1968: "The Doors" mistaken for political extremists
- 28 May 08, 08:39 AM
The anti-Vietnam war demonstration of March 1968 was a turning point in post-war politics: it turned violent right in front of the world's media; the police were shown throwing punches into the faces of already arrested students, and in general losing control. The police files from that event are considered too sensitive to release. But Newsnight has obtained, under Freedom of Information, a stack of police files relating to the much bigger anti-war demonstration of October that year. Watch tonight: they tell a story of rising panic in the establishment: the creation of Britain's first bomb squad; an intelligence feedback loop between Special Branchand the press that ramped up the tension; and, farcically, the rock group The Doors being mistaken for a group of foreign revolutionaries...
Watch BBC archive footage of the 1968 protests below:
The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign demonstrations, it's easy to forget, were not just anti-war: they were overtly supportive of the North Vietnamese side in the war with America. Dave Stocking, a student at Cambridge in 1968, told me "we'd broken into the US airbase at Lakenheath and paraded around amid all these burly GIs with our Vietcong flags". So it was all the more shocking that the original March demonstration got out of control. Archive footage, aired on Newsnight tonight, shows the fountains of Trafalgar Square turn red with dye and demonstrators driving back police horses. Though we're used to this now - from illegal raves to Rangers matches - it was the first time it had happened in post-war Britain.
But the real climate of fear was created in the run up to the October demo. Things had turned nasty all over the world: the Tet offensive, followed by the discovery of the Mai Lai massacre; the Prague Spring crushed by Soviet tanks; the assassination of Martin Luther King amid a black janitors' strike in Memphis; and then Paris. We've all, by now, seen the famous footage of tie-wearing students with a nice line in Joe-90 specs hurling bricks at the CRS on those balmy nights in the Latin Quarter. What's often forgotten is the 10 million strong general strike it led to, almost toppling the De Gaulle regime.
Fearing a repeat of this, we now know, from the Secret files, that the London Division of the British Army offered to assist the Met during the so called "Autumn Offensive". An offer that was declined, though it was discussed also at Cabinet level.
In the run up to the demo panic was sparked by press reports that demonstrators were planning to seize key buildings in London, defend them with Molotov cocktails, paralyse London, bringing about the total downfall of law and order and the subsequent collapse of Britain as a financial centre. Some may indeed have fantasised about this, but the leaders of the VSC at the time were, if anything, trying to play down the prospect of violence.
Enter the gentlemen of the fourth estate: newspaper articles appeared which gave credence to the prospect of a violent seizure of key installations; the list of "targets" grew - from the BBC, to MI5 the telecoms tower and even the Playboy Club. When the Times reported the prospect of a violent seizure, Home Secretary Jim Callaghan was grilled in the Commons. The police, reviewing the press reports, concluded privately that they were over the top, a "carefully constructed pastiche of information" based on inspired guesswork and with no proof whatsoever.
Whole sections of the documents were redacted when the Met released them to us this year - so we don't know what they thought were the source of the information. But we now know exactly where it came from. Brian Cashinella, crime reporter on the Times, told me the whole story had been briefed to him by Special Branch; "not any old plod but a senior fellow; he met us two or three times a week for three weeks". Cashinella says that, after a meeting with Jim Callaghan, his then editor William Rees Mogg assured him that the stories were genuine.
"I remember thinking it was laughable at the time," says former demonstrator Dave Stocking. March organiser Ed Guiton, who is repeatedly named as an extremist in the secret files, told me "It's frightening; we thought it was funny at the time but if they'd acted on this kind of intelligence now I could have ended up in Guantanamo!"
As the press reports became more lurid, Mary Whitehouse, moral campaigner, was issuing telegrams to the Met Police. One calls for "something to be done about " BBC Radio Four's "The World This Weekend" after it interviewed protesters. Another says this:
From: Mrs Mary Whitehouse
To: Ch. Supt. Special Branch
Time: 1555 hrs
I have received information from an American friend of mine that an organisation called "THE DOORS" who are a political extremist organisation, are now in England...With the student plans for demonstrations next month, I do not think that their arrival here in the United Kingdom is a coincidence...
Yes, Jim Morrison and the Doors - in England at the time for a drugged-out concert that can still be seen on Youtube, even if Newsnight can't afford to show you the official archive (!) - were mistaken for some kind of revolutionary group. Actually, when you consider their impact on music, culture, fashion and the general androgyny of the next 40 years they probably were revolutionaries - though the worst they inflicted on the establishment at the time was a stumbling press conference at the ICA.
As the demo approached the final police precautions were put into place: a Major Biddle and three other police explosives experts - until then engaged, Dixon of Dock Green-style in safe cracking exploits - were bunked up at Cannon Row police station for 48 hours in the run up to the event. From the documents it is clear they were there to deal with high explosives, not petrol bombs: a separate team was to deal with these. So spooked were the authorities that they set up the first bomb squad, at least a year before the formation of the Provisional IRA and the Angry Brigade.
In the end the demo passed of much quieter than the previous one. A breakaway group headed for Grosvenor Square and clashed with police but the vast mass - theatre critic Ken Tynan estimated 110,000 - stayed in Hyde Park to hear speeches. By this time, many colleges, including the LSE were occupied and Tariq Ali's radical paper "Black Dwarf" was urging "All Power to the Campus Soviets".
The police log of arrests and incidents for the day looks puny now: one German was arrested with an air gun and some dope; a man was found in the stables of a barracks, allegedly preparing to sabotage police horses. There were three Molotov Cocktails discovered - they were handed in to the police by a demonstrator at the Cenotaph on Whitehall, just yards from where Major Biddle and co were keeping watch. As ol' Jim Morrison hismself said: Strange Days!
Reading the files, and seeing the full archive of the BBC's footage - some of which we'll replay in glorious 60s colour tonight - I can't help thinking the establishment got it wrong in 1968. The real revolution was going off in people's heads - and it burned brighter and longer than any Molotov cocktail.
"I wanted to smash the system then," demonstrator Ian Birchall, now in his sixties, tells me, "now, on top of an illegal war we've got climate change as well...I want to smash it even more!"
WERE YOU THERE? Paul Mason's report on the policing of the VSC Autumn Offensive of 1968 goes out on Newsnight tonight. We'll be uploading some of the police files, released under Freedom of Information, and some BBC archive. Do you remember the events? Were you there - as a demonstrator or in the police force? Can you spot yourself in the footage? Hit the comments button and send us your memories.