Ken Burns Classroom

The 1968 Democratic National Convention

Ken Burns Film: The Vietnam War

Collections: Postwar United States (1945-1970s)

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 9-12

Run Time: 2 class periods

Introduction

The year 1968 was pivotal in American and world history. In January, the Tet Offensive shook Americans’ confidence in military and political leaders, and many questioned the idea of a “light at the end of the tunnel” in Vietnam. In March, President Lyndon Johnson withdrew his candidacy for another term. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. In June, Robert Kennedy was assassinated after his victory in the California Democratic primary.

In August, Democrats met in Chicago for their convention. Nearly 15,000 protestors gathered in the city to demonstrate or disrupt the convention. Chicago’s mayor Richard J. Daley wanted to ensure that the convention would be peaceful. The outcome was what was later described as a “police riot” that was broadcast on national television.

In this lesson, students will view segments from THE VIETNAM WAR and complete a graphic organizer to help them make conclusions about what they see. They then will use the information from the organizer to role-play a police officer, demonstrator, convention delegate, or someone watching the convention at home. Then, they will write a letter to a friend or family member from the point of view of someone who witnessed the event.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Research an important event that occurred during the Vietnam War.
  • Recognize how people with different political perspectives may have viewed the events differently, and how their perspectives influenced their conclusions about the event.
  • Write letters to friends or family members from the perspective of a police officer, delegate, demonstrator, or television viewer, describing what they observed.

Lesson Procedure

  1. Begin the activity by questioning students about what they know about political conventions. Most students will likely know that the party meets to nominate candidates for president and vice president. Some students may also know that the party develops a platform, or statement of ideas that the candidates will run on. 
  2. Continue the discussion by asking students if conventions have increased or decreased in significance over the past several elections. Students may note that nominees are now generally selected long before the conventions through the primary election process, and most presidential nominees announce their running mates in advance of the convention. You may note to students that most major television networks rarely cover most convention activities because they are generally considered to be anticlimactic.
  3. Next, move the discussion to the 1968 presidential election. Remind students that President Lyndon B. Johnson had won a narrow victory in the New Hampshire primary that year against challenger Eugene McCarthy, senator from Minnesota. In mid-March, New York Senator Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination, and at the end of the month, Johnson withdrew from the race. Kennedy became the Democratic front-runner for the nomination, but was assassinated in June after winning the California primary. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who entered the race after Johnson’s withdrawal, won the nomination without entering a single primary.
  4. Distribute copies of the handout 1968 Democratic National Convention Graphic Organizer to each student. Have students watch the video segment and complete the graphic organizer. If time is an issue, viewing the clips and completing the organizer can be assigned as homework. 
  5. Next, distribute copies of the DNC Letter Writing Activity. Have students use the information from the graphic organizer to role-play a participant or viewer of the convention riots. Allow students to select the role they want to play, or assign a particular role to each student. Have them write a letter to a friend or family member, reviewing what happened at the convention from the point of view of one of the following roles:
    • A Chicago police officer
    • A demonstrator
    • A convention delegate
    • An ordinary person watching the convention at home on TV 
  6. Have students share their letters in an open reading group, or post them on the class website or a social network.

National Standards for History

10.1A.1 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the effectiveness of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations in addressing social and environmental issues. [Assess the importance of the individual in history]

10.1A.2 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Assess the efforts of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations to combat recession and inflation. [Compare and contrast differing policies]

10.1A.3 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Explain the Nixon administration’s involvement in Watergate and examine the role of the media in exposing the scandal. [Formulate historical questions]

10.1A.4 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze the constitutional issues raised by the Watergate affair and evaluate the effects of Watergate on public opinion. [Examine the influence of ideas]

10.1B.5 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the impact of recurring recessions and the growing national debt on the domestic agendas of recent presidential administrations. [Compare and contrast differing policies]

10.1C.2 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Assess Nixon’s policy of detente with the USSR and the People’s Republic of China. [Analyze multiple causation]

10.1C.6 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the reformulation of foreign policy in the post-Cold War era. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

10.2D.1 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the desegregation of education and assess its role in the creation of private white academies. [Analyze multiple causation]

9.1B.2 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Examine the rapid growth of secondary and collegiate education and the role of new governmental spending on educational programs. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

9.1B.7 ( World History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze interconnections between superpower rivalries and the development of new military, nuclear, and space technology. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

9.1C.3 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Assess the significance of research and scientific breakthroughs in promoting the U.S. space program. [Examine the influence of ideas]

9.2A.2 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Explain the origins of the Cold War and the advent of nuclear politics. [Hold interpretations of history as tentative]

9.2A.4 ( World History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze how population growth, urbanization, industrialization, warfare, and the global market economy have contributed to environmental alterations. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

