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The Revolution of '69

Robert M. Nelson: Revolutionary leaders are usually experts at the old rules. They realize the contradictions, break with the old ways, and point to a new direction. Tom Hayden was such a person.
tom hayden

Tom Hayden helped lead the charge to end a war and unseat a president

Revolutions start when fundamental precepts of society collapse from inconsistencies. Discord ensues. The existing order, or “paradigm,” destabilizes into chaos. Radical ideas are explored and evolve into a new paradigm. Order is restored.

Revolutionary leaders are usually experts at the old rules. They realize the contradictions, break with the old ways, and point to a new direction. Tom Hayden was such a person.

Revolutionary leaders are usually experts at the old rules. They realize the contradictions, break with the old ways, and point to a new direction. Tom Hayden was such a person.

In 1968, a series of events occurred in the United States with worldwide repercussions. The late Tom Hayden, one of the leaders of the Revolution of ’68, chronicles those events in his last and final book, “Hell No — The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement.”

The Established Order

World War II marked victory over fascism. Afterward, however, the anti-fascist coalition, the US and the USSR, collapsed. The Western capitalist countries established a “containment policy,” surrounding the Soviet Union and China. The Cold War followed.

The West juxtaposed the centralist governance tenets of the communist nations with notions like “freedom” and “democracy” and capitalism’s “spirit of free enterprise.” This doctrine was inculcated into the lessons taught to children in American classrooms.

A pre-revolutionary paradigm had been established.

However, the paradigm was impure. In the 1950s, the United States overthrew many legally elected democratic governments, installing brutal dictatorships. These events were hardly noticed in mainstream America of the 1950s.

The Paradigm Erodes

In 1962, a group of students gathered in Port Huron, Michigan, where they drafted a call that challenged the status quo. The Port Huron Statement evolved to became a foundation document of the Students for a Democratic Society, a major force in the developing revolution. Hayden was a principal architect of the statement.

With great passion, the Port Huron statement focused on the glaring contradictions posed by America. The US preached democracy while tolerating a racially segregated Jim Crow South. The US was expanding national and international income inequality and ignoring the growing threat of nuclear war. The document included the prescient statement, “The proclaimed peaceful intentions of the United States contradict its economic and military investments in the Cold War status quo.”

The Port Huron statement confronted the paradigm.

The Challenge Erupts

Over the next few years the challenge to the system inspired by Port Huron expanded in many directions, each of which formed a new facet of a revolutionary army. A feminist movement emerged from a half-century of quiescence. Ethnic minorities organized in the image of Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement. Cesar Chavez fused a labor struggle with a cultural ethnic struggle.

Each of these expanding revolutionary tendencies learned from and provided sustenance to the other.

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Then the anti-Vietnam movement became the most potent addition to this revolutionary cauldron.

Vietnam — The Revolutionary Pinnacle

In 1954, the French Expeditionary Corps in Indochina surrendered 12,900 troops in a humiliating defeat at Dein Bien Phu. Vietnam was portioned. The victorious revolutionary forces established a government in the north. The remnants of the French colonial state ruled the south. By the early 1960s the government in the south was collapsing.

Presidents Kennedy and Johnson supplied military advisers followed by massive numbers of ground forces, while a growing revolutionary movement at home questioned the contradictory nature of the US involvement.

Americans saw television images of US troops burning rural villages. The massacre at Mai Lai left the world in shock.

Thousands of students burned their draft cards. Revolution was in the air.

By 1968, it was clear that Lyndon Johnson was not re-electable. The Democratic presidential nomination was going in the direction of two antiwar challengers, Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy. Kennedy won the California Democratic Primary, locked up the nomination and was immediately assassinated. The country was in crisis.

Voters were never provided with an anti-war choice. The election of Richard Nixon in 1968 inspired a stronger revolutionary sentiment. Nixon expanded the war. Four years later, the peace movement forced the nomination of an anti-war Democratic candidate, George McGovern. Nixon won again in 1972. Nixon expanded the war into Laos and Cambodia.

The Tragic Aftermath

The most advanced military machine in the history of the human race was savaging a poor nation struggling for independence.

The disproportionate nature of the war was glaringly apparent. B-52 bombers rained destruction on a Third World country. Our popular print media carried images of napalm dropped from US warplanes burning naked children. Domestic frustration grew still further as 18 B-52 war machines were shot down over the north.

The war had become an international disgrace. Nixon finally threw in the towel.

Legally, Nixon was brought down by Watergate. Morally, the anti-war movement had brought down the president of the United States.

In the years that followed the history was rewritten, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s spin doctoring and outright fabrications of fact.


Tom Hayden has reclaimed our history. He was always in the right place at the right time.

Robert M. Nelson
Pasadena Weekly