The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968

Seth Gifford
Interviewed by James Gorman
March 20, 1998

James Gorman: The day is March 20th, 1998 and this is James Gorman with Seth Gifford, on a report "The Whole World Was Watching: 1968."

First, we'll start off with some personal background.

Seth Gifford: Sure.

JG: Where and when were you born and where did you grow up?

SG: I was born in Providence, in November, on November 29, 1921. And, that was in Providence and I lived in Providence through high school, went to Moses Brown, then I went to Brown and so I lived in Providence up through 1943.

JG: Briefly describe your family and your neighborhood, ethnicity, religion, your parents' occupations.

SG: Okay, my, I lived on the East Side of Providence, on Hope Street, and my father's occupation was investment banker.

JG: If your mother worked outside the home how did your family respond?

SG: Not to my knowledge. I think she did work before she got married, but she did not work outside the home, to my memory.

JG: How were household chores and duties allocated in your family and how did that change over time?

SG: I think growing up I had practically no chores in the house. And that's about, that's about the way it went until I got married, which was in 1945. I married a college classmate and we subsequently lived in Pawtucket and then in Providence and we had three kids.

SG: What were your parents' political views and affiliations?

SG: Well, they said they were Independent, but I think they were Republican at heart.

JG: Where did your family get information about politics and other events?

SG: I would guess that their knowledge came from discussing it with friends and relatives. Many of whom were officials in the Republican party, also on the radio and newspapers. I don't recall any particular political books or writings.

JG: What did you think you wanted to do when you grew up and how did that change over time?

SG: Well, I never had any idea of what I wanted to do except I didn't want to do what my father did, which was selling stocks and bonds. That probably turned out to be a horrendous mistake because the stock market has changed so that now that kind of work is very lucrative. But what I did was I went to work in a mill and became a labor organizer and that, that was from about 1946 to `54 probably, for the Textile Workers Union. And, then I went to work for the state and I went to law school, and got a degree and then practiced law since 1959.

SG: Were you aware of any discrimination against people in your family or neighborhood?

JG: None. I don't think so.

JG: How did people around you talk about people in other ethnic groups?

SG: Well, I don't believe that there was an ounce of discrimination in their blood, but I don't know how you'd test that. So I don't know, I don't know any objective way. I know, I know that we did have a colored maid part-time, which didn't cause any problem, or didn't, didn't seem strange to me.

SG: We're going to move on to high school and college. Where did you attend primary school and how did your education shape you as a person?

SG: I went to Moses Brown which is a private school on the East Side run by the Quakers. And I don't know that either high school, or elementary school, high school, or college had any particular effect on me other than gave me an education. Which I found useful in later life!

JG: Where did you go to high, oh sorry. Describe your extracurricular activities including membership in a sorority or fraternity.

SG: Yes, I did join a fraternity at Brown, which has since gone out of business and the house has been torn down. And I, I really think I gained nothing from being in there except use of the facilities while I was going to college. It was, it was a place to hang my hat when I was in college and didn't go home every day.

SG: Who were your best friends and did you date or go steady with someone? And, did you, you obviously ended up in a serious relationship.

SG: I really didn't have any serious relationships until I got into college. At which time, that's when I met the girl that I married. And what was the rest of that?

JG: Who were your best friends?

SG: My best friends. I, I made friends in college, and I see them occasionally but they're, they were not any great influence on my life.

JG: Could you describe dating and sexual activity among your group of friends. Was there any difference in your sexual activity when you went to college?

SG: I guess the answer to that is just negative; I didn't run around and I didn't date. I didn't particularly go to dances, I did go to athletic events and occasionally I would go to a dance. But, I would say my sexual activity in Brown was negligible.

SG:Did your counselors or teachers encourage you to go to college or graduate school? If not, why not?

SG: My family encouraged me to go to college. Nobody else, nobody else encouraged me. And, if I had had my way I wouldn't have gone (laughs), but I did go. And I'm, since I went on later years to law school, I'm glad that I, that I went to, went on to college. And what was the rest of that?

JG: Were female and male students treated differently?

SG: What?

JG: Were female and male students treated differently?

SG: Not that I noticed. There were different, we had different athletics and of course Brown has now been the subject of a big suit by some of the women athletes claiming they were discriminated against. I don't have any opinion on whether that is true or not. It was no problem when I was there which was, like 1939 to 1943; we haven't come to 1968 yet (laughs).