9.2A.5 ( World History Grades 5-12 ): Assess the effectiveness of efforts by governments and citizens’ movements to protect the global natural environment. [Obtain historical data]

9.2C.1 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Assess the Vietnam policy of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations and the shifts of public opinion about the war. [Analyze multiple causation]

9.2C.2 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Explain the composition of the American forces recruited to fight the war. [Interrogate historical data]

9.2C.3 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate how Vietnamese and Americans experienced the war and how the war continued to affect postwar politics and culture. [Appreciate historical perspectives]

9.2C.4 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Explain the provisions of the Paris Peace Accord of 1973 and evaluate the role of the Nixon administration. [Differentiate between historical facts and historical interpretations]

9.2C.5 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze the constitutional issues involved in the war and explore the legacy of the Vietnam war. [Formulate a position or course of action on an issue]

9.2E.2 ( World History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze interconnections between space exploration and developments since the 1950s in scientific research, agricultural productivity, consumer culture, intelligence gathering, and other aspects of contemporary life. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

9.2E.4 ( World History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze the changing structure and organization of scientific and technological research, including the role of governments, corporations, international agencies, universities, and scientific communities. [Employ quantitative data]

9.2F.3 ( World History Grades 5-12 ): Assess the influence of television, the Internet, and other forms of electronic communication on the creation and diffusion of cultural and political information worldwide. [Formulate historical questions]

9.3A.1 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate Truman’s continuation of New Deal policies in labor relations, housing, education, and health. [Formulate a position or course of action on an issue]

9.3A.2 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate Truman’s civil rights policies and their effect on splintering the Democratic party. [Assess the importance of the individual in history]

9.3A.3 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Explain the relationship between post-war Soviet espionage and the emergence of internal security and loyalty programs under Truman and Eisenhower. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

9.3A.4 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze the rise and fall of McCarthyism, its effects on civil liberties, and its repercussions. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

9.3A.5 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate Eisenhower’s “Modern Republicanism” in relation to the economy and other domestic issues. [Formulate a position or course of action on an issue]

9.3B.1 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Examine the role of the media in the election of 1960. [Utilize visual and quantitative data]

9.3B.2 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the domestic policies of Kennedy’s “New Frontier.” [Hold interpretations of history as tentative]

9.3B.3 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the legislation and programs enacted during Johnson’s presidency. [Evaluate the implementation of a decision]

9.3B.4 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Assess the effectiveness of the “Great Society” programs. [Evaluate major debates among historians]

9.3B.5 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Compare the so-called second environmental movement with the first at the beginning of the 20th century. [Compare and contrast different movements]

9.4A.1 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Explain the origins of the postwar civil rights movement and the role of the NAACP in the legal assault on segregation. [Analyze multiple causation]

9.4A.2 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the Warren Court’s reasoning in Brown v. Board of Education and its significance in advancing civil rights. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

9.4A.4 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze the leadership and ideology of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X in the civil rights movement and evaluate their legacies. [Assess the importance of the individual in history]

9.4A.5 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Assess the role of the legislative and executive branches in advancing the civil rights movement and the effect of shifting the focus from de jure to de facto segregation. [Evaluate the implementation of a decision]

9.4A.6 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the agendas, strategies, and effectiveness of various African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, and Native Americans, as well as the disabled, in the quest for civil rights and equal opportunities. [Explain historical continuity and change]

9.4A.7 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Assess the reasons for and effectiveness of the escalation from civil disobedience to more radical protest in the civil rights movement. [Marshal evidence of antecedent circumstances]

9.4B.1 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze the factors contributing to modern feminism and compare the ideas, agendas, and strategies of feminist and counter-feminist organizations. [Marshal evidence of antecedent circumstances]

9.4B.3 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the conflicting perspectives over the Equal Rights Amendment, Title VII, and Roe v. Wade. [Consider multiple perspectives]

National Standards for Civics and Government

I.C.2.5 ( Grades: 9-12 ): explain how constitutions can be vehicles for change and for resolving social issues, e.g., use of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s; establishment of the Japanese Constitution after World War II, which provided women the right to vote

II.B.3.2 ( Grades: 9-12 ): describe and evaluate the role of organized groups in performing functions usually associated with government, such as providing social welfare and education

III.E.3.5.a ( Grades: 9-12 ): evaluate historical and contemporary political communication using such criteria as logical validity, factual accuracy, emotional appeal, distorted evidence, appeals to bias or prejudice, e.g., speeches such as Lincoln’s “House Divided,” Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?”, Chief Joseph’s “I Shall Fight No More Forever,” Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms,” Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream”

III.E.5.2 ( Grades: 9-12 ): describe, giving historical and contemporary examples, the role of associations and groups in performing functions otherwise performed by government, such as social welfare and education

IV.B.1.2 ( Grades: 9-12 ): explain how and why the United States assumed the role of world leader after World War II and what its leadership role is in the world today

