At least as early as 1867, the grieving survivors of the men and boys who died in the Civil War set aside a Sunday afternoon each Spring to clean and decorate their graves – to picnic, to remember and to tell stories. This “Decoration Day” spontaneously emerged in both the North and the South during Reconstruction. And a century after it began, after the Tet Offensive in 1967, Congress made Decoration Day an official federal holiday called Memorial Day.
Twenty years after that, three Vietnam Veterans named Ray Manzo, John Holland and Walt Sides rode their motorcycles to the national gravestone that remembers the dead from their war. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington – The Wall on the Mall – had been completed five years before that. It was still a controversial edifice. It became a target of the contempt much of America felt for men who, as Joan Baez put it, “lacked the courage to just refuse to murder” and the Wall was vandalized.
That first run to the Wall by Manzo, Holland and Sides echoed the earliest Decoration Days. Twenty-five years later that simple act of both remembrance and contempt for prevailing opinion has, as Joan Baez might now put it, evolved.
In 1988, 2,000 Vietnam Vets and their supporters and survivors rode to Washington from the four corners of America. They assembled in Virginia and rode to the Wall as one large pack. The riders called their big pack Rolling Thunder and there was a sort of a picnic at the end. One of the speakers at that gathering, a veteran named Marshall Colt, humbly asked his countryman to separate “the war from the warriors” and try to understand that “Vietnam Veterans honored a commitment to the country.” Colt’s humility was one of two main strategies Vietnam Veterans adopted during their reintegration into America.
A biker from Pittsburgh named Robert Wagner represented the other strategy. He was less humble and more blunt than Colt had been. The Wall had been defaced again that Spring and Wagner called the big, loud pack, “a show of strength.”
One of the organizers of that 1988 rally was a former Sergeant in the Fourth Infantry Division named Artie Muller and for the last quarter century Rolling Thunder has been Muller’s full time job. Thanks mostly to Muller’s hard work, there were 40,000 riders by 1994.
Rolling Thunder has now become a corporation and a quasi-motorcycle club with 88 chapters in 29 states. The rally now has much less to do with Vietnam than it does with a general honoring of all veterans. And simultaneously, Rolling Thunder has become an institution on the opposite side of the never ending culture wars from the side represented by Baez and President Obama.
While the last President Bush was solicitous of Muller and enthusiastic about the motorcycle demonstration, Obama has pushed Muller, his followers and his sympathizers away. During his last year in office Bush met Muller and his entourage in the White House driveway. Muller gave the President a Rolling Thunder cut and Bush put it on and modeled it for the press.
But throughout his term, Obama has been reluctant to meet Muller. Knowing whether Obama actually met with representatives of Rolling Thunder this year or not depends on who you ask.
“The President was pleased to meet with members of Rolling Thunder today at the White House,” an unnamed “administration official” told the Washington Times. “This Administration is committed to the POW/MIA mission as well as to our veterans and their families. The members of Rolling Thunder also received a briefing on POW/MIA and veterans issues from National Security Staff and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Affairs.”
“When we were there in the past,” Muller told the same newspaper, “the President himself talked to us about the issues that concern us – veterans’ health care, the fate of prisoners of war, and those missing in action. This was more or less a handshake and a photo op for the White House – and that’s all it was,”
Last Friday the President did issue an official proclamation recognizing the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. “Let us renew our sacred commitment to those who answered our country’s call in Vietnam and those who waited their safe return,” the President proclaimed. “While no words will ever be fully worthy of their service, nor any honor truly befitting their sacrifice, let us remember that it is never too late to pay tribute to the men and women who answered the call of duty with courage and valor.”
Police in northern Virginia estimated that about 400,000 motorcycle riders took part in today’s ride from Arlington, Virginia to the Wall. The ride began at noon Eastern time and was scheduled to end at 5 p.m. It certainly screwed up traffic throughout the Capitol because it always does. And that surely annoyed many citizens who don’t like motorcycles because that happens every year, too.
Speakers to the demonstrators assembled on the Mall included Bob & Jani Bergdahl, Congressman Trent Franks, Commander Kirk Lippold, Colonel Pat Blassie, Lynn O’Shea, Sergeant Matt Smith, Michael Shelby and Steve Thompson.
Demonstrators were also entertained by the musical talents of the Loch Rannoch Pipes & Band, Nancy Sinatra, Connie Stevens, Gordon Painter, Rockie Lynne, the Doug Stone Band and Sammy Sadler.