tv Mayday 1971 Anti- Vietnam War Protests CSPAN July 9, 2021 1:37am-2:39am EDT
1971, they held a massive demonstration in washington dc. some 175,000 people from all walks of life marched from the white house to the capital. washington has grown accustomed to this method of voicing dissent. this was an organized demonstration. the demonstrators came, their positions on the war, racial discrimination and other issues were made known. throughout the rally, officers were directed to maintain a low visibility profile. their role was to protect the constitutional rights of citizens, intervening only to meet unusual situations. there were few laws broken and few arrests. most returned to their homes,
jobs or schools, but some come who came to break the peace stayed on at west potomac park. for them the april 24 rally was only a prelude to mayday, an opportunity to shut down the federal government. >> the country should respond from coast-to-coast with demonstrations can the and communities across the country. >> these violence prone members decided that the style, discipline and tactics were no longer acceptable. greta: good morning and welcome back to the washington journal. you are looking at the vietnam memorial in the nation's capital. in our last hour of the washington journal, we are focusing on the mayday
anti-vietnam war protest. joining us is lawrence roberts. mr. roberts, thank you for being with us. lawrence: thank you for having me. i am looking forward to it. greta: let's look what is going on with the vietnam war at the time. lawrence: let me paint a picture. it was also sunday morning, may 2. president richard nixon and his aides ordered hundreds of d.c. policeman riot squad to clear out a park down by the potomac river, in which tens of thousands of mostly young people had been camping, in preparation for what would be the most audacious protest and all of the antiwar movement.
people had come from all over the country to camp in west potomac park to get ready for this traffic blockade, which was sort of a last-ditch effort after six years of the movement, to force the government to pull all of the u.s. troops out of vietnam. greta: why did they come? what was happening that they decided that they needed to descend on washington? lawrence: the war had been going on for six years in intense way. the movement started almost the same time that the war did, by people who believed that the war was ethically wrong or was unwinnable, or was draining the resources of the country that should have been put towards domestic problems. millions of people were on the streets over those years,
picketing, parading and marching, petitioning and working on political campaigns. the war had been started primarily by president lyndon johnson back in 1965. johnson was in some ways run out of the white house by the growing antiwar sentiment in the country. richard nixon was elected in 1968. one of the reasons he was elected was his promise to end the war. rather than ending the war, he was expanding it geographically. in 1971, in february, troops were sent south. that triggered another run of
the movement, which was in the spring of 1971. we have dozens of antiwar groups who came together in this chaotic choreography, starting in mid april of 1971 and going through mid-may. they were designed to bolster support. the finale of this protest was to be the most audacious one, which was the blockade of the street and bridges. that is why they were camped, getting ready for protest. the nixon administration was increasingly worried about the effect of all the protests, so they secretly revoked the permit on saturday and sunday morning,
they sent in the police to clear out the park, in the hopes that the people who would come in would disperse and go home, and there would be no protest monday morning, but that is not what happened. greta: i want to show the viewers, on april 7, 1971, in his address -- let's listen. >> the hardest thing that a president has to do is to present posthumously, the nation's highest honor, the medal of honor. to mothers or fathers, or widows who have lost their lives but have come in the process, saved the lives of others. we had an awards ceremony.
at that ceremony, i remember one of the recipients. this is carl taylor from pennsylvania. her husband was a marine sergeant. he charged an enemy machine gun. he lost his life. in the process others were saved. after i presented her the metal, i -- medal, i shook hands with her children. as i was about to move to the next recipient, kevin suddenly stood at attention and saluted.
