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May Day 1971
By Jack Mallory (reviewer)
Mayday 1971: A White House at War, a Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold History of America’s Biggest Mass Arrest
by Lawrence Roberts
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020)
"The peace movement has many martyrs but few heroes, and the veterans, who held the Mall for four nights against a stony-hearted government, had given it a victory that already has become a legend."
I saw a very small part of the Vietnam War, restricted to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment area of operations in Binh Long and Tay Ninh provinces in 1969 and 70. My perspective was even more restricted by my particular job as a captain running MEDCAPs and doing leaflet and loudspeaker missions directed at North Vietnamese Army troops.
From the point of view of any individual, where we were and what we did were almost incomprehensible parts of the whole. We didn't know much about what we were doing and why, especially in any larger sense. Who decided why we were where, why we were doing whatever we were doing? Who the hell knew? Maybe I knew what 1st Squadron was doing, but what about 2nd? We were attached to the First Air Cav—what the hell were they doing, and why? How did any of it fit into winning the war? At the time, ignoring all questions of whether the war needed to be won.
Similarly, none of us, at least at my level, had a clue what the NVA or the VC were thinking and planning, how/why they were motivated.
When I got back to the world and started working with Vietnam Veterans Against the War in DC the same kind of questions arose. I could see a bit more: I was higher in the planning hierarchy as an anti-warrior than as a warrior. I knew what VVAW was doing in DC because I helped plan it; ditto some of the VVAW decisions on the national level. Presuming that any of us knew what we were doing!, which was often questionable.
Having been in the Army for four years and outside the US for three of those years I had no idea of the history of the anti-war movement, its factions, politics, and leadership over the preceding five years. What was The May Day Coalition, the People's Coalition for Peace and Justice? Who were the Trots? Yippies? Dave Dellinger? Rennie Davis? Judy Gumbo? What was "the plan?"
And what was Jerry Wilson, Chief of the DC Police Department, thinking? How was the Nixon White House reacting to our plans and actions, and Tricky Dick himself? We had no idea.
May Day 1971 by Lawrence Roberts, is to the Spring anti-war offensive of 1971 and for those of us who were part of those actions what battle histories of the Vietnam War are to our experiences there. Like a history of the war focusing on my particular unit and time in-country, the book fascinates me because it's about what I know directly. But in setting the Spring Offensive in the context of years of anti-war organizing by many organizations and individuals it helps me understand how we got to April and May of 1971. It's not a history of the anti-war/anti-imperialist movement, but provides information on the organizations involved—Yippies, the Mobe and the New Mobe, SDS and the Weather Underground, the People's Coalition for Peace and Justice, the National Peace Action Committee, the May Day Coalition, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and the groups and factions they evolved from.
Similarly, the book introduces us to the multitude of anti-warriors that led the movement for years, names already familiar to many at the time but new to me and others who had been outside American culture and politics for a couple of years or more: Dave Dellinger (just an old lefty to many of us young farts, but who Roberts tells us had driven an ambulance in the Spanish Civil War!), Rennie Davis, Yippies like Judy Gumbo and Stew Albert, as well as more recent arrivals on the anti-war scene like John Kerry. And, of course, lesser knowns who really did all the work like my DC co-coordinator Mike Phelan, Tim Butz, and John O'Connor, who did FAR more work than any of us realized!
On the other side were those whose words and work were invisible to us at the time: DC Police Chief Jerry Wilson, who comes across as a decent, capable officer caught between the rock of keeping the peace and the hard place of honoring the First Amendment, along with his own desires to someday be head of the FBI; the White House cabal of Nixon and his aides like Kleindienst, Rehnquist, and Haldeman; and the loathsome (I didn't promise an objective review) J. Edgar Hoover
Speaking of Nixon and his crew: Mayday reminds me that it's been 50 years, and there's a lot I've forgotten. The politics of the last three or four years to some degree removed Nixon from the spotlight as the most dishonest, dangerous and despicable president we've ever had, surrounded by his equally dishonest, dangerous, and despicable aides. Robert's book restores them to their rightful place next to Trump, Barr, et al.
Quotes from the Nixon administration are eerily reminiscent of Trump's referring to protestors. Nixon is described as saying disdainfully, "Goddamit these people are thugs, vandals, terrorists . . . dope addicts . . ." And Roberts describes Haldeman's comments on VVAW: "Haldeman complained that there were 'about six paraplegics' in the crowd and the press was writing 'nauseating stories' about them. 'God, everything you read would make you think all those guys out there had no legs!'"
The book's introductory epigraph sets a tone of past-present similarities which Roberts doesn't overstress but which may be in the back of the reader's mind throughout the book. Judge Harold Greene, who oversaw the resolution of many of the approximately 12,000 unjustified arrests during the Offensive, is quoted, "Whenever American institutions have provided a hysterical response to an emergency situation, we have come later to regret it."
I queried Roberts about the incredibly apropos nature of the quote, incorporated into the book well before this spring's protests and police/military over-response. He responded, "Wrote it long before the current mess, but I was confident America would be in an emergency again at some point . . ." He was certainly prescient, as recent events around the country have shown us.
