Antiwar Movement 1965-67

The Antiwar Movement in New York City 1965-67

An Updated and revised version of the article published in
"Les Temps Modernes"
the magazine of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre
September 1968

Roy Lisker

By December 1965 anxiety over the escalation of bombardments over North Vietnam was growing in the American anti-war movement. Now the bombing of Haiphong, the port of North Vietnam's principal city, Hanoi, seemed inevitable. In spite of all the promises given by Lyndon Baines Johnson, this stepping up of the intensity of the war (which in retrospect was but a prelude to what was to come ) appeared almost insane. For many of us the bombing of Haiphong appeared as a kind of threshold, a point of no return. If and when it was initiated almost anything might appear justified in halting the war.

Bombing raids in the outlying districts around Hanoi did in fact start up early in 1966, with the targeting and destruction in January of its electric utilities. In the coming weeks the bombardments would augment to such a degree that it could scarcely be doubted that Hanoi was the next step. Was this not in fact the point of no return to which so many people were alluding?

Still there was no radical change in the strategies of the organizations opposed to the war. The documentation of these bombardments as it appeared on the pages of the New York Times, was couched in language so neutral and vague that few readers would notice anything extraordinary in what was taking place. The dreadful news neither electrified nor unified the peace movement. Rather than serving as a call to arms, current events, underlining our continuing impotence in the face of political reality, merely increased our depression. This sense of helplessness influenced both the debate within each group, and the relations between them. However in New York City, around the beginning of December 1965, meetings were organized to discuss what might be done in the eventuality that Haiphong harbor, or even Hanoi itself, were bombed. Two weeks before Christmas Walter Teague III, founder and principal animator of the Committee to Aid the National Liberation Front (CANLF) sent out a memorandum to virtually all of the anti-war groups in the New York City area. It invited them to send representatives to a meeting, at which joint actions to be undertaken in the eventuality that Haiphong or Hanoi were bombed would be proposed. Given the urgency of the crisis the usual distinction made between the Marxist groups supporting the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) , and the pacifist groups who opposed all sides of the conflict, was overlooked.

The initial response was strong. The first meeting took place at the Greenwich Village Peace Center next to Sheridan Square. The representation of antiwar groups was broader than anything I'd seen before. The only successful collective effort to date had been the setting up of the committee to organize the great annual Peace Parade down 5th Avenue. It was destined to remain so.

Among the organizations filling the main auditorium of the Greenwich Village Peace Center one found most of the non-violent civil disobedience groups, such as the Committee for Non-violent Action (CNVA), the New York Workshop in Non-Violence (NYWIN), and the Catholic Worker (CW) . A sampling of Trotskyist splinter groups showed up including the Spartacists , the Militant Labor Forum (MLF), Youth Against War and Fascism, The Committee for the Fourth International, (C4I ), and the Progressive Labor Party. Among the Socialist organizations were the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) . Middle-class liberal organizations were represented by Women's Strike for Peace ( WSP) and the organization for a sane nuclear policy ( SANE). In addition there were a sampling of smaller organizations representing a wide range of opinion, such as the Anarchists, the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation and so on.

Walter Teague III was there as moderator, and as the representative for the CANLF. I was there as one of the two delegates representing NYWIN. Notably absent were the Society of Friends, the traditional Socialist Party and the traditional Communist Party. None of these, to my knowledge, ever contributed to or participated in direct action campaigns against the war, although individuals may have done so.

We were a motley crew, and the chances for successful cooperation were dubious from the start. Walter Teague's opinions were certainly more extreme than those of most of the groups he'd persuaded to come together. His was the group one could expect to unfurled the NLF flag at anti-war marches and rallies. All the same he demonstrated considerable tact in dealing with the divergent views present that day. One has to admit in fact that his gifts as a political organizer were impressive.He was the kind of person who would not hesitate to load a table with literature from North Vietnam, essentially propaganda, right at the intersection of 6th Avenue and 8th Street in the West Village. This attracted largee, often belligerent crowds, against whom he was prepared to defend , in a provocative manner, the cause of the National Liberation Front. He risked arrest for creating a public disturbance ( one could not, in a free society, overtly charge him with subversion), as well as more direct forms of violence from the public. Despite these hazards he was able to direct and focus the intense level of excitement in this unruly mob and keep the dialogue alive.

