[ The organizers had a simple idea; on this one day, people
opposed to the war would halt “business as usual” and take some
action – large or small to signify their desire for peace. ]
VIETNAM MORATORIUM: A DAY TO REMEMBER
October 15, 2019
_ The organizers had a simple idea; on this one day, people opposed
to the war would halt “business as usual” and take some action –
large or small to signify their desire for peace. _
Moratorium Day demonstrators fill the steps of the U.S. Capitol on
Oct. 15, 1969 in Washington. Many of the protestors were staff members
of senators and representatives. , (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi)
_Life_ magazine described it as “the largest expression of public
dissent ever seen in this country. _Newsweek_ pronounced it a day,
destined to go down in history along with Coxey’s Army, the Bonus
Marchers and the 1963 March on Washington. Yet fifty years later, the
occasion has faded from view.
The Moratorium occurred during one of the darkest periods of the
Vietnam War. 40,000 Americans soldiers were already dead. During the
first eight months of Richard Nixon’s Presidency, the death toll was
averaging more than 500 men a month, with no sign of abating. On the
Vietnamese side, hundreds of thousands had perished, several million
rural people were displaced, and large swaths of arable land scorched
by chemicals and bombs.
The organizers of the Moratorium had a simple idea; on this one day,
people opposed to the war would halt “business as usual” and take
some action – large or small to signify their desire for peace. It
was initially expected that these would be mainly campus events. But
something about this modest, open-ended approach had such rapid appeal
to the “over thirty” adults, that plans proliferated across the
As of midnight October 14, hundreds of demonstrators were on the steps
of the Capital reading out the names of the American soldiers, who had
died in the war. By morning, in big cities and small, in churches and
synagogues, federal buildings and town halls, in libraries and parks,
perhaps as many as two million people were expressing their opposition
to the Nixon Administration’s pursuit of the war.
In New York City alone, there were scores of events. At the Old
Trinity Church near Wall Street the bells tolled, as prominent
businessmen whose disillusionment had grown exponentially,
participated in an all-day service. Art galleries, museums, publishing
houses and many Broadway theaters closed for the day, or created
activities specifically devoted to peace.
By 1969 large rallies in Washington DC, New York, and San Francisco
had become familiar. More unusual were the gatherings in other
locations – Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Little Rock and
Austin – where men and women turned out in droves. In Lexington,
Kentucky, 2700 people stood quietly in front of the Federal Court
House in remembrance of the war dead from their state. In Cicero
Illinois, normally a conservative bastion, 800 students from Morton
Junior College participated in an antiwar assembly, while 300
housewives from nearby River Forest marched to the local post office,
where they mailed letters to the President urging him to stop the war.
At a press conference, preceding the event, Nixon had been asked for
his thoughts on the Moratorium. To which, he had testily replied,
“Under no circumstances will I be affected by it.” Nothing could
be farther from the truth. Having watched President Johnson destroyed
by the pressure of antiwar dissent, Nixon was determined to avoid his
fate. Indeed the swelling tide of opposition forced him to cancel DUCK
HOOK – an evolving plan for the aerial mining of Haiphong harbor and
the use of B-52 bombers over North Vietnam, vigorously promoted by
National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger.
Furthermore, at a time when the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US
Military Command in South Vietnam were fiercely resisting the removal
of US troops, Nixon was compelled to accept a schedule of withdrawals,
which could potentially unravel the entire military project.
The energy, hopefulness and idealism, present on Moratorium Day, had a
profound effect on many of the journalists covering the events. This
also stiffened the spine of some skittish members of Congress, who
were slowly finding their voice and would eventually use their votes.
Stopping the war would require many future years of protest, and a
widening of dissent to include Vietnam veterans and other
constituencies. But those fall days established a limit, beyond which,
even Richard Nixon could not transgress.
In recent accounts, the role of the peace movement in stopping the
Vietnam War has been unjustifiably minimized. Fifty years later, and
in our own dark time, it is worth remembering that inspiring
Moratorium Day of October 15, 1969, when diverse groups of people,
from every region of the country, stopped what they were doing and
joined with co-workers, family and friends to assert their opposition
to militarism and desire for peace.
_Carolyn Eisenberg is a Professor of history and U.S, foreign policy
at Hofstra University. She is the author of a forthcoming book, Never
Lose: Nixon, Kissinger and the Myth of National Security and a
contributor to recently published Waging Peace in Vietnam._