The Flower in the Gun Barrel
By MAURICE ISSERMAN October 19, 2007
Toward dusk on the evening of October 21, 1967, a burly federal marshal took hold of my feet, dragged me away from the plaza in front of the Pentagon where I had been sitting in, and pulled me down the adjacent embankment, before depositing me on the pavement of the building's north parking lot. I was then 16 years old, a high-school junior from a small town in Connecticut on my first trip to the nation's capital. I picked myself up — bruised, dusty, and choking from tear gas — and limped back across the bridge connecting Arlington, Va., to Washington.
All in all, I thought, it had been the best day of my life.
It was probably not the best day in the life of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara — but then, it had been quite some time sinnce he had had a good one. Over the previous several years, he had grown increasingly tormented by his responsibility for the war that I had come to Washington to protest. Alone in his office, he would break down and weep, turning his face to the window if someone walked in unexpectedly. Five months before the Pentagon protest, he had sent the White House a confidential memo outlining his "growing doubts" about American involvement in Vietnam. He was having a bad day on October 21 because he no longer believed in the war he had done so much to begin and promote — and with which he is forever identified.
So it was, 40 years ago this month, while I was going bump-bump-bump down the embankment, that a secretary of defense famed for his uncompromising public defense of American policies in Vietnam found himself in the odd position of plotting strategy for the movement opposing those policies. Three decades later, writing in In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (Times Books, 1995), McNamara recalled the siege of the Pentagon: "I could not help but think that had the protesters been more disciplined — Gandhi-like--” they could have achieved their objective of shutting us down."
The Pentagon protest was viewed at the time, as it has been subsequently, as a watershed in the history of the antiwar movement. Until then, with few exceptions, antiwar protests had been fairly staid affairs — mostly orderly marches, picketing, and vigils. But the organizers of the October 21 protest had billed it as the moment when the antiwar movement would shift "from dissent to resistance." After a mass rally at the Lincoln Memorial and a march across the Arlington Memorial Bridge — both securely within the "dissent" tradition — the "resistance" component kicked in, as thousands of marchers brought the antiwar message to the very steps of the Pentagon. Seven hundred were arrested, a record for antiwar protests at that time.
To some critics, then and later, "resistance" was a code word and license for irresponsible and obnoxious behavior. "It is difficult to report publicly the ugly and vulgar provocation of many of the militants," The New York Times's James Reston wrote in a front-page piece on October 23. "They spat on some of the soldiers in the front line at the Pentagon and goaded them with the most vicious personal slander." But that is not how I remember it. I returned home from Washington thinking we had been pretty true to Gandhian principles as we sat in below McNamara's office window.
The October 1967 protest was organized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, headed by the veteran pacifist David Dellinger. The previous summer, Dellinger had hired the Berkeley activist Jerry Rubin to serve as principal organizer for the group's already scheduled fall demonstration. It was Rubin's idea to abandon the original plans, which called for a march past the Capitol, and substitute a march crossing the Arlington Memorial Bridge to the Pentagon.
Rubin was hardly a pacifist and was later associated with the chaotic street actions outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968. But his inspiration for the Pentagon protest came largely from pacifist sources. On three earlier occasions in the 1960s, small groups of demonstrators from peace groups like the Committee for Non-Violent Action had staged vigils and sit-ins at the Pentagon, some lasting for several days. And in a desperate act of individual protest, Norman R. Morrison, a Quaker, sat down outside the Pentagon on November 2, 1965, doused himself with kerosene, lit a match, and burned to death.
As Rubin planned this latest Pentagon protest, he also drew inspiration from an article by Allen Ginsberg titled "Berkeley Vietnam Days," published in the pacifist magazine Liberation. Ginsberg called upon the antiwar movement to embrace a "magic politics" of playful protest and spectacle. Rubin and his sidekick Abbie Hoffman set out to create just such a spectacle in Washington. Word went out to hippie communities that the event would be as much a festival of the counterculture as a traditional protest. There would be rock bands, giant puppets, even an attempt to levitate the Pentagon and shake out its demons. In The Armies of the Night (New American Library, 1968), a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Pentagon protest, Norman Mailer described the eccentric couture of his fellow demonstrators at length, suggesting that "They were close to being assembled from all the intersections between history and the comic books, between legend and television, the Biblical archetypes and the movies."
The countercultural trappings were new. But there was nothing new — or, for that matter, necessarily un-Gandhi-like — in the theatricality of the Pentagon protest. Indeed, American pacifists had spent a decade crafting a politics of spectacle, starting in 1958, when three Quakers and a Methodist attempted to sail a small boat, named the Golden Rule, into an off-limits zone in the Pacific to disrupt a scheduled hydrogen-bomb test. The civil-rights movement of the early 1960s also displayed a flair for theatrical confrontation, offering a morally charged drama of redemptive suffering carried out at lunch counters, on courthouse steps, and in crowded jail cells across the South.
So there were precedents for thinking that carefully choreographed political confrontations between forces (and symbols) of right and wrong, good and evil, could have practical and desirable consequences. That was the background that shaped Rubin's strategy.
