'We want peace': The largest political protest in US history, 45 years later



Forty five years ago Saturday, more than a quarter million Americans descended on Washington, D.C., to protest the Vietnam War. Demonstrations and marches were common in this era, whether in opposition to violence or in support of civil rights, but the November 1969 march stood out for one reason: it was the largest political protest in American history.

President Richard Nixon sat comfortably in the White House, reportedly watching college football, as a "vast throng of Americans, predominantly youthful" called for the swift withdrawal of troops from Vietnam within earshot of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Nixon's 1968 election opponent Eugene McCarthy was on hand that day, joining demonstrators at a rally near the Washington Monument. Famous peace activist musicians Peter, Paul and Mary, Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger performed as well, according to New York Times reports, leading the masses in a rendition of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance."

Ken Whitaker was one of those youthful Americans who traveled to Washington that day to voice his opposition to the war.

Although most of the reports on the event focused on the youthful crowd, he remembers seeing a lot of faces he didn't often come across at anti-war rallies.

"I remember, when seeing how many people were there, thinking that the momentum against the war had changed," he tells AOL.com in a recent interview. "While most of what I had done protesting the war was on campus -- so mainly with young people -- I remember seeing many older people that day."

"It was the first time I remember thinking that it is now something of a middle class movement and not a fringe movement," he adds.

Whitaker was a college student at the time, but he had a unique perspective on the war, having returned from the jungles of Southeast Asia where he served as a Marine. Two years after returning from action, he'd become an active member of his college's chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

"I had fought there and I knew we shouldn't be there," he recalls.

When McCarthy spoke to the throngs of protesters on that Saturday in 1969, he reiterated the importance of learning lessons from the "experience" of history. Whitaker has similar feelings today about the challenges facing America in the Middle East.

"One of my big concerns about leading the fight against ISIS is that in some ways it is like Vietnam. We want to protect Iraq from the terror group that is taking more of Iraq and in Vietnam we were protecting the South from the Viet Cong, both ragtag militias that kept the Iraqi and Vietnamese governments on the ropes," he says.

"If ISIS puts up a good fight against our 'allies,' I believe we will be very likely to put more and more troops in to win," he adds. "There is where I think we have lost the lesson of Vietnam."

"I hope I am wrong."

See some of the compelling images captured during the Vietnam War in the gallery below.

Editor's note: While the November 1969 protest was the largest political protest of its time, the 2013 March for Life exceeded its numbers according to most estimates. The earlier march remains the largest anti-war demonstration in U.S. history. ​
Additionally, this article's author, Morgan Whitaker, happens to also be Ken Whitaker's daughter, and she is thankful to him both for his service and for raising her.