One of the most important battles of the Vietnam war was fought right here in Chicago. The whole world was watching when the 1968 Democratic National Convention became the battleground for the hearts and minds of America. And as WGN’s Steve Sanders reports, those for and against the war were equally passionate. And it all came to a head on the streets of Chicago.
“When it came to Democratic Convention, everybody was drawn here," says Dr. Dominic Pacyga from Columbia College Chicago. "And you know Johnson gave it to Daley because he believed Daley could keep control. And Daley lost control.” Some say it was the Vietnam battle that came home. “So Chicago suddenly became this bubbling, boiling pot of protest and anger." “Some people have made the comparison there hasn’t been a war as divisive since the civil war.” Dr. Jim Brask of DePaul University, and Dr. Dominic Pacyga of Columbia College Chicago teach classes on the Vietnam War. It’s ancient history to some of their students whose grandfathers served there. I was very ambiguous,” says Dr. Brask. “I had a father was a WWII vet, had a brother who was in Vietnam. Had friends in Vietnam. But I also had friends who were protestors.”Brask was drafted and sent to Vietnam in January of 1970. He remembers his brother Dennis, a returning marine, pulling him aside at O’Hare.“There is absolutely nothing I can tell you that’s going to prepare you for what’s gonna happen. And then he pushes me away and he had one single tear coming out of his eye and my brother was so stoic that I was stunned. And I knew that he had never told me what it really was like.”Seven years later, Dennis took his own life; a Vietnam casualty that happened two years after the Vietnam war ended. “As a working class kid I felt pulled in 2 different directions,” says Dr. Pacyga. "One was my buddies were in the jungle and other friends were protesting the war- it was surreal.” Dr. Pacyga was in college when Chicago streets exploded during the ’68 Democratic National Convention. “Protestors were coming up Michigan Avenue. Those images were almost horrific to see that kind of a clash on the street between Chicago police. Now a lot of those cops were Vietnam vets and they had just come home.” “Whole world was watching chant…”“People were chanting that the whole world was watching because TV cameras were rolling. In fact, that’s really what infuriated a lot of the police too, thought they were being displayed by the liberal media in an unfavorable way.”
“You go from firefight to firefight to firefight to firefight.” Allen Lynch from the south suburbs came back from Vietnam in 1968. But instead of going home, his unit was sent to Texas for riot control training; just in case they were needed in Chicago. “They didn’t want to have a bunch of Vietnam returnees who have just had their passes cancelled after serving a year in the jungle, go up to Grant Park to deal with these mopes. Believe me that would have been a bad thing.”Lynch earned his anger. He was with the First Air Cavalry- “D” Company, one of the most decorated combat divisions of the Vietnam war. Lynch had survived 30 days of continuous combat in the sweltering jungles, when his company was ambushed. “I said saw some wounded guys let me go get them. And I dropped my radio and went out and tried to get them and get ‘em into cover. And uh ended up getting pinned down and stayed there with ‘em for about 4 hours. Felt like my life.”Imagine telling the worst day of your life, over and over. Steve asks, “If you hadn’t gone to get those guys, would they have survived?” Lynch answers, “I don’t think so.” How far away were those injured soldiers? “I think about to that tree.” Lynch was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions that day. His entire family was treated to a first class trip to the White House. Even a Congressional Medal of Honor winner has doubts about decisions made during the Vietnam war. “In 1968 when Johnson stopped the bombing- the morale of us – our morale went down. We said you know this is now becoming a time when we’re not here to win, we’re not here to make the world safe for democracy, we’re not here to help the Vietnamese, we’re just basically here to bide our time.” The way Lynch sees it, he was over there killing for his country, while protestors lives were unchanged.
Bob Russell was arrested in Grant Park protesting the war in ’68. “I had no problem with soldiers. It was those who were causing the war that I had problems with.” Russell calls himself a “progressive,” and has been a social activist since high school. He didn't serve in Vietnam and did his best to talk others out of going. “You just thought if enough people believed it’s gonna change. So if you just convince Americans the war is wrong, the war would end.” By 1968, he was a full-fledged draft resistance counselor. “So I knew it was a People’s war for national liberation and that’s what this country did. We fought a war to get free of England and here they were doing the same thing. So I knew I felt they were in the right, and that many women and children were being killed. And I certainly wasn’t going to be a part of that. ”It was that work that led to his arrest during the ’68 Democratic National Convention. “When I look at the film it’s scarier than when I was even involved. Cause you see all the gas and see all the stuff.” Ironically, Russell credits Mayor Daley with saving him fromVietnam. Once he had an arrest record, the draft board no longer wanted him.
In 1968, Americans were forced to choose sides. You were for the war or against it. And if you were opposed, some considered you un-American.“Those who went and those who didn’t go, there’s this sort of chasm that’s hard to cross,” says Dr. Pacyga. For those teaching the Vietnam war a half century later, context is key. But Pacyga and Brask believe the gift of the 60’s is cynicism. “When I think of Vietnam I think of the tremendous price we paid,” says Dr. Brask. “And when I say that I don’t mean just soldiers. I think about the mothers, the sisters, the lovers, brothers, I think about all that cost and what that involvement meant.“
Every war since Vietnam begs the question; Is this another Vietnam?... meaning are we righting someone else’s war with no clear end? The world was watching, but was it listening? Steve asks Dr. Pacyga, “What did we learn, if anything from Vietnam?” “That’s a good question. Historians will be arguing that forever.”
You can watch and share this story from this link: www. wgntv.com/Vietnam.
And you can watch all of our Vietnam stories, as well as our hour documentary “Untold Stories, Saluting our Vietnam Veterans” by clicking here; www.salutingourvietnamveterans.com
Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalist Mike D'Angelo contributed to this report.