(This is selected from the first chapter of One Woman Against War: The Jeannette Rankin Story. A second selection will appear next week. © Kevin S. Giles)
By Kevin S. Giles
It wasn’t a convenient morning. Snow had fallen overnight, filling the streets surrounding the United States Capitol with slush and mud. Several thousand women wearing boots and overcoats gathered around an old woman in the gray light outside Union Station. She stood shivering, hardly resembling a historical figure, at first appearing long past her prime. Eyeglasses loomed over her wrinkled face. The old woman watched the milling crowd while organizers called activists into place, state by state, and handed them protest banners. They would march on the Capitol to protest the war in Vietnam. They would decry the slaughter of young men, profiteering by corporations with fat defense contracts, congressional neglect of social and economic needs at home. They would take to the streets to beseech their government to listen to their grievances. They wanted change. They wanted peace. It all seemed hauntingly familiar to this diminutive octogenarian named Jeannette Rankin.
Half an hour before noon, the procession filed silently onto Louisiana Avenue. Rankin, standing all but a whisper past five feet tall in overshoes, walked at the middle of a banner that stretched thirty feet wide. “End the War in Vietnam and the Social Crisis at Home!” it commanded. Holding one end was Coretta Scott King, spouse of the crusading Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights leader who just weeks earlier had announced plans for a massive Poor People’s Campaign in the very streets where Rankin and nearly ten thousand other women now walked. Police estimated five thousand. They were notoriously bad at counting participants at public demonstrations. Surely it was ten thousand, Rankin surmised, because the procession stretched for several city blocks. She had some impressive experience with protests long before almost everyone walking with her. She knew a crowd when she saw it.
It was January 15, 1968, the opening day of the second session of the 90th Congress. President Lyndon Johnson enjoyed Democratic majorities in both the Senate and the
House but national unity evident in those first weeks after the Christmas holidays soon would fade. Despite the president’s “Great Society” domestic accomplishments with Head Start and Medicare and his leadership in civil rights, Democrats backed away in increasing numbers from his enthusiasm for United States military intervention in Vietnam. The war and its companion difficulties in the streets of America would figure strongly into Johnson’s decision to leave the presidency when his term ended later in the year.
That day in Washington would replay dramatic scenes in Jeannette Rankin’s mind. In the back pages of her memory she heard legions of feet shuffling, thousands of women’s voices calling for the right to vote. In those rustling calendar pages of time she would remember exuberant soldiers and somber protests and stern faces in Congress. She would reflect on a lifetime of passion for peace. That day at Union Station came nearly fifty-one years after Rankin’s first vote in Congress against war with Germany and more than twenty-six years after her landmark vote against war with Japan. Now, the Jeannette Rankin Brigade was taking the first step into one of the most tumultuous years in American history. A national protest in Rankin’s name was of no little significance even if many Americans didn’t remember her. History isn’t especially fond of dissenters, often perceived as agitators, but Rankin had earned her reputation as one of the Twentieth Century’s most notable women.
That year, 1968, would become memorable for its fashion chaos as go-go boots, bell bottom trousers, miniskirts and peasant dresses appeared everywhere. Peace signs, love-ins and psychedelic rock already ruled university campuses from Berkley to Columbia and counterculture meccas such as Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. Flower children blossomed on street corners coast to coast after the Summer of Love. The King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, would manage a musical comeback after making low-budget movies for seven years. The innovative television news magazine, 60 Minutes, would redefine broadcast journalism. The Beatles would begin their final round of chart-topping songs with Paul McCartney’s Hey Jude, a sad premonition of their band’s dissolution as much as John Lennon’s failing marriage and his son Julian being caught in the middle. One of the most memorable statements in popular culture, “Book ‘em, Dano,” would be introduced into American living rooms on color television. Hippies challenged Establishment America, while “Love It or Leave It” became the siren slogan for conservative Americans distressed over their crumbling conventional way of life.
Even as many of the nation’s youth proclaimed Free Love and rocked to the psychedelic Doors and Jefferson Airplane and other signature bands rooted in the drug culture, 1968 would be remembered more for its history-altering tragedies. Three months after the march of the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, a white supremacist would shoot and kill Martin Luther King, Jr., as he stood on a Memphis motel balcony. The nation’s cities, already edgy over racial strife, would erupt in flames and violence. More dreams of peace would wilt on a hotel kitchen floor after presidential candidate Robert Kennedy’s assassination by a Palestinian Arab, Sirhan Sirhan, angry over Kennedy’s support for Israel. A generation would reel in despair.
Republicans would nominate Richard Nixon, a moody and vengeful California conservative and President Eisenhower’s vice president, as their presidential candidate at the Miami convention. The Democratic convention in Chicago would turn violent when police and protesters clashed in a nearby park, supplying vivid images of bloody beatings for the nation’s television audiences. Hubert H. Humphrey, a Minnesota liberal and Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, would emerge as the Democratic presidential nominee. In the South, voter support would grow for segregationists George Wallace and Lester Maddox. To the political left, minority militants such as Black Panthers, Chicano Brown Berets and the American Indian Movement would emerge. Students would seize five buildings at Columbia University for two months, showing in their “Strawberry Statement” how campuses could become centers for political protest. In a prologue to the eventual darkest chapter in presidential history known as Watergate, Nixon would ascend to the Oval Office after a razor-thin victory over Humphrey in November.
