“Demonstrations don’t work.” Next time you hear someone (or yourself) say that, you might consider the Moratorium and Mobilization demonstrations in the fall of 1969 — both commemorating their 50th anniversaries this year.
On Oct.15, 1969, more than two million citizens took part in the Moratorium — a one-day national strike against the war. In hundreds of cities, towns and campuses throughout the country, people from all walks of life took the day off to march, rally, vigil or engage in teach-ins. Until the Women’s March of 2017, the Moratorium held the title as the biggest nationwide demonstration in American history.
Exactly a month later, on Nov. 15, more than a half-million war opponents flooded the nation’s capital for the Mobilization. That was more than double the number of marchers who participated in the famous 1963 March on Washington led by Martin Luther King, Jr. More than 100,000 rallied in a simultaneous antiwar demonstration in San Francisco.
It’s not just the enormous size of these antiwar protests that make them worth recalling. I was on the staff of the coalition that organized the Mobilization action. Though none of us involved knew it then, these demonstrations foiled Richard Nixon’s plans to dramatically escalate the war.
At the time, I was delighted with the massive turnouts. I’d been working full-time as an antiwar organizer for the previous two years and would continue doing so for four more. I believed the antiwar movement was making progress as more and more people from an ever-broadening cross-section of the public were joining the actions. It seemed the tide of public opinion was shifting in our favor.
But was the dissent having any impact on the warmakers? After all, the war was continuing to send both Americans and Vietnamese to early graves every day. I sometimes wondered whether the peace movement was no more than a side show. The government always pooh-poohed our influence. Nixon even claimed to have watched a football game while a half-million of us marched and rallied within earshot of the White House.
Few could have predicted earlier in the year that the peace movement would have launched such massive protests. When Nixon entered the Oval Office in January, the national peace movement was in disarray. It’s well worth telling the story of how the movement transformed itself over the ensuing months. It certainly illustrates why it’s so crucial for mass protests to be creatively nonviolent.
Fewer than 10,000 people showed up for “Counter-Inaugural” actions, which were held in Washington, D.C. when Nixon took office. It was sponsored by the Mobilization coalition that had called other national demonstrations. (The two coalition protests in 1967 each drew more than 10 times that number). And the Counter-Inaugurals were widely considered a flop. The most publicized actions were minor street skirmishes between the police and small bands of protesters, some of whom threw objects at Nixon’s car as it made its way down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.Embed from Getty Images
Even before the Counter-Inaugurals, the Mobilization’s leadership had little credibility. Opponents of the war were wary of a repeat of the violence that occurred the previous summer at the Chicago Democratic Convention. The Chicago demonstrations had also failed to attract more than 10,000 in part because of the violent rhetoric and provocative statements made by Mobilization leaders. At one point, Tom Hayden exhorted a crowd: “Make sure that if blood is going to flow, let it flow all over the city.”
Most antiwarriors understood that Mayor Richard Daly and the Chicago police were responsible for the violence, not the protesters. (A government commission called it a “police riot.”) Still, it’s hard to recruit large numbers of people to an event where you think you might get your head bashed in. And the Mobilization leadership had done little either in Chicago or at the Counter-Inaugural to dissuade those within the antiwar movement who spouted violent rhetoric (“Off the pig” was a favorite chant) or advocated violent tactics.
During the first months of the new administration, some antiwarriors were willing to give the new president the benefit of the doubt to see whether he would become the “peacemaker” he so eloquently proclaimed in his inaugural address. Believing in his powers of persuasion, Nixon’s aide Henry Kissinger met with a group from the major antiwar religious coalition to urge patience. His effort backfired. Two weeks later, the group announced a series of demonstrations in the spring, as did other antiwar groups who had concluded that Nixon — like his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson — hoped to win a military victory despite his talk of turning responsibility for the war over to the South Vietnamese, as well as enacting token troop withdrawals.
