May 4, 1970 saw America’s tensions over the Vietnam War explode into violence. Shortly after Richard Nixon authorized an American “incursion” into Cambodia, thus expanding the war he’d pledged to end, backlash erupted on college campuses across the country. Unexpectedly, it was Kent State in Ohio that became the locus for discussion. Previously quiet, the campus saw an escalating series of protests, occasionally spilling over into town, as leftist groups and liberal students protested the war.
Then, on May 4th the unthinkable happened. A detachment of Ohio National Guard arrived on campus, confronting a crowd of students throwing rocks and hurling insults. While the circumstances remain uncertain, it’s undeniable that several Guardsmen fired into the crowd. Four students were killed (two, Sandra Lee Scheuer and William Schroeder) were bystanders not participating in the protest), nine more wounded, and Kent State instantly became a tragic symbol of the nation’s inexorable divisions.
Initially, President Nixon’s response was glib and insulting: he traduced the protesters as “bums” and said “when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy.” Vice President Spiro Agnew, ever the Administration’s sharp edge, claimed the shootings “called attention to the grave dangers which accompany the new politics of violence and confrontation which have found so much favor on our campuses.” One dissenter within the Administration was Interior Secretary Walter Hickel, who commented that “youth in its protest must be heard.” In response, Nixon fired Hickel several months later.
In an attempt to defuse criticism, John Ehrlichman invited several Kent State students to visit the Oval Office on May 6th. Ehrlichman, more sensitive to student complaints than the President, lamented that “their communication hardly went beyond halting, embarrassing exchanges.” Nixon would later organize a Commission on Campus Unrest, chaired by former Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, then ignored Scranton’s conclusion that the violence at Kent State was “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”
Nonetheless, Nixon agonized over the situation. Bob Haldeman recalled Nixon as “very disturbed, afraid his decision [to invade Cambodia] had set it off.” He spent the night of May 8th telephoning staffers, cabinet members and reporters, as if seeking reassurance for his actions. Unable to sleep, he asked his valet Manolo Sanchez to accompany him on a journey to the Lincoln Memorial. To the dismay of Nixon’s staff and the Secret Service, the President left without warning; only Sanchez, Bud Krogh, an assistant to John Ehrlichman, and a few Secret Service agents accompanied him.
Afterwards, Nixon claimed his goal was “to lift [student] a bit out of the miserable intellectual wasteland in which they now wander.” If so, he failed. He commented that “I hope that (your) hatred of the war, which I could well understand, would not turn into a bitter hatred of our whole system, our country and everything that it stood for.” He encouraged the students to travel, spoke about his support for the environment, and compared their protests to his own support of appeasing Adolf Hitler in his youth. “We’re not interested in what Prague looks like,” one listener protested. “We’re interested in what kind of life we build in the United States.”
The President’s characteristically awkward effort at outreach backfired. Press coverage of Nixon’s sojourn was uniformly negative, with reporters finding students nonplussed or annoyed by the President’s ramblings. Most widely reported was the lament of a Syracuse student who claimed “most of what [Nixon] was absurd. Here we had come from a university that’s completely uptight, on strike, and when we told him where we from, he talked about the football team.” Stanley Karnow castigated the President’s actions as “clumsy and condescending,” concluding that it more likely hurt than helped the President’s cause.
Nixon decided that talking to students was a lost cause, returning to his beloved “Silent Majority.” He took solace that many, perhaps most Americans agreed with him. A poll taken shortly after Kent State showed 58 percent of Americans blamed the students for their own deaths. “If I’d been faced with the same situation and had a machine gun,” an Akron lawyer commented, “there probably would have been 140 of them dead.” A Kent resident opined that “anyone who appears on the streets of a city like Kent with long hair, dirty clothes, or barefooted deserves to be shot.” These sentiments represented the creeping disgust of middle America towards students whose only crime, it appeared, was to oppose the war.
It’s undeniable that Americans were divided by Vietnam, along with the ’60s general upheaval, but historians and popular culture simplify these divisions into lazy stereotypes. Richard Nixon himself, seeking “positive polarization” to forge his New Majority, promoted these misconceptions for his own benefit. Framing the “snobs vs. slobs” dichotomy, setting middle class Americans against students, elites and minorities, proved a convenient way to siphon off traditionally Democratic voters, especially blue color and “ethnic” whites, anointing them the “real Americans” while allowing the country to ignore hard truths.
