The Battle of the Pentagon
I: A Search for the Steps
The cadres of that citizen's army which marched on the Pentagon on October 21, 1967 were composed of a coalition which could never have come together ten years before, and were in fact held in a kind of suspension on this occasion only through what is considered—by reasonable consensus—the extraordinary abilities of the chairman of the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, David Dellinger, editor of the anarchist-pacifist magazine Liberation. Yet his previous experience for such mobilizations was surprisingly not very great. Assistant to A. J. Muste for years, he inherited some of the Reverend's prestige when Muste died in February 1967 while working on preparations for the peace parade in New York that spring. Consequently, Dellinger organized the April parade, rally, and assembly in the plaza of the UN of a host of peace groups whose number was probably so high as a quarter of a million people. By New York Times estimate, this support proved twice as large as a massive counter-rally in May of patriotic groups who chose to support the war in Vietnam. But when its size and success proved to have an absolutely discernible lack of effect on foreign policy, and the war in Vietnam escalated again, an open conference was held in Washington at the Hawthorne School on May 20 and 21 of the National Mobilization Committee. With the exception of Dellinger who was then in Hanoi, some of the figures attending were the Reverend James Bevel, one of the leading organizers of the April March and aide to Martin Luther King; Professor Sidney Peck, a co-chairman of the Mobilization and chairman of the Cleveland Area Peace Action Council; Professor Robert Greenblatt, national coordinator of the Mobilization and an early founder of the campus anti-war teach-ins; and representatives from numerous moderate peace groups, SNCC, SDS, socialist splinter parties, and a couple of Communists. On the rising enthusiasm which followed the New York March it was contemplated by many at this meeting to have what would probably be the greatest rally in American history. In Washington in the fall, they would attempt to gather a million people. That was the magnetic number originally discussed, and the key slogan drafted at this May meeting was Support Our Boys in Vietnam—Bring Them Home Now. The date was even picked: October 21; it seemed the best conjunction of a number of factors—the weather would still be good, there would be ample time after Labor Day to get out word of the action, and yet not so late that exam schedules would keep college students away. Already there was vague talk of civil disobedience.
It seems obvious that the idea for such a massive rally probably derived from the success and the organizational mechanics of the April March rather than in response to the lack of political effect that March had had on the Johnson administration—indeed there was hardly time to measure the effect. It is possible that if the April March had produced a noticeable de-escalation of the war, future peace rallies might have been more conciliatory—as likely, they would have turned militant. In fact, it probably made no real difference. Just as an intensive study of foreign policy usually succeeds in depressing any lover of democratic process because foreign policy is encapsulated and therefore tends to be self-governing, so political life on the American Left tends to have an inner development which bears little relation to subtle changes in the external political context. Severed from the trade-union movement by right-wing labor leaders' raids in the early years of the cold war, the American Left—until the rise of the Negro civil-rights movements—was in this interregnum, a profoundly middle-class phenomenon filled with bitter family rifts, great propriety, academic foundations, intellectual rigidity which reacted to cataclysmic political changes outside the way a patient reacts to an operation (misery, nausea, and convalescence) and much skill in internecine organizational war (not unlike the scheming which goes into the rewriting of a will). There was—as in many middle-class families—a middle-class excess of compulsive orality, an extraordinary love of debate in meetings; just as the family lends itself to a vigorous if sterile set of speeches by its members in which—if the family is sufficiently unhappy—each can have the floor for ten minutes to describe his own views, resentments, private sufferings, and sacrifices, so too for left-wing life during the interregnum. The 50's were a profoundly unhappy period for the left wing; in the 60's with Cuba, Civil Rights, Kennedy, Berkeley, the Great Society, and the war in Vietnam, the new blood of Negro movements and youth movements brought life back to the Left, but only for a period. By 1965 the Negroes were disaffected, even profoundly bored with left-wing rhetoric which seemed to match little in their own imperatives, the youth were obviously contemptuous of the Old Left. By the time of the April March, the rifts were profound between the races and the generations. But the huge and unexpected success of the April March, its unanticipated size—no one had secretly believed they would attract a quarter of a million people—had given new hope to the Old Left, which, being thus profoundly middle class (and hence committed to the logic-of-the-next-step), had entered, infiltrated, invigorated, and doubtless inspired many middle-class peace movements. There are political alliances which are attractive, just as there are others which are dutiful. By the rudest existential measure, attractive alliances are not unsexy, dutiful alliances are deadening. Any coalition of the New Left and the Old, or the New Left and the Black Militants was dutiful, and sometimes near to unendurable. On the other hand, coalition between the New Left and the hippies, or the Old Left and the middle-class liberals in the peace movements was attractive, for ideas developed from such meetings, hopes, enthusiasms, even agreeable surprises—which last is next to manna in the life of an Old Leftist since the orthodoxy of his mind leaves not much room for surprise. Perhaps the deepest and most natural of these new alignments was between the peace liberal and the peace or Old Leftist; each excited the other—the liberal, bringing along his mass movement, was the equivalent of a wealthy heiress to a poor Old Leftist; the Old Leftist was a virile but most conventional (and manageable) principle of adventure in the somewhat deodorized orchards of comfortable middle-class liberal life. So even a year or more before the October March of 1967 in Washington was discussed, the future schisms were shaping: the Black militants were moving off by themselves, the Old Left was investing itself deep in the liberal purlieus of mass peace, and the New Left and the hippies were coming upon the opening intimations of a new style of revolution—revolution by theater and without a script.
Under these uneasy conditions, one may wonder at the practical judgment of men who meet in Washington in May to call for a rally in October which will assemble a million people. It is not really as unsound psychologically as it seems, any more than it is mentally unsound for the head of a middle-class family to announce on his best day of the year, “Honey, I'm going to make a million yet!” Without one such fierce element of the fantastic, middle-class life is insupportable. The same may be said of the old left-wing life. Without the ability to believe for a magical minute at a meeting that a million people will rally, without such inner intimations of glory (from the speech—not the fulfillment of the event), life on the left wing would be a drab parade of mimeograph machines, meetings, economic sacrifices, organizational tension, and that auditory deadening of the senses produced by left-wing rhetoric. The Old Left lived for their imagination; their imagination was founded on the apocalyptic moment—not for nothing had Lenin pointed out that there were ten years which passed like an uneventful day, but there was also the revolutionary day which was like ten years.
So plans for a rally to bring a million men and women to Washington were discussed, and the near to absolute impossibility of the project was cushioned by a growing sense of apocalypse in American life. If everything was altering at an unpredictable rate, so might a mass outcry against the war build over the months of the summer.
But the summer of 1967 was not favorable for the building of such a vast response. The Arab-Israeli war in June divided the Old Left one more time. Many of the Old Left and many members of the liberal peace groups were Jewish, and enraptured with Israel; more of the Old Left, also Jewish, remained true to the rigorous coils of certain more or less Trotskyist and Communist positions, which left them therefore beached as apologists for Nasser (a miserable position since he had bragged of the future burning of Israelis). Worse, the Black militants were almost entirely for the Arabs. The New Left in its turn was therefore seriously divided. Unity had obviously not been encouraged.
Then came Negro riots near a scale of war in the ghettos of at least a dozen major American cities. If the Old Left was thrilled at the militancy, it was also disturbed at the brutality. Plekhanov, teacher of Lenin, first editor of Iskra, architect of revolution on the Russian model, was appalled by the actual presence of the Soviet soldier at his doorstep—so was the Old Left by the criminally suggestive cool of Black Power, by the snipers, the Molotov cocktails thrown from the rooftops. On the other hand, the New Left was impressed. Young, college-bred, middle-class, they felt the militancy of the Blacks as a reproof to their own secure relatively unthreatened mass demonstrations. The center of pressure to mount an exciting weekend in Washington began then to pass from the Old Left and the peace groups to the New Left and the youth groups. Where the Arab-Israeli war had divided liberals from Old Leftists, and the Negro riots had quenched some of the militancy of the peace group liberals, the New Left was in a state of stimulation, and the hippies, dedicated to every turn of the unexpected, were obviously—as always—ready for anything.
For many of these reasons, therefore, the projected March on Washington was in the doldrums. Money to support it was hardly dribbling in, Del-linger had been on visits to Hanoi and thus otherwise occupied; enthusiasm among peace groups was not high. At this point Dellinger called in Jerry Rubin from Berkeley to be Project Director for the March. Rubin had enormous stature among youth groups and under-thirties, second perhaps only to Mario Savio. Rubin had organized Vietnam Day at Berkeley (the first mass protest of the war), had led marches in Berkeley designed to block troop trains, then massive marches in Oakland, had served a thirty-day jail sentence, and had appeared at a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing in an American Revolutionary War uniform. He had also run for Mayor of Berkeley on a platform opposing war and supporting Black Power and the legalization of pot, collecting in the process 7,385 ballots or 22 per cent of the vote.
It was a way of announcing to the various groups in the National Mobilization that the October event in Washington was now striking out into that no-man's-land between organized acceptable dissent and incalculable acts of revolution. To call on Rubin was in effect to call upon the most militant, unpredictable, creative—therefore dangerous—hippie-oriented leader available on the New Left. It is to Dellinger's credit that he most probably did not do this to save the March, since there was no doubt that doldrums or no, a peaceful demonstration of large proportions could always have been gotten together; the invitation to Rubin was rather an expression of Dellinger's faith in the possibility—a most difficult possibility which only his own untested gifts as a conciliator could have enabled him to envisage—of a combined conventional mass protest and civil disobedience which might help to unify the scattered elements of the peace movement. When Rubin arrived in New York, Dellinger's project was at the time conceived as follows: there would be an assembly, then a march past the White House down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, where demonstrators who wished would enter Congress and there commit acts of civil disobedience. There was even talk of investing Congress and taking it over, establishing, if only for an hour, a People's Congress. But Rubin did not like the revolutionary aesthetics of this plan—he argued with Dellinger that the proposal, while on the surface most attractive, was nonetheless a move at once too radical and too soft. It was too radical because the Capitol could not successfully be occupied, and the alternate plan—for demonstrators to petition their congressmen—was pathetically soft.
In Rubin's opinion, Congress was not a source but a servant of the real power in America. So Congress did not inspire the thought of real confrontations between real enemies, it did stir the imagination to awe and dread and admiration. In fact, for good or ill, Congress was an agreeable symbol to the vast majority of Americans. Rubin had therefore brought another idea. On the West Coast they were talking of a march on the Pentagon which would encircle it, invest it, disrupt it, and conceivably paralyze its actions for a few days. Such a move would have symbolic meaning in America and around the world for the Pentagon was the symbol of the American military, and so was hated wherever U.S. forces were resented or despised at home or abroad.
Discussions ensued. It was later to be a subject of much amusement, and an interesting sidelight into the revolutionary differences between the visionary West and the practical East that the idea of invading the Pentagon began in California, yet the knowledge was obliged to come from New York that the Pentagon was not even in Washington, D.C., but Virginia, and the bridge or bridges across the Potomac would be therefore the place where police could stop the demonstrators with no difficulty at all.
A visionary may however always defeat a practical suggestion, for he absorbs any necessary kernel of the detailed from the aura of the other debater: Splendid, said Rubin, if the police should halt the March to the Pentagon on the bridge, the demonstrators could turn back and create massive disruption in the Capitol!
A few days later, about the middle of August, Rubin, Robert Greenblatt, Coordinator of the Mobilization, and Fred Hal-stead of the Socialist Workers party (whose view would be not unrepresentative of the moderate peace groups) went out to the Pentagon to study its geography and suitability for a march, a rally, and the projected civil disobedience. Their report to a meeting of the Administrative Committee of the National Mobilization was not unfavorable and the Committee approved the shift from the Capitol to the Pentagon.
A number of Committee members were to walk through the Pentagon in the following weeks. They were to have the opportunity then to study a most bewildering opponent, for the strength of the Pentagon is subtle. It is not even a building one needs a pass to enter, and on an average working day no guards are visible. Nor is there any easily identifiable objective within the building. Long, exceptionally monotonous corridors with doors to evenly spaced small offices off them lead into other equally undistinguished halls. Of course the Administration entrance faces north onto a triangular piece of lawn called The Mall and back of it are the offices of some of the most important men in America, the Secretary of Defense, the Chiefs of Staff. If the halls on four of the five floors of the Administration wall are lined with paintings related in the main to military and naval matters (of the sort which could have been all-but-accepted for a Saturday Evening Post cover during World War II) and if the offices are larger here, and have reception rooms and carpet, if in these Administration corridors the walls are painted a modestly bright yellow, and there are even short stretches of wall with walnut paneling, still by no measure can anyone claim that the taxpayer's money is being wasted for extravagant interior decoration in the Pentagon.
