July 22, 2012

Much has been written about the turbulent days of the late 1960’s. The memories of those who lived through that time invariably will differ according to the specific time and place of their experiences and the mindset of the person involved. But the social and political turmoil stirred up by the conflict in Vietnam is certain to be at the heart of many of these, for this issue polarized Americans like few others in our modern times.

Washington, D.C. became the focal point of protest against the Vietnam war during my college years, and as the groundswell of sentiment against the war grew, so did the size of the protests. In October of 1967, about 50,000 protesters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. In October of 1968 the number increased to 200,000. But during my senior year, 600,000 demonstrators converged on our nation’s capital on November 15, 1969, in a monster rally organized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. What happened that day had a startling and historic impact on the psyche of the nation and the people who were there. I know this because I was one of them.

At Seton Hall University, like most campuses across the nation, students — some of whom would soon be directly affected by the war — organized locally to voice their opposition.  When the opportunity arose to do so on a larger stage, the organizing efforts grew to match the need, and many who may have been silent previously felt compelled to make a commitment.

My friend Peter and I signed up to be part of a contingent from New Jersey that would bus down to Washington for the November mobilization. At the time, we had no idea of the eventual scale of the event, but the immensity of it became apparent once we got down there. I had never before seen so many people in one place at one time. The streets were filled, and though the expected college students comprised much of the crowd, it also included surprisingly large numbers of well-dressed, middle-aged adults.

Shortly after arriving, Peter and I ducked into a local restaurant to try to grab a bite. The place was packed, and we waited for a considerable time. When a spot at a table finally opened, we sat down only to be accosted by an angry customer on his way out.

“Why don’t you kids cut your hair and go back home! We don’t want you troublemakers here!” he spat out with obvious disdain.

Peter and I were taken aback, not prepared for such vehement antagonism. We struggled for a response, but it became unnecessary, for an older gentleman at the next table immediately came to our defense.

“Buzz off! I’m a veteran, and I live here too. I think it’s great what these young people are doing. They have just as much right to be here as you.” His glare clearly signaled that he meant business. The other guy promptly shut up and skulked off.

“Thank you, sir,”  we meekly managed to respond. Perhaps the tone of surprise in our voices prompted him to continue.

“I mean it. I know what war is all about and what it can do. I’m proud to see you youngsters stand up and try to do something to stop it. A lot of folks are waving flags and wagging their tongues without knowing what they’re talking about, including some in our government.  You just keep on doing what you’re doing and don’t bother listening to them.”

We left the restaurant, stomachs full and morale boosted, and headed for a staging area to join one of the protest activities. Neither of us knew much about Washington, so we proceeded on foot the way se saw the masses heading. Deciding to cut over several blocks to get out of the crush of the crowd, we happened upon scores of city buses parked closely together along the side of the street.

There were cops everywhere. I decided to try to squeeze between buses to continue unimpeded, for the other side looked free of people. All of a sudden, one of the cops came running toward me yelling something I couldn’t quite make out. I turned to see what the problem was when I heard a loud WHACK, the unmistakable sound of wood on metal. The cop had swung his nightstick at me but missed and hit the bus. I began cursing, incensed at the injustice of being attacked for doing nothing other than walking down the street. Peter grabbed me and pulled me away, and we scrambled to safety. It wasn’t until later that I realized the buses weren’t merely parked; they had been placed there as a blockade to “protect” the government buildings behind them.

As we finally got within a few blocks of DuPont Circle, shouting erupted up ahead, and hordes of demonstrators began running our way. An acrid odor surrounded us — tear gas! Peter had asthma and needed to use an inhaler; how would this affect him? We hustled down several blocks to get to a safer area, but Peter suddenly stopped, visibly inhaling deeply. Oh, no. Could this be the start of respiratory distress?

“Peter! Are you okay?” I frantically asked.

“Yeah,” he answered in his normal stoic manner. “You know, I’m actually breathing better!” A whiff of tear gas as a temporary treatment for asthma; who knew?