There was, for instance, the myth that the Left was uniquely violent, which surely prompted the response to Kent State. Protesters at Kent engaged in numerous acts of vandalism, culminating in the destruction of the campus ROTC building; at their worst, they threw rocks at National Guardsmen. Destructive acts, yet debatably worse than celebrations for a football victory on a college campus…which rarely warranted soldiers shooting students. Then again, even violent Left groups like the Weathermen and the Symbionese Liberation Army, for all the crimes they committed, amassed a small handful of casualties. The Weathermen, despite detonating hundreds of bombs in government offices, corporate buildings and universities, only ever managed to kill three of their own members.
Right-wing violence received less coverage, though their attacks could be far deadlier. In 1966, two Virginia college students were murdered in Richmond for passing out antiwar leaflets; one was shot seventeen times. In the summer of 1968, a gang of Cuban exiles staged a nationwide bombing campaign; targets included the New York publisher of Che Guevara’s diaries, a Mexican consulate in Chicago and a British ship in Miami. Richard Flacks, a Chicago sociology professor affiliated with SDS, greeted a reporter in his office in April 1969; his visitor, actually a conservative provocateur, smashed Flacks’ skull with a crowbar and left him for dead. Western states, especially Arizona and New Mexico, saw regular murders of hippies by police and vigilantes.
Few linked such outbursts to the all-too-familiar spectacle of racial killings, both in and outside the South. None placed vigilante murders of hippies on the same continuum as Klan bombings and midnight murders in the South, the thuggery of George Wallace’s Alabama police or the FBI’s slaying of Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton. Or maybe it was just that murders of black men were too commonplace for white Americans to notice. Eleven days after Kent State, Jackson State University in Mississippi saw police firing hundreds of rounds into student dormitories, killing two and injuring twelve. It didn’t generate a fraction of the outrage or attention as Kent State.
Nor was the so-called “Generation Gap” as clear-cut as media portrayed. Organized labor split over Vietnam early on, with blue collar Americans wrestling between deep-seated patriotism and a war that seemed unwinnable. When historians focus on the fears and grievances (racial resentment towards blacks migrating to northern cities, loss of jobs due to foreign trade) which made them susceptible to conservative appeals, they often reduce a complex group of people to an angry monolith.
George Meany, the longtime leader of the AFL-CIO, supported Vietnam unquestioningly. Meany harbored both a reflexive anticommunism and loyalty to the Democratic Party which caused to back Lyndon Johnson’s war to the hilt. He pledged “unstinting support by the AFL-CIO of all measures the Administration might deem necessary to halt Communist aggression and secure a just and lasting peace.” When antiwar delegates attempted to address the AFL’s 1965 convention, Meaney summoned the sergeant-at-arms and ordered him to “clear the kookies out.” As the war continued, Meaney easily transferred his allegiance to LBJ to Richard Nixon; in 1972, he refused to endorse George McGovern, branding the Democrat “an apologist for the Communist world.”
But there were always dissenting voices, both among leaders and the rank-and-file, that challenged Meany’s hegemony. Walter Reuther’s United Autoworkers openly allied itself with antiwar groups and broader left movements like the anti-nuclear SANE. The National Labor Leadership Assembly for Peace, held in Chicago in November 1967, hosted over 500 union leaders who came out in opposition to the war. Reuther asserted that the AFL-CIO was “too fat, too complacent, too far out of touch with changing times” and blasted Meany’s “obsession with anti-communism” as counterproductive to labor’s interests.
Others noted that, far from being enemies, students and workers shared many interests. Abe Feinglass of Amalgamated Meat Cutters asserted that “our youngsters’ heads are on the block. They face the draft and the fight against the war. Yes, our heads are on the block [for supporting them]. So be it.” Even Frank Fitzsimmons, conservative head of the Teamsters, argued that “a constructive and meaningful dialogue can be established with the youngsters if we only take time to talk to them. Just standing back and shaking our heads when they storm a university or when they demonstrate is not enough.” A far cry from the stereotype of oblivious hippie punchers.
Such resentments as the “hard hats” harbored towards the students came less towards their opinions than their attitudes and backgrounds: a resentment based on class more than politics, raging against a perceived abuse of privilege. The President of the Carpenter’s Union told a reporter, “these guys have worked real hard to send their kids to college. Kids have a right to protest but not to burn down buildings. Our men see them throwing away a great opportunity that they wish they could have had.” In other words, they were less pro-war than anti-protester. Finding it difficult to parse these nuances, many blue collar conservatives endorsed Richard Nixon, or even George Wallace, in 1968, feeling those candidates better-placed to resist anarchy.
