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.

And then President Nixon’s November 3rd speech has changed the balance of the mail; the Congressmen feel that the public wants him given a chance. There are two prevailing causes of alarm in Washington: that the left will burn and sack the city and that the right will rise up and vote out the liberals. The latter is always the livelier cause for disturbance. Lowenstein finds that those colleagues who not long ago were taking comfort from him as a roadmark for how far they could go without destroying themselves have now drawn all the way back. It can be for them not a joke but a horrid portent when they hear that Henry Kissinger has declared that the president will search and destroy every one even of the endorsers of the October 15 Moratorium. Now Lowenstein certainly heard talk of that sort from Congressmen when he solicited them with so little success to the resistance to President Johnson two years ago, the conviction of a President’s hold on the patriotic instincts of his citizens being a staple of those corridors. But Lowenstein does not, of course, respond now as he did then. These are his colleagues now and he would feel inhuman if he did not consider himself responsible for their security; and if he abstains from joining them in flight, he shares their estimate of the future tenor of affairs.

I believe,” Lowenstein says, “that Nixon will withdraw a few more troops and that people will believe he is trying to end the war, and that the left, knowing that it sees what no one else sees, will grow increasingly strident and the kids will break loose and the campuses will blow up and then Mitchell and Agnew will say that Hanoi was ready to negotiate but that the left had encouraged them to resist and we can do nothing else now except stop withdrawing. Then we will be hopelessly polarized over the wrong issues.”

Now this is not an analysis that can with much confidence be assayed, cast into the future as it is. But as a general proposition all predictions of apocalypse ought to be treated with suspicion, especially by the man who utters them because his is the special risk of being made immobile by thinking too much about them. You respect Allard Lowenstein and are distressed to see him unhappy; still you wonder whether he might not be happier if he could only break free from that tradition established in the Forties that no politician who attacks the right can be trusted unless he also blames the left. It is common sense to notice that the times are rather too critical for indulgence in revolutionary adventurism. But it is also common sense to recognize that the times are also too critical to indulge the dismissal of persons only for the label they bear. The Left did not get us into Vietnam and the Left will not be responsible for keeping us there; and a movement which accepts Averell Harriman can hardly spend its time usefully with worries about accepting Fred Halstead of the Socialist Workers Party.

You ought to remember,” says Vinnie McGee, who is close both to the Moratorium and the Catholic resistance, “that on the one side there are the McCarthy-Kennedy alumni, who are still running a political campaign only with Peace as the candidate now, and on the other these other people whom they have difficulty trusting, because they don’t know each other.”

Even though this is an off-year for any candidate, the Moratorium retains its pride in its electoral techniques, its assurance that politics is above all an orderly process, with a task for every volunteer, with a file card for every voter.

Do you know what Mobe is?” Arlene Popkins asks from the earned hauteur of the tradition of the disciplined companies in New Hampshire. “It is four people over sixty and two million kids.”

They don’t know what they are doing,” says Adam Walinsky, from the hauteur of the heartbreak of the years with Robert Kennedy. “They announced that they would start the March against Death some place near Arlington Cemetery. They picked an island where there’s no access, where you can’t even put in telephones. They didn’t even go out and look; some Trotskyite picked it from the map. I don’t know what would have happened if thirty-five of our kids hadn’t come in, without complaining, and just gone to work on the logistics.” The Mobe had not, he clinched his point, even thought about toilets.

Logistics,” says Cora Weiss of the Women’s Strike for Peace. “Logistics are the red-baiting of the Sixties.”

It seems finally useless to argue against the Moratorium’s contempt for the Old Left. How, after all, can any group expect to be taken seriously which has successively failed to win the intellectual respect of James F. Byrnes, Averell Harriman, John Foster Dulles, Dean Rusk, and Walt Whitman Rostow? New Mobe gets no credit just for enduring; upstairs in the Mobe office, Sidney Peck arose and announced as though in the normal course of events that if we don’t find $4000 in one half an hour they’ll cut off all the phones on the fourth floor, and then proceeded about the room, taking $80 from this one and $30 from that one.

We tuned the fork,” Sidney Lens was saying, “and they came. If we strike the chord, they come. If we don’t, they don’t. We had our Counter-Inaugural and nobody came and that was all right. We called this and they all came. We struck their chord. That’s all. There has been a tidal change. Could Debs have drawn this crowd? We are where our ideas have never been in all the history of this country. On Sunday we’re going to meet and talk about the new party.”

How can anyone—Congressmen who have survived, the young who have won primaries—be expected to take seriously a movement whose leaders will thus call up spirits from the vasty deep and, when they do not come, just shrug their shoulders and then, after a while, call again and, when they do come, announce that, the requisite interest having manifested itself, tomorrow there will be a discussion of the new party?

No reasonable analyst could, I suppose; and yet, even across the gulf that image conjures up, more people call to each other than they themselves would imagine. Mobe is a most curious institution; to notice an instance, it seems possible for the editorial board of The Guardian to constitute itself an affiliate and then to sit on the steering committee as co-equal with the American Friends Service Committee, which has an ancient tradition and a substantial treasury, or the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which has at least an ancient tradition. The mischiefs inherent in this openness to free play were made regular subjects for sport in the Moratorium office on the Eighth Floor; and yet from laughing at the spectacle of four hours spent debating credentials they failed to notice that the recognition of their duty to be serious came most conspicuously and perhaps most suggestively from the very persons who had been cited by the columnists as reasons for Mobe to be embarrassed.