Kissinger had the same luck several weeks later with a group of student leaders. They represented more than 250 student body presidents and college newspaper editors who had signed a petition saying they would refuse to be drafted into the military. Meeting in the Situation Room in the basement of the White House, Kissinger gave his spiel about patience. It did not go over well with students who faced being drafted and possibly being sent to prison or Vietnam while Nixon and Kissinger were patiently trying to achieve “peace with honor.” After Kissinger left the room, John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s senior aide, told the group, “If you people think you can break laws just because you don’t like them, you’re going to force us to up the ante to the point we’re handing out death sentences for traffic violations.” He slammed his hand on the table and the meeting was over.
Leaders of the student group soon organized the Vietnam Moratorium Committee and called for people to stop work or school on Oct. 15 to protest the war. They intentionally picked the word “moratorium” rather than “general strike” to appeal to a broad cross-section of the public, especially those who’d never previously taken to the streets. Leaders of the Moratorium saw the potential for enlarging the movement after having worked on the 1968 electoral campaign of antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy. They urged people to protest in their own communities with the Moratorium functioning as a clearinghouse to support local groups.
Meanwhile, a newly formed coalition emerged with a wide spectrum of community, religious, professional, labor, political and student groups. Called the New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, its organizers went to great lengths to eliminate the violent rhetoric and confrontational street tactics that had marred previous coalition actions.
The Mobilization called for major rallies in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco for Nov. 15. To set a peaceful tone, they added a solemn two-day March Against Death immediately prior to the mass rally in Washington. The plan was to march from Arlington Cemetery to the Capitol via the White House with marchers holding placards with the name of a U.S. soldier who’d been killed in the war or the name of a Vietnamese village that had been destroyed.
Earlier that spring, some local groups had adopted the tactic of reading the names of the war dead in front of government buildings. The tactic served to remind the public that the war was not over, that the killing was continuing. The tactic got national network coverage when a group of Quakers did it on the steps of the capitol and were joined by a handful of Congresspeople. Because it was then illegal to demonstrate on the Capitol grounds, the demonstrators were hauled off to jail, but the representatives could not be arrested because of congressional immunity. (The Quakers successfully challenged their arrests, and a judge found in their favor — making it legal to exercise one’s First Amendment rights at the Capitol.)
While antiwarriors were making plans for the fall, Nixon had initiated what he called his “Madman Theory,” which involved threatening the other side with massive destruction if they didn’t agree to his peace terms. The president gave the communists a deadline of Nov. 1 to agree to the American peace terms or face “measures of great consequence and force” and had his aides imply that the fervently anti-Communist president could be unpredictable or even act irrationally if angry.
Nixon then had the Pentagon and his National Security Council led by Kissinger draw up plans to deliver a “savage, decisive blow” against North Vietnam because, in Kissinger’s words, “I refuse to believe that a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point.” Plans included bombing the country’s dikes — which could have killed tens of thousands of civilians — as well as dropping so-called tactical nuclear bombs near the Chinese border, which could have provoked the nuclear-armed Chinese or Soviets to retaliate.
Unfortunately for Nixon, his ultimatum date of Nov. 1 was sandwiched between the dates for two antiwar demonstrations. When Nixon learned from CIA infiltrators that the Moratorium was “shaping up to be the most widely-supported public action in American history,” he saw trouble ahead. As Nixon later wrote, he saw that “the only chance for my ultimatum to succeed was to convince the Communists that I could depend on solid support at home if they decided to call my bluff.”
“Solid support at home” was not forthcoming. The size and breadth of both the October and November protests surpassed the organizers’ most grandiose expectations. Reading the names of the war dead was used extensively during the Moratorium protests. And the March Against Death drew more than 45,000 protesters who walked single file along the four-mile route with their candles and placards for 36 hours.Embed from Getty Images
The Mobilization also attempted to create a highly disciplined action by recruiting and training more than 4,000 marshals to keep order. Their one-and-a-half hour nonviolent training sessions included several role-playing scenarios about how to deal with potential disrupters, whether police, agents provocateurs or radical activists. (The latter was a major concern, as Bill Ayers of the newly formed Weatherman faction tried to extort $20,000 from demonstration leaders in exchange for agreeing not to disrupt the action. He was turned down.)
