Several weeks after the demonstrations in Washington, I am still trying to sort out my impressions of a week whose quality is difficult to capture or express. Perhaps some personal reflections may be useful to others who share my instinctive distaste for activism, but who find themselves edging toward an unwanted but almost inevitable crisis.
For many of the participants, the Washington demonstrations symbolized the transition “from dissent to resistance.” I will return to this slogan and its meaning, but I want to make clear at the outset that I do feel it to be not only accurate with respect to the mood of the demonstrations, but, properly interpreted, appropriate to the present state of protest against the war. There is an irresistable dynamics to such protest. One may begin by writing articles and giving speeches about the war, by helping, in many ways, to create an atmosphere of concern and outrage. A courageous few will turn to direct action, refusing to take their place alongside the “good Germans” we have all learned to despise. Some will be forced to this decision when they are called up for military service. The dissenting Senators, writers, and professors will watch as young men refuse to serve in the Armed Forces, in a war that they detest. What then? Can those who write and speak against the war take refuge in the fact that they have not urged or encouraged draft resistance, but have merely helped to develop a climate of opinion in which any decent person will want to refuse to take part in a miserable war? It’s a very thin line. Nor is it very easy to watch from a position of safety while others are forced to take a grim and painful step. The fact is that most of the 1000 draft cards turned in to the Justice Department on October 20th came from men who can escape military service, but who insisted on sharing the fate of those who are less privileged. In such ways the circle of resistance widens. Quite apart from this, no one can fail to see that to the extent that he restricts his protest, to the extent that he rejects actions that are open to him, he accepts complicity in what the Government does. Some will act on this realization, posing sharply a moral issue that no person of conscience can evade.
On October 16th on the Boston Common I listened as Howard Zinn explained why he felt ashamed to be an American. I watched as several hundred young men, some of them my students, made a terrible decision which no young person should have to face: to sever their connection with the Selective Service System. The week ended, the following Monday, with a quiet discussion in Cambridge in which I heard estimates of the nuclear megatonnage that would be necessary to “take out” North Vietnam (“some will find this shocking, but…”; “no civilian in the Government is suggesting this, to my knowledge…”; “let’s not use emotional words like ‘destruction’ “; etc.), and listened to a leading expert on Soviet affairs who explained how the men in the Kremlin are watching very carefully to determine whether wars of national liberation can succeed—if so, they will support them all over the world. (Try pointing out to such an expert that on these assumptions, if the men in the Kremlin are rational, they will surely support dozens of such wars right now, since at a small cost they can confound the American military and tear our society to shreds—you will be told that you don’t understand the Russian soul.)
THE WEEKEND of the Peace Demonstrations in Washington left impressions that are vivid and intense, but unclear to me in their implications. The dominant memory is of the scene itself, of tens of thousands of young people surrounding what they believe to be—I must add that I agree—the most hideous institution on this earth, and demanding that it stop imposing misery and destruction. Tens of thousands of young people. This I find hard to comprehend. It is pitiful but true that by an overwhelming margin it is the young who are crying out in horror at what we all see happening, the young who are being beaten when they stand their ground, and the young who have to decide whether to accept jail or exile, or to fight in a hideous war. They have to face this decision alone, or almost alone. We should ask ourselves why this is so.
Why, for example, does Sen. Mansfield feel “ashamed for the image they have portrayed of this country,” and not feel ashamed for the image of this country portrayed by the institution these young people were confronting, an institution directed by a sane and mild and eminently reasonable man who can testify calmly before Congress that the amount of ordnance expended in Vietnam has surpassed the total expended in Germany and Italy in World War II? Why is it that Senator Mansfield can speak in ringing phrases about those who are not living up to our commitment to “a government of laws”—referring to a small group of demonstrators, not to the ninety-odd responsible men on the Senate floor who are watching, with full knowledge, as the State they serve clearly, flagrantly violates the explicit provisions of the UN Charter, the supreme law of the land? He knows quite well that prior to our invasion of Vietnam there was no armed attack against any State. It was Senator Mansfield, after all, who informed us that “when the sharp increase in the American military effort began in early 1965, it was estimated that only about 400 North Vietnamese soldiers were among the enemy forces in the South which totalled 140,000 at that time”; and it is the Mansfield Report from which we learn that at that time there were 34,000 American soldiers already in South Vietnam, in violation of our “solemn commitment” at Geneva in 1954.
The point should be pursued. After the first International Days of Protest in October, 1965, Senator Mansfield criticized the “sense of utter irresponsibility” shown by the demonstrators. He had nothing to say then, nor has he since, about the “sense of utter irresponsibility” shown by Senator Mansfield and others who stand by quietly and vote appropriations as the cities and villages of North Vietnam are demolished, as millions of refugees in the South are driven from their homes by American bombardment. He has nothing to say about the moral standards or the respect for international law of those who have permitted this tragedy.
