My daughter recently asked me about the story behind an old fading photo on the wall in my study. Here’s what I sent her.
To begin, some necessary background. Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam
Richard Nixon had been elected President in 1968 on a promise he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam. “Peace with honor.” As it turns out, he promised something he did not have, and also years later was shown to have been in secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese to make Hubert Humphry, the hapless Democratic Presidential Candidate, look bad. (Considering that the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in the summer of 1968 was a PR nightmare, it wasn’t hard.)
By October 1969, it was clear Nixon was merely playing a game, and had no idea what or how to do anything. Lives were being lost with a policy that was not aimed to either win the war or to get out of it. As events from 1975 proved, there was no way to escape without loss.
A massive protest march was held in Washington SC on November 15, 1969, and some of the people from Blackburn went there. Most notable, Ralph Haines, who was a photographer, and planned on a career in photojournalism. In Washington, Ralph wandered around with his camera, and came back with a fine collection of photos, which, alas, he did not think good enough to submit to any newspaper. As it happened, he could have won a Pulitzer prize. (Well, I think so anyway.) There was a protest assembly at the Pentagon, and the building was ringed with National Guard troops. Ralph took several pictures, and went up to the Guardsmen and asked if he could get a closer shot of the Pentagon. They said OK. As he later told the story, he had just snapped a picture when he heard, “Look out, here they come”, and spun about to see the crowd charging the Guardsmen. It was a great photo, Guardsmen between him and the protestors. (The protestors stopped when they reached the line of Guardsmen, and offered flowers, btw.)
So then, back in Carlinville, the word went out that there would be a march on December 15 in the various State capitols, with rally afterwards. The people who went to Washington decided to go, and the Blackburn College Young Republicans Club h;ld a meeting to discuss what to do.
At the meeting, it was decided that old concerns regarding the legitimacy of the war, i.e. no declaration by Congress as mandated in the Constitution, but only an order by President Lyndon Johnson, meant the war was essentially illegal. Further, it was evident that there was no intention to win the war. It could have been won, by 1968, if there had been sincere effort (see the memoirs of Robert McNamara. Which I have.) The club voted to go to the march.
As it happened, I was in possession of a US flag which had once flown over the Capitol (there is a flagstaff there which us used for nothing but running flags up and down all day, for Congressmen to give away to constituents, and I had obtained one through a comedy of errors.)
Not having a flagstaff, I put nails in a eight foot 1” X 1” pole and mounted the flag on it.
On the day, we had been gifted with the use of a school bus which the group took to Springfield, Illinois, only 40 miles away from campus. The main group had a large banner which read “BLACKBURN COLLEGE” and our club had a smaller one which read “Blackburn College Young Republicans Against The War.”
As we were getting off the bus at a park in Springfield where the marchers assembled, some people cam over, seeing the flag, and said, “Hay, man, can we use your flag?” We asked, “What for?” The replied, “Do some guerrilla theatre, man, stomp on the flag and crap on it.” We answered, “Well, we wouldn’t suggest you try that or you might find the pole shoved up your ass.” At that, they wandered away mumbling about “Goddamn peace freaks.” That was our first clue that things were not as they had been represented.
While we were still at the park, a few gentlemen in suits with crew cuts and narrow ties, pretending to be reporters, came by and asked about the “College Republicans” being at the peace march. We told them the tale of UnConstitutionality, and that the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was insufficient to justify what had happened since. They also wandered away, we figured to make their reports to the FBI and to their boss J. Edgar Hoover. (Not without cause, as it later turned out, but that is yet another story.)
Now, for the explanation of the photo.
We were positioned about ½ of the way back in the procession. At first, Steve Kosto asked to carry the flag. He was lame from polio in his childhood, and soon tired out. (I mention Steve because there was no way he would have been drafted or allowed to enlist, but some keep alive the myth that anti-war efforts were fueled by a fear of getting drafted and killed, i.e. the accusation of cowardice.) As the tallest person in our group, I took the flag and held it up as high as was comfortable. Walking along, the main chant was “What do we want? PEACE! When do we want it? NOW!” I was told that those behind us could see the flag, and as it bobbled up and down at each step I took, the crowd used that rhythm to synchronize the chant. (Sound off, One, Two. Sound off Three, Four.)
Half way along the route, I saw that ahead, several people were carrying Viet Cong flags on rather professional flagstaffs. (The VC flag is shockingly similar to the Arizona state flag, as several returning vets averred to me in later years.) They were not all bunched together, but were drifting back to space themselves out along the march. Having studied up on the Communist Party USA and its tactics and methods of infiltration as far back as the Seventh Grade, I knew at once what was going on. The Red Diaper Babies* were trying to make it appear as if everyone at the march was on their side. I was furious.
We were passing, I think, the State of Illinois Department of the Treasury building (behind me in the photo), when the young woman with the Viet Cong flag came near. I lifted the US flag as high as I could, and was even up on my tiptoes (hard to do wearing Wellington boots) when she was right in front of me. Ralph Haines (remember him) had been taking photos all up and down the march, and just happened to be there as she got immediately in front of me. That was when he took the photo.
We walked that way for perhaps a hundred feet when she saw that there were the shadows of two flags on the ground in front of her. She looked back and was rather startled when she saw me and the US flag looming over her. I smiled and nodded to her, and kept the US flag prominently up over the VC flag. She then asked, “
“What are you doing here?” “Why, I am here for peace.” I replied. ‘Well, me too,” she said. “Not carrying that flag, you’re not,” I said.
For some reason, she began walking faster back up to be with her friends.
A short (so it seemed) time later, we got to the Presbyterian Church where the rally was to be held. It was a large church, and we were told not to carry inside any banners, flags, or placards. Being good citizens, our Blackburn contingent followed the rules. Nobody else did.
While waiting to get in through the single doorway open, some of the Red Diaper Babies* started up their chant, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh**. The NLF*** is gonna win.”
I was tired, we all were tired, as it had been a long march on a cold day. I looked at my friend Willard Summers, and croaked at the top of my scratchy voice, “What do we want?” Willard replied, “PEACE!” (with his croaking, scratchy voice.) I said, “When do we want it?” He said “NOW!”. By the second go around more people joined in, and the traitors were drowned out. They gave up, looking very disgruntled.
Inside the church, the rally did not consist of exhortations to Peace, as we had supposed. Rather various “Revolutionary” groups spoke, advocating the overthrow of the government of the United States, and the surrender of all US forces in Vietnam to the Communists. Even the hard-core (so they supposed) Leftists in our group were shocked. (Blackburn was a place apart, and not in the thick of most things.)
On our way back to campus that evening was, I believe, when I first said, “If those ‘Revolutionaries’ ever hear a real bullet go whiz past their ears, they will melt into the woodwork, get a haircut, and come back out as staunch Republicans.” And after Kent State, that is pretty much what happened.
And if any of this sounds the least bit familiar, no matter who runs Washington, it stays pretty much the same, no matter what century you are in.
*Red Diaper Babies, aka Baby Bolsheviks, people my age who were the children of Communists and Fellow Travelers of the ‘30’s, ‘40’s, and ‘50’s.
** Ho Chi Minh, the leader of North Vietnam and a communist revolutionary ever since the Versailles Conference when he was spurned by the French and seduced by the Russians.
***NLF, the National Liberation Front, aka Viet Cong, aka Communist army faction in South Vietnam, later absorbed into North Vietnamese regular army.