Operation Bent Penny at 1971 May Day Protest

By Charles H. Lutz
8/24/2011 • Richard Nixon, Vietnam Point of View, Vietnam War

Ordered to leave guns, IDs and badges, Charles Lutz and some 200 other Federal drug agents carried only a bent penny to prove their identity as they infiltrated the May Day antiwar protest in 1971. (Objects courtesy of Charles Lutz)
Ordered to leave guns, IDs and badges, Charles Lutz and some 200 other Federal drug agents carried only a bent penny to prove their identity as they infiltrated the May Day antiwar protest in 1971. (Objects courtesy of Charles Lutz)

Our only ID was a bent penny given to us by the Metropolitan Police. "With this penny, the police will know you’re a drug enforcement agent, not a protestor."

Washington’s National Mall was crawling with Vietnam War protesters on the first weekend of May 1971. The assemblage of long hair beards and braids made it look like a convention of hippies. My orders were to fit in with the “flower children,” so I dressed in jeans and a bright yellow flowered shirt. But I couldn’t do anything about my Beatles-style, collar-length hair—long by normal standards, but short in comparison to most of the demonstrators. And at 6-foot-2, and in pretty good shape, I had a nagging feeling I wasn’t going to fool anybody. I rationalized that I was just experiencing the normal paranoia of working undercover. But to make matters worse, I had to go in unarmed—a bent penny my only Federal identification.

In the spring of 1971, antiwar sentiment was running high in the nation’s capital, both in the halls of Congress and on the streets. On March 1, the increasingly militant Weather Underground had detonated a bomb in a Capitol Building restroom in retaliation for expanded military action into Laos. Meanwhile, at the end of March, a military tribunal found Army 2nd Lt. William Calley guilty of premeditated murder in the killing of innocent civilians in the village of My Lai. 

During the third week in April, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee William Fulbright opened what was to become the last of his many hearings on the Vietnam War. On April 22, Vietnam veteran and future Massachusetts Senator John Kerry testified in the hearings. Claiming to represent hundreds of like-minded veterans, he accused the U.S. military of committing war atrocities. The next day Kerry and some 800 members of his organization, Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), dramatically threw down their Vietnam service medals and ribbons onto the Capitol steps.

Along with the VVAW, a number of disparate antiwar groups coordinated weeks of demonstrations to coincide with Fulbright’s hearings, bringing hundreds of thousands of protestors to Washington. Mass arrests did not seem to discourage them, and their show of commitment to end the war was to culminate with “May Day” civil disobedience that organizers promised would shut down the government.

President Richard Nixon was determined to prevent that from happening, leading to a White House secret plan to undermine the demonstrations by proving, with the help of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), that the organizers were violating the terms of their special events permits, allowing for their revocation—and thus the removal of protestors before their planned day of action on May 3.

I was a new BNDD Special Agent, barely out of basic training. I had joined the Bureau because it was the only law enforcement agency at the time with an operational program overseas. Having had a taste of the inscrutable Orient during my year as an adviser in Vietnam, I thought I’d found my calling. Joining the BNDD was an opportunity to fulfill both of my career goals: to be a law enforcement criminal investigator, and to work overseas.

Three years earlier, in June 1968, I flew into Saigon as a newly minted Army second lieutenant, commissioned through ROTC six months earlier after graduating from the Pennsylvania State University. After Infantry Officer Basic Course at Ft. Benning and Intelligence Staff Officer training at Ft. Holabird, Md., I arrived in Vietnam on the heels of the Tet Offensive. After months of tedium as a staff officer for Operation Hurricane waiting for a second offensive against Saigon, and as property book officer and acting S-4 for the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion at Long Binh, I maneuvered a transfer to the field as an adviser to the G-2 of the 18th Army of the Republic of Vietnam Infantry Division at Xuan Loc. I had done my time as a “Saigon Warrior” and finally had the chance to do the work I was trained to do—and to see what the other side of the war was all about.

