The Battle of the Pentagon
There were, inevitably, some infantile happenings during the Vietnam dissidents’ Washington march last October, but few were more pronounced than the performance of most of the news media. Journalism’s shortcomings enhance the value of this account by a thirty-one-year-old participant in the late unpleasantness on the Pentagon Mall. Mr. Jackson is a sociologist and teaches English and folklore at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
IN NONE of the accounts I’ve so far read of the October 21 and 22 peace demonstration in Washington do I discover any sense of what that weekend really meant. The older reporters, who were behind the soldiers’ lines or on the Pentagon roof or inside the temporary war room, wrote about hippies and Maoists; the kids, on the other side of the line, wrote about the awful brutality of the U.S. marshals. Each wrote with enough half-truth to feel justified in excluding the other; neither moved beyond the immediate lure of invective and self-righteousness to ask what that awful weekend tells us about our American land in this darkening year.
I was there; I suppose I can’t claim absolute objectivity either. To qualify my point of view, I’ll first tell you something of what I did and saw that Saturday afternoon and evening and in the early hours of Sunday morning.
“I just love them flower girls,” a man in his thirties said to me, staring at one pretty in a very short skirt, “but I wish there was more of them.”
He was right: there weren’t very many. Hippies were there, but so was everyone else. The crowd was an American pastiche: older people with graying hair and grim faces, quite at home among the more numerous youngsters of college age; some children, playing among the placards; people in the middle — like myself at thirty-one — not quite knowing whether to be juniors in the mature section or graybeards in the young. Many of the people were political, involved in political activity as part of a modus vivendi, but not most.
From atop the Lincoln Memorial policemen peered at the city and at us through field glasses; one had a camera with about a 300-millimeter telephoto lens. Down below, half the people seemed to carry cameras. It was like the start of a love-in, or perhaps midafternoon at a county fair. From time to time, early in the afternoon, the loudspeaker called for the lost, gave locations of groups, requested that people gather at their respective staging areas. There were signs, most of them direct and simple:
END THE WAR
SUPPORT OUR BOYS IN VIETNAM:
BRING THEM HOME
NO MORE NAPALM
HELL NO, WE WON’T GO.
Others were more imaginative or aggressive:
PULL OUT LIKE LBJ’S FATHER SHOULD HAVE
PROVE YOU’RE A MAN: MAKE LOVE NOT WAR (this one toted by a girl with whom that prospect was not unattractive).
There was a pleased roar from the crowd: veterans of the Lincoln Brigade arrived with a sign that read, “No More Guernicas.”
At the reflecting pool between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial people were grouping below and around large lettered signs. The C contingent in the parade order was the veterans. I was undecided whether to march with them, with former students and friends gathering about a Harvard banner, or with current students and friends around a Buffalo sign. The veterans’ contingent should be as large as possible, I decided, so at first I went there. As I walked by, a man tried to sell me the veterans’ organization’s official cap. “I don’t want a cap,” I said. I thought the caps were silly.
“But you got to have a cap. Man, the mass media see us with all those caps, it’ll get all kinds a coverage.” I told him again that I did not want a cap. “But if you don’t have a cap, it don’t mean a thing. Your marching here just don’t mean a thing. Might as well not be here. Two bucks, Mac, that’s all.” I gave two dollars to someone collecting for the Mobilization Committee and joined the students elsewhere.
Robert Lowell introduced me to Norman Mailer, whom I had never met before. He was smaller than I’d thought and quite dapper in a dark blue suit; he looked rather like a healthy pimp. Contrary to Time magazine’s report, Mailer was neither drunk nor incoherent. He was one of the first people arrested at the Pentagon, and therefore had to miss the most interesting parts of the day’s events, but it wasn’t because he didn’t know what he was doing; posturing was very difficult when you came right up to the soldiers and marshals: their clubs were large, and they were using them nastily.
