(I started this blog to be about the spiritual journey of my later years. But can we really separate who we are from who we were? I think not and so have written this piece about an important event in my life. Is it spiritual? I don’t know for sure but I would hazard the guess that the Buddha’s call for compassion can be found in a peace movement whenever it happened. I wrote this mostly for myself, for the pleasure of remembering. Maybe it’s also a little for my son. If it sparks anyone else’s memories, or shows them something they didn’t know …then that’s good too.)
1969. What a year of once in a lifetime events. No wonder we are now (in 2009) celebrating and taking note of so many media hyped “40th anniversaries.” There was Woodstock…Man on the Moon…Nixon becomes President…the first Led Zeppelin album…lots of memories. Yet I notice in all the various calls of “let’s remember when,” one of my own most important personal memories–indeed one of the pivotal moments in my life–has been forgotten…or ignored.
We are now approaching the 40th anniversary of a three day period in November of 1969 when one of the largest public demonstrations in the county’s history took place in Washington D.C. More than half a million people marched in the streets to protest the continuation of the war in Vietnam. I was one of them and this is what I remember of that time…
In the fall of 1969 the Vietnam War raged on into its sixth year. The Congress had approved the reinstitution of the draft to commence that coming December. Nixon had been elected on a promise of a “secret plan” to end the war. That plan, peace conferences brokered by the French, fell apart and the President went to plan number two…an escalation of the war with an aim to force the North Vietnamese back to the bargaining table. As the war continued with no end in sight, the anti-war movement began to change.
In the early years of the war, those who opposed the war were labeled as hippies, revolutionaries and the “new” left. It was the time of “America, Love it or Leave it” bumper stickers. The media had been dismissive of protestors. Radio stations played “Okie from Muskogee” which promised that in the real America no one burned their draft cards or wore their hair long. And the FBI, still under J. Edgar Hoover’s rule, operated its then secret Cointelpro program to discredit, disrupt and destroy the anti-war movement (along with the civil rights movement).
But by late 1969 the public perception of the war and the anti-war movement was evolving. Although the country remained divided on the issue, more and more opposition to the war reached outside of college dorm rooms to union halls, churches, middle class families and even veteran groups. Walter Cronkite’s declaration that the war could not be won the year before was now being accepted over a broader base. As colleges around the country reopened for the fall semester in 1969 there was a real feeling in the air that just maybe concerned citizens could force Washington’s hand and actually end the war. After all, in the end, the government had to listen to the people when they spoke. Right?
In September a nationwide coalition of various anti-war groups came together under the umbrella name of the New Mobilization Against the War, or New Mobe for short. A number of peaceful marches and demonstrations were planned over the next ninety days with a call for a general mobilization of those opposed to the war to meet in Washington DC and San Francisco on the same day in November. The Washington march would be comprised of two separate demonstrations: a single file March Against Death over the two days of November 13 and 14, and a general mass demonstration and march on November 15th.
In the fall of 1969 my own focus was less on politics than on my personal life. That summer while working the line at a Detroit factory, my fellow workers had introduced me to the joys of drugs. Marijuana, hashish and opium had opened up a whole new world for me (one which would end in rehab eventually). And a hard fought battle for the affections of my first real love had proven successful. Those events combined with the emerging new FM radio music scene to provide the three basic elements of life in the sixties…drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll. I grew a beard, let my hair grow long and let my bell bottom jeans drag the ground. To the horror of my parents I had fully embraced the new counter culture.
However back on campus in the fall I began to see things in a larger scale. A friendship with the head of the local chapter of Vietnam Vets against the War, along with my already left wing political leanings (I had been a Bob Kennedy for President supporter) convinced me that it was time to get involved in the anti-war movement. I became part of the New Mobe organizing committee on my own campus. And as my girl went to a university only a few miles a way, she and I joined the New Mobe group on her campus. I also did some work with other schools in Detroit and some local Unions.
