MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 22

International Socialist Review, March–April 2002

H. Bruce Franklin

Vietnam: The antiwar movement
we are supposed to forget



From International Socialist Review, Issue 22, January–February 2002.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


VISUALIZE THE movement against the Vietnam War. What do you see? Hippies with daisies in their long, unwashed hair yelling “Baby killers!” as they spit on clean-cut, bemedaled veterans just back from Vietnam? College students in tattered jeans (their pockets bulging with credit cards) staging a sit-in to avoid the draft? A mob of chanting demonstrators burning an American flag (maybe with a bra or two thrown in)? That’s what we’re supposed to see, and that’s what Americans today probably do see–if they visualize the antiwar movement at all.

We are thus depriving ourselves–or are being deprived–of one legitimate source of great national pride about American culture and behavior during the war. In most wars, a nation dehumanizes and demonizes the people on the other side. Almost the opposite happened during the Vietnam War. Countless Americans came to see the people of Vietnam fighting against U.S. forces as anything but an enemy to be feared and hated. Tens of millions sympathized with their suffering, many came to identify with their 2,000-year struggle for independence, and some even found them an inspiration for their own lives.

But in the decades since the war’s official conclusion, American consciousness of the Vietnamese people, with all its potential for healing and redemption, has been deliberately and systematically obliterated. During the first few years after the war, while the White House and Congress were reneging on aid promised to Vietnam, they were not expressing the feelings of most Americans. For example, a New York Times/CBS News poll, published in July 1977, asked this question: “Suppose the President recommended giving assistance to Vietnam. Would you want your Congressman to approve giving Vietnam food or medicine?” Sixty-six percent said yes, 29 percent said no. Ironically, it was only after the war was over that demonization of the Vietnamese began to succeed. And soon those tens of millions of Americans who had fought against the war themselves became, as a corollary, a truly hateful enemy as envisioned by the dominant American culture.

The antiwar movement has been so thoroughly discredited that many of the people who were the movement now feel embarrassed or ashamed of their participation-even such prudent and peripheral participants as William Jefferson Clinton. One would never be able to guess from public discourse that for every American veteran of combat in Vietnam, there must be 20 veterans of the antiwar movement. And there seems to be almost total amnesia about the crucial role that many of those combat veterans played in the movement to stop the war.

When did Americans actually begin to oppose U.S. warfare against Vietnam? As soon as the first U.S. act of war was committed. And when was that? In 1965, when President Johnson ordered the Marines to land at Da Nang and began the nonstop bombing of North Vietnam? In 1964, when Johnson launched “retaliatory” bombing of North Vietnam after a series of covert U.S. air, sea, and land attacks? In 1963, when 19,000 U.S. combat troops were participating in the conflict and Washington arranged the overthrow of the puppet ruler it had installed in Saigon in 1954? In 1961, when President Kennedy began Operation Hades, a large-scale campaign of chemical warfare? In 1954, when U.S. combat teams organized covert warfare to support the man Washington had selected to rule South Vietnam? Americans did oppose all of those acts of war, but the first American opposition came as soon as Washington began warfare against the Vietnamese people by equipping and transporting a foreign army to invade their country – in 1945.

Those Americans who knew anything about Vietnam during World War II knew that the United States had been allied with the Viet Minh, the Vietnamese liberation movement led by Ho Chi Minh, and had actually provided some arms to their guerrilla forces, commanded by Vo Nguyen Giap. American fliers rescued by Giap’s guerrillas testified to the rural population’s enthusiasm for both the Viet Minh and the United States, which they saw as the champion of democracy, anti-fascism, and anti-imperialism. American officials and officers who had contact with Ho and the Viet Minh were virtually unanimous in their support and admiration. The admiration was mutual. In September 1945 the Viet Minh issued the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, which began with a long quotation from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, proclaiming the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The regional leaders of the OSS (predecessor of the CIA) and U.S. military forces joined in the celebration, with General Philip Gallagher, chief of the U.S. Military Advisory and Assistance Group, singing the Viet Minh’s national anthem on Hanoi radio.

But in the following two months, the United States committed its first act of warfare against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. At least eight and possibly twelve U.S. troopships were diverted from their task of bringing American troops home from World War II and instead began transporting U.S.-armed French troops and Foreign Legionnaires from France to re-colonize Vietnam. The enlisted crewmen of these ships, all members of the U.S. Merchant Marine, immediately began organized protests. On arriving in Vietnam, for example, the entire crews of four troopships met together in Saigon and drew up a resolution condemning the U.S. government for using American ships to transport troops “to subjugate the native population” of Vietnam.

