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A Special Supplement: Mayday: The Case for Civil Disobedience


May Day, living up to all expectations, got the worst reviews of any demonstration in history. It was universally panned as the worst planned, worst executed, most slovenly, strident and obnoxious peace action ever committed.

So wrote Mary McGrory, a perceptive columnist and long-time dove.1 But Mayday was not designed to win accolades in the press; rather it was designed to help end the war, a different purpose. The demonstrators, Miss McGrory wrote, many of whom “had shaved and spruced up for Eugene McCarthy…hope that the people will eventually make the connection between a bad war and a bad demonstration and they think they’ve provided an additional reason for getting out. They’ve introduced the element of blackmail into the situation. They know everyone wanted them to go away. All they ask is that people remember it was the war that brought them here.”

Other commentary in the press has captured the mood and significance of the demonstrations with what seems to me to be great accuracy. Nicholas von Hoffman wrote in the Washington Post that “the people who kicked Washington in the pants” are

…people with exams to take, jobs to go to, with families to love, with all the same drives that make the rest of us curse politics and the government…in this land where we have to beg people to register to vote, 7000 persons…had gone out and incurred arrest for something they believe in. In addition, they’d turned this capital city into a simulated Saigon with the choppers flying all over, the armed men everywhere, and the fear that at any moment something worse, something bloody might happen.2

A few days later, he reported the miserable treatment of demonstrators in the DC jails:

That’s okay with the freaks, too. If that’s what it costs to give peace a chance, they’ll pay, pay by present uncomfort and dangers and risking future, life-long black-balling. They do it and the tepid and tardy editorialists, who realized years too late the stupidity of Vietnam, chide them. They chide them for poor organization, as if the funky rascals had taxpayers’ money to go out and get it together like the Marines. They chide them for naïveté, for not understanding politics like Muskie and Fulbright and McGovern and the other powerful men who’ve been so effective in ending the conflict in a timely fashion. They chide them but if peace does ever come, it will be the smelly, obtuse, stridently non-comprehending freaks who will have won it for us.3

As a minor—and, to be honest, reluctant—participant, I think that these judgments are largely correct.

For many months, the press and political commentators have been analyzing “the cooling of America”—and predicting the decline of the antiwar movement and the return of student apathy. With the unprecedented scale of the spring actions against the war, these predictions go the way of earlier ones by Westmoreland, McNamara, and the many others who have been seeing the light at the end of the tunnel throughout the conscious lives of most of the demonstrators.

The “cooling” never took place. Even during the winter months, peace activities continued, surpassing those of earlier years. In Boston, a hastily planned demonstration brought hundreds of people to the Federal Building in zero-degree weather for a protest and spontaneous march through the streets, when the first news of the invasion of Laos began to filter through. A few days later, some 4,000 people demonstrated on the Boston Common, the largest winter demonstration against the war ever to be held in that city.

Press coverage was slight. When I discussed this with local editors, who were generally sympathetic, they explained that there was no conspiracy to ignore the peace movement, but that such demonstrations were no longer news. They had happened before, the speeches had been heard before. This may have been a justified professional judgment, but it could also have been interpreted as a subtle call for violence, an implicit challenge which, fortunately, was not heeded.

The lack of press coverage helped to convey the impression that the Laos invasion had little domestic impact. To those who were not looking too closely, it may have seemed that the peace movement really didn’t care so long as American boys were ten feet off the ground in helicopter gunships or 30,000 feet up in B-52s. To cite one foreign report, Claude Moisy wrote that “in February 1971, the invasion of Southern Laos by South Vietnamese troops brought only a few hundred students to the streets,” indicating that the Nixon-Kissinger strategy for pacifying the home front was succeeding4—a widely held view prior to the events of the spring.

The April-May events in Washington began with guerrilla theater by Vietnam veterans who tried to express in a dramatic way what they had done and seen in South Vietnam. The actions ended, two weeks later, with another form of guerrilla theater as the police, backed by thousands of troops, turned Washington into “a simulated Saigon” with clouds of tear gas and screaming sirens. A helicopter landing of Marines was staged at the Washington Monument, apparently for the benefit of the press. Even Attorney General Mitchell played his assigned role, consenting to be photographed on a balcony calmly smoking his pipe while the troops performed below.

