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Target Damascus:

The Israeli Invasion of Syria, 1967


Part 17


by Chris Oakley



Summary: In the previous sixteen episodes of this series we reviewed the Israeli invasion of Syria during the Eleven-Day War; the July War between Israel and the Soviet Union; the outbreak of conflict in the Persian Gulf between the Soviet Union and the United States and the escalation of that conflict into regional nuclear war; the NVA invasion of South Vietnam; the political crises that enveloped Washington and Moscow as the Gulf war neared its end; the US Air Force’s saturation bombing campaign against North Vietnam; the ouster of Leonid Brezhnev as CPSU first secretary; the opening of cease-fire negotiations between the United States and North Vietnam; Alexei Kosygin’s first days as new Soviet premier; the peace accords that finally ended the Gulf War; and the domestic chaos racking the US during the early months of the 1968 presidential campaign. In this segment we’ll look back at the Berkley campus shootout and recall the Humphrey-McCarthy showdown that dominated the American political landscape in the final weeks before the 1968 Democratic National Convention.


The students occupying the Berkley administration buildings were just as adamant in their insistence on continuing their occupation of those buildings as Governor Reagan was in his demand that they vacate the administration wing. It was a classic case of the irresistible force against the immovable object, and those who didn’t agree with either the radicals’ hardline leftist agenda or Reagan’s equally uncompromising conservative stance were scrambling desperately to get out of the line of fire of what was sure to be a vicious armed confrontation between the opposing camps.

Even some of those who agreed with the occupiers’ stated goal of getting the US out of Vietnam found their method for achieving that goal somewhat reckless. Catholic priest Rev. William Sloane Coffin, who for years had been at the forefront of nonviolent opposition to the US military presence in both Vietnam and Iran, held a press conference two days into the occupation urging the student radicals to vacate the admin wing at Berkley before the standoff between them and the police turned into a full-scale riot.

But the leaders of the UC-Berkley administration complex takeover weren’t in any mood to listen to calls for restraint; they felt that a confrontation with the "Establishment" was their last hope for getting the government to meet their demands. So they continued to hole up in their improvised barricades while California state troopers, sheriff’s deputies, National Guardsmen and Berkley city police prepared to blast them out. The occupation quickly became a hot national news item, with only the presidential campaign and the US-North Vietnam cease-fire talks surpassing it in terms of prominence.

Inevitably, large crowds of outsiders gathered in or near the UC- Berkley campus to make their voices heard on the occupation. Some were in favor of the radicals’ administration wing takeover, others strongly disapproved of it, but no one would forget the catastrophic way in which the standoff was finally brought to an end. On the fifth day of the UC-Berkley standoff, two California Highway Patrol officers were shot and wounded; though no one had seen who fired the shots, the police quickly assumed it was the student radicals who’d done it and unleashed a hail of gunfire at the administration buildings.

The radicals wasted little time returning fire, and in a vicious firefight that last nearly half an hour six police officers, twelve of the radicals, and three civilian bystanders were killed; fifteen other people were seriously wounded and two others hurt by flying glass from windows shattered by the gun battle. Once the authorities had regained control of the Berkley administration wing, the surviving radicals were taken under heavy police guard to a San Francisco hospital to be treated for their wounds.1

The bitter gunfight with which the Berkley standoff ended made an already confrontational US political climate that much more hostile. In newspaper editorials, TV spots, public rallies, and political speeches those who supported Governor Reagan’s actions and those who criticized them lashed out at each other in an orgy of accusations and name-calling which left even the most hard-bitten veterans of the American political scene flabbergasted. Hubert Humphrey and Gene McCarthy tried to outdo each other in stinging denunciations of Reagan, and many of their fellow Democrats were quick to join the chorus of anti-Reagan rhetoric; even some of Reagan’s fellow Republicans felt the governor might have gone overboard in sending so many police to flush out what in the end proved to be a relative handful of insurrectionaries. On Capitol Hill, Senators Edward Brooke and Edward M. Kennedy issued a joint statement calling for a Congressional inquiry into the UC-Berkley campus shootout.

For the hardcore left, the Berkley shootout was a confirmation of all their worst fears about the "Establishment". Black Panther activist Fred Hampton, who within a year would himself be killed in a shootout with Oakland police, told an underground San Francisco newspaper that the police intervention in the standoff constituted "irrefutable and stark proof of the inherently brutal and racist nature of white society  in this country". Students at college campuses across the US went on walkouts to show sympathy for the radicals killed or arrested in the Berkley standoff; underground newspapers printed savagely anti-police editorials and cartoons.


