Did Nixon Set Up Machine Guns Atop the Stairs of the Supreme Court
May Day 1971, Another Vietnam War Story
It’s hard to fully comprehend events as they are happening. We often have no long-term context. When young we’re also naive about so many things. Idealism, without historical perspective, moves us to action but also clouds our perceptions and our thinking.
Though I was in the middle of the biggest anti-war protest with the most arrests in U.S. history, in retrospect I was more observer than actor. I watched what was going on all around me in the manner of a journalist, my mind taking notes, trying to grasp the bigger picture.
For near fifty years I’ve been processing the events of those handful of days and finally got to writing something earlier this year. (See: May Day 1971: Correcting the Narrative)
This was a first draft, with many unanswered questions still. I later added this story about the Bent Penny Brigade.
Last night I watched The Post, a 2017 Spielberg film about the Washington Post’s transition to a national force as a newspaper. Tom Hanks is Post editor Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep its owner Katharine Graham. It’s a superb film. When I borrowed it from the library, however, I didn’t realize that it would be another picture from that troubled Vietnam War era.
Essentially, the film is about the publication of the Pentagon Papers, and the meaning of the first amendment — Freedom of the Press — which is also about Freedom of Religion and the Freedom to Peaceably Assemble (Protest).
The NYTimes broke the story, publishing the top secret Pentagon Papers. Nixon immediately took the Times to court. When Ben Bradlee acquired the these documents, Kay Graham had a decision to make. Publish, and risk bankruptcy, or play it safe and enjoy her Washington high life that included parties in the White House, rubbing shoulders with all the movers and shakers, etc.
Bradlee saw clearly that if the Nixon could decide what stories the press was permitted to tell, then the government — not the governed — owned the power of the press, a power which the country’s forefathers intended to keep in the hands of the people.
I was there in Washington DC on May Day 1971 when more than 200,000 peaceably assembled to protest the war. On Monday May 3, a smaller contingent of these sought to shut down the government for one day. 14,000 were arrested on that Monday and Tuesday. Tear gas was fired from helicopters, police brutally pummeled peaceful resistors with billy clubs.
In the midst of all this I overheard someone say that President Nixon had placed machine guns atop the steps of the Supreme Court building.
Did this really happen?
That has been a niggling question for me. In researching that period of time I’ve not been able to confirm that this happened. It is well documented that the National Guard had been flown in and participated in the processing of these thousands who had been arrested and taken to RFK Stadium. I had a friend there say that the Guardsmen were friendly and helpful, unlike the aggressive DC police who seemed to use the occasion to release a lot of bottled up indignation.
In recent years I’ve wondered if the military actually placed machine guns atop the stairs of the Supreme Court Building. How different that moment in history would have been if these had been put to use against protesting civilians.
As it was, the real surprise in the aftermath was how little it was talked about in the media, and how quickly it was forgotten.