November 9, 2009
Armies of the Night (and Day): Norman Mailer, Robert McNamara and the March on the Pentagon
Gentlemen, this evening I want to discuss the events surrounding -- and a famous literary account of -- the event called the March on the Pentagon, which took place on October 21, 1967, during my senior year of college. I began thinking about this paper over a year ago when Norman Mailer, one of the great American writers in the second half of the 20th Century -- and surely the most colorful – died in November 2007. My interest in a literary topic increased with the death last January of John Updike, another great popular writer of the period.
I had originally intended to do a compare-and-contrast of two of their books covering the late 1960s, Mailer’s The Armies of the Night and Updike’s Rabbit Redux, with an emphasis on how the two authors had treated the Vietnam War. I began by reading Updike, but I have to admit I had trouble getting into Rabbit Redux. At its heart, it is a novel about infidelity and the breakup of a late 1960s suburban marriage, and the Vietnam War seems to figure in it only peripherally. So I turned my attention to Mailer, whose vivid, colorful prose made his book – which was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award -- hard to put down. With the death this past July of Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense with whom the Vietnam War will forever be identified, I decided to concentrate on Mailer’s book and contrasting perspectives on the 1967 event that is at the center of it.
Some Background on Norman Mailer
Before we turn to The Armies of the Night, we should begin with a review of the
career that by the late 1960s had made Mailer one of the most famous authors in
After The Naked and the Dead, Mailer’s career became considerably choppier. His second novel was Barbary Shore, which was panned and is now largely forgotten, and the third was The Deer Park, which – although a favorite of John F. Kennedy’s – offended a large part of the 1955 literary establishment with its graphic sexual content. Later there came the publication of Advertisements for Myself, which cemented Mailer’s reputation as a supreme egoist and earned him a fair amount of ridicule.
In his memoir, New
York in the Fifties,
Dan Wakefield (an
Mailer’s fellow Voice columnist, Mary Nichols says, “I liked the controversy Mailer stirred up at the Voice. I kept running into him there, of course. At the annual Christmas party he would always get drunk and punch somebody out. It was inevitable, part of the holiday ritual.”
Mailer was part of the Village in the fifties and part of the Voice, helping define them both, even though he resigned from writing his column, six months after it began, when his running disagreements with the editors came to a head over a typo: “nuisances” instead of “nuances.” The column in which the typo appeared led to one of his most productive and fruitful subjects, hip versus square, and the later publication of his controversial essay “The White Negro” in Dissent. (Wakefield, pp. 142-43.)
As the 1950s came to a close, Mailer began to cement
(and was clearly cultivating) the reputation for heavy drinking and
belligerence for which he was well-known by the time I first heard of him.
I didn’t know Mailer personally, though I used to
see him at those Village Voice
parties and talked to him a few times at big social events over the years. As long as I was speaking with him
one-on-one, Mailer was a gracious, pleasant, fascinating conversationalist, but
as soon as a group of people gathered to listen, his voice tended to rise, and
his manner and opinions became more brash and pugnacious. [
Mailer’s Account of the Events Leading Up to the March on the Pentagon
In Armies of
the Night, Mailer begins at the beginning.
He agreed to become involved with the March on the Pentagon about a
month before the event, in September 1967, when he received a phone call from a
casual friend and activist (and occasional novelist and poet) named Mitchell
Goodman, who asked him to join an event before the March, when a group of
prominent writers calling themselves “Resist” would go to the Justice
Department to “support” students who were turning in their draft cards. Since he had been opposing the Vietnam War
since 1965, Mailer agreed. Later, he was
asked to speak along with Robert Lowell and Dwight Macdonald at a
The meat of the book opens with a party at a local
faculty member’s home before the event at the theatre, where Mailer greets
Lowell and Macdonald, neither of whom he has seen for some time. He likes and obviously envies
In a word, the event at the theatre is a disaster for Mailer, although he takes about 25 pages to describe it. He is fueled, not by food – of which he has had none for 10 hours – but by a FULL MUG of bourbon. Even though he has agreed to serve as M.C., this fuel causes him to wander off to find the men’s room (where he has a little mishap), and then to give what he calls his “dwarf alter ego” imitation of Lyndon Johnson. As a result, he is booed off the stage. No wonder Mailer refers to himself as the “Prince of Bourbon.”
Our club’s tradition of gentlemanly discourse precludes me from quoting the funniest and most salient passages about the events at the theatre, but for those of you who would like to follow up, you should look at pages 30-32, 37-38, and 47-51.