In the days between April 19 and May 3, several hundred thousand people demonstrated before the Capitol building, veterans testified at official and unofficial Congressional hearings, and thousands participated in lobbying and passive civil disobedience at government offices. The Mayday actions involved more than 15,000 people, many of whom submitted to repeated arrest and atrocious treatment. Elsewhere, there were supporting events. The demonstrations in San Francisco were the largest ever held there.

A mass demonstration in Boston was followed by a day-long attempt by thousands to close the Federal Building. A few days later there were demonstrations in suburban communities near Boston, including the first—but I expect not the last—at an air base, in protest against the air war in Indochina, and another, organized by a local collective, in the industrial town of Lynn. There was a demonstration at the Marine Training Center at Parris Island, South Carolina, attended by active-duty Marines. I left Washington for El Paso, Texas, where active-duty GIs at Fort Bliss conducted a war crimes inquiry. Further actions are planned by veterans and other groups in coming months. So much for “the cooling of America.”

Nixon’s famous “plan” for Indochina has so far contained few surprises. At the time of his inaugural, reports leaked to the press indicated that there would be a gradual reduction of ground troops, with a continuation of the technological war and a more efficient use of native troops—what one Pentagon reporter calls the US Army’s “Vietnamese surrogate forces.”5 By now, close to half the ordnance used in Indochina has been expended during the Nixon Administration. Bombing reached its peak (over 130,000 tons) in March, 1969, and in spite of the sharp decline in ground fighting (hence tactical air support) in South Vietnam, it has remained very high, rising to 92,191 tons in March, 1971.6 Presumably these figures, announced by the Pentagon, do not include the ARVN air force, which will soon have more combat aircraft than the French or British. 7

The air war was sharply stepped up in Laos and later in Cambodia. There is ample evidence that in both countries the rural population is a prime target. The government has now admitted that B-52s have been regularly used in Northern Laos for “about two years,” contradicting its earlier lies.8 According to Alvin Shuster, “Figures recently made available suggest that as much as 75 percent of the air war may now be outside of South Vietnam, where the low level of military activity, the expansion of the South Vietnamese Air Force and the withdrawal of American combat troops have left American pilots with fewer targets.” He quotes an Air Force officer, who said: “You won’t see any deadlines on the withdrawal of air power from this place.”9

Senator Thomas Eagleton reports that in briefings last month in Vietnam, two US generals (Weyand and Milloy) informed him that “the plans under which they were operating called for a residual American force indefinitely into the future and for a protracted period of massive American air power, including helicopters, based in Thailand and Okinawa and various places in Indochina.”10 American helicopters along with aircraft have been regularly used in military operations in Cambodia. The American command now states that helicopters have been used in Laos “for all kinds of support” since March, 1970.11 The bombing of North Vietnam has been stepped up, and North Vietnamese sources report extensive defoliation missions in the North.12 Meanwhile the Saigon police forces are expected to expand to 120,000 men; these “play a vital role in the program designed to track down and kill or capture Vietcong political officials.”13

Obviously, all of this means that the war against the peasants of Indochina continues. Senator Kennedy estimates that between 25,000 and 35,000 civilians were killed in the war in South Vietnam last year—a 50 percent reduction “as a result of the diversion of American bombing raids from South Vietnam into Cambodia and Laos.”14 These figures permit us to guess what is happening in Laos and Cambodia. Herbert Mitgang cites evidence indicating that “the conduct of the war in the last two years has resulted in an additional half-million civilian casualties and generated three million refugees.”15

In fact, “The number of war refugees in South Vietnam has risen dramatically—perhaps by as many as 150,000—since new allied operations in Indochina were begun last year…. Between last October and February, the monthly number of new refugees has reportedly increased more than five times.”16 To cite only the ultimate irony, while the nation was agonizing over the Calley verdict, a new ground sweep took place in the My Lai area which “may force as many as 16,000 people from their homes.”17 These people are, of course, already refugees, but since “security, never firm, is declining,” they must undergo the same treatment once again.