One well-known politician who was decidedly pro-Reagan in his views on the Berkley standoff was Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, whose city would host the 1968 Democratic National Convention. As far as Daley was concerned, the student radicals who’d been killed in the shootout had  gotten exactly what they deserved; he viewed all leftist critics of the US presence in Vietnam, even the nonviolent ones, as worthless scum who should be stamped out like roaches. In meetings with his police chiefs during the weeks leading up to the Democratic Convention, he told them again and again: "Nail ‘em(the antiwar protestors) the minute they step out of line."

Even if he hadn’t done so, many of the Chicago police were still willing-- if not eager --to mix it up with the student radicals. Whereas most antiwar protestors came from upper or middle class backgrounds, the vast majority of the CPD’s patrolmen and officers were from working- class neighborhoods and regarded these protestors as ungrateful juvenile delinquents spitting on the country and the generation that had made their material comfort and their civil rights possible. Letters to the editorial sections of Chicago’s major newspapers voiced deep concern that a fight between police and demonstrators outside the convention hall could prove the catalyst for citywide rioting; several people who lived in the neighborhoods immediately adjacent to the convention hall chose to move out of the city rather than risk losing their homes in what they were sure would be the worst civil unrest Chicago had ever seen.

Against this background, Hubert Humphrey and Gene McCarthy kept jockeying with one another to snap up the remaining undecided votes among the American people; it was a hard-fought battle, because not only was the Democratic presidential nomination at stake in this race, but also the soul of the Democratic Party itself. While Humphrey might have succeeded in ending hostilities in the Persian Gulf, he had not been able so far to extricate the US from Vietnam, and a substantial portion of the party rank-and-file was losing its patience with the incumbent. Some Democratic politicians had even reached the point where they were ready to cross party lines and support the likely Republican nominee, Richard Nixon, because of his "peace with honor" platform.

Conversely by the same token, a surprising number of GOP politicos backed Gene McCarthy for President because they agreed with his liberal social views; to them, he seemed like the best hope for defusing the  cultural time bomb which had been threatening to detonate in America since JFK’s assassination. First, however, he had to get the nomination, and that would be no small task given the momentum Humphrey had built up in the early primaries.

In late July, the American press sent out mixed signals about who was the true Democratic front-runner; a New York Times poll indicated that 60 percent of its readers surveyed would choose McCarthy as the Democratic nominee for President compared to 40 percent for Humphrey, while a similar poll by the San Francisco Examiner said that 53 percent of its readers supported Humphrey as the nominee vs. 47 percent for McCarthy. As Humphrey himself observed in a CBS News interview three weeks before the Democratic Convention, the race for the nomination was certainly tight heading into the last lap....


On the Republican side, it was by now a foregone conclusion that former Vice-President Richard Nixon would be the GOP’s presidential candidate in the November general elections. Nixon had dispatched nearly every one of the few challengers he’d faced in his struggle for the GOP nomination; he had already stared drawing up a mental checklist of potential running mates for the number two spot on the ticket. At the top of the list was Maryland governor Spiro Agnew, a moderate who could provide much-needed balance to Nixon’s staunch conservatism and thus (hopefully) attract undecided voters who might not otherwise cast their ballot for the GOP.

The 1968 Republican National Convention took place in Miami Beach the same week that the New York Times and San Francisco Examiner printed the results of their respective polls on the Democratic race; Nixon, of course, won his party’s nomination on the first ballot. In his victory speech the former Vice-President once again pledged to do what he said President Humphrey couldn’t and end the war in South Vietnam; he also made it clear the United States would not abandon the Saigon government on his watch. There were a few scuffles between police and demonstrators at the Miami Beach convention, but these were tame episodes compared to the bloodbath that would shortly mutilate downtown Chicago.

The Democratic National Convention began on August 25th under an airtight security net and nerve-racking tension about when and where animosity between the CPD and the antiwar movement would explode into violence. Humphrey’s Secret Service detail was never far from his side during the four-day-long convention; the senior agent on this detail had at least ten different contingency plans for evacuating the chief executive from the convention hall if worst came to worst.

The first two convention ballots ended in a statistical dead heat between McCarthy and President Humphrey; as the third ballot was getting underway, hundreds of antiwar marchers began approaching the convention hall despite lacking the appropriate permits for a large public rally. Less than two blocks from the convention hall they were confronted by CPD patrolmen and Cook County sheriff’s deputies: the precise chain of events that led to the subsequent horrific clash between these two sides is still a matter of dispute, but all accounts of that night generally agree the trouble started with an exchange of harsh words between the cops and the demonstrators.

From there the showdown escalated to pushing and shoving, with a few instances of fistfights between demonstrators and law enforcement personnel. Then somebody threw a rock at the windshield of a CPD patrol car-- and at that point all hell broke loose. The streets outside the convention hall became a war zone, with police lashing out at antiwar marchers in a spasm of anger and hate that made the UC-Berkley shootout look like a love-in. Even civilians who had nothing whatsoever to do with the protests found themselves caught in the literal and figurative crossfire of the police confrontation with the demonstrators; before the carnage was over at least 300 people would be taken to Chicago hospitals to be treated for a variety of injuries.

