ABC News correspondent Don North left the violence of Vietnam on April 3, 1968 to arrive the next day in Washington, gripped by the violent reaction to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
By Don North Special to Consortium News
Since the Tet offensive of January 1968 the mean streets of Saigon reeked of smoke, tear gas and incoming rocket and mortar fire. I had been a correspondent for ABC TV News for the past two years and it was with great relief that I was re-assigned to Washington D.C. in early April.
As I looked back at the skyline of Saigon, a Scotch & Soda in hand as my plane took off, I could see black smoke rising from one part of the city, and white smoke trailing fires set off elsewhere by the Viet Cong. A day later, on Thursday, April 4,, as my flight descended into Washington, I could see black smoke rising from one part of the city and white smoke rising from another.
As news of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis spread, despondent crowds gathered in the heart of Washington’s business section along 14th street. Orderly at first, the crowds became surly and started breaking windows, looting stores and setting fires.
I reported immediately to the ABC News bureau on Connecticut Ave. The news editor said, “Good timing Don, we can use a reporter with combat experience. There’s a crew leaving for the riots in a few minutes. There’s room in the car for you.”
The Same Smell of Teargas
Cruising down 14th Street the air was the same as in Saigon: filled with smoke and the smell of tear gas. A light rain was falling. Slick streets were littered with broken glass and bricks. Stretches of 14th and 7th and H looked like combat zones. Hundreds of blazes set by arsonists would leave wreckage and desolation. We were seeing the beginning of the reaction to the assassination that would beset Washington for the next 72 hours and leave sections of the city in ruins for over 30 years.
Local businesses were being vandalized, windows smashed and merchandise carried off. We pulled up to a liquor store where looters were walking out through smashed windows carrying armloads of booze. We discreetly filmed with an Auricon sound camera through a side window. The looters didn’t seem to notice.
Suddenly an angry man rushed at our car with a large brick in his hands and started pounding on a side window. It didn’t break as we sped out of his reach.
The riots apparently began nearby with a brick thrown through the window of the Peoples Drug Store at 14th Street and U. Dr. King had died at 8 P.M. Though he had ardently preached non-violence, by 10 P.M. large crowds gathered to vent anger, sadness and frustration that was justified, even if the violence wasn’t. Teenagers walked with transistor radios tuned to the news. Many local stations played hymns between newscasts.
Ben’s Chili Bowl near the Peoples Drug Store was not targeted by looters and managed to stay open through the night. Stokely Carmichael, a member of the Black Panthers, made the Chili Bowl his headquarters and he led a group of youths into nearby stores demanding they close in respect for Dr. King’s death. Carmichael had been a follower of King but had recently become independent. I tried to interview him but he was moving too fast.
But in the weeks following the riots I would often sit down with Carmichael, as he became a nationally known voice against the war I had left behind in Saigon. That night, he urged the crowds to stay calm, but their anger was too great.
The looters soon turned to arson and threw Molotov cocktails into buildings and rocks and bricks at firefighters who tried to put out the blazes. Many African-American store owners sprayed “SOUL” on their windows to be spared.
The D.C. fire department reported 1,180 fires between March 30 and April 14. Property loss caused by the disturbances was extensive. 1,190 buildings, including 283 homes were badly damaged or destroyed an estimated loss at $25 million. Mostly white residents, fearful of the violence, accelerated their departure for suburban areas.
By Friday, April 5, the unrest spread to other sections of the District, especially 7th Street NW, H St and parts of Anacostia. Joining the 3,000 strong D.C. police force, Federal troops and the National Guard were called in and would reach 11,000 in numbers. U.S. Marines mounted machine guns on the steps of the Capitol and Army troops from the 3rd Infantry guarded the White House . Federal troops now occupied parts of Vietnam and America.
In three days of upheaval, 13 people were killed, two by police officers. Riots that week in Newark caused 27 deaths and 43 were killed in Detroit.
A 5:30 PM curfew was enforced in the District. D.C. Commissioner Walter Washington, later to become Washington’s first black Mayor, made nightly appearances during the unrest, and helped to stem the violence. He had rebuffed FBI suggestions that police shoot rioters and looters on the spot.
