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A Student Organizer Recalls an Antiwar Protest

Todd Gitlin was a founding member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which by the late 1960s was the largest radical student organization in the country. Originally concerned with the problem of poverty and racism in the United States, SDS was one of the first student groups to take an anti-war stance. Here Gitlin recalls his impressions of an anti-Vietnam War protest held in Washington on April 17, 1965, the largest demonstration against the war to that point.

We scheduled the (antiwar) demonstration for April 17, 1965 in Washington D.C., but nobody thought it would be very large.  SDS was still a tiny organization with maybe two thousand members and Vietnam was not very much on anybody’s horizon…

So when I got on a bus in Ann Arbor on April 16, I felt I would be happy to see five thousand people.  When we rolled in Washington I remember seeing great flocks of buses parked along the mall, scores of them.  It was a sunrise experience and it was staggering.  I thought, we’re in business, we’re rolling.  The antiwar movement is going to be really substantial.  It will be a real contest. We had maybe twenty-five thousand people and everything about it felt good.

It was a beautiful day and if you look at pictures of the crowds you’d probably be surprised by how straight everyone looks.  People are sitting on the grass around the Washington Monument wearing sports jackets and dresses.  It looked like a prom.  We had music by Joan Baez, the Freedom Singers, and Phil Ochs.  Most people thought the best speech was given by Paul Potter, then the president of SDS.  His argument was that the brutality manifested in Vietnam was connected to the brutality of American society and that in order to stop the war we had to change the system.  That was the key phrase.  Some people thought it was huge mistake, a radical deepening of what was at stake, but it was a momentous speech and what most resonated with people was the very clear call to fortitude and commitment….

At the same time that polls showed a majority had turned against the war in 1968, a survey asked people to rank by popularity a variety of national organizations or forces.  The most unpopular entity in America was the antiwar movement.  That to me encapsulates the fundamental tragedy.  We were hated.  We were seen, not inaccurately, as part of a radical ensemble that really wanted to turn a great deal upside down

Source | Christian G. Appy, ed., Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 265-267.
Interviewer | Christian G. Appy
Interviewee | Todd Gitlin
Rights | Used by permission of Chris Appy. For on-line information about other Penguin Group (USA) books and authors, see the Internet website: http://www.penguin.com.
Item Type | Oral History
Cite This document | “A Student Organizer Recalls an Antiwar Protest,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed November 12, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/978.

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