Organizing for a large scale demonstration was actually pretty boring. It was mimeographing leaflets (no PC printers in those days). It was sitting in a phone booth with pockets full of dimes and calling other schools and newspapers (no cell phones either). It was hauling a table to the center of some well walked spot on campus to offer literature. It was going door to door asking for more volunteers. And it was endless meetings after classes where some junior grade Trotsky tried to bore everyone with a talk about Marxist theory or some Black Panther Wannabe wanted to preach about stopping the “man.” But mostly it was middle class kids with plans on being teachers or lawyers or just getting a better job who thought…well… they thought this was the right thing to do. It was that simple.
We got a lot of support from mothers and priests, teachers and vets, factory workers and bus drivers. But we also got a fair amount of opposition. Fraternity goon squads would overturn tables, push and sometimes hit. People with American flag pins would call names. And sometimes the opposition was closer to home.
A high school buddy who joined the Navy right after high school told me I deserved to get punched out if I was in a peace march. When my older brother who was in law school heard I was planning on attending the now much publicized Washington demonstration he angrily said that my arrest as a radical troublemaker would adversely affect his future career.
My mother would call and cry in the phone. She recalled the bonus Army after WWI. Army vets marched on Washington during the depression to demand the bonuses they had been promised. The active Army was called out and opened fire. I tried to reassure her that nothing like that could happen now. I told her America would never fire on her own children.
The most difficult was my father. He was a smart, good man who saw much of the world he knew changing in ways he couldn’t understand. Like all of us, when frightened or confused he fell back on basic beliefs. Who was I to question authority of our leaders? I was joining with traitors who were supporting our enemy and that made me no better than them. I was a coward. He hoped I would be drafted so the Army could teach me how to be an adult. My words back to him were no less harsh. We became enemies for the first time in our lives.
The disapproval of my family weighed heavily on me. In my heart I knew that what I was doing…what all of us were doing…really mattered. It was one of the greatest issues of the time and I could not walk away from it. Still the feeling that I had disappointed my parents and might even be threatening my own future made me constantly question my actions. I seriously thought that to keep peace perhaps I should stay behind when the local New Mobe groups headed for Washington. Would my one voice, my small insignificant presence really make that big a difference? Eventually I decided it would make a difference… to me. The people I loved had raised me to do what was right. I was convinced this was right. So in the dark early morning hours of November 13, 1969 my girl and I joined thousands of others heading for Washington DC to confront our own government.
It took about 10 hours to get to Washington DC. We arrived mid morning on Thursday the 13th of November, under grey and cloudy skies. We picked up our New Mobe packet with a map showing where our group would be housed (the basement of a local church), and containing an instruction sheet for the coming marches. The sheet reminded everyone that this was a peaceful march and that we should stop anyone who tried to incite violence.
The instructions also suggested carrying a dime for phone calls in case of arrest. While the march had the appropriate permits, arrests of marchers for “loitering” or “causing a disturbance” were common police tactics at the time. Armed with this unpleasant possibility we went off to find some food. I still have that instruction sheet with my girlfriend’s dainty handwriting across the side (“four cheeseburgers, two fries, two cokes”…a lunch order to bring back for friends at the church).
In the afternoon we headed out to the Arlington National Cemetery to join the March Against Death. The idea for the march was to point out the number of young men who had been killed in the war, as well as to honor and remember them. At that time over 45,000 soldiers had died in the war.
Marchers were to take the name of a fallen soldier written on a large card and carry it single file to the capital building. There the names would be placed in a coffin and the coffins delivered to the White House. The names of the dead filled ten caskets, and it took forty hours for marchers to carry all the names to the capital.
I would like to digress for a moment and talk about the relationship of the anti-war protestors and the Vietnam era soldiers. A myth has been created and accepted by the general population that soldiers were the target of derision and abuse by protestors. Soldiers it is said were spit on, called names and generally suffered at the hands of protestors when they returned home. The Peace Movement hated soldiers, it is now claimed by some.
This is not true.
First, many journalistic and academic studies have shown there was no widespread abuse of soldiers by protestors. Did it ever happen? Almost certainly some longhairs at some point called a uniformed man a baby killer or spit at him. Just as there were times (I personally know of one) where a couple of drunken soldiers beat up a “hippie” for having long hair. And some soldiers committed horrible crimes while wearing the uniform. But regardless of whether we are talking soldiers or peace protestors, the incidents are isolated and never reflected anything other than the twisted behavior of a few.
