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Washington After Dark

Washington, November 13

…non-believers in search of God.”


The March against Death on November 13 could hardly have meant as much to some of us who are older if the war were not by now so desperate a matter as to drive out of us all the habits by which we used to calculate real power. It has left us nothing to offer but the sacrifice of our sense of irony, no way to act, so little else being believable, except from belief in the iron force of weakness. For us, then, this was a libation by agnostics.

There was a terribly earnest commitment to decorum, not to the way the thing looked but to the way it must be done. You come by now upon an unexpected and unfamiliar distaste in yourself for mockery. An advertisement from your new comrades, the businessmen, begins “Those impudent snobs are about to do it again”; you are embarrassed to read it and to find Doyle, Dane and Bernbach so out of touch with the opposition’s recognition of how precious its dignity is. The struggle that is ahead of us is for the grace not to be clever.

The gear for this voyage was a candle, a strip of cardboard lettered “Stephen Solnick, California,” and a small multilithed rectangle saying “Keep Protest Peaceful” for pinning to the lapel. Normally this last item of issue ought slightly to offend; with the years, you tend to expect good behavior in yourself and to leave off preaching it to others; but now it seemed a proper insignia, a further libation. There are no ropes of power visible; we are all compelled to be Quakers.

But the walk reminded us of how out of the habit of praying we are. There was the loneliness, between the duty to implore and the long-learned inhibition against imploring; around the quiet of this march, there went on the reiteration of how noisy the silent majority is, with the cough of its helicopters, the intrusive insinuation of its traffic. There was the feeling that all who walk are us and all who ride are them. The pleasurable distraction of thinking how unworthy you are allowed Stephen Solnick’s placard to blow forgotten over the shoulder; it was recovered with the understanding that the main job must from now on be to carry it like a chalice. What it meant does not seem quite so simple to say. It is not all that easy to be honorable when speaking the name of a dead soldier who is a stranger; did the death of Stephen Solnick, so senseless to us, seem also senseless to him? We did not know; all that we can say with assurance that we have a right to carry was his dignity.

For the young the Quaker way was easier. They are ready for gestures, while we have to work hard to unlearn tactics, being salesmen trying to reform. Some of us may rise to carrying the dignity of each dead name in our custody; they could carry the person. Some of us could only mumble the name as we passed the White House; they could shout it most of the time, being able to feel the anger of dying young. To see the girls with the names of these unknown strangers around their necks was to think of the sweet, melancholy sharing of tombs in Verona. They would pause with painstaking solicitude for their duty to traffic; their candles would go out and they would light them, a broken procession, never uniform, the thin and fragile embodiment of the iron force of weakness.

I will not give you a permit to parade because we cannot shoot people running across the White House lawn,” Deputy Attorney-General Richard Kleindienst had told the leaders of the New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam early on. How little we know about each other in America; the armed horde of the Deputy Attorney General’s night thoughts had come to the White House at last, and it carried no sword and no shield except this reproach.

The chalice deposited, there was the walk away from the drums and the return to Vermont Avenue and the quarrel of the coteries. The movement occupies only four stories of 1029 Vermont Avenue, but it seems to fill all twelve, obscuring without evicting the dentists and the travel agents who are its fellow tenants. It is possible to think of the war as going on and on until the only two enterprises left in the country are defense and peace and the only consequential buildings 1029 Vermont Avenue and the Pentagon.

And to pass from the Moratorium on the eighth floor to the New Mobilization on the tenth is rather like going to the Pentagon, and traveling from the Air Force to the Navy and being distracted by the spite between the branches into forgetting that they unite in the face of any common enemy. As in the Pentagon, the conversation here is mostly about the spite.

The Moratorium’s fixed distrust of the New Mobilization was, first of all, a case of youth restraining reckless middle age. The Moratorium was responsible for the October 15th demonstrations; then it awoke to find, quite by coincidence, that the New Mobilization planned its own demonstration on November 15. The Moratorium can safely if not precisely be thought of as a fraternity of graduates from the 1968 McCarthy campaign, in company with a few displaced persons from Senator Robert Kennedy’s household.