At the other end of the building is a gloomy ill-lit chamber half the size of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York and it serves as a sort of roofed-over plaza. It is the shopping center for the Pentagon. A vast cafeteria is off this immense gallery, and shops of every variety, stairways to buses and taxis, airplane reservation desks, men and women's clothing shops, a Brentano's book store, gift shops—doubtless there is a souvenir shop. This is the only center of interest. Each of the five walls of the Pentagon is probably as long as the Louvre, so it is doubtful if there was ever another building in the world so huge in ground plan and so without variation. It would therefore be one thing to attack the Pentagon—it would be another to immobilize it. What could one do inside?—there were no redoubts to take unless the shopping center and cafeteria could qualify as targets, or perhaps the office of the Secretary of Defense at the other end of the building. In fact, it hardly mattered. Regardless of how many military conversations might be bandied about the possibility of occupying the Pentagon for a few hours or a few days, it must have been secretly evident to the Committee members (each to himself) that a mass march to the Pentagon announced in advance was not going to be able to enter the building in any conclusive fashion. The approaches by road were too few, the doors in each wall were also too few and too small, and the five concentric rings of the building with their lateral corridors, and corridors on axes (like a spider web), and sum of five floors on top of one another made up a total of somewhere between a hundred and fifty and two hundred corridors varying in length from two hundred to perhaps a thousand feet long, or somewhere near to twenty miles of passageway. If twenty thousand people worked in the offices, cubby holes, and warrens off those indistinguishable corridors, twice that number of demonstrators might be needed to paralyze the entire building. For the Pentagon, architecturally, was as undifferentiated as a jelly fish or a cluster of barnacles. One could chip away at any part of the interior without locating a nervous center.
It was nonetheless an historic moment when these reconnoitering vanguards of the Mobilization Committee went into the Pentagon to study its vulnerability to attack, historic not for the magnitude of the events which were to derive from this visit, but historic as a paradigm of the disproportions and contradictions of the 20th century itself. Nineteenth-century generals would not have been permitted to explore the fortress they would attack, but they would have known its storehouse when they took it. Now recapitulate the problem at the Pentagon: an enormous office building in the shape of a fortress housed the military center of the most powerful nation on earth, yet there was no need for guards—the proliferation of the building itself was its own defense: assassination of any high official in the edifice could serve only to augment the power of the Pentagon; vulnerable to sabotage, that also could work only for the fortification of its interest. High church of the corporation, the Pentagon spoke exclusively of mass man and his civilization; every aspect of the building was anonymous, monotonous, massive, interchangeable.
For this committee of revolutionary explorers, the strangeness of their situation must have been comparable to a reconnaissance of the moon. They could enter the Pentagon without difficulty, walk wherever they pleased—although not without attracting attention quite soon, for if most of them looked like responsible executives and experts, Rubin's hair was brushed out like a Black Militant's in five inches every direction from his head; they could nonetheless explore their target, debate their approach (even debate aloud if need be in these corridors filled as much with moving people as a busy subway station), they could even if they had wished probably have paid a call on the Secretary of Defense to inform him of their project, yet it was impossible to locate the symbolic loins of the building—paradigm of the modern world indeed, they could explore every inch of their foe and know nothing about him; the 20th century was in the process of removing the last of man's power from his senses in order to store power in piled banks of coded knowledge. The essence of coded knowledge was that it could be made available to all because only a few had the code to comprehend it.
Nonetheless, they had many discussions as to which wall of the Pentagon to approach on the day. The west wall adjacent to Washington Boulevard and the helicopter pad, had too small an entrance, the southeast wall was similarly undistinguished, and overprotected by a formidable spaghetti of superhighways and cloverleafs, the river entrance on the east was militarily impossible since a narrow ramp here crossed over Jefferson Davis highway into the building—as well try to lead ten thousand men into a castle by a drawbridge. Of the five walls, two then were left: the southwest wall by the South Parking Area, and the Administrative entrance on the north wall.
Early sentiment was for entering by way of the South Parking Area which was close to the Pentagon, indeed confronted it from not fifty yards away. Here the entrances were numerous, the approaches broad, and the building most difficult to defend, for not two hundred feet behind the doors was the shopping center and the cafeteria, where a host of passageways debouched. The shopping center, although at one end of the Pentagon, was the nearest equivalent to a major crossroads. If they succeeded in reaching its great open floor, they could strike out in any number of directions, indeed in all directions—there would be no single narrow corridor to stop them.
On the other hand, the South Parking had serious disadvantages. The demonstrators would have to march half around the Pentagon to reach it, and such a long move might be easy to harass or delay; also, the southwest face of the Pentagon was the least inspiring—it looked like what it was, a loading platform, an open maw for the tons of food and supplies which came in every day, the mountains of garbage which went out. To attack here was to lose some of one's symbolic momentum—a consideration which might be comic or unpleasant in a shooting war, but in a symbolic war was not necessarily comic at all. There was something absurd in throwing oneself upon the Pentagon in order to capture the cafeteria and the shopping center. Besides, if it would be easy to strike out in all directions from the floor of this enormous gallery, so would ambush upon them be equally available—troops could come from half-a-hundred entrances; the projected battle might therefore be too rapid, and pinch off any possibility of a massive sit-in for at least forty-eight hours.
So the north wall with its Administrative entrance was eventually chosen. It was the main approach to the Pentagon, and the most attractive. Access roads curved up from Jefferson Davis Highway and Washington Boulevard to the large square of asphalt in front of the entrance steps and the Egyptian columns. Below was another flight of steps which led to two ramps descending to the Mall. An army could meet on that grassy area for a rally, then move forward for acts of civil disobedience and/or disruption with a full view of the edifice.
Back in New York, Steering Committee meetings now began to be held; every two weeks, then every week, the Administrative Committee would get together to make basic decisions. They would meet in apartments, or members' houses, or in rented halls, or at the Free School in New York. Representatives from Women Strike for Peace, the New York Parade Committee, the Chicago Peace Council, the Student Mobilization Committee, the Ohio Area Peace Action Council, and pacifists, veterans' groups, Communists, Trotskyists, returned volunteers from the Peace Corps in Vietnam were present. The difficulties of coalition, always present, were now agitated. The more liberal, which is to say the less radical, peace groups were intimidated by the specter of a large unruly civil disobedience, yet if pushed by such fears in the direction of not collaborating with the March on the Pentagon, they faced the other side of the dilemma—their refusal would split the peace movement. So enormous pressure was never put entirely upon Del-linger to settle for a massive peace rally which would forego civil disobedience, and he was able to draft a plan: The demonstration would be two-pronged—a mass march and rally would be followed by acts of civil disobedience for those who wished to engage in them. It was obvious that much time and much energy must have been spent by Dellinger in assuring the gentler and more prosperous peace groups that the civil disobedience would almost certainly be “mild,” and they would be protected from unwilling involvement in the civil disobedience. Therefore, in designing this two-pronged action, certain contradictions were in-built.
Yet Dellinger had no desire to take such a large action without including the peace groups. From beginning to end, Dellinger envisaged the struggle against the war as a mass movement—how else to impress the power elite in Washington if not with a dedicated mass? The power elite knew better than anyone how difficult it was to rouse Americans to acts of dedication by now—hence, envisaging a mass movement, Dellinger was obliged from his own point of view to have the peace groups. Besides, one could not avoid the inevitable recognition that the major source of funds would be precisely these same moderate peace groups. The demonstration was eventually to cost sixty-five thousand dollars, the money to go in rent for offices in New York and Washington, for ads, for rented sound equipment, costs of telephone (huge), mailings, travel, buttons, even the modest expense of staff salaries—perhaps ten people working for fifty dollars a week. In addition, the National Mobilization was in debt as much as fifteen thousand dollars from the costs of the April March. So Dellinger could never afford to dispense—even if he had wished to—with the potential financial support of the more middle-class peace groups.
Viewing these matters from without, one could of course ask why an organizer would be interested in the more militant aspect of the demonstration when it was obvious the forces who wanted the more active varieties of civil disobedience, like outright disruption, although a minority in number, would create most of his problems, assure him a hostile press, exhaust huge funds of time and energy in placating his right wing, probably compromise him hopelessly in middle positions, and finally remain even hostile and uncoordinated to the National Mobilization Committee. Avoiding any certainty as to his private reasons, speculations are possible on the natural desire of a middle-aged revolutionary to remain in contact with the youth groups, as well as Dellinger's own natural militancy. Not by nature, or by his own history, a conciliator or compromiser, he had been involved for years in small but not uncourageous actions of civil disobedience. It is possible he would have been even more militant if not for his trips to Hanoi which had left him with the conviction that ending the war had first priority in America, and unity was thus the obligatory strategy. This last conviction could lead one to nothing but mass movements, if not for the fact that there were hard, objective, practical reasons for quitting passive protest and entering active civil disobedience, for taking on the slogan: “From dissent to resistance.” The fragmented condition of the Left after the summer of 1967 was certain to hold down the number of participants. Yet, another mass protest against the war would be meaningless unless many times the size of previous efforts; the peace movement, if not growing, would become a predictable figure in the tapestry, to be discounted by the power elite rather than respected. A protest movement which does not grow loses power every day, since protest movements depend upon the interest they arouse in the mass media. But the mass media is interested only in processes which are expanding dramatically or collapsing. Active civil disobedience was therefore essential to give glamor and publicity to the demonstration—a page one story for Washington must instead become a page one story for the world. Then, the ante would be up, and the results unpredictable—the peace movement would seem far from subsiding into the tapestry.
Besides, Negro civil rights had prospered (until the beginning of the war in Vietnam) by the existence of their most militant groups. The value of the Black Muslims to Martin Luther King must have been considerable—he did not even have to say to the ADA, “If not me, it may be them.” In contrast white radical movements had invariably made their alliances with white liberal movements, they lacked the threatening, discomposing cutting edge of an ultra-left movement which was potentially violent. It had become commonplace to remark that young people would not travel to just another march and rally. Civil disobedience therefore was vital to the advertisement of the March, as vital to the needs of the Mobilization Committee as money, and masses of demonstrators.
On August 28 at the Overseas Press Club in New York, a press conference was held to announce the March and its intention to close down the Pentagon on Saturday, October 21, by blocking entrances and doorways. The effort would be continued through Sunday, and if possible through Monday. At the press conference table sat Monsignor Rice of Pittsburgh; Father Hayes of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship; Gary Rader, former member of the Green Berets, now a pacifist; Abbie Hoffman of the Diggers' Free Store in New York; David Dellinger, Jerry Rubin, and Robert Greenblatt of the Mobilization; Amy Swerdlow of Women Strike for Peace; William Pepper, executive director of the National Conference for New Politics (about to have their convention in Chicago); Carl Davidson of SDS; Lincoln Lynch of CORE; Fred Rosen of The Resistance; Lee Webb, co-director of Vietnam Summer; Dick Gregory, and—to everyone's surprise—H. Rap Brown of SNCC.
Reverend Hayes spoke to the press for the Mobilization and announced that the giant coalition group which grew out of the Spring Mobilization “is beginning to organize a confrontation in Washington on October 21-22 which will shut down the Pentagon. We will fill the hallways and block the entrances. Thousands of people will disrupt the center of the American war machine. In the name of humanity we will call the war-makers to task.”
This was putting the best, most liberal and most constructive face on the projected activity, but the newspapers could also quote Dellinger—“There will be no government building left unattacked” (although the attacks “will be nonviolent”); Rubin—“We're now in the business of wholesale disruption and widespread resistance and dislocation of the American society”; Hoffman—“We're going to raise the Pentagon three hundred feet in the air”; and H. Rap Brown—“I would be unwise to say I'm going there with a gun because you all took my gun last time. I may bring a bomb, sucker.”
This press conference naturally attracted huge attention in the press, most of it critical or mocking. The snide reaction was that the demonstrators would attempt to close down the Pentagon on a day (October 21 was part of a weekend) when it was already closed down, which was not quite true, for several thousand of the Pentagon's employees were present on any normal Saturday. That reaction was less significant than the dismay of the moderate peace groups through the country who on reading of this press conference were left shocked, fearful, and antagonistic. But these negative reactions were whipped to a fury by the September 1 issue of the Mobilizer, newsletter of the Mobilization, which began with an editorial written in fire—and was backed with articles on Black Power, Rebellion, Resistance, plus an article by Keith Lampe “On Making a Perfect Mess” which included some of the following items:
A thousand children will stage Loot-Ins at department stores to strike at the property fetish that underlies genocidal war.
As the network cameras wheel in for classic counter-demonstrator footage, the BOMB PEKING picket signs will be flipped to say “Does LBJ suck?”
During a block party in front of the White House a lad of nine will climb the fence and piss, piss. . . .
The first thousand copies of this issue were rushed to Chicago to be distributed at the convention of the National Conference for New Politics where the language induced a profound shudder in every middle-class element of the white Left, old and new. A storm of protest, indignation, and horror came back on the Mobilization. The general consensus of the older people on the Steering Committee was that this newsletter would not mobilize support but would destroy it. It was voted to suppress the issue, and a new issue containing a mild statement of aims written by Sidney Peck in the form of questions and answers, and directed obviously at women's groups and moderate peace groups, was hurriedly put out. From this point on, the Berkeley group which had been the inspiration for the first issue was conceivably in decline.
Dellinger had left for Czechoslovakia after the press conference on August 28. He came back in September to a period of near chaos and conflicting demands. The moderate peace groups, put in a panic by the nihilistic possibilities of the March on the Pentagon, now began to push their demands. They wanted a clear and adequate separation between the march and rally activity, and the civil disobedience and/or disruption which would follow (in order that people who wished to protest the war but did not want to be arrested or endangered could also join). They insisted that Mobilization's press release project a tone more peaceful, less militant. It was also understood that they would not give large support to the venture unless Dr. Spock could be induced to join it.
