This post originally appeared at the nytimes.com.
Photo: Outside the Pentagon during the 1967 demonstrations. Credit Associated Press
By Sherwood Rudin
October 1967 was a time of simmering hostilities in the United States on two momentous sociopolitical fronts: liberal civil rights activists were battling conservative segregationists, while at the same time antiwar protesters were mounting street demonstrations calling on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration to end the Vietnam War. From coast to coast, college-age demonstrators picked up the year’s most memorable chant: “Hey, hey, L.B.J., how many kids did you kill today?”
Last year on Oct. 20, The New York Times ran a story headlined “The March on the Pentagon: An Oral History,” about the tens of thousands of people who gathered in Washington 50 years earlier to protest the Vietnam War. I read every word, and then went back and read it all again. One of the interview subjects was Bob Gregson, a former company commander in the Third U.S. Infantry Regiment, “the Old Guard,” whose soldiers are best known for rendering military honors at burials in Arlington National Cemetery. He and his men were assigned to fill in the outer defensive line at the Pentagon, directly confronting the army of civilians who had come to Washington to implore the government to end the war.
I was riveted by the piece, partly because it worked like a time machine, transporting me back five decades. On Oct. 21, 1967, I was there on the front line, in uniform, with my rifle. Gregson was my commanding officer that day, though not the officer involved in the incident that would come to have such an impact on my short career as a soldier. In The Times, he was quoted as saying, “Most of our men were draftees and perhaps had varying levels of sympathy for the protesters.” Gregson didn’t have me in mind, but I could have been a poster boy for those antiwar sympathies. This is my own personal recollection of my experience of the March on the Pentagon, the most significant antiwar protest of our nation’s Vietnam era.
For several months before the Pentagon event, we troops in the Old Guard were continually hectored by our noncommissioned officers to believe that antiwar protests in general were essentially unpatriotic, anti-American activities. At morning formations, they’d tell us that the protest leaders coming to Washington were “commie agents” supplied with guns and ammo, being sent in on chartered buses paid for by the Russian K.G.B.
I wasn’t buying it. Instead, I tried to paint a corrective narrative to anyone in my company willing to listen. I repeatedly told members of my platoon that I had donated money to antiwar organizations, that I had friends from New York who were planning to join the demonstration and that I had invited some of them to stay in the off-base apartment I was renting in Arlington. Some of my platoonmates, unswayed by my position, seemed excited to go head to head with the protesters.
As the demonstration neared, the press was predicting that at least 100,000 antiwar protesters would surge into the city to surround the Pentagon. The activist Abbie Hoffman and the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg announced that protesters would chant a magic mantra, the power of which would cause the Pentagon to shake loose from the earth. Its bulk would levitate and hover 300 feet off the ground. Savvy about attracting media coverage, they knew how an outrageous claim could draw a crowd.
For “riot training” leading up to the event, my unit was trucked to a camp in Virginia. It was fenced with wire and guarded by sentries. In a clearing filled with stubble, stones and dry brown earth, we stood — a solid block of uniformed men, packed together Roman-phalanx style. Through an olive-drab bullhorn, the drill sergeant shouted his orders: “Advance, advance. Don’t walk forward with the left. Stomp that foot.” Soldiers in the front rank advanced with rifles angled forward, bayonets pointed menacingly. The rest of us advanced with rifles stuck close to our bodies. We practiced pushing against imaginary bodies. The drill sergeant told us to use the bayonet and go first for the hands and then for the belly if people acted out. There was one type of person we were told not to stab in the stomach: pregnant women. For them, there was a special maneuver: a quick knock on the head with the butt of the rifle. We practiced the movement over and over again in the afternoon heat until it, too, became automatic. When we were called upon to defend the Pentagon from external threat, we would be prepared. Prepared to attack American kids with boot heels and billy clubs, bayonets and rifle butts.
As our truck convoy pulled into the north parking lot of the Pentagon, we could see that uniforms already encircled the building. Military police formed a long curved line, while scores of white-helmeted United States marshals roamed through the area. My unit was part of the M.P.s’ relief crew. We took our positions on one small segment of the outer perimeter, 50 yards in front of the north face of the building.
Initially, few confrontations took place. To me it seemed that the real peacemakers were not the men holding rifles but the television cameras. Earlier in the afternoon, all the networks were there — ABC, NBC, CBS, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC — and on both sides the performers put at least some effort into playing nicely for the TV audience. By the time we arrived, three hours after Walter Cronkite had finished broadcasting his nightly report, the protective illumination of the camera crews’ floodlights came on only in brief occasional bursts. Most of the time it was dark.
