I recently had a discussion with a friend who lamented the times we live in and how we are so polarized. He told me he was worried about the future of the country.

I recall a similar conversation I had a few years back with a newspaper editor. An avowed Trump-hater, he told me this was the most contentious time in American history.

“More contentious than the Civil War?” I replied to the editor, who happened to have a history degree. “Or more contentious than the War of Independence, in which one third of the people supported the Revolutionary War, one third supported the British crown, and one third was indifferent?

“And more contentious than the late 1960s?”

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I recall vividly the late 1960s, as I was a teenager at the time. I recall the anti-war and civil rights protests. I also recall the riots that rocked Philadelphia and other cities in America after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968.

I was a student at South Philadelphia High School, called Southern, at the time. After King’s assassinations, I walked to school and landed smack in the middle of fights between black and white students. The fights in and around Southern went on for hours until the police managed to separate the two groups.

Say what you will about Frank Rizzo, but the then-Police Commissioner ensured Philadelphia was one of the few cities that didn’t burn. Philly cops under Rizzo went out in force that night and prevented the city from being destroyed like other American cities.

In addition to violent race relations in the late 1960s, the Vietnam War divided the country. The “silent majority,” coined by Richard Nixon, were for America’s involvement in Vietnam, although many disagreed with President Johnson’s leadership and war policies. Many Americans, including me, believed we should go all out and defeat the North Vietnamese Communists.        

Anti-war protestors were anything but silent. Made up mostly of young, draft-age men, the anti-war protestors called for the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam and the end of the draft. Some anti-war protests turned violent, with protestors taking over college buildings and clashing with police and national guardsmen. The anti-war violent protests were covered prominently by the press and the TV news in an age before the Internet.

The Vietnam War also divided families. Family dinners often erupted into contentious debates over the war. Fathers, many of whom were World War II veterans, disapproved of the opinions and actions of their anti-war sons and daughters. Elected officials and political pundits were also divided on the war and public debate was often heated.            

Due to the protests against, and opposition to, the Vietnam War, President Johnson declared he would not seek another term as president. The 1968 Democratic political convention in Chicago selected Vice President Hubert Humphrey as its presidential candidate. Outside the Chicago convention center, radical and anti-war protests erupted into violent clashes between the protestors and the Chicago police. Republican Richard Nixon became the Republican candidate. 

Those who think we are now on the eve of destruction (the title of a song from the 1960s), should recall or research the late 1960s.

In 1964, author Robin Moore published “The Green Berets,” which was about the early years of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Moore, who trained with the Green Berets before venturing to Vietnam, accompanied the Green Berets as they fought the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese and trained the South Vietnamese.

The book was popular and sold well in 1964, but by the time John Wayne optioned the book and made the film “The Green Berets” in 1968, the mood had changed. The pro-military and pro-Vietnam War film was slammed by nearly every film critic and television commentator (but the film made money at the box office).

Richard Nixon became president, and he was demonized by the press and commentators far worse than President Trump. Yet he was overwhelmingly reelected in 1972 by the silent majority. 

Nixon ended the draft, which broke the back of the anti-war protests, although the war dragged on. It appeared that many of the protestors were not anti-war — they were simply against their personal participation in the war.

Those who think we are now on the eve of destruction (the title of a song from the 1960s), should recall or research the late 1960s.

The student radical group the Weathermen set off bombs, and the Black Liberation Army ambushed and murdered police officers. It was an era of violence and tumultuous events. In addition to the racial strife, and anti-war and radical violent protests, there were drugs, crime, the counterculture movement, and political assassinations.

We survived the late 1960s, and our great Republic will survive these contentious times as well.

Paul Davis, who enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, is a Philadelphia writer who covers crime.    

4 thoughts on “Paul Davis: Contentious times? Consider the late 1960s”

  1. I would go back even further to the beginning of WW1 for examples of what is going on now. Where everything was justified on the grounds of (These were not ordinary times) Mass imprisonment, torture, vigilante violence, censorship, and killing. A war supposedly fought to make the world safe for democracy, became an excuse for war against democracy in the United States. It banned hundreds of issues of American newspapers and magazines from being mailed, banning 75 entirely. Masked vigilantes with names like the Knights of Liberty, American Defense Vigilante, and the American Protective League, all with the approval of the DOJ Bureau of Investigation. The ideology of anything goes was the mindset of the day. Looking back you can see what’s going on today. Except today we are all digitally connected, which makes it easier for an anything goes attitude we see today.

  2. Do not forget that it was also a time when racism ramped up. Our vaunted public health service had no moral difficulty conducting syphilis experiments on uninformed minorities and then abandoning them. It was a time when quackery passed for medical progress (the use of frontal lobotomies, uncontrolled use of radiation, chemical mixtures you wouldn’t put in your car). The deadliest of all, the spread of eugenics. With things like “The Negro Project,” Virginia’s legal position that there were no longer any native American in Virginia due to “racial mixing,” these ideas served as a playbook for the Nazis, leading to the T4 project which was a trial run for the Holocaust.

    1. Absolutely. When you don’t teach history, the good, the bad, and the ugly, you learn nothing about how bad and ugly it was and is, and history just keeps repeating itself.

  3. I believe we’ve lost the ability to solve problems, in part, because of our politicians and the media and because of our hardened ideological ‘conflict of visions’ as Thomas Sowell puts it.

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