Fifty eventful years have passed since an overcast Friday morning in lower Manhattan, when hard-hatted construction workers demonstrated—emphatically, energetically, violently—that the anti–Vietnam War left didn’t own New York City’s street-protest franchise.
Beginning shortly before noon on May 8, 1970—the 25th anniversary of V-E Day and four days after national guardsmen shot dead four students at Kent State University in Ohio—several hundred helmeted building tradesmen left work sites across downtown, laid into a large anti-war protest near Federal Hall, and undertook a two-hour rumpus that eventually rolled over the steps of City Hall, leaving 70 injured, six arrested, and the city itself in startled confusion.
What quickly became known as—what else?—New York’s “Hardhat Riot” was a noteworthy event in the nation’s protracted Vietnam War drama. Hitherto the role of the working class had been to contribute its sons to the war effort—while leaving the politics, and the moral preening, to its betters.
No longer, as journalist David Paul Kuhn details in this very fluid account of the event, its context, and its aftermath. Kuhn presents it as an inflection point in America’s journey from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon to Donald Trump, and to some degree it might have been. Certainly, the hardhats had laid down a cultural marker of some significance. Looking back, though, we can see that it was as much a civic spasm as an actual riot—just one more insult to an obsolescent and teetering post-WWII social order.
And it certainly wasn’t the only such statement. “In New York City alone,” writes Kuhn, “between August and November 1969, bombs exploded at the Marine Midland Building, the federal office building, the Armed Forces Induction Center, Macy’s Herald Square, Chase Manhattan Bank’s headquarters, and the General Motors Building.”
Arguably the most privileged generation in American history was coming into its own—and not quietly. It pushed hard against cultural conventions that had helped guide the nation through economic depression and global war. But now its elders were pushing back, and the result was a dramatic collision.
“From where George Washington was inaugurated, at the white marble center of the financial world,” writes Kuhn, “it was bedlam, an electric multitude of brawling and bullying and fear.”
It was the sort of thing that can’t be condoned, of course, even after 50 years. But it can be understood. And so it’s fair to say that the hardhats had been provoked—not so much by the Viet Cong flags that protestors routinely waved in their face, though they didn’t help, but by the tectonic political and social change that marked the period. By circumstance.
“Not so long [before],” writes Kuhn, “when elites needed hard men to defend the nation, to construct a superpower—the everyman was esteemed. Even within the churches of capitalism, such as Rockefeller Center, the laborer was drawn as if he was a Greek demigod. They were the grunts celebrated for winning the Second World War. They built the nation’s cities. And since FDR, most had backed Democrats because Democrats backed them and respected them.”
But now political polarities were shifting. The party of FDR and JFK had been traumatized at its national convention in Chicago two years earlier, had then lost the presidency to Richard Nixon, and now was slipping into the custody of Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. Soon it would be joined by John Lindsay, the elitist, über-liberal GOP mayor of New York City; certainly it was not about to show solicitude to the rough-and-tumble construction trades.
A principal line of demarcation was the war.
“I believed in a limited war, but my uncle fought in Pearl Harbor. My relatives all served, [and] no question, I would serve” a construction-trade electrician told Kuhn. “The majority of those guys working at the World Trade Center then, the majority of the guys I worked with, they were World War Two vets or Korean vets. It was a hard trade. These were hard guys.”
But they could count. They understood conceptually, if not in detail, that their families were bearing the burdens of a war that draft-deferred students loudly protested but adroitly avoided.
Notes Kuhn: “Harvard and MIT graduated 21,593 students from 1962 to 1972; of them, 14, or 1 in 1,542, died in Vietnam. Over the same period, in nearby blue-collar South Boston, 1 in 80 draft-age boys died in Vietnam.”
Moreover, continues Kuhn, “Anti-war demonstrators said they were trying to bring those boys home. But their leaders marched beside the flag of soldiers who killed American boys in Vietnam, and some waved that flag or worse.”
No surprise, then, that when the Democratic Party institutionally took up the protestors’ cause, the “hard guys” jumped ship—taking much of America’s working class with them. More to Kuhn’s point, they all stayed away when the draft—and the anti-war movement’s self-serving moralizing—ended.
But it took more than the war to drive blue-collar America from its political roots. Though it wasn’t glaringly apparent in 1970, the working class was being hollowed out economically by technology and globalization, socially by shifting cultural imperatives, and politically by elitist condescension and disdain.
This process has been well described from the left in sociologist Robert Putnam’s book Our Kids and from the right by cultural historian Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart—and it led many of those who were still politically engaged in 2016 directly into Donald Trump’s electoral base.
This is where many doubtless remain. Certainly the flashpoints haven’t changed much—globalization, illegal immigration, scant hope for upward social and economic mobility, and a largely accurate sense that the Democratic Party is openly contemptuous of all that.
But all this would be true irrespective of what New York City’s hardhats had done on one May morning five decades ago. Kuhn has produced a largely sympathetic, hugely detailed, and often fascinating snapshot of a faded event contained in a much bigger story. It’s a useful history, but there’s little doubt that if the Hardhat Riot had never happened, Donald Trump would have become president anyway.
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