Westmoreland`s tears may have been among the earliest shed during the day, but they would not be the only ones. The spectacle of 200,000 veterans of an unpopular, unsuccessful war touched an emotional chord in the city that had not been touched since the last Americans escaped from Vietnam by way of the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon in 1975.
For the first few blocks along Grand Avenue the crowds were thin but enthusiastic. Scattered clumps of spectators cheered and clapped from the sidewalks, while construction workers perched high above the street yelled down encouragement and draped ``welcome home`` signs from the skeletons of their buildings. As the marchers approached the bridge carrying Michigan Avenue over Grand, the crowds thickened, and so did the emotion.
At Michigan Avenue the veterans began craning their necks, wide-eyed in wonderment at the reception they were getting. The men marching with their old units, such as 3d Marine, 11th Airborne and 1st Cavalry divisions, for the most part were marching as strangers. It had been a long and widely scattered war, and it was hard to find anybody else who had served in the same company or regiment at the same time and place.
No matter. As the spectators swelled in number and support, the veterans spontaneously began chanting old marching cadences and singing service songs that most of them likely hadn`t sung in years. Good-natured rivalry began to break out between units marching in succession. ``Air Force! Air Force!`` one group would begin to shout in unison. ``Marines! Marines!`` would come the answer. ``Airborne! Airborne!`` ``Air Cav! Air Cav!`` Tears began to streak the battered faces of veterans who looked so hardened that they would rather die than show such emotion. Arms began to entwine in the ranks, to drape and hug shoulders. Wives marching with their men leaned into them, kissed them, adored them, while their children seemed bedazzled by it all.
The endless columns of marchers continued under Michigan Avenue along Grand, up to State Street, south across the river. The crowds continued to deepen along with the emotion. West along Wacker Drive, then south into La Salle Street, which was to be the focal point, the glory ground of the parade, billed by its promoters as the biggest ticker-tape welcome in the nation`s history.
As Westmoreland, Stack, Patridge and Wieland turned the corner, the sidewalks of La Salle Street were eight deep with people, and the air was a blizzard of shredded paper. It was a blizzard that would fall for five continuous hours, until the very last of the 200,000 veterans had marched down the street. As the ticker tape piled up on the ground, spectators picked it up and threw it again. Veterans standing on the sidewalks who had chosen not to march began to slip out of the crowd and into the stream of their comrades.
``Welcome,`` the crowds shouted to the marchers. ``Welcome home. We love you.``
``Thank you, Chicago,`` the marchers shouted back. ``Thank you. Thank you.``
With only eight bands and a few floats interspersed in the long lines of soldiers, it became less of a parade and more of a mass embrace. Women began rushing into the line of march, randomly hugging veterans. Veterans complied by surging out of the line of march and into the crowds, hugging the women and shaking every extended hand they encountered.
Westmoreland dropped out of the parade near City Hall to view the procession as it passed in front of the the official reviewing stand. Again, nobody knew what the reaction would be from his former troops as they passed him. Much of Westmoreland`s reputation is in tatters now, all the more so since he dropped a multimillion-dollar libel suit against the Columbia Broadcasting System in February of last year. He had charged that CBS falsely accused him of deliberately doctoring enemy troop strengths, but his case was irreparably damaged by testimony from his own wartime subordinates that supported the network.
Indeed, if there was any controversy at all about the Chicago parade, it came from honoring Westmoreland as parade marshal. Many veterans are at least ambiguous about Westmoreland`s role in the war and his style of leadership, which seemed more managerial to them than warriorlike.
No matter. Most of the veterans marching in the parade weren`t aware that Westmoreland was present until they reached the reviewing stand. And when they did, invariably there was an undercurrent of amazement that passed through their ranks.
``Hey! Westy`s here!`` ``Look! It`s Westmoreland!`` ``The old man came!`` And invariably each unit, each clump of men and women, would stop in front of the reviewing stand to cheer the old general. Whatever their personal feelings about Westmoreland may have been, he has become such a lightning rod for criticism of his war--and their war--that a real sense of sympathy seems to have grown between him and his ex-troops.
Most of the units that stopped to salute Westmoreland lingered until the parade`s public-address announcer pleaded for them to move on, to keep the procession moving.
Move on it did. To the end of La Salle Street and around the corner, east on Jackson Boulevard to Grant Park, ending with a concert at the Petrillo band shell. Ironically, the parade route passed sites of some of the most intense antiwar battles and demonstrations during the Vietnam years. It passed the Dirksen Federal Building, site of the infamous ``Chicago Seven`` trial in which seven protest leaders stood accused in 1969 of conspiring to disrupt Chicago`s 1968 Democratic Convention. It ended in the park where protesters demanding an end to the war and expressing support for the communist Vietnamese cause fought pitched battles with Chicago police during the convention week in 1968.
No matter. A long time has passed since the streets of Chicago reverberated with the chant: ``Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! Ho Chi Minh is going to win!`` On parade day the streets reverberated only with welcome. The welcome followed the parade right into the park. The parade watchers, including thousands of office workers who gave up any pretense of returning to their jobs that day, stayed with the veterans, shaking their hands, buying them beers in the park.
How many people turned out to honor the veterans is difficult to pin down. The official estimate is 300,000, though it could have been more, given that it was a normal working day and so many Loop workers rushed back and forth from their jobs to see the parade in bits and pieces. It is even more difficult to establish why the parade provoked the emotional response that it did. If there were in fact 200,000 marchers and 300,000 observers, it must have been the most intimate gathering of half a million individuals in the history of the city.
To watch it on television was not enough. The four local stations that covered the parade live had set up their cameras as though it would be a conventional march, using lots of wide-angle shots to capture the panoply of crowds, bands and floats. The essence of the spectacle, however, was much narrower in focus. It was as if half a million individuals were caught up in singular private reveries and spontaneous one-on-one displays of emotion.
``There was such a spontaneity about the event,`` says Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University, ``such an all-pervasive feeling of friendliness, good will and unity. The only thing I can think of that ever happened before in this country that had the spirit of that day was Woodstock (the music festival).