Do you remember your first political protest? I remember mine, even if it comes with a big asterisk. It happened on Oct. 15, 1969, and it was called the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. The asterisk is that I really didn’t do much — not even march in the streets or carry a peace flag. All I did, actually, was ride in the backseat of our family’s Ford Country Squire station wagon with our headlights on during broad daylight — a sign that you were against the war. For those who cruised America’s highways that Wednesday, the sight of so many other headlights was a close encounter of the first kind, meaning you were not alone … in wanting the troops to come home from Southeast Asia.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the 1969 moratorium — especially since about noon or so on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. Of course, it was just the next day that America saw the Women’s March, a 4-million-participant warning shot across the bow of the Trump presidency, and that has been followed by other protests, including targeted efforts that have played a role in so far blocking any efforts to repeal Obamacare. And yet the broader protest fervor seems to have waned even as the threat that Trump and his team pose to America’s democratic norms has grown in recent weeks. Is there a lesson for today’s Trump Resistance in a wildly successful protest that took place nearly 48 years ago?
I think so. The strategy of the Vietnam moratorium — as mapped out by its leaders, all 20-something veterans of campus protests or the failed 1968 antiwar presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy — was brilliant. Some activists thought the next step in antiwar protest should be a general strike, but leaders Sam Brown, David Hawk, David Mixner, and Marge Sklencar had a better idea. Plan the kind of inclusive event where every American who opposed the war — not just crazy campus radicals with their Viet Cong flags, but churchgoing suburbanites and baseball moms and your next-door neighbor — could find some way, big or small, to take part.
Hold up a candle at a vigil. Attend a rally or a “teach-in” at your town square or in your church. Call in sick from work or stay out of school to march in a protest. Or, failing that, at least take two seconds to flip on your headlights. Anything that would prove that opposition to the Vietnam War was not only nonviolent, but moral and middle-class. And, most important, mainstream. The first round of coast-to-coast protests that October drummed up support for a mass march on Washington exactly one month later that drew an eye-popping 500,000 people.
“The predominant event of the day was that of a great and peaceful army of dissent moving through the city,” the New York Times reported from Washington on Nov. 15, 1969, adding later in its front-page piece: “Overall, the slogans, like the sign ‘We’re here because we love our country,’ seemed to be asserting that the demand for withdrawal from Vietnam is now the only moderate course.”
It’s easy to dismiss the moratorium because — as history showed us — the Vietnam War didn’t end right away in 1969. The final U.S. combat troops didn’t come home until the winter of early 1973. But in other ways, the protest effort was a stunning success. October 1969 also marked the first time the Gallup Poll showed a majority of Americans believed the war was a mistake. President Richard M. Nixon felt that heat inside the White House, where that fall, he addressed the public to insist that a so-called silent majority supported his policies. But Nixon also speeded up the pace of troop withdrawals, and Congress eventually moved to pass the War Powers Act, seeking to restrict presidents’ ability to launch another Vietnam. It didn’t last, but U.S. foreign policy was arguably more restrained and wiser over the next decade or two — all because everyday citizens had taken action.
What happened in 1969 is more proof that citizen action — or inaction — is the tipping point between democracy and authoritarianism. The largest wrench in the would-be despot’s toolbox is apathy — a dazed and confused populace that sits on its hands when a self-proclaimed strongman moves to restrict the freedom of the press or curb the power of the judiciary or independent prosecutors or strip people of voting rights. The flip side is that it’s remarkable what a truly engaged citizenry can accomplish.
In South Korea, during the same weeks that Trump was transitioning into the presidency, as many as 1.7 million people at a time flooded the streets of downtown Seoul to protest corruption by their country’s then-president, Park Geun-hye, in demonstrations the Washington Post described as a “democratic, peaceful and even joyous assembly, demanding the president’s ouster.” And ousted Park was. In Poland, democracy seemed to be hanging by a thread last month as the ruling party sat poised to crush that nation’s independent judiciary — until the masses took to the streets of Warsaw.
The bottom line is that government does respond to the people, but only when the people respond to the government. When Trump fires the FBI director who’s probing his campaign or calls the free press “the enemy of the American people,” right now he doesn’t see 1.7 million people outside his bedroom window. He sees only the prattling heads on Fox & Friends — and so it’s only going to get worse, especially with the new report that special prosecutor Robert Mueller is bringing evidence before a grand jury. Now is the time for America to show its inner Seoul.
A long time ago, I chose a keyboard over marching boots. But today, I’m using my keyboard and my platform as an opinion writer to offer this opinion: What America needs right now is a Moratorium to End the Trump Presidency — a mass event that will show the world a not-so-silent majority of Americans does not support an uncouth and irrational wannabe despot in the Oval Office. It’s great that 61 percent of the public can tell a pollster they disapprove of Trump’s presidency. But now we need 61 percent of Americans to tell that to their neighbors, to their local communities, and to the world, in a public display of disaffection.
When? Why not Oct. 15, 2017, the 48th anniversary of the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, when the weather is good and the kids on campus have settled in for the fall semester? What? Whatever it takes to show people that decent Americans want this nightmare to end. You can’t do the headlight thing thanks to daytime running lights (darn you, Detroit!), but you can wear blue, or fly a crazy flag from your car, or march in silent solidarity through the streets of your hometown. Where? Philadelphia. Or Paoli. Or Peoria or Pittsburgh or Portland — anywhere people want this president out of the White House. Why? Because it’s going to take more than 140 characters or your most impassioned Facebook rant to change America for good. Then, a month later — say Nov. 18, 2017, a Saturday — converge 1.7 million, give or take a few, of those people in front of Trump’s White House fence. And watch to see who will be the first Republican congressman from a swing district to endorse impeachment.
You know, moratorium, at first blush, seems like an odd thing to call a protest. But the definition of moratorium is “a temporary prohibition” of a regular activity. For the last 28 weeks, America has endured a president who is, in the words of the Twitter hashtag, #NotNormal. Maybe mixing up our routines for a couple of days this fall is the best way to get our nation back to, you know … normal.