While a Navy lieutenant stationed at headquarters staff in London, I was one of the duty officers on Sunday, March 17, 1968, the day the “Vietnam Solidarity Campaign” stormed the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square.
The Navy headquarters is about a hundred yards from the embassy, so I was an eyewitness to the afternoon’s proceedings. Grosvenor Square is a small park with a statue of FDR on one side and the Four Freedoms carved on stone blocks around the statue. Like all parks in England, and especially in London, it is very well kept, with green lawns and beautiful trees enclosed in a perfectly trimmed hedge.
The rally started with speeches at Trafalgar Square, including one by the actress Vanessa Redgrave. These lasted about an hour, and then a mass march to the U.S. Embassy began. It was reported that the crowd in Trafalgar Square was in excess of ten thousand, but I was sure that count was low. The Metropolitan Police directed them into Grosvenor Square and kept them a healthy distance from the embassy. Redgrave, escorted by a police officer, approached the door of the embassy. She wore a white headband, a sign of mourning in Vietnam. Ambassador David Bruce appeared in the doorway, and she presented him with a petition. She was escorted back to her place in the crowd. As soon as the violence began, she was whisked away from the scene.
Immediately the huge plate glass windows of the embassy’s facade started to bleed. The crowd was throwing homemade blood bombs. Some windows started to crack under a bombardment of stones and old English pennies. As small groups of protesters charged the embassy, the police subdued them and herded them onto large green buses to be placed under arrest. After nearly an hour the officer in charge cried out, “Bring on the horses!” From the far side of the square mounted police galloped in to help. They formed a line and pushed the crowd away from the embassy and into the square, breaking the demonstrators up into smaller groups. Some fought back, hitting the horses and pulling policemen from their mounts. Others climbed trees and dropped onto the police. Another hour passed, and at last they began to disperse. I was in civilian clothes, so I decided to go take a close look at the “battleground.”
I was shocked at how real the blood on the windows and shops looked. I quickly realized that it was real blood. I later found out that twenty-five policemen had been injured in the fray. Many of the horses had to be shot because of their injuries.
A light rain was falling as I walked around Grosvenor Square. Amid the trampled Vietnamese flags, posters, and just plain rubbish lay an occasional broken tree limb heavy with buds. The holly hedges were mangled. The lawn looked as though it had been plowed by some mad farmer. I was sick at heart. As I returned to my flat, I thought, “It’s a good thing these people are pacifists. Think what it would have been like if they believed in war.”