Friday, April 13, 2007

Flashback: The Anti-War Mobilization Hits a Crest in Washington as Insurgents Take Over the Peace Corps Building—May, 1970.

[Fifty years of politics remembered for my kids and grandchildren].

As the U. S. became polarized over the Vietnam war, angry ex-Peace Corps volunteers came to Washington to protest repeatedly in 1969 and 1970. Some were members of Students for a Democratic Society, the Free Speech Movement, the Youth International Party and followers of Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and others. The movement started in February, 1967 when “The New York Review of Books” published an essay by Noam Chomsky called “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” With Bertrand Russell, Chomsky argued that an overwhelming responsibility for the war lay with liberal intellectuals who betrayed their conscience to justify the policies of the U. S. government.

On February 1, 1968 a NLF officer was summarily executed by General Nguyen Ngoe Loan, a South Vietnamese national police chief with the execution shown on television. That spurred an outrage among liberals in this country although it was shown later that the man executed had participated in serial assassinations of South Vietnamese. From that time on liberals began to denounce the Johnson administration for supporting so-called injustice. On October 15, 1968 hundreds of thousands of people took part in a National Moratorium anti-war demonstration against the United States in which the actress Jane Fonda was involved. Beyond that, charges of unfairness led to initiation of the first draft lottery in which a young man’s birthday determined his risk of being drafted (September 14 was the birthday at the top of the draft list for 1970 with July 9 for the next year).

In May, 1970 a week after the Kent State shootings in Ohio, more t han 100,000 anti-war demonstrators converged on Washington to protest the shooting of the students as well as the Nixon administration’s incursion into Cambodia. Police ringed the White House with buses to block the demonstrators from getting too close to the mansion. Early in the morning before the march, Nixon met with protesters briefly at the Lincoln Memorial but notjhing was resolved. As we worked in the Peace Corps, groups of students and ex-students who had thronged into Washington idled in the parks and slept there. Of the groups, returned Peace Corps volunteers seemed to be most bitter, stemming from their sense of betrayal of 1960s idealism that led them to join the Peace Corps in the first place.

One afternoon in May, 1970 while I was working there, a group of them came to the building…which as with other federal buildings then had no security forces at the reception desks…and went to the fourth floor which was the Southeast Asia section of the Peace Corps. They were armed and forced the fourth floor staff to leave, then hung a makeshift Viet Cong flag out the window and took possession of the entire floor. Of course the news media immediately went to the scene and the takeover of the Southeast Asia section got national publicity. The entire Peace Corps staff then left for safety reasons. I hung around at my desk to deal with the media; the Director stayed along with a very few. We were the only ones in the building.

Immediately the phone rang. The operator said, “White House calling, hold the line please for Mr. H. R. Haldeman.”

“The president wants them the HELL OUT OF THERE!”

Yes sir. Any ideas on how we should do it?

“Yes. He wants you to get a few staffers together, go to the fourth floor, get off the elevator there, grab the intruders and remove them bodily THE HELL OUT OF THERE! That’s an order.”

If that’s an order…

“…it is.”

Well, they are armed and we aren’t.

“Good if you aren’t.”

Well, not exactly. We might be sitting ducks; we might get somebody killed on our side and if the papers got wind of the fact that we were ordered to do this by the White House, it wouldn’t look good.


Then, “Get back to you.”

We sat around and watched television with all three local stations having reporters standing out in our front yard with cameras pointed to t he fourth floor and the Viet Cong flag, with occasionally a woolly headed kid with a beard waving to the TVs from the window.

Then the phone rang again. The operator said: “White House calling. Hold the line for Mr. H. R. Haldeman.”

“I am thinking of sending an armed security team over there—a SWAT team! THEY’LL GET `EM THE HELL OUT OF THERE! Just, let `em in the front door when they come!”

We said, o. k. is that an order?

“It is!”

Just to let you know: with the SWAT team armed and the folks upstairs also armed, it could produce a confrontation that might be another Kent State. But if you say so, okay.

Again silence.

“Get back to you.”

Meanwhile, we worked around it and decided to let the intruders take care of themselves for food, hoping that when they got hungry they would leave. But they were served hot dogs and fast food which was delivered up to the fourth floor by rope. I was just about ready to go home—it being near midnight when the phone rang.

“White House calling. Hold the line for Mr. H. R. Haldeman.”

This is getting boring.

“I just found out that your building is not government property, is privately owned and why the hell didn’t you call the D. C. police in the first place and have them remove the intruders as they would anyone else who had invaded an office building? I want the city police to GET `EM THE HELL OUT OF THERE!”

Call the police--is that what you want us to do?


OK, we said if that’s an order.

“IT IS!” he yelled so loudly that we could have heard him across from LaFayette park if he had opened the window.

Just so you know, they have guns and the city cops will have guns so there may be a shoot-out and probably another Kent State.


“Get back to you.”

I decided: he’ll have to get back to somebody else. It’s midnight and I haven’t had any supper. So I locked up and walked through the glare of the klieg lights to my car.

“What’s happening in there?” a TV reporter asked.

A jungle in there. A real jungle.

“Can we quote you?

The next morning the intruders wanted to talk to the Director, to have him stop in to their makeshift headquarters on the fourth floor. But we decided that was a ruse: they wanted to hold him hostage. What better than to hold the Peace Corps director hostage until—what: we stop bombing Cambodia? Wisely, he didn’t go.

Then that night after I came back from dinner at about 10 p.m., I noticed the lights on the fourth floor were out and the Viet Cong flag withdrawn. They had left. They had hoped to precipitate a riot or gunplay—which was exactly what H. R. Haldeman with his screeching advice would have played into. Everybody was down at Thomas Circle for a huge rally at which Ms. Fonda was speaking.

The following week, I met with Bob Thurston, my old boss at Quaker, and arranged to go back to my same job. But first I would take Lillian and our kids to a vacation in Ocean City, Maryland which I still believe is a neat place for a family to go. What an ideal way to conclude my service in the Nixon administration—getting fired in Commerce after I witnessed a six-foot black man crying and wiping his snotty nose all over Lynn Townsend’s expensive suit…arranging for the director to see Nixon on occasion even if it wasn’t pretty…and witnessing a takeover of my building with Haldeman shouting “get them OUT OF THERE!”

And then: “Get back to you.”

Oh, and that night when I went to the fourth floor after they vacated it, I found the homemade rag that had been turned into the Vietcong flag. It’s in my attic now.

Much more excitement happened after I went back to Quaker.

Get back to you.

1 comment:

  1. Tom-
    This stuff is HISTORY. In the name of you know Who, publish this for posterity! Your friend and mine, Pat Hickey, has just published a historical novel based upon fact interviews of WWII marines. The cost is reasonable indeed. I will help if you wish as this is IMPORTANT.