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A Special Supplement: Mayday: The Case for Civil Disobedience

Had it not been for the demonstrations, the draft resistance, and other antiwar actions of the past years, had America been “cooled” from the outset in the desired way, there would have been few restraints on executive power, with consequences that are not difficult to imagine. The testimony of hawks-turned-doves indicates that these were significant factors. Many activities that appeared unthinkable a few years ago—draft and tax resistance or resistance within the military, for example—now receive wide sympathy and support. Though caution is of course necessary, to enlarge the scope of nonviolent civil disobedience seems appropriate.

It is sometimes argued that civil disobedience is illegitimate in a democracy or that it displays the “totalitarianism of the left,” to use the fashionable phrase. The argument is that the democratically controlled institutions of American society have determined that the war must continue; therefore, a commitment to democracy requires that we obey this decision, refraining from illegal behavior designed to impede the operation of the American war machine as it proceeds to destroy helpless people.

Democratic principle requires, by this argument, that the people of Indochina and the land on which they the institutions of our democratic society so determine. It is, in particular, improper to inconvenience government workers in Washington, even if this might impede the continuing effort of the Administration to inconvenience people in Indochina by dropping 100 tons of bombs an hour. Comment on this cynical argument is hardly necessary.

Still more strange is the argument, heard even from distinguished professors of law, that civil disobedience against the war “legitimizes” the civil disobedience of Governor Wallace and the Ku Klux Klan. If it is right for you to break the law, the argument goes, then why is it not right for them? This argument would be rational on the assumption that obedience to the law is an absolute and inviolable principle; to put it differently, if it is ever right to disobey the law, then it is always right to do so. Drop this assumption and the argument collapses.

The assumption, of course, is nonsensical. If a person were to violate a traffic ordinance to prevent a murder, no sane judge would convict. One man’s violation of the law provides no justification for another violation. Each case has to be evaluated on its own merits. Of course, it is a fair guiding principle that the law should be obeyed. But the principle is not an absolute one, and a rational person will ask whether under specific circumstances there are overriding considerations.

Nor does it help to say, “But the KKK think that they are right, too.” What is important is not whether one who commits civil disobedience thinks that he is right, but rather the harder questions: Is he right? Will the act help to achieve a just end? Would strictly legal means be ineffective?

How do the over-all social consequences of obeying the law, in this instance, compare with those of disobeying it? What are the effects on nonparticipants? Are they injured or unfairly inconvenienced (as in many legal actions, say, a strike); and if so, how does this compare to the injury caused by refraining from acts of civil disobedience, if such acts are an effective means to overcome the inertia that (in this case) permits the destruction of Indochina to continue?

Are nonparticipants induced by civil disobedience to become criminals, as the absolutist argument against civil disobedience implicitly suggests, or will the act of civil disobedience lead them to explore the social consequences of their own silence and docility?

Will the act of civil disobedience serve to direct attention to the action itself and away from its ends, or will it help to overcome the natural tendency to let unpleasant matters recede from view and to trust in authority?

Will the acts of civil disobedience enable the executive branch of the government, which is committed to pursuing its horrendous (and, it can be persuasively argued, criminal) actions in Indochina, to mobilize segments of the population in support of domestic repression and international violence, or will these acts contribute to a general distaste for the war and its effects?

These are some of the questions that must be asked by those contemplating particular acts of civil disobedience. No doubt they are hard questions, involving uncertain judgments. But appeals to the absolute inviolability of the law do not answer them, any more than does a resort to those alleged principles of democracy which require the Vietnamese to suffer the consequences of the failure of our institutions, our courage, or our decency.

As Mary McGrory correctly observed, the Mayday demonstrators asked only that people remember that it was the war that brought them there. Those whom I met felt that they were violating traffic ordinances in an effort to prevent vast and continuing criminal acts. In contrast, Time Magazine claims that:

…some of the antiwar radicals, as if from long habit of alienation and more than a touch of egocentricity, seem intent on focusing angry attention upon themselves instead of on the battle they mean to end…in what almost seemed a willfully self-defeating gesture, the demonstrators diverted public attention from the war issue to the issue of their own conduct, thereby diminishing rather than gaining influence and, for a time at least, clouding the future of antiwar efforts.46

According to California Senator John Tunney, the “foolish and useless acts” of the demonstrators “well might have ruined several months of hard work by the real advocates of peace.”47 To Hugh Sidey, “The pressure of public opinion drawing the President toward the end of the war has been deflected by witlessness.” Because of the “scenes in Washington,” it may be “that the war will go just a bit longer than it might have otherwise.”48

My impressions are quite different. I doubt that Time and Life would have devoted to the war the space that they gave to the Mayday demonstrations. To me, the demonstrators generally seemed neither alienated nor egocentric, but rather dedicated to ending the war and willing to accept pain and annoyance if necessary—there are, after all, more pleasant ways to spend a spring day than dodging policemen; and tear gas, mace, clubs, and jail are not quite the lark that some editorial writers seem to think.