I wandered around the pool, taking photographs. I have one photograph of two old men sitting on a park bench near the end of the reflecting pool; they are obviously regular residents and are quite amused at the parade. Near them: a woman pushes a baby carriage by a boy with a flower in his lapel; another youth in dark suit and tie carries a light raincoat; another carries a poster. In the next frame, taken about a minute later, one of the two old men is poking in a trash barrel, looking for food, while his friend continues to watch the crowd; on their left stands a man in a very dark suit, with very dark tie, very dark glasses, very white shirt, and very bald head; a cop, FeeBie, CIA, something like that.
A chant from somewhere:
How many kids did you kill today?
And then another: “What do you want?” yells a single voice. “Peace,” call back a dozen voices. “When do you want it?” “Now!” The call and response continue until there are several hundred voices responding; the pace quickens until the leader drops out and the crowd chants: Peace, now! peace, now! peace, now! peace, now! peace, now!
The action got going on the platform. The Bread and Puppet Theater parodied patriotic hymns, then performed a parable, “ The Great Warrior.” Three busloads from Oakland, California, arrived —“the real heroes in the fight for peace,” said the announcer; the crowd cheered. A flautist fluted. Malcolm X’s sister gave a rather simpleminded and incoherent speech about “barbarickisms.” There were many speeches, but hardly anyone could hear them. It didn’t matter much: they weren’t for the crowd anyway; they were for the TV cameramen and wire services, whose electronic rigs were arrayed in a brilliant display of technology in the sun. Phil Ochs warbled a song declaring the war over, and Peter, Paul, and Mary sang about the Great Mandala. The music was the first key that something was wrong: it was surface, anachronistic. Those things belonged back in 1963, but not now. If anything, the main stage should have had something violent and angry, the Jefferson Airplane, or even the Fugs, who were elsewhere.
Everything went late: moving out took too long; the bridge across the Potomac was too narrow for the crowds; a new fence confused the first marchers and delayed those behind; people were tired and hungry and thirsty before they ever reached the Pentagon grounds.
It was obvious that the Buffalo contingent wouldn’t move for some time, so I went forward and joined the group ambiguously identified as “Professionals.” For a while I walked with some white-coated doctors and nurses from a New York hospital, but the lines mixed crossing a road, and I was between some college students from Long Island and high school kids from Detroit. The lines went and stopped, went and stopped; I moved out and walked along the bridge’s sidewalk. Helicopters buzzed constantly, filled with newsmen taking our pictures, or FBI doing the same.
THE AREA for the Pentagon demonstration was a large triangular grassy place in front of the Mall, but the new eight-foot fence blocked off the area. At the Pentagon North parking lot there seemed now nowhere to go but back; people milled around without design. I talked with a few older people who said they were going to walk to D.C. for dinner, then would join their buses later. Hundreds were walking back toward the Lincoln Memorial.
I decided to walk to National Airport. I strolled around the Pentagon grounds. At one point I skirted some MP’s who didn’t seem to be guarding anything in particular and found a break in the fence. I walked through it, climbed a hill, passed through a small grove of trees, and found, quite by accident, several thousand people in front of the Mall. It was like stumbling upon the Hollywood Bowl. I never did make my plane. More and more people found that hole in the fence, and by late afternoon the fence was trampled to the ground.
On the lawn triangle, a man with a bullhorn stood on the edge of the parapet and told us what was happening on the elevated parking lot which forms the Pentagon’s main entrance. Once he yelled for a doctor: someone had fallen off the wall and broken a leg. He gave reports of clubbings. Then he said, “They’ve surrounded Dr. Spock. Ten MP’s have surrounded him. And more are around them. The MP’s have him trapped.”
When I saw the Buffalo sign and wandered over to see if any of my students were there, I met two other professors from my department, and one said, “Let’s walk near the wall.” We did, intending nothing but a look around from below. Occasionally someone scurried up the ropes dangling from the parapet at the left side of the Mall. The climb ranged from about ten to sixteen feet, depending where you stood on the row of steps that ran parallel to the parapet. Bob and Al went up the rope and disappeared over the parapet.