Things did not go according to plan (a topic sentence that could serve to introduce a paragraph devoted to virtually any major protest of the 1960s). The civil disobedience was supposed to be an orderly crossing of a police line by those inclined to accept arrest. The remainder of the protesters would have to content themselves with standing within shouting (or levitating) distance of the Pentagon. No one expected that, with thousands of soldiers and hundreds of marshals guarding the perimeter, protesters would find a weak point in the line, an unguarded section on the embankment that led to the very steps of the Pentagon. A vanguard of a dozen or so protesters actually made it into the building before being beaten bloodily back. In the meantime, about 5,000 protesters poured up the embankment before a secure line was restored behind them.
There was, I recall, a scary sense of indeterminacy in those first few minutes above the embankment. Blood had already been spilled on the Pentagon steps. No one knew how the troops who poured out of the building would react to our presence, or whether they had bullets in their guns. There was some pushing and jostling, and a few missiles tossed from the back of the crowd toward the line of troops. But one young protester found a way to defuse tensions. Bernie Boston, a photographer at The Washington Star, snapped a photograph of the young man putting carnations in a soldier's gun barrel. (Boston's editors apparently didn't think much of the photo, running it on Page A12 the next day. It went on to become one of the iconic images of the 60s.)
John Patterson, a member of a military-police battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C., who took up a position outside the Pentagon that afternoon, offers a perspective from the other end of the gun barrel. "There was some stuff, bottles, etc., thrown in the first few minutes after we took our position on the steps," he wrote me recently in an e-mail message in response to my query about his experiences that day. "But nobody was hurt, and it quickly stopped." It stopped in part because the protesters themselves were yell-ing at the missile throwers at the back of the crowd to cut it out.
And, contrary to Reston's influential account in the Times, Patterson did not recall any spitting by protesters. At my request, he checked his memories with other veterans of his unit. "So far, I've heard from 4 MP's who were at the Pentagon in 67," he reported in another e-mail message. "None of them recall seeing or hearing about anybody being spit on. One MP ... whom I spent considerable time with on the line, described the protesters as friendly and peaceful ... As another said, 'If one of our guys had been spit on there would have been a retaliation.' I have no doubts about that." (It's not clear whether Reston attended the demonstration, but it's worth noting that none of the Times reporters who filed stories the day after the protest mentioned any spitting.)
Another protester was George Dennison, a World War II veteran, peace activist, and teacher, whose influential manifesto for educational reform, The Lives of Children (Random House, 1969), would be published soon afterward. His account of the events, which appeared in the November 1967 issue of Liberation, also offers a counterpoint to Reston and others. Dennison reported a confrontation that was "almost classically nonviolent." The protesters viewed the soldiers standing before them not as enemies but as potential allies. They repeatedly appealed to the troops to lay down their arms and join them or, if not that, to take a break: "Let the troops relax! Give the troops a smoke!" were among the chants to be heard. (Patterson remembered those chants: "Some of the demonstrators were asking us to lay down our arms and join the demonstration. I had a good laugh at this as I explained that I only had ten days left in the Army.")
The New York Times carries a lot more weight in historical memory than a small-circulation, pacifist magazine. In most historical accounts of the Pentagon demonstration, Reston trumps Dennison — and no one seems to have asked the MPs what they remembered. Lost in the fog of war surrounding the events of the Pentagon protest is any acknowledgment of the nonviolent values and behavior of most of those who gathered there.
Not only nonviolent but patriotic, for as Dennison recorded, late in the evening, when the reporters had gone home to file their disparaging stories, the demonstrators began to sing to keep up their spirits. "'America the Beautiful' fell flat, as it always does," he recalled. "We gave up singing — or at least we did until suddenly 'The Star-Spangled Banner' swelled from our throats. I had never sung it before without some twinge of resentment at the hoked-up circumstances. Here we sang it wide-open, high notes and all. It was our song."
It was a rare demonstration thereafter that heard the national anthem sung. And there were all too many antiwar protests in years to come that could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be said to owe anything to the pacifist movement for inspiration. Among those swept up in the violent protests of the later 1960s was a Stanford University student named Craig McNamara, son of the secretary of defense. "I remember the rage setting in on me, and the frustration that we all felt because we couldn't stop the war," he told Tom Wells, author of The War Within: America's Battle Over Vietnam (University of California Press, 1994).
I, too, remember that rage, and the air of violence it bred, and was caught up in it myself. But that was not the spirit of the siege of the Pentagon in October 1967. If only Robert McNamara had recognized its true Gandhi-like character. If only he had responded to the protesters' chants of "Join us!" and come down from his office and out into our ranks, and, symbolically, laid down his own arms. Maybe he would have had a better day. And maybe we would have been spared the extremes to come.
Maurice Isserman is a professor of American history at Hamilton College. He is co-author, with Michael Kazin, of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (Oxford University Press, 2007).
http://chronicle.com Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 54, Issue 8, Page B14
Carolyn L. Karcher
Reminiscences of the 1967 March on the Pentagon
From reading John McAuliff's newsletter comments on the March on the Pentagon, I realize that I have completely forgotten the demonstration on the Mall that preceded it. I heard many of the same speakers at countless other demonstrations, but I simply can't call them to mind for this one.
In October 1967, I was still very new to anti-war demonstrations--in fact to demonstrations of any kind. I had attended a demonstration against the Vietnam War in June 1966, just before leaving with my husband for a year in India. The October 1967 march was probably my second one.