Of course these moderate peace groups were often radical themselves in some part, and were not opposed to “outright lawbreaking” if it was symbolic, peaceful, controlled—but the presence of these demands implicated Dellinger in a series of promises, details, and works of personal energy whose objective result was to inhibit any real mass approach to massive disobedience. Dellinger was now obliged to act in part as an agent for the interests of the peace groups even though their intent was critically less militant than his own. It could not have been the happiest position.
The scene now shifts to Washington, and negotiations with the government. A curious period begins.
In the beginning, any question of jurisdiction must have been moot. It is safe to assume that no particular arm of the authorities would welcome the responsibility of negotiating with the demonstrators. A call to the Chief of the Park Police in Washington, D.C., Inspector Beye, was made by the Mobilization Committee and when it was explained what they wanted, Beye called a small meeting. Before the meeting was over, however, a man representing the Department of Justice exclaimed, “Do you expect us to allow this to take place?” The meeting broke up shortly afterward. No word came back from any representative of the government.
Mobilization waited ten days, then called Inspector Beye. He suggested they communicate with Harry Van Cleve, the general council of GSA—the Government Services Administration. Van Cleve had been selected to have jurisdiction for the government. He met with the committee shortly after, and a pattern of meetings was begun. Before they were finished perhaps eight meetings took place in late September and October, and indeed some details were to be argued until the very last night over such matters as the road to be permitted for the March from the Virginia side of the bridge to the Pentagon.
In these meetings, Van Cleve would come with an assistant who never spoke. The Committee, being a coalition, would arrive at meetings with as many as ten people. Dellinger, after his return, and Rubin and Greenblatt were at next to all the meetings, and others appeared if they happened to be in Washington on the day, or were interested in a specific point.
The first meeting with Van Cleve was perfunctory, and consisted of little more than an exchange of basic information, but in the next meeting, on October 6, Van Cleve, for the GSA (now representing the Park Police, Metropolitan Police, Defense Department, etc.) gave the following offer: the government would allow a rally at Lincoln Memorial, a march to the North Parking Area of the Pentagon, and a rally in the parking lot. But if the Mobilization did not relinquish all plans to break the law, the government would not even allow a rally.
At this point there was nothing to negotiate. The two parties were obviously not at all close to one another. Members of the Mobilization therefore left, and went back to their office, a three-story house at 2719 Ontario Road N.W., where a number of them got on the telephone to speak to different groups around the country. The response which came back was militant, for the reaction was that the Johnson government was now entering a period of suppression. Indeed, the offer given by the GSA was unconstitutional. If a group massed peacefully, it could not be arrested for its intention. Sentiment was for having the rally anywhere in Washington or Virginia—wherever the police intervened, massive disruption would occur. The demonstrators could move out in every direction and put Washington in disorder. The response was militant even from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Martin Luther King was ill these days, in need of rest, and in need of time to rebuild the SCLC, but his assistant, Andrew Young, assured the Mobilization that King would be there in such a case. One didn't pick the day of the revolution. Feeling among the more moderate peace groups was then surprisingly strong. Men like Julian Bond, Dr. Spock, William Sloane Coffin, Jr., and Don Duncan indicated their determination to speak at the rally. It looked as if Rubin might yet have his epic of disruption.
Hundreds of phone calls had been made all over the country, however, and it is not easily believable that no one of the lines suffered from the wire tap. Even if there were no informers or government agents among the visitors to Mobilization House (also unlikely, since the high incidence of spies in left-wing movements was by now accepted as a chronic joke) it must be close to certain that the government was aware of the shift in sentiment, for at the next meeting of the GSA and the Mobilization, Van Cleve came in with a different set of suggestions. In contrast to the first meeting, Van Cleve was proper, even cordial at the second. The new offer proposed that the demonstrators assemble at Lincoln Memorial, go over Arlington Memorial Bridge, proceed on a road to be determined, to a rally in the North Parking Area, and then at a certain hour, those who wished could cross the four-lane dual Jefferson Davis Highway, enter the Mall in front of the Administration entrance, and climb the first rows of steps. This offer, made at the second meeting, was actually close to the final agreement drafted on the night before the March. All the essential elements, even the ground plan of the combat which ensued on October 21, were here indicated.
Now the conversations between Van Cleve and the Mobilization Committee were limited to technical matters and the specific points, no longer acrimonious affairs. The mood in the room—but for such occasional and unexpectedly visual elements as Rubin's mane of hair and the costume of a hippie whom he brought in one day—was not too dissimilar, although probably less intense, than an arbitration proceeding between a corporation and a union. No one can of course repress the wit who would point out that any time two bodies of men whose names end in Mobilization and Administration get together, even a revolution can be negotiated, and for fact Dellinger and Van Cleve had similarities in their personal style, since both men were more than the average civil, well-spoken, able to appreciate the nuances of the opposite view, and could with no difficulty have acted as contending parties at an Ivy League faculty meeting.
In fact, the meetings could have served as another paradigm of American civilization in this decade of the 20th century, for two groups with absolutely incompatible ends and an irretrievable lack of final resolution between them, were nonetheless adjudicators in effect with one another over the few small items of common ground which were negotiable, and this through its sheer instrumentalism—since it is somewhat more difficult to take militant action after negotiating quietly with one's enemy for weeks—was to work to pacify and finally curtail the more unmanageable aspects of the anti-war March.
Debate now proceeded over the finest points—the hour of the rally at the North Parking, the specified time when demonstrators could move on to the Mall, the special regulations—those for example who left the Mall after 7 P.M. on Saturday could not come back till noon the next day. So went a host of small points. The Mobilization asked for a rally at Lincoln Memorial and were granted it, adjustments of the area on the steps above the Mall permitted to the demonstrators were made, the duration of the permit was in question, and the access road.
It was to a degree incredible, as every paradigm of the 20th century is incredible. Originally the demonstrators were saying in effect: our country is engaged in a war so hideous that we in the greatest numbers possible, are going to break the laws of assembly in order to protest this impossible war. The government was saying: this is a war necessary to maintain the very security of this nation, but because of our tradition of free speech and dissent we will permit your protest, but only if it is orderly. Since these incompatible positions had produced an impasse, the compromise said in effect: we, the government, wage the war in Vietnam for our security, but will permit your protest provided it is only a little disorderly. The demonstrators: we still consider the war. outrageous and will therefore break the law, but not by very much.
Each side was compromised, each side was, on the face of their professed attitude, absurd. Yet each party had the most pressing practical concerns to force them into collaboration. Dellinger had his moderate peace groups; Van Cleve, the interest of the government. An open white riot in the streets of the Capital after the summer riots in the Negro ghettos would telegraph a portrait of America to Global Village as an explosively unstable nation, therefore a dangerous nation on whom to count for long-term alliances since the explosiveness gave every sign of increase. Moreover, the possibility of a number of white Americans seriously wounded or killed by police, troops, or U.S. Marshals after the government's refusal to permit civil disobedience was even worse to contemplate. A concrete disaster of international publicity could result, especially if the police were too brutal. (And the police were ultimately less manageable than the wildest of the demonstrators.) It would be undeniably safer to permit civil disobedience. The problem would be then to limit its intensity.
Van Cleve's position in negotiation became simple. He had to look for every nuance of negotiation which would reduce the potential for violence of the demonstrators. So the choice of road and time of day and rally areas became critical. If the impact of this oncoming attack, part symbolic, part concrete, depended upon the quality of the revolutionary aesthetic—the revolutionary image, if you will, presented to the marchers as they came within range of the Pentagon—then the government, through Van Cleve, would do their best to dim that image. (They would also do their best to restrict the number of hours, even minutes, that the majority of demonstrators could be active at the Pentagon. So subtle engagements were fought by Van Cleve to restrict any entrance to the Mall until four P.M. Perhaps he knew the buses would be going back to New York at five, perhaps—this is sheer speculation—perhaps charter operators in New York were given the idea an early departure from Washington was desirable.
Since Dellinger in his turn was committed to two groups at once, and was therefore obliged to work in the opposed directions of what might be ultimately more violence or less violence, and since he was a man personally opposed to violence (as a Quaker) and had therefore no particular habits for comprehending its subtleties, the inference is large that Van Cleve from this point probably scored more for the government than Dellinger for the Mobilization.
Each small point the government requested was small indeed, too small to break off negotiation. The nightmare confronting Dellinger would be the press treatment of the Mobilization if a break occurred on what would seem an absurdly minor point—the choice of a road. Who could explain that to the mass media? Mobilization wanted Washington Boulevard or Jefferson Davis Highway for their March from the bridge, since each large road had a bold unimpeded view of the Pentagon almost all the way—the government insisted on Boundary Channel, a narrow side road now under repair and with but a restricted view of the building. The Mobilization, ideally, if it had been free to create the maximum of civil disobedience, would have been obliged to insist on the Pentagon Mall rather than the North Parking Area for their rally, since there was every difference in the sense given of the objective. A powerful orator speaking on the Mall would have been able to point to the Pentagon a hundred yards away across the grass—how different from the blurred view across wire fence and four-lane highway of a rally held in an oilstained parking lot more than a thousand feet away.
The Mobilization was to request the Mall for their second rally a number of times, but in that economy of barter which characterizes negotiation, they did not make an issue of it—rather it was a point they were ready to relinquish in return for other points: the assumption is that a part of the coalition did not really desire the Mall. Like Van Cleve, they assumed the disruption would be less in the North Parking.
It had been decided that a first rally would be held at Lincoln Memorial rather than just as an assembly. This was necessary to raise money (and in fact $30,000 was to be collected during the speeches). The length of this speakers' program grew under the pressure of every group which wished to be represented on the podium—there was as well, no doubt, the unspoken assumption by the moderates that hours of speeches would reduce the possibility of violence. (Never had a more middle-class group, more fundamentally opposed to violence, assembled in great numbers on an occasion whose precise novelty was that it promised precisely to be violent!)
Now there was pressure from the moderates to have another rally at the North Parking with more speeches. As far back as the second week of September Dr. Spock and representatives from Women Strike for Peace were arguing that the rally had to be held at Lincoln Memorial in order for women and children to be able to attend in freedom from disorder. (Also, the moderates thought it was essential to separate one rally completely from any civil disobedience, so that those who did not wish to go to the Pentagon would not be forced to.) On the other hand, the second speaker's rally at the North Parking had been planned from the beginning; it was now kept (despite the glaring possibility of many superfluous speeches) on the theory that those who did not wish to participate in civil disobedience would still need an activity (the influence of the progressive school is everywhere) on their arrival at the Pentagon, otherwise they might not march over the bridge. But obviously the parking-lot rally following in the wake of a two-hour speechfest at Lincoln Memorial was another deterrent to large civil disobedience.
Rubin and Dellinger were by now at considerable odds. At every point where the government had dulled the aesthetic, Rubin wished to brighten it—so he had wanted the rally in the Mall, had wanted to resist the choice of roads, had accepted with some unhappiness the limitation to one bridge—for the sight of two friendly armies coming together at the approaches to the Pentagon would prove inspiring—besides there would be more troops present at once, had wanted one rally, not two, and a plan to divert people back to Washington if opportunities at the Pentagon were small, he had been particularly unhappy with the late hour—4:00 P.M.—accepted from the government for the commencement of the “protest.” So he had pleaded and/or argued with Dellinger that the government was all but compelled to negotiate an agreement and was therefore bluffing. Breaking negotiations would only make the government concede their points. It is likely Rubin felt the frame of reference had gotten away from him, and that the demonstration would end as another mass rally with interesting but essentially minor gestures of civil disobedience. So the difference between these leaders was by now fundamental. From Rubin's point of view, the concept had come a long way down from his first proud promise of “wholesale and widespread resistance and dislocation of the American society.”
And Dellinger? We must speculate again. He had fulfilled his promise to the moderates, and so had been unable to go very far in the direction of a mass, symbolic, and prestigious pageant of nonviolent civil disobedience, but he had brought off the preparations for an unprecedented rally and action—it had been finally his responsibility, his nightmare if disaster struck and tens or hundreds of people were killed. Besides it is possible he had been true to both factions. The moderates had not been betrayed by him, the limitations upon civil disobedience were subtle and many, but they were not hermetic. Far from it. If an extraordinary potential for civil disobedience and disruption existed among the younger groups—and no one really knew—it would find any number of ways of flowing over the restraints. He had succeeded in fashioning therefore an action which was at once penned and open-ended—for the character of the civil disobedience still remained undefined, and that was an achievement. The government had been obliged to collaborate on details of an oncoming battle against its own jurisdiction, property, and troops. Medieval concepts of war seemed to be returning, or was it primitive contracts for battle?
We can pass over the mood of Washington in the few days before the March, the sympathetic and somewhat coordinated actions of protest in other parts of the country for the week preceding October 21, we may skip over the last meetings of the government and the Mobilization Committee, the denunciations in Congress, the bill which was passed on Friday, October 20, to protect the Capitol building from men carrying arms! And the scoldings and adjurations of newspaper editorials which remonstrated with the peace movement to remain peaceful. No, one we must give, it is from the New York Times on the day of the March.