I never could climb a rope, but I managed to get to the top. The first thing I saw was a sea of helmets that resolved themselves into a row of soldiers with their rifles at the port backed by another row with their rifles at parade rest; behind them about one hundred and fifty soldiers in five ranks covered the main steps. The second thing I saw was a woman about sixty years old who carried a coat that looked like mine. “This is your coat, I think,” she said, handing it to me. Where she got it, I don’t know.
Bob came over and said, “Man, you just had to come up here.”
“I’ve got your camera, and I don’t want to be holding it when it gets busted.”
I thanked him and took it, so I could be holding it when it got busted. The logic seemed logical.
A girl of about twenty walked by with a cookie in each hand. I stared at them, mostly because they were so incongruous with the rifles and shiny helmets in the background. “Want one?” she said.
I did, but I said, “No, you only have two.”
“It’s OK,” she said. “I had another one a little while ago. Somebody gave me three.”
She went away. Far above, on the roof, were soldiers with rifles and, someone said, automatic weapons. There was also a TV camera, which I later learned was the main reason more of us were not attacked on the Mall. It wasn’t until after the last camera crew left that night, about ten thirty, someone said, that the brutality got bad there; it was bad elsewhere all evening, however.
A boy in a suit was distributing small wet rags from a large plastic bag. “For the tear gas.”
A Negro gave me a Wash-and-Dri. “Use this first,” he said, “It’s better.” I must have looked dubious, because he said, “It really is, man; I’ve tried them both, and I know.”
A sergeant tightened the front line, moving the men shoulder to shoulder; whenever there was room enough he introduced a new soldier; he adjusted until the line was solid. Hovering everywhere were the marshals. The soldiers were poised, as if we were going to attack.
Down below, some kids put flowers in the muzzles of the MP’s rifles. The MP’s were under orders not to move, so they didn’t know what to do. Some of them shook the flowers out. One smiled. Another remained motionless. The sergeant came by, and said, “Jones, get that fucking flower out of your muzzle.” Jones did.
About this time reality and the press diverge most acutely. Jimmy Breslin (Washington Post, October 22) wrote that an Airborne captain told his men, “A Company, hold your ground. A Company. Nobody comes and nobody goes. Just hold your ground A Company.” Breslin, who heard the order locking the demonstrators in, was appalled that kids later used the side of the Pentagon as a toilet target. There were of course no toilets on the Mall, but Breslin, secure and warm, didn’t understand that — the comfortable never understand the difference between the necessary and the gratuitous. Breslin’s biological imperception wasn’t nearly so gross as his visual distortions. “These were not the kind of kids who were funny,” he wrote. “These were the small core of dropouts and drifters and rabble who came to the front of what had started out as a beautiful day, one that would have had meaning to it. They turned a demonstration for peace, these drifters in raggedy clothes, into a sickening, club-swinging mess. At the end of the day, the only concern anybody could have was for the soldiers who were taking the abuse.”
Breslin may have been there, but he wrote as if he hadn’t. Had he been out with the crowd, he would have known that hardly anyone was raggedy; had he been curious later, all he had to do was examine the photographs accompanying his own copy in the Post. Drifters? Was he taking employment statistics? And what on earth does he mean about “beautiful” and “meaning”: that we should have spent the day at the Lincoln Memorial listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary singing about the Great Mandala? that no one should be angry about anything? that it should be a sunny afternoon on the grass after which everyone goes home feeling ratified and discharged, like any good old-fashioned liberal who has talked out his need to act?
Breslin, I should point out, is the only reporter I’ve read who seemed to believe the Department of Defense claim that the demonstrators threw the tear gas at themselves to get sympathy. Other reporters, who saw soldiers throwing the canisters, suggested that the Department was either confused or mendacious.
I did not see troopers fire tear gas. I did see troopers remove their helmets, fix their gas masks by the numbers, replace their helmets, and resume their port arms positions while their sergeant aimed his gas launcher and a bunch of people who had been quietly standing on the grass ran like hell. A few minutes later something made my eyes runny and me sneezy.
