Lessons From a War Gone By

It was November 1969. I was 11 years old and the Nixon presidency was 10 months old. One year before, in November 1968, Nixon beat Vice President Hubert Humphrey by .7 percent, with George “Segregation Forever” Wallace and madman Curtis “Bomb Them All” LeMay grabbing 13.5 percent. As much as slave plantations and carpet bombing grip American imaginations, there was only one real issue in 1968: the Vietnam War.

In the seven months and six days from March 31, 1968 to November 5, 1968, a Vietnamese army clad in black pajamas, fighting for a population one fifth that of the United States, had unseated one U.S. president, defeated a sitting U.S. vice president running for president, and elected a clinically paranoid con man and two-time loser to the presidency of the biggest empire in the history of the world. Not bad.

Candidate Richard Nixon said he had a secret plan to end the war and that was enough to beat a slavish Hubert Humphrey, who crisscrossed the country hobbling up to the microphone with the colossal Vietnam debacle of his boss, President Johnson, shackled to his ankle.

In November 1969, a year after Nixon’s triumph at the polls, Nixon’s secret plan was still secret and the anti-war movement marched on, strong as ever. The movement called for a Vietnam Moratorium, a massive anti-war protest set for November 15 in D.C.

At the time I was a student in Mrs. Velasquez fifth-grade class at Radcliffe Avenue Elementary School in Charlotte, North Carolina, and my best friend was Ben Beidler. I don’t remember when I first learned of this, but Ben was the oldest of the three children and the only son of Norman Morrison, a Baltimore Quaker who immolated himself at age 31 outside the Pentagon office of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on November 2, 1965.

Some say articles about the immolation were clipped from LBJ’s newspapers by his aides. In the words of the great 1979 film “Apocalypse Now,” the imperatives of empire had reduced one of this country’s most powerful and effective presidents to “an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.”

I went to the November 15 protest with Ben, his two sisters, his mother and his stepfather, who was a teaching colleague of my father at Queens College, now Queens University, in Charlotte.

We drove from Charlotte to Baltimore in a VW microbus, official vehicle of the revolution, and in Baltimore we stayed with friends of Ben’s family. It was only three years after Norman Morrison’s passing, and Norman’s presence was much felt in that Baltimore home that weekend.

We rode back down from Baltimore to D.C. by train. The Baltimore and D.C. train stations were both packed and every aisle of the train was clogged with protesters sitting on the floor.

It was a beautiful day in D.C., where Ben and I congregated with 500,000 of our best friends by the Washington Monument. Peter, Paul and Mary played.

At the time of the November 1969 Vietnam Moratorium, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had, according to Daniel Ellsberg, drafted plans – at Nixon’s request – to nuke Vietnam. The plans called for the dropping of various nuclear bombs, including at least one destined for a spot just a few miles from the Chinese border. This was strictly madman material, concocted by people who had clearly learned nothing from the 12 days in 1963 when the Cuban Missile Crisis pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war and President Kennedy reportedly resisted massive military pressure to invade an already nuclear-equipped Cuba. By 1969 China had had nuclear weapons for four years and hydrogen bombs for two years.

According to Ellsberg, Nixon saw half a million protesters march by the White House during the November 1969 moratorium and decided to shelve his generals’ fantastically reckless plan.

If Ellsberg is right, the historical lesson of the November 1969 Vietnam Moratorium is clear: protest can work – it can have profound effects on the trajectory of history. For sure the Vietnamese beat us on the battlefield, but the U.S. ruling class abandoned the Vietnam War in part because the war was tearing apart this country. The anti-war movement was shaking cultural norms to their core and had started to question – and thus threaten – the capitalist and imperialist underpinnings of American society.

The flip side of that historical lesson is what happens when such rebellion is ignored. In the 1980’s, the ever-vaunted President Reagan ignored widespread protest against U.S. support for the slaughter of Central Americans, and the arrogance born of that willful blindness led directly to the Iran-Contra scandal that almost destroyed Reagan’s presidency and almost landed some of Reagan’s cabinet in prison.

After the Moratorium’s great events, Ben and his family and I returned to Charlotte, and eight years later, in 1977, Ben died of cancer.

The Vietnam War dragged on for years after the Moratorium, but I believe the deeply unpopular war contributed to Nixon’s demise. The war had badly shredded Nixon’s credibility and made it easier to go after Nixon on what Ron Ziegler, Nixon’s lapdog press secretary, famously called “a third-rate burglary.”

In a few short days Americans may have to again take to the streets to save themselves from the ravages of democratic capitalism run amok. Do it. Do it for Norman Morrison. Do it for Ben. Get out there. And never doubt for a minute that you’re having an effect. That’s the lesson of November 1969. That hasn’t changed.

Lawrence Reichard lives in Belfast, Maine, and can be reached at thedeftpen@gmail.com.