The signal failure of the Haiphong Rally attempted a few days before Christmas cannot therefore be attributed to his lack of skill as an organizer, nor to any flagging of ecumenical spirit. The causes for this fiasco must be sought in the internal dilemmas of the anti-war organizations, dilemmas which , in a larger sense, plague the entire American Left.

Following his opening address, Walter Teague set out the goals of the meeting: the sudden escalation of the war had taken everyone by surprise. All the groups represented were affected by it. Indications strongly suggested that the Pentagon was already working on the details involved in bombing Haiphong harbor.

It was possible however that the timing of this new crisis could be made to work in our favor. Christmas was approaching, traditionally a period of generosity and compassion for one's neighbors. In the coming weeks the streets of New York would be filled with Christmas shoppers from morning to night. Could we find ways to reach this essentially captive audience, to convey a sense of the horror of the military options it would soon be asked to support? The demonstration needed to be well organized and well timed. Ideally we might catalyze a popular reaction that would compel the government to put its relentless escalation of the war on hold.

Even before Walter Teague had finished the presentation of his proposals the sniping had begun. The first disputes arose over what sector of the general population to address. The Trotskyist organizations, spearheaded by the shrill voice of the woman representing the Committee for the Fourth International, insisted that the rally, leafletting, march, or whatever else we came up with, had to be in accordance with the historic mission of the vanguard of the working class. Recent events had rendered the cliche meaningless at best: the AFL/CIO had just issued a strong statement in support of the war. The Trotskyist groups suggested that amarch be organized that would go through the garment district and end up in front of the headquarters of the AFL/CIO. Then speakers would exhort the workers to oppose their own unions and embrace, not the cause of compassion for the Vietnamese people, but the goals of the Communist parties of Vietnam and China .

The woman from the Committee for the Fourth International shrieked that the inevitable revolution depended on a support base in the working class. Any political action whatsoever not based on the reality of Class Warfare was frivolous. Other speakers stood up to argue, with various degrees of calm, for the necessity of appealing to the workers. What was remarkable about these proposals is that, although they came from organizations known to spend far more time attacking each other than making common cause against the enemy, they all showed a similar lack of imagination. Nowadays it isn't easy to define what is meant by the appellation "worker" : skilled workers like plumbers or electricians? Skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled construction workers? Factory workers? Longshoremen? Clerical workers, secretaries, nurses, janitors? School teachers? Migrant laborers? Indigent or unemployed? All of these groups are either workers or exploited, or both, yet one cannot deny that their interests, even their "class interests", differ greatly.

Despite their differences, the representatives from the extreme Left could at least unite themselves around one common cause: unanimously, they rejected every proposal put forward by anyone else. There were, it is true, a number of far-fetched schemes that didn't deserve or weren't intended to be taken seriously, but were fun to play around with. By widening the scope of our imaginations theycould, and did, lead to more practical strategies .

One of these was that we rent a boat to sail up and down the Hudson River, from which we might 'simulate' a symbolic invasion of New York by the North Vietnamese army ! This was transmuted over time into the scheme of dropping leaflets onto the city from the rooves of skyscrapers, in imitation of the warnings of an impending bombardment that will sometimes be dropped on the targeted city . It must be confessed that I was the one who suggested that we rent a helicopter for this purpose!

From these suggestions came an agreement to produce a leaflet modeled on those that are used to warn civilian populations. Walter Teague asked for volunteers to form a planning committee to write and edit its text. This was done; then the gathering set about determining what conclusions the leaflet should state, as well as the form of the demonstration.

What resulted was an interminable discussion lasting over many hours. By midnight it was realized that an accord would never be reached, neither on the major issues nor on the small technicalities . An agreement had been reached in principle, that a circling picket-sign -and-banner march could serve as the core demonstration, around which each group could organize its own event. If the anarchists wanted to throw pamphlets from helicopters, guaranteeing certain imprisonment and possibly a black eye from the pilot, let them do so. The Trotskyists could march to the AFL/CIO headquarters if they wanted to.

