Memory and Silence: Carrying Vietnam Era Antiwar Lessons Forward

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Tom Hayden talked about the politics of memory at the “Vietnam: The Power of Protest” program at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. The former state senator and former Chicago Seven defendant referenced the forces that stand for denial and historic cleansing. He was talking about generational denial, but it seems that forgetting happens all the time, that our nation wipes out memories and lessons in increasingly shorter timeframes so that we forget what we learned last year, last month, not just 50 years ago at Selma, Seneca Falls, and Chicago.

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was denounced in the mainstream press such as the New York Times and the Washington Post for forgetting his place, for linking the civil rights movement to the opposition against the Vietnam War. Even within the civil rights movement, King garnered criticism that he was attracting unnecessary opposition, watering down his efforts, and should “stay in his lane.” In truth, King knew deeply that the war in Vietnam, which consumed tens of thousands of American young people, particularly Blacks and Latinos, for most of the war, was going to undermine progress on civil rights and social justice here at home.

Hayden, Heather Booth, and many others have made the point explicitly that it isn’t just American deaths that counted, but the three million Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians who died during the Indochinese wars. It’s like the war in Iraq: The U.S. press kept a running tabulation of the names of American and even “coalition” soldiers who were killed, but so often ignored the hundred times more Iraqis who died in combat or in civilian strife—and who continue to die today. In addition to Hayden’s concern for historical denial, he might also have talked about our national solipsism; today, the nation opposes American “boots on the ground,” but seems all too comfortable with more antiseptic campaigns waged through supporting and funding surrogate armies, dropping bombs from great heights, conducting warfare by drones controlled by computer room joysticks, and, as moderator Phil Donahue observed during the event, attacks that can be launched now as “signature strikes,” authorized by presidential signature.

The absence of the late Howard Zinn was palpable. Cora Weiss, an octogenarian still active in the peace movement, said that we have to teach peace in schools. Dave McReynolds, the radical pacifist from the 1960s antiwar movement, added that we have to teach “all” history—that is, the history that isn’t taught much or, often, at all. That was Zinn’s role in our society, and his passing in 2010 is still felt.

But that is the challenge of this program, whose brochure depicted on its cover an antiwar march led by Martin Luther King Jr. accompanied by Dr. Benjamin Spock. Like King, Spock was also told to stick to his childrearing advice business, and he did lose much public support by straying from his lane.

Hayden mentioned that politicians of that era were advised to steer clear of the peace movement, afraid of being seen as soft. Now, when leaders of both parties talk about American military muscle and exceptionalism, overcompensating for the disgraceful way the nation greeted the returning veterans of the Vietnam War, there is an odd sense of glorifying military service in Iraq and Afghanistan, as though that service truly kept Americans on the home front safe. In truth, the U.S. was never under threat from Saddam’s Iraq, and U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq has led to an escalation in international terrorism reflected in the various offshoots of Al Qaeda, including the Islamic State. That doesn’t dishonor the service of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but helps us to more correctly understand the U.S. role in these foreign military ventures. 

Something seems out of balance in the lessons of Vietnam, and part of that comes from realizing that, like the participants in this event, it’s the same people talking among themselves. We expected the event would be infused with young people eager to learn from the presence and words of Julian Bond, the SNCC organizer in those days who was elected to the Georgia state legislature and then denied his seat (most recently, he was the chair of the NAACP board), former Representative Ron Dellums who represented the East Bay of California and was a prominent antiwar voice in Congress, and Daniel Ellsberg, who expected a life sentence for his release of the Pentagon Papers. (Ellsberg told the wonderful story of his 10- and 13-year-old children in 1971 helping him photocopy the Pentagon papers, with his 10-year-old daughter cutting the words “Top Secret” off the pages.)

If Millennials and Gen X’ers had been at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, where 50 years ago Martin Luther King Jr. had spoken from the dais, what might they have learned to take back to their work today?

They might have discovered that the antiwar movement led to the creation of an infrastructure of organizations that continue to promote social change, recognizing that U.S. foreign policy issues are replete with domestic political implications. Among the people with peace movement roots who stood in the church ready to explain where they were today were founders and key staff of such organizations as the Food Research & Action Center and Families USA (Ron Pollack), the Campaign for America’s Future (Roger Hickey), and a social justice charter school in East Los Angeles (Roger Lowenstein). The values and motivations of the antiwar activists weren’t those of “serial entrepreneurs,” as is the fashion of today, but serial activists who saw sexism, racism, and militarism as mutually reinforcing and in need of consistent, concerted action.

The younger people, had they been here in numbers, might have noted that there wasn’t one large superstructure for the antiwar movement in the 1960s and the 1970s, but an infrastructure made up of many organizations around the country, both local groups and a few national ones. In the course of the two days of the “Lessons of Vietnam” program, it was clear that the antiwar movement comprised and has always comprised a variety of organizations, even if some might have wanted a more all-encompassing role. Among the organizations that were in (or involved in) the antiwar movement were the Institute for Policy Studies, which is still active, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Students for a Democratic Society, the Indochina Resource Center, Clergy and Laity Concerned, the War Resisters League, the American Friends Service Committee, and scores more. Oddly, despite the often prolonged and seemingly interminable meetings of the coalitions in which they functioned, they were able to act and get things done.

