Maurice Isserman: The march on the Pentagon, 40 years later

Roundup: Talking About History

[Maurice Isserman is a professor of American history at Hamilton College. He is co-author, with Michael Kazin, of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (Oxford University Press, 2007).]

Toward dusk on the evening of October 21, 1967, a burly federal marshal took hold of my feet, dragged me away from the plaza in front of the Pentagon where I had been sitting in, and pulled me down the adjacent embankment, before depositing me on the pavement of the building's north parking lot. I was then 16 years old, a high-school junior from a small town in Connecticut on my first trip to the nation's capital. I picked myself up — bruised, dusty, and choking from tear gas — and limped back across the bridge connecting Arlington, Va., to Washington.

All in all, I thought, it had been the best day of my life.

It was probably not the best day in the life of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara — but then, it had been quite some time since he had had a good one. Over the previous several years, he had grown increasingly tormented by his responsibility for the war that I had come to Washington to protest. Alone in his office, he would break down and weep, turning his face to the window if someone walked in unexpectedly. Five months before the Pentagon protest, he had sent the White House a confidential memo outlining his "growing doubts" about American involvement in Vietnam. He was having a bad day on October 21 because he no longer believed in the war he had done so much to begin and promote — and with which he is forever identified.

So it was, 40 years ago this month, while I was going bump-bump-bump down the embankment, that a secretary of defense famed for his uncompromising public defense of American policies in Vietnam found himself in the odd position of plotting strategy for the movement opposing those policies. Three decades later, writing in In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (Times Books, 1995), McNamara recalled the siege of the Pentagon: "I could not help but think that had the protesters been more disciplined — Gandhi-like — they could have achieved their objective of shutting us down."

The Pentagon protest was viewed at the time, as it has been subsequently, as a watershed in the history of the antiwar movement. Until then, with few exceptions, antiwar protests had been fairly staid affairs — mostly orderly marches, picketing, and vigils. But the organizers of the October 21 protest had billed it as the moment when the antiwar movement would shift "from dissent to resistance." After a mass rally at the Lincoln Memorial and a march across the Arlington Memorial Bridge — both securely within the "dissent" tradition — the "resistance" component kicked in, as thousands of marchers brought the antiwar message to the very steps of the Pentagon. Seven hundred were arrested, a record for antiwar protests at that time....

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