It will be totally unnecessary for paratroopers or police or demonstrators to provoke each other, in the exercise either of duty or of self-expression today— and it will be tragic if they do.
The demonstrators will be betraying their own ideals if they follow those extremists who would deliberately turn the rally into a field of violence.
On Friday and Saturday morning, there were front page stories in the Washington papers on the arrival of troops, and a comic story on LACE, the hippies' counter-indicant for MACE. A man named Augustus Owsley Stanley, III had made it. His statement was that LACE “makes you want to take off your clothes, kiss people, and make love.” Much enjoyable copy on hippie plans to attack with marbles, noisemakers, water pistols. They would jam gun barrels with flowers. They would try to kidnap LBJ and wrestle him to the ground and take his pants off.
Let us move then to the Pentagon. The speeches at Lincoln Memorial were done, and a mass of people, calculated by the New York Times as fifty thousand, walked over Arlington Memorial Bridge in the next two hours. Waiting for them at the Pentagon or engaged in police work on the route were the following forces: fifteen hundred Metropolitan Police, twenty-five hundred Washington, D.C. National Guardsmen, about two hundred U.S. Marshals, and unspecified numbers of Government Security Guards, Park, White House, and Capitol Police. There were also six thousand troops from the 82nd Airborne flown in from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the same 82nd Airborne which had once parachuted into Normandy on D-Day, and was now fresh from Santo Domingo and the Detroit riots. M.P. units had been flown in from California and Texas, the U.S. Marshals had been brought from just about everywhere—Florida, New York, Arizona, Texas, to name a few states—it was to be virtually a convention for them. In addition, twenty thousand troops stationed nearby were on alert.
For the army of the demonstrators, no precise figures are available; government estimates were low and left-wing estimates were high. Taking the government figure, we have at a minimum an army of at least thirty-five thousand amateur soldiers consisting of a smattering and a sprinkling of doctors, dentists, faculty, veterans' groups, housewives, accountants, trade unionists, Communists, socialists, pacifists, Trotksyists, anarchists, artists, and entertainers; but the majority were college students from all over the East, and high school students and hippies and diggers and bikers. And—we come to the beginning of the battle—a striking force of shock troops. There was a group which had arrived with a real idea of combat in mind.
This group consisted in fact of two groups, the Students for a Democratic Society, and a considerably smaller group of unattached elements who had once called themselves the Revolutionary Contingent, but had been unable to function together because of many arguments on the proper style of their militancy, i.e., whether to use Viet-cong flags, or some of the specialized techniques of Japanese students, such as snake dances for breaking through police lines. Once, the Revolutionary Contingent had consisted of the Committee to Aid the National Liberation Front, the Black Mask, and other high-fragmentation sects, but now no alliance was left, other than their agreement to work together at the Pentagon. In preference to a new name, let us however still call them the Revolutionary Contingent.
That the Revolutionary Contingent happened to be in the vanguard was not surprising, but the body of the striking force remained the SDS, and that was significant, for the SDS, sharing apparently the detestation of some on the Left for the mass rally and the Great Left Pall, had a practice never to take part in large demonstrations. The Students for a Democratic Society did their work in the field—they organized in the colleges and went to live in the ghettos. They were an American form of the 19th-century back-to-the-people movements among Russian intellectuals.
But when on October 6 Van Cleve first stated that the government would not allow civil disobedience in any form, SDS decided to work for the March. (Thus, this first announcement of government repression had helped to bring in not only Dr. Spock on the Right but SDS on the Left of the Mobilization.) In the two weeks which followed, however, SDS enthusiasm cooled in some of the compromises. Yet in the week before the March, it still appeared as if the government and the Mobilization might be able to come to no agreement on details, and so the government would not grant the Mobilization Committee a rally and parade permit. So SDS kept up word to its members that Washington was very much an active front, worthy of their activity. They got ready for the March.
SDS was nothing if not wary of the Mobilization Committee and its tail of cautionary bureaucratic moderate peace groups. SDS did not wish to compromise its own militancy and its own view of civil disobedience, confrontation, and resistance by falling into the toils and instrumentalisms of the others. So it formed a temporary alliance to go into action with the Revolutionary Contingent. They would get themselves in the vanguard of the March—and, once on the Virginia side of the bridge, would separate from the other marchers and proceed by their own private route, running most of the way for a mile, through the woods to the North Parking Area where they would assemble and make their charge. Elements of SDS were lost on the rush, but determined not to wait and in fact obviously determined to start the combat before the second rally at the North Parking Area had well begun, the Revolutionary Contingent and SDS had charged across the parking area and made an assault on the military police barrier at a point considerably to the left of the Pentagon itself. They were stopped. There were barriers, there were troops, they were winded by their run all the way from Arlington Bridge, “the crowd was not yet mad enough to back them up,” as one of their leaders was to put it later, and they were charged by M.P.'s with rifles and sheathed bayonets. It is possible that bayonets were in panic unsheathed—reports of such bayonets appear here and again in accounts, none remotely verifiable, even the hour in doubt; but for whatever reason the vanguard of this militant striking force certainly faltered, and abruptly fled backward in panic.
They had obviously been charged for combat for days, and such tension in men who are determined, usually succeeds in concealing from themselves the extent of their fear. In combat which comes after long spiritual preparation, there is an instant of relaxation in the very first moment altogether dangerous to dedicated troops—all the fear they have denied can now flood them. They can panic and flee—the inner preparation has been too great. (One must, after all, contemplate the extent of that fear, made up in part of sustained political brooding about the nature of American brutality at home and abroad—they were now going to confront this brutality; the very imagination which stimulated them to think radically now had added its exaggerations to the possibilities of reprisal.) Where the dedication is serious, however, the recovery is quick. Furious with themselves at this first rout, they now reassembled, conferred among themselves, climbed the embankment which bordered the four-lane Jefferson Davis highway, broke down the newly erected wire fence which restrained them to the Parking Area, gathered numbers from arriving unattached demonstrators and crossed the highway, entered the Mall, went up the long diagonal steps in the face of the stone wall which separates the asphalt plaza of the Administration entrance from the Mall, then climbed the approach steps, pushed back the M.P. line, and broke through it at the head of the stairs to fan out and occupy the left side of the plaza, only—so far as can be determined from the conflict of reports—to be immediately cut off from the main body on the stairs and the center of the plaza by a bracing of M.P.'s and U.S. Marshals who virtually separated the two groups, thereby making passage from the left side of the plaza back to the stairs impossible. Still, this group which overflowed the plaza on the left were to retain these positions until morning, by which time arrests and the attrition of departures had emptied their salient. More centrally located, the group in the center of the plaza and stairs was to hold its position for thirty-two hours, a perfectly legal position by the terms of the pre-March agreement between the government and the Mobilization Committee, although no one on the line, troops or demonstrators, was too aware of this, and illegalities on both sides in relation to this line abounded. The estimates in left-wing and underground newspapers put the number of demonstrators on the left of the plaza at twenty-five hundred, and the number on the central plaza, entrance stairs, and diagonal steps, leading to the stairs as double. Since underground papers seem to pride themselves on being even more inaccurate than their enemies, we can guess that there were no more than one thousand demonstrators in the “illegal area” of the plaza and a maximum of two thousand on the “legal” stairs, steps, and center of the plaza.
Let us not go another step into developments until we have fortified our picture of the situation. Far away from the plaza, a quarter of a mile away, across the Mall, the four-lane highway, a wire fence, and a small intervening hill, a rally is taking place in the North Parking Area and somewhere between ten and twenty thousand people, nervous, bored, uncertain whether they are relieved or disappointed that so little seems to be taking place, are out there receiving the long tasteless unleavened bread of fiery political speeches, the apogee of this irony achieved by the most militant speech of them all, made by Carl Davidson, the inter-organizational secretary of SDS (even SDS had its table of organization) who said, “Repression must be met, confronted, stopped, by whatever means possible.” The next major demonstrations would arm to disrupt draft induction centers. “We must tear them down,” he said, “burn them down if necessary.” That was strong stuff. Over the hill, across the highway, along the Mall, up the steps, the first heads were being cracked by the clubs of the Marshals, while some true hearts of the orally-oriented Left were listening to their fourth hour of oratory—how much of one's own saliva must have been tasted by this point.
Younger spirits were now breaking down a new section of fence between the Parking Area and the highway in order to get to the Mall. The monitors appointed by the Committee made impotent efforts to hold them off. “You're not supposed to go over there until later!” they shouted through their bull horns while people crossed. All the while, marchers in that long line of fifty-four thousand people taking two hours to cross the Arlington Memorial Bridge were trickling into the Parking Area listening in confusion to the speeches (for many of the marchers must have foreseen a dramatic confrontation with a line of soldiers) and then looking about them for the next move. Meanwhile, rumors were arriving and passing through the crowd of the action at the Pentagon itself. As speakers continued, the crowd began to diminish—now thousands were going through the gap in the fence, crossing the highway, and invading the Mall. The legal time of entry on the Mall arranged by the government had been four o'clock, the first attack had come earlier, but the majority of demonstrators, being present at the Parking rally, did not cross over the Mall until 4:30, being thus left with not much more than an hour of daylight.
Meanwhile, in the vanguard, on the asphalt plaza and on the Pentagon steps, not a great deal was happening, yet everything was happening. The military situation had not altered appreciably, although a few significant events took place, notably three: first, a member of SDS, Tom Bell, succeeded in climbing an isolated wall of the plaza bordering the steps accompanied by his bull horn. He was thus in position to talk to the groups isolated on the left side of the plaza from the steps. When a Marshal or an M.P. (accounts conflict) attempted to pull him down, he pushed him off—to the cheers of the demonstrators watching—and proceeded to serve as communications center. He also proceeded—well-grounded doubtless in Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution—to talk to the troops. This was to be the first of many speeches to be made to them, and the content of these speeches must eventually be given, for the most conventional and original aspects of Left polemic were to be presented in turn by different speakers, some professional, some—girls, for instance, opening buttons on their blouses—improvisational. More of that, later.
The second significant event in this relatively constant military situation was that some of the demonstrators, having overrun the restraining lines of rope in their push through to the plaza, now began to use them. Tying knots in the ropes, they lowered them over the wall to the Mall where young demonstrators anxious to join them, now began to climb up. Since the wall was built of massive beveled blocks of stone, it was not altogether difficult to hold on to the rope and climb up, using the serrations for toeholds. Still, it had risk, a fifteen-foot drop on one's back at worst, and so the men who climbed were full of good morale on reaching the top and probably inspired the next and third significant action which is that a group probably composed in the main of SDS Contingent on the plaza saw a side entrance door to the left of the main administration entrance guarded only by six M.P.'s. Since only a relatively thin line of MP.'s were on the line to restrain them here, a small group, perhaps twenty-five, made a quick push, broke the line, broke through the M.P.'s, and actually entered the Holy of Holies—they were in the Pentagon racing down a corridor.
Not for long! Troops had been brought into the Pentagon the night before, they had slept on cots in the corridors of the building (which is not unlike laying out one's mattress in Lincoln Tunnel). Confined inside, suffering the tension of endless hours waiting for unseen anarchists, bomb-throwers, Communists, poison gassers, poison-in-the-water, nymphomaniacs, drug addicts, insane Negroes, and common city folk to inundate them under their human wave in these drear corridors one can only guess—unless there are films—at the unmitigated fury with which the few demonstrators were clubbed and kicked, arrested, and carried off.
One can of course ask why so few felt obliged to attempt the sortie, and no one behind to follow them; the answers cannot be definitive. But two factors apply. One is the extraordinary demand for initiative on the side of the demonstrators if they were to do anything at all. Anyone who has passed through the educational system of America is in unconscious degree somewhere near half a patriot. (We may reduce the fraction when considering progressive schools.) The brain is washed deep, there are reflexes: white shirts, Star-Spangled Banner, saluting the flag. At home is corporation land's whip—the television set. Who would argue there are no idea-sets of brave soldiers, courageous cops, great strength, and brutal patriotic skill in the land of authority? Obvious remarks, but it is precisely this huge and much convinced unconscious part of oneself which a demonstrator has to move against when he charges with his small part of an army into a line of M.P.'s close-packed, arms locked; anxiety washes the will with its dissolving flood. Demonstrators may break off at the last moment. Moreover one moves forward unarmed into men who hold clubs, or rifles. One does not even know the guns are unloaded—these are amateur soldiers so innocent of war they do not know enough to deduce that if there are no magazines loaded into the rifles, there can be at most but one round in the chamber. It was not so easy, therefore, when the moment came to charge into the Pentagon.
At any rate, if this is the military situation with which we are left, let us now take a look at the front line, at the six inches of no-man's-land across which troops and demonstrators—in the closest use yet of this word—confront each other.
