Mendel Letters 52 — Vietnam War

Anti-war protesters being hit with a nightstick by a police officer during “Stop the Draft” Week. The caption in the New York Times read: “Antiwar protesters trying to picket the U.N. are pushed back by policemen.

Dear Mendel,

I first became aware of the United States involvement in the War in Vietnam in August 1964. It was the summer between junior high school and high school at Bronx Science, the lead in to the Presidential election, and I was following the news. When Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing President Johnson to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression,” I was a strong supporter. I considered myself a conservative and an anti-communist and thought the U.S. had to teach the Vietnam Communists and their Russian and Chinese allies a lesson. The next summer I sent a letter to local newspapers, which never was published, complaining that some groups that were part of the anti-war movement were on the Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations.

During the spring of 1966, my junior year in high school, my English class debated the U.S. role in Vietnam and I was on the pro-war team. I worked hard researching and preparing my statement. Unfortunately, as I learned more, I started to change my mind. During the debate the anti-war group did an especially poor job. Rather than rejoicing in the win, I had greater misgivings. About a month later we had another debate on the war, this time in social studies, and I volunteered for the anti-war team.

I don’t remember much happening during my senior year in high school, but when I started at City College in Fall 1967, you pushed hard for me to sign up for ROTC. You figured the military would pay for graduate school, hopefully law school, and I could become a military lawyer, skipping combat if that war, or another war, was continuing.

I lasted in ROTC less than two weeks and then dropped the class. By that point I was too anti-war to continue and I started to go to campus and community anti-war protest rallies. You warned me not to get arrested because if I did, you wouldn’t bail me out.

In December 1967 there was a weeklong “Stop the Draft” protest planned for the Whitehall Street Draft Center in Lower Manhattan near Battery Park. This is the draft center made famous by Arlo Guthrie in his song celebrating Alice’s Restaurant. Guthrie was sent to the Group W Bench for miscreants and misfits because he was once arrested for littering.

I snuck out of the house before dawn on Monday morning to avoid seeing you and headed downtown on the Lexington Avenue subway to Battery Park. Monday morning there was a march headed by Dr. Benjamin Spock and the poet Allen Ginsberg who were arrested along with over 250 other protesters when they held a sit-in in front of the draft center. The 8,000 police assigned to guard the draft center far out-numbered the anti-war demonstrators and Mayor Lindsey praised them for their restrained performance. The protest was over by 8 AM and I headed back to CCNY with some friends. A younger, more militant protest was scheduled for Tuesday. That night you reminded me of the threat, if I got arrested, you would not bail me out.

Early Tuesday morning I snuck out again and headed back to Whitehall Street. On Tuesday the celebrities were not there which meant the police were not going to be so restrained. The protestors were mostly college students, about 2,500 of us, a large number were young women, and we gathered in Battery Park. Across from the park were marshaled hundreds of mounted police officers and thousands of tactical patrol officers in full battle gear. At 7 AM, when we started to march out of Battery Park toward the draft center they attacked with batons flying and horses pushing us back.

The police strategy to attack and diverse the protesters was a tactical disaster. Terrified, we ran in groups, uptown, through the streets of Manhattan blocking traffic as we ran. I ended up with a group headed for the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel where Secretary of State Dean Rusk was scheduled to speak. As we arrived at the hotel, mounted police rode out of St. Bartholomew’s Church at 51st Street and Park Avenue and attacked us again. We eventually set up a picket line but were pelleted with construction debris from a work sit across the street. I approached a police officer that seemed to be in charge and asked if he could do anything about the debris and he promptly lifted me off the ground by my jacket collar and threw me in the back of a police car with two other protesters, a high school teacher and a student from Columbia University. There were two police officers in the front seat and one suddenly turned around and starting beating us with his nightstick. The teacher wrestled it from him. The other police officer drew his gun and said he better give it back or else. He agreed, on the condition, that the cop stop hitting us.

Photo from the City College Observation Post

I was brought to a precinct in mid-town Manhattan to be booked. Because I was only seventeen, they let me call my stepmother who worked nearby. She came to the precinct but was told we were being sent downtown to the Center Street Court House near City Hall for processing and she would have to catch up to us there. She asked if she could get a ride downtown with us, but they sneered and said only criminals could ride in the back of the police wagon and she would have to take the subway.

At Center Street everybody but me was released on their own recognizance. Because I was only seventeen I had to wait for a parent to be released. I was charged with obstructing pedestrian traffic, which meant I was standing on the sidewalk, and resisting arrest, which I hadn’t done. The arresting officer was someone I had never seen before and definitely was not the guy who grabbed me by the collar and threw me into the police car. The officer at the scene was taller than me and I was about four inches taller than this guy.

I was defended by the National Lawyers Guild and had to appear in court four times before the charges were dropped because no police officer ever appeared. Later I realized that the city did not want the legality of the obstructing pedestrian traffic statute challenged in court. They arrested us because once in the court system you couldn’t attend further protests. If you were arrested again you would be charged with a parole violation and not released. The teacher who was in the patrol car with me and protected me and the other college student from the cop who was beating on us was charged with assault. I do not know what happened to him.

You wanted me to keep quiet about the arrest but it was featured with a photograph in the next issue of the CCNY Observation Post. I became a bit of a college celebrity and was elected to student government that spring on the Student Power Slate.

Over time your position on the war and demonstrations changed. In 1970, after protesting students were killed by troops at Kent State and Jackson State colleges, you joined me in the anti-war marches.

Your son

Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.

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