Then again, portraying students as dropouts and protesters wasn’t accurate, either. As late as 1973, Americans aged 21-29 were least likely to consider Vietnam a mistake (49 percent versus a national average of 60); even in May 1970, just after Kent State, only 25 percent of Americans in that age bracket supported the national student strike. While it would be equally wrong to assume the conventional wisdom’s converse and brand them conservative (most students, like young adults in any era, just didn’t care about politics), it demolishes stereotypes that all students were draft-dodging, flag-burning hippies.
Conservatives certainly maintained a campus presence, if not always as loud as their leftist counterparts. Most visible was Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), organized in 1960 by William F. Buckley and M. Stanton Evans, which had been instrumental in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign and the subsequent conservative conquest of the Republican Party. One former YAF president, Tom Charles Huston, worked for the Nixon White House and spent the summer after Kent State preparing an illegal intelligence operation against Administration enemies.
While YAF’s influence waned after Goldwater’s defeat, it still boasted thousands of loud, well-organized members. YAF chapters staged “Tell It To Hanoi!” rallies, boycotted companies doing business with Eastern Bloc nations and counter-demonstrated against antiwar students, branding them “traitors and sappers.” While many harbored reservations about Vietnam (disagreements over the draft led to a dramatic split at the 1969 YAF convention, with libertarians walking out and forming opposition groups) and Nixon (viewed as an untrustworthy sellout to moderation), all felt the protesters were worse. Ron Doksai, National Secretary of YAF in the early ’70s, hoped that his group would “lead the patriotic revulsion [towards demonstrators] that would follow.”
Despite YAF’s best efforts, the default image of the sixties student remained the longhaired leftist burning draft cards and burnishing Little Red Books. Thus the “patriotic revulsion” became associated not with right wing students, but older blue collar workers and middle Americans disgusted with liberal elites and ungrateful protesters. And their rage took its most dramatic form in New York’s Hard Hat Riot of May 8, 1970.
John Lindsay, New York’s liberal Republican Mayor, had been a media darling for his handsome visage, charisma and bold reformist rhetoric. After four turbulent years in office, Lindsay embodied the failures of establishment liberalism. New York’s crime rate soared, corruption and clashes with unions weakened city government, racial tensions simmered and occasionally exploded (though, thanks to Lindsay’s intervention, New York avoided the full-blown race riots scourging other cities). Lindsay, who entertained ambitions for national office (he mounted a short-lived presidential campaign as a Democrat in 1972), often seemed more concerned with denouncing Vietnam and pushing for civil rights than city problems.
Under the urging of liberal aides, Lindsay ordered the flag at City Hall lowered to half-mast after Kent State. This angered the city’s conservative whites, already predisposed to hate the “Red Mayor,” who peppered the Mayor’s offer with angry phone calls, letters and telegrams (“would you have lowered the flag if four policemen or four national guards had been killed?” demanded a Brooklyn housewife). It didn’t help that a massive antiwar demonstration, peopled by high school and college students, planned to organize along Wall Street on May 8th. A violent response seemed only a matter of time.
Around 7:30 am, amidst a light spring drizzle, the students began massing at Broad and Wall Streets. There were several hundred present, mostly from nearby schools like Hunter College and New York University. Their language was angry and provocative, demanding an immediate end to the war and denouncing Kent State and atrocities overseas, but the protest was peaceful and easily managed by police. Numerous stockbrokers and lawyers from financial offices nearby greeted the protesters; one attorney evoked cheers by telling the students, “you brought down one President and you’ll bring down another.”
Around noon, the rain cleared and the sky became sunny. Then the reaction showed up; about 300 men, wearing construction overalls and hard hats, marched to the site of the protest. They came from a variety of jobs: some were electricians, others were elevator mechanics or crane operators. Some carried American flags; others carried tools of their trade, whether hammers or lead pipes or tire irons. They swarmed around Federal Hall, where most of the protesters gathered, contained only by a thin line of policemen.
Afterwards there was much discussion about the riot’s spontaneity. Multiple eyewitnesses claimed that two men in gray suits circulated among the crowd; some claimed that they handed out American flags, others than they carried walkie talkies; still more that they directed the hard hats with hand signals. No one ever determined who these men were or who sent them (historians have accused everyone from corporate bosses to conservative union leaders to Nixon aide Chuck Colson); regardless, they clearly played a role in organizing the “spontaneous” demonstration. Which didn’t necessarily mean that the rioters’ resentments were insincere.
After exchanging epithets with students across the police blockade, the construction workers pushed forward, attempting to crowd the building’s steps. The police line seemed to dissolve and the violence escalated. Martin Doglow, one of the students, “saw them come up the steps and in the process two young girls, about fifteen and ten years old…were stepped on and knocked down and stepped on.” The police made no effort to stop the rioters, some even joining them.