I went with two friends from Stanford University, and I vaguely remember marching with them across the bridge to the Pentagon. I never intended to commit civil disobedience, only to protest publicly against the war. So when the organizers announced that all those who did not intend to commit civil disobedience should leave, I would have done so, except that my friends
wanted to stay, and I did not dare walk home alone at night through the streets of Washington; hence, I stayed with them.
At a certain point, probably after the departure of all media representatives, troops emerged with gas masks (or at any rate visors) and fixed bayonets and began trying to disperse or divide the demonstrators, who were sitting peacefully on the ground, according to instructions from our leaders. The troops proceeded systematically and brutally, kicking the seated demonstrators with their heavy boots and knocking our comrades over the head with their rifle butts, which they wielded right and left. I was sitting far away, at the other end of the crowd, so I didn't get hurt, but I was absolutely petrified all night.
Another thing I remember is that despite strict instructions from our leaders to remain nonviolent, and despite vehement protests from the seated demonstrators, a few people at the back started hurling projectiles toward the troops, over the heads of the demonstrators. I had never heard of agents provocateurs at the time, but I now surmise that that's who these people were.
What got me through the night was the conviction that the next day, the press would reveal the truth about how a nonviolent protest was met by troops who treated US citizens as if they were the enemy. Instead, when my friends and I got home and opened up the Washington Post, the headlines that greeted us were: TROOPS SHOW GREAT RESTRAINT AGAINST VIOLENT DEMONSTRATORS. That marked the start of my political (re)education.
|Jane Rose Kasmir, age 17 (photo by Marc Riboud)|
Launched for a Lifetime
Norman Mailer dubbed us “armies of the night.” But I retreated before sunset to what I thought would be safer ground. As our protesting “armies” pitched tents on the Pentagon’s lawn for the night, I was thumbing a ride back to North Carolina.
October 21, 1967 was a long stretch of a day. Three days earlier I had approached a table in the corner of the cafeteria at my school, High Point College. Jim stood behind the table, offering draft counseling literature and urging those who stopped at the table to go with him to the March on the Pentagon. I had first met him when I volunteered as a tutor with VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) – the domestic peace corps of the 1960s. I had watched him work in a low-income neighborhood, attempting to bring African Americans, Native Americans and whites into common community development projects. I trusted him and decided to go to Washington with him. It would be my first public demonstration.
Jim picked me up from my dorm at midnight on Friday night in a 1953 black coupe. The front passenger seat was already occupied by Kate, also a VISTA volunteer. I took the back seat and settled in for the long ride. We wound along the smaller roads connecting piedmont North Carolina with the nation’s capital; Jim said that the car’s engine could not handle highway speeds. He and Kate alternated driving and sleeping, so the trip was short on conversation.
A pole was wedged out the back passenger window, displaying a black flag with a white omega – the Greek letter that was the symbol of the emerging draft resistance movement. With the back window partially open, I became chilled and buttoned the wool topcoat that my father had bought me in a Lower Manhattan garment shop. It was a “going off to college” gift – Dad’s idea of what the well-dressed freshman would wear to winter classes. I had seen newspaper pictures of young men in coats and ties in New York City turning in and burning their draft cards at Sheeps Meadow in Central Park just a few days before, on October 15th. I assumed that since I was going to a similar event in the nation’s capital, the topcoat would be the proper attire.
It was mid-morning when we crossed the 14th Street Bridge. The streets of Washington, DC, were filled with armored personnel carriers, and rifle-toting soldiers were stationed at nearly every corner along the National Mall. It was my first-ever visit to Washington. In November of 1963, as John Kennedy’s body was being carried through the streets on a horse-drawn caisson, my family drove around the city on our way from New Jersey to Thanksgiving in Georgia with our extended family. That was as close as I had come to visiting the capital.
I asked Jim if the presence of troops was usual. He said, “I’ve never seen it like this.” I wondered, what exaggerated sense of threat had prompted orders for this show of force? We parked the coupe and joined others, as our restless “army” took up its own positions on both sides of the Reflecting Pool leading up to the Lincoln Memorial.
A week later the High Point College campus newspaper would carry a column by its editor, who had also traveled to the DC area the weekend of the march. He said he had a “front row seat” watching the march on television in his parents’ living room on Andrews Air Force Base. Out the living room window early Saturday morning, he watched as squadrons of helicopters shuttled troops into DC. He opined that the march was a futile protest, since he was certain that no one worked in the Pentagon on weekends.
As we gathered among others unfurling omega flags, Jim warned me that he would be marching with those who had recently turned in their draft cards – the tie-and-coat gang from October 15th, who I could see had definitely dressed down for the march. They were among the initial waves of thousands who would burn or turn in their draft cards in the months following the March on the Pentagon.
I was welcome to join them, Jim told me, but he predicted that the “omega contingent” would likely be infiltrated by FBI informants. If I did not want an FBI file opened on me, I should march with others, he said. A decade later, I would discover through a Freedom of Information Act request that my FBI file opened with quotes from my letter to the draft board explaining why I subsequently had turned in my own draft card.
