On May 1, 1971, I excused myself without official leave from my home in a little Northern Virginia town fifteen miles southwest of Washington, DC, hopped on my bicycle, and got myself to Lafayette Park, behind the White House, the epicenter, on that day, of a demonstration against the war in Vietnam and, more broadly, the Nixon administration.
I was fourteen: pimply, hormonal, excited to be there, knowing that it could bring on trouble at home, given that my father was a colonel stationed at the Pentagon at the height of a movement against a war he had fought as an Army ranger way back in the early days of 1963.
Getting my bike through the crowd was harder than I expected: roughly half a million people were attempting to occupy the same space at the same time, their bodies definitely in motion and not at rest. Woodstock laid-back vibes were not the order that day: Mayday, 1971, with its echo of distress calls for airplanes about to crash, was more like it.
The mood was serious, and seriously pissed-off. The milling crowds held militant signs and placards aloft. There were flags: the blue, red, and yellow banners of the National Liberation Front, the red flags of the Maoists, the black flags of the anarchists. Many of the demonstrators wore steel combat helmets and fatigues bearing campaign ribbons and medals, designating them as Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Some had clamped on football helmets to protect them from police batons. Nobody had forgotten what happened at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago three years earlier. After the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in the spring and summer of 1968, there were demonstrations in more than 100 U.S. cities. More than a few turned into riots.
Then as now, the Democratic Party was bitterly divided between moderate Democrats like Hubert Humphrey, a Minnesota liberal tainted by serving as Lyndon Johnson’s vice president as the Vietnam War dragged on, and the progressive antiwar candidate, poet and college professor Eugene McCarthy. Bobby Kennedy had been a unifying figure, profoundly so, but after he was assassinated, divisions in the party became more volatile.
Inside the Chicago convention hall, the party delegates chose Hubert Humphrey, flouting the majority of rank and file Democrats, 80 percent of whom supported antiwar candidates. Out on the streets, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, the ultimate machine politician, was doing exactly what Donald Trump is telling mayors and governors to do now: Daley’s cops were out to “dominate” protestors.
With Chicago cops wielding nightsticks and tear gas, the city streets turned into a melee: four days and nights of violence, 668 people arrested, hundreds of demonstrators and police officers injured. Great books were written about those violent days, including novelist Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago, which, arguably, reinvented journalism into a hybrid of fiction and fact. Tom Hayden would later become an influential state legislator in California and marry Jane Fonda. The charismatic Abbie Hoffman, of the guerrilla theater radical non-organization, the Yippies, became a culture hero.
And Richard Nixon was elected president. While most Americans wanted to stop the war, it turned out that they didn’t want violence on the streets. Historians later said that Richard Nixon won the election in Chicago.
We all know how that went.
So now it’s July 4. Everything we thought we knew turns out to be wrong. Up is down, down is up, to quote George Orwell. Instead of crushing us, it could turn out that the military will save us. But we’re not sure about that, just as we can’t be sure of anything, not in this new era of the United States as global pariah, our citizens banned not only from Europe, but also, on this holiday, from Mexico, the land that Donald Trump fears and loathes so much.
Having grown up in the military, I look to the military for signs and portents of what is happening and what is to come. Less than a month ago, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, took the unprecedented step of circulating a memo to the military leadership—other chiefs and senior officers, that is—that was apparently leaked to conservative commentator and never-Trumper Bill Kristol. Kristol tweeted the memo on June 3 with the rather understated comment: “This memo from Gen. Milley is pretty interesting—I’d even say startling.”
The previous day, June 1, Milley had accompanied Donald Trump to Lafayette Square, the destination of my illicit bike ride 49 years earlier, for the notorious photo op. For days, Black Lives Matter protesters had been thronging the streets outside the White House. Trump allegedly had retreated to the White House bunker on May 29, but when reports surfaced, he became irate at the suggestion that he was afraid of the unrest.
By June 1, the 82nd Airborne was “in readiness” outside the capital, awaiting deployment against protesters. On the ground, Attorney General Bill Barr already had called in reinforcements for the normal security around the White House: Secret Service, the United States Park Police, National Guard, Capitol Police, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Marshal’s Service, the Bureau of Prisons, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), along with paramilitary forces whose members refused to wear unit badges or show identification, in violation of international law.
