Op-Eds by Jim

‘The Hardhat Riot’ Review: What the Riots Foretold

Wall Street Journal

In 1970, blue-collar workers confronted antiwar protesters. The quarrel continues.

By Jim Webb
June 26, 2020 

Demonstrators on Wall Street May 20 1970<br >PHOTO SANTI VISALLIGETTY IMAGES

‘For the first time in a century,” New York Mayor John Lindsay pronounced in 1970, “we are not sure there is a future for America.” Those concerned about our country’s current turmoil may take comfort in the fact that we did have a future, and a good one, but it did not happen without major shifts in the American political landscape. Among the most consequential of these shifts was the migration of white working people from the center of the Democratic Party to the GOP.  

Over the past 15 years few writers have covered this realignment with the consistency of David Paul Kuhn, whose warnings about the reasons white working people were moving away from the Democrats were largely dismissed by the news media and party elites. Many activists shrug that “working-class whites” who left were simply racists reacting to the party’s increasing racial diversity. Others argue that Democrats chose to rebuild their base through identity politics using “white privilege” as a collective call to action. Either way, the working-class whites who for generations were a key part of the Democratic Party’s base became expendable. 

Mr. Kuhn remained an unacknowledged prophet. In the months preceding the 2010 Republican rout he rightly predicted that “the whirlwind of this illusion is coming in November.” Just after the 2016 election, he wrote a New York Times op-ed headlined “Sorry, Liberals. Bigotry Didn’t Elect Donald Trump.” Now he has synthesized his message with a lesson from history: “The Hardhat Riot,” a riveting account of the May 1970 explosion of New York’s blue-collar workers who confronted an antiwar rally designed to shut down Wall Street after President Nixon sent American troops into Cambodia. 

On May 8, four days after National Guardsmen fired on student antiwar protesters at Kent State, several thousand protesters gathered near Federal Hall in Manhattan’s financial district.  A smaller confrontation had taken place on the nearby Wall Street plaza the day before. The plaza was filled with a growing crowd of protesters, some carrying communist flags. As the day progressed, thousands of blue-collar “hardhats,” mostly construction workers, gathered at the plaza’s edges. Many of them carried American flags.

The crowds on both sides grew. Surrounding streets became unpassable. Cops formed a cordon that separated the two opposing groups. Mocking chants were hurled back and forth across the police cordon. By afternoon an estimated 30,000 people were jammed into a few blocks surrounding Federal Hall. After watching from the windows above, hundreds of office workers joined the hardhats. 

From the plaza steps a protester waved a Viet Cong flag. The hardhats screamed and booed and edged closer. The police cordon swayed and finally the hardhats broke the line. “Hardhats blitzed forward,” Mr. Kuhn writes, “and the crowd panicked—screaming, shoving, thousands running and tripping and pleading for a way out.” The hardhats plowed through the crowd, waving the U.S. flag and tearing up banners and Viet Cong flags along the way. As a CBS newsman commented, “It was a battle, a wild, swinging melee.” Protesters were beaten savagely. Finally the hardhats stormed up Federal Hall’s steps and began raising American flags. Workmen saluted. “It was just like John Wayne taking Iwo Jima,” one Wall Street worker commented. 

National protests against Nixon’s decision had initially followed the pattern of the 1967 March on the Pentagon, the 1968 disruption of the Democratic National Convention, and the 1969 Moratorium March on the Capitol. Agitators, led by members of the benign-sounding Students for a Democratic Society, mixed among the crowds, provoking police or National Guard soldiers and then claiming they had been attacked by the “fascist authoritarian state.” But with the Kent State shootings, emotions on both sides escalated. As a consequence, the clash on the streets of New York came to symbolize the irreconcilable division taking shape in the rest of the country.

As Mr. Kuhn writes, the antiwar activists “believed Kent State was a turning point. That it clarified the stakes, that it was life or death for them too.” Within days, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young would record “Ohio,” a song that became a staple of the antiwar movement and included the lines “Gotta get down to it / soldiers are cutting us down” and the chant “Four dead in Ohio.”

Nationwide, the antiwar movement’s melodrama left many on the other side shaking their heads. Kent State was a tragedy but the four deaths seemed unintentional. Combat veterans understood life or death, and many kept count, never forgetting their treatment by the antiwar movement. During the month of May 1970, 920 Americans would lose their lives in Southeast Asia. More than 6,000 would die that year. Nearly 12,000 died in 1969. More than 16,000 died in 1968. For years after the war there was a common bumper sticker on the cars of Vietnam veterans: 58,000 to 4.

