Here is something that offended LBJ: The Vietnam Day Committee (VDC) insisted on using his image—presented upside down—on its promotional materials in the days leading up to their attempted march on the Oakland Army Terminal in 1965. These materials were clearly meant to mock Johnson by displaying his portrait in a topsy-turvy manner, but what may be less obvious is that turning the president upside down can also be understood as an attempt to hex him. The practice of symbolically turning someone upside down as part of a curse can be traced at least as far back as late-antiquity. For example, Christopher A. Faraone and Amina Cropp have shown evidence of Romans using an incantation against their enemies that included an inscription meaning, “turn upside-down!” Similar language is evident in the fourth-century curse that states, in part, “turn him, turn him upside-down!” In this way, VDC activists engaged in the sort of satirical practice outlined in Robert C. Elliott’s foundational study The Power of Satire: Magic, Ritual, Art and exemplified most hilariously in Ishmael Reed’s “D Hexorcism of Noxon D Awful,” which is anthologized in the aptly titled 19 Necromancers from Now, and Philip Roth’s Our Gang, two texts that satirically hex Richard Nixon.
The story of how the VDC came to deploy this particular strategy is interesting, especially insofar as it reveals something about the influence of postwar American writers on the symbols that the Anti-War Movement adopted during the mid- to late-Sixties. It is also very funny. Here is what happened . . .
Over a two-day period in May of 1965, the VDC hosted one of the nation’s first and largest teach-ins at the University of California, Berkeley. The event was organized by Jerry Rubin, Barbara Gullahorn, and Stephen Smale, and it featured a range of speakers and entertainers, including Norman Mailer, I. F. Stone, Benjamin Spock, Mario Savio, Robert Moses, Dick Gregory, Paul Krassner, Kenneth Rexroth, Phil Ochs, and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Attendance at the event is estimated to have ranged between ten and thirty thousand people, depending on which source you consult, but the one thing that is certain is that the gathering ultimately proved to be a defining moment in the Vietnam-era Anti-War Movement.
Mailer’s speech was an irreverent attack on the president and his advisors that he punctuated with the refrain: “Hot damn! Vietnam!” The speech was full of derision and mockery, but it also included a stark warning:
“Listen, Lyndon Johnson, you’ve gone too far this time. You are a bully with an Air Force, and since you will not call off your Air Force, there are young people who will persecute you back. It is a little thing, but it will hound you into nightmares and endless corridors of night without sleep. It will hound you. For listen, this is only one of the thousand things they will do. They will go on marches and they will make demonstrations, and they will begin a war of public protest against you which will never cease. It will go on and on and it will get stronger and stronger.”
Prophetic as Mailer may have been, his remarks were, up to this point, relatively mundane. Threatening marches and demonstrations was hardly a novel proposition. But then Mailer’s speech takes an altogether more creative, zany, and downright funny turn:
“But listen to just one of the thousand things that they could do. Just listen to this little thing, which is one. These young people are, I think, going to print up little picture of you, Lyndon Johnson, the size of post-cards, the size of stamps. And some of them will glue these pictures to walls and posters and telephone booths and bill-boards. I don’t advise it. I would tell these students not to do it to you, but they will. They will find places to put these pictures. They will want to paste your picture, Lyndon Johnson, on a post-card and send it to you. Some will send it to your advisors. Some will send these pictures to men and women in other schools. These pictures will be sent everywhere. These pictures will be pasted up everywhere—upside down! Silently, without a word, Lyndon Johnson, that photograph of you is going to start appearing everywhere. Your head will speak out, even to the peasant in Asia. It will say that not all Americans are unaware of your monstrous vanity, overweening piety and doubtful motive. It will tell them that we trust our President so little and think so little of him that we send his picture everywhere upside down. Vietnam! Hot Damn! You, Lyndon Johnson will see those pictures up everywhere—upside down. Four inches high and forty feet high. You, Lyndon Baines Johnson, are going to be coming up for air, everywhere, upside down. Everywhere, upside down! Upside down!”
Tongue-in-cheek disclaimers about not advising students to engage in this sort of tactic aside, Mailer was clearly planting a subversive idea in his audience’s mind. He was showing the tens of thousands of young people at Berkeley that day how to use a form of symbolic violence to degrade and humiliate a national leader who was rapidly losing credibility among the American Left.
The young activists listened, and they would not disappoint.
Over the coming weeks, the VDC produced and distributed flyers, buttons, and other materials that prominently featured LBJ’s topsy-turvy face. The button pictured at the top of this post is one such item. It is a striking example of how the Anti-War Movement appropriated LBJ’s image and presented it in a visually arresting manner to mock and discredit his authority as president and commander in chief. But it is also evidence of the direct influence Mailer had on the movement. Not only does the button turn LBJ upside down, as Mailer had warned that activists would do, but it incorporates his famous refrain—“Hot Damn Viet Namn!” The button is, in this regard, an iconic symbol of the relationship between Mailer and the radical activist base of the Anti-War Movement. Perhaps only Allen Ginsberg had a more direct influence on the Sixties protest movement.
But what is perhaps most remarkable about this satirical hexing is that news of the tactic made its way to the Oval Office. In his excellent history of the radical student movement in Berkeley, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, Seth Rosenfeld recounts how the FBI attempted to interrupt the VDC’s distribution of LBJ’s upside down portrait. This involved federal agents harassing the small business owner who had agreed to produce thousands of buttons like the one pictured above. Rosenfeld writes, “The buttons were of particular interest, according to an agent’s report, because ‘President Johnson has now become aware that his picture has been displayed in VDC demonstrations in an upside down manner. He is provoked about this'” (273). Amazingly, Mailer and the VDC had succeeded in vexing, if not hexing, the president.
There can be little question that irritating LBJ, even to the point of causing him to suffer “endless corridors of night without sleep,” was one desired aim of symbolically turning him upside down. Another would be to materially damage his reputation. There is ample evidence of Vietnam-era satirists—literary and extra-literary alike—targeting political figures, including sitting presidents, with vicious representations that often approached the legal definitions of slander and libel. The aim of these satirists was to make fun of powerful men and thus galvanizing energy against them, but they also sought to damage their targets with symbolic violence. By using ironic, derogatory language and visual representations to symbolically damage their enemies, postwar American satirists drew on the deep connection between satire and ritual magic to affect social change. They vexed and they hexed, and in so doing they helped develop radical sentiment against the war.
Mailer is a problematic figure in all sorts of ways, but I admire the principled stand he took against the Vietnam War. He was a steadfast anti-war activist and a leader among writers in organizing resistance to the reckless foreign policy that led to this most unpopular war. Mailer is also responsible for two books that masterfully capture the mentality of America during the Vietnam War. The first is his extraordinary journalistic account of the 1967 March on the Pentagon, The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History, for which he was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The second is his satirical novel Why Are We in Vietnam?, which captures something of the insanity of the war without even mentioning it until the last page of the book. Both are excellent and remain powerful reads even today.
You can hear Mailer’s speech on the 1966 Folkways Records recording of the teach-in, Berkeley Teach-In: Vietnam, which is available for streaming here. In addition to Mailer, the recording includes speeches by Robert Scheer, Paul Krassner, Benjamin Spock, I. F. Stone, Mario Savio, Dick Gregory, and others. It’s a wonderful bit of history that gives voice to the event that inspired a hex on LBJ. Hot damn!