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Tue Oct 15, 2019, 09:26 AM

50 Years Ago Today: Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam


The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam was a massive demonstration and teach-in across the United States against the United States involvement in the Vietnam War. It took place on October 15, 1969, followed a month later by a large Moratorium March on Washington.

October 15, 1969, Vietnam Moratorium
When the new Republican president, Richard Nixon, took office on 20 January 1969, about 34, 000 Americans had been killed fighting in Vietnam by that point. During Nixon's first year in office, from January 1969 to January 1970, about another 10, 000 Americans were killed fighting in Vietnam. Though Nixon talked much in 1969 of his plans for "peace with honor" and Vietnamization, the general feeling at the time was that Nixon's policies were essentially the same as Lyndon Johnson's.

The Moratorium developed from Jerome Grossman's April 20, 1969, call for a general strike if the war had not concluded by October. David Hawk and Sam Brown, who had previously worked on the unsuccessful 1968 presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy, changed the concept to a less radical moratorium and began to organize the event as the Vietnam Moratorium Committee with David Mixner, Marge Sklenkar, John Gage, and others. Brown, who was 25 years old in 1969, was a former divinity student who had worked hard as a campaign volunteer for Senator McCarthy in 1968, developed the concept of the moratorium protests. Brown felt that protests should take place in communities rather than on university campuses so that "the heartland folks felt it belonged to them". Brown and other moderate leaders of the anti-war movement believed that the best way of bringing pressure on Nixon was to ensure the movement had a "respectable" face in order to win the support of the largest number of Americans, many of whom did not much like either the hippie counterculture or the radical New Left movement. The Vietnam Moratorium Committee sought the support of "respectable" groups like the civil rights movement, churches, university faculties, unions, business leaders, and politicians. Before the Moratorium of 15 October, the North Vietnamese Premier Phạm Văn Đồng released a letter praising the marchers for trying to save young American men "from a useless death in Vietnam". In a speech written by Patrick Buchanan, the Vice President, Spiro Agnew, demanded that the organizers of the Moratorium disallow Đồng's letter and accused them of being "communist dupes".

As with previous large anti-war demonstrations, including the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam's April 15, 1967, march on the United Nations and their 1967 March on the Pentagon, the event was a clear success, with millions participating throughout the world. Boston was the site of the largest turnout; about 100,000 attended a speech by anti-war Senator George McGovern. Future U.S. President Bill Clinton, then a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, organized and participated in the demonstration in England; this later became an issue in his Presidential campaign.

In New York City, the day marked Game 4 of the 1969 World Series and included controversy as Mayor John Lindsay wanted the US flag to be flown at half-staff; however, Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn overruled the mayor and ordered the flag to be flown at full staff. Also, Mets Game 4 Starter Tom Seaver had his face on some anti-Moratorium Day literature distributed before the game. Seaver claimed that his picture was used without his knowledge or approval. The Mets won that day's game in 10 innings and would go on to win the Series the next day.

Over a quarter of million people attended the Moratorium march in Washington D.C., where they marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in the evening bearing candles led by Coretta Scott King to the White House. Scott King told the marchers that it would have delighted her assassinated husband, Martin Luther King Jr., to have seen people of all races rallying together for the cause of peace. The rallies in New York, Detroit, Boston, and Miami were also well attended. Unlike the protests at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in August 1968 which led to much rioting, the Moratorium marches on 15 October were completely peaceful with the main theme being grief and sorrow over the war, instead of anger and rage. The journalist Stanley Karnow wrote the Moratorium marches were "...a sober, almost melancholy manifestation of middle class concern...". Speakers at the Moratorium marches included Coretta Scott King, Dr. Benjamin Spock, David Dellinger, W. Averell Harriman, and Arthur Goldberg. In his speech in New York, Harriman predicted that Nixon "is going to have to pay attention". About Nixon's statement that he would not be affected by Moratorium marches, the comedian Dick Gregory told the crowd: "The President says nothing you kids do will have any effect on him. Well, I suggest he make one long distance call to the LBJ ranch".

