Things I Learned at the Vietnam War Moratorium on November 15, 1969
The scurrilous behavior of the Current Occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, his cronies, enablers, and supporters on all manner of issues — from Ukraine to Charlottesville to Syria to the U.S.-Mexico border (and so much more!) — has deeply polarized our country. In the seemingly continuous chatter since a whistleblower’s complaint surfaced in September, cable news commentators of all political persuasions seem to agree upon two things: 1) This crisis — and these times — are unique in our nation’s history and 2) Only our elected leaders in Congress can save us from certain calamity (either by impeaching and removing the President — or not!)
I beg to differ — -on both accounts.
Because I came of age during the last time the United States seemed to be coming apart — -the late 1960s and early 1970s — -these days feel familiar to me. Then, as now, war was raging overseas, and racial tensions were high — driven by overt white racism and unresolved inequities. A vitriolic and highly polarized presidential campaign resulted in a nearly equally divided electorate, and a President who put his power and ambitions above the good of the country was in office, not hesitating to lie, manipulate, and hold himself above the law. While I don’t want to minimize the unique dynamics and characteristics of these two periods in our history, we have experienced, and come out on the other side of, national crises of similar magnitude to the one we are in now.
I look back to my experiences of the late ’60s and early ‘70s — one of the earliest being the Moratorium Against the Vietnam War march in Washington on November 15, 1969 — in order to identify what I believe is the right prescription for the maladies that afflict our body politic at this time. Then, and now, I believe that prescription starts with personal reflection and responsibility, leading, in turn, to action connected with others. Let me explain.
By the time I was a junior in high school in 1968, the Vietnam War had become an intellectual obsession of mine. But Vic, a boyhood pal from my neighborhood, changed that for me. On April 8, 1969, he was walking point on a patrol in the Central Highlands of Vietnam when he stepped on a mine and was killed instantly. Vic’s death at age 19 made Vietnam personal and threw some kind of switch in me. I realized then that, in a little more than a year, I would have to make my first choice about Vietnam: what to do about the draft.
So, over the summer and into the early fall of 1969, I connected with others — kids and adults — in my sleepy corner of St. Louis’ suburbs and helped build the anti-Vietnam War movement in our high schools. With rallies and teach-ins at each of our local high schools we joined in the massive, national one-day student strike known as the October Moratorium. It seemed like everyone I knew at our school wanted to go to the national Moratorium march in Washington that November 15, but only my friend Ann and I succeeded in cajoling our parents into giving permission to skip school PLUS the $70 for the bus ride to D.C. and a hotel room for Friday night.
After school late Thursday afternoon, Ann’s mom gave us a ride to the St. Louis riverfront where the line of chartered Greyhound buses taking St. Louis marchers to D.C. stretched on for blocks. We found our way to the bus that was being filled by kids we knew a little from other schools and plopped into a couple of seats in the middle of the coach. The bus filled up quickly. Before we knew it, Ann and I were off for four days of travel and protest marches that helped shape my future in ways I could never have predicted.
After riding all night and most of the next morning, we arrived in D.C. stiff and tired,yet eager to join in the protest activities already underway. That afternoon, I connected with friends from Chicago who were heading to Arlington and the assembly point of the March Against Death near the national cemetery. This was a special Moratorium event to remember and honor the 45,000-plus U.S. GI’s that had already died in Vietnam and was planned to end a few hours before the main march and rally on Saturday morning.
The March Against Death had started the day before, and each hour 1,200 marchers left the assembly point to walk solemnly to the White House. Each marcher carried or wore a placard with the name of a U.S. service member who had been killed in Vietnam and, when reaching the White House, they spoke or shouted out the person’s name, took off the placard and put it in a large coffin-shaped container. When we got to the assembly point, I learned that if you knew someone who had died in Vietnam you could create a name placard for that person and carry it to the White House.
We joined the back of the line that seemed to be a hundred or so deep leading up to the tables distributing the name placards and, since it was getting dark, candles poked through eight-ounce paper cups, I was struck by the hushed, almost solemn mood of the crowd that had gathered beyond the tables.
Most of the marchers took placards with names that had already been prepared, but when I got to the table I asked if I could have Vic Cartier. I was directed over to another table with a stack of blank poster board and a bunch of black markers. I quickly made my own placard that read “PFC. Vic Cartier, USMC”, punched holes and looped string through it and paused, staring at Vic’s name. Vic’s face flashed in front of me for a second and I wondered if he felt anything when he stepped on that mine. “Jesus, give us peace,” I mumbled to myself, unsure if I was praying, and shook my head to clear it. I hung the placard over my chest and raced off to catch up with my friends. It was now dark and quite chilly as a steady breeze blew across the Potomac just a few hundred feet away. Finally, just after 6 p.m., a man with a bullhorn told us to light our candles and walk in pairs. We were about halfway back in the crowd from the starting point and it was quite moving to see the line of candle-lit marchers begin to stretch up and over the bridge and into the National Mall on the other side of the river.
I fell into step alongside a stranger and we began walking quietly toward the bridge. Since this was my first time in Washington D.C., I was completely awestruck when we reached the middle of the bridge and I could take in the full expanse of the Mall with its monuments and reflecting pool stretching back to the brightly lit White House in the distance. As I walked and absorbed the scene — hundreds of shuffling marchers holding candles partially illuminating the names of the fallen entering the center of our national memory — my thoughts turned to Vic again, remembering our last conversations. I wondered if he had stayed as confident about the rightness of the war once he got to Vietnam. Thinking about his ready sense of humor, though, I knew that, whether he had turned against the war or not, my marching against death in war — and his death in particular — would strike him as ironic and that would be OK with him.