SG: Did you feel there was a generation gap? If so, why?

SG: Well, I think there will always be a generation gap because older people are older and younger people are younger. And, to my way of thinking, the older people are probably more, well, they are, older people are more experienced, probably more mature, more capable, and in a better position to take leadership.

JG: Describe your wardrobe. What did clothing styles reveal about people who wore them?

SG: Well, when I was growing up in Moses Brown I wore a blue surge everyday. And, in college I wore a suit or a sport coat. And after that, I always had several suits or sport coats; now I never put on a sport coat, I never put on a suit if I can help it (laughs). It would take a funeral or possibly a marriage somewhere, neither of which is in sight.

SG: Was there a counter culture? Was it a positive or negative thing?

SG: I don't know what a counter culture is. No, there was no counter culture.

JG: Alright. How did you feel about the use of drugs?

SG: It was completely unknown to me until my children were growing up which would, I suppose would be in the Sixties.

JG: Did you know, did you have any friends or know people that did drugs, and what were the.?

SG: No, I didn't. You know, it's just, didn't have a very exciting life you might say (laughs).

JG: Which were your favorite musical groups, movies and books?

SG: Oh, growing up I liked jazz, Benny Goodman- I guess you'd call him jazz, big band music and all the big bands--Count Basie. Black and white bands and jazz combos.

JG: Did you watch TV?

SG: Well, we never had TV until, I don't remember when, I, I remember the first time I ever, ever saw TV, but I, we visited some friends, but I don't remember what the year was. I know that the size of the screen was about as big as your hand. It was just a tiny, tiny screen.

SG: What instructor or course do you most remember and why?

SG: I remember the labor course that I had in Brown and I enjoyed, I enjoyed that, I don't know that it, what effect it had. But I, I guess it, in the back of my mind, I was formulating my future plans for getting into the Labor Movement.

JG: Alright. Do you recall your understanding of the Cold War? And how was it explained to you?

SG: The Cold War? Well, I don't know that I paid much attention to the Cold War. I'm, I always thought the anti-Communist thing was overdone and I think that's the way that it's turned out, in the final analysis.

JG: Did you think about the threat of nuclear war?

SG: Well, not really, I guess you, you always think of it but it wasn't something that, that would really effect, it was an intellectual interest more than a, something that would affect your daily life.

SG: Were you affected by the Cuban Missile Crisis?

SG: The what?

JG: The Cuban Missile Crisis.

SG: No. Not at all.

JG: Did you participate in the peace movement?

SG: Did I what?

JG: Participate in the peace movement?

SG: Yes I did.

JG: Was 1960 and the election of John F. Kennedy an important turning point for you?

SG: No, I met, I met Kennedy, I knew Kennedy and at that time I was working for the State and I was enthusiastic about his election, I didn't have much to do with it, but I followed it closely.

JG: How did you respond to his assassination?

JG: I guess I cried like everybody else.

JG: Did you think that discrimination against people of color was a problem, or women?

SG: You're talking about discrimination for color, of color?

JG: Yes.

SG: I never, I never thought it was as bad as it evidently was. I'm, I'm always amazed that the, that discrimination was such a big part of the politics of the South and still is, I guess. The fact that, a lot of the south was Democratic but I think on the basis that they were wooed by the Republicans. And because of the anti-discriminatory position of the Democrats, I think that drove them into the Republican camp, and we've had Republicans from the South now for many years.

JG: Did you feel, follow political and social issues while you were in high school and college?

SG: No, but I did afterwards.

SG: Were you involved in any political groups? If so, describe.

SG: Not, not in, not in college. Later on I was involved, I joined, I actually joined the Socialist Party, I was a supporter of Norman Thomas for President one year. That was the year Harry Truman ran I think. But after that, I became interested in the Democratic Party locally and I was, I helped both the Governor and the Mayor of, the Governor of Rhode Island, Denny Roberts, and the Mayor, Joe Doily, I was both involved, I was involved, pardon, in both their campaigns and their administrations.

JG: Were there any rallies, or teach-ins, demonstrations on your campus or elsewhere?

SG: Political? You mean political rallies?

JG: Yeah.

SG: I don't know, I don't remember exactly, there must have been rallies on the campus at Brown. But, I don't remember who, what the cause was, or. I guess you could say it didn't have a big effect on me but I did attend a couple of those rallies. I don't know what they were for now (laughs). Hey, that's a long time ago. That's fifty years. Is a long time to dredge up some memory of the specific like that.