Alarmed at the degrees of military force being massed, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Governor Jeremy Northam of Virginia refused to send their states’ national guards, following what were reported to be heated conversations with the president. Republican governors in Tennessee, South Carolina, Utah, and West Virginia were more amenable, according to the New York Times, which sent a team of reporters to produce award-worthy in-depth coverage. The journalists took note of the event as a constitutional crisis:
“Along with the troops, National Guard units from other states brought weapons and ammunition. Tens of thousands of rifle and pistol rounds were stored in the D.C. Armory and partitioned in pallets, labeled by their state of origin, to be used on American citizens in case of emergency,” the Times reporters wrote.
The governors weren’t the only people alarmed by the administration's attempt to use the military to tamp down dissent among American citizens. The Times reported that General Milley was activating the National Guard in numbers because didn’t want the 82nd Airborne called in to quell the demonstrations. Milley knew that when a government turns its troops on its own people, a line has been crossed toward tyranny.
Concern filtered down the chain of command. Ryan McCarthy, who served in the Army’s elite 75th Ranger Regiment during the war in Afghanistan, pored over maps and strategized with National Guard and federal officials at a command post set up at the FBI’s Washington field office in the city’s Chinatown district.
As the Times reported: “This micromanagement was a last-ditch attempt to keep active-duty troops outside the city.”
While the 82nd Airborne was never deployed, federal law enforcement and military forces dispersed demonstrators by firing flash bang grenades and, as reported by the New York Times, “some form of chemical agent” at protestors, while police shoved them off the church patio and onto the ground.
The National Guardsmen themselves were uncomfortable. They were accustomed to being called in to help citizens after natural disasters. This was different.
“Typically, as the D.C. National Guard, we are viewed as the heroes,” said First Lt. Malik Jenkins-Bey, 42, acting commander of the 273rd Military Police Company during the first days of the protests.
“It’s a very tough conversation to have when a soldier turns to me and they’re saying, ‘Hey sir, you know my cousin was up there yelling at me, that was my neighbor, my best friend from high school,’” Lieutenant Jenkins-Bey, who is black, told the Times.
But on June 1, the National Guard obeyed orders that, in strict constitutional terms, were unlawful.
Trump got his photo opportunity. Followed by TV cameras, he brandished a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. He was accompanied by General Milley, who was dressed in battle fatigues.
The next day, June 2, Milley issued his memo. The message was clear, if coded: he reminded the joint chiefs that their duty was to uphold the U.S. Constitution, and that duty categorically extended to the First Amendment: the right to free speech.
He added that members of the armed services were to obey only lawful orders—with the clear implication being that unlawful orders might soon be flowing from the White House.
Also on June 2, retired Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs before Milley, published a scathing essay for The Atlantic, saying that he had been "sickened" by the events in Lafayette Square.
On June 3, Kristol tweeted the leaked memo. That same day, General Jim Mattis, who had served as Trump's Secretary of Defense, published a broadside in The Atlantic, accusing Trump and his staff of violating the constitution. Most outlets ran a quote from the piece that talked about unity and division, but this one was the truly significant statement:
“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago,” Mattis wrote, “I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”
Defense Secretary Mike Esper quickly held a press conference to announce he would not invoke the Insurrection Act, the one lever through which Trump could turn the nation’s military against the people.
The most significant move came a week later. On June 11, in a commencement address to the graduating class of the General Milley apologized for his role in the Trump photo op. He did it on video, soberly, and, reportedly, after much soul-searching, calling it "a mistake."
It is worth revisiting a certain line in Milley's memo, reinforced the fact that the National Guard operates under the direction of state governors. This was no afterthought. Even if the military refuses to obey an order from the Commander in Chief, the country has 450,000 National Guard soldiers. These could be in play, particularly in states with Republican governors, as they were on June 1.
Mark Milley is about my age, and like every adolescent who came to consciousness in the 1970s, I've no doubt he remembers the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song “Ohio” and its refrain: Four dead in Ohio.