II: The Steps of the Roaring Ladder
It is on this particular confrontation that the conceit one is writing a history must be relinquished. Forget that the journalistic information available from both sides is so incoherent, inaccurate, contradictory, malicious, even based on error that no accurate history is conceivable. More than one historian has found a way through chains of false fact. No, the difficulty is that the history is now interior—no documents can give sufficient intimation: the novel must replace history at precisely that point where experience is sufficiently emotional, spiritual, psychical, moral, existential, or supernatural to expose the fact that the historian in pursuing the experience would be obliged to quit the clearly demarcated limits of historic inquiry. So these limits are now relinquished. The collective novel which follows, while still written in the cloak of an historic style, and, therefore, continuously attempting to be scrupulous to the welter of a hundred confusing and opposed facts, will now unashamedly enter that world of strange lights and intuitive speculation which is the novel. Let us, then, fortified by this clarification, this advertisement of intentions, move up to the front, to the six inches of no-man's land between U.S. Army and demonstrators.
It is safe to say that the beginning of this confrontation has not been without terror on each side. The demonstrators, all too conscious of what they consider the profound turpitude of the American military might in Asia, are prepared (or altogether unprepared) for any conceivable brutality here. On their side, the troops have listened for years to small town legends about the venality, criminality, filth, corruption, perversion, addiction, and unbridled appetites of that mysterious group of city Americans referred to first as hipsters, then beatniks, then hippies; now hearing they are linked with the insidious infiltrators of America's psychic life, the Reds!, the troops do not know whether to expect a hairy kiss on their lips or a bomb between their knees. Each side is coming face to face with its own conception of the devil!
Let us give the literal picture. At this early stage, before the demonstrators were to sit down, a close-packed line of M.P.'s with clubs, backed by another line of soldiers, was supported further by separate U.S. Marshals a few feet behind them, arrayed like linebackers—it could not have been unselfconscious. In other places of tension and at other times, soldiers were to advance with rifles, with sheathed bayonets, with tear gas, but this had not happened yet on this front, where the line of standing demonstrators was composed of a mix of SDS-Contingent with a greater number of unattached young demonstrators caught in the suction of the action. Posed against the lines of soldiers, already some historic flowers were being placed insouciantly, insolently, and tenderly in gun barrels by boys and girls.
Of course the rhetoric of the Left had been consistent in referring to these troops as innocent victims of the military machine and there is the real possibility that some fraction of the soldiers may have been secretly sympathetic to the demonstrators. The following is from an allegedly unedited tape of an interview with a soldier who had been at the Pentagon. “Around 40 per cent of all the military is in favor of your demonstration. This is a big point that I have found. They go out there, and around 30 per cent are just out to hurt anybody, beat anybody up they can, just because they have a rifle and all this other stuff. However, 30 per cent of them are sort of serene about the whole thing, and they couldn't care less. They have a job to do and that's all.”
Since this interview was printed in the East Village Other, one cannot be certain it exists; psychedelic underground papers consider themselves removed from any fetish with factology. Still the dialogue has its ring—“sort of serene” is not an easy remark to make up. In any case, if the soldiers of this hour were not generally, by all accounts, interested in brutality, they were certainly fascinated by their foe, and when the minutes of confrontation went by and then the first hour, there began some lessening of woe and some lessening of the soldiers' extraordinary attention; the true literal fear of losing their lives began to go away from them. They had been sent out after all with God knows what orientation, “Well, men,” says the major, “our mission is to guard the Pentagon from rioters and out-of-march scale prearranged-upon levels of defacement, meaning clear? Well, the point to keep in mind, troopers, is those are going to be American citizens out there expressing their Constitutional right to protest—that don't mean we're going to let them fart in our face—but the Constitution is a complex document with circular that is circulating sets of conditions—put it this way, I got my buddies being chewed by V.C. right this minute maybe I don't care to express personal sentiments now, negative, keep two things in mind—those demos out there could be carrying bombs or bangalore torpedoes for all we know, and you're going out with no rounds in your carbines so thank God for the.45. And first remember one thing more—they start trouble with us, they'll wish they hadn't left New York unless you get killed in the stampede of us to get to them. Yessir, you keep a tight ass-hole and the fellow behind you can keep his nose clean.”
If the troops were relieved that a pullulating, unwashed orgiastic Communist-inspired wave of flesh did not roll right over them, and that in fact the majority of demonstrators right there before them were not unlike in appearance the few quiet long-haired cool odd kids they had never quite gotten to know in high school, the demonstrators in their turn were relieved in profounder fashion that their rank of eyes had met the soldiers, and it was the soldiers who had looked away. They looked across the gulf of the classes, the middle classes and the working classes. It would take the rebirth of Marx for Marxism to explain definitively this middle-class condemnation of an imperialist war in the last Capitalist nation, this working-class affirmation. But it is the urban middle class in America who always feel most uprooted, most alienated from America itself, and so instinctively most critical of America, for neither do they work with their hands nor wield real power, so it is never their lathe nor their sixty acres, and certainly never is it their command which is accepted because they are simply American and there, no, the urban middle class was the last class to arrive at respectable status and it has been the most over-protected (for its dollars are the great nourishing mother of all consumer goods) yet the most spiritually undefended since even the concept of a crisis in identity seems most exclusively their own. The sons and daughters of that urban middle class, forever alienated in childhood from all the good simple funky nitty gritty American joys of the working class like winning a truly dangerous fist fight at the age of eight or getting sex before fourteen, dead drunk by sixteen, whipped half to death by your father, making it in rumbles with a proud street gang, living at war with the educational system, knowing how to snicker at the employer from one side of the mouth, riding a bike with no hands, entering the Golden Gloves, doing a hitch in the Navy, or a stretch in the stockade, and with it all, their sense of élan, of morale, for buddies are the manna of the working class: there is a God-given cynical indifference to school, morality, and job. The working class is loyal to friends, not ideas. No wonder the army bothered them not a bit. But the working class bothered the sons of the middle class with their easy confident virility and that physical courage with which they seemed to be born—there was a fear and a profound respect in every middle-class son for his idea of that most virile ruthless indifferent working class which would eventually exterminate them as easily as they exterminated gooks. And this is not even to mention the sense of muted awe which lived in every son of the urban middle class before the true American son of the small town and the farm, that blank-eyed snub-nosed innocent, bewildered, stubborn, crew-cut protagonist of all conventional American life; the combination of his symbolic force with the working class, was now in focus here.
Standing against the soldiers were not only sons of the middle class, of course, but sons who had departed the middle class, they were rebels and radicals and young revolutionaries; yet they were unbloodied, they felt secretly weak, they did not know if they were the simple equal, man for man, of these soldiers, and so when this vanguard confronted soldiers now, and were able to stare them in the eye, they were in effect, saying silently, “I will steal your élan, and your brawn, and the very animal of your charm because I am morally right and you are wrong and the balance of existence is such that the meat of your life is now attached to my spirit, I am stealing your balls.” A great exaltation arose among the demonstrators in that first hour. Surrounded on the plaza and on the stairs, they could have no idea of what would happen next, they could be beaten, arrested, buried in a stampede, most of them were on the mouth of their first cannon, yet for each minute they survived, sixty seconds of existential gold was theirs. Minutes passed, an hour went by—these troops were more afraid of them than they were afraid of the troops! Great glory. They began to cheer. Those who were not in the first row yelled insults, taunted the soldiers, derided them—the demonstrators in the front looked into the soldiers' eyes, smiled, tried to make conversation. “Hey, soldier, you think I'm a freak. Why am I against the war in Vietnam? Cause it's wrong. You're not defending America against Communism, you're just giving your officers a job.” Some of the dialogue was better, some was worse, some was face to face, some by bull horn to the troops—technology land at the front. The dialogue was to change character yet, become more intimate, more awful, more excruciating for the soldiers, and the demonstrators; it was to go on for thirty-two hours of close-up dialogues across the line of confrontation, first standing, then—in response to the fear of stampede—sitting, faces inches apart, the demonstrators speaking softly, the soldiers under orders silent, some soldiers trembling—there were reports of officers coming up to say, “Steady, soldier!” and of soldiers here and there specifically relieved, even unconfirmed stories of three soldiers who took off their helmets and joined the demonstrators.
Of course this was only the first hour of thirty-two, and involved but the first line; three or four rows back the condition was different, one was safer, more anonymous—one's abuse could have more bite for considerably less cost. And down in the Mall a different condition existed, one of excitement, bewilderment, interest, anticipation. Cut off from the demonstration on the stairs or the plaza by the press of the crowd at the base, one had only to ignore the possibility of climbing the ropes and there was no way one could not in good conscience declare one had done his best. Of course, there were confrontations here as well. Where soldiers cut off the access roads, demonstrators from the Mall were pressing against them. Here the attitude was more ugly. Here soldiers were not cutting people off from the Pentagon, but from their own demonstrators, so the imperative to get through was more direct, the fear of being stampeded was less, there was all the Mall to run out into. Therefore the inability to mount a charge to break the soldier's line was less excusable, closer perhaps to cowardice—hence the ugliness of the crowd. And indeed far out in the Mall, isolated altogether from other soldiers were very small detachments on now unknown details, three soldiers here, five there. Newspaper stories referred to them. Breslin reported they were reviled and tormented unmercifully; when it got dark a few soldiers were beaten up—so goes the story. It may be well to quote Breslin here.
Taste and decency had left the scene a long time before. All that remained were these lines of troops and packs of nondescript kids who taunted the soldiers. The kids went to the bathroom on the side of the Pentagon building. They threw a couple of rocks through the first-floor windows. The soldiers faced them silently. From the steps, a captain in the Airborne kept calling out through a bullhorn.
“A Company, hold your ground, A Company,” his voice said. “Nobody comes and nobody goes. Just hold your ground, A Company.”
The mob on the grass in front of the soldiers began chanting. “Hold that line, hold that line.”
There was no humor to it. These were not the kind of kids who were funny. 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.
On the steps leading from the grass to the blacktop the kids taunted the troops and kicked at them.
“Hit them—they won't hit back,” somebody yelled.
A scraggly bearded guy in a blue denim jacket shrieked. He ran up with a flag holder and swatted a soldier in the back.
Whatever it was that this peace march had started out to be, it now became an exercise in clawing at soldiers. And it lasted into the darkness.
In contrast let us now dare to give an extract from Gerald Long's account in the National Guardian. It is not a paper famous for its lack of bias and the account here is obviously partisan, but its virtues are to be brief and vivid.
Some demonstrators near the entrance and a good number behind the front lines urged the crowd forward, into a clash with the troops who were standing with rifles at the ready. A debate ensued. SDS leaders, also among the first near the doors, grabbed portable loudspeakers and urged the crowd to sit down. (“It would have been a bloodbath,” SDS leader Greg Calvert commented later. “A thousand people could have been killed if they attempted to storm those lines unarmed. We regarded those urging the crowd forward as Left adventurers and tried to stop them. We succeeded.”)
A company of M.P.s materialized from the right, running awkwardly like puppets. They stopped in front of the ramp, regrouped, leveled their rifles and marched forward. Unbelieving demonstrators just gaped at them, stunned, confronted for the first time by the guns of “our boys.” Then something remarkable happened. People began laughing. Someone threw flowers at the M.P.s, who by now had stopped, frozen, guns pointed at young men and women their own age.
Every time the troops moved forward to push demonstrators away from the ramps, scores, hundreds of youth would sneak behind them—up the ramp. The M.P.s were enveloped. People were standing with faces just inches from the barrels of M-14 semi-automatics and an occasional single barrel shotgun.
The M.P.s executed an about face, seeking to clear out the demonstrators who ran behind them. A youth refused to be moved. A rifle butt landed in his stomach. He grabbed the rifle. Several youths grabbed rifles. Four helmets were stolen. A demonstrator was slugged. An M.P. was slugged.
White-helmeted federal marshals, impressed for service from the calm of courtrooms, moved forward, clubs swinging. It seemed to this observer—both in this incident and for the next thirty or so hours—that the marshals aimed particularly at women.
Each time the action stopped in a particular spot, demonstrators sought to speak with the soldiers, who were under orders not to respond. “Why are you doing this?” a demonstrator asked. “Join us” the soldiers were asked. It was obvious that some of the troops were weakening. A few soldiers seemed ready to faint. “Hold your lines, hold your lines,” a captain repeated harshly, over and over, to the soldiers.
A girl confronted a soldier, “Why, why, why,” she asked. “We're just like you. You're like us. It's them,” she said pointing to the Pentagon. She brought her two fingers to her mouth, kissed them and touched the soldier's lips. Four soldiers grabbed her and dragged her away, under arrest. The soldier she had spoken to tried to tell them that she hadn't hurt him.
It may be obvious by now that a history of the March on the Pentagon which is not unfair will never be written, any more than a history which could prove dependable in details!
As it grew dark there was the air of carnival as well. The last few thousand marchers to arrive from Lincoln Memorial did not even bother to go to the North Parking lot, but turned directly to the Mall and were cheered by the isolated detachments who saw them from a ledge of the wall at the plaza. Somewhere, somebody lit his draft card, and as it began to burn he held it high. The light of the burning card traveled through the crowd until it found another draft card someone else was ready to burn and this was lit, and then another in the distance. In the gathering dark it looked like a dusting of fireflies over the great shrub of the Mall.
