RPCVs Sit-In at the Peace Corps
IN MAY, 1970, a week after the Kent State shootings in Ohio, more than 100,000 anti-war demonstrators converged on Washington to protest the shooting of the students as well as the Nixon administration’s incursion into Cambodia. Police ringed the White House with buses to block the demonstrators from getting too close to the mansion. Early in the morning before the march, Nixon met with protesters briefly at the Lincoln Memorial but nothing was resolved. As we worked in the Peace Corps, groups of students and ex-students who had thronged into Washington idled in the parks and slept there. Of the groups, returned Peace Corps volunteers seemed to be most bitter, stemming from their sense of betrayal of 1960s idealism that led them to join the Peace Corps in the first place.
One afternoon while I was working there, a group of them came to the building . . . which as with other federal buildings then had no security forces at the reception desks . . . and went to the fourth floor which was the Southeast Asia section of the Peace Corps. They were armed and forced the fourth floor staff to leave, then hung a makeshift Viet Cong flag out the window and took possession of the entire floor. Of course the news media immediately went to the scene and the takeover of the Southeast Asia section got national publicity. The entire Peace Corps staff then left for safety reasons. I hung around at my desk to deal with the media; the Director [Joe Blatchford] stayed along with a very few. We were the only ones in the building.
Immediately the phone rang. The operator said, “White House calling, hold the line please for Mr. H. R. Haldeman.”
“The president wants them the HELL OUT OF THERE!”
“Yes sir. Any ideas on how we should do it?”
“Yes. He wants you to get a few staffers together, go to the fourth floor, get off the elevator there, grab the intruders and remove them bodily THE HELL OUT OF THERE! That’s an order.”
“If that’s an order . . .”
” . . . it is.”
“Well, they are armed and we aren’t.”
“Good if you aren’t.”
“Well, not exactly. We might be sitting ducks; we might get somebody killed on our side and if the papers got wind of the fact that we were ordered to do this by the White House, it wouldn’t look good.”
Then, “Get back to you.”
We sat around and watched television with all three local stations having reporters standing out in our front yard with cameras pointed to t he fourth floor and the Viet Cong flag, with occasionally a woolly headed kid with a beard waving to the TVs from the window.
Then the phone rang again. The operator said: “White House calling. Hold the line for Mr. H. R. Haldeman.”
“I am thinking of sending an armed security team over there – a SWAT team! THEY’LL GET ‘EM THE HELL OUT OF THERE! Just, let ’em in the front door when they come!”
We said, “O. K. is that an order?”
“Just to let you know: with the SWAT team armed and the folks upstairs also armed, it could produce a confrontation that might be another Kent State. But if you say so, okay.”
“Get back to you.”
Meanwhile, we worked around it and decided to let the intruders take care of themselves for food, hoping that when they got hungry they would leave. But they were served hot dogs and fast food which was delivered up to the fourth floor by rope. I was just about ready to go home – it being near midnight when the phone rang.
“White House calling. Hold the line for Mr. H. R. Haldeman.”
This is getting boring.
“I just found out that your building is not government property, is privately owned and why the hell didn’t you call the D. C. police in the first place and have them remove the intruders as they would anyone else who had invaded an office building? I want the city police to GET ‘EM THE HELL OUT OF THERE!”
“Call the police – is that what you want us to do?”
“OK,” we said, “if that’s an
“IT IS!” he yelled so loudly that we could have heard him across from LaFayette park if he had opened the window.
“Just so you know, they have guns and the city cops will have guns so there may be a shoot-out and probably another Kent State.”
“Get back to you.”
I decided: he’ll have to get back to somebody else. It’s midnight and I haven’t had any supper. So I locked up and walked through the glare of the klieg lights to my car.
“What’s happening in there?” a TV reporter asked.
“A jungle in there. A real jungle.”
“Can we quote you?
The next morning the intruders wanted to talk to the Director, to have him stop in to their makeshift headquarters on the fourth floor. But we decided that was a ruse: they wanted to hold him hostage. What better than to hold the Peace Corps director hostage until what: we stop bombing Cambodia? Wisely, he didn’t go.
Then that night after I came back from dinner at about 10 p.m., I noticed the lights on the fourth floor were out and the Viet Cong flag withdrawn. They had left. I went to the fourth floor after they vacated it, I found the homemade rag that had been turned into the Vietcong flag. It’s in my attic now.
Get back to you.
4 CommentsLeave a comment
An amazing account! I had not heard (or remembered?) that the RPCVs were armed. Were they? Hardly seems likely.
I’m surprised that Haldemann lost his cool in that fashion, but who knows. I don’t recall hearing the name Thomas Roesser during my time (which began in June 1971).
DAvid, Your recollection is very interesting. I wonder if any of the Peace Corps office telephone directories so carefully perserved would have a Thomas Roesser listed?
Never mind. Evidently Thomas Roeser was only at Peace Corps from 1970 -71. Your tenures probably did not overlap.
I just finished reading Elaine Fuller’s account of what happened as she was a participant and actually there. I’m not sure how Mr. Roesser came to “know” the protesters were armed, and they weren’t according to Ms. Fuller. Mr. Roesser’s account makes for entertaining reading. Too bad it isn’t so factual. According to Ms. Fuller it was an American Flag which was hung out the window. Read her account:http://peacecorpsworldwide.org/an-rpcvs/