The Year the War Came Home

By Lucy Komisar
Inter Press Service (IPS), May 14, 2008

On this 40th anniversary of 1968, the year that for the United States was the apogee of opposition to the war in Vietnam, two new Off Broadway plays explore divergent ways that U.S. citizens protested — and ponder the best way to contest a senseless war.

The Conscientious Objector by Michael Murphy describes the personal and political conflict faced by civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. over his decision to speak out publicly against the war. Something You Did by Willy Holtzman examines the decision of a stand-in for Kathy Boudin, a member of the Weather Underground, to bring the war home by participating in a violent action that left a bystander dead.

The Conscientious Objector

The gripping play about King, almost a docudrama as intensely directed by Carl Forsman, is more fascinating for bringing to light facts about the time that most people may not know — for example, that King’s wife Coretta urged him to oppose the war. And that he met with then President Lyndon Johnson, who proposed to negotiate civil rights legislation in return The Conscientiouis Objector,for King’s support.

The play begins in 1965, after King (D.B. Woodside) in his Nobel Peace Prize speech condemns Western nations for being sick with militarism and driven by racism, greed and reckless disregard for the misery that war produces. He continued to insist: We’re not gonna defeat Communism ‘with bombs’.

Johnson (John Cullum) has gotten the civil rights act passed and is moving on voting rights. When King meets with him, Johnson declares, You and me, we got pots boilin’ on every burner, and I’m just, I gotta wonder why you’re wantin’ to divert attention to matters ‘a foreign policy and kick up a lotta dust and dirt that’s just gonna get in our way?

Johnson wants to trade an open housing bill for King’s support of Gen. William Westmoreland’s move into South Vietnam. King won’t make the deal. Whitney Young (Harold Surratt), head of the cautious National Urban League, attacks him: We cannot more strongly state our opposition to Dr. King’s activities. Our major drive is for the enjoyment of civil rights by the Negro citizens of this country… We in the movement can’t be dividing our energies… Not with the Vietnam we’re fightin’ right here in Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama!

King’s southern colleague Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Bryan Hicks) is sympathetic to Johnson: Now you wanna make things even more difficult for him on an issue that’s got nothin’ to do with civil rights? That’s how you’re gonna repay him?

Andrew Young (James Miles), then King’s aide, later President Jimmy Carter’s U.N. ambassador and mayor of Atlanta, speaks against anti-war declarations: President Kennedy made speeches, but couldn’t get anything through Congress. Johnson can.

On the other side are Coretta King (Rachel Leslie) and the radical anti-war minister, James Bevel (Jimonn Cole), who helps organise the Spring Mobe, a mobilisation against the U.S. invasion.

Bevel says, You like to talk about justice, Martin Luther King… but you can’t talk about justice and not talk about this immoral war! He reads him gruesome words: Napalm has proven so effective against the Vietnamese that it has given rise to a popular marchin’ song among our soldiers… ‘Napalm, son, is lots of fun/Dropped in a bomb or shot from a gun/It gets the gooks when on the run/Napalm sticks to kids.’ God, that’s disgusting!

King decides to send appeals to the Vietcong, the Saigon government, the leaders of Communist China and the Soviet Union, and President Johnson to end the war. He declares, We’ll have to stop proppin’ up dictators who abuse their people. We’ll have to stop exploitin’ poor countries for their natural resources and never puttin’ anything back.

How can I be demandin’ non-violence from Negroes in our cities here at home, then be standin’ by while this country unleashes the forces of hell on the rest’a the world. Here’s what I’m plannin’ to do. I plan to ask every young man in this country who believes as I do that this war is wrong and immoral to go down to his Selective Service office and register as a conscientious objector.

That call, at New York’s Riverside Church, evokes attacks from the mainstream media and politicians.

The New York Times: Dr. King’s outrageous characterisations do not justify what must be seen as slander against this nation.

The Washington Post: Dr. King’s Vietnam speech was not a sober or responsible comment on the war. He has done grave injury to his people and diminished his usefulness to his cause. It is a great tragedy.

Congressman John Ashbrook of Ohio accuses him of treason.

That riveting script eerily foretells the lack of vision and courage by politicians and the press who decades later confronted the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Something You Did

The other play, Something You Did, directed by Carolyn Cantor, deals with activists whose Something You Did,philosophy was quite opposite from King’s, who sought to bring the war home by bringing home its violence. It is, however, of less interest, because it focuses too little on the issues that led to the killing for which Alison Mouton (Joanna Gleason) is imprisoned, and largely on her attempt to get paroled.

The rough model for Alison is Kathy Boudin, of the Weather Underground, which called itself a fifth column of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. It bombed the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol, the New York Police Benevolent Association, the New York Board of Corrections, and offices of multinational companies. Boudin went to prison in 1984 for involvement in a Brinks armoured car robbery that left three workers dead. She was paroled, after 22 years, in 2003; her cohorts are still in prison.

Like King, the character Alison’s political education was honed in the civil rights movement. A white woman, she says, I took a Greyhound to McComb, Mississippi. In 1964… By the time I got off, three workers had already gone missing…I was threatened, taunted, spat on. And then I went out to register voters even after those workers turned up dead.

But she didn’t stay with nonviolence. Alison explains, We turned to armed struggle as a last resort…Our military was using cluster bombs…We wanted to show what a cluster bomb can do. She and others of the group set off a nail-filled bomb in Grand Central Station that killed a policeman who happened on the scene.

Alison tells the parole board that her group had been plastering walls with posters of the results of a 500-pound cluster bomb on a village in Cambodia. And in this picture is a woman — the torso of a woman. Her right arm is missing below the elbow and I want to think of her as Venus, the Cambodian goddess of love. I love her, just as I love the soldiers who are suffering needlessly in the jungles of Vietnam…And the poster is a failure. It reaches no one…And so, out of love for this woman, for mankind, we bring the war home.

For all her dedication to civil rights, Alison’s bomb ironically kills a black policeman struggling to raise a daughter alone.

In the movement against the latest U.S. war, King’s model has won.

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