My three-year enlistment was coming up in the spring of 1971, with my last day of active duty being May 12. In Army parlance, I was “getting short.” Given the times in Washington, I was also going out with a bang, not a whimper. The violent Weather Underground faction of the radical Students for a Democratic Society (publicly being led at the time by a former University of Chicago Law School classmate of mine, Bernardine Dohrn), took credit for setting off a bomb in the early morning hours of March 1 underneath the U.S. Senate Chamber of the Capitol Building. The bombing had been preceded by an anonymous telephone call to the Capitol’s telephone operator saying, “Evacuate the building immediately. This is in retaliation for the Laos decision.”
The next month thousands of Vietnam Veterans Against the War poured into the city to throw their medals away on the Capitol steps as John Kerry, later the Democratic nominee for President in 2004, spoke on their behalf before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 24th. Said Kerry,
“The country doesn’t know it yet, but it has created a monster, a monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and to trade in violence, and who are given the chance to die for the biggest nothing in history; men who have returned with a sense of anger and a sense of betrayal which no one has yet grasped.”
The Washington Post reported that more than 175,000 protestors were outside the Capitol that day. Several thousand of the veterans stayed and camped out in tents on the Mall in a modern-day reminder of the Bonus Army’s camp on Anacostia Flats during the Depression.
Militant groups had long been planning to make this May Day crowd large enough to fundamentally disrupt the normal functioning of the government. The organizing slogan was, “If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.” The goal of the May Day protests was to shut down the beltway around the capital with abandoned vehicles and keep commuting government workers out of the District. There were also 21 prime intersections within the District selected as high value targets for traffic blockages. Detailed plans to barricade normal access to government buildings had also been made and widely circulated. The District of Columbia Mayor and police were not amused and revoked previously issued permits.
Thousands of protesters began arriving in the District in late April and began to set up camp in West Potomac Park, not far from the Mall. As with the Veterans camped out earlier, bonfires lit the night there, with marijuana, acid and other drugs helping set the mood.
The demonstrations began on May 1 and continued daily thereafter. In due course, thousands of protestors finally took to the streets the morning of Monday, May 3 with the intent to shut down the government as best they could. As the New York Times reported on May 4,
“The protesters … did succeed in disrupting the city’s normal functioning by impeding traffic and harassing government employees on their way to work, using as weapons trash, tree limbs, stones, bottles, bricks, lumber, nails, tires, rubbish bins and parked cars. … At the height of the disturbances, tear gas fumes filled the air over some of the city’s most famous monuments, streets, and grassy flowered parks. Garbage cans, trash, abandoned automobiles and other obstacles littered some chief arteries.”
During all this mayhem I was putting in long hours in the AOC. When I wasn’t in the glass briefing booth, I was assessing the very public tactics demonstration organizers were widely disseminating in their pamphlets and publications. I was particularly focused on trying to get a handle on the number of protestors arriving in Washington. The numbers in my estimates kept going up and up. The count of buses making their way into the District on Interstate 95 was of a magnitude no one had ever seen before.
The surreal moment for me in the AOC came when watching the local television coverage on the AOC’s screens. At one point, on the Ellipse by the Washington Monument, several helicopters landed, and a small number of troops disembarked. There seemed to be nothing for them to do there, as their commanding officers eventually figured out. To me and everyone else, helicopters disgorging troops had been a constant staple of the evening news in the preceding years. But all those scenes had taken place in Vietnam, not the nation’s capital. To see the same thing underway with the Washington Monument as the backdrop was not only bizarre, but also seemed to be militarily unnecessary. When the boots got on the ground this time, and there was nothing there for them to do, they were marched off in good order and last seen headed up Constitution Avenue towards the Capitol. They may have ended up in the courtyard of the Department of Justice, where other troops were held out of sight, but in reserve.
The whole spectacle made me think of Walt Kelley’s popular comic strip of the day, when he famously had his swamp character Pogo say, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Originally intended as a comment on environmental consciousness raising after the first Earth Day rallies the year before, it seemed equally to fit the conflicts in America a year later.
When the day ended, 12,000 federal troops had been stationed in the Pentagon’s internal courtyard and other strategic points in the District. These were all locations from which they could be easily deployed to hot spots if needed. Except for the resecuring the already secure Washington Monument, the front lines had been manned not by the Regular Army or Marines, but by 5,100 District police and 1,500 National Guardsmen. The New York Times had estimated the crowd of protesters as between 12,000 and 15,000 people. About 7,000 of them were arrested May 3 and another 5,000 or so in the immediate days before and after.
When May 3, 1971 finally ended for me, and I headed home to my apartment in the Capital Hill neighborhood, I left the AOC and climbed the stairs to the ground level. To get to my parked car on the other side of the Pentagon, I took my usual short cut through the building’s inner courtyard. As I walked across the large yard, I saw for the first time that Army troops were also being held in reserve here. By the time I got to the other side of the courtyard, I noticed I had a few tears in my eyes. I thought that was odd. Although I was tired, I was not at all emotionally upset. I thought no more about it until the next day. That’s when I learned that one of the troops in the Pentagon courtyard had inadvertently set off a tear gas cannister by accident. I had just caught a whiff of the gas at the tail end of its presence in the courtyard. Again, Pogo’s words came to mind.
Veterans who served in the military during the Vietnam War years were often subject to disrespect when they returned to civilian life. I don’t recall catching any of this guff, but I know many others did.