Ken Burns “Vietnam War” documentary seems to emphasize the anti-war movement harassing returning veterans by name calling or spitting—an accusation I never heard of until the mid-1990s.
In 1965 across the country at colleges students were holding anti-war teach-ins, poetry readings, and small anti-war demonstrations. I had been in the anti-war movement starting in May 21-23, 1965, when the newly formed Vietnam Day Committee (called VDC) held the teach-in for 36-hours on the men’s playing field at UC Berkeley. I and a female friend listened for hours to the speakers in the hot afternoon as 30,000 people showed up. The State Department, who was invited to send a speaker, declined so an empty chair stood on stage with a sign saying, “Reserved for the State Department.” We listened to the baby doctor Benjamin Spock; veteran socialist leader Norman Thomas; novelist Norman Mailer; independent journalist I.F. Stone and folksinger Phil Ochs sang songs.
After a break for dinner, we walked onto the steps leading up to the Student Union where a young man who was handing out leaflets barked, “Sit-in against the war in San Francisco. Sit-in against the war in San Francisco.” He asked us both, “Why don’t you come to the sit-in?”
“I was already arrested once,” I said. “FSM (Free Speech Movement sit-in).”
“Terrific,” he said.
“I was found guilty. That’s not terrific,” I said, taking one of his leaflets.
Forty students sat on all the stuffed green, blue or maroon couches and chairs in the first floor lounge around the TV set on the north end. We found a place to sit on the floor. The documentary had still another parade of facts about Vietnam, but then the announcer said that the U.S. had ordered premier Diem murdered. It seemed unbelievable. Murdered! How could they arrange for a man to be killed? Hire an assassin? Pay him money? How could they be so cold-blooded?
The next semester on October 15, 1965, at Vietnam Day Committee’s teach-in on campus we heard that the U.S. was now bombing North and South Vietnam as well as increasing U.S. soldiers fighting there. I joined the first large anti-war march of 10,000 to march to the Oakland Army Induction Center. We marched and chanted anti-war slogans in the middle of the street down Telegraph Avenue toward Ashby Avenue, going right until we reached the intersection of Ashby and Shattuck where we milled in the center of this big intersection. We were supposed to march down Shattuck Avenue into Oakland but a line of 400 fierce Oakland cops blocked us, refusing to let us enter Oakland. A hastily convened sub-committee met to decide what to do. In the middle of the crowd I saw my roommate Rita’s date, the Army Veteran, walk over to me. He was a tall, husky man in his mid-twenties.
“Look at the rooftops behind the Oakland cops,” he said pointing to the rooftops. I saw Oakland cops with shotguns pointing at us. “And over there,” he said pointing to more rooftops a little south where I saw more Oakland cops pointed their shotguns down at us. I felt terrified.
“Follow me,” he suggested, so I followed him out of the packed crowd onto the northeast corner where we both looked at the crowd. We were the only two people standing on that corner.
“I learned a lot in basic training,” he continued. “You always need an escape route. If the line of cops move forward and we were in the middle of the crowd, people might panic and we might be crushed. Right here we have an escape route. Follow me,” he said, motioning. He led me one block north to a side street where nobody was. “Now you can safely walk home on an escape route.”
“Thanks,” I said, and then I walked home to my apartment. From them on whenever I was in a large crowd I looked for my escape route. In the news that evening I learned later the VDC leadership didn’t not to go into Oakland that afternoon but led the students back to the Berkeley Civic Center park where they scheduled a 2nd march for the next day while 100 people slept overnight in the park. There they were tear gassed—another first.
The next day I wasn’t there when four thousand anti-war marchers reached the Oakland line a 2nd time, being again stopped by a line of cops. Poet Allen Ginsberg at the front of the march started chanting “Hare Krisna” to calm everyone down. Suddenly Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang members appeared and attacked the protestors, ripping up banners and shouting, “Go back to Russia you fucking communists!” The police stopped the Angels.
In August VDC organized students to walk on the railroad tracks to stop the troop trains from going through Berkeley. Later we heard the army never sent any more troop trains through Berkeley.
Anti-war marches continued on November 20 when VDC had a 3rd march. The day before the Hells Angels in a press conference said that though they think the march despicable, they won’t protest it. About 8000 protestors were able to peacefully march to DeFremery Pak in Oakland. November 27 about 20,000 anti-war protestors rallied at the White House. Many famous people sponsored the march: novelists Saul Bellow and James Hersey; playwright Arthur Miller; artist Alexander Calder; actors Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Tony Randall; Dr. Albert Sabin (developer of the oral polio vaccine).
