The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968

Governor Lincoln Almond

Interview and story by: Kyle Connelly and Pat McGrath
This story is based on one of a series of interviews conducted by South Kingstown (RI) High School students in the Spring of 1998. All of the interviews were focused on recollections of the year 1968. In addition to the students' edited story below, you can find on this site the electronic transcript of the interview and a quicktime recording of the encounter .

I Always Had An Interest In Politics

I was born in Pawtucket in 1936. My parents were residents of Central Falls, but when I was 12 years old I moved to Lincoln in 1948.

Central Falls was a fun place to grow up in. We stayed in a tenement house that was owned by my grandfather. He was the fire chief in Central Falls. I remember it was very painful to move to Lincoln, because Central Falls was very interesting. It was a mill community and was the most populated square mile in the United States. During World War II, we were very lucky because my father ran the gas station during the gas rationing, so we used to get to the beach in South Kingstown that other people couldn't get to. I really enjoyed it.

My grandfather retired as the fire chief when I was young and he took an active role in politics in Central Falls. I remember him running for office one year, but he was defeated. I remember the hustle and bustle around election time and things of that nature, but I can't say that my parents had any strong political views.

I always had an interest in politics. When I was in high school, Harry Aswith was the minority leader of the House of Representatives and I admired him. I can recall seeing him and talking to him; he used to give me encouragement. Also, I was very pro Eisenhower. I took a great interest in the 1952 Convention, when I was a sophomore. That was when Eisenhower was running against Taft for the Republican nomination. Eisenhower was like a fatherly figure and I just liked him.

[During the Sixties], There were some very militant student groups that were very dangerous; they affected the school systems in Rhode Island. I had a call one time when I was the United States Attorney from a student at Rhode Island College. He invited me to speak to a political science board, and I accepted it as normal. A few days later, I received a phone call from the president of the university, telling me I couldn't come. Basically, I was not welcome on campus because of the disruption it would cause. My response was that I thought the call should have been from the student who had invited me. Then I got a call from a professor who said that if I would come, he would get a couple of other professors to join me. They had not had an outside speaker at Rhode Island College in two years, because of the fear of demonstrations. They had a group of very militant students there. There was a group of students from the Political Science Club and students from Democratic Action. The students from the Democratic Action were a group of militants who yelled, screamed, and swore for a good hour. Finally, we wore them down; they left, and we had our meeting. I remember the professors were very appreciative that I came, because they thought that might break the ice. My opinion was that those students should have been expelled from the school. They were just a small group, and they were causing disruption. It was not fair to the rest of the students.

We also used to have a lot of demonstrations at the courthouse. Most of them were very peaceful, and I always took the position [that there would be] no police and no marshals. I would deal with them and it would be easy. The most known group was the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). We had some good information that they were going to kidnap a Federal Judge and put him on trial. They were going to go to Judge Day's courtroom where there was an actual criminal trial going on. They were going to disturb the proceedings, seize the courtroom, and try the judge for treason. There was no question they were going to do that. Because we believed the information was true, the Chief Judge gave permission to lock the doors of the courthouse. And sure enough, they came; they were the worst. They were the only violent group that I encountered during the entire Vietnam War. It was very difficult. We locked the doors and I had marshals within the building and FBI agents inside and outside the building. The SDS had chains and they were throwing things, trying to break the doors. We finally had to restrain some of them physically and eventually they realized that they were not going to succeed. It lasted about a half day, and it was very difficult.

Most of the demonstrations were on the steps of the courthouse. They were fairly peaceful, but the most difficult thing I had was, across the street where they were building the Hospital Trust Tower. The hard-hats would stop working, sit on the girders, and taunt the protesters. You always had this confrontation between the hard hatters at the construction site and the demonstrators in front of the tower. That was the most difficult one. I was always fearful about it. I used to go over and talk to the guys all of time, and say let us handle it. I was always fearful of them charging from the Hospital Trust Tower. It caused a lot of high emotion.