i found it rather difficult to get my thoughts together for the next presentation. my fellow americans, i want to end this war in a way that is worthy of the sacrifice of carl taylor. i think that he would want me to and it in a way that would increase the chances that kevin and carl, and all those children around the world could grow up in a world where none of them would have to die in war. greta: what impact those words have on the following days and lead up to may 2, 1971? lawrence: nixon was in a precarious position at this point, in april of 1971. i mentioned earlier that he had
sent forces into laos. that triggered a lot of antiwar sentiment. he was getting ready to run for reelection and the polls had him at the lowest approval rating, probably because of the laos invasion of his first term. he mused at the time that he might not get the nomination from his party to run again. he was very determined to make sure that the coming string of antiwar demonstrations, which they knew about, did not move of the opinion. the speech was important. he spent days working on it. afterwards, if you spent time listening to the tapes, the nixon tapes in the white house, which i did, in my book.
you can hear the delight of the president and his chief of staff as the polls showed a little bump in approval. he was trying to seize the high ground before the protests began. one thing that they were worried about was that for the first time, the protests would include a substantial number of vietnam veterans against the war, coming back from the fighting to say that they disagreed with u.s. policy and thought that the war should be ended. nixon said in his speech that he wanted to wind down the war but did not want to give a firm date for the withdrawal of troops, despite the pressure. the speech was intended to bolster support before the
protests, and it initially succeeded. greta: tell us more about who attended these protests. lawrence: the mayday protest was a finale of a string of protests that began in mid april. more than 1000 marched to arlington cemetery and camped on the national mall near the capital. the end of their protest was to return the medals and ribbons, by hurling them over a fence. it was an extremely emotional event. they were followed by a huge coalition of group, everybody from crude -- church groups and unions to the most radical groups came together. it was the largest march that
d.c. had seen, up until that point. following that, there was a series of smaller demonstrations leading up to the mayday protest , which was meant to be a three day blockade of the city to force more attention onto their cause. the people who came to town for that came from across the country. all 50 states were represented. people came in from buses and vehicles were parked along the river. people who felt that the marching, the parading and petitioning was not enough. what was needed was a more forceful act. they believed this was the time for mass civil disobedience, as
a way to put their bodies on the line come out of a belief that the war was wrong and it needed to end. it was originally scheduled for actual mayday, may 1, but they decided it made the most sense to have the blockade at rush hour, monday, may 3. greta: who were the leaders? who organized it? lawrence: the main leaders were a guy named davis, who was a long time icon of the new left. he helped to form the largest group, students for a democratic society. he was one of the founders for that and later became one of the chicago seven. your viewers might remember that
trial based on demonstrations outside the democratic national convention. he'd came to believe that what was needed was a protest to calm attention to the cause. david was a 55-year-old, longtime pacifist who had worked on the anti-nuclear bomb movement and had been a resistor of the tract during world war ii . he was sort of an apostle of nonviolence, this idea of force without violence. he could have mass civil disobedience without an edge to it. that was a way to push the powers that be in the direction that you wanted them to go. greta: we are talking about the mayday protest.
more than 10 times as many protesters were arrested during mayday and during the birth the citizens. we want you to join the conversation. for eastern, (202) 748-8000. for pacific guest: --for pacific (202) 748-8001. if you are in d.c. or were an officer at the time, please dial (202) 748-8002. you were there. please tell us your story. lawrence: i had participated in some of the antiwar marches. like many of the people who came down to d.c. for mayday, i also
believe that it was time for a more forceful demonstration. i guess i was part of it. it was an extremely chaotic day. monday, may 3 at rush hour, starting about 5:30 in the morning, those who had come down for mayday came out into the street. everyone was assigned. they divided into smaller groups and each one was given a place to go. it was in order to block traffic. just to be ready for when police came. during the morning, it was getting to be done. he saw clumps of people walking
all over the city, into their assigned areas. almost immediately, you started hearing sirens, teargas, waiting around, -- later on in the morning, the mass arrests began. greta: we want to show you the predawn event of that day. this is from a washington dc police department film on the mayday protest called, the whole world is watching. >> monday's tax makes called for civil disobedience. targets were broken into two areas, traffic circles and bridges. mayday leaders felt like if they were blocked during early morning rush-hour, government business would be stopped. >> we are going to see to it
that the thousands of government workers, who have a right to go to work peacefully are not affected by those few militants who presume that they have the right to break the peace at home. >> predawn washington was client. >> i will be back very shortly. >> keeping the bridge clear of demonstrators was a sign, allowing more policemen to be assigned to demonstration targets. at 4:30 a.m., inbound traffic was heavy but flowing normally as federal employees sought to avoid disruption.