IV.B.2.4 ( Grades: 9-12 ): describe the various means used to attain the ends of United States foreign policy, such as diplomacy; economic, military and humanitarian aid; treaties; sanctions; military intervention; covert action

IV.B.2.5 ( Grades: 9-12 ): explain how and why domestic politics may impose constraints or obligations on the ways in which the United States acts in the world, e.g., long-standing commitments to certain nations, lobbying efforts of domestic groups, economic needs

V.B.2.2 ( Grades: 9-12 ): identify the major documentary statements of political rights–the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance, the United States Constitution including the Bill of Rights, state constitutions and bills of rights, civil rights legislation, court decisions

V.B.4.4 ( Grades: 9-12 ): evaluate the argument that poverty, unemployment, and urban decay serve to limit both political and economic rights

About The Authors

Michael Hutchison

Michael Hutchison is the social studies department chair at Lincoln High School. Vincennes, Indiana. He has more than 35 years of classroom teaching experience, and has written lessons for several Ken Burns films, including The Civil War, Empire of the Air, Horatio’s Drive, Unforgivable Blackness, The War, Baseball, The Tenth Inning, Prohibition, The Dust Bowl, and The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. He is past president of the Indiana Computer Educators. In 2014, he was named winner of the Caleb Mills Indiana History Teacher of the Year Award by the Indiana Historical Society.

Handout: 1968 Democratic National Convention Graphic Organizer

View the following video segments from THE VIETNAM WAR and answer the questions below, beginning with the segment, “The 1968 Democratic National Convention.”

  • What evidence is given in the clip that substantiates Walter Cronkite’s claim about the convention opening with “the promise of turmoil inside this hall and a threat of violence without”?

 

 

 

 

 

  • Do you agree with Cronkite’s statement, “A democratic convention is about to begin in a police state”? Why or why not?

 

 

 

 

 

 

View the video segment “Delegates and Demonstrators,” and answer the following questions:

  • How does Philip Caputo describe the Chicago police? How does he describe the demonstrators?  

 

 

 

 

 

  • Do you think Caputo’s perception was influenced how the police and demonstrators interacted? In what way?

 

 

 

 

View the video segment “The Whole World Is Watching,” and answer the following questions:

  • Listen to James Willbanks’s statement (“It looked like we were devolving into madness …”). Is this a realistic assessment of how things were? Why or why not?

 

 

 

 

  • If you were watching the convention at home that day, how might you interpret Abraham Ribicoff’s statement about “Gestapo tactics”? How might you interpret Mayor Daley’s reaction?

 

 

 

 

View the video segment “A Convention in Chaos,” and answer the following questions:

  • In the clip, Ron Ferrizzi says, “… I saw someone who looked like my dad hitting someone who looked like me. Oh, my God, whose side would I be on?” How does this statement reflect what many people watching the battles in the streets on television might have been feeling?

 

 

 

 

  • What conclusion can you make about the Gallup poll results that “fifty-six percent of Americans approved of the way the police handled the demonstrators”?

 

 

 

 

  • What conclusion can you make about the reception Nixon received when he chose to open his campaign with a motorcade through the Chicago Loop?

 

 

 

 

Handout: DNC Letter Writing Activity

Introduction

Presidential politics in 1968 was as contentious and convulsive as the Vietnam War itself. The Tet Offensive had made many question leadership in the war, and in the first presidential primary of the year, incumbent President Lyndon Johnson barely beat antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy. Soon, New York Senator Robert Kennedy, brother of the assassinated president John F. Kennedy, entered the race. By the end of March, Johnson had withdrawn from the race, and in early June, Robert Kennedy, who had become the front-runner, was assassinated by a Jordanian immigrant who was angered by Kennedy’s stance on Israel.

After Johnson’s withdrawal, Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered the race. Many delegates committed to Kennedy or uncommitted to any candidate supported Humphrey. Many McCarthy supporters felt betrayed. By the time of the Democratic Convention, set for Chicago that August, antiwar groups planned major demonstrations in an attempt to disrupt the convention.

Activity

Write a letter about the convention to a friend or family member from the viewpoint of one of the following persons:

  • A Chicago police officer
  • A demonstrator at the convention
  • A delegate to the convention
  • An ordinary person watching the convention on TV

Use information you learned completing the graphic organizer for this lesson, as well as what you saw and heard in the video segments from the film. Your teacher will help you decide which viewpoint you’re taking, or will assign a viewpoint to you. Be sure to write your letter from the frame of reference of the person you’re assigned. (Frame of reference refers to a set of values or ideas that shape your thinking about a particular event.)

Write your letter in “letter style.” That is, make sure you have a salutation (“Dear …”) and conclude your letter with something like, “Sincerely yours.” Make sure your letter is free of spelling or grammatical errors.