My boss at BNDD, Group Supervisor Dick Johnson, had called an “all hands” meeting of special agents in the Philadelphia office on Friday, April 30. Those of us who could be rounded up on that sunny spring afternoon sat solemnly in a stuffy, smoke-filled conference room. No one wanted to be there, including Johnson.

As an adviser at Xuan Loc, Lutz leads a VC off a chopper for interrogation. (Courtesy of Charles Lutz)
As an adviser at Xuan Loc, Lutz leads a VC off a chopper for interrogation. (Courtesy of Charles Lutz)
“We’ve been ordered to confirm drug use during Vietnam War protests in Washington tomorrow,” Johnson began. “Our observations will be used as the basis for revoking their special event permits.”

That didn’t seem like a bad idea. I was one of a few Vietnam vets in the office, but the demonstrations were nothing personal with me. I’d done my part in the war, was proud of it, and had moved on. But in general there was no love lost for antiwar activists among law enforcers, most of whom considered protestors engaging in acts of disobedience—civil or otherwise—to simply be law breakers.

“Dress to fit in with the young, hippie crowd.” Johnson added. “And don’t take your guns, badges and credentials with you. Anything that can identify you as a law enforcement officer, leave it behind.” It was clear that they didn’t want us making arrests at the demonstration, but traveling there unarmed and without identification was unprecedented—and troubling. Agent Joe Braddock, a former Philly cop and former Marine, almost started a rebellion by saying, “If my badge and gun don’t go, I don’t go!”

Johnson told us not to worry, that we’d all receive special identification when we reported to the State Department the next day. “And to get through security, tell the guards you’re there for the ‘Bishop’s Meeting.’” I perked up a bit at that “cloak and dagger” facet of the operation.

As some 200 BNDD agents from throughout the mid-Atlantic region trickled into the State Department auditorium Saturday afternoon, the furtive luster dimmed as a Mr. Bishop from the White House, dressed in a dark blue suit, white shirt and red tie, walked to the microphone and called for attention. “We have an estimated 200,000 demonstrators on the Mall. We expect a lot of drug use tonight. So we brought in you drug experts to document it. No arrests. Just mingle with the crowd and observe.”

As he paused, murmurs spread across the auditorium. Bishop raised a hand to quiet us down and continued. “The Metropolitan Police are going to move in and disperse the demonstrators early Sunday morning. Encourage them to leave. Then go back to BNDD headquarters and document your observations.”

At that, a tall, high-ranking Metropolitan Police officer in full-dress uniform stepped up to the microphone. “When you see people selling or using drugs don’t try to arrest them. Find a uniformed police officer and point them out. And show this,” he said, holding up a penny. “With this bent penny, the police will know you’re an agent and not a protestor.” I lined up to get my 1970 bent penny.

During the past week, the demonstrations had been centered at the Capitol and Supreme Court. The protest organizers were now gearing up for what would be the main event come Monday, May 3, when they would fan out across the Federal District to disrupt traffic, create chaos and, they hoped, shut down the government. Tens of thousands were camping out in West Potomac Park adjacent to the Mall, and on Saturday evening, concerts were slated at the open-air Sylvan Theater near the Washington Monument.

It didn’t take more than a few minutes on the Mall to observe enough illegal drug use to fill a police blotter. Drugs were everywhere. The White House certainly didn’t have to bring in hundreds of federal narcotics agents to determine that illegal drugs were being used, I thought. A couple of Justice Department clerks could have accomplished the same thing.

But if the White House wanted undercover agents with the expertise to infiltrate these demonstrators, they had picked the right organization. The BNDD wasn’t made up of stereotypical Irish-looking cops. It was among the first federal law enforcement agencies to hire agents in all shapes, sizes and colors. No matter if a case involved Italian organized crime mobsters, black Harlem gangsters, Asian Triads or Miami cocaine cowboys, we had agents who could infiltrate them. Young, pot-smoking hippies were no exception.

