During the last week of April and the first few days of May in 1971, tens of thousands of US residents protested in the streets of Washington, DC. Their goal was to force an immediate and complete withdrawal of all US forces from Southeast Asia. Although they did not accomplish their goal, they did force the rest of the United States of America to acknowledge the war needed to end. I was living in the Bundesrepublik Deutschland and attending antiwar protests there, but I wished I was in the streets of DC. Lawrence Roberts, author of a soon to be released history of those protests was one of those protestors. His book, titled Mayday 1971: A White House at War, a Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold History of America’s Biggest Mass Arrest is a masterful chronicle of this particular historical moment. Detailed and encompassing the actions, planning and personalities of the protesters and the government forces aligned against them, Roberts’ writing is thoughtful and compelling.
The main slogan of the protests was simple: “If the government won’t stop the war, the people will stop the government.” The intention was equally simple. If enough people blocked main intersections in official Washington, DC and the streets leading to the Pentagon in Virginia, the work of the war machine could be temporarily halted. It was a lofty goal, but one that would at the very least, signify the depth of the resistance to the ongoing imperial slaughter in Southeast Asia. The direct action planned was actually only part of two weeks of protest planned by at least three national antiwar organizations: Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice (PCPJ), and the Mayday Tribe. Like every other national antiwar protest during the period, the coalitions and cooperation between the groups was always in flux and was maintained because of its common purpose and the personalities of certain individuals in the movement.
The author Roberts correctly identifies the veteran pacifist and antiwar organizer David Dellinger as one of these individuals. Delllinger’s lifetime opposition to US wars gave him a credibility with the more mainstream groups involved in the weeks of protest while the fact of his inclusion in the Chicago 8/7 conspiracy trial gave him a credibility with hose in the New Left and its countercultural adjunct. The depth of his convictions was never in doubt and even drew respect from those who wanted him in prison. A few of the latter were members of President Richard Nixon’s team of advisors. Unfortunately for Dellinger, he would spend much of the two weeks of antiwar protest in the hospital for issues related to injuries he had received in an earlier protest. Other lead organizers highlighted in the text include another Chicago conspiracy alumni Rennie Davis, a future US Senator John Kerry and the ultimate Yippie revolutionaries Judy Gumbo and Stew Albert. Of course, while these individuals and others highlighted by Roberts were certainly important to the success of these protests collectively known as the Spring Offensive, it was the tens of thousands of antiwarriors in the streets, parks and buildings of DC that made it a success. These foot soldiers of the revolution were also the bulk of the more than twelve thousand arrested by the police.
On the other side were the Nixon administration, the Washington, DC police force and the FBI. Mayday 1971 explores the psychology and politics of these forces, their debates and disagreements on how to deal with the protests, and their excessively authoritarian measures in the streets and parks of Washington during the Offensive. The scenario Roberts describes is one that involves a paranoid White House playing to its right-wing base and its own
authoritarian tendencies, a municipal police chief stuck between his policing instincts and the political pressures coming from the White House and the FBI, and personal pettiness being elevated to policy. Although DC police chief Jerry Wilson comes across as being a greater friend of democracy than anyone in the Nixon White House or the FBI, the bottom line remains—he did what he was told to do by the White House. After all, they were the key to his job and any future promotions. Because the author had fairly good access to Wilson while researching the book, he is able to provide a viewpoint on the repression of the protests that was merely hinted at before. Likewise, his conversations with Nixon staffer “Bud” Keogh combined with an access to Oval Office tapes recorded by Nixon himself reaffirm both Nixon’s paranoia and obsession with public opinion polls.
There’s a lot of things going on in this text. Then again, there were a lot of things going on in the world during the weeks this book focuses on. Much of it was going on in Washington, DC. From a Weather Underground bombing of the US Capitol to an encampment of antiwar veterans on the Washington Mall; from an undercover law enforcement effort that was often illegal to an open and public conspiracy to disrupt the business of the world’s most powerful government; Mayday 1971 is a panoramic yet focused and in-depth discourse on the largest nonviolent direct action protest ever undertaken in the capital city of the United States. Indeed, until the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization and capitalist globalization in Seattle, the Spring Offensive of antiwar protest were the largest nonviolent direct action protests of post-World War Two United States.
The US movement against the US war on the Vietnamese was one of the most popular movements against war in history. Despite its popularity, the US government and much of the media ignored it, ridiculed it, locked up many of its members and just plain opposed it in almost every possible way. This is why tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Washington, DC in late April and early May of 1971. Their frustration had already pushed some of the movement’s most intelligent and informed organizers to revolutionary violence, with many others supporting such actions. Lawrence Roberts’ forthcoming history of the 1971 protests is a stirring and exhaustive look at those three weeks and the people who made them historical. Such a book has been a long time coming.