While I hallucinated in a Bangkok hospital that summer, the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam reached 45,000.
Stuck in Thailand, I missed the Big One. On October 15, 1969, a million Americans across the nation joined in "Vietnam Moratorium" demonstrations, rallies and prayer vigils – including 50 members of Congress and my kid brother, Gene, a senior in high school.
Gene hitched from Connecticut down to Washington, DC where he joined 250,000 other Americans carrying signs. They were a cross-section of America – students and ministers and school teachers and firemen and doctors and stockbrokers and farmers and mothers carrying their babies and a large contingent of disillusioned soldiers marching under the banner of Vietnam Veterans Against the war, many cripples and amputees hobbling and wheelchairing down Pennsylvania Ave, determined to speak out.Gene got tear-gassed twice.
During a “March Against Death” they gave him a sign with the name of David Stone, an American soldier from South Carolina killed in Vietnam. He shouted out Stone’s name in front of the White House gates then deposited the sign in a coffin in front of the Capitol. Gene was committed to non-violent protest, like most marchers that day. Hundreds of protesters bedded down that night in the National Gallery of Art on the Mall. The next day, the protester-squatters joined with the gallery guards and maintenance crew to pick up the litter and sweep the place clean. Still, tempers flared as speeches got hotter.
He learned Students for a Democratic Society were planning to storm the Justice Department building; the SDS had already marched on the South Vietnamese Embassy. When he got there, the kids were preparing for battle. They wore helmets, safety goggles and water-soaked cloths over their faces to protect against tear gas. Some carried lead pipes, and garbage cans for shields. He watched, embarrassed, as they spit on the police, threw rocks and bottles of red paint at them and broke windows in the building. Finally the police gassed them and charged. Gasping for breath, Gene retreated but couldn’t fight his way back through the surging SDS lines. The tear gas bombs continued to explode. He stumbled around blinded until a friendly cop grabbed his arm and pulled him to the curb. The two of them had spent the evening before debating the war. “I was scared,” he admitted, “but that policeman was even more scared.” The SDS students impressed him with their courage. They never retreated, even when the billy clubs started cracking heads and cops began kicking and stomping people.
That evening, he boarded a Greyhound and headed home. He was only 17.
When he got back, he sent me a letter with a quote: “The streets of our country are in turmoil. The universities are filled with rebelling, rioting students. Communists are seeking to destroy our country, Russia is threatening us with her might. The Republic is in danger, yes, danger, from within and without. Without law and order, our nation cannot survive. We shall restore law and order.”
“Guess who said this,” he wrote.
“Nixon?” I wrote back.
“Adolph Hitler,” he replied. “Just before he took over Germany in 1932.”