It was Terence Hallinan, not all that far grown out of the W. E. B. Dubois Club, who said that the radicals had fouled up the peace movement for years now and that the time had come to give it to the moderates. Arnold Johnson, national organizer of the Communist Party, is observed twinkling benignly, the peace symbol in his lapel. “The Left,” says Al Lowenstein, “is smart enough for the time being to know that it must conceal itself.” Can we really believe that things are all this simple and this sinister? “Arnold Johnson said that he had told Gus Hall not to come down and be seen and embarrass us,” Sidney Lens says amusedly. “I don’t know why he felt that way. I’ll sort of miss Gus.” Perhaps all this is deception, and yet is it not possible that, like so many of us, Arnold Johnson has come to feel that nothing counts any longer except making an end to it and that if his being inconspicuous can help to make an end to it—one more libation perhaps—it is a sacred duty to be inconspicuous. Or are we ever to be free from looking at the national organizer of the Communist Party and seeing not a person but a conspirator?

Senator McGovern had committed himself to making this formation—a brave thing by the standards of the city—but he had taken the precaution of dispatching a man of his to stand and watch, with no discernible duty except to register distrust. He ended by sitting to talk at length and with a gradual infusion of comfort with Fred Halstead, chief of marshals for the New Mobe. Halstead is representative of the Socialist Workers Party, the Trotskyites; and he too has been much noticed, with the appointed cries of alarm, by the columnists.

November 14

The day’s public event was a press conference commanded by Sidney Lens. He had been appointed to read the statement of the New Mobe’s purpose. You had imagined clangors of quarrel over this line or that; yet Sidney Lens, out of the New Mobe’s blithe disregard of getting into trouble through small excesses of rhetoric, improvised casually upon the text, slyly invoking names which might or might not have been cleared with the steering committee: “We march in the tradition—and we are not ashamed of it—of two of the noblest men in the history of America, Eugene Victor Debs and Big Bill Haywood.” You thought of Sidney Lens’s daily life, in that union office which, if grand, would be shameful and, if mean, only depressing, of the knowledge which must have come to its occupant that there was no very convenient way to serve the charwoman as they might have been served by the Industrial Workers of the World, and of the vow that, if the great stage ever opened, the name of Bill Haywood would be pronounced aloud and with homage; and you saluted Sidney Lens for what he had kept of himself. You liked him then even more than usual, a minority report, because the other journalists, being earnest doves, are all properly solicitous of the good name of the cote and annoyed even by plump middle-aged men who put up for the club the names of the disreputable dead. They waited to fall upon Sidney Lens, having to delay because he had another witness to call.

He was Charles Higginbotham, the father of a name on one of the placards, who would walk in the March against Death this last night.

Ladies and gemmun,” he began with accents achingly familiar. “I’m the father of a son lost in Vietnam. I’m doing what I can to help bring the war to an end. I have no more sons, so personally I don’t have a thing to gain. I am adult, suburban, a PTA type, a World War II veteran, the establishment sort if you please.”

He stopped. No question occurred as decent except the name, rank, and serial number of his son; we were back where journalism begins, taking notes for obituaries.

Robert,” Mr. Higginbotham answered. “Specialist, Second Class, twenty-three.” He paused again. “I’m not part of the New Mobe. It’s largely political and I’m not associated with politics. But somehow I felt that I have failed him, that we have all failed our sons by not standing up and saying how we feel about this war.”

There was nothing more to ask; we had invaded someone else’s privacy and the journalists fell with relief upon Sidney Lens; did the unknown thousands who would march tomorrow know, as was herewith proclaimed, that they lifted their banners too for Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton? Sidney Lens unashamedly answered that they did. All this seemed unfair as always; still Sidney Lens plainly can take care of himself; there ought to exist some forgiveness somewhere for the journalists who gored at him about something that does not much matter because the alternative would have been to probe someone so much more vulnerable about something that mattered a great deal.

There followed the inevitable tug to 1029 Vermont Avenue and the Eighth Floor where the Moratorium sat waiting for a confrontation demanded by the Weathermen. The ambassadors from this farther shore arrived and presented their terms. They would take $25,000 to leave town without committing nuisances or visiting embarrassments. Their legate said that they needed the money to hire counsel, “sharp lawyers, not the schlock you get from the ACLU.” There might have been a time of hope and glory when the Moratorium could have afforded to debate the price and to count its advantages; there was nothing to do now but to dismiss the delegation and leave it with no revolutionary responsibility except to assault Dupont Circle and the Department of Justice. It took considerable effort, hearing this story, to muster the moral outrage expected; in the end there remains only a failure to take seriously persons whose notion of the dignity of the struggle has room in it for extortion.

Leaving you came upon Curtis Gans, once coordinator of the McCarthy campaign, talking on the telephone in a low voice to someone whose confidential information, you understood at once, could be of no use to him at all. It must have been a long while ago, say Nebraska perhaps, that Curt Gans commenced to act from the certainty that something, at any moment, was about to pass out of his control and to go at random, whether for good or bad was not the point, but just wildly out of his hands.

I think,” Curtis Gans said without conviction, “that we will get through this without too much damage done and that we can begin again with those people who believe that change can only be made by getting a majority on your side.”

There was nothing left thereafter but to go to the hotel in the company of Barry Cunningham, a journalist. He was talking with weary derision about how the Weathermen had fought in Dupont Circle, a diversion significant to city desks if not to real life. We came suddenly upon the candles around the White House, and Barry Cunningham ceased as suddenly to mock. They seemed as formlessly arranged as they had been when they began thirty-one hours ago; there had stayed with them all the same the somehow-enforced while never-insisted-upon presence of their dignity. “Had you thought until now,” Barry Cunningham wondered, “just how long it takes just to carry the names of 43,000 dead men past one fixed point.” That is all he had to say, no jokes any longer; it has all gone beyond snobbery; you begin to imagine yourself, faintly embarrassed, reading aloud in churches, creaking down with unaccustomed knees to pray on street-corners. There is nothing left for us to be now but Quakers.


Wrong Impression January 1, 1970