Violent Misunderstandings

The increasingly tense division between the American people during the late 1960s led to a chain of violent actions and reactions. A fundamental component to this increasing polarization and hostility is a lack of understanding, especially on the part of those in positions of power. People looked at young activists and made generalizations about them, assuming all to be radical and violent. Beyond this, the unwillingness of people in power to understand these activists often resulted in an unawareness of the true demands the activists sought. Older, more moderate democrats, additionally, also misunderstood the more active youth, resulting in their failure to see the similar views they actually shared. During these years, the American people, activists or not, were questioning the intentions of their politicians, becoming increasingly aware of the existence of a “credibility gap”. Those in power – policy-makers and university administrations – as well as the older generation in general did not understand the much more politically active and frustrated student activists and civil rights organizers; moreover, they didn’t understand the Vietnamese people whose country they essentially invaded and overtook. The unwillingness to understand resulted in increased polarization and violent behavior within American society.

There was a clear unwillingness of policy-makers during these years to understand activists. This is clear as these policy-makers escalated involvement in Vietnam with a blindness to Vietnamese culture and social structure. Robert McNamara admitted this ignorance of Vietnamese culture and society, but, as Appy and Bloom note, “this belated admission of ignorance is as accurate as it is appalling” (Bloom, 49). Additionally, University administrations dismissed student strikers’ demands, only fueling protesters frustration with the bigger structural issues they saw the university as symbolizing. Politicians also misunderstood youth activists and civil rights leaders. Politicians like Lyndon Johnson also make this clear. Johnson, for example, tried to dismiss civil rights issues after passing laws like the Voting Rights Act, not understanding that laws could not fully resolve systemic racism. Even McCarthy, despite being viewed in a much more positive light compared to Johnson during these years, made misguided assumptions about his younger supporters.  Because “he had deep misgivings about a group of young rebels using him as a battering-ram against his party,” he would not allow them to speak or be on stage with him during his campaign (B&B, 370). The older generation in general continued to misunderstand the younger, more politically active and frustrated youth, generalizing them all as radicals despite older democrats actually sharing many of the fundamental views that their younger counterparts did. When McCarthy canvassers, for example, questioned many citizens about issues at the time, they found that “whether or not people understood Vietnam, they knew that something had gone very wrong with this country…many, many connected their troubles with Lyndon Johnson, and some, amazingly, said just about what the kids were saying” (B&B, 371).

All of the people raising awareness to this unwillingness to understand or responding to these societal issues were “othered” in one way or another. Vietnamese citizens were seen as less than human, and their opinions were excluded in regard to the escalating war in their country. This encouraged U.S. policy-makers to continue the pursuit of a brutal war with no end in sight. Also, many assumed that all students involved in politics or protests were radicals, yet many were actually moderate and many shared views with older, non-student democrats. As Jeremy Larner argues in his memoir, “the majority who hated the cops should not be confused with the minority who actively provoked them, or the smaller minority who attacked them” (B&B, 385). And, despite McCarthy himself interpreting his young supporters as radicals, “the students enjoyed McCarthy’s respectability and wit as the outer signs of solidity, courage and wisdom… these were kids who reacted against the violent anti-Americanism of the New Left, whom they far outnumbered” (B&B, 370).

The consequences of these misunderstandings were increased polarization between many Americans and reoccurring, escalated violence. In the protest of the democratic convention in 1968, this resulted in police brutality on anyone, despite many of the protesters being “gentle college kids” (B&B, 385). In turn, those already frustrated with society became more open to violence, as the author makes clear when he describes his own personal rage resulting from this police brutality (B&B, 388). The response by civil rights activists and black power organizers to the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. also makes this clear. As Eldridge Clear summarizes the feeling of the time, the “reaction to Dr. King’s murder has been unanimous: the war has begun… the violent phase of the black liberation struggle is here, and it will spread” (B&B, 381). In Vietnam, the consequence was continued escalation of the war and eventual awareness by the American people of the “credibility gap” of their policy-makers.

The lack of understanding in American society during the late 1960s, particularly on the part of policy-makers, university administrators, and the older generation led to increased frustration within these activists. In turn, activists were more polarized and willing to resort to violence in response to the injustices they faced.