I remember one time, we had this big, long line of college students, mainly from Brown. They marched through the City Hall and the Fleet Industrial Bank Building. Then they came across Kennedy Plaza toward the Federal Courthouse. In those days, the first floor of the Federal Courthouse was the Veterans Administration. I was the only one out there and I stopped the first student who was from Brown. I told him that I needed his name and address. He asked what for, and I said because when you go through this building, you are going through the VA, and there is going to be a lot of high emotion. Somebody is going to be responsible if there is any damage. He turned around and that was the end of it. [I did not say] that he couldn't come in the building. I gave him a reason why he shouldn't. I had a responsibility to uphold the law.

I can remember watching [the Democratic Convention in Chicago], and I thought the reaction of Mayor Daley, in particular, from the balcony was rather offensive. It was a total disaster. The groups outside were not behaving the way they should be, but the reaction to it was a tremendous overreaction. Feelings were running very, very high at the Convention, because of the politics, the war, and the demonstrators.

In 1968, I ran for office, and I was struggling with the issue of Vietnam. I opposed the war, but I wanted to be careful not to point it at the soldiers. I can't recall when [the Tet Offensive] took place, but the bombing of North Vietnam, I think, solidified my views on the war. I always had a very, very difficult time with the war. I did not believe in the "domino theory." I firmly believed that the Vietnam War was more about a civil war then about Communist expansion. I disagreed strongly with the national leadership on the war. I ran against the war in 1968, but I tried to be as supportive as I could of the men and the women in the armed forces. I had the same opinion from day one that it was not a war to win; it was not a war we should win; it was not a war we should be involved in. I basically advocated the withdrawal of US troops and to put the issue before the United Nations. The United Nations refused to act by taking over a demilitarized zone (DMZ). Then, we pulled out and turned the war over to the South Vietnamese, in a logical fashion so that no one could see the slaughter. It was a gradual movement to de-Americanize the war.

The agonizing thing was that most of the young men who were in Vietnam were not there as volunteers. They were drafted, and they were fighting for their country. I think, unfortunately, a lot got the wrong message when they were over there. I think they came back very bitter, and that was one of the real problems of the Vietnam War. There were many young men and women, who went to Vietnam, fought very hard, and felt when they were coming back that they were coming back in disgrace. The majority of the people were very appreciative. I think they understood how difficult it was, and possibly all, knew people who were killed in Vietnam. I had plenty of people who I knew in Rhode Island who were killed.

The war was taking its toll on Lyndon Johnson, and it didn't surprise me [that he would not run for the presidency for a second time]. He had a really tough time with all of the demonstrations and the difficulties that were going on in the country. The demonstrations would have followed him throughout the election, and I think he realized that. I think he realized it would have been very divisive for the nation. I never warmed up to Lyndon Johnson. I have always respected the President, no matter who it is, but I had trouble with Lyndon Johnson. I had a chance to meet him at URI, but I could never warm up to him.

I liked Eugene McCarthy. He handled himself very well. Many Democrats didn't like him at all because he was against the establishment, but I had sympathy for him because I was an antiwar person. I admired his courage, taking on a sitting president is not an easy thing to do.

I also admired Hubert Humphrey, even though he was extremely liberal in many ways. I had a good respect for him as an individual, and I had some sympathy for him. He had a real difficult time as a vice president on the war issue with Lyndon Johnson. I had this feeling that he was not agreeing with Lyndon Johnson.

[I feel that] Nixon was a total disaster, a total disappointment. There is no way you can defend him. Watergate was so stupid. I don't think it would have had any impact at all on the election, but it got totally out of hand.

Glossary Words On This Page
Richard Daley
domino theory
Dwight David Eisenhower
Hubert Humphrey
Lyndon B. Johnson
Eugene McCarthy
Richard M. Nixon
Tet Offensive

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