But on that day, I was not prepared to join the “omega contingent.” After a walk along the Reflecting Pool in search of others to march with, I found a “non-aligned college student contingent” near the stage erected on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where I was about to see and hear Peter Paul and Mary and Phil Ochs live for the first time. David Dellinger, the coordinator of the National Mobilization Committee that had organized the demonstration, opened the rally. A year later, he would be one of the Chicago Eight, charged with crossing state lines to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention. The special commission appointed to investigate that event later issued the Walker Report, which concluded that police had committed unrestrained and indiscriminate acts of violence against protesters, characterizing it as a “police riot.”
Pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, author Norman Mailer, comedian Dick Gregory, and singer Peter Yarrow followed David with rousing speeches. When a member of the British Labour Party took the stage to announce his opposition to the war, members of the American Nazi Party rushed the stage and turned over the podium. I do not remember, nor have I found any reference to, women among the rally speakers. As I reflect back on those who spoke from the stage that day, it seems providential that I would have occasions to work alongside three of them in the decades that followed.
Twenty years after that march, David Dellinger would sit on my couch in St. Louis, with one of my daughters on each side, as he told them stories of his life as a “hobo” in the 1930s after graduating from Yale Divinity School. He stayed in our home on three occasions while on speaking tours, helping us mobilize a new generation of students against the Gulf War – still “hoboing” around the country decades later. My now-grown daughters still remember him as “Dad’s hobo friend.”
Dick Gregory, a native of St. Louis, would return periodically to help us with disarmament campaigns in the early 1980s and human rights struggles in the ’90s. In 2005 Peter Yarrow, at our encouragement, broke away from preparations for a St. Louis concert to lend his voice and experience to support a 19-day student sit-in at Washington University over the administration’s refusal to recognize the labor rights of campus service workers. As a member of Jobs with Justice, I served on the students’ community support committee. It was a particularly tense, yet centered, evening – the students hanging out the windows of the office they occupied as Peter sang in the fading light, while police surrounded the building, poised to remove the protesters.
Back in DC in 1967, when my contingent headed out toward the bridge over the Potomac River, we were directly behind those who had spoken from the stage. I marched feeling inspired but anonymous. Alone in my dressy topcoat, I was concerned that I might be mistaken by other marchers for an FBI informant. I later learned that federal agents usually dressed down for their undercover excursions to demonstrations in an effort to blend in – although there was an instance in 1972 of an informant dressing up in clerical garb and collar to infiltrate the National Union of Theological Students and Seminarians (NUTS) as we organized civil disobedience actions against the war.
I seemed to have lost my “college contingent.” On my left was a priest (or perhaps an informant dressed like a priest?), and on my right a man with his seven-year-old son. We introduced ourselves as we crossed the bridge. Our line of march was as wide as the bridge, and I could see those up ahead, but not the end of the line behind us. Once across the bridge we turned east on a service road and the line narrowed.
We entered a parking lot as the first contingent of notables, all dressed in coats and ties, attempted to lead us in an encirclement of the Pentagon. Blocked by a line of soldiers, they knelt and were promptly arrested. My contingent now became the front line of the march. Someone suggested that we proceed up an embankment to the steps and try to enter the Pentagon.
We climbed the side steps and found the center landing occupied by a line of soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder with rifles and bayonets ready. The priest and the man and his son were no longer at my side. Only a few feet separated the new front line of the march from the tips of the bayonets, as thousands of marchers pressed forward, filling the steps behind us. I felt trapped as the stand-off ramped up.
A young woman plucked a flower from her hair and stepped forward, placing it in the barrel of a soldier’s rifle. I heard the click of a camera’s shutter. The young soldier looked confused, his eyes riveted on the flower. His face seemed to mirror the same fear that I felt. I wondered, did he also feel trapped?
The march leaders who were not already arrested arrived on the landing. One suggested that we attempt to crawl between the soldiers’ feet. Several marchers dropped down on their knees. As they maneuvered under and between the soldiers, I feared their outstretched arms would be grazed by bayonets. A few marchers rushed to their aid, while others suggested that we sit down in front of the soldiers. Someone said, “No, we did that in Berkeley, and they came down on our heads.”
Several demonstrators, apparently expecting what was to come and having arrived prepared, put on football helmets. They clambered up the elevated stone wall along the steps. Once beyond the soldiers’ line, they sat down on the upper landing and began to address the crowd. MPs appeared from inside the Pentagon with batons raised. They beat our helmeted companions and carried them away.
With the stand-off uncertain but feeling clearly unsafe, I “jumped ship.” Actually, I jumped a wall by the landing’s side stairs and headed up the embankment to the southbound highway. Relieved to be out of the fray, I stuck out my thumb. A red sports car stopped, and the young driver asked me where I was headed. When I said “High Point, North Carolina,” he responded, “I’m headed back to Camp Lejeune – get in.”
Knowing Camp Lejeune to be a Marine base near the North Carolina coast, I warily lowered myself into the passenger seat. He asked, “Where have you been?” With not much more than a murmur, I answered, “The Pentagon.” And he said, “Thanks. I was there, too.” He told me that he was expecting orders to be deployed to Vietnam any day and that this was his first, and maybe last, chance to speak out.
There we were, side by side in a sports car headed south, an anti-war student attending college with the aid of a student deferment from the draft board and a Marine about to be sent to fight a war that he believed was wrong. We were two novices, returning from our first demonstration. This was my initial hint that those refusing to fight and those forced to fight the Vietnam War would join forces to eventually end it.
