Vietnam War protesters in the Sheep Meadow, Central Park, on April 15, 1967.
EDDIE HAUSNER / THE NEW YORK TIMES
APRIL 14, 2017
Clinton, N.Y. — Fifty years ago this spring, on April 15, 1967, a cold, damp Saturday morning, I walked from a friend’s apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I’d spent the previous night, toward the Sheep Meadow in Central Park. I was 16, a junior in high school from a small town in eastern Connecticut, and eager to join my first antiwar protest, which had been organized by something called the Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (or “Mobe” for short), a recently assembled coalition of radical, pacifist and student groups. This was, in effect, my introduction to “the Sixties,” as well as to antiwar protest, for the decade had as yet barely touched rural Connecticut.
Although this would change in another year or so, in my hometown in the spring of 1967 teenage boys still kept their hair short, girls wore skirts below the knees (both per school requirements), nobody had bell-bottoms, and tie-dye was an unknown concept. And, more important, nobody in my high school or community was vocally opposed to the Vietnam War — except, it seemed, me (my parents had their doubts, but kept them to themselves). Which, up to that Saturday morning, left me feeling a bit lonely in my growing conviction that the war represented a moral disaster and a stain on the national honor. But when I reached the Sheep Meadow, suddenly I found I was lonely no longer.
I knew that public protest against the war had been growing for several years, but such things took place in distant and inaccessible locales like Madison, Wis., and Berkeley, Calif., events that received, at best, grudging and sour attention from the newspapers and magazines available to me in the high school library. One exception that caught my eye had taken place two years before, on April 17, 1965, an antiwar gathering in Washington, D.C., organized by a small campus radical group called Students for a Democratic Society. Apparently much to the surprise of the organizers, some 15,000 or so mostly young antiwar protesters showed up that spring day, which was considered a huge turnout by then prevailing standards.
The New York Times put the story of the march on its front page the following day, complete with a picture of neatly dressed students picketing the White House. The article noted, accurately, that many of those who turned out were newcomers to antiwar protest. The reporter, or perhaps his editor, could not help adding, however, “and some had only a hazy idea of how they might go about ending the fighting in Vietnam.”
Well, O.K., they probably didn’t. But then neither did President Lyndon B. Johnson or Gen. William C. Westmoreland, as they oversaw the dispatch of ever greater numbers of young American soldiers to fight in South Vietnam between 1965 and 1967, with a corresponding sixfold spike in American deaths (1,928 would die in 1965; 11,363 two years later). It seemed increasingly obvious to me that it was the “hazy” ideas of those supposedly well-informed leaders of our country, not those of the nascent antiwar movement, that were the main problem here, since they were getting people killed for no very good reason.
Cut off from any personal involvement in the movement by age and geography, I still felt increasingly drawn to the young protesters, just as I had felt about heroic young civil rights workers earlier in the decade, from the Freedom Rides of 1961 through Freedom Summer of 1964. The movements overlapped in constituencies, style, and leaders — indeed, Bob Moses, organizer of Freedom Summer, had been a keynote speaker at that first S.D.S. march in 1965.
Although active antiwar opposition before 1967 was pretty much restricted to younger Americans and politically marginal groups, a few more distinguished voices were beginning to speak out as well, including the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, J. William Fulbright, who in the spring of 1966 decried the “arrogance of power” on display in the White House and Pentagon and the silence of many of his congressional colleagues. “It is only when the Congress fails to challenge the executive,” Fulbright declared, “when the opposition fails to oppose, when politicians join in a spurious consensus behind controversial policies, that the campuses and streets and public squares of America are likely to become the forums of a direct and disorderly democracy.”
By the spring of 1967 direct and disorderly democracy seemed like a pretty good idea to me.
Not that there was anything particularly disorderly about the gathering I encountered when I finally got to the Sheep Meadow that April morning. I was angry about the war, and had imagined that the dominant sentiment at an antiwar protest would reflect that anger — people would shout and wave fists and chant militant slogans. There was some of that, but the dominant sentiment at that first gathering and at scores of similar events that lay in the movement’s future was a sense of community.
“Alienation” was a big ’60s word — young people were “alienated” from their elders, there was a “generation gap” and so on. If my experience was at all representative, coming together in protest was if anything an antidote to alienation, not an expression or cause for it. When antiwar protesters gathered, I came to feel, we did so not just to express ourselves as dissenters, which is to say, angry outsiders, but in the best interests and representing the best instincts of the nation.
It was late morning when I got to the Sheep Meadow. People were pouring in from all sides of the park, adding to the vast throng, perhaps as many as several hundred thousand, though estimates varied. Although a predominantly young and white crowd, there were also a fair number of African-Americans in attendance (both the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were scheduled to speak at the concluding rally at the United Nations building). A Native American contingent carried signs declaring “Americans — Do Not Do to the Vietnamese What You Did to Us.” And there was also a good representation of older people (the latter, granted, a category that at the time seemed to me to include anyone much over 30). Some of them wore caps identifying them as members, as my father was, of trade unions, and a number of men my father’s age wore overseas caps identifying themselves, as he was, as veterans of World War II. And there was even a small group of men carrying signs identifying themselves as Vietnam veterans against the war — a most welcome addition to our ranks, destined to play an increasingly visible role in such protests in years to come.
The marchers, led by Dr. King, Harry Belafonte, Dr. Benjamin Spock and others, set off from Central Park en route to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza at the United Nations sometime around noon. Roughly five hours later, in a pouring rain, the last contingents from the park finally reached the site of the afternoon rally. I arrived earlier, in time to hear Dr. King declare that he opposed the war in Vietnam because he loved America. “I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world.” I was persuaded.
Others were not. The very next day, April 16, Secretary of State Dean Rusk declared on “Meet the Press” that “the Communist apparatus is very busy indeed” in promoting antiwar dissent. The New York Times, for its part, reported on the Spring Mobilization beneath the dismissive headline, “Many Draft Cards Burned — Eggs Tossed at Parade.” The war didn’t end in April 1967, or the next April, for over eight years to come. Tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese would die as a result before the inevitable concluding act was played out in Saigon in the last days of April 1975. Too many Aprils, too many deaths.
By 1968 a small but highly visible minority of mostly youthful protesters, frustrated by the apparent lack of progress in halting the war through large peaceful gatherings, turned to tactics of street confrontations, and in the years that followed, an even smaller cadre turned to bombing campaigns. In the nature of these things, it’s the moments of chaos and violence that provide the most striking images that linger and, to a large extent, shape public memory of antiwar protest. Everybody remembers Chicago in August 1968, with its thousands of protesters. But who remembers Washington in November 1969, with as many as a half-million protesters, possibly the largest antiwar assembly in the country at that point?
The real antiwar movement, as I first encountered it on April 15, 1967, and watched grow in force and influence over the next half-dozen years, was broad and diverse, peaceful and serious, direct and disorderly democracy at its best.
Maurice Isserman is a professor of American history at Hamilton College. He is a co-author, with Michael Kazin, of “America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s.”
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Fund for Reconciliation and Development