By now, however, the way was open again to the North Parking. The chartered buses were getting ready to leave. That portion of this revolution which was Revolution on Excursion Ticket was now obliged to leave. Where once there had been thirty thousand people in the Mall, there were now suddenly twenty thousand people, ten thousand people, less. As the buses ground through the interlockings of their gears and pulled out into a mournful wheezing acceleration along the road, so did other thousands on the Mall look at one another and decide it was probably time to catch a cab or take the long walk back to Washington—they were in fact hungry for a meal. So the Mall began to empty, and the demonstrators on the steps must have drawn a little closer. The mass assault was over.
A few thousand, however, were left, and they were the best. The civil disobedience might be far from done. On the Mall, since the oncoming night was cold, bonfires were lit. On the stairs, a peace pipe was passed. It was filled with hashish. Soon the demonstrators were breaking out marijuana, handing it back and forth, offering it even to the soldiers here and there. The Army after all had been smoking marijuana since Korea, and in Vietnam—by all reports—were gorging on it. The smell of the drug, sweet as the sweetest leaves of burning tea, floated down to the Mall where its sharp bite of sugar and smoldering grass pinched the nose, relaxed the neck. Soon most of the young on the Mall were smoking as well. Can this be one of the moments when the Secretary of Defense looks out from his window in the Pentagon at the crowd on the Mall and studies their fires below? They cannot be unreminiscent of other campfires in Washington and Virginia little more than a century ago. The Secretary of Defense is by all reports a complex man, a reader of poetry—does he have a secret admiration for the works of Robert Lowell as he stands by the window?
But what had happened to the notables, to the leaders of the demonstration? We must move on.
When the speakers' rally at the North Parking Area was done, the leaders decided to join the others, and commit their own acts of symbolic civil disobedience. So Dave Dellinger, Dagmar Wilson, Dr. and Mrs. Benjamin Spock, Noam Chomsky, Sidney Lens, Barbara Deming, Dwight Macdonald, and Robert Lowell left the North Parking. Drifting through the Mall, entering dialogues with young demonstrators, or holding impromptu press conferences which would be forced to emphasize their unhappy distance from the action (and the press of the demonstrators on the steps might have been difficult to pass through) were alternatives which offered no grip—Dellinger wisely led the contingent past the Mall to a small grassy area, now untenanted but for soldiers, between Washington Boulevard and the west wall of the Pentagon. Here he planned to open another arena of action by engaging the troops in a teach-in. On their arrival, Dellinger suggested that those who had not spoken at the rally should talk to the soldiers. Father Rice spoke. Then Noam Chomsky. While he was speaking a line of soldiers left the west wall of the Pentagon and advanced gently on the notables, moving forward slowly, expressionlessly, and with a lack of violence which was bewildering for they passed silently through the figures about Del-linger without striking any of them, indeed making every effort not to touch them. A larger crowd of students who had accompanied Dellinger and Spock's contingent fled however before the soldiers, despite Dellinger's shouts through the bullhorn for them to hold ground, since the soldiers were not intending violence. But this group of demonstrators fled. Perhaps it was the movies they had seen of armies of zombies, perhaps it was the vitiated state of their liver after four hours of speeches—it was evident, no matter how, that rhetoric hand in hand with reason put no spirit of war into revolutionary boys. The notables, however, were made of firmer stuff—they turned around and began to address the soldiers who had passed by them. When this became apparently absurd—where does the teach-in begin on a man's back?—they turned about again, and walked once more toward the wall of the Pentagon. Now more soldiers suddenly double-timed out of an entrance, rifles at high port. Caught between two lines of soldiers, the ends pinched off, the notables were surrounded. The soldiers were silent.
Dr. Spock began to speak to the troops. He told a story which was obviously one of his favorites. He had received a letter not so long ago from a soldier who wrote to him from Vietnam in tones which condemned the war. Dr. Spock wrote back only to have his letter returned with the legend, “Verified deceased.”
Now a Negro sergeant who had commanded the advance of the first line of troops came back, and said to the second line, “All right, push 'em out now.”
The soldiers advanced, the notables sat down. Dr. Spock kept talking, and a flurry in which no account is clear took place. In the course of it, Dellinger, Dagmar Wilson, and Chomsky were arrested. Spock was not, although he made efforts to be arrested—it seemed conceivable the Marshals were under orders to leave him alone. Macdonald and Lowell were passed by. When it was all over, and some had been copped, and some hit by clubs (or rapped with the ends—for the Marshals were not conspicuously brutal here) Lowell, Macdonald, and a few others found themselves alone. The storm had passed. They left, unhurt, and eventually went home.
This excursion to the flank and arrest was not uncharacteristic of Dellinger's leadership in the weeks preceding the March. If Dellinger had been doing his best to be true to his principles and at the same time elucidate the maximum of practical advantage possible in the constricted situation which conciliation must obligatorily produce, he had on this occasion fulfilled just such a limited maximum. Not feeling determined to be with the demonstrators on the line, since the arrest of the notables would be in his mind a superior aim, he had made his own attack in an illegal area, and had attempted to teach the opposing soldiers. When this produced the order to push them out, Dellinger managed to get himself arrested, not easy in the face of the military's obvious policy of random arrest, and was out of jail in the same evening, also not so automatic. He was able therefore to be present at a press conference where he could claim a “tremendous victory.” The protest, he was reported to say, marked the beginning of a “more militant mood, a more persistent mood, a more insistent mood.” If the second half of the proposition was almost certainly correct, the first half did not necessarily precede it, for at the opposite end of the spectrum of Left opinion, bitter old veterans might have been remarking that out of such “tremendous victories” concentration camps were born. In fact it would not have mattered too much what did happen—Dellinger, like any leader of such a Mobilization, would have been bound to claim an enormous victory. It is this he could have told Jerry Rubin on the night before the March—if we are to make the unwarranted assumption that such cynicism was actually in his conscious head—that what happened at the Pentagon would not matter short of the most incredible victory—such as McNamara joining the demonstrators—or the most abysmal defeat, a paralysis of all activity before the sight of the troops. Anything less than these alternatives would produce the same predictable results—each side would claim a great victory for its own principles, the press would be naturally on the side of the authority (although much which was favorable to the other side would be leaked), and the left-wing and underground press and word of mouth would be sure to distort, enrich, ennoble, purify, and finally transpose the real history of the events to their own need; the real victory or defeat could be measured later by the military, money, and mass available for the next big operation. In the meantime he had appealed to the conscience of America, to the middle-class conscience at any rate, he had appealed through the attraction of the mass of numbers of the people who had attended, the numbers arrested, and the names of the notables. So he could have told Rubin—if he had been that cynical and by all evidence he was not—that the important thing, the only thing, was to have an action at the Pentagon, because that, given the processing methods of American newspapers, would be the only thing to come out of the event. Since the American Revolution must climb uphill blindfolded in the long Capitalist night, any thing which was publicity became a walking stick.
Rubin in such a dialogue could possibly have answered that although he agreed in part with Dellinger, there was still ho real victory unless the troops at the front could leave with the conviction that something magical had been won. Rubin was a mystic, a revolutionary mystic—his roots were in Bakunin: so he believed that the chaos which followed disruption would force a crisis, force the government to overextend itself, arid so would polarize the country and develop the strength of the Left who could build new values, new community, new power. So he must also have believed that nothing could be gained in the future which did not proceed from the truth of a victory whose light could be seen in the eye, that a war of publicity unillumined by inner victory was a war in a wallow with gobbets of dung, but that a true victory, if it came to only a few of the best of the very last hundred of the troops would put a radiance in the seed of their oncoming night. An extraordinary multiplication of the romantic, but it was not Rubin's apocalyptic vision alone—it had been seen before by men so vastly different (but for the consonants of their name) as Castro, Cortes, and Christ—it was the collective vision now of the drug-illumined and revolutionary young of the American middle class.
The night went on. As the remaining demonstrators realized they were alone, and no longer linked to the eighty or hundred-thousand-headed force of men and women around the reflecting pool, or the fifty thousand at the Pentagon, but were instead down to a few thousand of the true, the adventurous, and the dedicated, their massive bourgeois complement now gone (not unlike the departure of an obese and wealthy mother-in-law) as they sensed that they were a smaller force, even by count of heads, to the troops around, about, and inside the Pentagon, so they knew the war could now become more serious, now their true weapons could show.
The campfires were lit, the pot—as already described—was passed; what prehistoric forms the dark bulk of the Pentagon must have taken from its spark, how the figures studying them with field glasses from the roof must have looked—how much like gargoyles on the ridge of a cathedral. Action was on in the night. Hungry, thirsty, the demonstrators were being fed—impromptu self-elected Diggers had organized transportation service for food and water. Beer came in, sandwiches, it was Saturday night—Saturnalia came in: couples began to neck on the grass, some awed by their audacity, some stimulated by the proximity of the Pentagon. Others, using spray cans, crayons, paints and brush began to write slogans on the stone wall of the Mall, the pier, the sides of the ramp. WAR SUCKS went one of the signs, PENTAGON SUCKS went another, FUCK WAR went a third. There was much to be made of this in the newspapers when all was done, and much to be made of the litter on the grass. That might have been a mistake—the litter. An army which leaves its litter behind could form the habit of leaving its dead behind, but the signs! They were easier to defend, for the legend PENTAGON SUCKS would reach the troops, it would reach every unit in the army before a month, and they would be a new breed of American soldiers if they did not laugh.
In the meantime the Army was not inactive. On the left access road where the Diggers had established a base in the chain of food transportation, tear gas was used by the troops—there seems no doubt of this. Too many eyewitness reports appeared in too many newspapers—indeed some reporters entered a night briefing in the Pentagon hardly able to see from tears in their eyes caused by gas discharged from canisters by soldiers, just in time to hear the Army deny they had used tear gas. Of course, some of the demonstrators had used tear gas too; so would swear Jimmy Breslin; so admitted one of the March leaders. It would in fact have been unlikely if out of this citizen's army of angelic and vicious children and youth, not one of that pill-ridden, electronically-oriented, chemically-grounded generation had not brought some gimmicks with gas. How else to play? That army of hippies and bikers would not be so unfrightening when their inventive pop-art genius turned to the craft of the nuisance weapon. Twenty years of comic strips were twenty years of surrealist seed.
The girls were now taunting the soldiers on the line. Something had happened with the line. Now soldiers were being rotated rapidly, sometimes by the half-hour—no relationship between troops and soldiers was to be permitted to grow. Perhaps for good cause. Earlier in the day, a couple of Negro demonstrators were reported to have taunted a Negro soldier until he had finally been obliged to hang his head, turn it away. One can conceive of the dialogue.
“Hey, nigger, how long you going to kiss Mr. Charlie's who-who-who? Going over to Vietnam, going to be nigger hero, huh? Going to have your photograph in a honkie paper, that right, is that right? Hey, Mr. Big, give us some skin, take your fat black hand off that honkie asshole rifle and give us some skin. You're the man! You're the man!”
Yes, they had skinned him with that Negro irony which could separate the most weathered hide from the most determined flesh—the wisdoms of torture were in their skill—how could any U.S. Army dare to put many Negroes on a line, if an army of black and white demonstrators would be there to face them, no, the troops might break and no one would know where—the loss was bitter on this night that the Black Militants pursuing their own revolution were dispersed in the black ghetto of Washington rather than here. The Blacks had their own army to form, the Black Left had more power over the White Left than over black people—besides, some instinct in the Black had them wary of the New Left's automatic acceptance of technology land (the New Left tended to think technology land was acceptable except for its management by corporation land; the Black Left now interested in discovering itself had unruly jungle intuitions that technology land and corporation land might be the same).
With Negroes or without, fraternization on the line continued. Draft cards continued to be burned—each one a flutter of anxiety in everyone's heart, a release of fire on wings. Contemplate the humiliation to a college student if he hates the war and keeps the card in his wallet—how it says to him each time he looks for an address: You are yellow, buddy, for you keep me. So the cards burned one by one through the night, each man sitting in his position on the steps, the plaza, or the Mall, with his own card burning inside him, his stomach a glut of elation and woe as each new card went up from the dark in flame, suddenly it is his own, he—wild revolutionary youth, conservative middle-class boy, keeper of draft cards—his schizophrenia is burning and the security of the future with it. He looks for a girl to kiss in reward.
Sex, fear, the lift of first courage, the lightness of freedom, the oncoming suffocations of dread, the wild swinging ache or the somnolent drift of the pot, the biting cold of the night, the Civil War glow of the campfire light on all those union jackets, hippies on the trail of Sergeant Pepper—the U.S. Army looking out on a field of fires heard demonstrators talking to them, crying, “Join us, Join us,” demonstrators talking in low voices, “Why do you stay in uniform? Do you like the helmet on your head, is that it? Do you like obeying officers you hate? Join us. We have everything. Look. We are free. We have pot, we have food we share, we have girls. Come over to us, and share our girls”—a generosity of Eskimoes and the New Middle Class which these soldiers of the working class and the small town would not be quick to comprehend—who gives his girl away, would be their question. And the answer—a fag! Yes, the hippies offered much, perhaps they offered too much.
