The Revolution That Was Not Televised: Lessons From the Vietnam Antiwar Movement

(Image: Just World Books)(Image: Just World Books)If you have seen the movie Forrest Gump (1994), you probably remember the quote, “life is like a box of chocolates.” Actually, the film is a box of propaganda, especially when it comes to how it portrays the antiwar movement.

The movie is populated by caricatures: flag-wearing hippies, militant and sexist Black Panthers and airheaded, would-be feminists. Forrest, a charming simpleton, never has a meaningful or specific discussion of the Vietnam War. But his sideways encounters with antiwar activists leave the distinct impression that the movement was wasteful, annoying, insignificant and possibly unethical. For viewers who will go no further to investigate any other perspective, Forrest Gump serves as a main cultural and political lesson on the 1960s, creating disdain and hostility toward the antiwar movement. It is but one example of a sustained and multipronged effort to do so.

The truth is that the antiwar movement fomented and channeled opposition to the war, both from ordinary people and elites. Over time, the war became the anchor issue for activists, journalists and politicians. Vietnam was the first televised war, but television alone did not create opposition to the war. As Susan Sontag pointed out, the TV showed the war, but TV viewers saw those images through the interpretive lens that the antiwar movement created through their struggles and protests.

Chinese, Japanese and Filipino Americans who served as soldiers in the war saw themselves in the faces of the so-called “enemy.”

Between 1965 and 1968, Lyndon Johnson relied on the draft to build the number of US troops in battle from 100,000 to 500,000. Draft resistance and conscientious objection became a key strategy of antiwar activists. The draft resulted in disproportionate numbers of working-class, Black and Latino men fighting and dying in Vietnam. These inequities further enraged antiwar activists, who then targeted the race and class bias of draft deferments. Richard Nixon lowered overall troop numbers in part to defuse opposition to the draft. In 1973, the draft ended and was replaced by an all-volunteer service.

Working alongside Black people in the civil rights movement in the South provided a crucial learning experience for the young, mostly white university students who would later join the antiwar movement. Hundreds were recruited to join the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project; in their poignant letters home, they describe transformative, eye-opening moments confronting institutionalized white racism and state-sponsored violence. The connections between Jim Crow in the South and the US war in Vietnam were not lost on them. One white project volunteer asked a Justice Department official: “How is it that the government can protect the Vietnamese from the Vietcong, and the same government will not accept the moral responsibility of protecting the people of Mississippi?”

The antiwar movement is generally treated as white turf, yet people of color – Black, Latino/Chicano, Native/Indigenous and Asian – also actively opposed the war. In the late 1950s, leaders including Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin connected US racial justice issues to anticolonial struggles in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Later, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) clarified the links between “the suppression of Blacks’ political rights and the continued violence in the South as part of the larger US war against nonwhites, including Vietnam.”

In April 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his powerful speech against the war, denouncing the United States as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” A New York Times editorial headlined “Dr. King’s Error” denounced the speech. As explained in Death of a King by Tavis Smiley, other establishment figures and institutions piled on. Even some of King’s allies thought he was putting the civil rights movement in jeopardy. One year later to the day, he was assassinated. And today the United States is still “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”

By looking at the Vietnam War as part of an extended arc of US imperialism in Asia, we surface the historic and material connection between US wars and Asian-American populations. Yet many people continue to ignore Asian-American participation in the antiwar movement. Actually, the Vietnam War provided a catalyst for a pan-ethnic Asian-American social consciousness. For example, Philip Vera Cruz was a leader of the Filipino farmworkers, and a key organizer in the Delano grape boycott of 1965. By speaking up at an antiwar rally organized by Asian-American activists, Vera Cruz helped to solidify a feeling of a shared racial bond.

The racism directed against Vietnamese people during the war propelled many Asian Americans to embrace Vietnam as a symbol of “third world” peoples and struggles all over the world.