The full-scale invasion of Vietnam by French forces, once again equipped and ferried by the United States, began in 1946. An American movement against the war started to coalesce as soon as significant numbers of Americans realized that Washington was supporting France’s war against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

The years when the United States was steadily escalating its military presence and combat role in Vietnam–1954 to 1963–were also years when fundamental critiques of U.S. foreign policy had become marginalized. Outspoken domestic opposition to Cold War assumptions had been eviscerated by the purges, witch-hunts, and everyday repression (misleadingly labeled “McCarthyism”) conducted under the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. The main targets of that repression had been carefully selected to include anyone in a position to communicate radically dissenting ideas to a large audience: teachers, union leaders, screenwriters, movie directors, radio and print journalists. So by the early 1960s, the aftershocks of that earlier political hammering, combined with the stifling of foreign-policy debate by “bipartisanship” between the two ruling political parties and the supersaturation of Cold War culture, had stripped the American people of any dissenting political consciousness or even a vocabulary capable of accurately describing the global political reality.

As the antiwar movement was becoming a mass movement, in 1965, it was fundamentally aimed at achieving peace through education, and it was based on what now seem incredibly naive assumptions about the causes and purposes of the war. We tend to forget that this phase of the antiwar movement began as an attempt to educate the government and the nation. Most of us opposed to the war in those relatively early days believed-and this is embarrassing to confess-that the government had somehow blundered into the war, maybe because our leaders were simply ignorant about Vietnamese history. Perhaps they didn’t remember the events of 1940 to 1954. Maybe they hadn’t read the Geneva Agreements. So if we had teach-ins and wrote letters to editors and Congress and the president, the government would say, “Gosh! We didn’t realize that Vietnam was a single nation. Did the Geneva Agreements really say that? And we had told Ho Chi Minh we’d probably support his claims for Vietnamese independence? Golly gee, we had better put a stop to this foolish war.”

Experience was the great teacher for those who were trying to teach, a lesson lost in the miasma of so-called theory that helped to paralyze activism in the 1990s. Teaching the Vietnam War during the 1960s and early 1970s meant giving speeches at teach-ins and rallies; getting on talk shows; writing pamphlets, articles, and books; painting banners, picket signs, and graffiti; circulating petitions and leaflets; coining slogans; marching; sitting in; demonstrating at army bases; lobbying Congress; testifying before war-crimes hearings and congressional investigations; researching corporate and university complicity; harboring deserters; organizing strikes; heckling generals and politicians; blocking induction centers and napalm plants; and going to prison for defying the draft. It is hard to convey the emotions that inspired those actions. Probably the most widely shared was outrage, a feeling that many came to consider outdated in the cool 1990s.

While the repression of the late 1940s and 1950s helped create the embarrassing naiveté and innocence of the early 1960s, these very qualities fueled the movement’s fervor. People believed that the government would respond to them because they believed in American democracy and rectitude. Then, when the government did respond–with disinformation and new waves of repression–the fervor turned to rage.

Back in December 1964, an obscure little organization called Students for a Democratic Society issued a call for people to go to Washington on April 17, 1965, to march against the war. Only a few thousand were expected. But when the march took place, it turned out to be the largest antiwar demonstration in Washington’s history so far–25,000 people, most neatly dressed in jackets and ties or skirts and dresses.

What seemed at the time very large demonstrations continued throughout 1965, with 15,000 marching in Berkeley on October 15, 20,000 marching in Manhattan the same day, and 25,000 marching again in Washington on November 27. Those early crowds would have been imperceptible amid such later protests as the April 1967 demonstration of 300,000 to 500,000 people in New York, or the half-million or more who converged on Washington in November 1969, and again in the spring of 1971. In the nationwide Moratorium, of October 15, 1969, millions of Americans-at least 10 times the half-million then stationed in Indochina-demonstrated against the war.

Demonstrations were one form of the attempt to go beyond mere words. Other forms appeared as early as 1965. Many of the activists were veterans of the civil rights movement, who now began to apply its use of civil disobedience and moral witness. That summer, the Vietnam Day Committee in northern California attempted to block munitions trains by lying on the tracks; hundreds of people were arrested for civil disobedience in Washington; and public burnings of draft cards began. Moral witness was taken to its ultimate by Norman Morrison, a 32-year-old Quaker who drenched himself with gasoline and set himself on fire outside the Pentagon; the pacifist Roger La Porte, who immolated himself at the United Nations; and 82-year-old Alice Herz, who burned herself to death in Detroit to protest against the war. By 1971, civil disobedience was so widespread that the number arrested in that spring’s demonstration in Washington–14,000–would have been considered a good-size march in 1965.

Whether the majority of Americans at any point supported the government’s policies in Vietnam (or even knew what they were) is a matter of debate. Certainly most Americans never supported the war strongly enough to agree to pay for it with increased taxes, or even to demonstrate for it in significant numbers, much less to go willingly to fight in it. Nor were they ever willing to vote for any national candidate who pledged to fight until “victory.” In fact, except for Barry Goldwater in 1964, every nominee for president of both major parties after the 1960 elections through the end of the war ran as some kind of self-professed peace candidate.

