Act 1: The Evolving Language of Political Dissent

“Hey, Hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”

circa 1967-68; photographer and source of original publication unknown

I started college in 1968. Then this protest chant was growing louder on campuses and in streets across the United States. 1968 was a year of unwelcome records. US troop presence in Vietnam peaked at a high of 550,000. Almost 16,500 soldiers were killed, the single deadliest year of the war. Over $77 billion was poured into Vietnam, the most spent in a single year on a war more people questioned and fewer supported. But that slogan? 

“Hey, Hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” 

Quietly, even opponents of the war worried that the language crossed a line. It was a personal attack on the President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson. It called LBJ a murderer. Such irreverence was shocking. How dare these dirty-long-haired boys and braless girls say such things. Didn’t they love the country? 

They did.

Older now I realize it’s sometimes easier to see from a distance. Photographs from those years contain hints. But too few of us were paying attention. We missed signals. The language and action of American dissent wasn’t just getting louder. It was taking a dark turn. 

  • In October 1965, David Miller burned his draft card in New York City. The 24-year old Miller was the first person arrested and convicted under the Military Training and Service Act. Traitor or hero?
  • One month later, on November 2, Norman Morrison poured kerosene over his body and set himself ablaze at the Pentagon beneath the office window of the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. Morrison’s self-immolation was timed for maximum affect. He went up in flames just as thousands of Pentagon workers left for the day. (The burning image most Americans know is that of a buddhist monk burning to death on June 11, 1963 on the streets of Saigon. Thich Quang Duc was 65 years old.) Morrison was a 32-year old American father of three, dying by his own hand not on some faraway soil but in Washington, D.C.
  • Toward the end of the sixties, the pace of draft card burnings, sit-ins, marches, and peace strikes accelerated; an embattled LBJ decided one term was enough; and Richard Nixon was elected the nation’s 37th President. Soon, even darker times emerged from the shadows.
  • On May 4, 1970, after days of student unrest, four unarmed students were shot and killed by 28 members of the Ohio National Guard on the campus of Kent State University. Americans killed by Americans on an American campus.
  • In the aftermath of Kent State, 4 million striking college students shut down 450 campuses across the United States. Attitudes about the war were now unmistakeable. 

The signals - and the message - were clear.

Joseph Karpen, Photographer, UWC 2797

By the time Saigon fell in 1975, Nixon had already resigned in disgrace. Gerald Ford, America’s first non-elected caretaker president, did his best to shift language from dissent to unity with a new slogan; WIN, Whip Inflation Now. The war was over, but WIN was too pollyanna for a country hardened by Vietnam and Watergate.


Fast forward 45 years.

©Philip Shucet Photography 2019

Is a new war brewing? A domestic war? Not the war on terror. But a war between the President of the United States and his supporters and the people of the United States? A war that may be reshaping and rewriting the language of political dissent?

Over the next 14 months, we’ll examine political events as they happen leading up to the presidential election in November 2020. You’ll find photographs here along with updated commentary as we consider The Evolving Language of Political Dissent.

©Philip Shucet Photography 2019

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