This notion of the convergence of civilian and military resistance to the war was counter to the popular myth of animosity, but the convergence surfaced more clearly as the years passed. As my activism grew and the movement struggled to end the air wars over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, a young former Army private from rural Ohio, who had refused three times to board a plane to Vietnam and then became a Quaker, coached us in the tactics of nonviolent campaigns. At a 1972 National Council of Churches meeting on the war in Kansas City, Missouri, I was among a group of anti-war seminarians who took over the stage and immediately turned the podium over to members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, so that they could address the gathering whose leadership had denied them a place on the program.
One January morning in 1973 in New Bern, North Carolina, I watched from the gallery of a federal courtroom as a retired career Marine officer testified on behalf of his son, who was on trial for draft resistance. It was hard to tell for sure from across the room, but it appeared that even a juror or two were in tears. However, the following day the jury found the resister guilty and the judge sentenced him to prison, as nine of us fellow draft resisters stood with him for sentencing, risking contempt of court.
I was honored to counsel two St. Louis Marine Reservists from north St. Louis who refused orders to Iraq in 1991. After lending their voices to our efforts to prevent the Gulf War, they spent the duration of the war and months beyond in the Marine brig at Camp Lejeune. A decade later, a Korean War veteran who was the executive director of Veterans for Peace and I watched on a television in the basement of the World Community Center in St. Louis, in disbelief and fear for what was to come, as the second tower of the World Trade Center fell.
The Marine in the sports car dropped me off in Virginia at the point where one highway headed southeast to Camp Lejeune and the other southwest to High Point. I stuck out my thumb again. A Virginia State Patrol cruiser rose over the hill. The trooper turned on his flashing lights, pulled over and told me to get in. Noticing for the first time that I had failed to remove the peace buttons from my wool coat, I then endured a long lecture about my lack of patriotism. “You got to love this country or leave it. You wouldn’t have the freedom to demonstrate if I had not fought for it. It’s disloyal to protest while our troops are in a war.”
Suddenly, the cruiser stopped and I looked up to see only corn fields. “Get out!” the trooper ordered. “Where am I?” I asked. “Get out!” he repeated more forcefully. Again I asked, “Where am I?” He refused to answer. I stepped out and, with all the indignation I could muster, I slammed the door. Not a good decision.
The officer got out with baton in hand and strode around to the passenger door. He opened it, then grabbed me by the collar of my wool coat and backed me up on the cruiser’s hood with his baton raised. “Go back and close the door softly!” he yelled. I did, and he pulled away.
After a very long walk, I found my way into downtown Petersburg, Virginia, where I secured a room in a less than reputable hotel for $2.50. As I checked in, a group of men and women were huddled around the television in the lobby, watching the news reports from the Pentagon. At that moment, the protesters’ tents pitched on the Pentagon lawn seemed like they might have been the safer option for the night.
I caught a ride early the next morning with a salesman on his way to the High Point furniture market. Back on campus, as I made my way down the hall to my room, my fraternity brothers greeted me with reprimands. They were particularly angered a week later when an interview with me about the march appeared in the campus newspaper. I was, in their words, “an embarrassment to the brotherhood.” They urged that I be expelled. Not long after that, I obliged their concern and left fraternity life behind.
One might think after all this that I would have decided that my first demonstration was my last. I did hang up my wool topcoat, but not my determination to end the war. In many ways, the sun has never set on that long stretch of a day, and I have remained on that crowded Pentagon landing – launched for a lifetime.
Because of its long standing commitment to local organizing, SDS had debated whether to support the National Mobilization’s march in Washington in 1967. In the end, SDS did support it but did not pledge any resources to work on it. National demonstrations, I thought, didn’t build organizations in which people could learn new ideas, change their thinking participate in new kinds of democratic forums.
The Mobe had wrested a permit to gather at the Lincoln Memorial and march to the parking lot at the Pentagon where there would be a rally. Then, some would engage in civil disobedience. Some of the Mobe leaders challenged Dellinger’s plan to do civil disobedience at the Pentagon. They felt that it would set up a situation that was too dangerous with the large crowd expected. Dellinger, however, argued persuasively for the importance of including space for those who believed fervently in the power of nonviolent direct action.
Meanwhile, word spread about the mobile street tactics and the exhilaration they had produced in Oakland during the Stop the Draft Week when demonstrators had shut down their local induction center. Many young people - including a great many SDS people in town already for the demonstration - began urging their friends to do the same in Washington. Greg Calvert, the previous National Secretary of SDS, had been working in New York since leaving the National Office, most recently as an informal SDS coordinator with the Mobilization for the demonstration. He had become more and more committed to the philosophy of nonviolent direct action after long conversations with Dellinger and Barbara Deming, another life-long leader of non-violent confrontations. He had decided to participate in the civil disobedience with Dellinger, Deming and others, even though he knew this would run counter to the sentiments of most of his SDS friends.
Greg, Dellinger, and other Mobe organizers listened uneasily to the growing enthusiasm for street confrontations and hurriedly called a meeting for the evening before the march for all SDS people in town and any other young people who wanted to come. Greg and Arthur Kinoy, a lawyer for the Mobe and an articulate and sometimes fiery orator with experience dating back to civil liberties struggles from the 40's and 50's, came to our SDS house on Lanier Place. More than a hundred and fifty people stuffed themselves into our downstairs. Greg argued passionately that we were facing one of the most violent institutions in the history of mankind and we could not hope to defeat it by using violence. Like Gandhi, we had to mobilize the best moral instincts of people to our side and we couldn’t do that through violence.
