Time Capsule: 1969 — The October Moratorium
(continued from “Exit Marty”)
(what follows is an excerpt from a work-in-progress; find more here)
And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, Next stop is Vietnam; And it’s five, six, seven, Open up the pearly gates, Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.
— Country Joe McDonald, I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag
Whatever was going on in the microcosm of my personal life in 1969 was inextricably entwined with the events that were playing out on the grand stage of the larger world around me — particularly since I’d taken up residence in the Belly of the Beast in Washington, D.C.
For example: the fact that I was still in school at all was at least partly attributable to the larger fact of the war in Vietnam — or, more precisely, by the imperative to avoid the draft and stay out of the Army. I mean, I still had unpleasant memories of summer camp. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to do very well in the Army.
I’d already been suspended from high school — along with about 40 of my classmates — for staging an anti-war protest in the spring of ’69. Not much had changed on that front by the fall. The war in Vietnam was still raging. The draft was still conscripting men off the streets and sending the off to the jungles. And there was no indication that whatever ‘secret plan’ Richard Nixon had (or had not?) promised to end the war was going to be implemented any time soon. Quite the contrary, body counts were increasing, and the quagmire in Southeast Asia only deepened.
Some hope that the tide might turn was kindled in the early days of the 1968 presidential race. The seed of that hope was planted when a Senator from Minnesota named Eugene McCarthy challenged Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic party’s nomination. It was almost unheard of for an incumbent president to be challenged in the primaries, but McCarthy’s candidacy went from quixotic quest to bonafide insurrection when he nearly defeated Johnson in New Hampshire in March.
Four days after the New Hampshire primary, Robert F. Kennedy announced that he, too, would challenge Johnson for the nomination.
And two weeks after that, at the end of a televised address to the nation about the war, Johnson announced that “I shall not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President…” I watched that speech on the television in the den at my parents’ house in Maplewood; those words are so indelibly etched in my memory that I can quote them verbatim 46 years later. I Googled it, too, and yup, thats exactly what he said. See for yourself (“…I shall not seek…” starts at ~4:55).:
Whatever excitement McCarthy’s campaign and Johnson’s withdrawal generated was thoroughly dashed later that spring when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated after winning the California primary. There was no clear nominee by the end of the primary season, and Johnson’s Vice President — Hubert Humphrey — went on to capture the nomination at the riot-torn Democratic convention in Chicago, effectively quashing the insurrection that Gene McCarthy had inspired.
In November, 1950s Republican retread Richard Nixon won the general election, and whatever hope we’d harbored in 1968 morphed into the fresh despair of 1969.
What we recall now as “The October Moratorium” sprung from the remnants of McCarthy’s campaign.
In the spring of 1969, several veterans of McCarthy’s organization called for a ‘general strike’ if the war hadn’t ended by October — like there was any chance of that actually happening.
Two events were organized: In October, hundreds of demonstrations were scheduled in cities and on college campuses throughout the country. If (!?) that didn’t work, then the entire national movement would converge in Washington in November for one massive demonstration.
The first event, the “general strike” — was scheduled for a weekday — Wednesday, October 15.
There was never any doubt that I would be joining the demonstration, but it rather surprised me when Jennifer said she wanted to go with me.
Given her heartland origins, Ginger’s own political inclinations leaned well to the right of mine. I was a “hippie radicale.” She was a midwest farmer’s daughter (OK, her father was actually an electrical engineer, but who’s counting?) who’d once worked for a Republican congressman. She’d even told me at one point that she’d been the president of her local chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom — an organization that this young American equated with the Hitler Youth.
I’m not sure why Jennifer wanted to go to a demonstration to protest a war that (I assumed) she wasn’t really opposed to, that was being prosecuted by a president whose party she ostensibly supported. Whatever her reason, I was just glad when she wanted to come to the Moratorium with me. We might have came from opposite sites of the political spectrum, but none of that mattered to me so long as she wanted to spend time with me, period. Whatever had finally drawn us together at this point transcended anything as mundane as politics. I liked her, she liked me, end of story. Let’s put on a black armband and go see what’s happening in the park…
That mid-October Wednesday dawned sunny and unseasonably warm. As the morning wore on, people from all walks of life streamed into the Ellipse, a park at the foot of the Washington monument, across the street from the White House — which was barricaded for the occasion behind a phalanx of buses.
The crowd streamed out from between massive, colonnaded Federal office buildings; on the roofs of those buildings, soldiers who looked like they’d stepped out of a World War II movie — green fatigues, familiar hemispherical helmets — watched over the crowds — with M16 rifles.
Some of the kids in the crowd wore those old helmets, too: but theirs were adorned by red-white-and-blue peace symbols.
On the ground, police in riot gear lined the perimeter of the park, while overhead helicopters — the same sort of “Huey” choppers that were unloading troops and napalm in the jungles on the other side of the world — patrolled the bright blue sky.
