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A Special Supplement: Mayday: The Case for Civil Disobedience

It is a fair guess that the events in Washington and elsewhere did succeed in conveying a sense of urgency to Congress, just as they showed the Administration that the country is far from “cooled.” Two senators, Mike Gravel and Harold Hughes, have announced that they will attempt a filibuster against the draft.36 Senate war critics have also decided, according to UPI reports, to press for a quick Senate vote on an “end-the-war” act.37

Nevertheless, Senator Fulbright, according to the same report, conceded that it would be “almost impossible” for Congress to force the President to end the war; and that if the McGovern-Hatfield amendment were passed in both houses (which is highly unlikely), a “constitutional crisis” might follow if the President “should stubbornly stand fixed,” as he might well do. Though the events of the spring may have stirred Congress, the President may well conclude, at least for the present, that Congress will not seriously impede his plans.

There are several reasons why the President may reach this conclusion. Congressmen are, like himself, political animals. They want to be elected and—although there are exceptions—they tend to take the safe course. A superficial look at the polls may indicate that the safe course would be to vote for the McGovern-Hatfield end-the-war amendment, now supported by almost three-fourths of the population, according to nation-wide polls. One might expect politicians to be willing to ride a wave of that size. But it is likely that they will not, in part on grounds of political expediency. Suppose that during the late Forties a poll had been taken on sending troops to China. Probably most of the population would have been opposed. Nevertheless, within a few years, “the loss of China” became a major issue in American political life, and immensely damaging accusations were made against those who had allegedly permitted this “loss.” Indeed, Daniel Ellsberg has argued that fears of recrimination for a possible “loss of Indochina” have been a dominant theme in executive decision-making for the past twenty years.38

Though this judgment may (as he says) seem harsh and cynical, it is highly plausible and can be supported by considerable evidence. If President Nixon were forced out of Indochina by Congress, he could return to a familiar role: leading the attack on the traitors who stabbed the country in the back at the moment of glorious victory. The strategy might not work as well as it did a generation ago, but the demagogue has a natural advantage in such a case. Joseph Alsop made the point precisely:

Finally, it is to be hoped that the peace senators take note of another fact. Suppose they finally manage to snatch defeat from the very jaw of victory. In that event, the heat they will later feel, as the real authors of the first American defeat in history, will make the heat they are now feeling resemble the mild warmth of a tea-cozy. 39

Although Alsop has become something of a clown, his warning is a serious one to a normal politician. Emmett Hughes made a similar point,40 which a Boston Globe editorial cited along with an “off-the-record conference” at which a top White House adviser, presumably Henry Kissinger, warned that American withdrawal would “precipitate an overwhelming domestic response from the right-wing.” 41

Though such warnings are intended partly to rally liberal support behind the Nixon-Kissinger war policy, politicians are nevertheless likely to recognize that they are in many ways sound. Nixon would certainly understand this, as would Kissinger, who, after all, knows that his successor might well speak of the failure of nerve and intelligence that led to the “loss of Indochina” in much the same terms as those he himself once used in writing of “the loss of Northern Indochina” and other similar failures.42 Narrow calculations of political safety would lead a congressman to speak out against the war, in view of the present mood of the country, but not to act on his words, in view of the likely mood if the President were forced by Congress to terminate the war.

Quite apart from this, most congressmen, like most of their constituents, would prefer to see South Vietnam firmly placed within the American-dominated system, a “democracy”—like the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Thailand—to its following the path of Chinese-style “do-it-yourself” social and economic development, which is called “communism.” For such reasons, Nixon may feel that he can count on the cooling of Congress, if the urgency of the issue declines.

Of course, mass opposition to the war will continue: denunciations and exposés, war crimes inquiries and teach-ins, periodic mass marches, and the like. I do not denigrate these valuable and essential activities; on the contrary, they occupy much of my own time. Every effort must be made to convince members of Congress that they will lose elections if they don’t take action against the war. But it must be admitted that the President may be able to live with such efforts while the policy of systematic destruction proceeds. Even if support for American withdrawal were to go well beyond the present 73 percent, Nixon can argue, as he has recently done, that “polls are not the answer,” and continue to try to beat the people of Indochina into submission.

Thus the Administration may rationally conclude that dissenting segments of the American public, however vast, can be discounted, and the institutions that respond to them as well.

What of the more “radical” or militant opposition to the war? In order to succeed in his strategy, the President must repress, discredit, and contain those groups in American society which try to keep the issue of the war alive in a dramatic and effective way, which insist upon its urgency, and which threaten to disrupt the orderly functioning of American society so long as the destruction of Indochina continues. Possibly the Harrisburg indictment should be seen in this light, as an effort to isolate and if possible demoralize the Catholic left and related groups. As to the student movement, the hope, no doubt, is that young people will be driven to cynicism and despair, that they will be apathetic and discouraged and, above all, obedient. Another possibility is that some of them will be driven to forms of terrorism that will gain mass support for repression at home and violence overseas.