It’s time we all were reminded of that song, or learned about it, and the iconic photo of Mary Ann Vecchio screaming in shock over the corpse of one of 13 unarmed students shot and killed by National Guard.
Black Lives Matter protesters need to know that it can happen here. It did, and it almost happened June 1.
While Milley and others averted a constitutional crisis on June 1, their actions may have gained only a reprieve. “I don’t think we have to worry about the military following illegal orders from Trump,” wrote Lucian Truscott IV, who, like me, is the son and grandson of West Point graduates.
“At least for now, they’re on our side,” Truscott wrote in Salon.
Note the phrase "at least for now." As the brass well knows, Trump has been trying to extend his political hold over the military, which has traditionally tried to stay well apart from the partisan fray. Trump’s chief lieutenant in this effort is a 30-year-old former college quarterback with no previous political experience, John McEntee, who has demanded loyalty to the administration as a condition of federal employment and who has been trying to exert authority over staffing decisions at the Department of Defense.
The military remained on the side of the people on May 1, 1971, for not even Richard Nixon would try to invoke the Insurrection Act. Still, fears ran strong.
That day there were helicopters in the air and armored personnel carriers — and, over by the Pentagon, where my father was at work, tanks —on the streets. I had to maneuver my way over to Lafayette Park.
Just as I arrived the tear gas began to fly. Columns of National Guard troops and flak-jacketed federal marshals marched against the crowd. Some demonstrators stood their ground. Some scattered. Some started to run, then turned back bravely and threw the tear gas canisters back at the troops.
What I remember is leaning up against a building on Sixteenth Street, wheezing and puking. The gas cloud lifted, and a trio of Guardsmen came through the chemical mist. Their sergeant took a look at my face, pointed to an alley across the way, and said, “Ride your bike over there, get off the street, and get out of here. Just go home, kid.”
It was sound advice, for it could have been an awful scene. By the next year, as Lawrence Roberts writes in his recently published Mayday 1971, the police and National Guard were ready for war. So were the more radical elements of the New Left, who by that time outnumbered the moderates. The Weather Underground, committed to overthrowing the government, came very close to bombing the Capitol building.
In a scene that was uncharacteristically intimate, yet emblematic of that strange time, Richard Nixon, never comfortable around people to whom he couldn’t issue orders, ventured out of the White House in the predawn hours a few days after Kent State. He wandered over to the Lincoln Memorial, where he encountered a surprised group of antiwar protestors. Nixon told them that he wanted the war to end just as much as they did.
He added that he hoped their opposition to the war would not turn them against their country, adding, “I know that probably most of you think I’m an SOB. But I want you to know that I understand just how you feel.” He then switched the topic to college football before being swept away by Secret Service agents.
A few weeks later Nixon, continuing his oddly human turn, ordered a commission to investigate Kent State, but when the commissioners issued a report laying blame on the Guard for badly handling a peaceful protest, Nixon snapped back to form and responded with a 3,600-word rebuttal calling the student demonstrators “anarchists and bums.”
Meanwhile, Henry Kissinger, the chief architect of Nixon’s foreign policy, was musing aloud in the White House that maybe the thing to do was leave Vietnam, signing an agreement that would require the North Vietnamese to wait for “a decent interval,” as he put it, before taking control of South Vietnam, whose government was certain to collapse. Kissinger was primarily concerned not with the rightness or wrongness of the war, but instead was worried about Nixon’s reelection chances in 1972.
In retrospect, Kissinger’s realpolitik seems quaint by comparison to Donald Trump’s blatant shakedowns. Kissinger, at least, had read the Constitution. Yet, for reasons that remain obscure, Nixon brushed Kissinger’s suggestion aside. The war went on, and so did the demonstrations.
One of the largest of them—one of the largest protests in American history, in fact—was the one that took place on that first day of May in 1971. It could have been terrible, as I say. That it did not turn out that way arose from a certain restraint on the part of the National Guard, whose soldiers fired tear gas but held back on cracking heads, unlike Richard Daley’s cops in Chicago.
