This site often brings you tales of activism and dissent, but New Yorkers aren’t always as rebellious as they should be. On May 20, 1970, more than 100,000 of them marched through lower Manhattan to show their support for the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration.
Nor was this the first outpouring of Vietnam warmongering from New Yorkers. On May 13, 1967, 43-year-old Fire Department Captain Raymond W. Gimmler led 70,000 pro-war marchers down Fifth Avenue. Gimmler’s branding for the event was simple: either you supported the troops, or you supported the flag-burning communists. As you can see in this silent video, many unions participated, though the views of the rank and file were nuanced. Union members tended to support an end to the war in line with or in greater numbers than the general population, but they just couldn’t stand the anti-war movement.
The 1967 protest presaged the Hard Hat Riot of 1970. By then American public opinion had turned against the war considerably, especially after the horrific Kent State shootings, in which the national guard had killed four students during a protest. (Inspiring this Neil Young anthem.) Mayor John Lindsay ordered flags lowered to half-mast in New York City. Students and other peace protesters gathered on the corner of Wall Street and Broad Street on the morning of May 8, 1970, to hold a vigil.
Before long, they were flanked by 200 angry construction workers. The Building and Construction Trades Council was run at the time by Peter Brennan, a major supporter of President Nixon. With the police doing little to interfere, the construction went to town on the protesters, focusing on long-haired hippie types, and beating them with their “hard-hat” helmets and other equipment. This hooligan outbreak can be viewed as one of many fissures between the left-wing/working class coalition that dominated politics from the New Deal through the Great Society.
Nor did the Hard Hatters stop at their disruption of downtown, storming to City Hall, where they attempted to slam through the doors, climbed the roof, and raised the lowered flag. A city official lowered it again, but eventually raised it back up under duress. Meanwhile, other construction workers broke into Pace University and Trinity Church to beat up students and war protesters. Only six people were arrested. Fun City indeed.
Pro-war construction workers and their allies disrupted the Wall Street area every day for the next two weeks, often to cheers from their friends in the financial industry, culminating in a massive demonstration (estimates range from 60,000-150,000) on May 20, 1970. “Flags, fervent oratory, patriotic tunes and river of yellow, red and blue hard hats,” summarized the New York Times, as marchers sported signs denouncing “Hanoi Lindsay.” The demonstration was sponsored by the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, members of which were invited to the White House for a photo shoot with Nixon about the need to expand the war to Cambodia. Peter Brennan was soon named the Secretary of Labor by Nixon and stayed on through the Ford administration.
It’s been a long time since we’ve had pro-war rallies in New York City, but these backwards sentiments haven’t disappeared completely. During the ridiculous “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, a majority of New Yorkers were polled as opposing a new Islamic Cultural Center being built in Lower Manhattan, and hatemongers came out in full force for demonstrations. Fortunately, no unions were involved in that debacle. Most of New York’s most powerful unions are culturally diverse, and attuned enough to the guns and butter lessons of the 1960s to know that war isn’t just bad moral policy, it’s bad economic policy.