This strategy would aim to close off the option of nonviolent civil disobedience of a kind that might reach the scale where it could not be disregarded and that might enlist the sympathy of growing numbers of people. These are the kinds of protest that have been explored by draft resisters, by the Catholic left, and by the Peoples Coalition for Peace and Justice in Washington and elsewhere during the past few weeks. Their actions are based on the rational assumption that the “system” will not work to end the war quickly, for reasons I have suggested, unless it is subjected to constant and increasing pressure.

Some observers disagree. An editorial in the New Republic43 claims that in one sense, “Indochina was irrelevant to the Mayday Tribe’s intrusion.” The young people who tried to stop the government for a day repudiate “bourgeois society” and its procedures. They are “revolutionaries [who] are convinced that it is the system which must go, and not simply one or two manifestations of the system’s evil….” The anonymous editor sees the Mayday demonstrations as a step toward “prepar[ing] the way for more preferred rules and rulers.”

I don’t know what information that editor may have, but to the best of my knowledge, this analysis is hopelessly confused. The Mayday demonstrations, like those that preceded them, were clearly focused on several “manifestations of the system’s evil,” mainly the war. The demands were explicitly reformist: an end to the war, to repression, and a guaranteed income of $6,500 for a family of four.44 Whatever the personal opinions of the participants may be, the evidence seems to me overwhelming that they intended to do exactly what they said: to demonstrate their opposition to the war by stopping, at least for a short time, the government that refuses to stop the war. Their rhetoric is inflated, but hardly revolutionary. That they were planning to “prepare the way for more preferred rules and rulers” by demonstrating in Washington seems to me pure fancy.

To the New Republic editorial writer, the Mayday demonstrators were reminiscent of the mobs that gathered in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1962, to thwart integration, and were in no way “cut from the same cloth” as the civil rights demonstrators of the 1960s. Again, I do not know from what experience this writer speaks, but I do know that participants in the Mayday actions who did have direct experience with the civil rights movement (in some cases extensive experience) have commented that the mood and spirit of the group recalled the best moments of the struggle for civil rights in the early 1960s. Reverend Hosea Williams, program director of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, spoke at a mass meeting after the first Mayday events, and called upon “the forces of good will” in the US to support them. Reverend Ralph Abernathy, head of SCLC, asked black pastors in Washington to open their churches and other facilities to the demonstrators.45

To the writer of the New Republic editorial, the demonstrators were attacking society, which has a right to defend itself with police power. This, too, seems a fanciful interpretation of Mayday and the events leading up to it. The police power, so far as I could see, was not being used to “defend society,” which was not under attack, but to defend the prestige of the Administration and to close off certain possibilities of nonviolent civil disobedience. I shall return to this below.


In his speech, which I have already cited, Paul McCloskey quoted the argument of Edmund Randolph, as reported by James Madison, during the Constitutional Convention of 1787:

The Executive will have great opportunities of abusing his power; particularly, in time of war, when the military force, and in some respects the public money, will be in his hands. Should no regular punishment be provided, it will be irregularly inflicted by tumults and insurrections.

Prophetic words, as McCloskey noted.

In view of the continuing American aggression in Indochina, is it right to proceed to some form of civil disobedience? A reasonable counterargument is that this form of dissent will, in fact, hamper Congressional efforts to end the war and will build support for the President. Judgments in such arguments are necessarily imprecise, but it seems to me that nonviolent civil disobedience is likely to have the opposite effects, as, I believe, it has had in the past. It seems to me that, in spite of the short-run effects, only continuing demonstrations of vocal and committed opposition have forced the issue of the war on the consciousness of the public and impelled Congress to undertake such slight measures as it has.

  1. 36

    Mary McGrory, Boston Globe, May 8, 1971.

  2. 37

    UPI, Boston Globe, May 8, 1971.

  3. 38

    The Quagmire Myth and the Stalemate Machine,” Public Policy (Harvard), May, 1971.

  4. 39

    Boston Globe, April 6, 1971.

  5. 40

    New York Times Magazine, April 4, 1971.

  6. 41

    April 9, 1971. See Derek Shearer, “An Evening with Henry,” The Nation, March 8, 1971, for direct reports of statements by Kissinger to this effect.

  7. 42

    On Kissinger’s theories, see “The Nixon-Kissinger Foreign Policy in Theory and Practice,” by the Washington University Foreign Policy Roundtable, mimeographed, 1971.

  8. 43

    May 15, 1971.

  9. 44

    I have seen no literature of the “Mayday tribes,” but the Mayday actions were fully supported by the Peoples Coalition for Peace and Justice, which included people active in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, National Welfare Rights Organization, American Friends Service Committee, Clergy and Laymen Concerned, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, War Resisters League, Women Strike for Peace, and others. Its May actions were to be focused on the Pentagon (May 3) and the Justice Department (May 4). If there were participants so misguided in their analysis of American society as to consider Mayday a step toward overthrowing “bourgeois society” and its institutions, their presence and avowed intentions escaped my notice.

  10. 45

    American Report, May 14, 1971.

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