|The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968
A Tumultuous Time
My enthusiasm for public life came from when John F. Kennedy ran for President. John F. Kennedy had that kind of charisma and excitement that excited a lot of young people of my time. He was young, attractive, and very articulate. A lot of us became interested in his campaign and interested in a lot of issues that he talked about: Civil Rights, health care, and other kinds of things-- things that became quite a fascination for all of us. JFK was my champion. I think he was starting to move the country in the right direction. The U.S. had regained its popularity around the world with a young president who had a young and attractive family. It was a terrible shock to the country and the world when JFK was killed.
In 1962, I was so fascinated by politics and government that I got involved myself and ran in my neighborhood for the Rhode Island Senate. I had a very difficult primary election and after going through this very difficult primary, I asked myself if I really wanted to be in electoral politics. This was, is, a tough business. I had to do a lot of things to get elected, much more than I thought I would have to do, but I got elected in 1962 to the Senate. This led my becoming Lieutenant Governor. I was Lieutenant Governor for eight years. In 1967, I became the Democratic Chairman of Rhode Island.
In 1968, they had that horrible convention in Chicago, and I went there as the Democratic Chairman of Rhode Island. Young people demonstrated in the streets in protest of the war, and the Democratic Party really took the brunt of that. A lot of young people who had an allegiance to the Democratic Party were upset and disturbed. It was a volatile time, 1968.
In 1968, LBJ announced that he wasn't running. His policies were so unpopular that he became a victim of his own war. The country was divided because the war was so unpopular. In 1968, the presidential choices were Hubert Humphrey who had been the Vice President. Hubert Humphrey represented the traditional party line. Humphrey was a good man, whose candidacy for President got caught up in the whole Vietnam War. He was so tied to LBJ that he had to adhere to LBJ's policies. He couldn't extricate himself and be more in the line of where the country wanted to go. Robert Kennedy became candidate, but most delegates were not "in sync" with Robert Kennedy. Gene McCarthy became the "peace candidate," and a lot of young people really became attracted to Gene McCarthy's campaign because he seemed the best hope to get us out of the Vietnam conflict.
I remember going to a party for Gene McCarthy who was in Providence. Many young people from Brown University were demonstrating outside the Biltmore Hotel, hundreds of them, hundreds of students demonstrating against the war and against the political establishment. I can remember many of them burned their draft cards and some of them ended up giving them to me. They were so distraught about the war. A lot of young people were looking for exemption to military service. People who went to school were able to get an exemption, but people who couldn't get to college or didn't have the ability or the resources, they were the ones who ended up going to the war. A lot of kids, lots of minorities, ended up going to war. We lost over 50,000 lives in Vietnam, each life divided the country more.
Early on, we sent advisors to Vietnam. We were trying to help the South Vietnamese government which had been destabilized. We had always had this threat of the Communists coming down to take over Vietnam and then taking over the rest of South Asia. This was the so-called "Domino Theory." After we sent the advisors, we started sending massive numbers of troops and bombing the North. Killing was going on on both sides. The whole escalation of the war bothered me.
I, like a lot of other Americans and young people, started to question American policy in Vietnam. What were we gaining by all this bombing? We were committing more troops and more people were getting killed. I think a lot of people felt we were in a no win situation. What were we doing there? It seemed like a great waste.
In 1968 Martin Luther King was killed. Martin Luther King's death led to the kind of atmosphere that doesn't allow a country to move forward and do those kinds of things that would help heal a nation. We had big demonstrations in Washington; cities were burning. In1968, Robert Kennedy was killed, and young people were being sent off to a war. I could feel the tension in the country. The war escalated, 50,000 lives were lost, the National Guard was called out to fire on students. There were huge demonstrations in Washington. In 1968, Blacks were discriminated against. They didn't have housing, education and other kinds of services that they should have been entitled to as American citizens. It was a tumultuous time.
Nixon said he had a plan to end the war, so he ended up getting elected. It took some time, but it did finally end. I was very happy to see it end. I knew a lot of people who were in Vietnam. It was the most divisive thing that was happening in the country. We lose 50,000 lives a year on the highway due to accidents from drunk driving, and that's the number of people we lost over in Vietnam. That's a lot of lives to lose. I think, as a result of Vietnam, Americans today are very sensitive about sending American soldiers and putting them in harm's way. I think Vietnam showed us that we've got to be more careful when we get involved in other countries' domestic disputes.