This crowd wasn’t just hippies, like Woodstock. In this gathering crowd, hippies with shoulder length hair, headbands and surplus army fatigues (yes, they were military issue; they were also cheap!) stood shoulder-to-shoulder with paunchy bald, middle aged office workers in white shirts and skinny black ties; pipe-smoking college professors in tweed jackets with elbow patches hung out with their students in blue jeans and marijuana-leaf t-shirts. Two young priests in black shirts with white clerical collars stood close enough to a small group passing a joint among them to pick up on the fragrance.
As Jennifer and I approached the Ellipse, we observed an older guy with white hair and horn-rimmed glasses, in a flannel shirt, denim overalls and a John Deere cap, who looked for all the world like he had just parked his tractor and merged into the streaming crowd. It was comforting to see just how wide-spread the opposition to the war was.
It was warm enough that some of the men were shirtless; Some of the women were perfectly comfortable in bikini tops. Lots of skinny kids with long hair and beards, earnest young students with thick black glasses, hippie girls with long straight hair, rimless ‘granny’ glasses and beaded necklaces, many of then passing out anti-war newspapers and leaflets. The crowd was mostly white, but there was a fair scattering of black faces as well.
I watched one kid staple a peace symbol onto a tree; another young hippie paraded around with a sign that said “Protest is Patriotic” — and, mounted atop his sign waved an American flag. Indeed, and perhaps surprisingly, there were a lot of American flags — some of them with a peace symbol instead of stars in the blue field — carried by young people who still believed in the National Ideals they’d been taught in elementary school — back when Eisenhower was President and the nation was still filled with chrome-plated, post-war prosperity.
The crowd gathered in small groups sitting on the grass while others milled about waiting for the speeches to start.
I wish I could remember what all was said. Nixon was a murderer. The war was a capitalist conspiracy. Old men start the wars, young men fight them. The usual anti-war rhetoric, the same platitudes we’d been hearing for years falling on the same deaf ears on the other side of the Ellipse and at the other end of the Mall.
Jennifer and I shared a small blanket she’d brought along. We were both more interested in the crowd than anything happening on the stage. We tried all kinds of things to get comfortable, leaning on each other, sitting back to back, she sitting in front of me cradled in my arms.
One of the featured speakers that afternoon was the famous pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock (no relation to Leonard Nimoy). I always found it rather ironic that Dr. Spock — by whose teachings a whole generation of post-war parents had raised their boomer babies — had gone on to become one of the figureheads of the anti-war movement. Now, here was the famous pediatrician on the stage, barking anti-war rhetoric into the microphone, and here were the children he had raised, dutifully surrounding him, as if some subversive Pied Piper had played a hidden tune in the 1950s that had set them all to marching in the 1960s.
Dr. Spock exhorted the crowd*:
Is dissent justified? It seems to me, that all of these… impairments to the well-being of our country, in themselves, justify our dissent. And I believe that the illegality and the immorality of the war justifies our dissent. It doesn’t just justify it. To me, it demands dissent! What are we? Are we mice?
Mice? Rats? What’s the difference. The crowd cheered their Pied Piper.
Spock went on to articulate the many reasons why so many Americans had concluded that the war in Vietnam was both illegal and immoral:
The United States was never invited there. The United States went there in response to no Treaty obligation, though our Presidents have lied to us repeatedly on these two scores. We went there in 1954 for a pure power grab and anybody who takes the trouble to read one or two books on the history of Viet Nam, or a half dozen pamphlets, will be convinced that we went there as a pure power grab. Even our President, at the time admitted that this was true. We introduced a puppet — our first puppet, whom we found in the United States. We transported him to Viet Nam and set him up in the puppet business and, in doing so, we broke our promise to abide by the Geneva accords and then, furthermore, we encouraged him to cancel the election that had been promised to the people of South Viet Nam and whom our government knew preferred Ho Chi Minh by a percentage of eighty — a fine thing for a country that goes around talking down its nose to other countries that we think are less democratic, less freedom-loving than we….
On and on the great baby doctor droned.
And then, as the shadow of the Washington Monument lengthened into the afternoon October sun, Jennifer turned to me and said, “I don’t feel well…”
“What’s going on?”
“I just feel kinda nauseous… sick to my stomach…”
That’s when I looked into her eyes and noticed that the whites looked a little… well, yellow.
It’s been 45 years since all this happened, so let’s not pretend that I remember all the details. What I do remember is that I gathered up my jaundiced girlfriend and we left the demonstration. We walked a few blocks the nearest medical facility we could think of — the Emergency Room at the GW Medical School Hospital.
After filling out all the papers and waiting around for a while, somebody in a white coat came out and ushered Jennifer into an examination room.
I stayed in the waiting room until the guy in the white coat came back out and informed me that Jennifer had been diagnosed with hepatitis and had been admitted to the hospital.
No, I could not see her.
All I could do was go home — back to my lonely little room on the third floor of Mitchell Hall.
*The remarks attributed to Dr. Spock are taken from an actual transcript of remarks delivered at a different event during the same period and transcribed by the Pacifica Radio Foundation. The arguments here are a fair synopsis of the reasons for the widespread opposition to the War in Vietnam.