As a result of the demonstrations, Nixon cancelled his war plans. He wrote in his memoirs that the protests had “undercut the credibility of the ultimatum.” Several other researchers have verified that in this instance at least, “Tricky Dick” (as he was then called), had told the truth.
What about Nixon’s claim to have ignored the Nov. 15 Mobilization? “Untrue,” according to Daniel Ellsberg, who was then working for the Nixon administration: “Every 10 minutes he [Nixon] was calling the Situation Room and finding out what was going on, getting the reports from the U-2s on crowd size… He was totally absorbed.”
Of course, the fall 1969 demonstrations did not end the war. It was one battle in a 10-year nonviolent struggle that ultimately helped to stop the bloodshed in Indochina. Admiral Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Nixon administration, acknowledged that the government always was concerned about how the antiwar movement would react. He said that the movement “served to inhibit and restrain the decision makers… both in the executive and legislative branches of the government.”
It’s worth reflecting on the implication of Admiral Moorer’s statement. To “inhibit and restrain” warmakers in wartime meant less violence. Put another way, the anti-Vietnam War movement saved lives.
Sadly, few of us who were involved in America’s largest nonviolent struggle knew then or know today that we had such power. At the time, we knew opposing the Vietnam War was the right thing to do. But it sure helps to realize that it made a real difference to have marched and rallied, petitioned and lobbied, sat through countless meetings and engaged in civil disobedience.
Hopefully, those involved in today’s struggles will find some helpful lessons from our experiences.
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What an inspiring article, providing just the sort of encouragement today’s environmental movement needs.
Well-written article about a very troubling time in our history. There are plenty of other aspects of the Vietnam era which are not covered in articles, documentaries, or in classrooms, which is troubling to say the least. I ran into one of those ignored or forgotten aspects of the era while serving in the Navy, aboard a Destroyer deployed to Africa and the Indian Ocean Theater in 1969-70.
During Ken Burns’ ten part epic on the Vietnam War aired, episode #6 was titled “The History of The World”. I waited with great anticipation for that episode, hoping he would finally remove the covers on American journalistic indifference toward our country’s involvement with Portuguese colonial warfare in three African countries. It was a long-running indifference, shown by our “liberal” mass media, as well as our anti-war movement, toward our government’s bankrolling the poorest country in Europe and providing Portugal with military hardware through the NATO alliance (contrary to official government claims that it was not being done). When the ship on which I was stationed stopped in barbed wire-surrounded Luanda (to keep out M.P.L.A. forces), we were greeted on the pier by Portuguese commandos standing at parade rest in front of their machine gun-mounted jeeps. The city was in lock-down mode; Angolan citizens were subject to arrest if they did not carry a 16 page passbook with their photo included. I was one of six sailors who saluted senior Portuguese military officers aboard. They met with our senior officers for more than an hour in a closed-door meeting. Our ship was equipped with state-of-the-art electronic listening equipment which could pinpoint radio transmissions from the interior of countries, including Angola. The Portuguese military was always looking for radio “hot spots”, from the M.P.L.A., U.N.I.T.A., and other liberation groups.
The anti-war activists I encountered after returning to civilian life in 1970 were distant when I mentioned Southern Africa and our government’s support of the status quo there. In April 1972 on a trip to Boston, I happened to arrive on the day African-American students at Harvard took over the Administration Building and President’s Office, to protest Harvard’s stock holdings with Gulf Oil, for Gulf’s Angola operations. It was the first and only time I’ve experienced any protest in this country over issues involving Southern Africa, until divestment became the rallying cry of anti-Apartheid activists across the country in the late 1970s; after Portugal had experienced a major change in its’ government and the political landscapes of Angola and Mozambique had dramatically changed.