When the meeting broke up at 1 in the morning, it had been decided that the march would be situated on the large traffic island opposite Herald Square, at 34th and 5th Avenue in front of Macy's, on the evening of December 23rd, 1965, that is to say, the final shopping day before Christmas. Under Walter Teague's supervision, the committee would produce the first draft of the leaflet within a week, for review by the collective at the next meeting. Teague would begin contacting the police immediately for the permits needed to hold a demonstration in Herald Square.

The text presented to us for revision at the next meeting, although dilute and some what innocuous, did manage to assimilate most of the concerns of the groups involved. What remained after being mutilated out of recognition was a masterpiece of the genre, something of an object lesson in the absurdity of trying to find a consensus among all directions of the Left. It is instructive to retrace exactly how consensus was obtained after eight hours of wrangling.

The meeting began at 8 PM. By 2 AM not a single issue of any importance had been decided, neither about the text of the flyer, nor about the choice of slogans permitted or acceptable to all groups. This particular issue had always been the Achilles Heel of such large-scale cooperative ventures. A few months later I would witness a similar crisis at a meeting of the 5th Avenue Peace Parade Committee. For four long hours arguments raged over whether the slogan Bring the troops home immediately! should go on its banners, as opposed to just Bring the troops home! . The word immediately had been rejected by the more conservative groups such as Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and the Woman's Strike for Peace (WSP). These carried great influence on account of their numbers. They claimed to be worried about the economic chaos that might result if the troops were recalled from Vietnam right away. SANE and WSP assured the Committee that they would not allow their members to march in a parade in which the message Bring the troops home immediately! was publicly displayed.

At these meetings organized around the Haiphong rally, things never got to the point at which a decision had be made between equally innocuous slogans. Ultimately no universal slogans were selected. Rather, each group informally pledged to deploy slogans that would not offend the others.

As for the flyer so carefully edited by Walter Teague and others, it immediately fell prey to the savagery of the participants. The initial draft of flyer was a compilation based on every proposal enunciated at the first meeting. At the top of the page , in enormous block letters was printed the announcement:" Your city will be bombed in two hours! ". The statement below this explained that a leaflet of this sort was about to be dropped over Hanoi and Haiphong . It was the duty of responsible American citizens to unite in preventing this. Below this stood an appeal to the spirit of Christmas . A final paragraph expressed solidarity with the struggle of the workers. All in all, the text was an ingenious synthesis of prevailing views in the group.

Though conceived of with the notion of reconciling opposing viewpoints this document had the opposite effect of hardening oppositions, placing the differences of perspective between the different groups in sharp relief . The extreme Left, Marxist-Leninist or Trotskyist, condemned what they considered to be the 'adventurist' character of the flyer. They now claimed that they'd never given their approval to the idea of a mock bombardment warning . Such a flyer, they said, would simply confuse public opinion without informing it.

At the other extreme the representative for Woman's Strike for Peace was concerned that we would unduly terrify our audience. Only by staying calm, she argued, could people maintain their objectivity. Others thought that it gave the typical Christmas shopper more credit for intelligence than he merited, aand there were soeme complaints to the effect that it had something of the character of a publicity stunt characteristic of Madison Avenue but unworthy of the seriousness of our cause.

Based on what he was hearing from the auditorium Walter Teague cut and reconfigured the text. What had begun as a synthesis of Leftist opinion ended up as a rag filled with the usual concoction of banalities and cliches.

The overly prolonged discussion proved fatal to consensus . With every hour increasing the level of frustration, half a dozen delegates left the auditorium. By 2 AM only Walter Teague, the delegate from the Committee for the 4th International, myself and 3 other people remained.

It was at about that time that Charley Brown entered the room. "Entered" is perhaps too neutral a word: "Eruption " is more appropriate to the impressive spectacle of his black cape covering him completely, like a chrysalis, from neck to toes , his flowing beard and mighty wooden crucifix suspended about his neck with links of chain. To complete his personification of the pacifist Batman, an enormous yellow CND symbol had been sewn onto the back of the cape. Evidently Charley Brown was one of the more colorful figures of the New York anti-war scene. No one was surprised to learn that Charley Brown wasn't his real name: it had been assumed as a mark of respect for the comic book character. Probably it ought to be thought of as his religious name. He gave impression of having , several years previously , gone through a spiritual crisis that had changed him from a normal and perhaps even commonplace individual, into a guru of Christ and LSD.