The construction workers stationed themselves around a statue of George Washington, waving huge American flags and attempting to drive students away. Then a middle-aged man climbed the statue, shouted obscenities at the workers and defaced the flags (some claim that he blew his nose on it or chewed it, others than he urinated on the Washington statue). This led to indignant cries from the workers, one of whom climbed up after him and punched the man in the face.
Joe Kelley, one of the hard hats, recalled that afterwards “there just seemed to be a rush, a mob scene. The chant then was, “Get the flags up on the steps where they belong. It’s a government building.” The construction workers raised the flag over Federal Hall and the crowd (which swelled to 10,000) began singing “God Bless America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” “It damn near put a lump in your throat,” Kelley recounted. Another witness compared the scene to Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima.
Chanting “All the way, U.S.A.” the hard hats attacked the students who lingered around Federal Hall, defiantly shouting “hell no, we won’t go.” Violence began in earnest as the construction workers began attacking the demonstrators with all varieties of weapons. Fists, boots and hard hats were used, along with tools of their trade; several survivors claimed they were beaten with lead pipes wrapped in American flags. Kelley justified this action as necessary to “break up the group and break up [the student’s] chant because it just seemed so un-American.”
As the construction workers moved from Federal Hall towards City Hall the violence escalated, with the workers cheered by conservative clerks and lawyers from Wall Street firms. They headed towards City Hall, threatening to storm the building unless the Mayor’s aides raised the flag. Despite police efforts to contain them, the workers plowed through barricades and began smashing windows with their hard hats, chanting obscenities and patriotic slogans. Those outside continued to endure attacks; Michael Belknap, a candidate for State Senate, was knocked down and repeatedly kicked by workers calling him a “Commie bastard.”
The situation escalated when a postal worker climbed City Hall and raised the flag to full-mast, to the cheers of the crowd. Then a mayoral aide lowered the flag again, leading to another attempt to storm the building, with workers breaking the doors with their bodies and makeshift battering rams. Their numbers were reinforced by workers from the nearby World Trade Center. And more casualties resulted: one student recalled “when I was on the ground, I rolled myself into a ball just as four or five pairs of construction boots started kicking me.”
Lindsay aide Donald Evans, watching the fracas, approached admonished the mob to “stop being juveniles.” He earned himself a chin-shattering punch for his troubles. When rioter John Halloran boasted to a reporter that “these hippies are getting what they deserve,” a bystander protested and received several blows to his midsection. A young secretary tried to save a student from attack; a construction worker admonished her “if you want to be treated like an equal, we’ll treat you like one.” Then, she recalled, “three of them began to punch me in the body. My glasses were broken…and my ribs were cracked.”
Finally, Deputy Mayor Richard Aurelio ordered the flag raised to avert further bloodshed. The workers stood at attention, ordering watching policemen present to remove their helmets in respect. Then the crowd sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and lingered for several minutes before dispersing. There was one last spasm of violence at nearby Pace University, where hard hats attacked dormitories and student buildings, destroyed Vietcong and antiwar flags flown by the students, and raised a ruckus until they finally dispersed. Amazingly, no one died, though seventy protesters were hospitalized; police made no arrests.
There was a sequel several weeks later. Mayor Lindsay, hoping to forestall further violence, negotiated with Peter Brennan, head of the Building and Construction Trades Council, for a peaceful demonstration in New York. The result was a massive pro-war rally on May 20, 1970. Over 100,000 workers took part, carrying American flags and banners, some insulting Lindsay as a “pinko” and a “queer,” others touting slogans like “God Bless the Establishment” and “Stand Up For America” (George Wallace’s campaign slogan). And there were incidents of violence, like a bystander beaten for flashing marchers a peace sign.
The massive turnout served a political purpose, casting the Silent Majority as no longer silent. Yet more lay behind this than spontaneous patriotism. One participant in the marches recalled that “the word was passed around to all the men on the jobs the day before. It was not voluntary. You had to go…We were told that if we got back to the job a half-hour after the parade ended, we’d be paid for a full day’s work.” This was almost certainly Peter Brennan’s doing: the labor leader addressed the crowd before a giant American flag, shouting “this flag is more than just a piece of cloth!”
Richard Nixon, for one, was relieved. “I remember then that I seemed virtually alone,” Nixon recalled, “and then one day a very exciting thing happened: the hard hats marched in New York City.” To show his gratitude, the President invited Brennan and other rioters to the White House on May 26th. Brennan presented Nixon with his own honorary hard hat reading “Commander in Chief” and an American flag pin lapel, a symbol Nixon adopted for his own. During Nixon’s second term, Brennan became Nixon’s Secretary of Labor. (Another difference in the era’s culture wars: conservative rioters were feted by the President; leftists were jailed, beaten or shot.)