James Reston wrote that about this time “the event was taken over by the militant minority. . . . It is difficult to report publicly the ugly and vulgar provocation of many of the militants. They spat on some of the soldiers in the front line at the Pentagon and goaded them with the most vicious personal slander” ( Times, October 23).
It is true that some of the militants were militant; that’s why we call them militants. What Reston doesn’t say is how small a portion of the population at the Pentagon they were. As an indication, as the New Republic pointed out, all those thousands of people broke just one window. I knew many of the people up on the front Mall, and hardly any of them were particularly political or militant. Some people cursed at the soldiers; most just looked at them; some chatted or smiled or lectured. The MP’s in the line didn’t earn the loathing earned by the marshals and paratroopers, and many of the kids assumed the MP’s were draftees there against their will. (We met one boy with bruises who defended the soldiers: “They’re wrong, but they’re under orders. What can they do? A lot would like to join us.”
“How do you know?”
“Hell, man, I’m in the service myself. Just have a weekend liberty.”)
The Pentagon show was not Maoist, it was not SDS, it was not any organization’s affair. They were all there, surely, but so were others of us, “traditional pacifists,” as Reston said, “like the earnest young professors who dislike the War because it seems to them a senseless war, a war without honest purpose, a war that belies their idea of America and gives the lie to the idealistic language that is used by the President and Secretary of State to defend it. Also they feel its terrible human misery, the unfairness of asking young men who are not professional soldiers to die in this cause.” And even more, I think, the unfairness of asking the people of Vietnam to submit to gradual attenuation so that the United States can conduct this exercise.
You saw a lot of things outside the Pentagon if you looked around. I saw a marshal reach over the line down below with a club and swipe any head in reach. The soldiers grabbed someone on the parapet and began beating him and beating him and beating him. The crowd booed and roared and began throwing things at the MP’s. Someone screamed at them, “Maintain nonviolence! Violence is their bag, not ours.” They settled down and stopped throwing things, and after a while the MP’s stopped beating the boy.
A soldier collapsed on the stairs, one of my students told me. One demonstrator tried to keep the soldier from falling, and about five soldiers and a marshal pounced on him. They stopped beating him when the TV spotlights came on. “But I think the soldiers weren’t doing it for real; they were just going through the motions because they had to. They were pulling their blows. Otherwise they would have killed that guy, five of them pounding him like that. It was just the marshal who hit hard.”
“The marshals didn’t pull any punches,” another student said. “Man, I saw them reaching through our lines and yank someone out, and they beat him unconscious.”
“We were on the line, and I heard a yell that a soldier had taken off his helmet and dropped his rifle and was coming to our side. I turned and I saw him being dragged by the wrists into the Pentagon. You could see he hadn’t collapsed or anything like that; they were mad, and he was fighting them.”
Someone came over the wall; he carried a green plastic canteen. He offered some of us a drink of water. It was the first I’d had since early that day. The fellow who had brought the canteen took a turn, then passed it around again. When it was empty he went back over the wall, going for more. I later learned that the police wouldn’t let cars within a mile of the place, so it you went for food you had to stop on one of the approach roads and unload your foodand water-carrying passengers before the police chased you away and roving bands of soldiers and marshals and Nazis spotted them and took up positions in the woods to jump them as they came through in the dark.
A familiar smell occasionally drifted past. One youth held his grass out to me, and said, “Ain’t it the weirdest. Get caught with this, and they can give you five years; drop your napalm bombs good, and they give you a medal.”
On the North wall a man walked to two girls sitting on the parapet. “You better move,”he said. “Why?” “This is the Pissing Wall.” “What?” “You heard of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem? Well, this is the Pissing Wall in the Pentagon.” The girls moved, laughing.
In the deep left corner I saw a flash of flame, and the people over there began a cheer. There was another flame on the parapet, and the mob below let out a pleased yell. Among the thousands of people below there was a sudden rash of small flickering lights in the dark, then a small bonfire. No need to wonder what they were burning.