The military brass was certainly disrespected by the peace movement, even hated by some, for what we saw as a needless perpetuation of an unnecessary and costly war. But the members of the peace movement never saw soldiers (or sailors or airmen) as our enemies. Just the opposite. We saw them as the victims of an uncaring government pursuing a bad war. We saw soldiers as young men, just like us, forced to be in harm’s way without good reason. We saw them as our brothers, friends, family members, high school buddies…as ourselves. When we marched we marched for them as much as anybody. No one was more respected in the peace movement than the Vietnam Vets Against the War.
The story of the peace movement has been consigned to the dust heap of history mostly by those who neither fought in the war nor marched against it. But the truth remains the truth…we saw the man in uniform as our brother.
At the cemetery each marcher was given the name of a soldier who had died in Vietnam. I requested the name of someone I had known. Then we waited for our turn to pass out of the cemetery and start our journey. We were there a couple of hours during which the rain poured down on us. But we were young, in love and on a mission so it didn’t dampen our spirits. While waiting I bought a button from a volunteer that showed a field of crosses with the words “How Many More?” I still have it.
At some point someone started to sing “We shall overcome,” and we all took up the song. It was pretty moving to be standing in the rain and hearing our voices echoing through the graves of so many fallen soldiers promising in song that we would not fail.
Eventually the line moved us up to the departure point at the edge of the cemetery. Since it was getting dark volunteers passed out candles sheltered from the wind by paper cups. They also pinned a bright paper badge showing a dove of peace on the front of every marcher’s coat. As we moved out of the cemetery a large bell was rung for the soldier whose name we carried.
The line moved very slowly and we silently shuffled along through the streets of Washington DC in single file. It grew later as each hour of slow walking passed. Each moment gave time for reflection of the name being carried, on why were they there.
As we walked people would pass. Occasionally we would get a smile or the flash of the peace sign, but mostly people would turn away and try to pretend we weren’t there. Occasionally someone would call us names or spit in our direction. I remember one man who sat in his parked Volkswagen, screaming “fuck you” and lifting his middle finger again and again to every marcher that passed. But mostly people seemed like they just wished we would go away.
Our path took us to the front of the White House where a microphone was set up. Each marcher stopped, faced that magnificent icon of the American Presidency and spoke into the microphone, broadcasting the name of a fallen soldier so that it reverberated off the stone and marble of the building.
Our path then took us on to the Capitol steps where we slowly walked up and laid the names we carried in one of the caskets lined up there. Later when the marchers had finished and the caskets were filled with the names of the war dead they would be solemnly carried to the White House.
A year later in 1970 the popular folksinger Melanie released a song which she said was about the March Against Death. It was called Lay Down (Candles in the Rain). The record company, perhaps fearing a backlash, later said the song was about Woodstock. The story could change …but the words remained the same.
Lay down lay down, let it all down
Let your white birds smile up at the
Ones who stand and frown
We were so close, there was no room
We bled inside each others wounds
We all had caught the same disease
And we all sang the songs of peace
Some came to sing, some came to pray
Some came to keep the dark away
So raise the candles high
Cause if you don’t we could stay
Black against the sky
Oh oh raise them higher again
And if you do we could stay dry against the rain
My girl and I finished the march late in the evening (actually early in the morning) and walked back to the church in the rain. We crawled, tired and wet, into our sleeping bag where we stayed until the afternoon. Then there were meetings about the mass march to take place the next day, scrounging for food (more burgers) and some time to think. We fell asleep wondering what the next day would bring. Would all the predictions of a massive turnout from across the country come true…or would it just be a small group of college kids once more protesting the war?
November 15, 1969 was a cold but brightly sunny day in Washington DC. Those of us in the basement of the church were up early. We breakfasted on donated instant coffee and trail mix we had put in our back packs. We headed out into the streets that were already filled with people heading as we were to march to the Washington Monument. As we filled the March route the street sides were line with volunteers all holding hands to keep the march contained and peaceful.