at 6:00 a.m., police, protesters and commuters converged. 1000 demonstrators blocked dupont circle. 1000 swarmed onto washington circle. over 1000 more in georgetown. some sat in busy intersections, taunting police. some through trash or slashed tires. greta: lawrence roberts, you vote a book about that day. what did you learn about what that was like for the
protesters? lawrence: i think what you are watching before was essentially the police version of what happened that day. they produced that film not long after the protest. it is a propaganda film. what it does not say is that the tax makes the police used and the nixon administration used turned out to be entirely unconstitutional. in the end, the federal courts throughout, based -- threw out every single arrest that was made that day and the subsequent two days after that. 12,000 people were taken into custody and kept in detention without charges. police launched a dragnet, were they arrested people that had been sitting in the streets and anyone who looked like they might have been a protester.
they had long hair and were wearing hippie style clothing. they were swept up the first day . they had not been breaking any laws at all. that kind of throwing out, the rejection of the tactics that were used, the violation of fourth amendment rights, it is not addressed at all in the police version of events. in my book, i try to show a 360° view of that day. i tried to show the white house point of view of what was going on inside the police department and the justice department, as well as the demonstrations. it was fascinating, to me. it was a history that i felt needed to be revived because it
really was almost a forgotten moment, when you had all these forces of 60's and early 70's in america, the ones that characterized this tumultuous decade, all clashing in washington at the same time. i noted in the book that a lot of nixon's reaction to mayday and the decision to bend or break constitutional rules was really sowing the seeds of ultimately minimize of the administration and the watergate scandal essentially began on mayday. greta: john, you were in washington that day. caller: we all went to the intersection that we had been assigned and were quickly
arrested. we were detained. we were taken to the coliseum, but we were never actually charged with anything. we were held for 24 hours or longer, until we were finally released. greta: what made you come to washington? caller: the word. we knew what was going on. it happened every day. this was after kent state and jackson state. nixon's vietnamese nation -- changed the color of the corpses. they were still tens of thousands of vietnamese dying and it had failed with the effort to invade laos, but
still, people were dying and the war was going on and on. people were very frustrated that traditional means of protest would not be sufficient. greta: after you got arrested, what was your thinking? caller: it was strange. we were bundled off of buses, but we were never really charged, unless you went through another line. we had not stopped the government, which was the rhetoric at the time, but we had used nonviolence to show that people were very serious about this. i started out in the civil rights movement. i was very familiar with the theory and practice of nonviolent action.