When the reporters had gone to bed or typewriter, and most of the demonstrators had left in their chartered buses, and the night was cold, the troopers and marshals formed wedges that poked into the front lines of the demonstrators.
“As the advancing line of troops came in contact with the squatting demonstrators,” said the New York Times news story, “United States marshals arrested the youths — apparently on the technical charge of having crossed official lines — and hauled them away, limp, to waiting vans.” It wasn’t quite that simple: the limpest were the unconscious. When the soldiers moved through, the marshals came right behind them, clubbing. And this was while the demonstration permit was still in effect.
“in a sort of war of attrition,” wrote one reporter, “U.S. marshals quietly arrested over-zealous protestors one-by-one most of Sunday morning. Arrests were spaced several minutes apart in an effort to avoid trouble.”
“I’ll tell you the way it went,” one student told me. “About ten P.M. the MP’s were relieved by the paratroopers. They started clubbing and beating then. They sometimes hit the girls in the breasts instead of the head. We were sitting close with arms linked. The marshals would wedge and club, the troopers used rifle butts and feet; they clubbed them all the way to the wagons. I remember someone screaming, ‘Stop it, stop it! I’m willing to submit to the arrest, just stop beating me!' But they didn’t stop.”Someone called on the bullhorn for Van Cleve of GSA, who had given the demonstration permit, to explain why the beatings and arrests were going on. They asked for anyone to explain. No one explained, except the troopers and marshals, with boots, clubs, and butts. Sometimes, when the Mall beatings started, the TV lights suddenly flooded the place for filming; immediately the soldiers would pull back, “but they got some footage I know.” So far as I know, none of it appeared anywhere.
One boy said to me, “I understand how the Viet Cong holds out now. When those bastards started beating us with those sticks, and we were just sitting there, I knew they wouldn’t make me give in. They could arrest me and chase me away, but not make me quit. Not. now.”
Many said it was a miracle the troops did not lose their temper and charge and maul the marchers. That is just the thinking the kids were marching against: someone disagrees with you, someone says something nasty to you, kill the sonofabitch and all his friends, wipe up the territory with his head, yah yah yah. No, it is the kids I give the credit to; they did not, for the most part, blow their cool; they did not let the seething fury within them give way to actions they knew would be fatal — not to them; many got beaten anyhow, just for being there — to the fading dream of a nonviolent confrontation that was still somehow meaningful.
Fading fast. All those troops and all those guns were there to save Washington not from some hideous gook-looking furriner, but them.
Did you ever suddenly realize that you were something your government needed protection against? Perhaps the first thing you do is laugh at the absurdity, the second is ask yourself why, the third is stop laughing.
Almost every newspaper account emphasized the hippie dress and hair, yet I don’t think more than a small fraction of the population there affected that style. Certainly none of the group news photos bears out the notion that it was a hippie affair. The experienced few wore old clothes because they saw no point in having good clothes bloodstained.
The worst troops were the U.S. marshals, who work for the Department of Justice; next were the methodical al paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne, who previously distinguished themselves for duty in the Dominican Republic and Detroit. The Ml’ s were pretty good; sometimes when they were beating someone, they obviously weren’t doing it with conviction — otherwise the people wouldn’t have been alive; the marshals were under no such restraint. (The Washington Post published a photo of two marshals beating the hell out of a fallen demonstrator. The caption was “U.S. Marshal threatens fallen youth.”)
Though I may be a little eccentric, I am not a hippie, beatnik, Communist, crank, crackpot, or otherwise distinguishable weirdo. Few of the people on the Pentagon Mall were hippies, beatniks, cranks, crackpots, or otherwise distinguishable weirdoes. It was just demonstrators, journalists, marshals, and soldiers; only the last two were in uniform and responsible to a central command.
About 3 A.M. in a gas station on the east side of Washington we met a twenty-year-old Negro student from Columbia who was looking for a ride. He was lost, he said; someone had picked him up on the highway outside the Pentagon and dropped him off here. We asked him what had happened.
