Antoher few pages of draft from chapter 11…
Tell no lies, claim no easy victories
- Amilcar Cabral
Getting back to the Sixties, looking at all the Washington gatherings and events from on high there was a clear trajectory. At first our gatherings were only massive rallies. Then they were marches with a rally. Then we leapt to acts of civil disobedience that we appended on to the march/rally foundation. And then we leaped to Mayday 1971. For Mayday we said, let’s forego the rally. Let’s have the CD only. And let’s make it memorable.
The logic was sound. The powers that be were pursuing the war to prevent the Vietnamese from gaining control over their own country, resources, and labor, and utilizing it in ways that weren’t dictated by U.S. corporate interests but that instead sprung from Vietnamese national concerns. The danger was “the spread of a good example.” If Vietnam could extricate itself from U.S. domination, so could Thailand, Laos, and maybe even India. Vietnam itself mattered marginally. Vietnam as an example mattered immensely.
Imagine by a dreadful thought experiment, as I did at the time to understand what was going on, that a meteor hit Vietnam and wiped it off the face of the globe in 1964. The geopolitical and economic loss to the U.S. would have been barely discernable. Returning to the real universe, if by its active and courageous resistance Vietnam removed itself from the international circuits of U.S. capital and took over its own destiny, the demonstration effect would cost a lot. The deduction was that the war was not to prevent “the loss of Vietnam,” but to prevent Vietnam’s extricating itself from teaching others that they could extricate themselves too. The U.S. war in Indochina sought to teach, in contrast, that if you try to escape us, if you violate us in any way, you will not only fail; you will suffer immeasurably. You will go backwards, bombed even, if necessary, back to the Stone Age. The same logic has informed U.S. policy ever since. Do I repeat myself on this point. My apologies. But this point often seems to me to require repetition to get across.
Alright, as we saw it, from the President on up to the heads of major corporations, U.S. elites were intent on pursuing the war. We wanted to stop it. We send, say, 200,000 people to the Pentagon. Later we send, say, 400,000 and then more. So what? Why does this matter to DC’s elites?
The answer is that it would only cause elites to reconsider Vietnam policy if our actions raised a specter of cost greater than the costs that they felt losing the war entailed. Elites had to feel that pursuing the war was going to diminish their stability and interests more than stopping the war would diminish their stability and interests. They had to feel that the disruptions wrought by the movement were more dangerous to what they held most dear, their power and wealth, than Vietnam going its own way.
In that light, our assembling lots of people in DC over and over but having the actions and numbers stabilize at some high level would be irrelevant. Even if we put a half a million people outside the White House every month, if it was the same number of people every time, if the crowd wasn’t growing, if the crowd’s desires weren’t diversifying out into other audiences, the crowd’s threat would diminish to zero because its trajectory would lead nowhere.
As long as the numbers of demonstrators weren’t steadily growing and their demeanor wasn’t steadily becoming more militant, the White House could endure the minor annoyance of having to clean up after us. The powers that be would not have to worry about dissent unless dissent threatened their most basic interests.
The logic of going to Washington first with a rally, then with a march and a rally, then with a rally and CD, and then with just plain old disruption, was to convey that the movement was getting bigger and stronger and, moreover, that its focus was broadening from just this war to all war, and from war to capitalism. Our trajectory said to elites if you keep on with Vietnam, you may encounter problems at home that are too big to endure. It was the same logic as having demos in DC, and then later, all over the country. Diversify. Multiply. Intensify. If you aren’t growing, you aren’t threatening.
When elite figures changed from advocating the war to opposing it they would often hold press conferences announcing their decisions. They wouldn’t say I have discovered that dropping bombs and napalm on illiterate peasants to defend U.S. power is immoral. They wouldn’t say I have discovered that the men from Detroit and Dallas and Des Moines sent to Indochina who come home in coffins or without limbs don’t deserve that fate. They would instead say that our streets are in turmoil. We are losing the next generation. The fabric of society is being torn asunder. I can no longer in good conscience abide the war.
