Letter to the editor: Alumnus Fred Viehe ’71 reflects on leading largest anti-Vietnam war protest in US history

Oct. 15 was the 50th anniversary of a seminal day in the history of Lewis & Clark, as well as many other colleges and universities throughout America. On that day, Oct. 15, 1969, The Moratorium occurred, the largest single day of anti-war protest against the Vietnam War. In Portland, LC led the way.

LC first came to the nation’s attention when student body president, David Poulshock attended the President’s Meet The President conference at the White House. President Nixon asked about the pin Poulshock wore featuring a white dove against a blue background. With cameras running, Poulshock told the president it was the Moratorium button, and that “we are going to stop the war.” When Poulshock returned to campus, he organized the first Moratorium meeting in the Chapel. Afterwards, I received a phone call from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) to join a discussion to plan Moratorium activities. At that meeting there were more than WILPF members present. Others included the Black Panthers, the Communist Collective, a clergyman from Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam (CalCav), a member from a public employees union, Representative Wally Priestly and John Salmon, aka “Fish,” an activist from Portland State. Throughout the evening, we discussed what to do on Oct. 15, without reaching any resolution. When the discussion turned to when we should meet again, I mentioned that we were having a Moratorium meeting at LC at the end of next week. The response was electrifying. Many wanted to come but it was decided only to send a representative, “Fish.” The next day when I mentioned what had occurred to Poulshock and Tony Angelo, the student body vice-president, they both looked at me like I was a miracle man. In Angelo’s words, “We’ve been trying to connect with people off-campus for years, and you did it in one night.” Largely for that reason, Poulshock appointed me head of the Moratorium on campus.

Being appointed head of the campus Moratorium illustrated the distance I had traveled since 1965, when I was drafted, volunteered for Vietnam, as well as being a paratrooper. My military service, though, was limited to a data processing unit with the 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, and my enthusiasm for Vietnam waned with my marriage. Following my discharge, I came to LC and enrolled in Dr. Allan Kittell’s Modern European History course, where I saw analogies with Vietnam from crushed 19th-century democratic revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe. As I increasingly became opposed to the war, Dr. Hideo Hashimoto from the religion department invited me to participate in a reading of the Vietnam war dead published in the Congressional Record at the Lincoln Statue in the South Park Blocks on Memorial Day, 1969. When I arrived, only a few dedicated people, a microphone and loud speakers were broadcasting the names of the dead to no one but birds, bees, squirrels and trees. Over time, I witnessed these “actions” time and again considered brilliant by true-believers, but not to anyone else. I wanted to leave, but since I had volunteered, I did my duty. After my reading, the organizer of this event asked me to do another reading since it was difficult to get readers. My whole being shouted out “NO!” but I just couldn’t bring myself to say it. Sitting down with the Congressional Record, I began wondering what happened to those I spent basic training with. Since we had been billeted by alphabetical order and the name of the fellow who slept beneath me started with a “Q,” I began with the “Q’s.” It was every name, every other name, every name, every other name all the way to the end of the Z’s. I felt faint, to the point of pinching myself. Then I wondered why I, who had volunteered for Vietnam, was alive, and the others dead. The only rationale I could fathom was that I was alive for a reason, i.e. to end the war in Vietnam. So, then and there, I committed myself to spending at least two years trying to end the war, since I had spent two years in the army supporting it.

In planning for the Moratorium at LC, fellow activists and I raised money via off-campus parties, and hosted anti-war speakers largely from the faculty. Soon, the Faculty Senate voted to cancel all classes on Oct. 15 and have the day devoted to a discussion of the Vietnam War. I, in turn, began attending city-wide meetings concerning the Moratorium which usually were held at Portland State University.  Students from Reed College also attended. At times, our meetings were acrimonious. Some wanted protesters to enter factories and other work places to educate the workers, while others such as myself argued for a March down Broadway, followed by a rally at the Pioneer Post Office. Ultimately, the latter won the day, and we began negotiating Parade Permits with the police as well as printing and displaying posters throughout the city announcing what we planned for Oct. 15.  At LC, we planned to have a mass student gathering in the Templeton Commons dining hall at 8 a.m., while the faculty arranged for a series of speakers to give presentations in the Pamplin gymnasium later that morning. After the presentations, we hoped students would go canvassing throughout Portland neighborhoods distributing our pamphlets illustrating the fallacies of U.S. policy in Vietnam.  

On Oct. 15, our planning went off like clockwork. The Templeton dining hall was filled to capacity with standing room only. Suddenly while presentations were underway, a student delegation from Marymount College entered with flags flying to the cheers of all. They had marched all the way up from Marymount. Afterwards, there was a gathering on the lawn between Templeton and the Manor House, where President John Howard addressed those present. He was noticeably downcast, explaining that he had threatened to fire faculty members who did not hold classes during The Moratorium, but since none were held, he admitted he had to face “a fait accompli.” He also mentioned that some students had lowered the American flag and reraised it upside down, the international signal of distress.  Some had wanted Howard to call the police but wiser heads had prevailed. All, I suspect, were very impressed by his presentation, illustrating that while he supported the war he encouraged everyone to follow their conscience.

Prior to 10 a.m., I left campus with Dr. Allan Kittell as guests on a downtown radio talk-show hosted by a local newspaper columnist. For two hours Dr. Kittell and I answered callers’ questions and then got up to leave at noon. As we were putting on our jackets, our host signaled for us to return, saying, “You’ve got to see this.” Our march from PSU was just beginning with students holding large banners that stretched across Broadway, yelling anti-war slogans, such as “Hell, NO, we won’t go!” as well as others. For me, as well as Allan, the march was beyond our wildest dreams. 