The military occupation of Washington was the largest of any American city since the Civil War and raised questions about whether it was legal, as the use of federal troops for law enforcement had been banned by the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878.
Killed on the First Anniversary of His Vietnam Speech
Had the Johnson administration heeded King’s words about the state of America and its war in Southeast Asia, perhaps the violence I had left behind in Saigon and arrived to in downtown Washington may never have happened.
In his Riverside Church speech given on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, King said:
Surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.
As I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud: “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?” “Peace and civil rights don’t mix,” they say. “Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?” they ask.
There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.
So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such. Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
Don North, a veteran war correspondent who covered the Vietnam War and many other conflicts around the world, is the author of Inappropriate Conduct, the story of a WW II correspondent whose career was crushed by the intrigue he uncovered.
I loved Martin Luther’s speech and have heard it countless times, and I couldn’t agree more. Fortunately there was a draft that primarily motivated people to rally against this horrible war. The response of people that plundered and pillared stores in response to his death were opportunistic and nothing more. They dishonored his memory by abusing power as well.
“Mean streets” usually implies crime and violence. That description just does not fit Saigon or HMC – not now and not in ’68!
But that aside, a “war correspondent” who beleives (even now, 50 years later with plenty of time to reassess) that, “We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem” – is seriously delusional! The invasion and destruction of Vietnam had NOTHING to do with guaranteeing liberties to ANYONE!
I think you misunderstand: that was a quotation from a speech that King gave to a largely white bourgeois audience a year before, when he was trying to win over those people to opposing the war on Vietnam, and not upset them more than necessary. He wanted to point out the contradictions of the official narrative.
And even so, I think it is safe to assume that he didn’t really believe those alleged reasons himself. Read the whole of that speech (others here have given the URL) — that should make it clearer where he stood!
Of course, anyone who really wanted to know (and had some idea of how to find the information, and access to it) was able to learn even then that it had nothing to do with defending the freedom of Vietnamese — without ever crossing the Pacific!
Kim Nguyen, I’ve read a number of Don North’s pieces here at CN, and regrettably it is true that he seems to have maintained a relatively benign view of the U.S.’s decades-long campaign to violently destroy Vietnam and its neighbors.
It is entirely fair that the larger political and historical context be pointed out in comments. Still, I appreciate reading his personal recollections, and take them for what they’re worth.
Thank you for your comment. I am sorry you have misinterpreted any of my Consortium views to represent “a relatively benign view of the U.S.’s decades long campaign to violently destroy Vietnam and its neighbors.” In fact I have always maintained an opposite view to the one you have alleged.
Hi, Don North.
Just checking back here and saw your courteous reply, which I appreciate.
I certainly respect this avowal of your view of the war, with which I agree.
Perhaps my rage at the horror and injustice of it all has led me to misread your own legitimately nuanced views.
Anyway, thanks for sharing your experiences as a reporter here at CN, and I wish you the best!
On MLK remembrance day, I’m resolved not to forget those societal circumstances that summoned into military service, an impoverished black or white guy, to stand in my place at the US Army induction center (circa 1967).. In a real sense, I was privileged, my draft card lottery number was not worrisome and at the same time, I became a full time “student”, accepted into a large metropolitan Junior College. This, aside from the fact that my education credentials assumed the shape of “a long list of gentlemen”C’s” in High School, with abominable low SAT scores, couldn’t wipe my rear end properly, personal hygiene needed improvement, living at my parents home and to top this package off- with a internal memorandum from the college entrance advisor, limiting my class selections to remedial (everything) from writing in English!, to basic math…. In summary, a white skinned, middle class, flunky. Yet, the more courageous, more trusting, so called “less educated”, more psychologically mature, took my place in the deep green jungles of Vietnam, something I’ll never live down. Therefore, I have a certain duty to perform now and here it is:
Thank you, to those Vets, unknown to me, who lay paralyzed in their beds, or are disfigured, or dismembered, made insane, drug addicted or homeless, that is, until the Lord calls you. To those who’s young and vibrant lives were suddenly, snuffed out in the rice paddies of Vietnam and to those Vets in American foreign wars (endlessly) following the Vietnam conflict, again, Thank You All, for your willing, trusting, and steadfast service!