It took nearly an hour for us to cover the two miles separating Arlington from the White House. As we approached the mansion, the march route was illuminated by sets of portable searchlights set up behind the fence and pointed toward the marchers. Behind the lights we could make out masses of what we assumed to be either police or troops guarding the President (news reports had made us aware that Nixon was inside the White House and would not be “distracted” by the likes of us protestors.) As we approached the front entrance, our double-file was narrowed to single-file. Each marcher paused at the front gate and we either quietly said — or loudly shouted, depending on individual preference — the dead service member’s name. As I approached I resolved to make sure Nixon heard Vic’s name, and shouted “PRIVATE VICTOR CARTIER!” at the top of my lungs.
We then continued to march on down Pennsylvania Avenue to the U.S. Capitol. We slipped our name placards off as we approached a dozen caskets set up to receive the names we had carried. One by one we stepped forward and deposited our name placard in the casket. Each time a name was placed in a casket a single drumbeat sounded. That solemn, solitary sound echoed inside and stayed with me for days, reminding me why I came. And why I marched.
My Chicago friends had helped me find my way back to the hotel a little after midnight. I was exhausted, but still woke up early Saturday morning, excited as I contemplated being a part of the Moratorium’s main event. Ann and I met in the lobby as planned, and rushed off to have breakfast in the crowded diner we had found the day before. As we exchanged stories about our adventures in D.C. so far, we both noticed that there seemed to be almost a constant flow of people streaming by in the direction of the Capitol. It was fairly early — about 8:30 on a Saturday morning — and that seemed a little strange. After paying our bill, we made our way outside and joined the stream of people walking up K Street toward 6th Street NW and sound found ourselves part of a growing mass of people that, as we walked along, began spilling into the streets. We had originally planned to make our way over to Pennsylvania Avenue via E Street to join the march that was starting at 10 a.m., but by the time we traveled just a few blocks we saw that we were moving into an even greater mass of people that stretched for blocks, both toward the Mall and toward Pennsylvania Ave. We decided to forget about marching, given the size of the crowd, and try to get into the Mall and as close to the Washington monument as we could so that we would be able to hear the speakers and the music.
By the time we got to the Mall, it was nearly 10 a.m., and we were unable to get much beyond the area just below the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, around 10th Street. People were streaming into the Mall from every direction, and the area around the Washington Monument and north, toward The Ellipse, was a solid mass of people. Colorful banners and signs with a wide range of peace slogans were everywhere.
We soaked it all in: the people, the bright blue sky with wispy clouds scooting by, the wafts of marijuana and cigarette smoke, occasional rousing chants of “Peace Now!” and related slogans. Soon music began and we strained to see the stage to no avail. Fortunately, the sound quality was pretty decent. As noon approached the crowd grew even more swollen as tens of thousands of marchers who had walked the length of Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol surged onto the Mall. The rally got under way with speakers ranging from Dick Gregory to Senator Gene McCarthy, and musicians including Arlo Guthrie and Peter, Paul and Mary.
I remember the strong feelings that washed over me during the rally: of pride, that we were such a huge, unified and peaceful crowd; of belonging, that I was connected to all of these kindred spirits working for peace and justice; and of hope, that surely, with such a massive display of opposition to the war that President Nixon would realize that making peace was the only realistic choice — and that the war would surely end very soon.
It has been documented that the October and November, 1969 Moratoria stayed the Nixon administration’s hand and prevented a major escalation of the war that would have mined North Vietnam’s harbors and rivers and bombed its system of dikes that fall. Yet, it took only a few months until Nixon would escalate the war by ordering the invasion of Cambodia in May 1970. As a result, from the front lines in the antiwar movement, it didn’t seem like we were having an impact with our massive marches. This assessment propelled me to more radical action to stop the war and end the draft.
The anti-war movement had within it a growing faction that advocated for active non-cooperation with the draft by not registering, or, if already registered, burning or turning in your draft card and refusing induction into the armed forces. I had read a number of firsthand accounts by self-described war resisters, and I was drawn to their clear sense of responsibility, conscience and action. So, some 14 months after Vic died, I took action in June 1970 and publicly refused to register for the draft on my 18th birthday.
For me, both then and now, though, taking personal responsibility through individual action was the beginning, not the end. It only made sense by being part of something bigger. I was one of at least an estimated 210,000 men who resisted the draft during the Vietnam War. And between 200,000 and 500,000 women and men refused to pay some or all of their federal taxes in protest during this period, again risking fines and imprisonment. Millions more joined vigils, protest marches, teach-ins, sit-ins, worked for peace candidates, circulated petitions — -in every community across the country. It is widely recognized that this massive movement did serve as a significant restraint on both the Johnson and Nixon administrations, forced changes in, and then the elimination of, the draft, and ultimately moved Congress to significantly cut funding to the War, hastening its eventual end. This is the legacy of the largest anti-war march in U.S. history — the November 15, 1969 Moratorium Against the War in Vietnam — and every other action, great and small by Americans of conscience, who took action together.
Our U.S. body politic today is in crisis, suffering with multiple serious, even life-threatening maladies. The most potent threat, however, is not this President and those who ally themselves with him. It is our own sense of powerlessness, our unwillingness to engage with each other and our reluctance to take action — — first individually, then collectively — — consistent with our values and beliefs.