He had been on the right side of the Mall. The troops started advancing, kicking the people sitting there, then arresting and beating those whose positions they passed (for having crossed their lines). A white boy with him said, “That’s the truth,” and showed us a large bruise on the side of his face.
The Negro boy said someone stepped on him, and when he scrambled out of the way, he was beaten and arrested for resisting arrest. “I didn’t understand it either,” he said. When they took him inside the building, someone hit him again, and he had an asthma attack. The marshals panicked and after having a doctor give him a shot of adrenalin, which brought him out of the spasm, they decided not to arrest him. “They had some kind of rule that you had to have your picture taken with the marshal or soldier that arrested you. A girl was unconscious on the floor with a big bandage on her head, blood leaking through. The marshal lay down on the floor next to her, and they took their picture. But they said they couldn’t find my marshal, so they told me to get out. I was going to go get arrested again — they arrested all my friends — but they threw me in a car and took me up to that highway and pushed me out, and said, ‘Don’t come back.’ And they drove away.” Their reason was obvious: to have a bruised Negro student die in captivity would be too much; no one would believe the asthma story. The boy was worried that he wasn’t with his friends: “I’m broke. At least they get hot food and a place to sleep tonight.” We gave him some money, and he went off.
What did it all accomplish? The next day, and during the next week, the Johnson Administration sent the greatest air armadas yet to bomb downtown Haiphong and Hanoi. That showed us good. Can’t mess with Johnson; he won’t be pushed around by a bunch of yellowniggerlovingjewradicaldopefiendcommiesympfaggotpeacebeatnikhippies. He’ll prove he’s right if he has to blow Vietnam to the four winds. So we didn’t stroke his conscience any, we merely piqued his ego.
Sunday morning, Johnson went to church, and the pastor of the National City Christian Church stroked his President’s ego with a Christian denunciation of the demonstration: “There are those in this nation who do not deserve to be free and to play fast and loose with that freedom.
“What do they know, these bearded oafs who listen to the strumming of lugubrious guitars? To be loved is not the end of greatness.”
I don’t understand the non sequitur, nor do I understand whom he was talking about: I didn’t see any oafs, and I didn’t hear any lugubrious guitars. Love, I’ll agree, is not the end of Johnson’s greatness. Oafs — those kids? Because they want an end to killing? Who is the Christian? Was the Peace on our Christmas cards subversive this year?
After leaving church, the President and his wife drove around the Capital. A reporter later asked Lady Bird her opinion of the march. She said, “I was thinking, by gosh, what a big clean-up bill this city is going to face. It must be ankle deep in the trash they left. To some extent that the demonstration was the effect of affluence and permissiveness. It was about as unconstructive a work as I can remember seeing.”
As I have said, I’m neither hippy nor Maoist, but I am against the war. I’m not against our government, but I feel we are wrong to be in Vietnam. I hoped that if the government were convinced that enough citizens felt this way it might be willing to lose a little military face in favor of appearing more civilized. That’s why I went to Washington.
I now know that I was terribly naïve.
Now, like many others, I believe the government knows quite well that it does not belong in Vietnam, but belong is a word connected with right or wrong, and our presence is instead a matter of some insane expediency (and even that is, of course, open to question), just as arresting those kids was perhaps a matter of right or wrong, but pummeling some of them insensible was insane and expedient. The press picture of what happened — blaming it all on the weirdoes — attempts to diffuse any significance the demonstration had: Hell, man, they’s only a bunch of nuts down theyuh. Raht? Raht!
Something happened to many of us there Saturday and Sunday that is hard to describe, harder to explain. We went down to protest and returned ready to resist. Many, like myself, wandered over to the front steps out of curiosity, climbed the parapets because they were there. Somehow, in the course of that evening, I stopped thinking of the protesters as “those kids" (too many were adults) or even “them" — it became “us.”