The same novelistic technique Mailer uses to
describe the events at the theatre -- presenting in vivid, in-the-moment prose
just what is going on in his head and in those of other participants at any
particular time -- animates Mailer’s account of the rest of the weekend, as
well. For example, after bad reports in
the Washington Post on his behavior
at the theatre, Mailer ruminates on how the trick in dealing with reporters is
to give them salient, not brilliant, quotes – what a later generation would
call sound bites. (Armies at 66.) Later, he
quotes both Rev. William Sloan Coffin and Robert Lowell speaking eloquently at
the Justice Department, where Lowell remarks that he’s been asked by a reporter
whether he intends to turn in his draft card, although it should have been
obvious that he’s too old to have one. (
The March Itself and Mailer’s Arrest
Saturday, October 21 – the day of the March itself – starts with Lowell, Macdonald and Mailer (who is somewhat hung over) having breakfast at the Hay-Adams Hotel, debating whether they should submit to arrest. They decide that doing so will give the whole event more meaning and dignity, and then Mailer continues:
And indeed how could one measure success or failure
in a venture so odd and unprecedented as this?
One did not march on the Pentagon and look to get arrested as a link in
a master scheme to take over the bastions of the Republic step by step, no, that
sort of sound-as-brickwork logic was left to the FBI. Rather, one marched on the Pentagon because .
. . because . . . and here the reasons became so many and so curious and so
vague, so political and so primitive, that there was no need, or perhaps no possibility
to talk about it yet, one could only ruminate over the morning coffee. What possibly they shared now between them at
the morning table of the Hay-Adams was the unspoken happy confidence that
politics had again become mysterious, had begun to partake of Mystery; that
gave life to a thought the gods were back in human affairs. A generation of American young had come along
different from the five previous generations of the middle class. The new
generation believed in technology more than any before it, but the generation
also believed in LSD, in witches, in tribal knowledge, in orgy, and
revolution. It had no respect whatsoever
for the unassailable logic of the next step: belief was reserved for the
revelatory mystery of the happening where you did not know what was going to
happen next; that was what was good about it.
Their radicalism was in their hate for authority – the authority was the
manifest evil of this generation. (
As he sets out for the day’s events by hiking from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, Mailer realizes that he has the feeling of going into battle, and that he hasn’t felt this way for nearly a quarter of a century:
A thin high breath of pleasure, like a child’s
anticipation of the first rocket to be fired on the Fourth of July, hung over
the sweet grass of the hill on Washington Monument. They were prancing past this hill, they were
streaming to battle. Going to
battle! He realized that he had not
taken in precisely this thin high sensuous breath of pleasure in close to
twenty-four years, not since the first time he had gone into combat, and found
to his surprise that the walk toward the fire fight was one of the more
agreeable – if stricken – moments of his life.
Later, in the skirmish itself it was less agreeable – he had perspired
so profusely he had hardly been able to see through his sweat – much later,
months later, combat was disagreeable; it managed to consist of large doses of
fatigue, the intestinal agitations of the tropics, endless promenades through
the mud, and general apathy toward whether one lived or not. But the first breath had left a feather on
his memory; it was in the wind now; he realized that an odd, yes a zany part of him had been expecting
quietly and confidently for years, that before he was done, he would lead an
army. (The lives of Leon Trotsky and
Ernest Hemingway had done nothing to dispel this expectation.) No, the sweetness of war came back. Probably there were very few good wars (good
wars being free of excessive exhaustion, raddled bowels, miserable food, and
computerized methods) but if you were in as good shape for war as for football,
there was very little which was better for the senses. (
Eventually, the crowd – with Mailer, Macdonald,
Lowell and other mediagenic celebrities in the forefront – crosses the
Now the Participant [i.e., Mailer] recognized that this was the beginning of the
exorcism of the Pentagon, yes the papers had made much of the permit requested
by a hippie leader named Abbie Hoffman to encircle the Pentagon with twelve
hundred men in order to form a ring of exorcism sufficiently powerful to raise
the Pentagon three hundred feet . In the
air the Pentagon would then, went the presumption, turn orange and vibrate
until all evil emissions had fled this levitation. At that point the war in
The General Services Administrator who ruled on the
permit consented to let an attempt be made to raise the building ten feet, but
he could not go so far as to allow the encirclement. Of course, exorcism without encirclement was
like a culinary arthouse without a fire – no one could properly expect a meal. Nonetheless the exorcism would proceed, and
the Fugs were to serve as a theatrical medium and would play their music on the
rear bed of the truck they had driven in here at the end of the parking lot
nearest to the Pentagon some hundreds of yards from the speaker’s stand where
the rally was to take place. (
The exorcism then proceeds, with all manner of deities being invoked, including -- I’m not making this up -- “the Tyrone Power Pound Cake Society in the Sky.”