Chinese, Japanese and Filipino Americans who served as soldiers in the war saw themselves in the faces of the so-called “enemy.” They personally experienced the contradiction between their status as US citizens, and the way their battalions treated them – sometimes as target practice. Indeed, the racism directed against Vietnamese people during the war served as a wake-up call that propelled many Asian Americans – students, intellectuals, laborers and cultural workers – to embrace Vietnam as a symbol of “third world” peoples and struggles all over the world.

Toward the end of the war, at least 2,000 Vietnamese foreign students based on various US campuses organized themselves into the Union of Vietnamese. Their antiwar position crystalized after the 1972 murder of Nguyen Thai Binh, a student of fishery at the University of Washington. On graduation day, Binh walked across the stage, shed his black gown and revealed a demand to stop the war, written in his own blood. He was then deported to South Vietnam. At the airport in Saigon, he was shot dead. His death spurred his peers to hold a memorial for him and to form alliances with other US liberation struggles.

The first large-scale protests organized against the war by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) were triggered by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 air bombing campaign called Operation Rolling Thunder. Like all social movements, this one grew in phases. The phases involved: selecting and framing the issues, establishing decision-making processes, developing expertise, finding a common denominator among many conflicting viewpoints, attacking dominant values and assumptions, and sustaining participation. Sometimes, the goal was to mobilize public opinion about a specific aspect of the war or the draft; at other times, it was to provoke a response from policy makers at the highest levels of the government. Always, the ultimate aim was to stop the bombing, negotiate for peace and end the war.

While the movement is generally portrayed by its protests, there was far more to it than that. This book offers an extensive discussion of the People’s Peace Treaty, a remarkable story of people’s diplomacy that even Melvin Small – a skeptic when it comes to the achievements of the antiwar movement – describes as “the most innovative approach to ending the war.” Fed up with the glacial pace of negotiations led by the older generation, the student organizers of the People’s Peace Treaty took matters into their own hands. The simple and direct language they crafted for ending the war came about as they met face-to-face and discussed together across the United States, South Vietnam and North Vietnam. The authors of this section speak from direct experience, a perspective on the People’s Peace Treaty that has never been published as far as we know.

As the nation learned more and more about the scope and brutality of military operations – not only in Vietnam but in Laos and Cambodia as well – skepticism, mistrust of the US government’s reports on the war and outright opposition grew larger still.

Increasingly, that opposition penetrated the military itself. An accomplished journalist for The Washington Post and author of Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation (2002), Myra MacPherson toured Vietnam in 2013 with five US veterans, ex-soldiers who now live in Vietnam. In Chapter 9, she tells the stories of this “band of brothers in peace” – a poet, an ex-cop, a former gang member, a psychiatric social worker and a former aid to a US senator. Today, each is dedicated in his own way to dealing with the most painful legacies of the war, including widespread contamination from Agent Orange. Their examples shine a new light on the ideals of military service, and on the patriotism and brotherly love that is often touted as a sustaining force among troops in combat in Vietnam.

As the war dragged on, the Vietnamese were so effective on the battlefield and the opposition became so intense within the United States that the US government was compelled to open the formal peace talks that ultimately resulted in the Paris Peace Accords, which was signed in 1973. To some, then and now, it might seem that escalating opposition to the war was some accidental mood shift. The People Make the Peace shows otherwise. Relating their own personal experiences as leaders of the antiwar movement, the authors in this book offer firsthand and concrete examples of innovative strategies and tactics they devised to express public opposition to the war and to challenge the war-makers’ version of what the war was about and how well it was going.

The excerpt was reprinted with permission from the introduction to The People Make the Peace: Lessons from the Vietnam Antiwar Movement edited by Karín Aguilar-San Juan and Frank Joyce, forthcoming September 14, 2015, from Just World Books. Contributors include Jay Craven, Rennie Davis, Judy Gumbo, Alex Hing, Doug Hostetter, Frank Joyce, Nancy Kurshan, Myra MacPherson, John McAuliff and Becca Wilson. Further reproduction of this excerpt is prohibited without the written consent of Just World Books.