Friday Flashback #31

Protests are nothing new in Westport. As noted a few Friday Flashbacks ago, they date back to at least 1913, when women of the Equal Franchise League participated in Suffrage Week activities.

Perhaps none were bigger though than the rallies against the Vietnam War. There were several, culminating in a National Moratorium Day march on October 15, 1969.

Over 1200 Staples students — joined by some from the 3 junior highs — marched from the high school tennis courts, down North Avenue and Long Lots Road, all the way to the steps of the YMCA.

The long line of marchers headed downtown. The A&P is now the firehouse; the Esso gas station is a Phillips 66. (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

They carried American flags and wore buttons saying “Peace Now” and “Hell No, We Won’t Go.” Along the way, pro-war students threw eggs at the marchers.

There were adults downtown too, to hear speeches (including one from Iowa Senator Harold Hughes).

More of the enormous downtown crowd. The former Max’s Art Supplies is on the extreme left; what is now Tiffany is on the far right. (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

It took 4 more years. But in 1973 a peace treaty was signed. Two years later, the last Americans were evacuated from the US Embassy roof.

A portion of the crowd — primarily Staples students — protesting the Viet Nam war in 1969. (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

A Staples student states his case. (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

A portion of the crowd in front of the Y. The Fine Arts Theater (now Restoration Hardware) was showing “Alice’s Restaurant” and “Medium Cool.” Police stood on the roof next door. (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

The crowd was predominantly — though not entirely — made up of Staples students. (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

Rabbi Byron Rubenstein of Temple Israel addresses the crowd from the steps of the Y. (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

40 responses to “Friday Flashback #31

  1. Chip Stephens. Staples 73

    I also remember the Staples students who locked themselves in mocked up tiger cages on the Staples green protesting the treatment of US soldiers by Hanoi and then us protesters on their return. Everyone had a side, then like now, and some behaved with passion and civility others pushe their message as haters, this was and is now on both sides !

  2. I’m pretty sure that’s Debbie Thomson (’72) at the back of the line in the top picture.

    There are times I wish I had kept a journal back then–and this is one of them. I did not join in the protest march from Staples to downtown and I have no clear memory as to why I ended up not going.

    • Fred—-we would have had soccer practice that afternoon. ??? if that might have influenced your decision not to March into town.

  3. No rationale person wants to go to war but I would bet these protestors would never stand up for themselves. Are they entitled to have anyone else but them fight their battles? Vietnam was my era and I lost many friends in that conflict. Instead if being thankful another human being took their place and gave their life they burned our flag and spat on returning soldiers. Think about that you self centered people!

    • damn hippies!

    • Peter Gambaccini

      Do you have any eyewitness knowledge of anybody from Westport, or anyone who reads this blog, actually spitting on veterans? You might want to consider the audience you’re addressing before condemning “self-centered people.”

      • Mary (Cookman) Schmerker Staples 1958

        I do not know of anyone from Westport who spit on returning veterans or burned the flag. I wish my brother was alive to comment on this or that his good friend Fred Fable sees it and comments. Fred and Corky were in business together, a Texaco station on the Post Road. Fred was in the Navy. Corky joined the National Guard and after his training was able to keep the business going while Fred served. ( I hope I have all this right, it was a long time ago!) What I remember Corky telling me was that at least once and perhaps more than once he would get a call to suit up and report for duty to keep the peace at a protest rally. I remember him telling about reporting for duty and being taken to a protest in Hartford. He said: “Here I am with a fully loaded gun and people are calling me names. I have no idea exactly what they are protesting, other than the war and I might actually agree with them but it is my duty to remain calm and take the verbal abuse. Fortunately I was never tempted to use that gun. I was simply doing my duty to try and protect property and innocent bystanders.”
        This is a second hand report but perhaps it will spark others to share more memories. (By the way, I think I remember Corky saying that people also spit on him, but this is a long ago memory.)
        It was a volatile time. I was pleased to see Gerry Kuroghlian’s comments below. Staples continues a long tradition of encouraging young minds to seek answers and to speak up on all kinds of topics, including injustices. Keep on keeping on Staples Students. You are part of a long and proud tradition.

      • Your very naive

        • Mary (Cookman) Schmerker Staples 1958

          Thanks for the compliment but I’m an old timer and not at all naïve.

        • Russell Gontar

          And you seem to have difficulty spelling.

          • Is that the best you can do? Are you one of those people still so upset over the election they need a therapist? Hope they help.

            • Russell Gontar

              An insane, delusional and dangerous lunatic had been given the keys to the nuclear codes and is threatening North Korea. So, yeah, I’m upset over the election. Aren’t you?