It was a day of smiles and peace signs. Everyone was there. Old people and babies in strollers. White, black, and brown. College kids in blue jeans and vets in worn khaki. It was a glorious day. The crowd swelled as we moved through the city. Later reports said somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 people turned out that day. It was the largest gathering the country had ever seen. And with another 250,000 people marching in San Francisco, and thousands more around the country the BBC reported that over 2,000,000 Americans turned out that day to protest the war.
When we reached the elliptical park around the Monument there were speeches and songs. Mostly there was celebration. We had done it…we had shown the government and the world that the peace movement wasn’t a small group of radicals but was reflective of a great cross section of America. America wanted the war stopped. No More War! We threw our hands into the air in peace signs and cheered and cheered. We could not be ignored now.
At the end of the day my girl and I walked slowly back to the church to catch the bus that would take us back to Michigan. We were exhausted, but happy. At the church we laid on the floor holding each other, nearly asleep as we waited for our bus to be called. Then the gas hit us.
It seems the DC police had been in an exchange with a small group of violent protestors earlier in the day. After the arrests of those people the cops wanted a little more payback…on somebody. So they visited the church where peaceful protestors were staying and lobbed tear gas into the closed space. If you have never been tear gassed…it sucks. And stings. And hurts. Your eyes burn and swell and fill with tears. You can’t breathe and you cough violently to try and clear the burning gas from your throat and lungs.
We crawled along the floor and made our way out of the building. The church yard was filled with people suffering from the gas. The cops across the street leaned against their cars and smiled. Luckily no one was seriously hurt and the fresh air began to ease the effects of the gas. Not long after the bus came and we headed home.
We arrived in Ann Arbor around 3 in the morning. I slept at my girl’s place for a few hours and then hitchhiked back to my own school. I got to the campus early Sunday morning. As I walked to my dorm I was alone. The streets were deserted and everyone was still asleep. I stood in the middle of the little valley where the dormitories were and looked around at the peaceful scene. I wanted to shout “Wake-up! We did it. The war is going to stop! The war will be over soon!” But I didn’t. I just enjoyed the silence and the satisfaction of knowing that we…all of us …had done something special. There was no way the President could ignore this. He would have to end the war.
Six months later I would stand in the same spot. Only this time it would not be so peaceful. By then the President would have made his statement that he was not going to be influenced by protests as he expanded the war into Cambodia. In the ensuing demonstrations my mother’s nightmare would come true as troops would fire on unarmed students. The night after four students were slain at Kent State I would stand shoulder to shoulder with other students as we waited by a burning University bus to confront the lethally armed SWAT teams that were sweeping through campus towards us. But that was all in the future.
On that sunny Sunday morning in November of 1969 I really thought for one beautiful moment that we were going to give peace a chance.
The war didn’t end in 1969. It would continue for another six years until the government finally gave up and pulled the troops out. But not before another 10,000 young Americans would die.
The March on Washington in November of 1969 was not my last protest march. It was the beginning of a commitment to a peace movement which I still today consider one of the better parts of my life. I am proud to have been among those who said “Stop the War.”
Today the Vietnam era peace movement is pretty much ignored or forgotten. Like the young soldiers who fought and died in Vietnam, those who spoke out against the war are an uncomfortable reminder of a past many prefer to forget. But in my opinion such denial of our past makes for a blind and dangerous future.
I’d like to finish this personal history by recalling one special moment that happened to me later in my life. Years after the war had ended and the US had left Vietnam, there was a much talked about television news show that examined the war both from the standpoint of the military and from the side of the peace protestors.
By the time it was broadcast in the late seventies I was already living in San Francisco. The evening this show aired I received a phone call from my mother. Mom made a few comments about watching the show and then strangely said “Would you like to talk to your Father?” Of course I said yes although I was a little puzzled. Dad was never much of conversationalist on the phone, preferring to let my mother speak for both of them.
Dad took the phone and said that he had just watched the show about Vietnam. I waited wondering what this was about. Then the old warrior, the former Paris Island drill instructor, the Purple Heart decorated Marine vet said, “You kids were right. About the war I mean. I wanted to tell you that.” And so for me, the war came to an end.