i think it was a great manifestation of that, the seriousness. there was some craziness that place later in the day after the initial round of arrests, but on the whole, it was a disciplined way of showing your conviction that life should not be going on as normal while the war was going on. greta: do you feel like you and the other protesters were successful that day? caller: yes and no. the veterans starting out and the mass protests that happened on saturday, they all expressed strong sentiment to the country and it helped to intensify that sentiment. we have some counter reaction
that it creates some negativity, but it was such an overwhelming manifestation of peoples seriousness, that it led to people going on and working locally, pushing for congress to stop funding the war. ultimately, that is what contributed most to ending the war. lawrence: right. i think that is right. most people came out of that extreme conviction that it was time to do more to end the war. the response of the nixon administration was informed by by what had happened in the previous week's of these protests. i mentioned that the speech that nixon gave on april 7 had given him a bump in approval and the
handling of the war, but as soon as the protests started, the white house was getting alarmed because they noticed that public opinion was going in the opposite direction. they were worried that a successful shutdown of the city by protesters would put more pressure on them. it would make them look weak. nixon was famous for holding these secret war councils. one of the things that they did was revoke this camping permit where everyone had spent the weekend. nixon also, over the initial objections of the pentagon called in 10,000 active duty military to washington. the pentagon wanted him to properly invoke the insurrection act. we saw some echo this during the
trump administration, but the president ordered that they be brought without any public proclamation because he did not want to show what he was really doing behind-the-scenes. they infiltrated many of the groups that were planning the protest. there were undercover agents. a lot of things that later on were at the watergate it led to openly his resignation. >> we are talking about the day day 1971 vietnam antiwar protest. our camera is at the national
mall in washington dc. our camera is looking out along the wall of the vietnam memorial with a view of the washington in the background. . guest: you talked -- you talked about camping out. where was extra law enforcement put in washington dc? guest: the campground was not far from where the vietnam war memorial is. it is essentially in this area of west potomac park between the jefferson end lincoln memorial's between some parkland along the rivers edge. you could see the washington monument and the distance. it was very much a feeling of being near the heart of washington. when the police deployed and the military deployed on the morning of may 3, rush hour, they were
sent all over the city. you may notice in the film that the police produced to show what a great job they were doing they had a picture of this tactical manual that was in no way secret. it was handed out to protesters by the organizers of mayday. it was reprinted in college newspapers. the police had a good sense of where people would go pick -- would go and they deployed their forces primarily. they guarded bridges and the prisoners police took to a practice field out side of robert f kennedy memorial stadium, which had a chain-link fence around it. later on as john sudden, people
were tracked over -- trucked over to an arena. host: let's go to mike calling from west virginia. he was a protester on that day. thank you for calling in. caller: i was there. i was four years in the service. i spent a year over in southeast asia. all those soldiers who was there at the time, i am listed -- i enlisted. the reason i went there was because of nixon. i could not vote until i was 21. it was -- i voted for nixon because he promised us he was
going to end the war and he didn't. that is why i went there. i was in the back. i did not get arrested. i was with other people that served, but the main reason i went was because nixon did not tell us the truth. that is how i feel about it and most of the guys i served with, when we got out of high school you did not have a choice unless your parents had money to send you a college. i serve my country and i am proud of it. host: mr. roberts, your thoughts after listening to mike. guest: there was so much disaffection within the military. hundreds of thousands of young men volunteered or were drafted to go to vietnam.
boston common. with those people we got to go to washington, and we stayed three days at the howard johnson hotel. we played american university the night before with ralph nader and myself and my brother. boko haram played -- we were on the big stage. i got pictures of phil oakes. he was my hero at the time. when the stormtroopers came in, we got to play because they left one microphone on and we were an acoustic group. we played for an hour while the writing -- fighting and protesting was happening. we threw our instruments to the people in the crowd. we escaped and got to umass. we flew to umass and played at a
protest at umass. they did not know about the fighting. it was not on the news that the stormtroopers came and everyone got it up and arrested. when we got to umass, we were reporters. thank you for your book lawrence. it was my first time getting to read about what happened. i am still a musician. it was only because my friends suffered their that i protested -- suffered there that i protested. i was a college performer. thanks for having me on. host: before you go, do you remember what was the rationale to have a rock concert during these protests? dear member what you were told? caller: i wrote two songs.