We had planned for 1,000 marchers but now 10,000 marched down Broadway. Unfortunately, we could not join them as all downtown streets were blocked, so were returned to LC. Once back on campus, we learned that the speakers at the gymnasium had been so dynamic, nearly all students picked up our pamphlets and had gone canvassing throughout Portland. It was such a success that no pamphlets were left. For the rest of the afternoon, I answered telephone calls in the student body government office. One concerned those who went down to picket the docks under the mistaken belief that longshoremen honored all picket lines. Instead, many male pickets were beaten up and were hospitalized. Women picketers were not molested but were told in no uncertain terms to leave and not come back, especially with their anti-war signs! The other call was notification that because of the large unexpected turnout our evening meeting would not be held in the PSU Ballroom, but instead in the PSU Basketball Stadium.

My responsibility that evening at the Basketball Stadium was two-fold. One, to arrange the program, and two, to collect information concerning the day’s events and call the Moratorium’s national headquarters in Washington, DC. As I sat up in the stands, I asked activists from LC, PSU and Reed about the day’s activities, especially concerning numbers, i e. how many attended all the day’s events. But what caught my attention more was the vast throng entering the stadium. They just were not students. They were largely young adults often with young families, some pushing baby strollers, carrying blankets to sit on the stadium floor. Soon, the air was filled with the joyous cries of young children running around, playing games and enjoying themselves. It was such an encouraging sight. Others, students and non-students sat in the stands, who like their counterparts, had found an anti-war home in this gathering. For me, the big surprise in making out the evening’s program was the large number of public officials who wished to address the throng, as well as musical groups, theatrical groups and those who offered to present guerrilla theatre. To provide a variety, I intermixed the musical and the theatrical groups, as well as guerrilla theatre presentations, in between the public officials, until it was time for our main speaker, Cezar Chavez, the leader of the United Farm Workers. Finally, when it became time for Chavez’s address, I had to go into one of the stadium tunnels to call Washington. Chavez must have electrified the crowd, because with all the cheering and clapping, I had to shout repeatedly over the phone and was unable to hear a response. The Moratorium throughout Portland had been a resounding success! But the next morning’s news reported that most of the American people still supported the war.

A second Moratorium was scheduled Nov. 15, but with a difference. Only two marches were planned, one in Washington, D.C., and the other in San Francisco. Those of us in Portland rented bus to San Francisco, where the Moratorium was held in Golden Gate Park all afternoon. One of the presentations was by the cast of “Hair,” who mentioned in their opening remarks that they were violated their contract, but “we don’t care.” That comment perhaps best illustrates the spirit of the Moratorium – everything and anything was sacrificed to end the war. At San Francisco, 100,000 marched through the City by the Bay; in Washington, D.C., half a million. While the war would continue, the success of the Moratorium led President Nixon to announce the withdrawal of 10,000 American troops every month until the war ended.

Over the next three years, I kept my commitment, plus some, and continued my involvement in anti-war and other countercultural activities. In 1970, I joined the Tom Walsh campaign to unseat the “facist” on the city council. Walsh, who had been a speaker at the LC Moratorium, won the primary, but lost the general election. Then there was the People’s Army Jamboree, to protest the American Legion’s convention in Portland. Fearing riots like in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic convention, the governor launched “Vortex,” a state-sponsored rock festival, and a private group sponsored the “Big Sky Rock Festival” over in Washington. These rock festivals limited our “army” to about a thousand of the most motley, rag tag and bobtail protesters ever to take to the streets yelling and chanting anti-war slogans. Subsequently, I joined Common Cause, now People for the American Way, and rose to become the first campus organizer. Following the ratification of the 26th Amendment, the movement to register off-campus 18-21 year olds to vote recruited me to organize a county-wide voter registration drive using local neighborhood groups. Also at that time, I became Co-Director of the Wayne Morse for Senate primary campaign. Since Morse was an icon to the counterculture for voting against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, my responsibility was to have the senator meet with countercultural groups. As with the Walsh campaign, we won the primary, but then, since Morse was the official Democratic Senatorial candidate, the party’s campaign team took over, and we “locals” were dismissed. In the general election, Morse was defeated by Mark Hatfield, the Republican incumbent.

Before the primary campaign ended another event occurred that redirected my life. After being assigned to send out mass mailings of campaign material, l was having difficulty one evening getting others to pack envelopes, so I called a women I knew I could count on. She was totally devoted to the senator, but she was divorced with five young children. When I called her, she politely refused, and then, knowing how to punch her buttons, I told her that unless Morse was elected the war was going to continue, and her children were going to be drafted and die in Vietnam. Crying profusely, she agreed to come. As I hung up, I felt like a heel. I knew I was losing my humanity and becoming a political monster. Recently, I had been accepted into the history graduate program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but had to send in fifty dollars to hold my place. I was somewhat torn by what to do, since I had been told that the Democrats were looking at me to run for Congress in 1974 in Oregon’s first congressional district. But after that conversation, my mind was made up. I whipped out my checkbook, wrote a check for fifty dollars — and never looked back.Those involved in social and political movements often wonder was it all worth it. To me, it was. In January, 1973, the last American soldiers, along with the POWs, came home. Also that year, Congress passed the War Powers Act, requiring the President to notify Congress when troops are ordered into combat, and to withdraw them within sixty days unless Congress directs otherwise. Finally, in 1975, the draft ended. It was revived in 1979, but never implemented, largely because it is widely believed young people again will take to the streets. For me, my reward for opposing the war, becoming involved in the Moratorium and engaging in the other activities came in the Fall of 1974, while studying for my master’s exams. I was notified that I was one of two from Oregon on Richard Nixon’s Enemies List.

Fred Viehe

Fred Viehe is a professor of history at Youngstown State University.

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