The girls conducted their war. They had been walking in view of the soldiers, talking to the soldiers, standing in front of them, studying them, putting flowers in their barrels, smiling—some were gentle and sweet, true flower girls; others were bold and with the well-seasoned and high-spiced bitch air of fifty Harlem pickup lovers in a year, not saying how many whites—they unbuttoned their blouses, gave a real hint of cleavage, smiled in the soldier's eye, gave a devil laugh, then a bitch belly laugh at the impotence of the man's position in a uniform, helpless to reach out and take her. And the Marshals behind the soldiers, tense as police dogs, wheeling up and down the line, glaring at demonstrators, rapping their clubs against their hands, dying for their own precise kind of action.
Once in a while an arrest would be made. It seemed never to make much sense. A seated demonstrator might touch a soldier by accident, the Marshal would reach through the soldier's legs, grab the demonstrator, pull him through, another Marshal would join him, a quick beating, a move off to the waiting wagon or truck. All day, the arrests had made no sense. There had been in the beginning an obvious attempt to hold arrests down, then a wave of arrests when sds-Contingent took the corner of the plaza, then this long period from dark to midnight with random scattered meaningless arrests.
There was meaning in it. The deepest sort of technological meaning: the technique of avoiding martyrs in riots. The essence of that technique is to arrest at random. The arrested hero having done nothing in particular feels like a victim or a fool. Upon his release, his friends treat him like a hero. But he is the sort of hero who must end by disappointing them. That is part of the technical wisdom of random arrest. It also disrupts, since no preparation for self-protection can be made, no sense of slow immersion into the possibility of arrest is possible, and the growth of rumor is exaggerated—for random arrests seem always more brutal than more logical arrests. In fact they are more brutal.
One element of these arrests was however not random at all. A startling disproportion of women were arrested, and were beaten in ugly fashion in the act. Dagmar Wilson, the leader of Women Strike for Peace, was treated more brutally by the Marshals than any of the male notables. She was hardly alone. Over and over, eyewitness account after eyewitness account gives brutal deadening news of the ferocity with which Marshals and soldiers went to work on women. But let us move into these accounts.
Some time after midnight, the press was called into the Pentagon for a final press conference before going home. The Secretary of Defense had left, the television was gone. There was an hiatus in the coverage of the event. It was a moment which somebody in command had obviously anticipated. New columns appeared from the building. The soldiers who had been on the line were replaced. The new soldiers were veterans of Vietnam. Such men had been on the plaza since dark, but this detachment seemed specially trained, a fierce cry away from the more frightened reserves who had been first on the line in the afternoon, and had lost that confrontation of the two lines of eyes in the first hour. The strength gained by the demonstrators then, was now to be tested in quite another fire. What came to be known as the battle of The Wedge was here begun. Let us get news of it by an extract from an eyewitness account by Margie Stamberg in the Washington Free Press.
When the paratroopers with their M-14 rifles, bayonets, clubs, and stone faces appeared, the bull horns set up a call for reinforcements from those resting at the campfires below.
Note that the bullhorns seem to set up an immediate call. How palpable must have been the shift in mood.
A tight resistance of row upon row of people sitting with locked arms was formed. Then the squeeze began. We saw at first individuals in the front lines being dragged out behind the troop lines and carried away. Suddenly, the troops which had been in single rows in front of the crowd formed into a wedge on the right side. Their tactic apparently was to split the group in two and force them to move back. No explanation was given for the sudden action. Paddy wagons rolled up, soldiers with tear gas guns appeared among the troops, and from the mall behind, other troops began to form.
Slowly the wedge began to move in on people. With bayonets and rifle butts, they moved first on the girls in the front line, kicking them, jabbing at them again and again with the guns, busting their heads and arms to break the chain of locked arms. The crowd appealed to the paratroopers to back off, to join them, to just act human. They sang the “Star Spangled Banner” and other songs: but the troops at this point were non-men, the appeals were futile.
The pleas of SDS people on the bull horns to convince the group to pull back in the face of a tactically deadened situation went unheeded. And so we sat. Some individuals left, but most remained. To leave was to leave one's brothers and sisters to get clubbed, yet to passively remain in the locked chain was also to participate in the senseless brutality. The victory of before was forgotten. In the dark the paratroopers began to move.
As they clubbed the marked person, usually a girl, in the first row, and dragged her away, the ranks in back closed in tighter. The person in the row behind became the front, was subjected to blows and kicks, dragged away, and the troops went on to the third row. Then the fourth, the fifth, the sixth rank, and so on until the people were finally separated into two groups. One hundred people were methodically beaten and carried away to the paddy wagons.
The wedge beat through to the last line, and the resistance was broken. Those left, who had been locking arms, stood up and waited quietly to be taken to the paddy wagons which continued to arrive. No one was leaving now as thousands there prepared for arrest.
One cannot articulate the agony of those who sat and watched this go on slowly for hours amidst the songs, the pleas, the tears, and the impotent curses of “motherfucker” and “bastards!” from those who could not leave yet could not resist.
When the resistance had been broken, the brutality stopped, the crowd prepared for arrest, word came that McNamara had arrived at the Pentagon. When this was announced on the bull horns, the troops stopped attacking immediately. Sidney Peck of the National Mobilization Committee took the bull horn from SDS and begged the troops to stop until the person responsible within the Pentagon for the massacre order could be found for an explanation. Peck insisted we had been given a permit to remain on the steps which the troops were violating. This speech, to many of us, was a funeral oration. All during the day the legality or illegality had been superfluous; the permit, a petit-bourgeois hang-up for those who had come to confront the warmakers. We didn't want the brutality to stop BECAUSE we had a permit; if it was to stop it must stop because we had beaten them, or they had carried the last one of us away.
Let us have another account from the same newspaper. This one is by Thorne Dreyer.
The second phase of the demonstration was pretty much a bad scene. And I'm not sure why. For one thing, they kept changing the troops. Whenever we'd start really talking to the guys, they'd move them out. Maybe they finally brought in their “crack” troops. Lots of people left. It got dark and cold. But this is most important: There was a tactical vacuum. We were in a box.
Suddenly we were defensive and scared. We sang “We Are Not Afraid.” Earlier, we did not have to sing it. There was no communication with the troops now. We chanted, “Join Us!” and “We Love You” and it was meaningless rhetoric. People kept bringing more and more food and we gorged ourselves and that food became really obscene. We started bickering and began to sing “We Shall Overcome” and were right back in that liberal bag. There were a few people who were totally committed to getting their scalps torn open, and a few who thought it would be tactically best to leave, and a hell of a lot who were scared shitless, but just didn't know what to do. There were lots of young kids who had really been moved by the spirit of the thing and weren't about to leave if leaving meant a defeat. And at that point I guess it would have.
The cops began to get really brutal, moving into the group in a wedge and smashing heads with billy clubs. These beautiful little hippie chicks had tears streaming down their faces, but they weren't about to move. These kids were really brave. And I began to resent the “super-militants” who created so much pressure to stay. Because that was nothing but goddamn bourgeois politics. At this point we had moved from confrontation right back to symbolic protest.
The brutality by every eyewitness account was not insignificant, and was made doubly unattractive by its legalistic apparatus. The line of soldiers would stamp forward until they reached the seated demonstrators, then they would kick forward with their toes until the demonstrators were sitting on their feet (or legally speaking, now interfering with the soldiers). Then the Marshals would leap between their legs again and pull the demonstrator out of the line, he or she would then be beaten and taken away. It was a quiet rapt scene with muted curses, a spill in the dark of the most heated biles of the hottest patriotic hearts—to the Marshals and the soldiers, the enemy was finally there before them, all that Jew female legalistic stew of corruptions which would dirty the name of the nation and revile the grave of soldiers like themselves back in Vietnam, yes, the beatings went on, one by one generally of women, more women than men. Here is the most brutal description of a single beating by Harvey Mayes of the English Department at Hunter.
One soldier spilled the water from his canteen on the ground in order to add to the discomfort of the female demonstrator at his feet. She cursed him—understandably, I think—and shifted her body. She lost her balance and her shoulder hit the rifle at the soldier's side. He raised the rifle, and with its butt, came down hard on the girl's leg. The girl tried to move back but was not fast enough to avoid the billy-club of a soldier in the second row of troops. At least four times that soldier hit her with all his force, then as she lay covering her head with her arms, thrust his club swordlike between her hands into her face. Two more troops came up and began dragging the girl toward the Pentagon. She twisted her body so we could see her face. But there was no face there: All we saw were some raw skin and blood. We couldn't see even if she was crying—for her eyes had filled with the blood pouring down her head. She vomited, and that too was blood. Then they rushed her away.
One wonders at the logic. There is always a logic in repression, just as there is always a logic in the worst commercial. The logic is there for a reason—it will drive something into flesh.
The logic here speaks of the old misery of the professional soldier, centuries old. He is, at his most brutal, a man who managed to stay alive until the age of seven because there were men, at least his father, or his brothers, to keep him alive—his mother had drowned him in no oceans of love; his fear is therefore of the cruelty of women, he may never have another opportunity like this—to beat a woman without having to make love to her. So the Marshals went to work; so did those special soldiers saved for the hour when everyone but themselves and the Marshals was gone from the Pentagon. Now they could begin their beatings.
Yes, and they beat the women for another reason. To humiliate the demonstrators, to break them from their new resistance down to the old passive disobedience of the helpless sit-in waiting one's turn to be clubbed; they ground it into their faces that they sat there while their women were being taken off and no one of them or group of them dared to charge for all that hour. It is the worst hour at the Pentagon for the demonstrators—and the worst hour for the speakers on the bullhorn who quieted the militants who wanted to make some sort of charge. Yes, it was a difficult hour—the working class had plucked all stolen balls back. Great cheer. With rifles and clubs they had plucked them back. It is a large blemish on the demonstrators that they were supine in the wedge, but it is comprehensible. There is a dead nerveless area on the Left, comprised of the old sense of paralysis before the horror of the gas chamber. There are very few on the Left who do not live with the partial belief their own life someday will end in a such a way—perhaps that is why they are hung like a string of fish on the power of the public speech for all occasions. In a crowd listening to a speech, perhaps they are then farthest from the nightmare of retching up one's last salts in the incredible ballooning suffocations of the last gas. Perhaps it is better to die each public evening by such an inch. One wonders why no musicians were playing as the clubs came down—just motherly legalistic injunctions from the bullhorn; motherly! the clubs of the Marshals, the butts of the rifles of the soldiers came down with more force. Kill the mothers! All the while, rumors passed. A demonstrator was already dead they heard—then next that they were all to be taken away and beaten one by one. Now the rumors changed. At X hour, a charge would come down on them. They would be clubbed to death.
It was still possible to leave. It was possible every inch of that slow advance of the wedge for demonstrators to leave. But they sat there expecting to share the fate of the girls and the boys being beaten now. So it is not altogether shameful. If they did not defend their allies by action, they defended another ideal by their presence, by their refusal to flee. And the pot had deprived them of force. The Wedge had come on their slide down from elation into the long bad stoning of their collective head as mental connections begin to miss and reports of new small brain damage reach the home of the mind. Apathy. Depression. Then the battle of The Wedge.
They were shriven in the hours till dawn. Rumors went through the cold night and the 40° of darkest early morning that the charge would be coming or a new wedge. They were down to four hundred demonstrators, a hundredth of the force which had come to the Pentagon—they were out on the cold exaltation of having survived, of having remained—they were therefore tempted to stay and stay, to stay to the very end. They were now engaged in that spiritual test so painful to all—the rite of passage. Let us ruminate with them and contemplate the dawn.
The few hundred demonstrators still left in vigil on the stairs of the Pentagon in those dark hours after The Wedge and before the dawn were being exercised in all those nerves which lead to the moral root—a physical and spiritual transaction whose emotions are, at worst, so little agreeable as the passage of the dentist's drill toward the nerve canal of a tooth. It was bitterly cold, and they slept huddled together, beggared by discomfort, even occasional acts of petty viciousness. A sergeant went down the line at 5 A.M. pouring cold water from his canteen on the sleeping bodies.