A third thing they might have gotten from their Vietnam era elders was the importance of protest and direct action. Daniel Ellsberg reminded the audience that President Nixon had been, unknown to the public, contemplating the use of nuclear weapons against North Vietnam, what he called the “November Ultimatum” slated for November 1969, but the October and November 1969 marches against the war, the Vietnam Moratorium, involving millions across the country, persuaded Nixon that this general strike–like protest meant that he wouldn’t be able to get the public support necessary for the first use of nuclear weapons since World War II. Most speakers were disinclined to suggest that the antiwar movement got the U.S. out of Vietnam, as opposed to being defeated with its puppet ARVN ally and having to make that awful departure from Saigon as North Vietnamese troops closed in. But the protests in the streets told Nixon that the support for continued military action wasn’t there.

Lawrence Korb, a former Defense Department analyst who was an active campaigner for a “peace dividend” as the war came to an end, pointed out something that, surprisingly, President Reagan figured out, but Nixon, George W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama seemed to forget. He said that after the barracks bombing in Lebanon in 1983, Reagan knew enough not to “double down.” It was a failure, so best to acknowledge that and not repeat it or make it worse by trying to prove the mistake something that it wasn’t. Doubling down to pretend that mistakes haven’t happened, that errors can be transformed into successes by doing them again—and more intensely—is the M.O. of much current public policy and, unfortunately, some of the work in the nonprofit sector.

Korb also raised another interesting point, returning to Hayden’s about memory. He asked how many of us were going to vote for candidates who had voted for the war in Iraq, even though a reading of the National Intelligence Estimate provided to Congress with public and secret information was enough to convince just about anyone that an invasion of Iraq wasn’t justified—or justifiable. Korb referred to current presidential candidates (at the moment, only one) who not only voted for the war but did so with the explanation that they didn’t bother to read the NIE, and asked whether the nation was going to ever hold them accountable for their votes. During the Vietnam era, accountability went the other way. When Oregon’s Wayne Morse and Alaska’s Ernest Gruening voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the only two in either house of Congress to do so, they lost their seats in the next election. If the public doesn’t hold politicians accountable for their actions in leading the nation to war, the message is sadly one of political immunity, even if the consequences are the lives of innocent civilians.

Something, therefore, has to be done about elections and the people we elect, and that comes back to the nonprofit sector, or more accurately the voluntary sector. Former representative Pat Schroeder talked about her experience in Colorado politics, noting the vast similarities of campaign materials of both Democrats and Republicans running for office: the family pictures, the beliefs in mother-and-apple-pie values and such, differentiated only at the end with a picture of the Democrat on a bicycle and the Republican on a horse. But that isn’t quite the entire story. When it comes to issues of war and peace, the candidates are pretty indistinguishable. Given the continuing 60-word blank check that Congress gave the White House after 9/11, as Rep. Barbara Lee noted, to wage war—the Authorization for Use of Military Force—which has been used repeatedly for undeclared wars by both Bush and now Obama, the failure of Congress whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans to undo the AUMF is telling. Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies suggested that the key is building powerful social movements that make politicians do the right thing. Bennis might be partly right, though her counterfactual notion that the Iraq war movement, particularly the protests held across the world in February of 2013, while failing to stop the Iraq war, served to prevent a certain war against Iran, is difficult to support. But a lot more attention has to be put into assessing what political candidates stand for—and have stood for—so that they aren’t let off the hook for their past actions and are held to account to do the right thing in the present and future.

There is a strain of counterfactual thinking that draws some veterans of the peace movement: Bennis’s on the prevention of war with Iran, and Hayden’s belief that had Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy not been assassinated, a viable, long-lasting social movement might have taken root and changed the direction of our country that we see today, among other potential scenarios. But the evidence of what did happen tells of the importance of direct action, protest, political organizing, get-out-the-vote, and movement building. The former Congressman Dellums took to the podium to make some points reflective of statements that Martin Luther King Jr. had made. Peace is not just the absence of conflict, he said, it is the presence of justice. He modified that to say that peace is not just the absence of war, but the absence of the conditions that lead to war. That means advocating not just to bring to an end what many referred to as the “failed experiment” of war, but working against the social inequities that lead to the tensions that end up as violent conflict and social and religious extremism.

Dellums was actually hopeful about the young people of America today. He said that today’s young people don’t carry the baggage that the 60-, 70-, and 80-year-olds sitting in the church at the event had to carry, the baggage of the myths about America’s history that historians like Howard Zinn and others have corrected in their books for today’s young learners. The young generation gets it, he thinks—when they hear it. But that means getting young people into exchanges like the “Lessons of Vietnam” program to learn from the likes of Julian Bond, Doug McReynolds, Arthur Waskow, and Bill Goodfellow, among the speakers and discussants who brought tremendous wisdom to the discussion. That may one of the important accomplishments of the Zinn Education Project, which supports the teaching of the people’s history of the U.S. in middle school and high school classrooms.