  4. I remember it well. And there is Jim Bratz right in the middle of one of the photos.

  5. Some of the protesters were from Weston, too (me).

  6. Jim Goodrich

    Heading toward the 1968 elections, President Johnson was negotiating a peace deal with North Vietnam and Humphrey was edging Nixon in the polls. Nixon ordered Haldeman to “monkey wrench” the deal.

    Sadly Nixon was successful and another 28,000 U.S. personnel died in addition to several million Vietnamese before the war ended in 1975. Who spit on whom seems minor compared to these facts only reveal this past December.

  7. These are incredible pictures Dan, and makes me proud of Westport in the day. I hope the same spirit applies now.

  8. Gerry Kuroghlian

    As a second year teacher at Staples, I was amazed that the students I had were so knowledgeable about the issues in the Viet Nam conflict. Many of these same students continue to be informed activists today. Staples was and continues to be an amazing school with outstanding students who seek answers to the problems they confront.

  9. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    I was saddened when after the draft was eliminated most of the protestors stopped protesting. We’re still paying for that war. Never start a fight, always finish it.

  10. Louise W Demakis

    We worked in London during the Vietnam years so our impressions were filtered through The Guardian and The Times. But so were many Hollywood celebrities whose kids were at The American School in London: to mention a few, Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Julie Andrews, Blake Edwards and a few others. No one protested at ASL!

  11. I can’t believe that after almost fifty years people are still trying to justify the “police action” in Vietnam Nam. The Domino Theory has been proven to be a sham. After we lost the “war” nothing happened. Twenty years later the iron curtain collapsed and now most of the merchandise in Walmart, Target, etc. comes from China. And BTW, just because someone is against that “war” doesn’t mean they don’t respect those that were forced to fight it. Finally, I think we should remember the four Kent State students who were gunned down, two of whom were not even involved in the protest. NO ONE was ever even charged with a crime let alone convicted.

  12. It was the Ohio National Guard and yes they were improperly trained….not the “school militia.”

    • Nancy Hunter

      Thanks Jamie — got carried away with sarcasm last night! Enjoy your weekend!

  13. Incredible photos, Dan – thanks for sharing so much about this town’s past. I’m surprised at the anger of some of these posts. To state the obvious, war is a terrible thing and any country should be extremely careful before engaging in it and only with very clear reasons. The Vietnam War was responsible for more than a million people being killed over 20 years (many estimates are higher) and the reason for the US involvement was not crystal clear. It seems to me that many of those protesting were not motivated by self-protection (many of those pictured were would not have been covered under the draft) but were protesting what they perceived were unnecessary deaths of all human beings involved – civilians as well as our brave soldiers that fought. When any government puts their citizens in harms way rather than protecting them, I hope the citizens of that country will always speak up.

  14. William Adler

    Thanks for posting this Dan. I was an organizer of the protest and a march monitor – that might be me in the first photo (not sure). I recall that our view was entirely respectful of the soldiers – some were our friends or family – and our motivation included concern for their safety and well-being. This march was an incredible moment for Westport – talk about a community standing up to be heard. Thinking back on that day I will forever have respect and gratitude toward the town and its residents.

  15. I marched in this protest from Long Lots Junior High School, where I was in the 7th Grade. It was a thrilling recognition of the political awareness of junior high students for the protest march to downtown to be opened to students in the town’s three junior high schools: Long Lots, Coleytown, and Bedford. I remember the march downtown, with the stream from Long Lots mingling with the stream from Staples. There was considerable discussion about the wisdom and safety of opening the march to junior high students. It happened, and I am grateful.

    Dan, the community service at The Unitarian Church in Westport around this time honoring the names of every Connecticut resident killed in Vietnam has been on my mind lately. I believe it is one of the rare occasions at which both Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward addressed a town audience. Do you remember the date of that service? Have you recalled it in the blog?

    Like other commentators, I am touched by the level of anger toward peaceful war protestors. Yes, thanks to being raised in the Vietnam era, I did not serve. My conscientious objector file was ready to go, but the draft ended two years before my number would have been called.

    Later in life, it was a privilege to work as a civilian besides the U.S. military on two occasions. In the summer of 1978, I interned in the newsroom of The Fayetteville Observer in North Carolina on the doorstep of Fort Bragg, the Army’s largest post and home of the elite 82nd Airborne Division. The best story of the summer was covering a simulated battle across the North Carolina border with South Carolina. I was able to travel by Army helicopter to observe troops hunkered down and cooking meals behind “enemy lines.” One of the best rides of my life was flying at about 5,000 feet over pine trees for 50 miles between the post and McColl, South Carolina, with just a five-point web seat belt and centrifugal force holding me from falling out.

