Fifty years ago, the United States was facing crises and unrest on multiple fronts. Some predicted that internal chaos and revolution would unravel the nation.
The 1969 Vietnam War protests on the UC Berkeley campus turned so violent that National Guard helicopters indiscriminately sprayed tear gas on student demonstrators. Later that year, hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets of major cities as part of the “Moratorium to the End the War in Vietnam.” In Washington, D.C., about a half-million protesters marched to the White House.
Native American demonstrators took over the former federal prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay and stayed there for 19 months, declaring it their own sovereign space.
In November 1969, the American public was exposed to grotesque photos of the My Lai Massacre, which had occurred the year before. The nation was stunned that American troops in Vietnam had shot innocent women and children. My Lai heated up the already hot national debate over whether the Vietnam War was either moral or winnable.
Meanwhile, the trial of the so-called Chicago Seven, involving the supposed organizers of the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, roiled the nation. The courtroom drama involving radical defendants such as Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, and Jerry Rubin descended into a national circus, as the battle between leftists and the establishment went from the streets to the courtroom.
It was also the year of the Woodstock music festival. More than 400,000 thrill-seekers showed up on a small farm in the Catskill Mountains in August 1969 to celebrate three days of “peace and music.” Footage of free love and free drugs at Woodstock shocked half the country but resonated with the other half, which viewed the festival as much-needed liberation for an uptight nation.