After a long wait, enough demonstrators arrive in
the parking lot so they can all begin to advance on the Pentagon. As he approaches the building, Mailer (still
at the forefront) sees that military police (MPs) are the rather light first
ring, backed by another ring of MPs further back, and in back of them are
Whether this was due to a sudden onrush – quote
Freud from a letter to Fliess – of “unruly latent homosexuality,” or whether
from a terror before God that they judged other men sufficiently to make
arrest, or whether simply they were cowards, or if to the contrary they
trembled from the effort it cost them to keep from assaulting the prisoner,
whatever, Mailer could not quite decide – he had sometimes even wondered
whether it was possible he offended some deeps in the police, no matter, as
they laid hands on him. (
Eventually, Mailer is put on a bus, and over the next little while more and more prisoners also enter the bus. With one exception, all are polite, waiting for the next act of this rather carefully-scripted drama. But one of the prisoners is an American Nazi, and he is not polite. After he glares at Mailer, Mailer engages him in a staring contest, which the Nazi loses. He then shouts that Mailer is a “dirty Jew bastard,” and Mailer in turn calls him a “filthy Kraut pig,” while inwardly telling himself that this is not only unoriginal, but unfair because Germans appreciate his books now more than Americans do. The encounter continues as follows:
“I’m not a Kraut,” said the Nazi, “I’m a Norwegian.” And then as if the pride of his birth had tricked him into communication with an infidel, thus into sacrilege, the Nazi added quickly, “Jew bastard red,” then cocked his fists. “Come here, you coward,” he said to Mailer, “I’ll kill you.”
“Throw the first punch, baby,” said Mailer, “You’ll get it all.”
They were both absolutely right. They had a perfect sense of the other. Mailer was certainly not brave enough to
advance on the Nazi – it would be like springing an avalanche into
himself. But he also knew that if the
Nazi jumped him, one blond youth was very likely to get massacred. In retrospect, it would appear not uncomic –
two philosophical monomaniacs with the same flaw – they could not help it, they
were counterpunchers.” (
Shortly thereafter, this edifying exchange is broken up by a U.S. Marshal on the bus, who tells them to “shut up, or I’ll wreck both of you.” They comply.
Mailer’s Time in Jail and the Processing of His Case
Eventually the bus is full and the prisoners are
taken to a post office, where the processing of their cases begins. Here Mailer’s prose turns from describing
excitement to describing dullness, and how one of the most challenging aspects
of being in any jail or prison, even for a short time, is to keep your mind
stimulated and block out the repetitiousness of the experience. As the day drags on, it begins to dawn on Mailer
that he will be lucky to make that party in
He is correct.
In the evening, the remaining prisoners are informed they will be moved
to a workhouse in
After they arrive at there, the prisoners (including
Mailer and Noam Chomsky) learn that the lawyers and the Commissioners serving
as judges have all gone home for the evening, and that no more cases will be
processed until morning. They settle in
for the night, with Mailer insisting that he then has an “argument in his
brain” about the pros and cons of the Vietnam War, which are set forth in the
next ten pages. The arguments include
the Domino Theory and the observation that there is a natural tension between the
Vietnamese and the Chinese, since the latter occupied
In the morning at Occoquan, the issue becomes how Mailer should plead, and whether he will be released. Mailer initially wants to plead guilty, but is advised in strong terms that he should plead nolo contendere. It turns out that lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union are urging all the prisoners to plead nolo, which is part of a deal with the government pursuant to which, in return for a nolo plea, the prisoners will receive suspended five-day sentences. Mailer reluctantly acquiesces and pleads nolo.
It turns out, however, that the Commissioner before whom Mailer is appearing has a harsher sentence in mind for him, and he is sentenced to five days in jail. It takes a good deal of fancy legal footwork, which will entertain the lawyers and appears at pages 206-211, to get Mailer released on Sunday morning, on the ground that he is entitled to bail while he appeals, notice of which is given on a hand-written form!
The March on the Pentagon From Robert McNamara’s Perspective
If Mailer’s perspective on the March is a vivid example of the New Journalism at its best, Robert McNamara’s perspective is both more Olympian and considerably more troubled. In his first reflection on the Vietnam War, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, published in 1995, McNamara points that the March took place as public support for the Vietnam War was beginning to collapse, there was growing debate within the Johnson Administration about whether to suspend bombing and pursue negotiations with the North Vietnamese, and McNamara himself had lost confidence that the war could be won. Here in full is his account of the March on the Pentagon:
The next day, Saturday, October 21, 1967, angry antiwar demonstrators marched on the Pentagon, determined to shut it down.
We had learned of the march well in advance. On September 20, the president met with me and others to discuss how to deal with it. I told him we faced a difficult problem – difficult because the Pentagon has no natural defenses. A huge building – the world’s largest when it was constructed during World War II – it is ringed by an asphalt road and acres of grass. You can walk up to it on all five sides.
