Sunday, August 2, 2020

Lawrence Roberts's "Mayday 1971"

Lawrence Roberts has been an editor of investigative journalism for most of his career. He’s worked at ProPublica, the Washington Post, Bloomberg News, and the Hartford Courant, and was executive editor of the Huffington Post Investigative Fund.

Roberts applied the “Page 99 Test” to his first book, Mayday 1971: A White House at War, a Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold History of America’s Biggest Mass Arrest, and reported the following:
A casual browser checking page 99 of Mayday 1971 would encounter themes strikingly similar to the present day, when another embattled U.S. president coming up for re-election deployed federal agents and the military to counter the rage of a social movement. That president was Richard M. Nixon. On Page 99, we learn that his administration was stepping up activities, including illegal surveillance, against activists who were trying to pressure the government to end America’s war in Vietnam. Nixon and his men viewed the antiwar protests as a serious political threat:
A few months after Nixon took over as president, the army’s intelligence command directed agents to collect information on “Anti-War/Anti-Draft Activities, Militant Organizations, Extremists in the Armed Forces, Demonstrations, Rallies, Parades, Marches, Conventions, Conferences, Picketing Activities, Strikes and Labor Disturbances… It turned out that army and navy agents had posed as newsmen to interview and photograph New Left leaders… A newspaper reported that the FBI leased 450 lines from the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company to handle all its wiretaps in Washington.”
I admire and enjoy the Page 99 test; in this case it gives the browser an important but nevertheless partial view of the larger book. Mayday 1971 focuses on the most intense season of dissent ever seen in Washington, and how it set the stage for Watergate and Nixon’s epic fall. During the spring of that year, myriad groups frustrated with Nixon’s expansion of the war into Vietnam’s neighbor, Laos, descended on D.C. for weeks of nearly continuous demonstrations. One group was Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and page 99 lands in the middle of a chapter about one of its key organizers, an Air Force vet named John O’Connor. O’Connor is one of the eight characters whose personal stories I use to tell the larger tale. I won’t spoil the big surprise about him that we learn later in this chapter.

The climax of the book is the climax of that spring’s demonstrations, and the action that most worried the White House: Tens of thousands of people, calling themselves the Mayday Tribe, vowed to mount a blockade of streets, bridges and federal buildings, under the slogan, “If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.” It remains the largest act of civil disobedience in American history. How Nixon and his men worked to foil it, and in so doing sowed the seeds of their own demise, is the lesson of Mayday 1971, and one that other leaders ignore at their peril.
Visit Lawrence Roberts's website.

--Marshal Zeringue