It was picture-perfect weather in Washington on Sunday, and the young people were pretty absent from the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. That may not explain it totally. Maybe it is because the crowd was older, that the opening session, moderated by Phil Donahue, honored octogenarians like Cora Weiss, Judith Lerner, Staughton Lynd, Dick Fernandez, George Regas, and Daniel Ellsberg. When the generations aren’t really in effective dialogue and exchange, the lessons of this important period of social movement building and activism will be relegated to the memory and silence that Tom Hayden so eloquently described.

  • Eric

    _”In truth, the U.S. was never under threat from Saddam’s Iraq”_

    That’s incorrect.

    For the record, explanation of the law and policy, fact basis for Operation Iraqi Freedom:

    President Clinton, 2000: “The Government of Iraq continues to engage in activities inimical to stability in the Middle East and hostile to United States interests in the region. Such Iraqi actions pose a continuing unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”

    9/11 Commission, 2003: “Conventional wisdom casts Saddam Husayn as a terrorist, a primary consumer of terrorist tactics and methods, and an enemy of the United States. That is true. Conventional wisdom describes Iraq under Saddam Husayn as a primary state sponsor of international terrorism-and that is true.”

    _”U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq has led to an escalation in international terrorism reflected in the various offshoots of Al Qaeda, including the Islamic State.”_

    That’s incorrect.

    Under the Bush administration, US-led efforts had reduced international terrorism to a low ebb by 2008-2009. The subsequent escalation, including the growth of ISIS, has been due to the disintegration of the Arab Spring and the related ‘lead from behind’ approach by President Obama that deviated from President Bush’s course.

    See Columbia University SIWPS panel, “ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and the United States”:

  • Simone Joyaux

    Thanks for this great piece, Rick.

    Nam. That was my war. The war of my contemporaries, my first husband, my brother almost.

    We didn’t learn from the 20 years of the French in French Indochina (that would be Nam). We didn’t learn from Nam for Iraq or Afghanistan. And we won’t learn from Iraq or Afghanistan for our next wars.

    I wrote my story of Nam:


  • Rick Cohen

    Simone: at the #lessonsofvietnam program, Lawrence Korb talked about his experience in Vietnam as a lt. j.g., going into a catholic mission where he was the only American in his group who spoke French, and recalling that one of the priests said to him, you and France lost in Vietnam before, why do you think you can win now? His point was that in Vietnam, the U.S. was seen as working with and through the French in trying to maintain Indochina’s colonial status, even keeping the French in the war when France wanted out. The U.S. didn’t learn from the French in Indochina because the U.S. was part of the French war, not an external observer of it, and as is typical of U.S. policy, unwilling to call an aspect of U.S. policy a mistake. I’ll look for your piece.


  • Tracy

    Eric, I’m afraid you are incorrect. Go back to 2001-2003 and you’ll find that we in the peace movement predicted the mess we have today, in Iraq and Afghanistan and other parts of the region. We predicted the massive cost, the loss of life, the diminished position of the US internationally and more. The only thing we got wrong was the severity of all of the above.

    As for Iraq being a threat, no one in Congress even needed to read the NIE. By early 2001 the UN weapons inspectors had closed the books on the Iraqi nuclear weapons program, was about to on the chemical weapons program, and was very close on bioweapons. There was nothing secret about this. The UN was open with the international media about where things stood. I followed all this closely as someone representing a peace organization at the UN. I moved to DC in 2001, and after 9/11 it was bizarre to see Americans, the administration in particular, act as if none of that had happened with the inspections. Instead, the blew the good will of a world horrified by the losses of 9/11 and made one dangerously bad decision after another.

    I will never forget the letter my coworkers shared from a volunteer who worked with us to help prevent the war in Iraq. He was a reservist who disagreed with the war, but then he got called up and had to go. He was killed in the days after President Bush made his victory speech on an aircraft carrier. The letter we got from our former volunteer was him saying he was soon to go home and that he’d need time to reflect on what he’d been a part of.

  • Phyllis Bennis

    Rick’s piece is a terrific interrogation of this weekend’s Vietnam conference – and gets to the fundamental and still unfinished challenge — the urgent need to engage with the activists of today’s social movements. That means focusing on young people. That means mainly people of color, who make up the core of most of today’s most active movements, whether Black Lives Matter, the Fight for Fifteen, immigrant rights, climate justice….
    It means focusing mainly on people whose activism isn’t self-defined as explicitly anti-war or anti-militarism even when war and military spending are key components of broader movements for justice. One of the huge lessons of the Vietnam-era movement was the danger of privileging our self-defined “anti-war movement,” which was overwhelmingly white and (to the media at least) overwhelmingly led by men, while the reality of anti-war mobilization and engagement and especially consciousness was strongest among women and in communities of color.
    And while that lesson was talked about at the conference, Rick is dead-right in identifying as a huge problem the fact that it was essentially replicated this weekend 50 years later. The hard work of engaging with communities of color, with young people in motion, where so much mobilization, including anti-war mobilization, is actually underway today, remains an unmet challenge for all of us.