The debate was fierce. Many in SDS argued that peaceful demonstrations had accomplished nothing but bashed heads and that those in power were just laughing at us. As always, I was drawn to what I saw as the moral purity of the pacifist position, that one’s life was one’s argument, and one’s willingness to sacrifice was the most powerful moral testimony. The Buddhist monks in
who had immolated themselves had moved me deeply. Nonetheless, I was also
beginning to think that the government was showing they could tolerate this
kind of dissent without changing policy, that they had contempt for us because
they believed we didn’t have the power to oppose them. Besides, I couldn’t see how civil
disobedience could allow me to express my anger, and if I didn’t find a way to
let it out, I felt like I would explode.
Finally, the SDS people present, including the influential members from
New York like Jeff Jones, grudgingly agreed to spread the word that people were
supposed to follow the Mobe marshals and not break off into the streets of D.C.
The next morning, the sun rose into a brilliant blue sky. Thousands of people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and began the long walk to the
Bridge over the Potomac
where we were to proceed to the rally at the side parking lot of the Pentagon.
I was walking with friends from Washington SDS but also looking for other
friends from New York and Chicago. In between the conversations we chanted “Hey
Hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” or “Hell No, We Won’t go!” and the
new slogan “Hell no, nobody goes!”
As we came to the end of the bridge, there was a commotion up ahead. I moved to the side of the street to try to see what was going on and saw a small band of marchers, led by someone carrying an NLF (National Liberation Front of South Vietnam) flag, break away from the main crowd and start running up a grassy hill to the left. There were no buildings on that side of the road, only well kept lawns rolling over several small hills. I realized then that we had actually reached the Pentagon area and the breakaway band was heading more directly to the massive stone building than the main march which was following the road. Someone yelled “Storm the Pentagon.” Most of the SDS people near-by, including my group, started to follow. We ran at top speed toward the Pentagon, at one point clambering over an orange snow fence which had been trampled down by the leaders of the surge.
I was mainly concentrating on the ground and not falling when I discovered we had reached a flight of stairs leading to an entrance of the Pentagon. As we headed up, I saw a door about twenty-five feet up on a large terrace. Two opposite facing sets of stone stairs led up to an intermediate platform, from which a wide set of stairs led up to the terrace. I was near the top of the second set of stairs when the people in front of me stopped abruptly, as the front line of our break-off group had come face to face with a line of helmeted MP’s with drawn rifles with fixed bayonets. They had not been expecting to see any action and were clearly nervous about whether they were actually supposed to use those bayonets should people try to push past.
Behind me, hundreds of people still rushing up the stairs did not know what had stopped the lines and they pushed forward trying to reach the top, thinking only that there was a problem with congestion. This pressure pushed the front line right up against the bayonets. After a few moments, someone apparently gave an order for the MPs to move forward to clear the way for reinforcements from behind. I had heard about the police formations called wedges they used to try to break through lines of demonstrators and thought they might try to drive us down the stairs.
By then, I had wriggled my way up to the landing, although I was still several rows back from the front lines. If the guard had tried to push us back they would indeed have had to use their bayonets because we couldn’t go. By then hundreds and hundreds of people had amassed on the stairs and the ground below. For this moment, the intensity of the stand-off felt symbolic of the political stand-off in the nation. How could the generals not see that the people in the U.S. were ready to come to blows over this issue, that the unity claimed by the politicians wasn’t real, that we were more than a few fringe lunatics.
I had no idea what we should do next. For at least five minutes it felt like a bloody conflagration could happen any second. Some demonstrators at the front were taunting the soldiers, looking to increase the level of confrontation. Greg Calvert, who had followed his friend Tom Bell into the charge up the hill despite his resolve to participate with the main body of the march, tells the story in his book of seeing Tom, pumped with adrenalin, grab one of the bullhorns, scramble to the top of the wall surrounding the terrace and urge the crowd to press forward. Greg reached him and yelled, “This is not a fucking foot ball game!” at which point Tom hastily reconsidered his provocative invectives. Most of us were so astonished to be there that we didn’t yet have time to think through what to do next. At that point Greg and Jeff Shero, both of whom had been passed bull horns, argued that everyone should sit down, as a way of holding our ground but de-escalating the confrontation. Slowly, over the next few minutes, individuals and small groups of people began to lower themselves in the tightly packed sea of people, until at a certain point everyone who could was sitting. Most of the taunting stopped, but the tension - charged with the awareness of what could still happen - crackled in the air.
Demonstrators assumed positions on the walls surrounding the flagstone porch in front of the door. A few people started making short speeches to encourage the crowd and denounce MacNamara and the Pentagon for the actions in
Vietnam. Here we were, unfriendly forces camped at
their front door. It seemed unlikely
they would let us stay.
Little by little, people started trying to lighten up the situation. Someone had flowers and started putting the flowers in the barrels of the soldiers’ rifles. Other people set up first aid stations lower down and organized a supply network, sending people for water, food, cigarettes and later blankets. Initial taunting of the young soldiers was replaced by chants of “Join Us, Join Us.” Several people started to talk to the soldiers about the war and what would happen to them if they were sent over. Did they really want to fight and die so US corporations could secure markets for their products, many of which would be destructive to the Vietnamese people and their culture? They were under orders, of course, not to answer back, and most, but not all, continued to stare straight ahead and just listen. Small conversations broke out among the demonstrators about what to do next. The main part of the demonstration had continued around to the front of the Pentagon and were listening to speeches.
