This weekend, hundreds of thousands of Vietnam vets on motorcycles will rumble into the Washington area for the 18th annual Rolling Thunder Ride for Freedom, to highlight the plight of their fellow soldiers still missing in Southeast Asia. Rolling Thunder has grown steadily in popularity over the years, attracting more and more younger and less politically oriented riders, joining in for reasons far from what the organizers would expect and ultimately diluting the protest nature of the ride. In the end, could Rolling Thunder's popularity be its downfall?
That's a familiar sound to Washingtonians every Memorial Day weekend as hundreds of thousands of motorcycles wind their way through the city, from the Pentagon to the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, as part of the annual Rolling Thunder Ride for Freedom. Vietnam vets come to DC from all over to the country to bring attention to the issue of still missing POW's and MIA's. But at last year's Rolling Thunder, not everyone was riding for the cause.
“I'm just down here for the bike event,” says Joe Bell. “It's my first time here and I'm really enjoying it, something different. I've seen on TV for years and I've been wanting to come here and finally I bought a bike and it's my first time and I'm really enjoying it.”
Joe Bell rode in from Waldorf, Maryland with his friend Andy Parker who also had a different reason for being there.
“Purely for the motorcycle part of it. Whilst I respect the prisoner of war, missing in action side of it, this is, for me, it's just a motorcycle thing. I'm sure there's a few people like me that are here just for the bike side of things,” he adds.
Rolling Thunder's been attracting those younger riders, many with no connection at all to the Vietnam War, just as the aging population of Vietnam vets is getting less likely to make the cross country motorcycle trip. But as far as the organizers are concerned, that hasn't changed Rolling Thunder's POW, MIA focus.
“It is a protest, it is a demonstration. It is not a parade or a rally, it is really a protest to tell the government they, they have not done enough on this issue. You don't bring thousands and thousands of bikes into town just to say ‘hi.’ You're there for reason,” notes Artie Muller is Rolling Thunder's founder and executive director.
He says he's not worried about the ride's changing demographics.
“Yeah, we do get some that come there, they don't know why they're there, all they know is there's a big ride in DC, so they come and you know what? Hopefully we educate,” he explains. “If we educate half of the ones that come that didn't know why we were there we gain some…and hopefully they'll come back for the right reason next year. And they'll maybe tell other people what went on there, why we've been there, what we were there for.”
But according to Georgetown University history professor, Michael Kazin, any political movement will soften over time.
“There's a kind of a rule, perhaps, of demonstrations and of movements, that the larger the movement gets, the less edge it has, the less charged it is, the less of a passionate protest it becomes, because, after all, most people are not that political in their lives and motorcyclists don't have that many occasions to turn out and see 500,000 other motorcyclists,” explains Mr. Kazin.
And Rolling Thunder has changed a lot over the years, both officially and unofficially. The first year was actually supposed to be a march, but 2,500 motorcycles showed up along with 5,000 marchers. The next year bikers outnumbered the marchers, and by the 4th Rolling Thunder, they had completely dropped the idea of a march. And now for many of the riders, veterans and non-veterans alike, Rolling Thunder has become bigger than just a Vietnam protest ride, it's annual Memorial Day tribute.
Rider 1: “It's for all of the people who served. It could be even the Civil War men, it's for whoever served, I'm here to show my support and respect for them.”
Rider 2: “I was not in Vietnam. As a matter of fact I don't even know anybody who died there, that I'm aware of. It's a representation really for me. This is how I can say thank you to vets who have died in Vietnam or in any other war. I think this is also a great demonstration for my children that patriotism is not something that goes away, and it's not something to be taken lightly.”
Vietnam War historian and George Washington University professor, Ronald Spector sees a day when rolling thunder may lose its Vietnam connection. But he doesn't think it will ever lose its memorial nature and become just another biker event, like Daytona, Florida's Annual Bike Week.
“Well I think… this is, if it isn't already, it's going to become a kind of patriotic ritual and maybe even a recreational event,” says Mr. Spector. “I guess you can envision a day when you have the one 96-year-old Vietnam vet who can still get onto his motorcycle and he's sort of surrounded by press photographers and he has a special place in the parade, and so on, but that's quite a ways off.”
Rolling Thunder founder Artie Muller, says he's ready for a younger generation of veterans to start taking over. But for him, the group's core POW and health care issues are still alive.
“If you think that we lost our bite, our bite's always there, we might be a little older, but we're certainly going to give them hell,” says Muller.