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

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22 PHOTOS
Vietnam protest 11/15/69
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'We want peace': The largest political protest in US history, 45 years later
Anti-war active-duty GI's, forbidden to demonstrate in uniform, marching up Pennsylvania Ave, in support of the moratorium. (Photo by John Olson/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Draft resisters march at a demonstration organized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, Washington DC, November 15, 1969. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC. - NOVEMBER 15: Demonstration Anti-Vietnam on November 15, 1969 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Santi Visalli/Getty Images)
American folk singer and musician Arlo Guthrie, dressed in a fleece-trimmed Afghan coat and cowboy hat, performs at the National Mobilization to End the War, Washington, D.C., November 15, 1969. At the event, hundreds of thousands of peace supporters demonstrated against the war in Vietnam. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC. - NOVEMBER 15: Demonstration Anti-Vietnam with Dr. Benjamin Spock on November 15, 1969 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Santi Visalli/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC. - NOVEMBER 15: Demonstration Pro-Vietnam on November 15, 1969 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Santi Visalli/Getty Images)
Anti-war demonstrators, wearing black armbands, fill the steps of the United States Capitol Building and hold hands on the day of the National Moratorium, on October 15, 1969 in Washington DC, to protest against the continuing war in Vietnam. Millions of Americans took part in peace initiatives across the United States during the Moratorium Day, which is believed to have been the largest demonstration in US history with an estimated two million people involved. (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Young Americans gesture and shout as they protest the war in Vietnam on the steps of the Department of Justice building during the National Mobilization to End the War, Washington, DC, November 15, 1969. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
Anti-war demonstrators march outside the White House, on November 15, 1969 in Washington DC, for the second Moratorium Day, to protest against the continuing war in Vietnam. Millions of Americans took part in peace initiatives across the United States during the Moratorium Day, which is believed to have been the largest demonstration in US history with an estimated two million people involved. (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
American antiwar political activist Jerry Rubin (1938 - 1994), with David Dellinger (1915 - 2004) visible on the right, waves to the crowd at the National Mobilization to End the War rally against the Vietnam War, Washington, DC, November 15, 1969. Rubin holds a banner which reads 'Yippie!' and refers to his mock political party the Youth International Party. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON DC - NOVEMBER 15: Students protest the Vietnam war and the trial of the Chicago 7 on November 15 1969 in Washington DC. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON DC - NOVEMBER 15: National Guard troops and police surround an overturned car during anti-Vietnam protests on November 15 1969 in Washington DC. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Young Americans gesture and shout as they protest the war in Vietnam on the steps of the Department of Justice building during the National Mobilization to End the War, Washington, DC, November 15, 1969. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC. - NOVEMBER 15: Demonstration Anti-Vietnam on November 15, 1969 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Santi Visalli/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC. - NOVEMBER 15: Demonstration Anti-Vietnam on November 15, 1969 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Santi Visalli/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC. - NOVEMBER 15: Demonstration Anti-Vietnam on November 15, 1969 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Santi Visalli/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC. - NOVEMBER 15: Demonstration Anti-Vietnam on November 15, 1969 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Santi Visalli/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC. - NOVEMBER 15: Demonstration Anti-Vietnam on November 15, 1969 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Santi Visalli/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC. - NOVEMBER 15: Demonstration Anti-Vietnam on November 15, 1969 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Santi Visalli/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC. - NOVEMBER 15: Demonstration Anti-Vietnam with peace buttons on November 15, 1969 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Santi Visalli/Getty Images)
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By MORGAN WHITAKER

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.

23 PHOTOS
Vietnam War photos
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'We want peace': The largest political protest in US history, 45 years later
A US soldier from the Third Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, mans a gun turret on tank along Route 13, Vietnam, 1967. (Photo Co Rentmeester/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
View from the gun turret of a tank as US troops and vehicles from the Third Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, drive along Route 13, Vietnam, 1967. (Photo Co Rentmeester/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
As part of Operation 'Cedar Falls,' armored personnel carriers (called ¿Zippo Tracks¿) from the 1st squadron 4th Cavalry burn field in the so-called 'Iron Triangle' region, Vietname, January 1967. (Photo by Dick Swanson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
American TV news correspondent Mike Wallace of CBS News reports from a trench during the Vietnam War, 1967. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
VIET NAM - 1967: American UH-1 Huey helicopter lifting off as personnel on the ground protect themselves from propeller wash somewhere in Vietnam. (Photo by Larry Burrows/Time Magazine/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
U. S. soldiers of 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry on Zippo Tracks armored personnel carriers incinerating Iron Triangle area during Operation Cedar Falls. (Photo by Dick Swanson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
U. S. soldiers of 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry on Zippo Tracks armored personnel carriers incinerating Iron Triange area during Operation Cedar Falls. (Photo by Dick Swanson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
U. S. soldiers of 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry on Zippo Tracks armored personnel carriers incinerating Iron Triangle area during Operation Cedar Falls. (Photo by Dick Swanson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
U. S. soldiers of 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry on Zippo Tracks armored personnel carriers incinerating Iron Triange area during Operation Cedar Falls. (Photo by Dick Swanson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
Peace demonstrators protesting the Vietnam War around the Washington Monument. (Photo by Dick Swanson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
Peace demonstrators sitting in protest to the Vietnam War w. military police in riot gear standing by. (Photo by Dick Swanson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
US Marine teaching Vietnamese villager how to spin-cast. (Photo by Co Rentmeester/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
US Navy Corpsman Robert Miller examining girl in village of Hao Hiep. (Photo by Co Rentmeester/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
US Marines meeting with village chief to discuss problems of village security. (Photo by Co Rentmeester/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
US Marine with S. Vietnamese Soldier checking ID of man in village of Hoa Hiep. (Photo by Co Rentmeester/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
2nd March 1966: Viet Cong guerillas patrolling a water zone during the Vietnam War. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson (CR) attending meeting on the Vietnam War. (Photo by Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
US Nazi Party ldr., George Lincoln Rockwell, speaking at podium embellished w. swastika w. henchman, & his future alleged assassin, John Patler standing beside him during speech supporting Vietnam War. AT MALL (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Pix Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
US Army Captain Peter Dawkins, during tour of duty in Vietnam, working as advisor to an Vietnamese Airborne Battalion, 1966. (Photo by Charles Bonnay/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - NOVEMBER 11: Visitors leave flowers at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. for Veterans Day on November 11, 2014. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - NOVEMBER 11: Visitors leave flowers at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. for Veterans Day on November 11, 2014. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - NOVEMBER 11: United States Park Police Honor Guard stands in front of the Vietnam War Memorial during the Veterans Day Ceremony in Washington, D.C. on November 11, 2014. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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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.

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