Friday, February 04, 2011

"No Vietcong Ever Called Me Nigger": Celebrities Against the Vietnam War and The March on the Pentagon

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story. In this passage, I describe the events surrounding the March on the Pentagon and how public figures like boxer Muhammad Ali brought increased attention to the anti-war movement of the mid- and late-1960s .

That long-time leftist figures like Beat poet Allen Ginsberg opposed the war surprised no one. Ginsberg participated in the mass protest at the Army Terminal in Oakland, California, October 15, 1965 in which members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang tore down signs, and beat protestors they called “communists.” Ginsberg, Ken Kesey (the author of the novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest") and others pleaded with Angels leader Sonny Barger to not disrupt the next day’s protests, and they spent the night taking LSD. There was no trouble with the Angels at the next day’s protest.

The public reacted with greater surprise when Dr. Benjamin Spock, the author of the 1946 bestseller "Baby and Child Care," became a peace activist in the early 1960s, joining the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, which opposed the use and spread of nuclear weapons. In 1967 he signed “A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority,” a document that argued that, “the war is unconstitutional and illegal. Congress has not declared a war as required by the Constitution.”

The manifesto contended that because the war violated American constitutional law and human decency, “every free man has a legal right and a moral duty to exert every effort to end this war, to avoid collusion with it, and to encourage others to do the same.” Spock and other signatories such as the Rev. William Sloane Coffin encouraged young men to not cooperate with military conscription by refusing to turn in their draft registration cards, to claim conscientious objector status in order to avoid combat duty, and urged soldiers in Vietnam to refuse to follow “illegal and immoral orders.”

At an October 1967 protest in Boston, more than 1,000 war resisters handed over their draft notices to Coffin, who later presented the documents to the Department of Justice. (Some of the cards turned out later to be blank sheets of paper.) In 1968, the Justice Department secured the indictment of Coffin, Spock, the philosopher Marcus Raskin, author Mitchell Goodman, and graduate student/activist Michael Ferber for aiding and abetting others to violate the Selective Service Act. An appeals court overturned Spock and Ferber’s convictions and ordered new trials for Coffin and Goodman in 1969. The Justice Department then opted to drop the charges against the two remaining defendants.

The boxer Muhammad Ali became the most famous war dissenter not just in the United States, but the world. Ali had first gained fame as Cassius Clay, the brash young boxer who claimed a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Rome in 1960. In a culture that expected deference even from African American celebrities, Clay taunted his future opponents in rhyme, proclaiming,“I am the greatest!” and changing his name upon his conversion to Islam by the radical black minister Malcolm X.

In 1967, he refused induction after being drafted, declaring, “I ain't got no quarrel with the Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me Nigger.” Ali went further, questioning the justice of the war. “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”

The federal government prosecuted him for draft dodging, and a jury convicted him. He stayed out of prison while lawyers appealed, but all of the major boxing commissions stripped him of his titles and banned him from fighting. He was not allowed to travel and instead, he earned a living from speaking fees. Ali lectured at Harvard and other universities where anti-war sentiment grew the strongest. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction on June 28, 1971. In the 1970s, Ali earned his titles back in the ring.

ARMIES IN THE NIGHT

The anti-war movement during President Lyndon Johnson's administration era reached a crescendo in 1967. A new draft policy launched that year ended the deferments granted for postgraduate education. Aimed at making the controversial conscription program fairer to working class constituents, this policy frightened and radicalized the previously apathetic middle class and affluent white students who enrolled in graduate school programs. A new contingent of young people suddenly felt they had a personal stake in ending the war.

That spring, the National Mobilization Committee Against the War, known by members as “The Mobe” and made up of pacifists, leftist radicals, and more conventional liberals, staged anti-war events in New York and San Francisco. Convergence developed between the protest movement and the more apolitical hippie counterculture, which had drawn thousands of young people that summer to the Golden Gate city to celebrate what was optimistically dubbed “The Summer of Love.” Momentum steadily built toward the year’s climax, the March on the Pentagon on October 21.

By the time 70,000 protestors, later described by the novelist Norman Mailer as the “armies of the night,” gathered in Washington, 13,000 Americans had died in the war. Inspired by the humor and creativity they had seen among the West Coast hippies, two veteran civil rights and anti-war protestors and leaders of the tiny “Youth International Party” (the “Yippies”), Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, attracted press attention announcing that marchers would “exorcise the Pentagon.” They said this would cause the military headquarters to levitate and spin, and they told entertained reporters that this would drive out the building’s “evil spirits.”

The rally opened at a cultural touchstone, the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King, Jr., had delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” four years earlier. About 100,000 showed up for the anti-war march. Spock, Mailer and the poet Robert Lowell spoke against American militarism to a colorful audience that included Hoffman sporting peace beads and an Uncle Sam hat. The contrast with the short hair and the suits and ties that characterized the attire favored at the 1963 March on Washington could not have been more striking.

Looking at his audience, Mailer thought of the flamboyant costumes donned by the rock band the Beatles for the cover photo on their landmark 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the biggest hit on the radio that summer. These “legions of Sgt. Pepper’s Band,” Mailer wrote in his account of the event, The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel/The Novel as History, “assembled from all the intersections between history and the comic books, between legend and television, the Biblical archetypes and the movies.”

The largely white anti-war protestors differed from King’s protestors beyond their clothing. If King preferred a dignified movement that aimed at persuasion and moral force, the March on the Pentagon made clear the late–’60s trend toward outrageous street theater, sarcasm and confrontation. Popular chants – such as “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh/The NLF is gonna win” -- supported the North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces still seen as the enemy by many in middle America. One protest sign cruelly mocked a president many liberals still supported: “LBJ, Pull Out Now, Like Your Father Should Have Done” while other protestors rhythmically asked the Commander in Chief, “Hey, hey, LBJ/How many kids did you kill today?”

The protestors moved from the Lincoln Memorial to the Pentagon. Some protestors later claimed to urinate on the side of the Pentagon complex while some threw rocks at the phalanx of federal marshals, soldiers and National Guardsmen who ringed the complex. Other protestors hurled rocks at the office windows. As he nervously watched from his office window, McNamara insisted that none of the 3,000 troops and 1,800 Guardsmen load their rifles without his authorization.

Some protestors placed flowers in the barrels of soldiers’ M-14 rifles. Picketers pushed back against the defensive perimeter, with about 3,000 attempting to break through police lines. A small group eventually succeeding in entering the Pentagon, provoking nervous and angry building security to rough up the intruders. Eventually, authorities arrested 681, mostly for charges ranging from disorderly conduct to breaking police lines.

At one point, police fired tear gas canisters. "People became frightened," recalled Marcus Raskin, one of the speakers that day. "They began running every which way. At that moment, it turned into something else. A sense of chaos takes over." Raskin and the other protestors had a surprisingly sympathetic audience in one of the Pentagon offices.

Though he continued to publicly support the war and predict its victorious outcome, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara had concluded that Vietnam was hopeless from a military standpoint. McNamara’s son Craig had turned against the war and had become a peace activist who pinned a Vietcong flag on his bedroom wall. Robert McNamara was in the process of suggesting to the president gradual withdrawal from the war. Watching the March on the Pentagon, McNamara felt nostalgia for the civil rights activists of earlier days. “I could not but help but think that had the protestors been more disciplined – Gandhi-like – they could have achieved their objective of shutting us down,” McNamara said later.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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