Chapter 3: Freshman At Columbia, 1965 (vi)
Around the time I was still being radicalized in relationship to U.S. policy in Viet Nam, I attended my first off-campus anti-war rally.
It was a Saturday morning in late October. I was strolling up Broadway, past the 116th St. entrance to Columbia’s campus, when I noticed about 100 leftists lined up against the wall of Dodge Hall, facing towards Harlem. Some of these leftists I recognized from having hung around the ICV table in Low Plaza.
I was now against the war, but I was hesitant about joining a demonstration which a civil rights group wasn’t sponsoring. I was still anti-communist enough in my conditioning to fear being manipulated by communists, if I went on a demonstration which was organized only by leftists. I was ready to revolt. But I distinguished between “authentic” youth revolt a la Berkeley or led by African-American activists and “inauthentic” or CP-led “left sect” revolt. After walking about five yards past the demonstration, however, I turned around and joined the line of marchers. This was the first time I chose to express my alienation, political discontent and anti-militarist sentiments by joining a collective protest.
While we waited to begin marching, I got into a discussion with a hard-core pacifist woman who argued that “immediate withdrawal from Viet Nam” was a more moral and democratic position than the “stop the bombing and negotiate, but no withdrawal yet” position which I was still halfheartedly clinging to in October 1965. This was probably the last time that I argued against an “immediate withdrawal from Viet Nam” position.
After a long wait, our march finally began. At first, I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable chanting the slogans in unison with other anti-war marchers. But, after awhile, I got used to shouting along with everybody else. I began to lose my feeling that marching and chanting slogans was too simplistic a way of summarizing complex issues like the war in Viet Nam.
We marched down Amsterdam Ave. and then across 110th St. to Fifth Ave. We then marched down Fifth Ave. Along Fifth Ave., people were supportive. From windows in the high-rise apartments, white liberal upper-middle-class people stuck their heads out and clapped their hands in support of us. In New York City–even among Manhattan’s wealthy–the U.S. military intervention in Viet Nam didn’t have much support. As we marched downtown, I accumulated many leaflets and free leftist and pacifist newspapers from different young people, who kept shoving their interpretations of the war into my hands.
We met the other anti-war demonstrators at the Upper East Side meeting point and I was surprised to see how many other people were also against the war in Viet Nam. There was another boring long wait, and more leaflets and free newspapers were shoved into my hands. Finally, the main march went down Fifth Ave. to another closed-off street in the lower 60s on the East Side.
As we marched down Fifth Ave. people chanted “End the war in Viet Nam! Bring the troops home!” over and over again. Socialist Workers Party people always added “now” to the chant “Bring the troops home!” There evidently had been much Fifth Ave. Peace Parade Coalition faction-fighting prior to the march as to whether the politically correct slogan to be chanted was “Bring the troops home!” or “Bring the troops home, now!” The latter position implied the more radical demand for immediate U.S. withdrawal from Viet Nam, instead of the less radical demand of just stop the bombing, negotiate and withdraw only after a negotiated settlement.
At the rally site at the end of the march I was surprised, again, at how many people were actually so against the war that they were willing to rally. Dave Dellinger spoke at length with enthusiasm and moral passion and moderated the street rally. The elderly War Resisters League head, A. J. Muste, also spoke. This October rally marked the first time I heard pacifist speakers like Dellinger and Muste, as well as other anti-imperialist leftist speakers, in an off-campus situation. I felt that these left activists all made more sense than the Democratic and Republican Party politicians I had seen on TV when I was growing up. Dellinger’s enthusiasm and moral passion especially appealed to me, immediately.
After the rally broke up, I took the subway alone back to the Columbia dorms and, in my dorm room, I read through all the free anti-war literature I had accumulated during the day. With so many people opposed to U.S. policy in Viet Nam, I thought the war would soon end. I also felt that what was written in the anti-war literature made more sense than what the New York Times was printing about the war in Viet Nam.
My opposition to U.S. military intervention in Viet Nam intensified as the school year progressed. I planned to attend a November anti-war march in Washington, D.C. But F.B.I. pressure on the bus company that had agreed to take us down to D.C. in chartered buses to demonstrate caused the bus company and its union to refuse, at the last minute, to provide enough buses to transport us. After awakening at 5 a.m., I was one of the people who was stranded in New York and couldn’t go to D.C. to demonstrate. The informal limitations on the right of dissent in the U.S. were being revealed to me.
I wrote a letter to Vice President Hubert Humphrey and used quotations from the then-recently-deceased former liberal Democratic presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, to argue against LBJ’s policy of war in Viet Nam. I urged Humphrey to speak out in opposition to LBJ. But Humphrey’s office sent back a form letter which stated that Humphrey had carefully considered the issue and believed LBJ was doing all that he could to secure a just and honorable peace.