    I also worked on contract for several years around 2002 to 2005 in public relations advising the public affairs office and the adjutant general of the Indiana Air and Army National Guard, headquartered in Indianapolis, I became familiar with units sent out to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as issues in recruiting and especially in readiness — as a chief mission of the national guard is to prepare troops to be ready to serve. These days, I rarely pass a soldier, sailor, or aviator in uniform without thanking her or him for their service. I am also impressed with the remarkable educational attainments, analyses, and overall clear-headedness of today’s generation of flag officers in all the military branches. Times have changed. Our military has learned many lessons and practices its craft in a far superior way than the go-go days of obfuscation and cover-up in Vietnam. I worry far more about the quality of our civilian government than about the quality of our military leadership and the men and women serving under their command.

    A reporting trip to Southeast Asia in 1990 forever changed my opinion about the Domino Theory. I spent a lot of time with career U.S. foreign service officers in both Singapore and Malaysia, people who worked for the State, Commerce, and Agriculture departments as well as agencies with overseas representation such as the FAA and the IRS, I have no doubt that some of these people were also working undercover for the CIA or other intelligence services. The people I spoke with had spent decades representing the United States in Asia. Their arguments for the *risks* — I emphasize, the *risks* — of countries toppling if Vietnam fell were persuasive if not conclusive. And, of course, history shows it did not happen.

    My takeaway from these discussions s that as in much of history, we were as much lucky as skilled. The dominoes were poised to fall, in the belief of these Americans, speaking to me in 1990. It was a dangerous time. It might well have ended another way. Foreign affairs, like all of government, deserves a robust and constant 360-dgree view with unvarnished eyes. Of course I fear that we risk losing just that perspective in the State Department operated today by the president that many of the war protest critics probably support.

    Do I regret opposing the Vietnam War? Not in the least. We had to get out, and on our way out, if there was a risk of dominoes, it had to be ameliorated. Our attitudes toward men and women in uniform was confusing then, but I think this was a reflection of anger with commanders who covered up the truth. I, for one, changed my views of the rank and file as well as officers over time. I hope that other Westporters of my generation grew up and saw the world in new ways as well. This what our education prepared us to do.

    • Thanks, Doug, for your clear, thoughtful and nuanced comment. I too do not regret opposing the Vietnam War at all. And I too have come to a much clearer-headed view of our military, thanks in part to knowing a number of Staples graduates — including several on soccer teams I have coached — who serve with distinction. It has been an honor and a privilege to write recommendations for the service academies for these wonderful young men. They enrich our military, and aid our country — and me — immeasurably.

      • I appreciate your response, Dan.

        • Do you recall the Unitarian Church service I’m thinking of? I remember a candle for each name … It was a reckoning of the cost of the war in human lives close to home. Probably The Rev. Ed Lane led the service, but in conjunction with other clergy in town. Was Rabbi Rubenstein there? Was The Rev. Ted Hoskins of Saugatuck Congregational there? I cannot recall.

    • Doug, this is a very thoughtful and fascinating response. One take of yours–“Our attitudes toward men and women in uniform was confusing then…”–I have a very different perspective on.

      I was opposed to the Vietnam War but did not have a negative attitude about those who served because my dad, like many of my friends’ dads, served in the military in World War II.

      My dad saw Hiroshima not long after the bomb was dropped–and he, and the soldiers in his unit, had a very difficult time comprehending how one bomb was capable of causing that much death and destruction. My dad and others who witnessed the horrors of war first hand–and saw the potential devastation of future wars that could involve atomic weapons–had such a strong feeling about when young men and women should be put at risk to make the ultimate sacrifice. He, like a number of World War II veterans, came to the conclusion that Vietnam, unlike World War II, was not the type of war worth putting so many at risk. And I know that, in part, influenced me at a young age.

  16. Nancy Hunter

    “Vietnam” by Wislawa Szymborska

    “Woman, what’s your name?” “I don’t know.”
    “How old are you? Where are you from?” “I don’t know.”
    “Why did you dig that burrow?” “I don’t know.”
    “How long have you been hiding?” “I don’t know.”
    “Why did you bite my finger?” “I don’t know.”
    “Don’t you know that we won’t hurt you?” “I don’t know.”
    “Whose side are you on?” “I don’t know.”
    “This is war, you’ve got to choose.” “I don’t know.”
    “Does your village still exist?” “I don’t know.”
    “Are those your children?” “Yes.”

  17. Margaret Hart Rynshall

    Fred, I did not go to the protest either and remember clearly being in Spanish class with very few students present, wishing I had gone. I agree it looks like Debbie Thompson in the top pic and while I recognize many faces in the other ones but don’t remember their names, isn’t that Sam Goodman two pics later, bottom left? It was a confusing, upsetting time for sure.