Of the infamous cop riot in Mayor Daley’s fiefdom that was on everyone’s mind that day, Norman Mailer memorably writes in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, “The police attacked with tear gas, with mace, and with clubs, they attacked like a chain saw cutting into wood, the teeth of the saw the edge of their clubs, they attacked like a scythe through grass, lines of twenty and thirty policemen striking out in an arc, their clubs beating, demonstrators fleeing.”
Doubtless the DC police would not have minded a shot at emulating their Chicago peers on Mayday, but they were kept from doing so by a chief of police who counseled restraint instead of violence. He resisted Attorney General John Mitchell’s effort to federalize the force after Nixon ordered, “Arrest the whole damn lot.”
Instead, the police chief, Jerry Wilson, concentrated his attention on trying to keep critical points such as the Fourteenth Street Bridge open to traffic. He was unsuccessful in that effort: one of the whole points of the demonstration, as a flyer advertised days before the event itself, was to shut down vehicular access to government buildings, and the demonstrators made good on that promise.
The police were also committed to a strategy of mass arrests of anyone who got in their way, and to that end they commandeered a practice field alongside Robert F. Kennedy Stadium a couple of miles east of Capitol (which didn’t blow up, the Weather Underground having given up that project). When advised of them and the heavy legal caseload that would follow, the chief judge of the District’s Superior Court warned Wilson that those mass arrests would be “a test of our commitment to the rule of law.” Added Judge Harold H. Greene, with Solomonic wisdom, “Whenever American institutions have provided a hysterical response to an emergency situation, we have come later to regret it.”
The police and, even more vigorously, the National Guard proceeded, without apparent regret, to arrest more than 12,600 demonstrators. It was the largest mass arrest in US history, a record that has yet to be broken. The legal basis for the arrests was shaky: the next day, May 2, the Nixon administration revoked the demonstrators’ permit—yes, someone had applied for a permit—to be on the National Mall, allowing charges of trespassing to be filed.
In all but about eighty instances, however, demonstrators were held behind the chain link fence at RFK, or in the courtyard of the city jail, for a few hours and then released.
Like Donald Trump last month, Richard Nixon had wanted to call out the regular Army against the demonstrators on Mayday. He ordered Richard Kleindienst, the assistant attorney general, to make it happen. Kleindienst summoned a general and conveyed the president’s order. The general balked, citing posse comitatus laws.
Writes Roberts in Mayday 1971: “Let’s just suppose the crowd is big enough to shut down the government, Jerry [Wilson] said. Wouldn’t it be better for us, he gently suggested, if the militants could crow only that they had defeated the police, rather than the mighty U.S. military?
An army official chimed in on Jerry Wilson’s side. "Why not wait a day, see if the troops were really necessary?” Once again the military staved off a constitutional crisis, one that threatens to be revisited so long as Trump is in office.
The demonstrations wound down on Monday, May 3. In later years, I regretted following the sergeant’s orders and going home instead of spending a few hours in custody. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit for wrongful arrest and violation of the due process clause, resulting in payouts of as much as $12,000 to detainees.
I could certainly have used the money when the checks were written a dozen or so years after the fact. On the other hand, I had already been spending the bulk of my adolescence to date “on restriction,” and if I’d gotten busted that day, my father being a fair but disciplined man, I’d probably still be grounded today.
Where the antiwar movement had a single focus, the struggle today is carried out on many fronts: antifascist, antiracist, anticapitalist, pro–civil rights for one and all, the list goes on, all carried out by a broad constituency that incorporates every age bracket, every ethnicity, every social class.
There is transformative, even revolutionary power in what we’re seeing on the streets. And while there are many lessons to be taken from the past, our eyes need to be resolutely fixed on the future. Because it is not, in any way, assured.
Ohio (live) ::: Crosby Stills Nash & Young
Run Revolution A - Come ::: Hugh Mundell
People Got To Be Free ::: The Rascals
Fight The Power ::: The Isley Brothers
Revolution ::: Bob Marley & The Wailers
Cult of Personality ::: Living Colour
When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky ::: Bob Dylan
A Simple Song of Freedom ::: Tim Hardin
Revolution Blues ::: Neil Young