Competing Visions of Peace in a Nation at War: Speaking Out at the National Christmas Tree Lighting, 1971

On December 16, 1971, two crowds gathered on the Ellipse behind the White House in Washington, D.C., to promote a holiday season often connected to images of peace between nations and peoples. 


The 1971 National Christmas Tree. Photograph taken by Jim Aycock, Department of the Interior

The first crowd, embracing unseasonably warm weather that day, flocked to watch Vice President Spiro T. Agnew light the National Christmas Tree.  Guests of the Christmas Pageant of Peace listened to speeches by Secretary of the Interior Roger Morton, Campfire Girl Bryna Selig, Boy Scout Peter Geddon, and North Carolina’s Governor Robert Scott. Reverend James Kalaris of the Greek Orthodox Church also provided the crowd with a non-denominational prayer filled with hope, peace, and love. The Vice President, standing in for President Richard Nixon who was spending Christmas at his waterfront home in Key Biscayne, Florida, addressed the audience with a speech about the 63-foot Fraser fir tree and its representation of resilience during times of adversity as it had survived forty years and a North Carolinian forest fire.  He spoke about the Christian faith’s celebration of the birth of Jesus and the spirit of peace that the holiday represented. Highlighting the First Amendment, Vice President Agnew called for a season of sharing and kindness toward those whose lives felt hardships,especially the prisoners of war and soldiers deemed missing in action in Southeast Asia.  As the country faced its eighth year of conflict, many soldiers were again separated from their families over the holidays.  In recognition of the United States soldiers who had become Prisoners of War (POWs) or were declared Missing in Action (MIA), a 57th tree had been erected on the Pathway of Peace and stood in front of the National Christmas Tree. [1]

Vice President Agnew pressing the button to light the tree with seven-year-old Gary Morris, a child in the crowd.  Photograph taken by Jim Aycock, Department of the Interior

Meanwhile, another crowd had gathered near the lawn of the Ellipse lawn.  Anti-war demonstrators assembled to protest the United States’ involvement in Southeast Asia and decry the ongoing war which the United States had escalated in 1963.  As the Vice President made his speech,demonstrators, including members of the Vietnam Veterans against the War group,chanted “Peace Now!” interrupting the formal ceremonies.  The “Women Strike for Peace” group were to also have had a display in the area, but they were unable to coordinate their efforts in time for the tree lighting. [2]

Not the first time that protesters had voiced their concerns at the National Pageant of Peace, in 1969, protesters gathered at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony.  As President Richard Nixon orated on a “peace we can live with, and a peace we can be proud of” [3], anti-war protesters cried out ‘Peace now’ “outside a snow fence barricade erected some 50 yards from the speakers chants.” [3] The President did not waver in his speech, but merely increased the volume of his voice. When protests were repeated two years later, The Baltimore Sun characterized “Mr. Agnew and some scruffy veterans [as] the main characters in a ‘Pageant of Peace.’” [4] Despite the interruptions to his speech in 1971, Vice President Agnew presided over the following years’ national Christmas tree lighting and Pageant of Peace.

Recordings from the late 1960s and early 1970s reveal the tensions of democratic dissent, at a time when anti-war protests were heard throughout the year and critiques of federal policy were not suspended during the holiday season. Currently, researchers can search the University of Maryland’s digital collections in order to locate metadata corresponding to approximately 170 of the total 1,350 audio recordings in the Spiro T. Agnew papers. Visitors to the campus in College Park, Maryland, may listen to this selection of digitized recordings, including the speech of the Vice President, and, unintentionally, an aural record of the protesters at the 1971 National Christmas Tree lighting. Remote researchers may make a request to obtain digital copies of particular recordings by sending a request to askhornbake@umd.edu.

Cover of audio reel containing Vice President Spiro T. Agnew’s speech at the Tree Lighting Ceremony. Spiro T. Agnew papers, Hornbake Library, University of Maryland. Photograph taken by Jennifer Piegols

Thanks to a generous “Recordings at Risk”grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), received by the Maryland and Historical Collections department in September 2018, the University of Maryland libraries’ Special Collections is currently in the process of digitizing and making publicly accessible 559 more audio reels and cassette tapes featuring Spiro T. Agnew’s speeches and news interviews, as well as a number of constituent-made recordings. More information about the CLIR grant program, made possible by funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is available at https://www.clir.org/recordings-at-risk/funded-projects/.


[1] The Pathway of Peace,established in 1954, now consists of 56 living evergreen trees representing the 50 states, 5 territories, and the District of Columbia.  The trees circle the National Christmas Tree,a harvested conifer. (“National Christmas Tree(United States),” Wikipedia, accessed December 11, 2018, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Christmas_Tree_(United_States)).

[2] The Vietnam Veterans Against the War is still an active group today fighting for“peace, justice, and the rights of all veterans.” (Vietnam Veterans Against the War, accessed December 11, 2018, at http://www.vvaw.org/)

[3] Philip D. Carter, (1969), “Nixon Lights National Tree, Ignores Protest in Crowd.” The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973). ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post,pg. A2. Retrieved on December 11, 2018, from https://search.proquest.com/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143700217/C14F402F3C21482CPQ/1?accountid=14696.

[4]Ernest B. Furgurson, (1971), “On Lighting the Christmas Tree.” The Sun(1873-1993). ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Baltimore Sun, pg. A12. Retrieved on December 11, 2018, from https://search.proquest.com/hnpbaltimoresun/docview/536331591/60D9A7A092CE484DPQ/1?accountid=14696


Jennifer Piegols (University of Maryland, Class of 2019), Special Collections Student Assistant.  Jen Piegols is a second year MLIS student in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland.  She works in the State of Maryland and Historical Collections at UMD’s Special Collections and University Archives,and is assisting with the digitization of the collections’ unique audio recordings.

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