one is called 'i am not your soldier.' the other -- host: what did they say to you? caller: they finally heard a song that was about the way they felt. this was not a song that was on the radio. these were songs we played. and enjoyed -- we had to sing them. we were not trying to make a hit record. we never recorded the songs. it was just the way we felt, and they heard that. arrowsmith, those kind of and -- we were some of the few groups in boston who said " we have to stop this." host: can you sing for us or tell us the lyrics? caller: you are no soldier, so
your a man like me. why can't you look, why can't you see? walk away, and remember this moment for the rest of your life because i have. guest: fascinating. one of the things that often gets lost, this notion that the culture at the time was not just radical politics. there was a counterculture, cultural revolution going on throughout the 60's and early 70's. renny davis decided to push for this idea of civil disobedience and d.c. as a way to attract more people he set up an all day rock concert that would start on saturday and go through sunday in order to set up for the may 3
protests. the opening group for the mayday concert at west potomac park was the beach boys who were on a revival tour and they showed up and played. then bands played all through the night with thousands, tens of thousands out with their lean to's and sleeping blankets. on sunday morning while the bands were still playing, a band called claude jones, which is a good, local d.c. band, police swept into the park with helmets, nightsticks said " everyone has to leave here by noon." no doubt, the cultural part of
things end of the music was part of the reason why so many gathered in that park. the government had believed, government and performance embedded with the antiwar groups, believed that about 4000 or 5000 which are up for mayday but instead there were nearly 50,000. that is part of what triggered this overreaction. host: neil was one of those 50,000. neil from round rock, texas. how old were you? caller: i was 18 at the time. host: why did you come to washington? caller: i learned the government had lied to the american people, lied about the basis of the war, and i was terribly angered by that. i educated myself and decided that i had to go.
host: what was it like when you got here? i stayed -- caller: i stayed with friends at georgetown and got to dupont circle as a new yorker. i had the model that people would be warned. if you do not leave you will be arrested. it was nothing like that. police just swept in, grabbed us up before we knew what was going on. host: when you were grabbed by the police, tell us about that. where did they put you? caller: they initially put us in the prison yard at the d.c.
filled every jail in the city. nobody could even sit down and we were kept in there for hours. many were taken to the yard that neil described. the overflow was taken to this football practice field and ultimately many ended up inside this arena. thousands of people, maybe most of them were swept up while they were not violating any rules at all. so there were no real charges lodged against them -- there couldn't be. many of those folks when they were asked their names subsequently by the police were trying to process the folks in there and create some kind of a record that could be used at court, on the advice of themselves, on the advice of others and there they were given false names.
they filed civil suits on behalf of the protesters and the courts ordered millions of dollars of compensation to these demonstrators. the aclu set out to find people who deserve these checks. some of the folks who were arrested during the three days got checks for as much as $3200. others got there $10 collateral back but they could not find hundreds of these folks because they had either given false names or cannot be located. host: james in bakersfield, california, you are next. caller: good morning. i was 10 years old at the time. now i am a 30 year veteran. i always thought then and i still think today at the vietnam war was a noble effort against communism to contain and to defeat it work not carried out very well.
the timeframe of may, i always thought from the history books, i understood it to correspond with the communist revolution. i noticed the red cover of your book and i saw the one poster -- one protester in the police video carrying around a red flag. i thought that was why mayday was chosen. the other item i will say, you have a generation that was protesting against authority, but now on the other end of it 50 years later you have this generation who are now at the end of their professional lives in power and they seem to be more pro-centralized government.
