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May Day 1971: Daniel Ellsberg on Joining Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn at Historic Antiwar Direct Action

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Image Credit: Daniel Ellsberg Papers (UMass Amherst)

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the 1971 May Day protests, when tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C., and brought much of the capital to a standstill through acts of civil disobedience. The mass demonstrations terrified the Nixon administration, and police would arrest over 12,000 people — the largest mass arrest in U.S. history. Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who attended the May Day protests, says it was part of a wave of popular discontent about the war that mobilized millions. “There was a movement of young people who felt that what was happening in the world … was wrong, had to change, and they were ready to risk their careers and their lives to try to change it. And we need that right now,” Ellsberg says. He recently spoke with Amy Goodman at an event marking the 50th anniversary of the release of the Pentagon Papers. We play excerpts from that conversation, which also included National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. By the way, you can sign up for our daily news digest email by texting the word “democracynow” — one word, no space — to 66866, “democracynow” — one word — to 66866.

Today marks — well, on May Day, 50 years ago, the largest mass arrest of protesters in U.S. history took place. That’s right, the 1971 May Day actions against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C. During three days of civil disobedience, more than 12,600 protesters were arrested, many held at RFK Stadium. Seven thousand people were arrested on May 3rd alone as the Nixon administration placed 20,000 troops and officers in the capital. Key protest organizers included Rennie Davis and David Dellinger of the People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice, Jerry Coffin of the War Resisters League. The historian L.A. Kauffman later wrote that the protest, quote, “influenced grassroots activism for decades to come, laying the groundwork for a new kind of radicalism — decentralized, ideologically diverse and propelled by direct action,” unquote.

Protesters were urged to form affinity groups and to engage in civil disobedience. One affinity group at the May Day protests included historians Howard Zinn and Marilyn Young, the linguist Noam Chomsky and Dan Ellsberg. This was just shortly before Ellsberg would become the nation’s most famous whistleblower after the publication of the Pentagon Papers.

Well, on Saturday, May Day, I interviewed Dan Ellsberg and NSA whistleblower Ed Snowden as part of a virtual conference at the University of Massachusetts Amherst titled “Truth, Dissent & the Legacy of Daniel Ellsberg.” We’ll be playing extended excerpts of that conversation on a future broadcast, and you can go to for the whole two-day conference. But today we turn to Dan Ellsberg, who turned 90 on April 7th, reflecting on those 1971 protests a half a century ago. He began by talking about another major protest, the 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: The biggest effect of the antiwar movement was in the fall of 1969, in what they chose to call a moratorium, which was a weekday stoppage of events in order to have speeches against the war, withdrawal from work and from school, and if you couldn’t withdraw, you wore a black armband to school. In fact, Vice President Agnew’s daughter wore a black armband and was confined to her house for the next two months. And one of the better buttons of the war was “Free Kim Agnew.”

But the fact is, 2 million people on a weekday — not a bright, sunny Saturday, football weekend Saturday, but a weekday — took off from work and school and marched in what they did not know at that time was the Nixon — I’m talking now October 15th, 1969 — Nixon had made threats of nuclear weapons, which were not bluffs, not serious, that he was going to enact on November 3rd, when another strike — and by the way, they called it moratorium because they decided that general strike, which is what it was, was too provocative, too leftist, too inflammatory. So they called it a moratorium, not business as usual.

That kept Nixon from using nuclear weapons and escalating in '69. It was the most effective — I was telling Greta Thunberg, Amy, you know, our hero — I think I speak for both of us; she's my hero, for sure — and I was mentioning to her that with her strikes that she was leading, which were weekday strikes, during Friday, you know, schoolchildren against climate — I told her the history of the moratorium and said, “Think about what they planned to do,” which was one day the first month, two days the second month, three days the third month — in other words, not just one day each time, but an escalating kind of thing, which she hasn’t yet done with the pandemic. But I’m going to go back to her with this notion.

So, anyway, the idea of a strike is the basic notion — and it was very — it was the most effective action. The Pentagon Papers themselves had, as I look back on it — I didn’t expect much because they ended in '68. They didn't tell us what Nixon was doing. And my major message was, contrary to what people believed after Nixon’s election in '68, this war is not ending. He is not ending it. It's going to go on, and it’s going to get larger. That was what I had in mind.

But I didn’t have the documents, because the people who did have them — and Nixon knew they had them, and knew they were friends of mine — did not put them out. As one of them, Roger Morris, said when he left over Cambodia, but without documents and without a press conference, he said to me later, “We should have thrown open the safe.” He’s talking about the threats of nuclear weapons I’ve just described, which were prevented, not by him — he was against them — but he had seen the nuclear targets scheduled for the fall of 1969, and which the people in the streets didn’t even know about when they were doing it. They didn’t know they were preventing that. He said, “We should have thrown open the safes and screamed bloody murder, because that’s exactly what it was.”

