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Vol. LVIII, No. 2
January 27, 2006
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War Protests Remembered 36 Years Later
NIH-NIMH Vietnam Moratorium Committee Reunites for Posterity

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 VNMC.

Continued...

 
  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 at

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.
 
Fellow peace advocates Elkin and Reatig embrace with fond memories.  
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.

"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 Schiffman.

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 Moratorium Day.

"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 Peace" demonstration.

"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
 
Dr. Benjamin Spock's 1969 visit to NIH served as the galvanizing event for the agency's Vietnam moratorium committee.  
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."

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."

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