I do not know whom Senator Tunney has in mind when he speaks of “the real advocates of peace” or what accomplishments of theirs he feels may have been ruined, or just how they have been ruined. Sidey’s assumption that the President is ending the war is about as persuasive as his claim that public opinion, formed by the mass media, is the main factor forcing the President in this direction, or his further claim that the Pentagon march of 1967, for example, helped to ease pressure on the White House to end the war more quickly, or his belief that it was 50,000 protesters, “pleading rather than threatening,” who “brought a nervous Nixon out at dawn to the Lincoln Memorial” after the Cambodia invasion (he omits mention of the nation-wide student strike and other events that followed).

In retrospect, it seems more plausible that the Pentagon demonstrations of 1967, with the threat of further disruption, were a factor in leading to a change in strategy after the Têt offensive. The belief that the country would be torn apart by overt escalation was surely a factor in the decision not to send an additional 200,000 troops to Vietnam, and to readjust the bombing in Indochina.49 In the present case, it seems to me that Richard Strout is correct, in the comments I quoted earlier, in pointing out that Congressional activity against the war increased after the demonstrations; though it will likely shrink again to insignificance after their impact is forgotten.

The President appears to be committed to winning a military victory, and he can expect a sufficient degree of complicity on the part of the courts, Congress, and a considerable part of the population, for the reasons already outlined. If this is reasonable, then we must reconsider the events in Washington (particularly Mayday), the government reaction, and the possible longer-run significance of these events.

Some 15,000 people, most—though not all—young, tried to disrupt the normal functioning of the federal government on Monday, May 3, mainly by marching or by sitting or standing in the way of traffic. The demonstrations were decentralized and leaderless. This was in part inherent in their nature; and in part a consequence of the government’s decision to disperse the demonstrators on May 2, thus preventing coordination and planning meetings the day before.

I myself felt that a march on the Pentagon or on the White House, natural targets for antiwar protest, would have been preferable. Whether this would have been right or wrong, it is important to remember that the government would not permit these tactics. On the morning of May 3, our small group joined with others at the Washington Monument for a march to the Pentagon organized by the Peoples Coalition for Peace and Justice. An early group was dispersed far short of the Pentagon by tear gas—it was then that Dr. Spock was arrested—and a second was dispersed by force on the Monument grounds. Repeatedly, groups that attempted passive civil disobedience were dispersed by force and turned to more mobile tactics. For a few hours Washington had the aspect of a town under siege; this seems to me to have been a legitimate achievement, in view of the way in which the federal government is dealing with the war issue.

Observers generally agree that the demonstrations were focused clearly on the operations of the government. There was little if any random violence or “trashing.” There were reports that policemen were injured and one charge has been made against a well-known pacifist for hitting a policeman; but I have seen no evidence of attacks on individual policemen (who could, in many cases, have been overwhelmed by a large crowd of demonstrators). There was little spillover to residential areas, except under police pressure—apart from what the press refers to as “the fashionable residential district” of Georgetown.

Some tires were slashed and cars disabled. Many streets were blocked with trash cans and even small cars were moved by demonstrators. But for the most part, the disruptions were caused by people sitting or standing in the streets. The government was, of course, not stopped (I doubt that many of the demonstrators thought that it would be). Whether or not Washington was “on the ropes,” as Nicholas von Hoffman reported, there is no doubt that the demonstration had a real effect on the city and its population.

How did the local population respond? One can, of course, report only scattered impressions. According to a report in Newsweek, the demonstrators “had antagonized most of the local citizenry and won the sympathies of only a few.” I hesitate to generalize from the limited evidence available, but my impression once again was somewhat different.

  1. 46

    May 17, 1971.

  2. 47

    Newsweek, May 17, 1971.

  3. 48

    Life, May 17, 1971. Though this is, strictly speaking, irrelevant to the important questions of fact involved, these protestations might be more convincing if there were a bit more evidence that their authors have in fact been committed to bringing the American aggression in Indochina to an end. See the comments by Nicholas von Hoffman, cited above.

  4. 49

    See Townsend Hoopes’s interesting account in his Limits of Intervention (David McKay, 1969). He explicitly mentions the effect of demonstrations, draft resistance, the threat of turmoil, and so on on his own transition from hawk to dove.

    On the matter of overt escalation and readjustment of bombing, recall that the planes used to bomb North Vietnam were simply shifted, in secret, to Laos, in particular, Northern Laos, during late 1968 and 1969. The bombing of South Vietnam was also increased sharply in 1968 and 1969.

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