Editor’s Note: Clara Bingham is the author of “Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost its Mind and Found its Soul.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Friday, November 15 will go down in history as day two of the public impeachment hearings of President Donald Trump, but it also happens to be the 50th anniversary of one of the biggest mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War — the Moratorium March on Washington.
More than 500,000 young, antiwar demonstrators flooded the streets of Washington in the largest ever single peace protest in American history at the time. It seemed as if all of America’s youth had poured into the city to personally send the message of “Hell no, we won’t go” to President Richard Nixon.
The Moratorium March on Washington came a month after the October 15 Peace Moratorium when 2 million people in cities and towns across the country took the day off to recite the names of the war dead, hold teach-ins and vigils, and march. Life magazine described it as “the largest expression of public dissent ever seen in this country.” America was on a cliff’s edge of a revolution. Thousands took to the streets, traveled the country, organized, gave speeches, and disrupted their everyday lives for many years to stop a war that they believed was unjust.
The sheer brawn required to organize the two moratoriums in an age before cell phones and the web was nothing short of heroic. The speakers included senators like George McGovern and famous activists like Coretta Scott King but the music by Peter, Paul, and Mary, Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and the cast of Hair is what everyone listened to.
I can’t help but think of the historic parallels. We had a madman in the White House then, and an even madder one now. We had a corrupt President who had hired thugs to spy on his Democratic opponents then, we now have a corrupt President who has asked a foreign country to sabotage his political opponent. Of course, the ravages of the bloody, unwinnable war and the draft that threatened the lives of more than 20 million young men who were eligible to be drafted turned out to be the ultimate motivational tool. There’s nothing like looking death in the eye to spur on political action. In 1969 and 1970 alone, nearly 18,000 American soldiers were killed.
We don’t have a draft today precisely because of the Vietnam mass protests, but the Trump administration has given us plenty of reasons to take to the streets. How about pulling out of the Paris climate accord and deregulating emissions standards? How about Trump’s violent rhetoric and embrace of the NRA’s policies in the face of an epidemic of gun violence? How about fencing immigrants in cage-like enclosures and separating migrant parents from their children? And let us not forget Trump’s pledge to roll back abortion rights.
Trump’s blatant racism alone — telling congresswomen of color to “go back to where they come from” and saying that there were “very fine people on both sides” during the white nationalist protest and counterprotest in Charlottesville that left one woman dead — is reason enough for thousands to raise hell in front of the White House for months on end.
Yet, after the success of the enormous January 2017 Women’s March, which had more than 1 million protesters in Washington, DC, much of the resistance on the streets has fizzled. With some noteworthy exceptions for protests organized by young gun control and climate activists, protest has gone indoors: most of us feel like we’re making a difference with the click of a tweet, a re-tweet, a like on Instagram, or joining a Facebook group. We whine and complain about the state of our broken government and our venal President in the comfort of our own homes.
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But one thing we do know is that crowd size matters to President Trump. Taunting him outside his door would surely provoke him. On November 15, 1969, Nixon claimed that he spent the afternoon watching football, but he paid attention to the protest. He may have publicly defied the rebellious youth movement and embraced the “Silent Majority,” but historians have learned that the antiwar movement made a difference and forced Nixon to scale back his plans to escalate the war.
To give a sense of the extent of the wholesale national rebellion in 1969, by the next year, more than 3,000 draft resisters were incarcerated in US prisons and countless men had deserted the armed forces, many fleeing to foreign countries like Canada and Sweden. The late Tom Hayden wrote, “The 1965-75 peace movement reached a scale which threatened the foundations of the American social order, making it an inspirational model for future social movements and a nightmare which elites ever since have hoped to wipe from memory.”
On Friday, we should remember the moratorium marches, and take notes.