SG: We're going to talk about the adult years and responses to the 1960's; working people and housewives. Describe your work experience after high school or college.

SG: I went to work in 1945 I guess, for, in a textile mill and, in an attempt to organize it for the CIO. And then I went to work, a year later for the Union itself and I guess I worked for the Union until `54, I think, something like that. And then I voluntarily left because the textile industry was shrinking and the opportunities were diminishing. And I went to work for the State, and started law school, nights. And then I worked for the State until the voters kicked us out in `59, I guess, or `60. And then, I've been practicing law on my own ever since.

JG: How would you describe relationships between men and women? Like, was the women's discontent becoming an issue in your family or your relationship?

SG: No, my wife was a very talented nurse and administrator and I don't think she felt there was anything she couldn't do. As far as my mother's concerned, she, I don't think she really wanted to do anything. As far as women in, when I was in law school there were only two women in, in my class. And, when my daughter went to law school the class was about fifty-fifty. So, I'd say they, they'd come a long ways, I don't know about the discontent.

JG: Was music an important part of your life?

SG: Music? No, absolutely not. I'm tone deaf, I think. I can't, I don't sing (laughs), and I don't play any musical instrument.

JG: What about music like groups, musical groups, or something like that?

SG: What kind of musical groups?

JG: Like stuff from the Sixties. Well, did you attend concerts?

SG: I attended some of the big bands when they came to Providence or Warwick. But no, I didn't go to many, didn't go to many concerts, didn't go to, didn't go to the, didn't go to any of the Rolling Stones or any of that stuff, and I still don't (laughs).

JG: Where did you get most of your information about the outside world?

SG: Books, magazines, television, newspaper. I've, I guess I've always read the newspaper. And I've always been interested in discussions and theoretical things, I guess.

SG: Did you have a sense of the war in Vietnam and the war at home?

SG: Oh, I was against it. If there was a demonstration or something against it, I might have, I might participate in it.

JG: Well, you participated in political groups, right? Did you participate in community or religious groups also?

SG: Yeah. I was active in the Quakers, Quaker meeting, which was a group that was again, you know, they're pacifists, they, anti-war.

JG: Did you ever join a commune or live in a group situation?

SG: I didn't do that, no. I know people who did but I didn't do it. I was not a hippie.

JG: Could you recall your responses to any of the following, I'll just read this off: desegregation of the public schools, Martin Luther King's leadership?

SG: I, I thought Martin Luther King was a great guy. And, I didn't participate in the integration of the public schools, but I was around and, when it was accomplished in Providence on the first round of integration. And I knew the people who were involved in that, but I was not; I was not involved in the public schools either as a student, or as a teacher, or an administrator or anything else.

JG: What was your response to Malcolm X, and the Black Power, and Black Panthers?

SG: None. I mean, they were just there as far as I was concerned.

SG: When did you first become aware of the war in Vietnam?

SG: Well, when they started drafting people and sending people over there I guess, probably from the beginning. I think that, it was always my impression that the Bay of Tonkin resolution was a frame-up, and it was, that was just, something that shouldn't have been.

JG: Did you approve or disapprove on the US involvement in the Vietnam conflict?

SG: I would disapprove.

JG: Did you fear being drafted or having someone you knew be drafted?

SG: Not in the Vietnam War, I was too old. The, in the big war I was drafted but I was granted a deferment based on a, a religious deferment, which was at that time known as `E'.

SG: Do you know anyone who served in the Vietnam or was killed in the war, or was a prisoner of war?

SG: No. That was a different generation, I think.

JG: Did your opinion of the war change, change as time went on?

SG: No. Only that, only that it's, I think it's become more and more apparent that it was a mistake.

JG: If you engaged in any political, feminist, or civil rights activities, could you describe them.

SG: Any what?

JG: Political, or feminist, or civil rights activities; could you describe them?

SG: Well, no, I haven't been involved in any feminist activities. And what was the first one?

JG: Political.

SG: Political? Well, I was a member of the Democratic Party and I helped, I was a member of the Ward committee in Providence. And I attended all of those meetings and conventions and helped prepare platforms; and all the things, drove on Election Day to get out the vote. All the things, all the drudge work that has to be done.

SG: Did you attend any demonstrations, or counter-demonstrations, or conventions?

