Friday, May 22, 2009

Wasn’t That a Time! The Moratorium of 1969

As the end of 1969 tolled, approximately 45,000 Americans had been killed in Vietnam. Across the United States, Americans of all kinds expressed their revulsion toward this situation and our government’s policy in Vietnam during that year’s momentous Moratorium. Part I was the October 15, 1969 action, in which various activities took place nationwide. This was followed one month later on November 15, 1969 with a focal-point Moratorium march on Washington, D.C., attracting over 500,000 participants in dozens of activities.

The October “installment” was conceived as a national general strike by the anti-war movement across the United States. Because of expected “Middle American” aversion to a so-called “general strike,” it was decided to call it a “Moratorium.” Local Moratorium activities—in towns big and small—included marches, rallies, prayer vigils, mock funerals, and readings of the names of the war dead. Observances became political flashpoints between anti-war activists and hold-out sectors of the citizenry that continued to support U.S. policy. In New York City, progressive mayor John Vliet Lindsay ordered city hall decked in black bunting and for flags at all city agencies to be flown at half-mast for the day. New York’s obstreperous police officers and firefighters disobeyed the order at precincts and firehouses throughout the five boroughs. While cities from coast to coast (and everywhere in between) had large rallies and demonstrations—such as the one on the Boston common, where 100,000 came out to hear Senator George McGovern—suburban and small towns found many participants, whether at the school, workplace, or union level.

Coordinators of this mammoth campaign came directly from the ranks of supporters of the Democratic Party’s peace candidates from the year before, Senator Robert F. Kennedy and especially Senator Eugene McCarthy. From Kennedy’s campaign came speechwriter Adam Walinsky and delegate John Gage. From McCarthy’s “children’s crusade” came Sam Brown, David Mixner, Marge Sklenkar, and draft resister David Hawk. They set to work immediately using contacts that the McCarthy campaign had made on hundreds of campuses nationwide. Yet, the momentum of this initiative quickly breached the ranks of the college set and involved a broad swath of the population. So while many Moratorium participants had already participated in various ways to protest the war, many had not. This unprecedented, nationally coordinated action provided a vehicle for the legions who’d never done so before—particularly the middle class, white collar, and middle aged. Visible was the face of that month’s Gallup Poll respondents who supported withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam by a margin of nearly two to one.

With the Moratorium’s estimated involved number of people at two million, CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite called it "historic in its scope." With its critical mass of working people, school children, young and old taking action in an array of religious services, school teach-ins, and meetings, the Moratorium is thought to be the largest demonstration in U.S. history. Supporters of the Moratorium wore the ubiquitous black armband to show their opposition to the Indochina conflict and memorialize Americans and Vietnamese killed in the war since 1961. Even the 14-year-old Kim Agnew—daughter of vice president Spiro Agnew—sought to leave the house on the morning of October 15, 1969 wearing a black armband. Kept in the house by her father, chants of “Free Kim Agnew” were heard. [Agnew was just the tip of the iceberg in her opposition: Since the Johnson administration, family members of high-ranking government officials had made their opposition loudly known in a chilling ball-parking of how strong anti-war sentiment was among vox populi.]

A friend of the family was a student at Grand Haven Junior High in Michigan during the October Moratorium. Wearing his black armband, a teacher serving as lunchroom monitor refused to allow him entry into the cafeteria—sending him to the vice principal’s office instead. Luckily for our family friend, the vice principal’s response was to send him back to the cafeteria with the note: “Black armband, OK. John Van Stratt.” Meanwhile, our future president Bill Clinton—then a Rhodes scholar at Oxford—organized a Moratorium action of 500 people at the U.S. embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square. This haunted Clinton during his 1992 race. Drawing millions of people throughout the U.S. to gather in public places and read the names of soldiers killed in Vietnam, was a cathartic way of bringing together likeminded people across the strata of U.S. society. They got to hear Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., pass on his passionate opposition to that immoral war. Together, activists of all stripes sang the John Lennon composition, “Give Peace a Chance.”

Workplace committees sprang up in order to facilitate grass-roots activity for the October and November Moratorium observances. Whether university secretaries and researchers or government agency workers in Washington, D.C., workplace meetings, discussions, and teach-ins brought neighbor closer to neighbor and emboldened opposition to the war. At both the New York Times and the National Institute of Mental Health, employees were refused use of workplace auditoriums—though the decision at the latter was overturned by a court injunction. At schools across the country, including elementary schools, there were “walk outs” to protest the war.

Without it being the larger intention of the Moratorium, issues of participatory democracy and process became real to Americans outside the usual “anti-war loop.” The Moratorium wrested away sole opposition to the government’s Vietnam policy from college campuses to PTA meetings, family reunions, union picnics, and Boy Scout troops. While "Wedding Bell Blues" (Fifth Dimension), "And When I Die" (Blood Sweat & Tears), "Sugar, Sugar" (Archies), "Hot Fun in the Summertime" (Sly & the Family Stone), "Jean" (Oliver), and "I Can't Get Close to You" (Temptations) filled the nation's AM waves, the very numbers of the Moratorium emboldened opposition to the Vietnam war by everyday citizens.

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