When KQED-TV offered me a job in San Francisco, I moved back to the Bay Area where most of my friends and family lived. The Berkeley I remembered from the Fifties was gone. In those days, the most exciting thing you could find was the Old Vienna Coffee Shop on Telegraph Avenue where you could get a Viennese coffee, which was regular coffee with a dollop of whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon at twice the price.
The first espresso coffee-house, Il Piccoli’s, opened on telegraph Avenue in 1956. It was a mecca for the beat generation and soon became the renowned Caffe Mediterraneum, or Cafe Med. Several extraordinary book shops like Cody’s and Moe’s moved to Telegraph Avenue in the early Sixties. Berkeley Bohemians had always wanted a more sophisticated atmosphere and by 1970 they’d gotten it. Just like most big cities, you could score heroin on Telegraph Avenue.
By 1970 it was clear that Nixon wasn’t getting out of Vietnam, but Americans were finally getting fed up. In September a Gallup poll showed that 55 percent now believed the United States had made a mistake. Between 1965 and 1973, twenty-seven million young men had their lives disrupted by the draft as they reached the age of eighteen, politicizing an entire generation.
Between 1968 and 1970, two hundred thousand Vietnam vets, the troops that Nixon was pulling out of Vietnam, started coming home. Some were wounded. Some suffered from the psychological effects of combat, some were strung out on heroin, many of them had used Vietnam’s powerful marijuana. Many were disillusioned.
Some of the returning vets joined the peace movement, creating a powerful new anti-war force: Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Images of vets at antiwar rallies in their old army jackets or in wheelchairs, many with long hair, some holding signs reading “End the War in Vietnam” and “We Won’t Fight Another Rich Man’s War” galvanized protesters.
Peace activists called for a moratorium for October 15th. It swept the country. In some communities, veterans read the names of the war dead. In others church bells were rung for each of the dead. Thousands of small and large towns from Muskogee, Oklahoma to Las Vegas, Nevada took part. One hundred thousand marched in Boston and New York City. Ten thousand gathered in Denver. At least two million people took part across the country.
Attorney General John Mitchell watched protesters exchange the American flag on the Justice Department flagpole for a Viet Cong flag. He later said he felt like he was witnessing the storming of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1917. The Russian revolution.
After the October Moratorium was over. Nixon spoke on November 3rd promising to continue the war despite protests to “reach an honorable settlement.” He warned that the enemy could no longer count on dissent in America to give them the victory they could not win on the battlefield. In the weeks after his speech, Nixon’s Gallup overall-approval rating soared to 68 percent, the highest it had been since he took office.
Peace activists were outraged and called for a second moratorium for Saturday, November 15th. Five hundred thousand peaceful antiwar protesters descended on Washington—the biggest ever single antiwar protest in US history, with Senators Charles Goodell and George McGovern, David Dellinger, Coretta Scott King, and Dick Gregory, and musicians Peter, Paul & Mary, Richie Havens, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger.
Nixon surrounded the white house with busses and let it be known that he was watching a football game.
Later that month Seymour Hersh published a report on the Vietnam village of Mai Lai. As many as 500 unarmed Vietnamese, mainly women and children, had been systematically murdered in March of 1968. BBC News described the scene: “Soldiers went berserk, gunning down unarmed men, women, children and babies. … Women were gang raped; Vietnamese who had bowed to greet the Americans were beaten with fists and tortured, clubbed with rifle butts and stabbed with bayonets. Some victims were mutilated with the signature “C Company” carved into the chest. Time magazine summed up the significance of Hersh’s story: “[M]en in American uniforms slaughtered the civilians of My Lai, and in so doing humiliated the U.S. and called in question the U.S. mission in Viet Nam in a way that all the antiwar protesters could never have done.”
The American student movement was at its height. Several hundred underground antiwar newspapers with names like The Guardian, Ramparts, Berkeley Barb, East Village Other, Rag, Space City, Great Speckled Bird, Ann Arbor Sun, and Avatar, published weekly editions in every major city and on every major campus in the country. The newspapers had their own Liberation News Service with photographers and news analysts and correspondents in Cuba, North Vietnam, and traveling with the Viet Cong, the Palestine Liberation Organization and guerrilla movements in Latin America.
And then, at this summit of success, the student’s leadership organization, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), founded in 1960, splintered. It was a complicated situation, but in the end a group of militant radicals calling themselves the Weathermen, took over SDS with a revolutionary agenda. They believed they could organize young workers to overthrow American capitalism. The white Weathermen identified with the Black Panthers. When the police killed Fred Hampton the Weatherman issued a declaration of war upon the United States government.
The final SDS meeting ended with a speech by John Jacobs. He condemned the “pacifism” of white middle-class American youth. Black kids and poor kids experienced the violence they avoided. Jacobs predicted a successful revolution and declared that youth were moving away from passivity and apathy and toward a new high-energy culture of “repersonalization” brought about by drugs, sex, and armed revolution. “We’re against everything that’s ‘good and decent’ in honky America,” Jacobs said. “We will burn and loot and destroy. We are the incubation of your mother’s nightmare.”
There no longer seemed to be any place for compromise.