As I crossed Constitution Avenue toward the Lincoln Memorial and stepped onto the Mall, I was enveloped by the massive crowd like a stone dropped in a lake. I meandered along the reflecting pool toward the Washington Monument, taking it all in. Trash was strewn everywhere and the odor of marijuana permeated the air. Just as I was thinking how disrespectful this all was—on America’s front yard where some of our greatest war heroes are memorialized—someone suddenly tapped me on the shoulder.

My reflexes took over. I ducked, turned and grabbed the offending hand. It belonged to a scraggily, wide-eyed teenager wearing a cardboard peace symbol tied by a string around his neck, and a silly grin on his face. “Hey man, want a drag?” he said nervously, gesturing with the joint of marijuana cupped in his free hand. “No thanks,” I said, and walked on. I couldn’t believe anyone would be that blatant.

I had watched on TV the massive and angry demonstrations that had swept the nation after Cambodia and Kent State in 1970. I was expecting the same vitriol, vandalism and violence. But it didn’t take me long to figure out what was going on. This is no angry mob, I thought. It isn’t so much an antiwar demonstration as a party. It’s a “happening.” Woodstock on the Mall.

All afternoon I navigated around bedrolls and pup tents cluttering the landscape. College-aged kids sat in small groups, their protest signs propped against trees. An occasional shout or chant could be heard, but they were mostly preoccupied with strumming guitars and singing folk music while jugs of wine and marijuana cigarettes circulated among them.

It wasn’t just pot and wine. Organizers warned over the public address system that some “bad LSD” was being passed around and that first-aid stations were prepared to treat all types of drug overdoses. As the afternoon wore on, the announcements became more desperate. One said: “A small boy has been found wandering alone. Would his parents please come to claim him?” Another pleaded, “Can someone please come to first-aid station three to identify a man who doesn’t know who he is?”

This was a milieu very unfamiliar to me. I was a federal drug agent trained to investigate interstate and international drug trafficking by hardened criminals. Many in the drug hierarchy don’t even use drugs, and don’t trust anyone who does. For them it’s a business. So I wasn’t prepared for this—drug use up close and personal. And it seemed the higher the crowd got, the more open the usage became.

I hooked up with other agents from the Philadelphia office from time to time, and with a few of those whom I had graduated with from basic agent training school. But I mostly worked alone, wandering around the Mall making my mental observations.

While it was mostly a laid-back affair, there were still some confrontations between protestors and police, and frequently between our agents and the police. Many quickly learned the bent pennies were practically useless. Philadelphia agent Mike Horn had been walking back to the Mall when two uniformed police officers sitting in a patrol car called him over. Mike pulled out his bent penny. The cops stared at him. “What are you, a wise guy, defacing American currency?” one of the cops smirked before letting Mike go.

Joe Braddock, who had complained about the order to not carry a badge, was at the wrong place at the wrong time and was rounded up by police on the Mall that night along with dozens of drunken and unruly protestors, and was about to be bused to RFK Stadium for processing. He showed the cops his bent penny. After receiving a puzzled reaction, Joe flashed the BNDD badge that he wasn’t supposed to have with him and they let him go.

Tunes by Janis Joplin, Rod Stewart, Three Dog Night, and Peter, Paul and Mary created a cacophony of noise from hundreds of radios and tape players. At one point, a long conga line snaked through the crowd to the chant of “One, two, three, four; we don’t want your fucking war!” As I took a closer look, I laughed for the first time that day. Two BNDD agents were leading the line!

As day slipped into night, bands took to the stage and blasted rock and folk music over huge speakers placed across the Mall. Most of the protestors sang along or danced. But many of the “love children” practiced what they preached. Some in pup tents, others under blankets or in sleeping bags under the stars gyrated in not-so-discreet fornication, much of it in sync with the music. The Washington Post reported the next day that the demonstration lacked the fervency of previous antiwar protests and, in the end, turned into a “gigantic pajama party.”

Once the bands packed up, quiet overtook the Mall and the bonfires fueled by trash to take the chill out of the cool night air were left to smolder. The repugnant smoke mixed with reeking fumes from overflowing port-a-potties, creating an almost unbearable stench. I dozed off for the night on an “up wind” park bench.