SG: I attended conventions regularly, both city and state. But, I don't, I don't believe I attended any anti-Vietnam demonstrations, maybe I did, I would - I wouldn't have any objection to it.

JG: Which foreign policy issues other than Vietnam concerned you? For instance the Arab-Israeli conflict, or events in Guatemala, Europe or Eastern Europe?

SG: Well, I was interested in, well first of all, I was interested in the United Nations and its founding in the Forties and supporting it and its various committees. And, I was also, I was also interested in the Guatemala [Nicaragua -ed.] Sandinista thing. Right? Sandinista Contras. And I thought that, I don't know what his rank was- North, the guy who was the policy guy for Ronald Reagan, he should've, I think he should've gone to jail.

JG: Ronald Reagan?

JG: (laughs) Ronald, no. His, what's that North? North's name, I've forgotten. Ollie North, Ollie North.

SG: Oliver North. Alright, did you support the limiting of nuclear testing or think it was an important issue?

SG: No. I was against nuclear testing, I was against the nuclear, any nuclear, development of nuclear power. I was against that. I was against, they were trying to site a nuclear plant down in Charlestown, and I was, I was active in opposing that.

JG: Americans were said to have committed atrocities in Vietnam, some of which have been documented in photographs; such as the burning of villages, the My Lai massacre. Were you aware of these and what did you think of them?

SG: No, I wasn't aware of them. I don't think anybody was aware of them at the time because I think they covered them up. And I, I'm willing to let that whole chapter be forgotten.

JG: When you saw Vietnam vets in wheel chairs and on crutches, and some in body bags coming home from Vietnam, what was your response?

SG: Well, it just heightened the fact that I was opposed to the war.

JG: Did you feel veterans were treated with respect and courtesy?

SG: Well, I didn't see them treated with any disrespect but I guess they were, I guess they were treated badly when they got home. I don't think that was proper either.

SG: Which of the following events from 1968 made an impression on you? I'm going to give you a list of about 12, and I guess we can answer one at time. But, the escalation of the Vietnam War conflict, the US bombing of North Vietnam, and the troop buildup.

SG: Well, that, what can I say? All I can say was, I was that I was opposed to the war, I'm opposed to any war. But I didn't take any great overt action against it except to speak out whenever I felt it was proper.

JG: What were your thoughts when Lyndon Johnson announced on TV that he would not run for the presidency

SG: I thought it was good, a good move, because I didn't like him at that time. I was sort of, sort of glad that it was the opposition to the war that made him resign.

JG: How did you feel about the assassination of Martin Luther King?

SG: I don't like anybody to be assassinated, I wouldn't even like Saddam Hussein to be assassinated. But I think it was, that was the, sort of the end of a, end of an era. I think he was a great leader and he had a lot of good qualities including nonviolence and his, a lot of guts.

SG: Did the Columbia University sit-in and other student agitation against the war and draft have an impression you?

SG: No. And there was a, there was a sit-in at Brown too, when they took over the administration building. I don't think those things accomplish much, but, I think they were, they were misguided I would say. Whether or not, a lot of these things would have been accomplished no matter what happened, so I doubt if they had any beneficial effect, really.

JG: How about the campaigns of Senator Eugene McCarthy and Governor George Wallace?

SG: Well, I was for McCarthy and against Wallace (laughs). The, yeah I think, I worked to support Gene McCarthy, but I wasn't, I don't, wasn't particularly close to that campaign.

JG: The Democratic convention in Chicago? You heard about that, was that an.

SG: I watched it on TV.

JG: Did it have an impression on you?

SG: Yeah, I thought the treatment of the people who were demonstrating outside the hall, I thought that was really, really poor; and in a way, typical of the political leadership in, of Chicago.

SG: What did you think about the election of Richard Nixon?

SG: I was unaffected. I supported, I think he, it was, he defeated Adlai Stevenson, I was an ardent supporter of Adlai Stevenson, and I you know, I met him and I was involved, a little bit, in the, in his being nominated, but he was not to be.

JG: The expulsion of Olympic athletes for their Black Power salute during the playing of the national anthem at the medal ceremonies?

SG: No. Had no effect on me. If that's what they want to do it's okay.

JG: How about the Space Program and the circling of the moon by US astronauts?

SG: I think that's really overdone. I don't see the benefit, supposed to have a beneficial effect on research or something, maybe it does, I'm willing to let it, let it go on, let it take it's course.

SG: We're going to end up the interview with some summing up and reflections, looking back from the Nineties. Overall, how would you say the Sixties affected you and the United States in general?