There was no lack of conflict inside the convention hall either; a CBS News correspondent on the convention floor was roughly accosted in full view of TV cameras when he tried to question Mayor Daley about the tactics Chicago police were using to handle the demonstrators, and Senator Abraham Ribicoff of New York got in a shouting match with Daley about what Ribicoff termed ‘Gestapo tactics’ being used by the CPD to quell the antiwar protests. There was even a brief panic over rumors of a bomb threat against the convention, but fortunately those rumors were soon disproven.

On the fourth ballot, the Democratic Party finally confirmed the nomination of Hubert Humphrey for a full term as President of the United States. After what might have been the shortest acceptance speech in the history of American politics, Humphrey and Vice-President McCormack were whisked out of the convention hall by the Secret Service for their own safety. In a spectacular understatement, NBC-TV news anchorman John Chancellor told his viewing audience: "President Humphrey, who has long prided himself as a man of peace, accepted his party’s nomination for a full four-year term in an atmosphere of great discord."2


No sooner had the last delegates to the 1968 Democratic National Convention checked out of their hotels and packed for the trip home than the Republicans started brainstorming on how they could tie the Humphrey Administration’s liberal social policies to the violence that had roiled the streets of Chicago as the Democratic Convention was winding down. TV attack ads whose tone and content would seem all too familiar to today’s viewers implicitly accused Humphrey and McCormack of provoking the riots outside the convention hall.

The North Vietnamese swiftly took notice of the post-convention political crisis engulfing the Humphrey Administration and dug in their heels at the Geneva peace talks. Hanoi’s judgement was that if they held out long enough, sooner or later the US-South Vietnamese alliance would break and agree to a cease-fire on terms favoring North Vietnam. Chinese Communist dictator Mao Zedong also noted Humphrey’s dire straits and began rattling his own sabers, implying that he might deploy Chinese ground troops to Vietnam if the United States didn’t give Hanoi what it wanted.

Mao’s threats were more of a bluff than anything else; China was itself having major political troubles then, being in the midst of its notoriously violent Cultural Revolution, and the People’s Liberation Army needed many of its troops at home to keep a lid on internal unrest. Furthermore, China was also locked in a nerve-racking face-off with the Soviet Union over territorial claims in the Ussuri River region that straddled the Sino-Soviet border, and that dispute required still more PLA troops to be kept close to home. And even if these situations hadn’t existed, the simple truth was that the Vietnamese-Chinese relationship had historically been prickly at best; the Mao regime’s association with North Vietnam was largely a marriage of convenience-- and a very shaky marriage at that.

Back in the US, the Nixon-Agnew ticket started to close the gap on the Humphrey-McCormack campaign; Humphrey, who before the convention had enjoyed a fairly sizable lead in the polls over his potential GOP foes, saw that lead gradually diminished as Nixon hammered away at Humphrey’s domestic and foreign policies. By mid-October, the gap between him and Nixon was razor-thin-- and with George Wallace continuing to campaign as an independent and court conservative Southern voters, that margin would become even thinner.3

On November 7th, 1968, the American people went to polls to render their decision on whether Humphrey should be granted another four years in the White House or make way for new blood. Everybody knew the tally would be a close one, and an early indication of how close it would be came when NBC News projected Richard Nixon as winning New Jersey with 51.4 percent of the vote compared to 49.6 percent for Humphrey; a few minutes later ABC called Connecticut for the incumbent president by a margin of 50.5 to 49.5. This seesaw swing in the lead would be repeated in other states throughout the night and keep exhausted network news anchors at their desks well into the next morning. At the White House President Humphrey had three TV sets tuned in to the election returns; Nixon followed the action at his home in San Clemente, California.

At 11:15 AM on the morning of November 8th, the official final results of the presidential election were announced at last...


To Be Continued



1 To minimize the risk of further confrontation, police injured in the melee were treated separately at Oakland hospitals.

2 Quoted from a special extended edition of NBC Nightly News, August 28th, 1968.

3 In fact, had Wallace not been hospitalized with pneumonia in late October just as he was about to make his final pitch to voters in the Deep South, the Electoral College might have been faced with a recount situation similar to the one which ensued in the aftermath of the highly disputed Bush-Gore presidential contest in 2000. For a look at one possible scenario of how a recount of the 1968 US general elections might have played out and how such a recount could have affected subsequent American and world history, see Robert Sobel’s classic alternate history book For Want Of A Nail: How George Wallace Started The Second American Civil War.


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