Our government and the corporate warmongering entities, the machinery that SHOULD HAVE BEEN DISMANTLED at the end of World War Two, accomplished nothing but to preserve an architecture that survives on “welfare”, federal taxes and too, a bottomless desire for world domination. How?, by the coercive seizure of sovereign state governments, rapacity for their treasure(s) and the hunt and exploration for them, these post WW II, momentum(s), at the behest of many American Corporate Kingpins (CEO’s) , with very familiar names: Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics…ET AL, they too, will “never live it down” because CONSORTIUMNEWS commentators will not permit such a bloodletting cabal to enter their graves in peace!
Oh, and to Robert Duvall, thank you for instigating my bitter,resentful and appalled reaction to one of your many well acted lines, was it during the movie, Apocalypse Now?, I paraphrase it here:…that smell, of napalm, it’ smells like….Victory! That reaction, I thought was buried, well into the past, until Hitlery Clinton spouted (with a laugh and almost joking pride); We came, we saw, he died! (Qaddafi’s murder)
I think we should also remember that King’s Riverside Church speech criticizing the Viet Nam War was intensely denounced by the NY Times in an editorial dedicated to that purpose. This should be a reminder that the good old liberal NY Times and WaPo (yes, they also denounced King but not so prominently) was just as bad in 1967 as they are today in their non-stop Russophobia campaigns.
Also a reminder that MLK was not a liberal, but a genuine radical, even if the liberals work hard every year on this day to portray him as one of theirs.
We know that Vietnam and King’s assassination were atrocities, but how will this short essay help us stop these symptoms of a dying civilization? I hope this is not too harsh, but time to come up with ways to fix this world is getting very short. If we don’t find those ways very quickly we are all going to be toast very soon.
Great expose over a period that every American should know about. The author proves that US was a nation going backward then and going backwards today when it comes to upholding human rights and democracy.
Is there any difference today? War is still a racket. US troops and their foreign proxies are still the racketeers and hit men for capitalism and the mega corporations. Consequently, our own poor and minorities are also still victims along with the foreign targets (more poor and minorities). Today, there is more, not less, official lies and propaganda, but the brainwashing is being exposed and reaching fewer gullible minds. At least for the moment, thanks to Putin and the Russian leadership and its media. The elite bi-partisan establishment hates to hear this and doesn’t like being exposed. Trump poses as an outsider but is actually the current establishment leader and cheerleader. The
Who was using tear gas against whom in Saigon in 1968?
If it was being used by the U.S. or ARVN forces against the NLF/”Viet Cong” (or vice versa) then that was a violation of the international ban on gas warfare then in force.
Considering all the other war crimes going on there, I’m certainly not dismissing the possibility, but I wasn’t aware of that one.
Thanks for your query. Following the Tet offensive tear gas was used in Saigon to route out
Viet Cong who had hidden in homes and buildings. It was especially thick around the U.S.
Embassy January 31st when US Marines and Army MP’s cornered the last of the Viet Cong
sappers and forced them out of hiding. A big disadvantage is that tear gas floats with the wind and often those who fire it get a snootful when it blows back. I can say it sure clears the sinuses.
Thanks for the reply and your first-hand account, Don North.
While far from the worst atrocity of the war, I think using tear gas that way really was illegal under the Geneva Protocol (unlike, ironically, the cops gassing civilians on U.S. streets at the same time).
I tend to doubt that tear gas was illegal. In Boot Camp, we were periodically ambushed by the drill sergeants with tear gas. It was mandatory that we GIs had to put on our gas masks to clear our lungs and eyes. Guys who ran away apparently suffered beatdowns. The point of these exercises was that Sir Charles mounted tear gas attacks.
Use of tear gas against the enemy in combat was then, and today remains, against international law.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea for your sergeants to prepare you if “Charlie” was really using it. Or perhaps they actually wanted you ready for when our side did so, as in Don North’s anecdote.
Thank you for writing about this memory. And thank you for quoting from Dr. King’s speech of April 4, 1967, which can be heard here:
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. – April 4, 1967 – Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence [Full Speech]
Thank you Don. This is all true and very accurate.