News & Politics

An Early Vietnam War Protest in Washington Square


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December 24, 1964, Vol. X, No. 10

Thomas Hits Viet War at Washington Sq. Rally

More than 1000 people, including turbaned writer Marc Schleifer, bearded, bereted hippies, mothers with baby carriages, and the Police Department’s Special Services (Red) Squad, filled Thompson Street Saturday afternoon in sub-freezing weather to hear Norman Thomas, A. Philip Randolph, and A.J. Muste demand that American troops withdraw immediately from Vietnam.

While the enthusiastic rally was in progress, Fritz Behr, red squad chief, slid through the crowd handing out subpoenas to members of the May 2nd Movement ordering them to appear before the Manhattan Grand Jury investigating the Harlem riots of July 23-25. When word of what was happening reached the platform, David McReynolds, who was chairing the affair, grabbed the microphone to denounce the serving of subpoenas at a peace rally, and urged the crowd to picket the grand jury on Monday.

The May 2nd Movement, a new, far left, pro-Castro student peace group, was not one of the sponsors of the rally. Its subpoenaed members were Ellen Shallit, Robert Apter, and Steven Martinot. Other members of the group had received subpoenas earlier in the week.

At the rally, a stooped, cold Norman Thomas climbed on top of a truck to plead for “an end to this senseless, stupid war in Vietnam. We tried this in Korea and failed. The French tried this in Algeria and failed. When will we ever learn?”

Thomas, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday by traveling to Utah to address a civil rights rally, received prolonged applause as he awkwardly climbed down the ladder. Even members of groups that normally deride him as a “red baiter” were smiling and cheering.

A.J. Muste, gaunt, also in his 80s, and ramrod-straight A. Philip Randolph, his deep voice echoing across Washington Square, both urged a cease-fire, American withdrawal, and free elections in Vietnam.

Topical folk-singer Phil Ochs warmed the crowd with his ironic “Talking Vietnam Blues,” that went in part:

“…I met the ghost of President Diem. He said, You’re fighting to keep Vietnam Free — for good old Diem-ocracy…He said, I’m a fine old Christian man rulin’ this backward Buddhist land. It ain’t much, but what the heck, it sure beats hell out of Chiang Kai-Chek…I’m the power elite…Me and the Seventh Fleet…He said meet my sister Madame Nhu, the sweetheart of Diem Bien Phu. He said meet my brothers, meet my aunts, we’re the government that doesn’t take a chance. Families that slay together stay together…If you lose the country you still have me. Me and Syngman Rhee, Chiang Kai-Chek, Franco, William Miller…Like I said on Meet the Press; I regret I have but one country to give for my life.”

The Thompson Street rally was one of several held on Saturday throughout the Western democracies to protest the war in Vietnam. Similar demonstrations were staged in Paris, London, Montreal, and San Francisco. The New York rally was originally scheduled for Union Square Park, but the City ruled that that site “would interfere with Christmas shoppers along 14th Street.”

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