Responses in the labor community, as usual, were mixed. Peter Brennan defended the rioters as “fed up with violence by antiwar demonstrators, by those who spat at the American flag and desecrated it.” George Meany also excused them, saying that “I certainly feel that the construction workers are no more to be condemned than students who resort to violence or anyone else who resorts to violence.” John Nash, who participated in the riot, remained unrepentant, telling a reporter that “Outside of God, [the flag] is the most important thing I know.”
It didn’t matter that closer examination showed that many blue collar Americans found the violence as appalling. “I don’t think you honor America by beating someone over the head with a flag,” one construction worker opined. A black carpenter called the rioters “make-believe patriots and cowards”; Charles Rivers, a New York City iron worker, commented that “I didn’t see Americans in action. I saw black shirts and brown shirts of Hitler’s Germany.” And 53 percent of Americans opposed the hard hats; the public, it seemed, abhorred bloodshed from Right as much as Left.
The American press, always eager to codify complex events into simple, convenient narratives, played up the hippie-punching hard hats while ignoring the dissenters. The resulting stereotype played to both edges of the era’s divide: conservatives could conflate “real Americans” with violent roughnecks, defending America against traitors elites, while liberals dismissed working class whites as hopeless bigots. Pop culture did its part by reflecting this false divide, permanently embedding it into America’s psyche.
The earliest response was John G. Avildsen’s Joe (1970), starring Peter Boyle as a savage stiff who rails against hippies, blacks and gays while praising George Wallace. He lives his dream of murdering radicals through Dennis Patrick, a businessman who has killed his daughter’s (Susan Sarandon) boyfriend. Though Avildsen and writer Norman Wexler intended to satirize the hard hats, conservative viewers embraced the film, cheering the protagonists’ climactic massacre of hippies. Boyle found fans congratulating him for Joe’s actions…and liberals threatening him. ”The other night I was walking down 46th Street and I had a flash of myself being shot down in the street, just because someone thought I really was Joe,” he told one interviewer.
An unexpected blockbuster (making $26 million on a $103,000 budget), Joe touched a nerve, as did later films like Dirty Harry (1971) and Death Wish (1974) showing two-fisted antiheroes going outside the law to battle the creeps and drop-outs destroying society. It didn’t matter that such movies were often ambivalent about their heroes’ morality and, in some cases, openly mocked them. Norman Lear’s All in the Family created an improbable TV icon in Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker, a cigar-chomping, gutter-mouthed blue-collar bigot whose rants about social ills made Joe look genteel. To their dismay, Lear and O’Connor saw Archie unironically embraced by the very people they intended to ridicule (though Nixon himself hated the show).
This benefited Nixon, resulting in his landslide reelection in 1972 and guaranteeing him a stubborn, loyal base of support even as his presidency collapsed. The same image of “real Americans” defending their country against elitists and disloyal slobs became the baseline for Republican politics afterwards: Ronald Reagan put the message eloquently, George Bush more crudely, Donald Trump with all the finesse of a trucker belching talk radio talking points at a bar stool. If anything, the lack of polish became a feature; further proof of Trump’s pyrite authenticity. How out of touch could that corrupt millionaire be when he can’t string a proper sentence together?
However reductive and insulting, this hardhat image – whether euphemistically termed the “Silent Majority,” “middle Americans” or, more recently, “working class whites” plagued by “economic anxiety” – stuck, warping American politics forever. As did the “snobs vs. slobs” narrative that continues to plague public discourse. The only Americans that matter, this image insists, are white, straight American males, preferably possessing vague, racially-tinged resentments easily fanned, misdirected and manipulated by reactionary politicians. All outliers need not apply.
Sources and Further Reading
While most books on Vietnam and Nixon’s presidency discuss the Hardhat Riot, the most comprehensive resource is this stunning website created and maintained by George Mason University, which reconstructs the riot through photographs, newspaper articles and oral histories. Valuable secondary sources include Vincent J. Cannato, The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and the Struggle to Save New York (2001); Philip S. Foner, U.S. Labor and the Vietnam War (1989); Penny W. Lewis, Hardhats, Hippies and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory (2013); Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008); Woden Teachout, Capture the Flag: A Political History of American Patriotism (2009); and Tom Wells, The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam (1994). Most of the YAF information is culled from an old seminar paper penned by yours truly in college.