The March on the Pentagon: A Day to Remember

“I saw courage both in the Vietnam War and in the struggle to stop it. I learned that patriotism includes protest, not just military service.” John F. Kerry
New York Daily News published this on Oct. 22, 1967. (NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)

It was 1967, and sentiment against the Vietnam War was in the air nationwide. The counterculture was flourishing on the heels of the Summer of Love. Organizers from Mobe  — the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam — initially called for a massive march on Washington. When activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman got involved, a plan was hatched to exorcise and levitate the Pentagon (which would, of course, have the secondary effect of ending the war). When the day came, about 100,000 protesters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial as part of what seemed like a typical Washington, D.C., rally. After the speeches from David Dellinger and Benjamin Spock, and after the Peter, Paul and Mary performance wrapped up, about half the crowd marched over the Memorial Bridge to the Pentagon.

The crowd marches over the Memorial Bridge to the Pentagon.

This is when things got interesting. Several hundred people started chanting and singing, since, as Time magazine dutifully explained:

“By chanting ancient Aramaic exorcism rites while standing in a circle around the building, they could get it to rise into the air, turn orange and vibrate until all evil emissions had fled. The war would end forthwith.”(1)

Meanwhile, on another side of the building, several thousand federal troops and a couple hundred U.S. marshals tried to protect the Pentagon steps using tear gas, rifle butts and arrests to stay on top of the chaos.

There were other big marches in Washington in opposition to the Vietnam War. Starting in 1965 they had practically become a semi-annual event.  There will be more—and larger—ones later.  But the March to Confront the War Makers on October 21, 1967 was different.  It signaled a new phase in the anti-war movement that incorporated the rising youth counter  culture on a large scale for the first time and willingness for more aggressive confrontation of authority. 

An iconic image of the March on the Pentagon. (Magnum Agency) Jan Rose Kasmir, I added an interview of her to my sources, if you’re interested, her story is really interesting. (4)
An antiwar demonstrator places flowers into the barrels of rifles while blocking the Pentagon on Oct. 21, 1967. (Bernie Boston/The Washington Star Collection)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Images of young people putting flowers in the barrels of Army M-15s became iconic(Flower Power). But soon more militant demonstrators were challenging the line.  Arrests began.  Small groups managed to get partially up the steps of the building.  Others found an unguarded access ramp and charged in.  They were met with rifle butts and sheathed bayonets and particularly by the aggressive batons of Federal Marshals who busted several heads. Tear gas was used on the crowd and there was some chaos and panic.

Among the first to be arrested after the demonstrators got to the Pentagon was author Norman Mailer, who attempted to cross a police line at the building’s river entrance. He did not resist when two U.S. marshals led him away by the arm. Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “nonfiction novel” The Armies of the Night recounts the scene there, including the author’s arrest and subsequent overnight imprisonment while hoping to make it back to New York in time for a cocktail party.

 

Military police face screaming anti-Vietnam War demonstrators at the Pentagon in Washington on Oct. 21, 1967.

After the arrest many people left the Pentagon but the majority of the demonstrators continued to stand by.  Many sang America the Beautiful and other patriotic and anti-war songs as the battle raged.  By 7 pm things had settled down.  Authorizes announced that the permit for the demonstration had expired.  Most of the remaining demonstrators drifted away, but about 7,000 chose to stay.  No move was made to dislodge them, but as overnight temperatures dropped, many more left. (2)

Some of the demonstrators were determined to disrupt military operations by storming the Pentagon.

At dawn a few hundred left to march to the White House to “wake up LBJ.”  There were more arrests there, including those charged with picking flowers in Lafayette Park.  A few hundred others stayed behind to keep a vigil at the Pentagon.  At midnight the remaining 200 were rousted or arrested.

Send them home signs in the March.

What did the protest, young voices all achieve? News coverage suggested that antiwar activists had far to go in winning over the public. Commentary highlighted isolated acts of outlandishness, while conservatives focused on the presence of Communist groups. Though split about the wisdom of the war, Americans agreed overwhelmingly that, as one poll phrased it, peace marches amounted to “acts of disloyalty against the boys in Vietnam.” Still, in the near term, the march fueled the movement’s energy and surging sense of power and hope. But it also framed antiwar opposition for many as a countercultural project and in so doing served to widen the chasm between hawks and doves.(3)

March as depicted in the film, Forest Gump with Tom Hanks.

Despite all the anti-war efforts nearly 20,000 Americans had been killed in Vietnam, and the war would claim 38,000 more lives before the U.S. finally withdrew in 1975. But the march on the Pentagon became a defining moment of the antiwar movement and held its place on many minds as a part of the collective memory of the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement. 

http://fod.infobase.com/p_ViewVideo.aspx?xtid=37890 (another great video, it didn’t show up as a video file when I post the URL but definitely check it out if you’re interested.)

Sources

  1. Schreiber, E. M. “Anti-War Demonstrations and American Public Opinion on the War in Vietnam.” The British Journal of Sociology, vol. 27, no. 2, 1976, pp. 225–236. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/590029.
  2. The Time Magazine. Protest the Banner of Dissent. 1967. http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,841090-9,00.html
  3. The Washington Post. The day anti-war protestors tried to levitate the Pentagon. 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/10/19/the-day-anti-vietnam-war-protesters-tried-to-levitate-the-pentagon/?utm_term=.83056b1248c4
  4. The New York Times, March on the Pentagon, Oral History. 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/10/20/opinion/sunday/march-on-the-pentagon-oral-history.html
  5. The Guardian. That’s me in the picture: Jan Rose Kasmir at an anti-Vietnam war rally at the Pentagon, in 1967. 2014 https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/nov/07/jan-rose-kasmir-anti-vietnam-rally-pentagon
  6. Mailer, N. (1968). The Armies of the Night. US: New American Library.
  7. Wikipedia. Opposition to United States involvement in the Vietnam War. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opposition_to_United_States_involvement_in_the_Vietnam_War

Images/Video

  1. “Anti-Vietnam War Activists March on the Pentagon Ca. 1967.” Films Media Group, 1967, fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=102632&xtid=37890. Accessed 24 Apr. 2018.
  2. Protesting Vietnam War. Ny Daily News. 2016. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/500-arrested-protesting-vietnam-war-1967-article-1.2836714
  3. The Day Anti-Vietnam War Protestors Tried to Levitate the Pentagon. Washington Post. 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/10/19/the-day-anti-vietnam-war-protesters-tried-to-levitate-the-pentagon/?utm_term=.4d7d6cf4f734
  4. Google Images. Norman Mailer. The Armies of the Nights. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12474.The_Armies_of_the_Night
  5.  Anti-Vietnam War Protest. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bk09F1fTs1E
  6. Forest Gump with Tom Hanks film scene. https://mholloway63.wordpress.com/2013/10/21/what-happened-on-october-21st-vietnam-protest-in-washington-dc/

Oznur Ikiz