I'm still beating the drums for the Iraq Moratorium project here, with the IM website rollout days away (he said, knocking wood) and the daily calender pages flipping, like in an old movie, toward the first Moratorium Day, September 21.
This time I have an actual teaser from the soon-to-go-live IM website, a short historical piece on the Vietnam Moratorium of October 15, 1969, an event which serves as model and inspiration for the current project. Months ago I briefly diaried that historic event right here and a couple of days back, One Pissed Off Liberal name-checked it or rather (we are talking OPOL here) image-checked it, in a diary which earned many recs.
This brief summation holds a lot of lessons, especially as it gets augmented, I hope, by the memories of Kossacks who were there. One point worth highlighting is the fact that this unanticipated (even by its organizers) eruption was organized at the local level, often by people who had had little involvement in previous anti-war protests. And that's where the activities that involved several million people took place, at the local level.
THE VIETNAM MORATORIUM
By June of 1969, the Vietnam War had produced fissures within families, communities and the US population as a whole deeper than anything the country had seen since the Civil War. A powerful anti-war movement had exposed the government's lies, had mobilized millions and had leaked into the Armed Forces.
In the four short years since the first national protest in April 1965, that anti-war movement had become a force to be reckoned with. The war had cost Lyndon Baines Johnson the presidency in 1968-challenged by anti-war Democrats, he refused to run for re-election. In his place, the war had elected Richard Nixon, based on his campaign's lying claim that he had a "secret plan" to end it.
But by June of 1969, the anti-war movement was struggling for direction. Big anti-war marches, derided by young militants as "peace crawls" drew hundreds of thousands. Dr. Martin Luther King put the enormous moral authority of the Civil Rights Movement behind the demand to end the war. Still, combat ground on and on.
Activism was going in dozens of directions-draft refusal, electoral campaigns, veterans' protests, sit-ins, street militancy, hunger strikes, door-to-door organizing and more. The public mood was shifting, and large constituencies that had not previously felt comfortable taking part in public protests were getting impatient. The so-called "silent majority" was shifting gears and ready for the right vehicle to weigh in loudly and publicly against the war.
That June, the Vietnam Moratorium Committee stepped forward. The organizers had roots in the student movement and the out-of-the-blue 1968 Democratic primary campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy, which had forced LBJ to step aside. Their idea was to set a date -- Wednesday, October 15, 1969 -- when there would be a moratorium on business as usual "in order that students, faculty members and concerned citizens can devote time and energy to the important work of taking the issue of peace in Vietnam to the larger community." The projection was that each succeeding month an additional day would be added to the moratorium and this would continue "until there is an American withdrawal or a negotiated settlement."
Hundreds of college student body presidents and school newspaper editors signed the student call supporting the Moratorium.
At a national antiwar conference July, one of the organizers explained the project. The conference voted to make October 15 part of the fall antiwar calendar, although some expressed reservations that the proposal was too dispersed and unfocused, as well as unrealistically ambitious.
As it turned out, October 15 was a staggering success. Millions of people participated in rallies, demonstrations, school walkouts, teach-ins, concerts and other events in cities and states across the country. Life magazine's October 24 issue said, "It was a display without historical parallel, the largest expression of pubic dissent ever seen in this country."
Hundreds of thousands took part in rallies all across New York City, 100,000 in Boston, 75,000 in Cleveland, 50,000 in Washington D.C., 25,000 in Ann Arbor, 25,000 in Madison, 20,000 in Minneapolis, 20,000 in Philadelphia, 20,000 in Detroit, 11,000 in Austin, and 5,000 in Salt Lake City.
Exhausted, the organizers merged the November Moratorium, set to expand to two days, into a massive, but traditional, March on Washington. The Committee then abandoned the idea of adding a day to the Moratorium each month, but much of the momentum had been lost. Its last gasp was a call for decentralized activities on the April 15, 1970 tax deadline date to highlight the cost of the war to the American people. Tens of thousands of people in a number of U.S. cities did participate in these April 15 actions, but the turnout was only a small fraction of the number who had shaken the country on October 15.
On April 19, 1970 the Vietnam Moratorium Committee announced its dissolution, with one of its leaders declaring that mass demonstrations were "a political fad that has worn off." (Bad call. Less than two weeks later, the massive campus eruption sparked by Nixon's invasion of Cambodia and fueled by the killings of students at Kent State and Jackson State ripped the country apart.)
Jerry Gordon, today a trade unionist and a leader in US Labor Against the War, recalls:
In its early stage, the Vietnam Moratorium received enormous publicity, as well as the endorsement of large numbers of politicians, who viewed it as a more acceptable alternative to actions called by the existing antiwar movement. There is no question but that the Moratorium succeeded in involving huge numbers of people who opposed the war but had not previously participated in antiwar demonstrations.
To cite one example: By 1969, we had been laboring for years to build the antiwar movement in Cleveland, calling one demonstration after another. While we kept involving more and more people, we had not mobilized more than 2,000 at any one time. Then along came the Moratorium, led by Cleveland-area people who had not been active in the local antiwar movement. The action they called drew 75,000 people!