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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.