On the front page...
The U.S. is at war in a small nation thousands of
miles away. Not everyone agrees we need to be in the fight. Protests
have been launched. In other news, a new chief justice of the U.S.
was sworn in and a major hurricane devastated the Gulf Coast region.
No, this is not a rehash of last year's headlines.
In this story, Warren Burger heads the U.S. Supreme Court. Hurricane
Camille — a category 5 storm — hit Mississippi in late
August. Gasoline costs about 32 cents a gallon. And the disputed
war is in southeast Asia. The year is 1969. That fall, a small
group of NIH and NIMH (the agencies were separate then) employees
organized to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. They
were researchers, physicians, administrators and support staff.
They were vested government workers as well as new interns and
freshmen feds. Some spouses later joined. They held their first
formal meeting on Sept. 23 in Bldg. 2, then a lab facility for
National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases staff. The
fledgling antiwar organization, one of several founded at federal
agencies, was named the "Viet Nam moratorium committee at NIH-NIMH," the
||Dr. Mark Levinthal recalls
activist days at NIH with several members of a Vietnam moratorium
committee formed here more than 30 years ago. The group reunited
last month in Bldg. 31 to record their memories for the Office
of NIH History.
On a snowy day last December, nearly two dozen VNMC pioneers reunited
to recall their time together and to describe events in a permanent
audiovisual record for the Office of NIH History. Although 36 years
had passed and most had not seen each other in more than 20 years,
the group's fervor — like the times — hadn't changed
Back in the Day
It all began with a VNMC request to use the Clinical Center auditorium
for a speech by famous pediatrician (and prominent Vietnam War
critic) Benjamin Spock. A national moratorium had been planned
for Oct. 15, 1969. People opposing the war were called to demonstrate
their disapproval by stopping their normal work.
"When you fight a federal government as powerful and as replete
with devices to suppress dissent [as ours]," said VNMC founding
member David Reiss, "I don't think that it's fair to underestimate
how frightening and how daunting and maybe just how discouraging
it is to mount such an effort and how crucial it is to have an
organizing concept with which you can make contact with people
who have similar feelings." A former NIMH clinical associate, Reiss
came to NIH in 1966 to serve his military commitment as a commissioned
officer in the Public Health Service.
"The moratorium concept was very novel," he explained. "For those
of us who had been struggling against this war for years, it was
a simple idea. And that was what I think made everybody around
this table say, 'Hey, we work for the federal government whose
policies we can't stand. We're going to stop working. We're going
to do something different."
||VNMC members who reunited to
document their efforts for NIH history include (seated from
l) Irene Elkin, David Reiss, Stephanie Weldon and Bob Martin;
(second row) ACLU attorney Zona Hostetler, Carl Leventhal,
Rose Mage, Marianne Ross and Madeleine Golde; and (back row)
Mike Mage, Natasha Reatig, Martin Blumsack, John Zinner, Philip
Ross and Mark Levinthal.
The committee crafted a policy statement for the Oct. 15 event
that said, in part, "To bring this bloodbath to a halt, we call
for an immediate end to American participation in the war.
We call for reordering of national priorities to provide adequate
food, housing and health for all Americans." They invited Spock to
address the VNMC and whoever else wanted to attend.
|Fellow peace advocates Elkin
and Reatig embrace with fond memories.
"In our view Dr. Spock is unique among all the country's physicians
and health scientists," said the group in early documents. "More
than any other, he has been able to transform his physician's compassion
for human suffering into meaningful and effective protest against
the war. We believe that by joining us on Oct. 15, Dr. Spock will
stimulate many of his colleagues in the health field to become
meaningfully involved in this protest."
The Interassembly Council of Scientists of the NIH endorsed the
plan on Sept. 25. Spock accepted the invitation to speak on Sept.
26. All that was needed then was a large enough NIH venue. VNMC
asked to use the CC auditorium. Then-NIH director Dr. Robert Marston,
after apparent consultation with his supervisors at the Department
of Health, Education and Welfare, denied the request on Sept. 29.
Enter local attorney Zona Hostetler of the American Civil Liberties
Union, who was recruited to represent the VNMC in a legal appeal
to the department.
"One of the really interesting things is that if they had simply
said yes, chances were this incredible group would never have done
all the things we did," pointed out committee member Irene Elkin,
a psychotherapy researcher who had come to NIMH's Laboratory of
Psychology as a postdoc in 1959.
|Other early committee participants
on hand for the reunion videotape project were (from l) Bob
Ryder, Audrey Stone, former CC Chaplain Bob White and Elliott
Hostetler argued the case before Judge John Sirica, later of Watergate
fame, who on Oct. 10 ruled against the VNMC. On Oct. 14, the day
before the scheduled speech, however, a 3-judge panel overruled
that decision, clearing the way for the Spock talk.
The Roots of Activism
Serving as moderator for the discussion this past December, NIH
historian Dr. Victoria Harden deftly guided VNMC members through
not only the early structure of the group, but also their own personal
roots of activism. When prompted to recall what moved them to risk
their careers to participate, almost all spoke of family legacies
handed down from generation to generation.
||Pediatrician Benjamin Spock,
a prominent anti-Vietnam War spokesman of the era, speaks to
a crowd from the steps of Bldg. 1 on Oct. 15, 1969 — National
"I'm enormously impressed at how everybody remembers the influence
of their grandparents and I hope we can do the same thing for our
grandchildren," said Carl Leventhal, who was assistant to the director
of laboratories and clinics in the Office of the Director and became
the NIH administration's liaison to the VNMC.