Generally, however, there were few incidents. The Wedge had left no desire for more fight on either side. The Army had been guilty of illegal activity and knew it: the section of plaza they emptied during the wedge had clearly belonged by the terms of the agreement with the government to the area provided for demonstrators—so a few officers must now have been contemplating their actions nervously—the hippies and pacifists still remaining on the stairs could not have felt even an instant of security. In the early morning hours, rumor must have been a leaden dread, stories of what was certain to come next must have sunk into the heart—their journey into the dawn of Sunday was not routine. Cowardice lives in waves, in congealed layers, in caverns of the psyche, in treacheries of fear next to the boldest moves; it also lives encysted in all the firmest structures of the ego. How many of these demonstrators, certain at the beginning of the night by the firm conviction of their ego that they would not leave until morning, must have been obliged to pass through layers and dimensions and bursting cysts of cowardice they never knew to exist in themselves, as if each hour they remained extracted from them a new demand, a further extension of their moral resolve, another rung up the moral ladder. Yes, the passage through the night against every temptation to leave—the cold, the possibility of new, more brutal, and more overwhelming attacks, the boredom, the middle-class terror of excess (if one has done two or three good acts in a row, it is time to cash them in), the fear of moral vertigo (one courageous action resolutely following another without compromise and without cease must end in the whirlpool of death), yes, even the fear that if they remained through the night, they would be obliged to remain through the morning, the afternoon and the evening of the next night, and even then! would there be ever an end? Yes, the passage through the night brought every temptation to leave including the thundering schisms of muttered political argument in the dark—the proud advertisements of the new resistance had been ground back to the old masochistic tramping grounds of the sit-in—an argument which was undeniable, and could have prevailed, except if they left, and no one was at the Pentagon then but the soldiers through the night, well what unseen burning torch of which unknown but still palpably felt spirit might expire? No, this passage through the night was a rite of passage, and these disenchanted heirs of the Old Left, this rabble of American Vietcong and hippies and pacifists and whoever else was left were afloat on a voyage whose first note had been struck with the first sound of a trumpet blown the morning before. “Come here, come here come here,” the trumpet had said, and now eighteen hours later, in the false dawn, the echo of far greater rites of passage in American history, the light reflected from the radiance of greater more heroic hours may have come nonetheless to shine along the inner space and the caverns of the freaks, some hint of a glorious future may have hung in the air, some refrain from all the great American rites of passage when men and women manacled themselves to a lost and painful principle and survived a day, a night, a week, a month, a year, a celebration of Thanksgiving—the country had been founded on a rite of passage. Very few had not emigrated here without the echo of that rite, even if it were no more (and no less!) than eight days in the stink, bustle, fear, and propinquity of steerage on an ocean crossing (or the eighty days of dying on a slave ship), each generation of Americans had forged their own rite, in the forest of the Alleghenies and the Adirondacks, at Valley Forge, at New Orleans in 1812, with Rogers and Clark or at Sutter's Mill, at Gettysburg, the Alamo, the Klondike, the Argonne, Normandy, Pusan—the engagement at the Pentagon was a pale rite of passage next to these, and yet it was probably a true one, for it came to the spoiled children of a dead, de-animalized middle class who had chosen most freely, out of the incomprehensible mysteries of moral choice, to make an attack and then hold a testament before the most authoritative embodiment of the principle that America was right, America was might, America was the true religious war of Christ against the Communist. So it became a rite of passage for these tender drug-vitiated jargon-mired children, they endured through a night, a black dark night which began in joy, near foundered in terror, and dragged on through empty apathetic hours while glints of light came to each alone. Yet the rite of passage was invoked, the moral ladder was climbed, they were forever different in the morning than they had been before the night, which is the meaning of a rite of passage, one has voyaged through a channel of shipwreck and temptation, and so some of the vices carried from another nether world into life itself (on the day of one's birth) may have departed, or fled, or quit; some part of the man has been born again, and is better, just as some hardly so remarkable area of the soul may have been in some minuscule sweet fashion reborn on the crossing of the marchers over Arlington Memorial Bridge, for the worst of them and the most timid were moving nonetheless to a confrontation they could only fear, they were going to the land of the warmakers. Not so easy for the timid when all is said.
But of course this rite of passage was hardly to end as yet. The morning came; very cold, very quiet, unexciting. Demonstrators left, all but a token force. Were there even a few hundred? The others rushed to places for a few hours sleep, then returned. By ten in the morning, two thousand may have been back. The day was different. There was not much militancy now, but long speeches, different somehow from the speeches of the day before, because the listeners moved now on the currents of the night before and the bloodyings. Now and again draft cards were burned, and for a part of the day, Gary Rader, once a member of the Green Berets, gave a speech which was thought by many to be the best hour of them all.
Night was on. The demonstrators were entering the last few hours of their march on the Pentagon. They were tired, exceptionally tired, they felt vulnerable—their aggression, their ability even to defend themselves now used up by endless calls over the hours for more adrenalin; yes the mood was pacifistic, almost saintly, but very weak. In the night, they were all close to each other. Quietly. They were waiting. The walls of the Pentagon bulked large.
Fifteen minutes before midnight, a voice boomed out of a loudspeaker in the wall. To the demonstrators it sounded like the voice of the Pentagon. Big Brother had come to be heard.
“The demonstration in which you are participating,” said the voice, “ends at midnight. The two-day permit which was agreed to by leaders of the demonstration and GSA expires at that time. All demonstrators must depart from the Pentagon grounds at midnight.” A silence.
“All persons who wish to leave voluntarily can board buses on the Mall.” A pause. “Those demonstrators who do not leave voluntarily by midnight will be arrested and taken to a federal detention center. . . . All demonstrators are urged to abide by the permit.” So the government remained to the end what it had been from the beginning: one part legalistic, one part cooperative, and one part threatening—or is it rather—one part in the area of the non-negotiable?
There was a short silence, hardly time for the demonstrators to do more than reckon with the fact that another rung in the rite of passage had been presented. But again the Voice spoke out of the Pentagon wall. “I say again to you. The demonstration in which you are participating . . .” and the same speech was read to the same conclusion. Thirty-four demonstrators accepted the offer to leave.
Let us quote from the Washington Star. For once, a newspaper account seems to agree with eyewitness reports. One must, of course, as always, beware of adjectives and estimates of number. Adverbs are to be shunned.
During its last hour the demonstration seemed no menace to the helmeted legions still facing them across a single-strand rope barrier. The crowd was down to its last 200.
Repeatedly, almost pleadingly, the march's leaders at that hour had reminded the soldiers and the marshals—by loudspeaker—that arrests should be made non-violently to fulfill a supposed promise.
At 11:46 an amplified voice echoed across the helmeted troops and federal officers and out to the now-tense 200.
“The demonstration in which you are participating ends at midnight.”
“I say again to you. The demonstration in which . . .” and on to a second full reading.
“No,” Crowd Cries
This done, there was a moment of silence. Then, “No,” a muted chorus from the demonstrators. Then, more lustily, the chant: “Hell no, we won't go, hell no, we won't go.”
Almost immediately, 57 helmeted U.S. marshals filed out of the Pentagon, across the Mall, and behind the front line of M.P.s.
The crowd started singing, mournfully, “We Shall Overcome.” Most sat down, immediately in front of the first M.P.s. A futile attempt at “God Bless America,” then more “We Shall Overcome.”
And then again, from the loudspeakers: “Attention all demonstrators. The demonstration in which . . .” It was repeated twice then, with the added notice that “It is now 11:55 P.M.”
“God Bless America” issued from the protesting remnant, their number diminished by the 34 who had accepted the ride to freedom.
Second Bus Drives Off
The announcement came again, this time with the notice: “It is now 11:58 and a half P.M.” And then: “It is now 12 P.M.”
A minute passed, and the second “Freedom bus” drove off. There was some shuffling about at the east end of the marshals' line, but still no fulfillment of the arrest notice.
The closed vans, Occoquan-bound, began moving into position at two minutes after 12. And then the troops tightened around in a triangle, and the marshals moved in on the demonstrators, now singing “This Land Is My Land,” and then “Glory, Glory Hallelujah,” and finally—over and over—“We Shall Overcome.”
It was a curious last act. Almost conversational. Said a priest to a marshal: “Don't club that boy; this is non-violent.” And there was no clubbing. Said a bearded boy to a soldier: “I am going limp.” He did, and the soldier obligingly lifted him.
The arresting went so smoothly then that the vans could not be moved up fast enough to accept the prisoners.
After six vans, two panel trucks and that one unused “freedom bus” were loaded and driven off, it was over.
When the count was made, there proved to be one thousand arrests. It was not a small number; it was not an enormous number—it was certainly a respectable number to be arrested over thirty-two hours in protest of a war. Six hundred had charges pressed. The others were taken to the back of the Pentagon, photographed, and driven away in buses to be released on the street. Of the six hundred arrested, no felony charges for assault were brought in, indeed only a dozen were charged with assault, only two went to trial and both were acquitted.
Yes, the end seemed to have come, and the immediate beneficiary of the March could be nobody other than the President of the United States. Lyndon Johnson made a point to have his picture taken Saturday sitting at a table on the White House lawn with Hubert Humphrey, Dean Rusk, and Orville Freeman. The caption informed that he had spent the day in work. Headlines on Monday: “LBJ Hits Peaceniks.” He had sent a memorandum to Defense Secretary McNamara and Attorney General Clark. “I know that all Americans share my pride in the man in uniform and the civilian law enforcement personnel for their outstanding performance in the nation's capitol during the last two days. They performed with restraint, firmness, and professional skill. Their actions stand in sharp contrast to the irresponsible acts of violence and lawlessness by many of the demonstrators.”
The press was, in the aftermath, antagonistic to the March. Some measure of the condemnation and the abuse can be indicated by quoting Reston of the Times who was not immoderate in his reaction. Nor untypical.
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.
Many of the signs carried by a small number of the militants, and many of the lines in the theatrical performances put on by the hippies, are too obscene to print. In view of this underside of the protest, many officials here are surprised that there was not much more violence.
The rest of the stories went about that way.
Emphasis was put on every rock thrown, and a count was made of the windows broken. (There were, however, only a few.) But there was no specific mention of The Wedge. Indeed, stories quickly disappeared. No features nor follow-up a few days later. In six weeks when an attempt was made in New York to close down the draft induction centers, it seemed that public sentiment had turned sharply against resistance. The Negro riots had made the nation afraid of lawlessness. Lyndon Johnson stood ten percentage points higher in the popularity polls—he had ridden the wave of revulsion in America against demonstrators who spit in the face of U.S. troops—when it came to sensing new waves of public opinion, LBJ was the legendary surf-boarder of them all.
It probably did not matter. Ever since he had been in office, the popularity of LBJ had kept going up on the basis of his ability to ride every favorable wave, and had kept going down on the unwillingness of the war in Vietnam to fulfill the promises his administration was making. So his popularity would go up and down again. There would be many to hope it did not go up in the last week before election.
Probably it was in Occoquan and the jail in Washington, D.C. that the March ended. In the week following, prisoners who had chosen to remain, refused in many ways to cooperate, obstructed prison work, went on strikes. Some were put in solitary. A group from the Quaker Farm in Voluntown, Connecticut, practiced non-cooperation in prison. Among them were veterans of a sleep-in of twenty pacifists at the Pentagon in the spring before. Now, led by Gary Rader, Erica Enzer, Irene Johnson, and Suzanne Moore, some of them refused to eat or drink and were fed intravenously. Several men at the D.C. jail would not wear prison clothing. Stripped of their own, naked, they were thrown in the Hole. There they lived in cells so small that not all could lie down at once to sleep. For a day they lay naked on the floor, for many days naked with blankets and mattress on the floor. For many days they did not eat nor drink water. Dehydration brought them near to madness.
Here was the last of the rite of passage, “the chinook salmon . . . nosing up the impossible stone,” here was the thin source of the stream—these naked Quakers on the cold floor of a dark isolation cell in D.C. jail, wandering down the hours in the fever of dehydration, the cells of the brain contracting to the crystals of their thought, essence of one thought so close to the essence of another—all separations of water gone—that madness is near, madness can now be no more than the acceleration of thought.
Did they pray, these Quakers, for forgiveness of the nation? Did they pray with tears in their eyes in those blind cells with visions of a long column of Vietnamese dead, Vietnamese walking a column of flames, eyes on fire, nose on fire, mouth speaking flame, did they pray, “O Lord, forgive our people for they do not know, O Lord, find a little forgiveness for America in the puny reaches of our small suffering, O Lord, let these hours count on the scale as some small penance for the sins of the nation, let this great nation crying in the flame of its own gangrene be absolved for one tithe of its great sins by the penance of these minutes. Oh Lord, bring more suffering upon me that the sins of our soldiers in Vietnam be not utterly unforsoldiers in Vietnam be not utterly unforgiven—they are too young to be damned forever.”
The prayers are as Catholic as they are Quaker, and no one will know if they were ever made, for the men who might have made them were perhaps too far out on fever and shivering and thirst to recollect, and there are places no history can reach. But if the end of the March took place in the isolation in which these last pacifists suffered naked in freezing cells, and gave up prayers for penance, then who was to say they were not saints? And who to say that the sins of America were not by their witness a tithe remitted?
Whole crisis of Christianity in America that the military heroes were on one side, and the unnamed saints on the other! Let the bugle blow. The death of America rides in on the smog. America—the land where a new kind of man was born from the idea that God was present in every man not only as compassion but as power, and so the country belonged to the people; for the will of the people—if the locks of their life could be given the art to turn—was then the will of God. Great and dangerous idea! If the locks did not turn, then the will of the people was the will of the Devil. Who by now could know where was what? Liars controlled the locks.
Brood on that country who expresses our will. She is America, once a beauty of magnificence unparalleled, now a beauty with a leprous skin. She is heavy with child—no one knows if legitimate—and languishes in a dungeon whose walls are never seen. Now the first contractions of her fearsome labor begin—it will go on: no doctor exists to tell the hour. It is only known that false labor is not likely on her now, no, she will probably give birth, and to what?—the most fearsome totalitarianism the world has ever known? Or can she, poor giant, tormented lovely girl, deliver a babe of a new world brave and tender, artful and wild? Brood on that country who expresses our will.
* From the title poem by Robert Lowell in Near the Ocean.