The weekend made believers of the sympathizers, activists of the passive. Usually, protest marches consist of a set of masturbatory fantasies stoked by rousing righteous speeches; everyone claps hands and goes home feeling as if something had been accomplished, the usual narcotic dysfunction that in the old days was accomplished by the communal singing of freedom songs to dissipate the need to act. This time was different. (As Oakland was different.) Many who were not anti-government now are; many who were committed to using legal channels to change governmental policy now have what they consider the governmental attitude — cynicism, violence, covertness — which they may use for the same end. There is a sense of solidarity among many, but at the same time a retreat from organization among many others. “You can’t have an organization of five without one FBI snitch,” one youth said to me. “I’m working alone now.”
Someone said to me recently that Watts was protest, Detroit rebellion; the next step, moving out of the ghetto into your territory, will be revolution or war, depending on your point of view. I think something of the same is happening to the peace movement. Reason is starting to slip, and like the inmates of the concentration camps who gradually took on the values of their oppressors, I fear many are beginning to see violence as the only alternative to futile discussion. They go to protest and find their very serious and sincere efforts mocked or dismissed, by older liberals and popular press both, as the flip playings of the flower set, the phony feelings and posturings of left-wing extremists. They say, “Jesus Christ: how can we reach you? What will we have to do to make you listen?”
A lot of the kids never saw blood before, not a lot of blood, and it scared, revolted, and angered them. The first time you see someone really damaged is always traumatic; when it’s one of your friends, it is more so. When you watch an official of the U.S. Department of Justice, presumably acting under orders from the Attorney General’s office, club someone to the ground, club, club, and club, and then, when she stops yelling, drag her off by her hair with an expression on his face like he’d just gotten laid, you believe deep in your heart that you’re right: we really can bomb villages and towns that have no military significance, not by mistake but just because they’re there and we’ve got the bombs. Kill the gooks; club the Commies; zap the mother —s, yum!
No one should confuse this demonstration with the March on Washington in 1963; it is neither a continuation nor a degeneration of the civil rights movement; it is something quite different. In 1963 people were in Washington trying to be beautiful in the hope of being granted by the nice men up on the Hill what the Constitution had theoretically given decades before. This time the message read: please stop killing those people who haven’t done anything to you; I’m not going to help do it; I may try to stop you doing it. 1963 protested being a victim; 1967 refused to become a killer.
Lawrence Stern said in the Washington Post, “The 1963 demonstration was an impassioned and respectful appeal to the man in the White House, then John F. Kennedy, to do something for the cause of racial equality in the United States. The attitude of yesterday’s marchers toward Lyndon B. Johnson was almost hateful. . . . The 1967 march started as a jolly pep rally, then turned to the ugliness of the confrontation at the Pentagon. And the ugliness rather than the jollity is what will probably survive the day. ... It is yet to be seen whether the protest achieved its purpose — to dramatize national opposition to the war in Vietnam. The melee of mudballs, rocks, and mass arrests at the end is sure to dominate newspaper and television coverage of the protest. And most Americans recoil from scenes of civil violence.”
And that is the point, the subject of the protest: the very Americans who were so outraged by the few hotheads and fanatics will dismiss everything those thousands of people were trying to say, but will, rationally, do and condone far worse day after day after day ten thousand miles from home. Of course the attitude of the two groups of marchers toward Johnson and Kennedy is different: Kennedy was not responsible for racial intolerance, but Johnson bears the responsibility for Vietnam’s escalation. Stern is right, the ugliness will be what survives the day, and not just for you, but also for the members of the Pentagon Expeditionary Force (civilian branch). As an educator, that means something to me, and I do not like it very much.
The scary part is that it is not simply a question of the Vietnam War anymore. That is why we went to the Capital, but that is not what is now important. It is something more, something worse, something far more cancerous, something of which the war is a symptom. It is this: that quaint American belief that you can say and believe what you think true is a permit that applies only before dark, only so far as it doesn’t interfere with those who are in power; we realized that those in power will use any mechanism at hand to wrinkle your mind and body to shut you up, will lie and cheat and hide, they’ll draft you or beat you or arrest you to shut you up, they’ll lie to the press (“The demonstrators released the tear gas,” said the Pentagon), and the press, which needs its news sources’ goodwill, for the most part buys it because buying it avoids the hassle of having to believe and print that those citizens may be right. It is this too: that the liberals of the older generation will accept the same nonsense as a means to dismiss what happened, discharge their own anxiety over their own effeteness; that the ones you knew wouldn’t leave their office but expected at least to man their typewriters are so threatened they too join the enemy.