There were significant risks associated with being part of the
committee. The U.S. government under new President Richard Nixon
frequently assigned the FBI to investigate — formally and
secretly — those involved in organizing war protests. VNMC
structured its leadership so that a different person was in charge
every month, "a reflection not of fear of investigation," Reiss
noted, "but an effort to make leadership as broad as possible."
"What we did is we welcomed and we brought along people who had
never been active before," recalled Martin Blumsack. "One of the
outstanding things about our committee was the way we treated everyone
with respect.I think we were an amazing group for that purpose,
as diverse as we were." Blumsack had arrived at NIH in 1968 as
a management intern in an administrative research program. He had
joined the U.S. Army and served several years before organizing
the first anti-war protest held on a military base, a "Vets for
"We were such an incredibly non-sexist and non-hierarchical group," agreed
Elkin, who remembered the FBI questioning her current and former
supervisors during the month she served as VNMC co-coordinator. "You
didn't know if somebody was a lab chief or a secretary. It was
one of the really beautiful things about this group that it had
that quality. Everybody was in it together."
|Martin, Levinthal and Zinner recall the
early days of the VNMC.
That also meant that everybody in the VNMC was potentially subject
to government efforts to suppress criticism of federal decision-making.
Some such attempts came from bosses, colleagues and fellow NIH'ers.
Several VNMC members recalled small acts of vandalism — marking
up protest flyers or tearing down posters — by workers here
who disagreed with the committee and other war critics. Mark Levinthal,
who came to NIH as an NIAMD postdoc, was already involved in civil
rights activities with the Congress of Racial Equality when he
joined the VNMC. He left NIH in 1972, but related that he was constantly
dogged by federal investigations during the era that eventually
led to him being denied a job at Ohio State University. He retired
from Purdue University at the end of 2005.
"There was continuing intimidation of employees," noted ACLU attorney
Hostetler. "There were stories of employees actually being demoted
because of their antiwar activities.Even in authorized meetings
of government employees on their lunch hour, security people would
come in and take pictures of the people who were attending and
ask for membership lists of the organization."
'Yesterday Once More'
Besides the galvanizing event — the Spock speech that ended
up being held on the front lawn of Bldg. 1 before a few thousand
attendees — moratorium committee members supported the path
to peace in numerous other ways before, during and after their
1969-1974 VNMC run: They regularly hosted talks at NIH by other
antiwar speakers. In keeping with their NIH-NIMH origins, they
coined the slogan, "War is Unhealthy and Insane," recalled Natasha
Reatig, who arrived at NIMH in 1965 as a social science analyst/research
assistant. "A bunch of us first provided medical and psychiatric
services for Resurrection City [a protest camp temporarily erected
on the Mall downtown]," remembered John Zinner, a psychiatrist
who like Reiss came to NIH as a commissioned officer in the Clinical
Associates Program. "That was really quite exciting and difficult
work. A number of us provided services to those who had been swept
off the street and arrested during the riots that followed the
assassination of Martin Luther King."
||Committee members display the now-worn and
faded "Federal Employees for Peace" banner from the era.
Harden said it's important to note that VNMC members did all of
these activities on their own time, without using government resources
or buildings (which is why Spock spoke outside). They took annual
leave for the moratorium events, or went on their lunch break.
The committee also published an intermittent newsletter, The
Rainbow Sign, "to educate the populace at NIH," according
to Elliot Schiffman, now an NCI scientist emeritus who joined
NIH as a National Heart Institute scientist and later became
a researcher in the National Institute of Dental Research's Laboratory
of Biochemistry. Some VNMC members helped found Federal Employees
for Peace and the medical committee for human rights as well
as other groups that were addressing a broad range of domestic
concerns. But the group's biggest legacy may be that it paved
the way: VNMC was probably the first organization at NIH that
led to political activism.
|Marianne and Philip Ross (c) greet former
colleague and longtime friend David Reiss. Many VNMC members
had not seen each other since the group disbanded in the mid-1970s.
"I think the immediate effect was to build awareness of social
consciousness on all kinds of issues," concluded Bob Martin, an
original VNMC member who in 1969 worked as a section chief in NIAMD's
Laboratory of Molecular Biology. He continues to conduct research
as a senior scientist in NIDDK's LMB.
The group's social conscience continues undiminished too, with
several committee members noting parallels between today and yesterday.
"Some of my colleagues and I are very much concerned with the
present administration and its adventures in a certain part of
the world and I certainly have the same feelings about what's going
on as I had during the Vietnam War," Schiffman observed.
Bob White, a World War II veteran who served as a chaplain at
the CC in 1969, agreed, pointing out that he regularly watches
the News Hour with Jim Lehrer as the names of those who
have died in the war in Iraq are read "and I feel just like I did
when I was in this group."
|Dr. Benjamin Spock's 1969 visit
to NIH served as the galvanizing event for the agency's Vietnam
Concluded Audrey Stone, who had come to NIH in 1959 and by 1969
was a researcher in NIMH's Laboratory of Neurochemistry, "I was
really not very highly active in the formation [of the VNMC] but
I was really part of it by heart and action.I have always been
grateful to [those who created the committee] for having given
us the opportunity here to uphold the dignity of our country in
times when it was pretty ugly. It had an effect on our families,
too, because a number of us had young children, and this gave them
the opportunity to see democracy really working, freedom of speech
and the necessity to keep active in activities that maintained
the ideals of this country."