President Richard Nixon had a PR problem. He had just deepened U.S. involvement in the extremely unpopular Vietnam War by invading Cambodia. In May, Ohio National Guard troops had killed four student protesters at Kent State. So, to drum up support for the war—and his administration—he and three of his high-profile supporters decided to hold an “Honor America Day” on July 4, 1970 in Washington, D.C.
The main organizers were Nixon’s friends Reverend Billy Graham and hotel-owner J. Willard Marriott, as well as the entertainer Bob Hope, who had become somewhat controversial for his support of the war. Publicly, the event was supposed to be non-partisan; a day when “Americans can put aside their honest differences and rally around the flag to show national unity,” as Hope said at a press conference on June 4. In reality, the organizers sought to exclude people who opposed the war and include entertainers who supported it.
The event’s pro-Nixon, pro-war stance wasn’t exactly a secret. “The prominent involvement of the administration and its allies led many to dismiss the event as little more than a rally for the right,” writes historian Kevin Kruse in One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. “[T]he columnist Art Buchwald noted, ‘any professional politician knows that when the public sees Billy Graham, Bob Hope and Lawrence Welk on the platform, the Nixon Administration will be the only ones enjoying the fireworks.’”
Indeed, the organizers struggled to book relevant talent for what was basically a pro-war rally. When people criticized the event for booking too many “fossils and dinosaurs” as entertainment, the organizers attempted to entice more relevant acts like comedian Dick Gregory and the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. Both declined the offer.
“If the celebration was strictly entertainment, completely free of social and political implications, I would be the first to join you,” Gregory wrote in a letter to Hope. “But a celebration in our nation’s capital on the Fourth of July cannot possibly be a politically neutral event. Even my participation would tend to give a political image to such an event, as I have appeared in Washington, D.C. many times before, on the same site you will be using, promoting the cause of peace, civil rights and human dignity.”
The event’s partisan slant that Gregory accurately perceived was evidenced by its attendees, who were overwhelmingly white and middle-aged. In the Baltimore Sun, one reporter quipped, “There were fewer black faces than one might have expected in Alaska.”
As the crowd gathered near the Lincoln Memorial for the event’s morning religious service, protesters behind them started a “smoke-in,” lighting up joints that were red, white and blue and waving Viet Cong flags.
“As the service went on, a few hundred radicals, some completely nude, waded waist deep into the reflecting pool and launched into antiwar chants,” Kruse writes. While some “Honor America Day” attendees were simply annoyed, others were invigorated by a chance to confront their political enemies. “They ought to be clubbed,” one man said as the police held the protesters away from the event. “I hope they break a few necks,” a woman opined.
That evening, an estimated 350,000 people gathered near the Washington Monument for the evening’s entertainment, hosted by Hope. Despite the fact that the police released tear gas on the protesters that then blew into the main crowd—creating “a mad stampede of weeping hippies and Middle Americans,” one reporter wrote—the event organizers declared it a success. But many other observers thought it only served to highlight the country’s political divisions.
In fact, Kruse says this is a common problem whenever people try to link America’s Independence Day to a political cause.
“All partisans see themselves as patriots,” he writes in The Washington Post. “As a result, any effort by one side to claim the day as theirs, and theirs alone, invariably sparks an angry reaction from the other.”