It is also an evil I feel in the peace movement itself. “Do your own thing” is the current cri de coeur. I think it both reflects the malady of the movement and impedes a cure. The first thing that comes to mind on hearing the cry is that it implies great tolerance for other people’s perceptions of situations and methods of coping with them, a very nice catholicism. But in this troublesome world I don’t think we can afford to permit even apparently benevolent anarchy to go unexamined. Examination of this one reveals some things not particularly pleasant.
“Do your own thing” is a statement of accommodation from leaders who really cannot lead, an attempt to box uncontrol by those who cannot control. In part, it stems from the disintegration in the civil rights movement: one has a choice between true tolerance of action and open hostility to it. The danger is that there is no way to contain the cranks, the nuts, the fetishists, and no way to consolidate the gains when they do happen to occur. In rebellion, anarchy is a luxury, and I’m not sure this rebellion can afford it very well.
My fear is that putting it on the line, the literal line, be it a sit-in or a picket line, isn’t good enough anymore. What is happening to the peace movement is what happened to the civil rights movement: there is that awful realization that you spend most of your time talking to yourself. SNCC used to be what its name said: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The white kids are just beginning to understand the reason for the change.
I think we all had better start understanding the change. The importance of the Pentagon encounter isn’t that an easy out has been supplied with which one may now put down all the peaceniks; there is no justification for the gambit so much of the press would like — the one that would let you lump all those people together in a pink-colored Maoist hippie bag you can discard somewhere. Like the cat in the song, it comes back. It isn’t the outrageous conduct of the extremists and weirdoes that weekend that is important — it is nothing new for a Maoist to be hostile, for a nut to be nutty —it is what happened in the minds of those otherwise straight kids and middle-aged demonstrators. They’ve realized the march really was, as LBJ implied, nothing more than a terribly pathetic and futile gesture, that what was real about it were the clubs wielded by the marshals and the tear-gas grenades thrown by the paratroopers. Those who went to Washington for peace now have a choice: play that game or quit.
There is one other course of action, one that for the present I am going to assume is still viable. Perhaps in that assumption I show my allegiance to the older generation (the kids may be right, there may be a cutoff at thirty), but even though I am almost certain legal means will not at present effect a change in our unjust and fruitless war or the way our governmental machine is beginning to react to dissent, I still want to try by working within the machinery we have. I grew up believing that Congress was rational and sincere, that the presidency was an institution more than an ego; even though I’ve been disabused of these childish idiocies, I am not free of them emotionally and I still have an attachment for the institutions themselves. Although I expect the attempt to be futile, I am going to try to run for Congress next year.
I am by profession a teacher and writer, and I do not like the profession of politician, but when confronted by a moral outrage such as our Vietnam involvement, talking and typing are not enough, one simply must do more, one must at least try. I am not able to identify with the violent resistance, nor am I lucky enough to be able to turn off consciousness of the awful evil my country is supervising and administering. Even with an enormous military that is largely covert and an administration that is largely mendacious, I think it is possible to blame the evil on evil men and believe the democratic process itself capable of permitting change for the good.
But the young people who do not entertain this romance with the American myth — what of them? I fear for them, I worry about what I see happening to them, about what I fear they will do and what we will do to them. They say to us: you brought us up to appreciate the evil the Nazis created, and in example you do the same yourselves in Vietnam; you taught us of government keyed to justice and fairness, of a free press, and in life you’ve shown us expediency and self-interest and a free press so committed to the same expediency it lies on its own. As great as is the current cost of the war — described so well by Reston above — I fear more the future loss: a generation of kids who will feel able to approach and deal with life in America only with the cynicism, violence, expediency, and appreciation for raw power that is now limited to the highest echelons of our government.