AMY GOODMAN: Dan, you mentioned the day of the mass moratorium. Today is actually the 50th anniversary of the May 1st, 1971, massive rally in Washington, D.C., and you were part of an affinity group. You led the affinity group with Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. They chose you as the commander of their affinity group because they said you had been in Vietnam, you were a marine. You knew how —

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Oh, no, that’s an exaggeration. They said afterwards they perceived me as taking over that sergeant’s role, let’s say. Mainly, it came to say — I’ll tell you what I think they were referring to. We’re sitting in the middle of 14th Street, and the theory of Rennie Davis, who just recently died, had said, “If they won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.”

This was going to be my first arrest, open arrest. This is now '71. The vets had been throwing their medals over the fence, a very crucial time in the peace movement, very powerful image and moment, Medals of Honor and other things. And we were there. I expect to be in jail. I had with me a book that was very influential to me — Barbara Deming, D-E-M-I-N-G, Revolution and Equilibrium, a book that kind of converted me on nonviolence, on Gandhi and nonviolence. And I thought, “Well, if they let me have a book in jail” — which they never do, it turns out — “I'll have this with me to read in jail.”

So, when we go out at 4:00 in the morning, go out in — and taxi drivers volunteered to take us off, mostly Black, actually. “What do we pay you?” “Nothing. No problem. We’re on your side.” And so forth. We went out to 14th Street, and there the first person I see is Ben Spock, the baby doctor, and Barbara Deming, whom I recognized. So I got them to sign my book. I had this book signed by my heroes, at this point.

OK, later, Mark, Howard Zinn, Chomsky, Marilyn Young, Fred Branfman, Mitchell Goodman, the husband of Denise Levertov, a couple of others, Mark Ptashne, are sitting in the middle of 14th Street.

And I think what they’re referring to as my non-com leadership here was that as two police came toward us at about 9:00 in the morning, at right angles, one with his helmet down, as I recall — the visor of his helmet up — the other with the helmet down and with a big club and mace. They came at us at right angles. And I thought, “It’s too early. We just got here. Let’s not end this action right now.” So I said, “Let’s go.” That was me. I took that initiative. I said, “Let’s move.” So, we all got up, and we moved away. And one police — this sounds like a movie, like Mack Sennett — actually did shoot the other police in the face with mace. And his helmet was rolling on the ground, and the club fell on the ground. As I say, if you get the picture, they were coming at us, each other. And they were so determined to come down on us at one time that they came down on each other.

And then we went out through the rest of the day and various things. They ended up arresting 13,000 people that afternoon, after the action had basically been broken. And they put them in RFK — ironically, RFK Stadium. And later, much later, because they didn’t have records on any of them, what they had done was they had just cleaned through Georgetown, picking up every young person, many of whom were children of congresspersons, which was to their favor in the end. So they put them all on. They got a little compensated later.

And I went on — the action having been broken, we had lunch with I.F. Stone. And then I went to New York. Noam went to a veteran’s coffee shop somewhere in Texas. Howard got arrested later that afternoon for asking a policeman, “What are you doing?” when he was beating a young person in Georgetown, and they arrested Howard, naturally, put him in the stadium. And I went to hear McGeorge Bundy at the Council on Foreign Relations, who I used to work for in the Pentagon, lie about the war.

He gave a series of lectures, and I thought, “Interesting.” Because I had already given the Pentagon Papers to Sheehan and to the others. And I said, “Mac, you shouldn’t be saying this. The truth about what you’re saying is going to be coming out.” He was saying that Congress hadn’t been lied to and there was no intention to deceive anyone.

So, that was the mood. And it was a time when, a month later, when we were putting out the Pentagon Papers, all the people working with us — Gar Alperovitz, Janaki Tschannerl — had to do to get people to find us places to stay while the FBI was hunting for us, and we were still putting out more editions of the Pentagon Papers. All you had to do to find a place to stay was to ask somebody with long hair — nearly everybody did, men and women had it then, young people — and say, “We’re doing something that may help end the war, small chance, and maybe quite legally dangerous. Are you willing to help?” And everybody said yes, right away.

There was a movement then. And there was a movement of young people who felt that what was happening in the world, and on race, as well — it really started with the civil liberties movement — was wrong, had to change. And they were ready to risk their careers and their lives to try to change it. And we need that right now.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Daniel Ellsberg speaking on Saturday, May Day, at a virtual conference at the University of Massachusetts Amherst titled “Truth, Dissent & the Legacy of Daniel Ellsberg.” I moderated the event with him and NSA whistleblower Ed Snowden. We’ll be playing extended excerpts of the conversation soon. Special thanks to the University of Massachusetts Amherst Department of Special Collections and University Archives at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library.

When we come back, we look at how Big Pharma has dispatched over a hundred lobbyists to block generic COVID-19 vaccines and to preserve their intellectual property rights at the World Trade Organization despite the surging COVID deaths in India and Latin America. Stay with us.

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