A patchwork quilt of blankets began to spread over the pavement. Soon a blanket was at my feet: two teenage couples. One of the girls, a thin thing with protruding teeth who looked around 17, said hello to me and asked for a cigarette. I told her I didn’t smoke. My lieutenant noticed us talking, took my arm and dragged me away from the line. “Rudin, you will not talk to any of these people. Is that understood?” We were 10 yards from them now, but his voice was loud enough for them to hear all. As the lieutenant escorted me back to my place in line, the four protesters broke into applause and then into a chant: “The Army has a heart. The Army has a heart.” I couldn’t help smiling.
Toward midnight, the fires had become fewer, the songs had all been sung and the sleeping bags had been unrolled. “Inch up. Inch up.” The word came down the line quickly. “Move your feet up right under them.” I didn’t understand, but I did move up, carried along with the line and stopping only when my boots touched up against the curved back of the girl who earlier asked me for a cigarette. Half asleep, she shifted slightly. One sergeant came through our lines and walked among the sitting and sleeping demonstrators, telling them to move back away from his men. It was a standard crowd-control tactic used to gain ground and make the opponent retreat.
Some demonstrators moved back a bit, but in just a few minutes we inched up again. Boots against bodies. The girl was lying there, facing me, her arms now out of the sleeping bag, folded in front of her. Then an officer was at my shoulder. “Was she trying to touch your weapon?” The question was rhetorical, so I just stared blankly at him, not answering. “Move away from this man’s weapon,” he barked at the girl, voice raging. “That’s an order.”
She refused to move and turned away from us. His boot came forward, fast. It was the rhythm of a football player launching a ball toward the goal posts. Two quick steps, and then the right foot following through with a devastating kick. Boot crunched against bone. The girl’s body arched back like a bow, and she let out a soprano moan. Her left arm reached around and tried to grab at the pain, fingers doing a convulsed dance. As she rolled over, I could see her eyes stretched wide. The officer had backpedaled for another assault. I broke ranks, turned and faced him. “Sir, as an officer and a gentleman . . .” Those familiar words diverted his anger back onto me. “You’re relieved!” he said. The dual layers of meaning in that sentence may not have been evident to the officer, but it hit me immediately.
A replacement quickly appeared to take my place in the line. I was ordered to report to one of the designated rest areas, a sprawling snack bar on a lower level of the Pentagon. Soft-drink machines, candy dispensers and deputy United States marshals filled this lounge. Black wooden billy clubs and white helmets lay haphazardly on plastic chairs and tables cluttering the room. From there I watched as a group of marshals all rose, collected their clubs and helmets, and sauntered out of the room together. They walked up to our lines, picked out targets and then separated into three-man teams. I watched the group that ranged to the left, wading through the crowd, stomping on blankets, kicking over boxes, homing in on a small campfire. I heard the screams and cries of the kids on their blankets; I heard the marshals shouting; and then I heard the last song. It started somewhere far to the left, in the darkness, just a few voices.
“God bless A-mer-i-ca, land that I love. . .”
The next morning’s news coverage reported that 250 protesters had been arrested at the Pentagon; the number would turn out to be more than 650. Protesters, for their part, recalled seeing one soldier set down his rifle and helmet, abandon his place in line and come over to their side. That soldier went much further than I dared to, but I can understand how he felt. I may not have been competent or even committed to defend the Pentagon against peace demonstrators, but when I got into trouble for my actions that day I was able to defend myself with the help of a few allies among my fellow soldiers. One of them worked in the office of the battalion commander, Col. Joseph B. Conmy Jr., and revealed that I had come under suspicion of having “consciously given aid and moral support to the enemy.” According to him, that was the language of the initial court-martial recommendation being brought against me.
Armed with details of the case being assembled, I placed a call to the New York office of the American Civil Liberties Union, requesting guidance and legal assistance in the event that court-martial charges were actually lodged. I then reported my contact with the A.C.L.U. to my company commander, explaining that it was a precaution for my own defense. Just days later, I learned that the charges were being dropped. My friend in Colonel Conmy’s office said the Army was eager to avoid bad publicity. As what I would later come to think of as a peace offering, Colonel Conmy told me directly that I would be transferred immediately to another post, while being promoted to sergeant. I made no protest; case closed.