Another recurring past-present parallel is the Chief Executives' use of law enforcement for political ends, in decisions about how to enforce the law and in images of that enforcement in campaign media. Roberts writes, "In one Nixon campaign ad, the candidate's voiceover said, 'I pledge to you we will have order in the United States,' while scenes flashed by showing bloodied demonstrators, a burning building, and menacingly lit protesters holding up two fingers in a 'V,' the peace sign." I'm writing this prior to the November election—we'll see what the Trump campaign produces.
Fortunately for VVAW, DC Police Chief Jerry Wilson was willing to ignore White House pressure to get tough with the vets. After Chief Justice's Berger's decision that we could be forced to leave our campground on the Mall, "the police chief, Jerry Wilson, took a call from the Justice Department on his hot line. The chief had turned red in the face and told his caller that none of his cops were moving in on crippled veterans, whether they were camping illegally or not. The chief . . . nearly broke the phone when he slammed it down."
"Jerry had already sent one of his most trusted deputies, Maurice Cullinane, down to the Mall to ensure there was no trouble, that no renegade city or park police would do something stupid. 'Cully,' the chief had said, 'make sure nobody locks them up' . . . Standing there in the dark, on the edge of the encampment, Cullinane could see these guys weren't the bums that Nixon had described, but rather people who'd suffered, some grievously, for their country, in a war they believed was wrong. As far as he was concerned, they could camp anywhere they wanted. If they camped right inside his own office, that would have been fine with Cully."
The micro-level detailing of the Mayday events provides other facts and anecdotes that will be familiar to many readers, and brand new snatches of life from the time period for others. Just a few that struck me:
—Phil Hirschkop, another one of the "old guys" who was a regular anti-war movement lawyer in DC was well respected but none of us really knew anything about him. Turns out to have been an Army paratrooper!
—The review of anti-war movement history includes the imaginary threat to put LSD in the Chicago water supply during the demonstrations around the 1968 Democratic Convention. And not to forget Pigasus the pig, nominated by the Yippies as their presidential candidate!
—Beat poet Allen Ginsberg's suggestion to Henry Kissinger that they meet with Nixon, Rennie Davis and others to discuss ending the war. When Kissinger appeared to be taking the idea seriously, Ginsberg added, "It would be even more useful if we do it naked on television." Needless to say . . .
—Norman Mailer's description of the 1967 Pentagon Marchers as looking "like the legions of Sgt. Pepper's Band . . . assembled from all the intersections between history and the comic books, between legend and television, the Biblical archetypes and the movies."
—And for any readers who remember attending grotesquely long, tedious political meetings, "At one such session, the steering committee for a New York march wrangled bitterly for hours over whether to stick the word 'Now' at the end of its official slogan, 'Stop the War in Vietnam.'" Been there, done that.
Mayday pays often omitted attention to ways that sexism affected the workings of the anti-war movement and its social dynamics, especially in the entirely male VVAW:
"This (sexism) also played out in the group house where John lived with leaders of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Their female roommates frequently called all-hands meetings to complain they were sick of doing all the cooking and cleaning. He and the other guys would dread these sessions, where invariably the woman leading the talk would sit in the one overstuffed living room chair, with her lieutenants perched on the arms. The men were appropriately shamed, and the housework situation would get better afterwards. But usually just for a few days." Shudder—I remember those meetings: combat-hardened veterans fidgeting nervously in the face of irate female house-mates.
Jerry Wilson was also dealing with gender discrimination issues inside the police department, where he had to fight plans for different shields and pastel uniforms for female officers!
The gender politics of the day were at play as well in the DC Public Defender's Office, headed by Barbara Bowman. She was one of the 4% of lawyers of the era who were women, and supervised the 100 male public defenders. Their work, and the legal and Constitutional issues created by the 12,000 mass arrests, are an important focus of the book.
I'll end my review with some of the conclusions Mayday 1971 draws on the importance of the Spring Offensive and its after-effects.
—"A poll commissioned by the White House found that an astonishing 77 percent of the country had heard or read about the week's events . . . the vets were garnering a far more positive rating than the typical demonstrators . . . the president's credibility rating dropped by three percentage points overnight, while the bump in approval for his Vietnam policy, which he celebrated after his Laos speech, had vanished. 'The only conclusion can be that the veterans' deal, and the coverage of it, is the cause,' Haldeman recorded in his diary."
—"The protests certainly contributed to the decision made that season by Kissinger and Nixon to soften at last their secret negotiating position in Paris."
—"The lessons (of the arrests and failed prosecutions) of May Day restored the rights of dissent to the streets of Washington."
—Quoting John Froines, "When Mayday was over that was, in a sense, the end of the anti-war movement."
—And finally, quoting Washington Star columnist Mary McGrory, "The peace movement has many martyrs but few heroes, and the veterans, who held the Mall for four nights against a stony-hearted government, had given it a victory that already has become a legend."
Jack Mallory is a long-time VVAW member. He served in Vietnam 69-70 and joined VVAW in 1970. He's also an archaeologist, an educator, and a dad. Like Superman, fighting for truth, justice, and his own version of the American way. He won't claim to be winning, but WTF else can he do?