The backdrop to 1968, good and bad, was the cursed, deepening Vietnam conflict, not even recognized formally as a war. The mammoth surprise assault on American troops, known as the Tet Offensive, would impress on people back home the true misery of a little-understood Asian culture. The United States would lose its 10,000th helicopter in Vietnam. Coincidentally, an identical number of American troops would fall in combat that year. By year’s end, United States troop presence in Southeast Asia would exceed half a million. More than 300,000 men would be drafted into the military in 1968, the peak year of the buildup. Many Americans were denouncing the military’s demands for more troops to throw into the maw of Vietnam, where a jungle war supposedly would arrest the spread of communism.
The United States was fractured in 1968 and about to get worse. A resurgent Republican conservatism would challenge Democratic dominance. To the other extreme, legions of college kids embraced “message” musicians like protest-singer Country Joe MacDonald who mocked Middle America’s baleful reluctance to view war as a grim horror with his lyrics, Be the first one on your block/To have your boy come home in a box. Vietnam had become a killing field for American boys. More than 11,000 died in 1967, the highest body count yet in the undeclared war. The bloodshed inspired a flurry of correspondence to Jeannette Rankin from young Americans anxious for activism to oppose the war. One letter that year came from Linda Goodman, a nineteen-year-old student at Stanford University in California. “I have come to believe now that perhaps the only way to stop the war in Viet Nam would be to have large masses of women act out against it,” Goodman wrote Rankin. “I am frightened by the war, and all wars, and at the brutality and insensitivity which I see it breeding.”
For twenty-six years after Jeannette Rankin’s second term in the US House of Representatives had ended, she disappeared from the American peace movement, preferring to occupy herself with world travels and quiet summers at her family’s Avalanche Ranch in Montana. Public knowledge of the once-legendary Rankin, a hero to many people in her younger years but vilified by others as a traitor, had shriveled to a footnote in passing time. Many Americans had forgotten her. On the day that she joined thousands of like-minded women marching to the Capitol, the confluence of old guard First Wave suffragists and contemporary Second Wave feminists gave her a pulpit to revive her reputation. She was, again, a public figure.
Her comeback started inauspiciously enough. In May 1967, a Georgia pacifist and civil rights activist named Nan Pendergrast invited Rankin to Atlanta to speak about Vietnam to members of Atlantans for Peace. Pendergrast and Rankin were longtime friends and shared strong opinions against war. Many times Rankin stayed with Nan and her husband Britt, a conscientious objector during World War II, while visiting in Atlanta.
Rankin hadn’t delivered a speech on peace for at least twenty-five years. Pendergrast was intimately familiar with Rankin’s long history of pacifism and persuaded her friend to share her views on war and peace. That night, for a meeting at her house involving about twenty disciples of Atlantans for Peace, Nan invited an Associated Press reporter to visit with Rankin. Never short of drama, Rankin told the reporter she had read in a newspaper that very morning that 10,000 American men had died since the war began. Whether she knew how substantially that number would grow in the final months of 1967 remains a matter of speculation, but she clearly was alarmed at mounting casualties. Rankin told the reporter that if 10,000 women were prepared to march in memory of those dead men, they could stop the war. Women should commit to acts of civil disobedience and even jail, she said, showing her immersion in the teachings of pacifists Mohandas Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau in the years she had been out of the public eye.
That night, Associated Press distributed the story on its national wire. Rankin’s pithy statement became an overnight sensation. “It must have been a slow news day,” Pendergrast would relate years later. “Suddenly she was all over the newspapers nationally.” It appeared that many people remembered Jeannette Rankin after all. Illustrative of responses to the story was one from Edith Newly of New Mexico, who wrote Rankin to thank her “for being the courageous American, the magnificent woman you are. That you go on in spite of the past is in itself stupendous bravery.”
Rankin received hundreds of similar letters. Struck by her antiwar comments and seeking leadership as news about Vietnam crowded the headlines, women across the country began to rally around her. Rankin tried to answer every letter, including one from Betty Meredith, who ran a nursery school for twenty-eight children in her house in a San Francisco suburb. Meredith had read Rankin’s comments in the morning Chronicle and, stirred by the old suffragist’s passion, showed the story to her friend Vivian Hallinan.
Protesters came and went in the 1960s, their numbers swelling and deflating as causes rose and fell, but Hallinan was no ordinary dissenter. She was a rich and persistent benefactor of liberal causes, drawing from a fortune she had accrued buying and selling apartment buildings during the Great Depression. She also had practical protest experience, having been sent to jail for participating in a civil rights demonstration in 1964. Hallinan was the elegant matriarch of a legendary and radical San Francisco family. Her husband was socialist attorney Vincent Hallinan, a 1952 presidential candidate on the Progressive ticket. Neither of the Hallinans was short of audacity when it came to funding political causes.
After Vivian read Rankin’s story, she boarded a plane for Georgia. Some hours later, she found Rankin awaiting her at the airport in Atlanta. They made a contrasting pair, as Ramparts magazine later described them: the striking young California activist and socialite, dressed in a camel-colored zipper suit, fishnet stockings and an orange sweater; the spunky octogenarian wearing oversized glasses and a mundane dress that most respectfully could be described as stylishly earth-toned. As they bounced along for sixty miles on the Georgia countryside — Rankin squeezing the gas pedal of her Chevrolet to the floorboard with a high-heeled shoe, it was reported — Hallinan asked whether Rankin would allow 10,000 women to march on the United States Capitol in her name. They would be known as the Jeannette Rankin Brigade.
Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books have roots in his native western Montana. One Woman Against War was published in October 2016. Two other books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)