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Remembering the Pentagon March (1967)

Bob Simpson shares his account of the Pentagon March.

Why all these bugles crying,
For squads of young men drilled,
To kill and to be killed,
And waiting by this train.

Why the orders loud and hoarse,
Why the engine’s groaning cough,
As it strains to drag us off,
Into the holocaust.

Why crowds who sing and cry,
Who shout and fling us flowers,
And trade their right for ours,
To murder and to die.

The dove has torn her wing,
So no more songs of love.
We are not here to sing.
We’re here to kill the dove.”—from LA COLOMBE by Jacques Brel

On that cold October 21, 1967 night standing in front of the Pentagon with thousands of other anti-war protestors, I couldn’t chase the lyrics of that Jacques Brel song out of my head. The Pentagon is a low squat fortress-like building, surrounded by a moat of highways usually choked with traffic. Although I was born in DC and had seen the Pentagon many times from Shirley Highway, I had never actually been there. It was not a common tourist destination. That night it was bathed in that eerie harsh artificial light that one associates with bad car crashes and other disasters. Ringed by nervous unsmiling young soldiers and hardfaced US marshals, the Pentagon looked both menacing and impregnable. We had come here to stop a war. But my god, in the face of that kind of
The day had begun for me at about 5 am in Jerry’s apartment in Langley Park, Maryland. A small group of us from the University of Maryland Students for a Democratic Society(SDS), were going down to the march together as parade marshals. Only one of us had any real experience with big protest marches. He’d been in Mississippi but spoke little about his experiences there. We had all gone through some marshal training from SNCC veteran Cordell Reagon who was the Chief Marshal. Reagon had a sardonic sense of humor and somehow communicated the idea that although he had serious doubts about our ability to perform, we had better not screw up while he was in charge.
We drove down to the staging area near the Reflecting Pool. It was still dark, but a few people were tinkering with sound equipment in front of the Lincoln Memorial. We reported to Reagon and were told there wouldn’t be much for us to do until the parade across Memorial Bridge to the Pentagon actually began. By early afternoon the speeches were winding down and I reported to my position at the DC side of Memorial Bridge. I was supposed to help direct people across the Bridge, which seemed pretty silly to me as Memorial Bridge was the only way to the Pentagon short of swimming the width of the polluted Potomac.
Still it was exciting to see the first contingent of anti-war celebrities sweep past me, followed by colorful banners representing all manner of anti-war groups from the Quaker pacifists to the hardline communists of the Progressive Labor Party. The biggest cheers were for the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the men and women who had fought fascism in Spain. I had read Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls as a kid and had recently seen the documentary film, To Die in Madrid, but here was the real thing. I clapped, waved and cheered with everyone else.
After most of the people had crossed Memorial Bridge, somebody came along and told me to head toward the Pentagon, where they needed marshals to keep the parade organized. I jogged past a long line of straggling protestors and briefly watched Allen Ginsburg, Ed Sanders, Tuli Kupferberg and other hippies trying to levitate the Pentagon by dancing and singing chants. Their efforts were unsuccessful, possibly because their scheme to completely circle the evil pentangle of the Pentagon had fallen through.
It was chaos when the Pentagon finally came into view. There had been plans for peaceful civil disobedience. But as in war, the plan is the first thing that gets tossed out when the battle begins. I was on the mall and to my front, people were occupying the steps leading to the plaza in front of the building, confronting US marshals. To my left was a portion of the crowd pushing toward the side doors of the Pentagon. I saw tear gas wafting over the crowd and could make out the police beating people with clubs. I was told that some protestors had broken through and had actually reached the side doors before being beaten and arrested. As the violence escalated, people starting singing “America the Beautiful”....the best damned rendition of that song that I have ever heard.
By nightfall, the focus of the demonstration became the front steps leading to the plaza. Many people had gone home, but there were still thousands left. Bonfires burned on the Pentagon mall to warm the chilled protestors. At some point, Army troops replaced the US marshals as the front line of defense. They were scared kids— much like us, except all male and in uniform with military issue rifles. Some of us tried talking to the soldiers, but if there was any two way communication, I didn’t see it. Rumors swept through the demonstrators that 3 soldiers had defected to our side. That seemed like wishful thinking to me, even though I knew resistance to the war was building inside of the military.
People had organized a sit-in on the Pentagon steps. Behind the sit-in, was a large crowd of supporters standing and offering encouragement. Burning draft cards added their own flickering light to the scene.
Then someone in authority decided that the Pentagon steps had to cleared. Rifle butts came down on peoples’ heads with dull ugly wet sounding thumps. Blood splashed on to the steps. There were shouts of “Link arms! Link arms!”, mixed with screams of pain and curses. People were dragged off and arrested. The brutality was appalling and the people standing on the steps began throwing debris at the soldiers. I saw a garbage can sail over my head. I feared people might be trampled in panic as they tried to escape from the clubs and rifle butts. Remembering my marshal’s armband, I tried to organize an orderly retreat of those who wanted to get away while offering encouragement to those who wanted to stay and resist. Although well intentioned, I think I only added to the confusion.
When the authorities regained the control over the Pentagon territory they wanted, most of us ended up on the mall wandering among bonfires, feeling both defeated and defiant. I ran into another SDSer named Jackie. She had not planned to spend the night there and was visibly shivering in the cold. We agreed to share my jacket in shifts and huddle together against the frost. Around 3 am, I found my younger brother accompanied by his hippie pals from Rockville, Md. They had converted the crawlspace of one of their houses into a kind of crash pad and offered to to take us there so we could get some sleep. I didn’t really want to leave, but there seemed little point in staying. Jackie and I hiked back across the bridge with them and when my head hit the bare pillowless crash pad mattress, I fell into an exhausted troubled sleep.
The Pentagon March left me with a gloomy sense of foreboding. It was hard to see how a bunch of student radicals, hippies, pacifists and Old Leftists could possibly stop this war. Urban riots had already devastated areas of Harlem, Watts, Newark, and Detroit, shaking my belief in non-violence. In the wake of the Pentagon March, my SDS friends began exchanging morbid jokes about internment camps for protestors and whom we would like to share a cell with when the shit came down.
The exhilaration I had felt from the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and Voting Rights Act in 1965 seemed like eons ago. I tried to look into the future and saw only more war abroad and more violence at home. SDSers and Black militants were talking about the The Revolution, but we had tried to storm the Bastille of the Pentagon and couldn’t even get in the side door. Revolution? We'd be lucky to escape fascism.

Why statues towering brave
Above the last defeat,
Old words and lies repeat
Across a new made grave

Dead ash without a spark,
Where cities glittered bright,
Where guns probe every light,
And crush it in the dark.

The dove has torn her wing,
So no more songs of love.
We are not here to sing.
We’re here to kill the dove.”

from LA COLOMBE by Jacques Brel

Bob Simpson was 20 years old when he marched on the Pentagon. He is now the partner of cartoonist and graphic designer Estelle Carol. They are both very involved in today's movement against a possible Iraq War. Bob may be reached at

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