I speak of Senator Mansfield precisely because he is not a breast-beating superpatriot who wants America to rule the world, but is rather an American intellectual in the best sense, a scholarly and reasonable man—the kind of man who is the terror of our age. Perhaps this is merely a personal reaction, but when I look at what is happening to our country, what I find most terrifying is not Curtis LeMay, with his cheerful suggestion that we bomb everybody back into the stone age, but rather the calm disquisitions of the political scientists on just how much force will be necessary to achieve our ends, or just what form of government will be acceptable to us in Vietnam. What I find terrifying is the detachment and equanimity with which we view and discuss an unbearable tragedy. We all know that if Russia or China were guilty of what we have done in Vietnam, we would be exploding with moral indignation at these monstrous crimes.
THERE WAS, I think, a serious miscalculation in the planning of the Washington demonstrations. It was expected that the march to the Pentagon would be followed by a number of speeches, and that those who were committed to civil disobedience would then separate themselves from the crowd and go to the Pentagon, a few hundred yards away across an open field. I had decided not to take part in civil disobedience, and I do not know in detail what had been planned. As everyone must realize, it is very hard to distinguish rationalization from rationality in such matters. I felt, however, that the first large-scale acts of civil disobedience should be more specifically defined, more clearly in support of those who are refusing to serve in Vietnam, on whom the real burden of dissent must inevitably fall. While appreciating the point of view of those who wished to express their hatred of the war in a more explicit way, I was not convinced that civil disobedience at the Pentagon would be either meaningful or effective.
In any event, what actually happened was rather different from what anyone had anticipated. A few thousand people gathered for the speeches, but the mass of marchers went straight on to the Pentagon, some because they were committed to direct action, many because they were simply swept along. From the speakers’ platform where I stood it was difficult to determine just what was taking place at the Pentagon. All we could see was the surging of the crowd. From second-hand reports, I understand that the marchers walked through and around the front line of troops and took up a position, which they maintained, on the steps of the Pentagon. It soon became obvious that it was wrong for the few organizers of the march and the mostly middle-aged group that had gathered near them to remain at the speakers’ platform, while the demonstrators themselves, most of them quite young, were at the Pentagon. (I recall seeing near the platform Robert Lowell, Dwight Macdonald, Msgr. Rice, Sidney Lens, Benjamin Spock and his wife, Dagmar Wilson, Donald Kalish.) David Dellinger suggested that we try to approach the Pentagon. We found a place not yet blocked by the demonstrators, and walked up to the line of troops standing a few feet from the building. Dellinger suggested that those of us who had not yet spoken at the rally talk directly to the soldiers through a small portable sound system. From this point on my impressions are rather fragmentary. Msgr. Rice spoke, and I followed. As I was speaking, the line of soldiers advanced, moving past me—a rather odd experience. I don’t recall just what I was saying. The gist was, I suppose, that we were there because we didn’t want the soldiers to kill and be killed, but I do remember feeling that the way I was putting it seemed silly and irrelevant.
The advancing line of soldiers had partially scattered the small group that had come with Dellinger. Those of us who had been left behind the line of soldiers regrouped, and Dr. Spock began to speak. Almost at once, another line of soldiers emerged from somewhere, this time in a tightly massed formation, rifles in hand, and moved slowly forward. We sat down. As I mentioned earlier, I had no intention of taking part in any act of civil disobedience, until that moment. But when that grotesque organism began slowly advancing—more grotesque because its cells were recognizable human beings—it became obvious that one could not permit that thing to dictate what one was going to do. I was arrested at that point by a Federal Marshal, presumably for obstructing the soldiers. I should add that the soldiers, so far as I could see (which was not very far), seemed rather unhappy about the whole matter, and were being about as gentle as one can be when ordered (I presume this was the order) to kick and club passive, quiet people who refused to move. The Federal Marshals, predictably, were very different. They reminded me of the police officers I had seen in a Jackson. Mississippi jail several summers ago, who had laughed when an old man showed us a bloody home-made bandage on his leg and tried to describe to us how he had been beaten by the police. In Washington, the ones who got the worst of it at the hands of the Marshals were the young boys and girls, particularly boys with long hair. Nothing seemed to bring out the Marshals’ sadism more than the sight of a boy with long hair. Yet, although I witnessed some acts of violence by the Marshals, their behavior largely seemed to range between indifference and petty nastiness. For example, we were kept in a police van for an hour or two with the doors closed, and only a few air holes for ventilation—one can’t be too careful with such ferocious criminal types.