Reporting on U.S. – Portuguese ties in Southern Africa have been next to nil in this country. There was an article published in 1976 by Courtland Cox – Howard University – titled “The U.S. Involvement in Angola”, which provides an overview of U.S. involvement, but articles like it have been too rare.
I think I am presenting a fascinating and troubling aspect of the history of our anti-war movement. Had Tom Hayden and other leaders of our anti-war movement included Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau in their rallying cries about our military industrial complex throwing its weight around the world, what impact would it have had — when coupled with mentioning the fight in front of us in Southeast Asia? What impact would it have had on forming a much stronger multi-racial peace movement; a progressive movement in this country? Could a larger “world view” for peace and justice have enabled such a movement to have a longer shelf life than the anti-war movement we had? I think these are questions worth asking.
What we wound-up with in the 70s was a generation that, in large part, turned inward and away from activism. With the G.I. Bill, I was on a college campus in the mid-70s where a once very politically-active student body became obsessed with keg parties. Some of us were scratching our heads; especially those of us who had been to places like Luanda in the service. On April 25, 1974 I awoke to news of the coup in Lisbon; the “Revolution of the Carnations”. I had picked-up on the disdain felt by the young Portuguese officers I encountered in Luanda four years earlier. .. I was ecstatic when I heard the news, but as I walked down the streets of Newark, Delaware I realized that in the new political climate I was one of maybe ten people in town who understood the gravity of what just went down for the people of Portugal, and their African colonies. And even people like Ken Burns don’t get it.
Fear of public reaction had also forced President Johnson to refuse a request for an additional 206,000 troops to be sent to Vietnam in 1968.
The article’s claim Bill Ayers “tried to extort $20,000 from demonstration leaders in exchange for agreeing not to disrupt the action” is a curious rephrasing of the linked “they would call off their militant demonstration at the Justice Department so as not to distract”.
As one of those arrested on the Capitol steps for reading the names of the war dead, plus organizing and participating in many other of the actions in the anti-Vietnam war movement, I want to underscore the importance of Robert Levering’s research. As he writes, we did get frustrated by not knowing what kind of impact we were making. What we saw was the suffering associated with the war, both over there and back home, continued to deepen. It was tempting to say that we’d made our witness, done our best, and move on to something where results could be more readily seen. Robert helps us to make our peace with the reality that when we conduct nonviolent direct action campaigns we’ll often be unable to measure our impact; the opponent certainly doesn’t want us to know it and be encouraged! What’s important is to keep trying to improve our game (like the anti-war folks who dropped romantic notions of street fighting and sabotage) and to understand that we’re in a campaign (in that case a ten-year campaign) and that’s what it takes to get a big win.
There’s a huge difference between the campaigning which forced the U.S. out of Vietnam and one-off protests that have no context of a series of actions, with the growth and nonviolent escalatory potential needed to win. The coalitions formed during the Vietnam war, as Bob says from his inside experience, knew a one-off demonstration, however massive, couldn’t beat the determination of the U.S. Empire to stay in Vietnam. We needed those ten years of actions!
Mr Levering — Who was the Quaker who chaired most or all meetings of the New Mobe steering committee (of which I was a member)? I can see his face but can’t surface his name.)I’m working on a piece about the involvement of religious groups & people in the anitiwar movement.) Thanks & shalom!
This is a personal note to Robert Levering, not intended to be publicized. Robert, thank for your work. I saw you in Washington DC last November 2019, but did not have a chance to say hello. My wife, Anne Buttenheim, and I were married in a Quaker ceremony by Patty Levering, who was married to Ralph Levering. Are you related to them?
I am from Vietnam and am deeply thankful to American war protesters, esp. Moratorium organizers, who undoubtedly saved hundreds of thousands of lives who would have been consumed in a flash by a US nuclear attack on Vietnam in 1969.
I believe you are referring to Stewart Meacham of the AFSC.