As Daniel Ellsberg has lucidly explained in this journal (March 11, 1971), there is little reason to suppose that Nixon will terminate aerial warfare or US-supported ground combat unless he is forced to do so. Ellsberg is not alone in this judgment. After the renewed bombing raids against North Vietnam, Stanley Karnow, the well-known Far Eastern correspondent, concluded that “Mr. Nixon essentially wants the enemy to capitulate…we could well be heading toward a bigger war.”18 The knowledgeable Washington correspondent Joseph Harsch writes, “The talk here is no longer of a total American withdrawal. It is rather of a long-term American military presence in support of the existing regime in Saigon.”19

Selected correspondents who have attended confidential briefings report that the President apparently has in mind between five and ten years of continued war, and that he is strongly hinting that the long-term US presence in South Vietnam “could remain at the 50,000 level indefinitely.”20 An analysis of the Pentagon budget indicates that “Defense Department planning calls for possible retention of more than 150,000 United States troops in Vietnam in the summer of 1972 and some 50,000 the summer after.”21 Remember that the French, with a tiny fraction of the firepower America uses, never sent conscripts to Indochina and deployed perhaps 70,000 native French troops while attempting to hold South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.22

  1. 1

    Boston Globe, May 9, 1971.

  2. 2

    Washington Post, May 5, 1971.

  3. 3

    Boston Globe, May 10, 1971.

  4. 4

    Le Monde Diplomatique, March, 1971.

  5. 5

    George Ashworth, Christian Science Monitor, February 3, 1971.

  6. 6

    According to Pentagon figures, bombing tonnage from January, 1965, through March, 1971, amounts to 5,795,160 tons. Of this, 2,593,743 tons have been dropped during the Nixon Administration. The quantities and proportions for ground tonnages are about the same. For comparison, the American air force in World War II dropped slightly more than two million tons of bombs in the European, Mediterranean, and Pacific theaters combined.

    According to the expert analysis of Fred Branfman, Laos alone—a region the size of New York State—has probably received more than 2 million tons of bombs, most since late 1968; testimony before the ad hoc Congressional Hearing into US War Crimes responsibility, Rep. Ronald Dellums, chairman, April 29, 1971.

  7. 7

    New Republic, February 13, 1971; William Beecher, New York Times, January 26, 1971. According to Denis Healey, ARVN “already has more helicopters than any of the European NATO armies” (London Times, February 21, 1971).

  8. 8

    John W. Finney, New York Times, May 4, 1971. A member of a special forces team operating in Northern Laos from 1966 states that he saw B-52 raids at that time, and that flying over the Plain of Jars in 1968 he saw the ruins of villages in a B-52 saturation pattern of 750-pound bombs. I will not recount here the record of Administration claims, in this regard, or the growing evidence that they are fabrications.

  9. 9

    New York Times, December 20, 1970.

  10. 10

    Boston Globe, Washington Post, May 12, 1971.

  11. 11

    New York Times, January 21, 1971.

  12. 12

    Details are given in an AFP report from Hanoi, New York Times, January 21, 1971. The reports were denied in Washington.

  13. 13

    Thomas C. Fox, New York Times, April 14, 1971.

  14. 14

    Neil Sheehan, New York Times, March 15, 1971.

  15. 15

    New York Times, March 15, 1971.

  16. 16

    Tad Szulc, New York Times, March 13, 1971.

  17. 17

    Henry Kamm, New York Times, April 1, 1971.

  18. 18

    Boston Globe, November 27, 1970.

  19. 19

    Christian Science Monitor, February 23, 1971.

  20. 20

    William Selover, Christian Science Monitor, April 1, 1971.

  21. 21

    William Beecher, New York Times, March 8, 1971.

  22. 22

    I know of no detailed analysis of French troop strength, and there are some internal inconsistencies in the available accounts. According to Joseph Buttinger, the French Army “never counted more than 50,000 French nationals,” supplemented by air and naval forces of about 15,000 French nationals (Vietnam: a Dragon Embattled, Praeger, 1967, vol. II, p. 760). As for air and helicopter power, Bernard Fall wrote that there had never been more than ten operational helicopters in Indochina until April, 1954 (Street without Joy, Stackpole, 1964, p. 242).

    Elsewhere, he wrote that “the French aircraft total in all of Indochina—in North and South Viet-Nam, Cambodia, and Laos—was 112 fighters and 68 bombers. That is what the United States flies in a single mission.” He also wrote that in the fifty-six days of the Dienbienphu battle the French expended less bomb power than the US does in a single day (Last Reflections on a War, Doubleday, 1967, p. 231. This essay was originally written at a time when US bombing was less than half the present level). See also Street without Joy, chapter 10.

    In fact, there have been almost as many US troops fighting the Indochina war from Thai bases as there were French nationals in the entire Indochina theater, and the destructive force at their command was of course incomparably less.

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