In a statement to the press, President Nixon stated: "Under no circumstances will I be affected" as "policy made in the streets equals anarchy". On 15 October, the White House press secretary declared that Nixon was completely indifferent to the Moratorium and that day had been "business as usual". In private, Nixon was enraged by the Moratorium and felt very much besieged as he felt that the Moratorium had undercut his policy of winning "peace with honor" in Vietnam. Nixon ordered his aides to start writing a speech to rebut the Moratorium protests, which took two weeks to produce a version that was satisfactory to the president. On 19 October 1969, Agnew in a speech in New Orleans charged that "a spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals". Agnew also accused the peace movement of being controlled by "hardcore dissidents and professional anarchists" who were planning "wilder, more violent" demonstrations at the next Moratorium. In its coverage of the first marches, an article in Time remarked that the Moratorium had brought "new respectability and popularity" to the anti-war movement. In various locations all over the United States, over 15 million people took part in marches against the war on 15 October. The success of the Moratorium marches was due largely to avoiding the violence that many Americans associated with the New Left and the hippie "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" sensibility that was widely considered to be anti-social.

In response to the Moratorium of 15 October, on the evening of 3 November 1969 Nixon went on national television to give his "silent majority speech" asking for the support of the "silent majority" of Americans for his Vietnam War policy. In his speech, Nixon professed to share the goal of the protesters of peace in Vietnam, but he argued that the United States had to win in Vietnam, which would require keeping the war going until such a time that the government of North Vietnam ceased trying to overthrow the government of South Vietnam. Nixon implicitly conceded the point to the anti-war movement that South Vietnam was not important, saying the real issue was America's credibility, as he maintained that America's allies would lose faith if the United States did not stand by South Vietnam. Nixon promised that his policy of Vietnamization would gradually lower American losses in Vietnam; stated he was willing to compromise provided that North Vietnam recognized South Vietnam; and finally warned that would take "strong and effective measures" if the war continued. Nixon ended his "silent majority speech" with: "And so tonight, to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans-I ask for your support. Let us be united for peace. Let us be united against defeat. Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that".

The public response to Nixon's "silent majority speech" was very positive with the phone lines to the White House becoming jammed in the hours after he gave his speech as too many people called the White House to congratulate the president. Likewise, the response to Agnew's speech attacking the media was positive in certain quarters of America, through unlike Nixon's "silent majority speech" where he professed to be speaking on behalf of the "silent majority", Agnew's speech was intentionally meant to be provocative and polarizing. As Nixon's public approval ratings soared, he told his aides in a meeting in the Oval Office: "We've got those liberal bastards on the run now, and we're going to keep them on the run". On 13 November, in Des Moines, Agnew lashed out in a speech against the Moratorium declaring that it was all the work of the media who were "a small and unelected elite that do not-I repeat do not-represent the view of America'. Agnew accused the media of being biased against Nixon and for the peace movement, and further stated his belief that the media "to a man" represented "the geographic and intellectual confines of New York and Washington". Agnew in particular singled out The New York Times and The Washington Post for criticism.

In early November 1969, two disclosures put the wind back into the sails of the antiwar movement. Colonel Robert Rheault of the U.S. Army Special Forces was charged with ordering the murder of a South Vietnamese official suspected of being a Viet Cong spy, which was described euphemistically in an Army report as "termination with extreme prejudice". More shockingly to the American people, it was revealed on 12 November 1969 by the journalist Seymour Hersh that on 16 March 1968 Lieutenant William Calley commanding the Charlie Company had ordered the My Lai Massacre, which led to Calley being charged with murder. The My Lai massacre become a symbol to the anti-war movement of the brutality of the Vietnam war, and much of the success of the second Moratorium march was due to the revelation of the My Lai massacre. Karnow described the United States by the fall of 1969 as being very much a polarized and divided nation with about roughly half of the nation supporting Nixon's policies in Vietnam and the other half opposed.


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