The next summer of 1966 VDC headquarters was bombed in Berkeley. I was in Los Angeles where I grew up and went to the anti-war march at Century City on July 9th with my friend. We joined the three hundred marching around in a circle across the street from the fifteen-story chrome and steel hotel where governors from all fifty states were meeting. A line of cops stood in front of the hotel glaring hostilely at us. Century City was traffic lanes with zooming cars, towering glass-and-steel office buildings, and streets vacant of people. The picketers were students from UCLA, from Santa Monica Community College., from Westside CORE, and from University High School, the high school near the ULCA where professors sent their kids. The high school kids were the most raucous, pushing the line faster, starting a new chant, ‘Hey, hey, LBJ, how many boys did you kill today?”
The high school kids knew they were cannon fodder, the next to go to Vietnam. They reminded me of my younger brother, who would soon turn eighteen years old and start junior college in September. I felt a sedate Old Lady of Twenty compared to the rowdy sixteen-year-olds who kept shouting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many boys did you kill today?” Our demonstration was a smash so that a group of us decided to name ourselves the July 9th committee and keep the group together planning more anti-war events that summer. We mostly made t-shirts with anti-war slogans.
August 6th Hiroshima Day I waited for the anti-war march to begin to stop the war in Vietnam and also to commemorate the bombing of Hiroshima with the forty high school and college students at the downtown plaza in Olvera Street by the band shell. A few of us wore the red “Get out of Vietnam” t-shirt our silk-screen subcommittee had made. We complained about the middle-aged for banning our cheer–“Hey, hey, LBJ,/ how many kids have you killed today?”
“They’re a bunch of scared liberals,” a boy said.
“Let’s chant, ‘Get out of Vietnam’ in Spanish?” “Afuera de Vietnam,” the boy said.
“That’s great idea,” the girl said.“Yeah.”
“We’ll yell it.”
We then shouted in Spanish, “Afuera de Vietnam. Afuera de Vietnam” as we started out of the plaza. We were part of a crowd of 300 people marching the downtown sidewalks through a largely Latino crowd busy doing Saturday shopping..
“Afuera de Vietnam, afuera de Vietnam,” our group screamed. The Latino men at the street corner turned to stare at us as we shouted, “afuera de Vietnam” marching by the City Hall, which looked like a concrete white phallus thrusting up into the sky.
“Afuera de Vietnam. Afuera de Vietnam,” we yelled all the way to the steps of City Hall.
I proudly wore a black arm band, walking up and down through the crowd on the City Hall lawn handing around a coffee can to collect money for the Peace Action Council. The glaring sun cooked us. About ten of us were moving through the crowd with our coffee cans. The teenagers threw in quarters, the adults half dollars and dollar bills in my can. From the top steps of City Hall respectable Westside liberals gave boring speeches to a crowd that was baking in the August sun. I thought the Los Angeles anti-war movement could kill you with boredom and decorum except for my small group of rowdies.
Back in Berkeley the spring of 1967 I heard Martin Luther King speaks out against the war in January. I took a short break from my studies March 25 to join the national anti-war protests. I and 100,000 others peacefully marched miles from downtown San Francisco to Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park where we filled up the stadium. We listened to many speakers including Julian Bond, Eldridge Cleaver, Coretta Scott King (King was leading an anti-war march that day in Chicago), and listened to Judy Collins and San Francisco bands. In the spring the Vietnam War had only gotten bigger with more U.S. troops and more U.S. bombings.
Just before I started the summer session, my mother told me she and my 78-year old grandmother were going to their first anti-war march June 23 in Century City in Los Angeles where President Johnson was having a $500/plate funding raising dinner at the hotel. My mom and grandmother joined the thousands in the march—mothers with children as Another Mother for Peace was organizing in Los Angeles; the disabled; senior citizens–marching from Cheviot Hills Park to the hotel. The baby doctor Benjamin Spock was at the head of the march. The anti-war movement had spread beyond small pacifist circles and college campuses to mothers, senior citizens, and intellectuals like poet Lowell, and writers at the New York Review of Books who in New York were coming out against the war. Four Vietnam veterans started Vietnam Veterans against the war that June.
1,300 helmeted LAPD officers carryings guns and nightsticks attacked the head of the crowd. The people were boxed in with nowhere to run to: the police guarded the hotel to the west; a police blockade was on the north; thousands of marchers pushed in from the south; and a steep embankment was on the east. My mother later told me my grandmother was nearly knocked down in the terrified crowd. My grandmother had survived but I was very upset about my grandmother being attacked.
In October the Berkeley Stop-the-Draft movement had a week of protests in Oakland. On Monday the moderates had a peaceful sit-in on the steps of the Oakland Induction Center. The anti-war moderates, who had wanted the peaceful sit-in, had been arguing with the radicals, who want to move into the streets. Before Monday the moderates had won. The group that sat down included Joan Baez and her mother when the cops started clubbing all the seated people who ducked and ran. After the moderates were clubbed, the radicals won out, the group deciding take over the street.
All the young men I knew including my brother were searching for ways to get out of the draft. I caught the bus into downtown Oakland, getting off at the downtown shopping district, and started walking through the crowds of shoppers and office folk–mostly middle aged ladies or younger women in dresses, heels and stockings or men in suits or shirts and trousers. I was wearing my demonstration clothes: jeans, a green t-shirt, a blue jean jacket, and tennis shoes.