We decided to surround the building with troops
armed with rifles, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the middle of the asphalt
ring, and to station
I told the president no rifle would be loaded without my permission, and I did not intend to give it. I added that Bus, Deputy Attorney General Warren Christopher, and I would personally monitor the operation from my office and the Pentagon roof.
The day before the march, Undersecretary of the Army David E. McGiffert circulated a memo to all participating troops, marshals, and military police through the army chief of staff. It spelled out the guidelines of their mission:
In support of civil authority, we have the very delicate and difficult job of upholding both constitutional rights of free assembly and expression and protecting government operations and property. We cannot tolerate lawlessness; neither can we tolerate interference with the legitimate exercise of constitutional rights . . .
We must avoid either overreacting or under-reacting. We must behave with dignity and firmness. We must act in a way which holds to the absolute minimum the possibility of bloodshed and injury; which minimizes the need for arrest; which distinguishes to the extent feasible between those who are and are not breaking the law, and which uses minimum force consistent with the mission of protecting the employees (military and civilian), the operations, and the property of the Government.
As I reread Dave’s words nearly three decades later, I still feel immense pride in the professional, responsible way the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marshal Service planned and executed an almost impossible task.
“There were two separate parts of the rally,” The Washington Post reported.
The first was the gathering
at the Reflecting Pool between the
The front ranks indeed included many troublemakers, who used every device to provoke the troops to violence. Young women rubbed their breasts against soldiers standing at attention with rifles at their sides and even unzipped their flies; the soldiers did not move. Protesters threw mud balls, picket signs, leaflets, sticks, and rocks at the troops; they stayed in place. A wave of demonstrators tried to break the line, but the troops fell back against the Pentagon’s doors and the reinforcements from the courtyard flowed out to help hold the crowd. A few protesters managed to get into the building but were quickly ejected. Eventually, the crowd began to disperse. But thousands stayed into the night, building fires on the grounds. The last demonstrators did not leave until the following afternoon.
The Post’s report on the demonstration included this statement: “Although the potential for violence was high throughout the afternoon and into the night, not a shot was fired and no serious injuries were reported.”
I watched the whole thing from the roof of the building and other vantage points. Years later a reporter asked if I had been scared. Of course I was scared: an uncontrolled mob is a frightening thing – luckily, in this case, frightening but ineffective. At the same time, I could not help but think that had the protesters been more disciplined – Ghandi-like – they could have achieved their objective of shutting us down. All they had to do was lie on the pavement around the building. We would have found it impossible to remove enough of them fast enough to keep the Pentagon open. (In Retrospect, pp. 303-305; footnotes omitted.)
There is an important post-script to this account. Only eleven days later, on November 1, 1967,
McNamara sent President Johnson a lengthy memorandum (which had not been shown
to Secretary Rusk, the Joint Chiefs, or National Security Advisor Walt Rostow)
arguing that the current situation was untenable, and that the North Vietnamese
would not change course unless they were convinced the United States was
prepared to remain in Vietnam “for whatever period of time is necessary to
assure the independent choice of the South Vietnamese people.” (
Some Concluding Thoughts
From the perspective of 42 years later, it is
difficult to imagine an event like the March on the Pentagon happening
today. While concern about a war they
considered unjust motivated many of the protesters, the peacetime draft was at
least an equally large concern. With the
abolition of the draft in 1973 and its replacement with an all-volunteer,
professional army, it is difficult to imagine a mass protest movement of the
kind we saw in the
Similarly, while some aspects of Mailer’s book are
dated, there is a still a freshness to its reportage that is very
appealing. Bob McNamara’s account of the
March is not contemporaneous, but the high level of attention and concern for all
participants that it shows the March received at the highest levels of the
American government should embarrass those who depicted Johnson and McNamara as
nothing but blood-thirsty warmongers.
Nonetheless, In Retrospect
shows that the war in
 The full citation for the paperback edition is The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, The Novel as History (New York: Plume (Penguin Group), 1994). The original hardcover edition was published in 1968 by the New American Library. Hereinafter, the book is referred to as Armies of the Night or Armies, and all citations are to the 1994 paperback edition. The pagination of that edition appears to be identical to the pagination in the original hardcover edition.
 John Updike, Rabbit Redux (New York: Fawcett/Ballantine Books, 1996.) The original hardcover edition was published in 1971 by Alfred A. Knopf.
Wakefield, New York in the Fifties
(New York: Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, 1992) (hereinafter, “
 Robert S. McNamara (with Brian VanDeMark), In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Times Books, 1995) (hereinafter, “In Retrospect”).