At first light on Sunday morning, I was startled awake by an eerie but familiar sound, and for an instant I thought I was back in Vietnam. The whooping rotor blades of Huey helicopters reverberated through the Federal District, and as I shook off sleep I watched as busloads of police in riot gear lined up behind the Sylvan Theater. A dozen mounted policemen with helmets and shields reined in prancing horses nearby like gladiators preparing for battle. I could see more cops assembling at other locations along the Mall. The White House plan to scuttle the protest was underway. Suddenly, announcements started blaring over a loudspeaker mounted on a roving police vehicle: “Your permits have been canceled. You must vacate the Mall by noon.”

In the shadow of the Washington Monument, protestors jumped from under blankets and ponchos. Men and women relieved themselves on the lawn, some completely naked, either too groggy or too scared to hunt down a portable john. They didn’t seem to need much coaxing to disperse. They threw on clothes, stepped into sandals, packed meager belongings into knapsacks and were gone, leaving behind a thoroughly trashed National Mall.

It was too early to find a coffee shop open so I made my way to the BNDD gymnasium located across an alley from the headquarters building on I Street, NW. With other yawning, bleary-eyed narcotics agents, I sat on the wooden floor and scribbled my findings on official investigative report forms. Even though the special event permits had already been rescinded, the reports might prove useful and provide legal cover to the administration in the event of a court challenge to the police actions.

The crowds dispersed, seriously depleting the numbers organizers hoped to have to attempt to shut down the city the next day. Though there were minor disruptions and some more confrontations, the White House had succeeded in foiling the demonstrators’ plan. The next day’s action was largely considered a bust.

Arguably, Richard Nixon did more for drug law enforcement than any other president. He signed the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 that is still the law of the land, and he doubled the number of federal agents to enforce it. He created the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE) to combat the heroin epidemic in urban America, then folded ODALE and other agencies with overlapping drug jurisdiction into BNDD to create the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973 that remains the premier single-mission drug investigative agency in the nation, and respected around the world.

But Nixon infuriated the hierarchy of DEA’s predecessor agency on occasion. He once famously demanded a BNDD badge for presentation to a black-caped Elvis Presley in an Oval Office ceremony. Anti-drug crusader Presley became the only non-agent ever awarded one—at a time when he was rumored to be abusing prescription drugs.

While the Elvis incident became a well-known example of Nixon’s excesses, the more serious presidential order for a reluctant BNDD leadership to launch a secret undercover operation against Vietnam War protestors 40 years ago remains virtually unknown. “It was not something BNDD headquarters had thought to do,” recalled Bob Nickoloff, Philadelphia’s Deputy Regional Director at the time. “It wasn’t necessarily inappropriate—certainly within the law. And there was nothing to preclude us from doing it. But it was a waste of a weekend.”

Among many agents, the operation was viewed as a waste of manpower and money as well. Philadelphia agent Pete Davis put it succinctly: “We had more important things to do.”

Many will no doubt see this as yet another one of Nixon’s abuses of power, or at least a precursor of things to come. Indeed, within three months Nixon created the covert White House “Plumbers” unit to burglarize Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. Operation Bent Penny certainly is a footnote to the legacy of abuses of power for which Nixon would be forced to resign in 1974.

But for a young drug agent, that day in May was a rude awakening—an intimate glimpse into the prevalence of drug abuse by my generation. Drug abuse by some of our soldiers in Vietnam had been well publicized, and now I had seen blatant drug abuse among the Vietnam War protestors. Unfortunately, it may have been the one thing these two groups had in common.

After serving with the 525th Military Intelligence Group in Saigon, and Advisory Team 87 at Xuan Loc, Charles Lutz spent 32 years as a federal narcotics agent, eight of them in Southeast Asia. In the mid-1990s, Lutz made 11 trips to Vietnam to lay the groundwork for what is now a DEA office at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi.

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