Dusk brought news of sporadic trouble in several areas of the city. Peter and I were scheduled to participate in a candlelight memorial for soldiers who had died, but as we walked toward the appointed meeting place, a surreal scene unfolded that I will never forget. As the protesters filed down one side of the darkening street, on the other stood a long line of National Guardsmen shoulder to shoulder, rifles positioned at the ready. The silhouettes of the weapons in the soft light of the street lamps created a bizarre and menacing image. An eerie silence enveloped us save for the muffled tramp of feet on the sidewalk. I kept thinking, here I am, walking in the capital of my own country with my fellow citizens across the street — many no older than I —  prepared to fire on me. How could this possibly be?

Suddenly, from our side of the street, the sound of shattering glass broke the silence followed by another and then another as the store windows were smashed. Who could be so crazy? One nervous reaction from a jumpy soldier and a chain reaction of disastrous proportion could erupt. I believe I held my breath and fixed my eyes straight forward for the remainder of the trek.

The candlelight memorial took place as planned in a dignified manner, and it made a deep impact on most of us. Each marcher carried a candle and the name of a serviceman or woman killed in the course of the war. The procession solemnly moved in a single file up to the front of the White House  gate. The names of the deceased were read aloud one by one, their names echoing in the night, imbuing a haunting human quality devoid of politics or rancor to the tragedy transpiring on the other side of the world. These weren’t merely soldiers, pawns in the game of military decision-makers, but our brothers and friends and classmates and neighbors who would no longer enjoy the lives that should have lain before them. I remember being moved to tears as I shuffled forward in that heartfelt gathering. I regret not keeping the slip of paper with the name I read.

That night we stayed in Arlington in the homes of kind souls sympathetic to the cause. We gratefully slept on floors and couches, bunk beds and cots. As I lay in that makeshift dorm, my mind raced.  What had others seen? What had they done? Most of all, I wondered what would be the result of all that had occurred that crazy unforgettable day?

As it turned out, it proved to be a powerful force that would accelerate the momentum of the sentiment to end the war. More and more Americans began to come to the conclusion that this had been a long and costly mistake that must come to an end.  Unfortunately, the final chapter hadn’t yet been finished, and even more soldiers were to lose their lives. After the miscalculated Nixon incursion into Cambodia, further upheaval ensued back home culminating with the shootings at Kent State.

Our final semester in 1970 ended prematurely because of the unrest, and Peter and I graduated into a new decade fraught with problems and the palpable feeling of being on the precipice of major change. Some of our classmates would be drafted into the armed forces, victims of the bad fortune of receiving a low number in the recently imposed draft lottery system. And some of those inducted never returned.

The war slowly ground its way to a halt in April of 1975, an unsatisfactory conclusion devoid of the honor about which many politicians had crowed. The after-effects still resonate to this day in the mental and physical scars of those who served, in the families of those who never came back, and in the memory of a nation that seemingly lost its way.

I think of this now as I watch the weekly parade of photos of young men and women who have perished in Afghanistan, strangely aired only on the PBS News Hour. For some of my generation, Afghanistan has brought back the specter of Vietnam as history appears to repeat itself in a different geography, though I wonder about the curiously apathetic public.  Where is the outcry? Why the complacency?

Perhaps the distractions of the current era and the peculiar insulation from this war have desensitized many of those whose voices might otherwise have been raised. I am neither expecting nor hoping for a return to any “good old days” of dissent, but in its ostensible absence, I worry about the soul of this great nation. If one of its important freedoms, that of an openly expressive democracy, atrophies in a miasma of egocentric materialism and self-interest, our national conscience may be reduced to a few Cassandras who, as poet Robinson Jeffers put it,  “mumble in a corner a crust of truth.” Perhaps the days of protest are gone, and that would be a real detriment, for a cornerstone America’s proud heritage will have crumbled.


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