Topsy-Turvy: The other side of 1968 activism, 50 years on


Ned Cramer/Architect Magazine

During the strife-ridden decade of the 1960s, the call for ‘law and order’ became a major demand of conservative journalists and politicians. In part, they were reacting to the surge in mass student-led protests against American participation in the Vietnam war. This new movement led to peace marches, anti-war rallies held throughout the country, especially at some of the country’s leading universities – Berkeley, Columbia, Michigan – as well as outside the Pentagon and other outposts of the ‘system’ that had promoted war-making. The folk singer Bob Dylan, later to win the Nobel prize for literature, sang “The Times They are a Changing” to express the outlook of his generation.

The conservative demand for ‘law and order’ was not focused exclusively on the anti-war protests. It was stimulated also by the African-American civil rights campaign, including demands for ‘black power’, notably in relation to urban rioting that began in Los Angeles in 1965 and continued throughout the country’s major cities for much of the decade.

In reaction to these waves of turmoil and tumult George Wallace, the pro-segregationist governor of Alabama, launched a nationwide campaign for president in 1968. Wallace spoke in the name of those Americans ‘sick and tired’ of the mass disturbances they were witnessing, either on television or in person. During the same election campaign Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, struck the same note. Nixon appealed successfully to a ‘silent majority’ of Americans who demanded an end to the strife.

To this end, both Wallace and Nixon expressed strong support for the police, the American military, the FBI, and the other forces of order in the country.  On the other hand, opponents of American involvement in Vietnam and supporters of ‘black power’ condemned the very same forces Wallace and Nixon sought to champion. For those on the left, these were agents of domestic repression and international imperialism.

In a sense Bob Dylan was right. The times have changed but not in the ways he believed they would. These days during the Trump era conservative voices in congress and the media have been raised to a shrill volume in condemning the same forces of order they once supported so vigorously. The FBI, CIA, the NSA (National Security Agency), though not the military, have been accused of a concerted effort to undermine President Trump’s legitimacy and subvert the “conservative” values on which his leadership is allegedly based.

This radical transformation in the conservative perspective is perhaps best exemplified by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s current personal attorney. Giuliani, once the lead prosecutor for the justice department in the southern district of New York State, and a strong defender of the FBI, now ridicules these institutions for their inquiries into his employer’s business and political affairs.

The shift in outlook is also noticeable among the Democrats.  Leading personalities within the party, particularly those in Congress now defend the FBI and CIA against Trump’s threatening tweets and speeches. While during the 1960s liberal Democrats attacked these agencies for spying on American critics of the Vietnam war and such leaders of the civil rights movement as Martin Luther King, they now seek to protect these agencies against Trump’s abuse. And as the United States approaches the 2018 mid-term elections we should note the prominence of military veterans and retired national security officials who are now running as Democratic candidates for the House and Senate.

Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Foundation Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Nevada. See his profile here:


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