In the first half-hour, another group of arriving demonstrators saw that the near end of the adjoining terrace was unguarded, and using a rope, they scaled the wall until several hundred people held the space, with a few even entering the Pentagon through a side door. Reinforcements arrived immediately and they were quickly, and not gently, arrested. Twenty minutes later, a skirmish broke out between M.P.’s and demonstrators on the edge of our terrace and several people were dragged off and presumably arrested. The debate among the demonstrators about what to do intensified. Some people thought it was wrong to stay and face inevitable arrest, which would most likely be quite brutal; others felt they were exercising their right to petition the government, in the form of the Pentagon, and were doing no wrong. Others wanted to display their anger at
US policy as forcibly as possible,
hoping to make policy-makers pay attention.
At one point, the bull horn was passed to me by one of the male SDS leaders. I was aware that I would be one of the only women to speak. The previous speaker had spoken up against the war and tried to inspire people to stay and face whatever came. I wanted to rise to the occasion and give an inspiring speech, advising people of the best way to move at that point. With bull horn in hand, however, I realized I didn’t know what to say. While the moments seemed filled with drama and opportunity, I didn’t know what we should do. I, like most people, had moved on instinct. I saw the potential for many people to get hurt, and while I wanted to stay, to express my anger, I wasn’t comfortable urging others to stay and risk injury.
Unable to get past my own conflicted feelings, I said that we were staying to show the depth of our opposition to the war, but that everyone didn’t need to stay if they wanted to express their opposition in other ways. Staying was not a measure of someone’s commitment to stop the killing of Vietnamese. My early experiences in and observations of the civil rights movement guided me: If you encouraged someone to take a risk, then it was your responsibility to try to back up that person as much as possible.
As the evening progressed, the October air got very chilly. Some people started bonfires to stay warm, burning whatever wood had fallen to the ground from the many trees, parts of the snow fence and many posters and banners people had carried on the march. Some people talked about staying all night. Others started to drift away. The tension in our section eased somewhat, with a few of the soldiers beginning to respond and have conversations about the war and their futures. Young people returned with cookies and soda which they passed around to everyone.
As it got dark, I began to think about leaving. Around 9:30 the crowd was sprayed with tear gas as the Military Police were replaced by paratroopers, some veterans of
Vietnam. It turned out that their mission was to form
a wedge through the main body of demonstrators - still several hundred - who
remained on the terrace. By 10:00 p.m.
they had begun the operation, but rather than being a clean military operation,
it was characterized by prolonged beating of those demonstrators sitting in
front. Soldiers purposefully kicked
women in the breast. One woman reported
that she had been knocked over, one soldier stepped on her long hair while
another proceeded to drag her in the opposite direction. (Washington Free Press)
At some point the rumor went along the line that MacNamara had arrived at the Pentagon. Around the same time, the soldiers’ assault stopped, although by then many dozens had been arrested and the crowd had been pushed back to the top of the stairs. In the quiet period after the last skirmish, however, it became hard to articulate the goal of staying. Clearly, it was a war of attrition and eventually everyone would be arrested. Most of us decided to leave. A small group of a couple of hundred people decided to stay, seeing their presence as an act of civil disobedience.
An edited excerpt from Flying Close to the Sun, by Cathy Wilkerson
Stop The Draft Week
October 16-21, 1967
As the days passed I came to realize that I had witnessed a war, a war on rebellious people demanding justice, jobs, and an end to police repression. I came to realize what I had experienced was exactly what the people of South East Asia were experiencing on a never ending, if not far more deadly daily occurrence.
Up until that time, I had not given a lot of thought to the Vietnam war. I knew I was about to lose my student draft deferment and that Selective Service was going to be seeking my active participation but I had no idea what to do about it. I had some vague idea about enlisting in a branch of the military which would allow me to avoid combat but beyond that, I really hadn't given it much thought. I was a 19 year old white middle class kid who had never even dreamed about combat let alone killing someone else.
The summer went on, my draft board caught up with me, I was reclassified 1-A and ordered to report for a physical. I went down to an Air Force recruiting center and spoke with a recruiter about enlisting. After some perfunctory tests he assured me I would be assigned to a missile base in the US and I signed a pre-enlistment agreement with a three month deferral clause.
Toward the end of August I went to a conference sponsored by the Unitarian Church at a place called Star Island off the coast of New Hampshire. It was there that I came in contact for the first time with anti-war activists. Organizers with the Vietnam Sumner Campaign were in attendance and there was endless talk about the war, the draft, and our responses to it. I met a woman named Marcia Sommers who asked what I was going to do and when I told her about my plans she looked me dead in the eye and asked if I had ever considered simply refusing to participate?
I'd never heard of such a thing. I'd never imagined such a concept but it instantly made sense and by the time I left Star Island I knew I was going to turn my draft card in and refuse induction. I went back to Buffalo and told my parents of my intentions. Their response was simple and straightforward, "We may not agree with your stand but we raised you to think for yourself. Good luck."