SG: I would say in the Sixties I was a young father growing up on the East Side of Providence and starting a law practice, and I think those were the endeavors that absorbed my efforts. And I think, happily they, it, they turned out reasonably well.

JG: What were the most important changes of the 1960's? And which did you think were the most positive and the most negative?

SG: Well, the drug thing was the most negative. The most positive is that we lived through it. (laughs)

SG: How would you compare the presidencies of Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon?

SG: Well, Nixon I think was shrewd and I think he shot himself in the foot with the Watergate thing. Kennedy was, well he was charismatic for one thing. He started a lot of programs. He had good people surrounding him, particularly his speech writer, his name was Ted something or other, anyway - shows you how fast your memory deserts you - of course, when Kennedy was assassinated, the programs that he was espousing hadn't really come to fruition, and they were carried on and implemented by Johnson, so if you liked Kennedy's programs, which I did for the most part, then you had to like Johnson. The only thing is, as I pointed out before, Johnson continued us in the Vietnam War and accelerated the Vietnam War, which was a mistake, and I was sort of happy that he decided to get out.

JG: Okay. Have African-Americans..

SG: So, I think, I think they all, they all had strengths but they all had weaknesses too, and Nixon's, I think, is more apparent than Kennedy's, but, and Johnson, Johnson's became apparent also.

SG: Have African-Americans accomplished the goals of the Civil Rights movement? Do you think racism is still a problem in society today?

SG: Well, it is, it's not a problem for me, and I think my summation would be that they, the blacks and women and Latinos and other minorities are, have, have all come a long ways in the last twenty years. I think we have a ways to go, but I don't think the, the race issue is any different than any other moral dilemma, and we can, we can see the lack of courtesy and the lack of morals and if you just drive down the road somebody, somebody'll cut you off, and lack of discipline is rampant. On the other hand, I'm inclined to believe that if a person is really focused and has goals and wants to get there, that he will, à la Colin Powell and many black people, black athletes. Why they succeed and others don't, I think is all wrapped up in the problems of competition and the problems of democracy - we haven't quite sorted them out yet.

SG: Do you attribute any current political problems or strengths in the United States to decisions that were made in the Sixties?

SG: Well, I, all of Kennedy's War on Poverty plans were initiated in the Sixties I believe, and many of those are still going, still running today, such as "Headstart," legal services for the poor, health services, health clinics for the, for the poor, and many of the, many of the poverty programs. So, those are, those are things that have lasted.

JG: Have you visited the Vietnam War Memorial, or seen a replica?

SG: No, I haven't, and I don't have any ambition to see it. I know it's there.

JG: Are you concerned about the POW issue?

SG: About what?

JG: Prisoners Of War?

SG: Do you mean Missing, Missing In Action?

JG: Yeah.

SG: I don't think there is, there are any missing in action. My theory is that if, if they're alive, then they, they're happy where they are. I know that's a naive conclusion, but after thirty years I don't think it's any use in looking for somebody.

SG: How do you feel about young people like us striving to answer questions about American involvement in the Vietnam War, and the whole decade of the 1960's?

SG: I think it's alright, it's an intellectual pursuit. I, my own thoughts about it are negative, so I assume that if you look into it from your perspective, that you would find it even more so, and particularly if you have, have any, put any credence in conspiracy theories or power, power brokers or whatever, power politics, I think you'd have a negative reaction. I would hope that any kind of examination of it would lead to opposing that kind of action again. And, I think it has, because I know we're in Bosnia, some of our troops are in Bosnia, some of them were, well the United Nations, we supported United Nations troops in Somalia, but there was, there was always the Vietnam War experience for people to point to to say, you've got to get out, you've got to have an end, you've got to have an end product, you got to have an end, and end gain, that's what it is, an end gain. You gotta have an end gain to, or some definite goal that you can reach, and then when you've reached it- so long, get out.

JG: And last, what advice would you give to us?

SG: Stay happy.

JG: Alright, thank you. Thank you for your time.

Glossary Words On This Page
Arab-Israeli Conflict
Black Panthers
black power
civil rights
Cold War
Count Basie
Cuban Missile Crisis
generation gap
Lyndon B. Johnson
John F. Kennedy
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Eugene McCarthy
Richard M. Nixon
Norman Thomas
George C. Wallace
Malcolm X

home | narrators | reference | issues | notes | help