Who opposed the war? Contrary to the impression promulgated by the media then, and overwhelmingly prevalent today, opposition to the war was not concentrated among affluent college students. In fact, opposition to the war was inversely proportional to both wealth and education. Blue-collar workers generally considered themselves “doves” and tended to favor withdrawal from Vietnam, while those who considered themselves “hawks” and supported participation in the war were concentrated among the college-educated, high-income strata.

For example, a Gallup poll in January 1971 showed that 60 percent of those with a college education favored withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, 75 percent of those with a high-school education favored withdrawal, and 80 percent of those with only a grade-school education favored withdrawal. In Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen reports a revealing experiment he conducted repeatedly in the 1990s. When he asked audiences to estimate the educational level of those who favored U.S. withdrawal back in 1971, by an almost 10-to-1 margin they believed that college-educated people were the most antiwar. In fact, they estimated that 90 percent of those with a college education favored withdrawal, scaling down to 60 percent of those with a grade-school education.

Opposition to the war was especially intense among people of color, though they tended not to participate heavily in the demonstrations called by student and pacifist organizations. One reason for their caution was that people of color often had to pay a heavy price for protesting the war. For speaking out in 1966 against drafting Black men to fight in Vietnam, Julian Bond was denied his seat in the Georgia legislature. Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title as heavyweight boxing champion and was criminally prosecuted for draft resistance. When 25,000 Mexican Americans staged the Chicano Moratorium, the largest antiwar demonstration held in Los Angeles, police officers attacked not just with clubs, but with guns, killing three people, including the popular television news director and Los Angeles Times reporter Rubén Salazar.

Certainly the campus antiwar movement was spectacular. The teach-ins in the spring of 1965 swept hundreds of campuses and involved probably hundreds of thousands of students. By the late 1960s, millions of students were intermittently involved in antiwar activities, ranging from petitions and candlelight marches to burning down ROTC buildings and going to prison for draft resistance. In May 1970, the invasion of Cambodia was met by the largest student-protest movement in American history, a strike that led to the shutdown of hundreds of campuses and the gunning down of students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio (where four were killed and nine wounded) and by state troopers at Jackson State College in Mississippi (where two were killed and at least twelve wounded).

There are three principal misconceptions about the college antiwar movement. First, it was not motivated by students’ selfish desire to avoid the draft, which was relatively easy for most college men to do and automatic for women. In fact, one of the earliest militant activities on campus was physical disruption of the Selective Service tests that were the basis of draft deferments for college students; the student demonstrators thus jeopardized their own deferments in protesting against them as privileges that were unfair to young men unable to attend college. (The demonstrators also risked punishment by the college authorities and, sometimes, physical attacks by men taking the tests.) Second, most college students were not affluent (indeed, most came from the working class), and some of the largest and most militant demonstrations were at public universities that could hardly be labeled sanctuaries of the rich, like Kent State, San Francisco State, and the state universities of Michigan, Maryland, and Wisconsin. Third, although college antiwar activism did hamper those in Washington who were trying to conduct the war without hindrance, the most decisive opposition to the war came ultimately not from the campuses but from within the cities and the Army itself.

To understand the antiwar movement, one must perceive its relationship with that other powerful mass movement hamstringing the Pentagon: the uprising of the African American people.

The African American movement had been helping to energize the antiwar movement since at least 1965, when a number of leading Black activists and organizations condemned the war as an assault on another people of color while articulating an anti-imperialist consciousness that would not be common in the broader antiwar movement until 1968. In January 1965, the month before he was assassinated, Malcolm X denounced the Vietnam War, placed Africans and African Americans on the same side as “those little rice farmers” who had defeated French colonialism, and predicted a similar defeat for “Sam.” That July, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party called on African Americans not to participate in the Vietnam War and implied that their war was closer to home: “No one has a right to ask us to risk our lives and kill other Colored People in Santo Domingo and Vietnam, so that the White American can get richer. We will be looked upon as traitors by all the Colored People of the world if the Negro people continue to fight and die without a cause.” In January 1966, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee explained why it was taking a stand against the Vietnam War: “We believe the United States government has been deceptive in claims of concern for the freedom of the Vietnamese people, just as the government has been deceptive in claiming concern for the freedom of the colored people in such other countries as the Dominican Republic, the Congo, South Africa, Rhodesia, and in the United States itself.” Stokely Carmichael was the main speaker at the first rally against napalm, in 1966. In 1968, dozens of Black soldiers, many of them Vietnam veterans, were arrested and court-martialed for refusing to mobilize against antiwar demonstrators outside the Chicago Amphitheater during the Democratic National Convention.