September and early October 1967 seemed to drag slowly onward. I had no idea there was an anti-war movement in Buffalo and I felt completely isolated from former high school friends and associates. There was no one around to talk with about my plans, so there were a lot of
phone calls back and forth with my friend Marcia. She invited me to travel to Washington with her and some friends. I flew standby to Boston and we all drove down to DC together. We arrived tired and hungry late Thursday evening and spent the night in sleeping bags on the floor of a friends apartment.
Early Friday afternoon on October 20th draft resisters from across the country gathered in a church about a mile or so from the Department of Justice. After listening to speakers we made our way to the steps of the Justice Department, I remember feelings of fear and pride, anger and resentment, and an overwhelming sense that my life was about to change. I had no idea how completely altered it would be as I made my way up the steps, stood in front of a microphone, stated my name and hometown, and dropped my draft card into a briefcase held by Dr. Spock. I watched in fear as Dr. Spock and Michael Ferber carried our cards through the doors and went off to present the cards to Attorney General Ramsey Clark. I honestly thought we'd be arrested at any moment but nothing happened.
We stayed up late talking about the days events and the following morning we headed out to the Lincoln Memorial to take part in the demonstration heading to the Pentagon. I remember being astonished by the sheer number of people and the volume of the chants. I remember locking arms and marching twenty or thirty across, taking up the entire street in waves of chanting protesters. I felt a part of something outside of myself, a part that was reaching out to those fighting in Vietnam and demanding that they be brought home NOW.
We'd heard that Tuli Kuferberg and The Fugs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jerry Rubin were going to attempt to levitate the Pentagon. Marching with all those people almost made me imagine it might be possible. The streets were filled with characters. I walked for awhile with General Hershey Bar and General Wastemoreland. I was astonished at the audacity of Walter Teague proudly carrying the NLF flag. Little did I know that less than a year later I would be carrying that same flag in a demonstration during an anti-ROTC demonstration in Buffalo.
Then the soldiers came into view, bayonets fixed, surrounding the Pentagon, looking fierce and apprehensive. I remember coming up face to face with rows of soldiers not much older than I. It dawned on me that many were as afraid of me as I was of them. I watched with glee as demonstrators gently shoved flowers down gun barrels and urged the soldiers to come over to our side. Rumors swept through the crowd, "a soldiers just crossed the line on the other side of the building, the feds are making arrests, the buildings moving." As the afternoon gave way to nightfall I became separated from my friends and decided to spend the night on the terrace.
I don't remember much about that night beyond the fact that it got cold and that we huddled together for warmth. We were surrounded by soldiers but I don't remember feeling afraid until the Federal Marshals showed up and started yelling commands through their bullhorns. I caught whiffs of what I was told was tear gas and saw helmeted civilians reaching through the ranks of soldiers, grabbing individuals, pulling them back and beating them with nightsticks. Shortly thereafter we were ordered to move or be arrested. I wasn't moving so I was roughly arrested, lined up, and bused off to the Occoquan Work House. Upon arrival my first thoughts were amazement at how well maintained the handsome brick buildings presented themselves. It looked like a college campus.
We were assigned beds in huge dormitories. I happened to end up in the same one as Mailer, Kupferberg, and Sgt. Donald Duncan. My only memories of Mailer were his incessant loud demands for bail as he had a dinner date that evening. The rest of us sat quietly, talked in low voices, and slept. Mr. Mailer was released fairly early and the rest of us were processed out by the next afternoon.
On August 19, 1968 my friend Bruce Cline and I were arrested after taking symbolic sanctuary in the Buffalo Unitarian Church for having refused induction. 32 FBI agents, federal marshals, and border patrol agents backed up by 100 Buffalo cops came to arrest two draft resisters and in the process arrested seven others. We were charged with assaulting, intimidating, and impeding the cops. We called ourselves the Buffalo Nine. Of the Nine four were Vietnam vets, and the rest were SDS, YAWF, Peace and Freedom, and Buffalo Draft Resistance organizers. There were two trials. I alone was convicted of assault, in the second, two of the vets were convicted. We all received three years sentences.
Shortly thereafter I was indicted for inciting a riot, burglary, arson, and conspiracy to commit arson after Univ. of Buffalo students ransacked a ROTC training facility following an anti-draft speech I made.
I left the United States in March of 1970 and jumped a $5,000. bail bond. I went underground to Canada, obtained a false passport and made my way to Sweden where I was granted humanitarian asylum. In April of 1972, after marrying a Canadian woman, I immigrated to Canada where I lived the next four plus years.
On October 20, 1977 after reading Gloria Emerson's book "Winners and Losers", I returned to the US with my attorney, the former United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark, the same man I had returned my draft card to in 1967. Walking alongside us was Col. Ed Miller the highest ranking Marine Corps POW who served five years in Hanoi camps and fifty or so Vietnam vets. Gloria Emerson, Cora Weiss, Gold Star mother Patricia Simon, my father and scores of other supporters also walked across with me.
The Pentagon march from the left perspective of a French film maker. It is available for on line rental from Amazon Video or can be purchased as a DVD.
The Sixth Side of the Pentagon
by Icarus Films
Director: Chris Marker
DVD ~ Release Date: 2008-09-02
List Price: $14.99
Our Price: $12.50 Buy Now