Charley Brown was undeniably intelligent. Given that he was almost always under the influence of some sort of hallucinogen, what he had to say was coherent, even sensible at times. He seemed to have made the bad habit of always showing up at the least opportune moment into a fine art, in the middle of an intense or contentious debate for example. Irregardless of its appropriateness, every occasion was seized on to preach his private brand of anarchism.

Not in the least put out by his unannounced entry , Walter Teague welcomed Charley into the discussion. Accompanying him was a friend who, by his own account, had just breezed in from California. This person had no idea even of what we were talking about, let alone the recent history of the New York anti-war movement. All the same, he was filled was all sorts of ideas about what we ought to be doing to get our act together.

After extracting whatever teeth remained in our pathetic document, the vindicated delegate from the Committee for the 4th International got up and left. What remained from over a score of organizations consisted of Walter Teague, Eric Weinberger of the Committee for Non-Violent Action, myself as representative of the NY Workshop in Non-Violence , Charley Brown, and his Californian sidekick. Eric Weinberger, eventually co-founder of the anarchist soup kitchen movement "Bread Not Bombs", just wanted to go home and sleep . He did not conceal his annoyance at my persistence in trying to make something meaningful out of the document: mathematicians try to do that sort of thing . By 4 AM however I was completely on his side, and made the motion that the meeting be adjourned.

It is hardly surprising that the joint declaration that came out of the meeting was a derivative accumulation of cliches, the very reading of which was painful. The "unanimity" that had allegedly been obtained across the spectrum of the Left resided only in the existence of our text and not in anything that it said. In much of politics, the contents of a document may have little importance relative to the simple existence of that document. Read , for example, the Declaration of Independence, as a literary essay, and compare one's assessment to its impact on history!

A final, mercifully brief, meeting a few days before the demonstration, was taken up with the technical details, allocations of costs, obtaining permits, and so on. In retrospect this was the meeting that should have lasted 8 hours. Quite a number of surprises awaited us on the evening of the great event.

It is helpful to have a clear description of the layout of Herald Square. It is a traffic island laid out in the form of a small isosceles triangle. Its short base is to the north, along 35th Street, while the two longer sides descend along Broadway and 6th Avenue to a point on 34th Street. Macy's, on Broadway and the west side of the square, is some distance away. On a dark night, despite the powerful lights around the department store, it is somewhat difficult for anyone standing on the sidewalk to have a clear idea of what's going on in the traffic island.

To guarantee that our march would be contained within the square the police had taken the initiative of surrounding its perimeter with sawhorses and barricades. 300-odd demonstrators were crammed into a narrow strip about 10 feet in width on the west side: both the east and the north sides of the island had been closed off by the police for what they claimed were security considerations. In addition to being tightly squeezed into a narrow space, we couldn't raise our picket signs and banners without colliding into and joustling one another. These in any case were all but illegible from the entrance to Macy's.

The dissension that had marred the planning meetings was not long in asserting itself at the demonstration. In marked contrast to the insipid content of the leaflet, the disturbances that erupted were not lacking in originality. The Spartacist contingent had never taken seriously the gentleman's agreement to avoid using slogans that might offend others. Suddenly, on a pre-assigned cue, a half-dozen black banners were thrown up. They all carried the same message in luminescent paint:

USSR! Protect North Vietnam With Your HYDROGEN BOMB Shield!

Evidently they didn't give a damn about solidarity with anyone else. It hardly mattered that even these high profile banners weren't visible from the sidewalk outside Macy's, that pedestrians had no way of distinguishing the peace marchers from the pan-handlers and street people. These slogans, with their brutal frankness, offended almost every group present. Conservative groups like Woman's Strike for Peace stepped out of the march. They did not want it to appear as if they advocated the dropping of nuclear bombs.

The pacifist groups decided to form a delegation to negotiate with the police to open the north side of Herald Square for an independent march. The police complied, and the north side was made available at around 9 PM . Persons who did not want to be identified with the Spartacists, (about half of the demonstrators including all of the pacifist groups), joined the new march; the extreme Left took over the original march. More police barricades were set up to further emphasis the separation between the two marches. However, owing to its geographical position the new march was completely hidden from spectators standing on the sidewalk in front of Macy's.