What made the convergence of the Black and antiwar movements explosively dangerous for those trying to maintain order and sustain the war was the disintegrating and volatile situation within the armed forces, as pointed out by an alarming article published in the January 1970 Naval War College Review. Very little awareness of resistance to the war inside the military survives today. But without this awareness, it is impossible to understand not just the antiwar movement, but also the military history of the war from 1968 to 1973, not to mention the end of the draft and the creation of a permanent “volunteer” army to fight America’s subsequent wars. To begin to get some sense of the relative scale and effects of civilian and active-duty war resistance, compare the widely publicized activity of draft avoidance with some little-known facts about desertion (a serious military crime, defined by being away without leave for more than 30 days and having the intention never to return). Although draft evasion and refusal certainly posed problems for the war effort, desertion was much more common and far more threatening.

The number of draft evaders and resisters was dwarfed by the number of deserters from the active-duty armed forces. During the 1971 fiscal year alone, 98,324 servicemen deserted, an astonishing rate of 142.2 for every 1,000 men on duty. Revealing statistics flashed to light briefly as President Ford was pondering the amnesty he declared in September 1974 (at the same time he also pardoned ex-President Nixon for all federal crimes he may have committed while in office). According to the Department of Defense, there were 503,926 “incidents of desertion” between July 1, 1966, and December 31, 1973. From 1963 through 1973 (a period almost half again as long), only 13,518 men were prosecuted for draft evasion or resistance. The admitted total of deserters still officially “at large” at the time was 28,661–six and a half times the 4,400 draft evaders or resisters still “at large.” These numbers only begin to tell the story.

Thousands of veterans who had fought in Vietnam moved to the forefront of the antiwar movement after they returned to the United States, and they–together with thousands of active-duty GIs–soon began to play a crucial role in the domestic movement. Dozens of teach-ins on college campuses were led by Vietnam veterans, who spoke at hundreds of rallies. More and more demonstrations were led by large contingents of veterans and active-duty servicepeople, who often participated under risk of grave punishment. The vanguard of that Washington demonstration by half a million people in the spring of 1971 was a contingent of a thousand Vietnam veterans, many in wheelchairs and on crutches, who then conducted “a limited incursion into the country of Congress,” which they called Dewey Canyon III (Dewey Canyon I was a 1969 covert “incursion” into Laos; Dewey Canyon II was the disastrous February 1971 invasion of Laos). About 800 marched up to a barricade hastily erected to keep them away from the Capitol and hurled back their Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, Silver Stars, and campaign ribbons at the government that had bestowed them.

The antiwar movement initiated back in 1945 by those hundreds of merchant seamen protesting U.S. participation in the French attempt to reconquer Vietnam was thus consummated in a movement of tens of millions of ordinary American citizens spearheaded by soldiers, sailors, fliers, and veterans, which finally ended the war with a recognition that Vietnam could be neither divided nor conquered by the United States.

No, it was not Vietnam but the United States that ended up divided by America’s war. And the division cut even deeper than the armed forces, biting down into the core of the secret government itself. When members of the intelligence establishment joined the antiwar movement, they had the potential to inflict even greater damage than mutinous soldiers and sailors. The perfidy of the Central Intelligence Agency in Vietnam was revealed by one of its highest-level agents in South Vietnam, Ralph McGehee, author of Deadly Deceits: My Twenty-Five Years in the CIA. Philip Agee decided in 1971 to publish what eventually became Inside the Company: CIA Diary because of “the continuation of the Vietnam war and the Vietnamization programme,” writing, “Now more than ever exposure of CIA methods could help American people understand how we got into Vietnam and how our other Vietnams are germinating wherever the CIA is at work.” In that same year, two of the authors of the Pentagon’s own supersecret history of the war, Anthony Russo and Daniel Ellsberg, exposed it to the American people and the world.

Interviewed three years after the release of the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg outlined the history of the Vietnam War by tracing the “lies” told by Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. “The American public was lied to month by month by each of these five administrations,” he declared. And then he added, “It’s a tribute to the American public that their leaders perceived they had to be lied to.”

The end of the war did not end the lies. Since then, both the war and the antiwar movement have been falsified so grossly that we risk forfeiting the most valuable knowledge we gained at such great cost to the peoples of Southeast Asia and to ourselves. Nor can we understand what America is becoming if we fail to comprehend how the same nation and its culture could have produced an abomination as shameful as the Vietnam War and a campaign as admirable as the 30-year movement that helped defeat it.

H. Bruce Franklin is a professor of English and American Studies at Rutgers University. He is the author of numerous books on American history and literature, including The Vietnam War in American Stories, Songs & Poems (Bedford/St. Martin’s Press). This article is excerpted from Vietnam and Other American Fantasies (University of Massachusetts Press); originally reprinted in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Copyright H. Bruce Franklin, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Last updated on 11 August 2022