Their political experience has left them with attitudes by no means discreditable but nonetheless inhibiting to the spirit of chance. They have the approval of their elders which, once earned, is something the young casually forfeit. They are respected by politicians for the only achievement any politician respects: they have won primaries. They are also trusted because they are identified in every candidate’s mind as the young who come not to quarrel but to serve the campaign. Beyond all that, they have a pride in themselves which, if exaggerated, is certainly understandable; not everyone can remember himself as an instrument in a rebellion which coincided with the overturn of a president of the United States. It may or may not be a lesson of maturity that revolutions happen more from the collapse of the challenged than the force of the challengers; but the leaders of the Moratorium, granted their history, can be excused for slight arrogance about their techniques.

The New Mobilization has no association with any such memory of electoral success, however illusory. It is a confederation of elements ranging from the American Friends Service Committee to the more central reaches of Marxism-Leninism. If its members have anything in common, it is in recognizing themselves as the common legatees of the late A.J. Muste, of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who managed to be a considerable underground force in American life without ever having won a primary. It is ridiculous to blame the leaders of the Moratorium for not having known A.J. Muste, since he would never have thought it their duty, not having had enough vanity to be concerned either with approval or appreciation. Still it is a burden to have to deal with a memory, so unfamiliar to them and so vivid to his heirs.

Muste’s imprint on the New Mobilization is its strongest cast; it explains why New Mobe admits Communists to its councils, it having been a principle that one collaborates with Communists not because they bring any useful power with them but because America could hardly have ended where it has in Asia if we had not first separated Communists in our minds from the company of persons capable of ordinary human concerns. It was also the stamp of A.J. Muste that the New Mobe should baldly call for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam when the Moratorium had spoken only of peace, compelling as to need but indefinite as to terms.

The Moratorium might not have been so troubled by these differences if its alarms about them had been shared by its constituency; but the Department of Justice and the mass of the peace party seem unitedly to have accepted November 15 as no more than an extension of October 15. There do come moments in agitational politics—and very useful they can be for the education of persons who overvalue political technique—when what seem substantial differences to the aware are inconsequential nuances to everyone else; and this may have been one of them. By Saturday, as many persons—probably pretty much the same ones—would be marching in the cause of Bobby Seale as had in the cause of John V. Lindsay a month before.

Yet the difference was significant; and it ought not to be thought about before it has been noticed that it is in no obvious way a difference in morals. There is as much personal “commitment” among the Moratorium’s leaders as there is among the New Mobe’s. One of the Moratorium’s four coordinators is a member of the Resistance awaiting his jail confinement; Sidney Lens, the Nestor of the New Mobe, is a business agent for the Chicago Building Service Union, a labor skate then who has resisted becoming a labor faker, which, while a considerable achievement by the prevailing morality, is hardly to be accorded a higher moral rank than a prison term.

The important difference is in capital risk: the Moratorium was losing its Congressmen, a peril to which the Mobilization was excusably insensitive because its leaders had been struggling along for so long with no Congressmen to lose. Sixty-five members of the House had endorsed the October 15 Moratorium; in the end only one endorsed the Mobilization, and the one was Allard Lowenstein of New York who, being closer to the movement than any other Congressman, was more conspicuous for the agony and calculation that preceded his choice and got less credit than he may deserve for finally making it.

What was assumed to be the stridency of the Mobe and was decried as its toleration of the Communists got generally blamed for these defections; and the Moratorium shared in that assessment. Having been too confused with the Mobe to hope for separate identification in the public mind, it took solace in private jaundice about the relationship: “This is a chain of extortion,” one of its leaders says. “The New Mobe blackmails us by saying that if we don’t go along, its left wing will do something crazy and we blackmail the Senators by calling them up and saying that if some of them don’t come and speak, the extremists will just take over and disgrace us all.”

But the blame for those strains was not so much in the New Mobe as it was in a city where it is illusory to hope to hold Congressmen steady in opposition to the course of any President. The New Mobe had offended by choosing Washington, while the Moratorium had spread its crowds over various cities; Washington has a bi-partisan shiver of anxiety when it sees large crowds debouching in its streets unless they are wearing Boy Scout uniforms.

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