By capturing the moment Mr. Kuhn reminds us of how divisive this era really was. Prior to the section recounting the hardhat blowout he gives the reader 12 carefully researched chapters on the convergence of two opposing views on the boundaries of protest and the need to maintain public order. After recounting the riot, Mr. Kuhn then offers eight additional chapters outlining the long-term impact of this historic political confrontation.

Despite the good intentions of many who simply wished for an end to the war, the tactics of the antiwar movement’s leadership followed a pattern of pushing the agents of political authority into retaliation and then convincing the media that the retaliations were unprovoked assaults. Emotional symbols such as communist flags, left-wing banners, and chants praising Lenin, Castro, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh were standard. Mr. Kuhn writes of a movement leader instructing female students during the 1968 takeover of Columbia University to taunt police officers with racial insults. “If we use words like ‘sucks’ about their mother,” the leader explained, “these f—in’ cops will blow like a balloon.”

By contrast, beginning in 1968 Richard Nixon and his political strategists, including a young Pat Buchanan, pushed to emphasize the threat to decency and social order. Blue-collar America overwhelmingly shared this concern. In September 1969, Mr. Kuhn points out, Mayor Lindsay received an internal report that blue-collar whites felt “alienated from government” and “forgotten,” and that “for the first time since World War Two, financially stuck.”  

On one side we see emboldened leaders of student takeovers making national headlines by intimidating weak-kneed university administrators, and conciliatory government leaders ingratiating themselves by blatantly siding with antiwar demonstrators. On the other we see the unspoken loyalties between the hardhats and police, who lived in the same neighborhoods and watched friends march off to fight in a vicious, unpopular war only to see their service demeaned by more privileged contemporaries upon their return. 

For the first time America was witnessing a Democratic Party whose key support groups had finally turned against each other in an open battle that guaranteed the eviction of one or the other from its most influential ranks. Some will interpret these events as evidence of right-wing, thuggish behavior by the hardhats who disrupted otherwise peaceful antiwar protests. Some will go even further to allege a Nixonian political manipulation of their frustrations. But others will read the confrontations as the ultimate result of years of protest politics by an antiwar movement led by Trotskyites bent on upending American society.

Mr. Kuhn’s avoids polemics and judgment, yet leads the reader to understand the deeper questions implicit in so many of today’s political debates. The divisions grew ever wider after the war, coupled as they were with dramatic demographic changes in the country, and the decision of the Democratic Party to rebuild its power base on identity politics, often with white males as a foil.   

The riot and its aftermath strengthened Nixon’s appeal to the “silent majority.” As one of the hardhats remarked to the New York Times in 1970, “I think that the large majority of people, going as high as 85 or 90 percent, are more than happy. Not so much for the violence but for the stand that we took. And now they’re standing up.”

But the longer results were less promising. “It was the era when FDR’s everyman first turned against the liberalism that once had championed him,” Mr. Kuhn writes, “[and] when the New Left won popular culture, then the Democratic Party, but lost blue-collar whites along the way.” The hardhats, he believes, “won the day but lost the long fight.” Ordinary Americans sided with them, not the antiwar radicals, but “blue-collar whites’ societal clout withered before their wages did, but that too was near . . . and working-class whites began their long march to less.”

Thus began the journey of the white working class away from the party of FDR and Truman. They helped Nixon crush George McGovern in 1972. The “Reagan Democrats” proudly supported the Gipper twice. They gave Ross Perot enough protest votes to make Bill Clinton president with only 43% of the vote, evidence that he would not have won in a two-party race. They seethed as Barack Obama ignored them. They changed the direction of American politics in the 2010 by-elections. They finally had enough when Hillary Clinton demeaned them as “deplorables” and accomplished a stunning revenge by tilting the 2016 election to Donald Trump.

“The Hardhat Riot” insightfully explains why and how this happened. Perhaps the Democratic Party’s leaders will finally understand what David Paul Kuhn has been trying to tell them.

—Mr. Webb served as a Marine in Vietnam, as assistant secretary of defense and secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, and as a Democratic senator from Virginia. He is currently a Distinguished Fellow at Notre Dame’s International Security Center.