In other words, they told us that continuing to pursue the war threatened their profits and power more than it advanced them. So, damn it all, against their inclinations, they had to change sides. You can judge for yourself what kind of conscience, what kind of personal moral calculus that choice revealed. But the point for activists was that our demonstrations had to raise social costs beyond what elites would willingly bear. To do that required a trajectory of development that threatened future results which they could only ward off by giving in. That’s why it made sense to bring back more people to each new demonstration. It’s why it made sense to diversify tactics. It’s why it made sense to continually broaden the scope of opposition. What elites feared sufficiently to surrender to was a movement that began to question their very right to exist, a movement that got steadily larger and steadily more militant. It didn’t suffice to be more angry or more militant but with fewer numbers. It didn’t suffice to have deeper analysis and broader focus, without having more support and more militancy. A movement trying to win major gains had to manage all the variables at once. Like now.
Mayday 1971 was a leap. The movement was going to try to move not just secondary numbers at a big peaceful demonstration to do CD in DC, it was going to try to bring out only folks committed to CD, and not just to moderate CD, but to shutting the city down. The slogan was, “If the government doesn’t stop the war, we’re going to stop the government.” The plan was to occupy the streets, block traffic all over, and halt the city. This was not insurrection, neither was it legal peaceful picnic style dissent.
I remember the speeches and organizing to assemble people to go to Mayday. I and my mates organized in the Boston area. Others did it in other cities. Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden, in particular, went from place to place, across the country, to help.
This is one of those times when I heard Rennie speak. He made me cry, listening to him as he recounted Vietnamese history and bravery. He made me cheer, listening to him as he belted out and got us to shout back how we were going to shut down DC and end the war. What he did was fantastically effective agitprop and education, at least for some of us. What he did was also horribly ill conceived.
The problem was this. You can’t judge methods and actions by only short run results if you have long run desires. That we were moved and aroused and even that many of us who he harangued went to DC was a plus for Rennie’s methodology. But people believed Rennie. Rennie knew we weren’t going to shut down the government. Tom knew we weren’t going to shut down the government. But their organizing approach was to rile up the audience, and probably themselves too, and excite people with the possibility of shutting down the government. Surely it was worth going to DC, occupying the streets, risking getting beaten and arrested, if it was going to end the war on the spot. It was like revving up for a big game, or a kamikaze attack. You envision immense success; you go for it. You don’t envision losing and go for it.
So the day came and we ran through DC’s streets dodging arrest or finally getting caught, pretty much shutting down the city. It was the biggest mass arrest until then, I believe, in U.S. history. But the next day, it was back to business as usual for DC, for the government, and for the B-52s pummeling the life out of Vietnamese peasants. And the people who demonstrated on Mayday watched TV and deflated. They felt defeated, even doomed. We had gone to DC. We had shut down the city. But the war raged on. Failure. Many gave up. Not Tom and Rennie. Also, not me and many others who knew that this was the wrong way to judge our day. We thought in terms of a long haul struggle of a steadily growing movement. We didn’t make apocalyptic judgments. But the predominant style of organizing often led others who were newer to activism to think in terms of proximate tallies and to then crumple rather than continue when the proximate results weren’t outright victory.
Whatever anyone thought about Mayday, serious thoughts about the war and about strategy needed to be tied to reality. Of course Mayday didn’t end the war. Of course the White House opened for business Monday morning. The right question was, was the movement stronger, wiser, better organized, eager to come back for more due to Mayday, or did Mayday reduce movement prospects. Watching TV and hearing that the war was still raging should not have caused any activist to think we failed. But it did.
My guess is that the Mayday events were at the very best much less successful than they should have been, and at worst counter productive. But the reason why Mayday wasn’t a bigger success, or may even have been counter productive, was because of the long-term affects of the logic that was used to organize the day. What needed to be done was to get everyone there for the same reasons Tom, Rennie, and many local organizers like myself, for example, went to DC – to build a movement. But it was wrong to get people there in the expectation that being there would quickly end the war. Shutting down a city was only a tactical aspect, not the heart of the project. The lesson here is about how to assess ourselves and our proposals, and about how to organize for continuity and longevity. Actually, while I am not sure of the exact timing, Rennie himself did pretty much give up, not too long thereafter. Maybe he was a victim of his own eloquence, distraught that his extravagant promises weren’t met.