Peace Demonstrations, 1971

Peace Demonstrations, 1971

This essay, from the May 10, 1971, issue of The Nation, is a special selection from The Nation Digital Archive. If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published on Vietnam and John Kerry, click here for information on how to acquire individual access to the Archive–an electronic database of every Nation article since 1865.


Anyone who was still under the impression that the peace movement was moribund should have been in Washington during the week of April 19. The veterans set the tone under the superb leadership of John Kerry, a first-rate organizer with something approaching perfect political pitch.

His followers were worthy of him, as he of them. As they flung away their medals at the Capitol one said, “I am prouder today of the service I have given my country than at any time I was in uniform.” Kerry said Vietnam would go down in history as “the war the soldiers tried to stop.” They haven’t stopped it yet, but by all indications they have advanced the date when the Administration will run out of excuses to continue it.

The near fraternization between the veterans and the police was one sign of a new development on the domestic front of this war. A lieutenant of police asked if anybody really expected him to throw veterans with amputated legs off the Mall, where they were sleeping, at one o’clock in the morning. He hadn’t, he added blandly, received a copy of the Chief Justice’s order. “Camping?” another cop asked. “I don’t see any camping.”

No troops appeared then or on Saturday, when the big crowd arrived. At the last great demonstration, after Kent State, they were much in evidence, although they did not appear on the Ellipse, where the mass meeting was held. There were troops on hand this time, but they were on the veterans’ side, not the government’s. Every night at the campsite, hundreds of young men in civilian clothes but with short haircuts appeared, bearing candles. They were active-duty GIs from Fort Meade and Fort Belvoir.0 On Friday night some 400, this time in uniform, attended a memorial service organized by the Concerned Officers Movement at the National Cathedral. After a “fiery homily” by William Sloane Coffin, they stood and gave the clenched-fist salute. Mary McGrory, the Washington columnist, says the Commander in Chief would have been aghast at the spectacle, but that evening he was addressing the 80th congress of the Daughters of the American Revolution, who made no disturbing gestures.

The Administration piled folly on folly. Mr. Nixon’s Attorney General obtained an order from U.S. District Judge George L. Hart, forbidding the veterans to camp out on the Mall. The Court of Appeals overruled Hart, then Chief Justice Burger overruled the Court of Appeals. But the government infuriated Judge Hart by failing to enforce the order. He withdrew it himself and gave the government a tongue lashing. Any unprejudiced lawyer would agree with him–what kind of administration is it that uses a federal judge as a political cat’s-paw?

President Nixon made a feeble attempt to discredit the veterans: only 30 per cent had war records, he asserted. But the veterans had brought proof of their service with them, and the President was quickly silenced. On Saturday, April 24, the day of the big demonstration, Mr. Nixon was at his Camp David sanctuary, safe from further embarrassment.

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