i wonder if mr. robertson could comment on that. guest: interesting questions. international mayday, international workers day, i don't know if it was invented by the communists but it was meant as international workers day. there is no connection between the mayday protests and that other than may. spring is the best time to carry out protests like this before whether reasons and things like that -- like this for weather reasons and things like that. i do not think there is a communist underpinning 12 of this -- underpinning to all of this. as to what happens to people after their rebellious youth that think every individual
story is different. the baby boomer generation like any other splintered into a lot of other things and people carry within them what they would call the values of the 60's. some people didn't change and moved towards a more conservative stance. host: garrett in providence, rhode island was one of those protesters. how old were you? tell us your story. caller: i was 19 years old. i was not arrested. i was walking around the campus area where police had instructions to arrest anyone who did not have id. i was a former student and so was the person i was with. i had my id with me so i was not arrested. he did not and he was arrested. i read lawrence's book and first
of all, kudos. it is not only a good understanding of mayday, but a good understanding of the antiwar movement in general. obviously you had in-depth interviews of a lot of different people like the chief of police in washington. i wonder, were they anxious to talk to you? reluctant to talk to you? do they see it now like most of us do as a police overreaction or do they think it was justified? are there any people on the government side who you would have liked to talk to but who were not willing to talk to you? guest: thank you garrett for the kind words. yes, i think your experience of that day, of people sweeping
through george washington university and other university campuses arresting anyone without an id was something that was common. in terms of people talking about that time, i think unfortunately many of the people who were essential to the decision-making back in the day for example the deputy attorney general, he is not around anymore. jared wilson, police chief of washington was around and was very generous with his time in discussing with me all of the events of those days and what was behind his decision to ultimately follow nixon's orders to doom mass arrest -- to do mass arrests. he did the job he was hired to do that day and despite government lawsuits that were successful against the
government, he did not express regret for doing what he thought he had to do to keep the city open that day. i think he was a man of integrity who was caught between a paranoid white house and his desire to keep the streets from becoming violent. host: leading up to that day, while folks are camping out in washington dc, what was the camping experience like, thousands in close proximity to each other. were you one of them? what was it like? caller: i was not in the campground that weekend in may. from all accounts, it was like a festival. you had music that went on for hours and hours.
some characteristics of the rock festivals of the 60's. people were playing games. they had frisbees, dogs, people bought flutes and guitars and were playing in their tents and lean to's. it was not an angry protest in that sense at all. it was a festival. people at the time, the technology for music was portable cassette players. they had been around for a few years so people would bring tape send trade them and bring -- tapes and trade them and bring the various music of the 60's. that was the atmosphere when sunday morning, suddenly they looked up in the mist of the dawn and saw helmeted police coming to push them out of the park. host: our guest notes that
50,000 came to d.c., 12,000 arrested, the largest mass arrest in american history. rick, good morning -- ruth, good morning to you. caller: good morning. i did go to some protests in washington dc. i do remember the beach boys, but i do not remember that protest. after all the things that happened, including the kent state shootings the year before and subsequent national student strike, after all of that, mr. nixon said " business as usual." i felt so dejected i guess, because it seemed like all this effort was put forth, and yet it
was not getting through. host: i'm going to stop at that point. lawrence roberts? guest: one of the enduring questions of this time is to what extent did the antiwar movement, the vietnam antiwar movement stop the war, shorten the war, constrain the military? historians debate this. it is hard to say what would have happened if there was no antiwar move it. there is no question if you listen to the nixon tapes and if you study the johnson administration as well, there is no question the antiwar movement, domestic opposition to the war constrained the military from doing more intense options, more serious invasions of north vietnam, of using more weapons
of war, potentially using tactical nuclear weapons, which was on the table at one point. there is no question that the antiwar movement was at least partly responsible for lyndon johnson's decision not to seek another term in 1968. during the period that we are talking about, the spring of 1971, that was the time when nixon and henry kissinger decided to soften the terms of their secret talks with hanoi. the u.s. had insisted that no date for a pullout of u.s. troops could be set. they drop that demand during
this period.\ the juxtaposition suggests that the antiwar movement had something to do with that decision. all the marching the antiwar movement did, it was not just people in the streets -- polls showed that most americans thought the war was wrong. a plurality of americans thought that if the cost of getting out meant that the communist in south vietnam would have a part in the government and the coalition government, that was something to do in order to end the war. host: what was the lasting impact do you think of mayday, that weekend and that monday? guest: i think it had a fundamental effect on politics and government. all of the lawsuits that came
out of mayday that established the rights of dissent on the streets of d.c. and elsewhere chilled the possibility of more kinds of legal mass arrests in the country. cases that come out of that are still cited in legal manuals all across the country. it had a huge effect on nixon in a strange way in the sense that it stoped his -- it stoked his dark side. host: the book mayday 1971: a white house at war, a revolt in the streets and the untold history of america's biggest