of Chicago and the nation at-large was the 1968 anti-war protests that upended a political party and drove the last nail into the coffin of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.

By August 1968, the Vietnam War had been intensifying for four years – since the Gulf of Tonkin Incident – with no resolution in sight. President Johnson had responded to an alleged attack on a U. S. war ship by the North Vietnamese in August 1964 by significantly augmenting the already thousand or more troops in the country and instituting naval and aerial bombardments. However, his heart was never in the “winning” of the conflict with the Communist North and so he chose a path to a stalemate much like the truce in Korea in 1953. The Vietnamese didn’t cooperate with Johnson, though, and by the summer of 1968 the war was claiming the lives of thousands of American soldiers while nothing was resolved on the battlefield or through heavy bombing of North Vietnam.

The protests began almost at the outset of America’s escalation of the war. When a draft was instituted in 1965, the protests picked up steam and turned violent. For the next three summers, the protests spread to most large metropolitan communities and involved frequent conflict with local police and National Guard units. In 1968, race riots added to the general chaos in American cities, especially after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April. The Democratic National Convention scheduled for Chicago in August provided the powder keg for the next explosion.

The Democratic Party had divided into two camps by the time of the convention. The one aligning with President Johnson and his vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, who would be nominated as the Democratic candidate for president that year, and the other siding with the vanguard of the anti-war movement and its candidate, Robert F. Kennedy. However, he was killed by an assassin in June.

In sync with the convention, several thousand protesters arrived in Chicago that last week of August and quickly descended into confrontations with Chicago police and the National Guard. The violence began at and around Grant Park and Michigan Avenue and spread through the downtown area and near the convention center. The police responded with tear gas, billy clubs, and mass arrests which eventually made its way into the Democratic convention hall itself.

Ultimately, the Republican candidate for president, Richard Nixon, won the November contest by a razor-thin margin on the promise of ending the war with dignity. But the war raged on for another four years before Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger successfully negotiated an end to the war in 1972. One could argue that the events of that hot August week in 1968 set in motion an era of decline from which America has never really recovered. Gone forever in the violence of the sprawling Grant Park was the tranquility of the Dwight Eisenhower 50’s and the Camelot of the John F. Kennedy early 60’s.