Near the Induction Center, shoppers and office workers were replaced by a crowd of 5,000 protesters. Some young men wore motorcycle helmets or construction hard hats, and a few even held shields. I saw two medics with white arm bands. Medical students came to demonstrations to patch up the clubbed, the gassed, and the bruised. Huge Oakland cops with their nightsticks by their side and their guns in their holsters stood between the crowd and the building. More hundreds of big, beefy cops stood in a line down one side street leading up to the Induction Center.
Suddenly, the Oakland cops between the protesters and the Induction Center started pushing the crowd back away from the building. Another group of Oakland cops came up from the side street, marching in between the crowd. The cops cut the 5,000 into about four groups of about 1,000 apiece, moving each group away from the building. My group retreated down half a block in the middle of the street. No cars could get through. A hundred cops stationed themselves, clubs up, in front of the crowd.
The militants stopped and milled in the middle of the street. With their clubs up, the police started to push the protesters back once again. My group started to run, retreating down the middle of the street another half block until we were milling in the middle of the intersection. The cops stationed themselves in front of the street they had just come down, still holding their clubs high. A second and third line of cops came up, completely blocking off both cross streets, looking angry and menacing.
My group had only one exit, running down the street behind them. Good god, I thought, please don’t bring up a fourth line of cops to beat the hell out of us. As if the crowd shared my fear, the mass of people started running down the middle of the one open street. Hundreds of cops marched with clubs up pushing the crowd who ran away again down the middle of the street.
The cops, clubs up, pushed us back a second block from the Induction Center and then pushed us back a third block. On the sidewalk a medic treated a young man whose head was bleeding. Behind us, we saw a horde of black motorcycle cops driving toward us leading a bus full of draftees. The motorcycles cut a line in the middle of the protestors, leaving room for the bus to drive through.
We in the street hollered at the scared boys’ faces peering out of the windows, “Hell, no, we won’t go.” “Get out of Vietnam.” “No draft, no war.”
The draftees in the buses looked at us as if we were from Mars. They looked at us with bewildered faces as the bus roared on through the crowd in the street.
“Stop the war. Stop the war,” more people yelled at the draftees.
The man beside me said, “We kept the buses from coming in for fifteen minutes.”
Fifteen minutes. Big deal, I thought, as I sat on the bus driving over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. That night I dreamed of lines of Oakland cops on three sides of me with a fourth line of cops coming up from behind. Circled and trapped. The cops started clubbing people around me.
In June my graduation was looming. I told my parents I wasn’t going to the regular graduation ceremonies and not to come. Instead I went with my friend Evelyn to the Vietnam Commencement Counter-Graduation. We edged our way through the crowd packed into Sproul Plaza. Five thousand had crammed into every inch of Sproul Plaza from the doors of Sproul Hall across to the Student Union and the Terrace.
We squeezed our way through the packed crowd to the Student Union steps, climbed up a few steps and sat down. A girl was inching her way through the crowd handing out leaflets. I took one, and read a long list of the names of young men I knew who had pledged not to be drafted.
I saw my community in Sproul Plaza. Two hundred male faculty in suits and ties and three women faculty stood on the top of the steps facing the crowd. A band crowded lower on the steps, solemnly clutching their tuba, trombones, drums, trumpets, and flutes. At the microphone a professor was giving citations out to young men for draft refusal, including one spending his time in the stockade for refusing to report for reserve duty. His friend picked it up for him and promised to deliver it to him in the stockade.
Yes, I thought, my magic community was here and had reached out to include the soldier in the stockade in San Francisco. Phil Ochs, our troubadour, pushed his way to the microphone with his guitar and began to sing, “It’s always the old who lead you to war/ and it’s always the young who go./ And I ain’t a marching anymore. /And I ain’t a marching anymore.”
Then Dan Siegal, a law student at Boalt Law School, took the mike and said, “Will all the men in the crowd who have vowed to refuse the draft stand?” Hundreds of young men from all sections of the crowd stood up to deafening applause. “Now say the pledge,” Siegal said.
They said in unison: “Our war in Vietnam is unjust and immoral. As long as the United States is involved in this war I will not serve in the Armed Forces.”
For four years we had breathed in this war daily like smelling a noxious gas. For four years the war hovered over first dates and weddings. For four years every young man I knew was terrified of being drafted for this war they detested, talked of harming themselves or going into exile. To stop the war, the young men I knew had to put their futures on the line. The crowd roared its approval.
Siegel said, “Now all those who support them stand up.” Evelyn and I stood up along with the rest of the crowd. From the second floor balcony of the Student Union a trumpet sounded. The band on the steps of Sproul Hall started to play–tubas, drums, flutes, and trombones–joining the trumpet to serenade the class of 1968 including the soldier in the stockade in San Francisco.