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Marching with the Armies of the Night

There are rewards for working for the common good, not least of which is the sense of personal satisfaction that comes from having a long-standing commitment to the struggle against exploitation and to a good society. Many seasoned activists date their initiation into the cause from the late 1960s, particularly from the spring of 1968; but Chomsky, and a small army of others, had made their commitment much earlier still.

In recognition of his friend's long experience with activism, Paul Lauter asked Chomsky (who had been trying to organize a national tax-resistance movement with Harold Tovish, a well-known sculptor) to team up with him and others to support draft resistance. It was 1966. This was one factor leading to the formation of Resist, which, Chomsky remembers, "very quickly became involved in other forms of resistance to illegitimate authority" (31 Mar. 1995). One of the activities in which Resist became involved was the March on the Pentagon.

The march is described by Norman Mailer in his book The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, The Novel as History. According to Mailer, it all began in September of 1967, when he received a phone call from Mitchell Goodman, a novelist who was married to poet and fellow activist Denise Levertov. Goodman had led antiwar protests in the past, and was on this day calling to urge Mailer to participate in Resist. He said: "On Friday. . . we're going to have a demonstration at the Department of Justice to honor students who are turning in their draft cards" (Mailer 9). A week later, Mailer was asked to write and sign a form letter in support of these students, and a week after that, he was invited to speak at a meeting; fellow speakers were to be Robert Lowell (the poet), Dwight Macdonald (Mailer claims that he was, "of all the younger American writers. . . the one who had probably been influenced most by Macdonald" [25]), Ed de Grazia (the leading lawyer for the Mobilization's Legal Defense Committee), and Paul Goodman (who "had been the first to talk of the absurd and empty nature of work and education in America"[24]). The meeting took place on Thursday, the day before the demonstration to support draft resisters, and two days prior to a planned march on the Pentagon aimed at crippling some of its operations.

Chomsky was, of course, the right person to call upon to lend support to such activities. During the week leading up to the demonstration, Chomsky and others had put forth a "call to resist illegitimate authority," which was published in the 12 October 1967 edition of the New York Review of Books, and which was signed by thousands of people interested in participating. The stage was thus set for the 20 October March on the Pentagon, led by the likes of David Dellinger and Jerry Rubin, serious men, devoted to hard detailed work(Mailer 53). The leaflet promoting the march reads:

WE ARE PLANNING AN ACT OF DIRECT CREATIVE RESISTANCE TO THE WAR AND THE DRAFT IN WASHINGTON ON FRIDAY, OCTOBER 20. The locale of our action will be the Department of Justice. We will gather at the First United Congregational Church of Christ, 10th and G Streets, N.W., Washington. . . at 1 P.M. We will appear at the Justice Department together with 30 or 40 young men brought by us to Washington to represent the 24 Resistance groups from all over the country. There we will present to the Attorney General the draft cards turned in locally by these groups on October 16. . . We will, in a clear, simple ceremony, make concrete our affirmation of support for these young men who are the spearhead of direct resistance to the war and all of its machinery....

[Signed] Mitchell Goodman, Henry Braun, Denise Levertov, Noam Chomsky, William Sloane Coffin, Dwight Macdonald.

NOTE: Among the hundreds already committed to this action are Robert Lowell, Norman Mailer, Ashley Montagu, Arthur Waskow, and professors from most of the major colleges and universities in the East. (qtd. in Mailer 59 ­ 60)

The resistance-group representatives were to turn in the draft cards, and then Mitchell Goodman, Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and seven others would give speeches; the marchers would next make their way to the Office of the Attorney in the Department of Justice Building, where they would inform the attorney general that they were planning to assist draft dodgers. All went according to plan, and 994 draft cards were turned over to the assistant attorney general.


The next day, the demonstrators congregated for the March on the Pentagon. On arriving at their destination, they were met by military police who squirted mace into the eyes of anyone who attempted to enter the building. Mailer was intent on either getting inside the Pentagon or being arrested. He was arrested. Chomsky, along with Dwight Macdonald, Robert Lowell, Dave Dellinger, Dagmar Wilson, Dr. and Mrs. Benjamin Spock, Sidney Lens, and Barbara Deming, had been turned away by the military police, so they instead committed acts of symbolic disobedience, including conducting a teach-in. Dellinger, Wilson, and Chomsky were arrested and hustled off to a police station. Chomsky remembers the scene: "the Pentagon was surrounded by troops, the marchers approached, and then all sorts of things happened, from young women putting flowers in rifles, to prayers, to the `teach in,' and on, and on. Those were pretty chaotic days, and there was no direction at all to this thing, apart from following the route from Washington across the river that had been settled with the police, and a few large rallies where no one could hear the speakers." And what did this whole scene look like from the other side of the blockades? "Dan Ellsberg later told me," Chomsky recalls, "that he'd been standing next to McNamara up in the Pentagon somewhere, the two of them ridiculing the tactics of the protestors and talking about how they would have done it more efficiently. Hate to think how" (13 Feb. 1996).

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