The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The day anti-Vietnam War protesters tried to levitate the Pentagon

They’d demonstrated before, thousands of antiwar protesters singing and waving banners and burning draft cards on the Mall in Washington.

Now the organizers for the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam wanted to go further — much further. On Oct. 21, 1967, they announced, antiwar protesters would march en masse past the Lincoln Memorial, across the Memorial Bridge all the way to the front steps of the Pentagon.

And then they would try to levitate it.

And storm it.

And bring the military-industrial complex to its knees.

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“We will dye the Potomac red, burn the cherry trees, panhandle embassies, attack with water pistols, marbles, bubble gum wrappers, bazookas, girls will run naked and piss on the Pentagon walls, sorcerers swamis, witches, voodoo, warlocks, medicine men and speed freaks will hurl their magic at the faded brown walls,” promised Abbie Hoffman, one of the organizers and a co-founder of the Youth International Party (Yippies). “We shall raise the flag of nothingness over the Pentagon and a mighty cheer of liberation will echo through the land.”

In 1967, demonstrators protesting the Vietnam War marched from the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to the Pentagon. (Video: Universal Newsreel)

As many as 100,000 people, mostly young, mostly white, flooded the capital for the demonstration, anticipating an injection of counterculture flair into the antiwar movement. An estimated 35,000 to 50,000 demonstrators descended on the Pentagon. And by dawn the next day, nearly 700 had been arrested for various acts of civil disobedience, including trying to get inside the building.

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It was an early test of that fall’s new motto, “from protest to resistance,” and a concrete shift in the “tone and tactics of the antiwar movement,” according to Maurice Isserman, a history professor at Hamilton College who attended the Pentagon march as a 16-year-old high school student.

Now, on the 50th anniversary of that pivotal weekend, Isserman and more than 100 others plan to demonstrate once again in Washington as part of a two-day retrospective event organized by the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee.

“This is not an attempt to repeat what happened in 1967,” said Terry Provance, a VPCC staffer who helped organize the weekend’s festivities.

“Though you never know,” he joked. “If somebody acts on their own, they act on their own.”

That was the mind-set 50 years ago, too, as the mobilization committee worked with different factions within the antiwar movement to plan the Pentagon march.

Some groups were only comfortable demonstrating at the Mall. Others supported putting the pressure on military officials, rather than picketing the White House or marching to Capitol Hill. And still others were made quite nervous by the radical rhetoric of Hoffman and his Yippies co-founder Jerry Rubin, who were primarily responsible for the threats to levitate the Pentagon and turn the Potomac River red.

A few months before the demonstration, Hoffman and Rubin held a news conference to detail their plans of an “exorcism to cast out evil spirits” by the “flower power contingent.” They had incense and a “psychedelic bomb,” which looked like a bowling ball, according to Jonah Raskin’s book “For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman.”

On Oct. 21, 1967, demonstrators began filling the Mall midmorning. Speakers included writer Norman Mailer, poet Robert Lowell, pediatrician Benjamin Spock and Clive Jenkins of the British Labour Party, whose remarks were interrupted when a member of the American Nazi Party tried to punch him at the podium.

By late afternoon, the momentum had shifted toward the Pentagon. Throngs of people marched south, bottlenecking as they crossed the bridge and slowing to a shuffle, Isserman recalled.

All around the Pentagon, military police, federal marshals and thousands of Army troops with rifles and riot gear were stationed in place, according to the Department of Justice, ready to defend the nation’s wartime command center against the demonstrators coming to storm it. From their perimeter positions on the ground and perches on the roof, the officers watched as the protesters  inched closer and closer, spilling into the Pentagon’s parking lot and toward its entrance.

They readied their weapons, though some officers said years later that the guns weren’t loaded.

“It was a great deal of uncertainty,” Isserman said. “You kind of didn’t know which way it was going to go.”

Isserman had no intention of getting arrested — he had promised his parents he wouldn’t. But then a section of fencing gave way on the perimeter and suddenly people were pouring through by the thousands, pushing closer and closer to the Pentagon entrance. Isserman was in the middle of it.

Most of the crowd was quickly cordoned off, not allowed to move forward or backward. More than a dozen others broke the line though, making it just inside the Pentagon doors before being carted out by officials.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara watched the chaos from the safety of his office. He would later say he’d turned against the war himself by 1967.

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The Potomac never ran red, no cherry trees burned and the Pentagon did not leave the ground. The hippies and yippies who wanted to levitate the massive 3.7 million-square-foot building couldn’t fully encircle it as planned — though the exorcism was more about theatrics than anything else.

As the sun set, the crowd began to shrink. But there were confrontations into the evening, with brawls and bloodied heads and tear gas lobbed into the crowd. The steps of the Pentagon were streaked red.

By dawn the next day, only a few protesters remained, huddled together, having burned their signs to keep warm.

At that point, nearly 20,000 Americans had been killed in Vietnam, and the war would claim 38,000 more lives before the U.S. finally withdrew in 1975. But the march on the Pentagon became a defining moment of the antiwar movement, immortalized in Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Armies of the Night.” 

“It was really hard for the antiwar movement to understand it’s own progress,” Isserman said. “In a way, we had more influence than we possibly could have known staring up at the Pentagon.”

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