In a short time the pacifist march began to develop problems of its own. Now it was the Anarchists who were emboldened to unfurl banners stuffed with obscenities. This effectively scattered what was left of the contingent from Women's Strike for Peace. Many of us began to think that the Christmas shoppers we were trying to reach would be more confused than edified by a peace march divided into two hostile camps. Lacking substance, the leaflets being handed out at the street corners did little to clarify the message we were trying to get across. In a short time the demonstration had dwindled down to a quarter of its original size. Some hold-outs, including myself, stayed for another twenty minutes, just for the pleasure of walking around. By 9:30 the march had completely dissipated, signaling the end to a particularly disastrous, yet not atypical, anti-war demonstrations in New York City during the winter of 1965-66 .

In a letter written to NYWIN a few weeks later, Walter Teague inserted a bitter aftertaste: not one of the invited organizations had contributed its share of the expenses. Because of this, the CANLF was bankrupt, and would no longer be operational for an indefinite period. While sharing in his censure, I don't believe that one should fault the anti-war organizations on the grounds of opportunism. They all operated on shoe-string budgets. As far as it affected him personally, it is my impression that Walter Teague III had independent means.

The Haiphong Rally highlights the kinds of obstacle faced by the American Left, not only in New York City. Among the factors contributing to its failure one can single out: a weakly developed sense of context; a general sense of impotence often accompaniment with demoralization ; and a wrong-headed notion of the nature of public opinion.

A poor understanding of context results in a consistent tendency to miscalculate the effectiveness of an action, or even its significance relative to current events. This was much in evidence during the endless discussions over which social class ought to be addressed, what message to give them, and what form the message should take. The proposals of the extreme Trotskyist groups combined an obstinate dogmatism over the obligation to address the workers, with an embarrassing inability to define the kinds of workers they wanted to reach, or even what they looked like. They spoke for the interests of the workers without bothering to ask for their opinion. Organizing demonstrations exhorting workers to go against their unions and support the political platforms of North Vietnam and China, was not the wisest strategy at that moment.

For their part anti-war pacifist organizations like NYWIN, CNVA, FOR and WRL may have been too preoccupied with reaching out to an idealized vision of the public mind. It would be very wrong to accuse them of publicity seeking for its own sake. Many people seemed to be unaware of the fact that, apart from the great spectacles like the 5th Avenue Peace Parade, only a 'judicious selection' of their demonstrations made even the back pages of the New York Times.

The obsession of the peace groups revealed itself in the constant use of phrases such as " the public won't understand", or " that will create a bad impression" or "we have to educate the public" . These things do matter, yet to totally sacrifice the expression of an important idea, (e.g. the Haiphong Rally leaflet) merely to project an image that may be understood by the public, ( 3 vague notions in a row) implies, to my way of thinking, too much confidence in the mythical entity dubbed " the typical man in the street". Democracy may be built on this fiction, but the ways of mankind are not quasi-ergodic.

The groups I worked with for 2 years in New York, from 1965 to 1967, spent too much time talking among themselves and not enough in locating the "generic man in the street" and asking him for his opinion. I realize that these words carry a certain amount of acrimony, but they derive from experience. Headquarters for the militant non-violent anti-war groups in the mid- 60's were all on the 10th floor of an office building at 5 Beekman Street in New York's Wall Street neighborhood. Among them were to be found the New York Workshop in Non-Violence (NYWIN), the Committee for Non-Violent Action (CNA), the Fellowship of Reconciliation ( FOR) , the Student Peace Union ( SPU), Liberation Magazine, and the Catholic Peace Fellowship (CPF).

In all my time there I don't recall having ever seen a black or Hispanic representative present at any of the meetings of these groups. The New York pacifist anti-war movement was predominantly Middle Class, with few connections to the classical civil rights movements or to the masses of oppressed people they claim to represent. In making such an appraisal I have to remind myself that Jim Peck, one of the officers of the War Resisters League, was also a founding member of the Congress for Racial Equality ( CORE) and famous as one of the most uncompromising and daring of the civil rights activists in the South during the 50's and 60's .This proves nothing one way or the other. It is nonetheless true that the antiwar movement was not in touch with the grassroots movements for social change in the United States at that time.