The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Protest Movement, 1965-1975

April 30th, 2015 - by admin

Tom Hayden / Tom – 2015-04-30 02:56:33

The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Protest Movement, 1965-1975
Tom Hayden / Tom
Submitted to the conference on the “Vietnam War: Then and Now, Assessing the Critical Lessons”

WASHINGTON DC (April 29-May 1, 1975) — The era of protest against Vietnam — 1965-1975 — was unique as the emergence of a nationwide peace movement on a scale not seen before in American history. There were previous war resisters, for example, the Society of Friends, the opponents of the Mexican War and the Indian wars, critics of the imperial taking of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and opponents of World War I, numbering in the many thousands. But no peace movement was as large-scale, long lasting, intense, and threatening to the status quo as the protests against the Vietnam War.

The roots of the Vietnam peace movement were in the civil rights, student, and women’s movements of the early Sixties. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Students for a Democratic Society, the Free Speech Movement and the National Organization for Women all were asserting domestic demands just as the US draft and troop escalation took place in 1965.

SNCC’s Mississippi Summer Project and Freedom Democrats’ convention challenge occurred at the time of the August 1964 Tonkin Gulf “incident” and war authorization. SDS supported “part of the way” with LBJ in late 1964 while planning the first peace march in April 1965 in case Johnson broke his pledge of no ground troops. The Free Speech Movement of September 1964 set the stage for the Vietnam Day Committee and Berkeley’s first teach-in.

The civil rights movement and also Women’s Strike inspired the National Organization of Women for Peace, which opposed Strontium-90 and pushed for President Kennedy’s 1963 arms treaty with the Soviet Union. Together these movements were demanding a shift from Cold War priorities to “jobs and justice”, the banner of the 1963 March on Washington, and were deeply shocked by the assassination of Kennedy and subsequent escalation in Vietnam.

During the Vietnam peace movement era between 1965-1975, Americans took to the streets in numbers exceeding one hundred thousand on at least a dozen occasions, sometimes half-million. At least 29 young Americans were murdered while protesting the war. Tens of thousands were arrested.

The greatest student strikes in American history shut down campuses for weeks. Black people rose in hundreds of “urban rebellions” partly against the shift from the War on Poverty to the Vietnam War. GIs rebelled on scores of bases and ships, refused orders, threw their medals at the Congress, and often attacked their superior officers, prompting warnings about the “collapse” of the armed forces by the Seventies. Peace candidates appeared in Congressional races by 1966 and became a serious presence in presidential politics by 1968.

President Lyndon B. Johnson was forced to resign because of a revolt within his own party in 1968, and Richard Nixon resigned after escalating a secret war and unleashing spies and provocateurs against dissenters at home.

The 1965-75 peace movement reached a scale which threatened the foundations of the American social order, making it an inspirational model for future social movements and a nightmare which elites ever since have hoped to wipe from memory. It’s far simpler, after all, to incorporate into the American Story a chapter about a social movement overcoming discrimination than the saga of a failed war in which tens of thousands of Americans died while killing others.

The events of those ten years (1965-75) can be compared to the “general strike” — or non-cooperation – of the slaves on southern plantations that undermined the Confederacy, according to the classic study by W. E. B. Dubois, Black Reconstruction.

Dubois wrote that, “The slave entered upon a general strike against slavery by the same methods that he had used during the period of the fugitive slave. He ran away to the first place of safety and offered his services to the Federal Army . . . and so it was true that this withdrawal and bestowal of his labor decided the war.” [1]

In the case of Vietnam, the Vietnamese peasantry demanding land reform were the equivalent of the African slaves who resisted slavery and demanded “40 acres and a mule” the century before. The fundamental role of the Vietnamese resistance to the French and American occupiers will be discussed below. But their resistance awakened and triggered the eventual “general strike” in America that paralyzed campuses, cities, and barracks, forced a realignment to American politics, and brought the war to its end.

The first strand of the American resistance began in campus communities. Starting with polite dissent and educational teach-ins, by 1969-1970 there was a wave of student strikes that shuttered hundreds of campuses, involved four million in protests [2] and forced closures of those key institutions through the spring semester in 1970. Second, at the same time, 1964-71, there were seven hundred “civil disturbances” with more than one hundred deaths in Watts, Newark, and Detroit alone.

Those “riots” were in protest against budgets that favored war spending over social programs, and they included many returning Vietnam veterans or their family members at home. Third, there came a GI revolt that included over 500 fraggings of officers in 1969-70, scores of “riots” on military bases, forty thousand desertions to Canada and Sweden, and official reports that the army was “approaching collapse.” [3]”From 1970 on, the fight against the war was moving from the campus to the barracks,” [4] wrote one historian.

Amidst this general collapse, the peace movement was able to generate a political constituency that attracted peace candidates who threatened the Cold War consensus. The political revolt began in 1966 with the Robert Scheer and Stanley Sheinbaum candidacies in Democratic primaries, and grew into the national campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972. The McCarthy campaign was driven almost entirely by student volunteers who later created the Vietnam moratoriums.

The military draft was ended by January 1973 as, “an effective political weapon against the burgeoning antiwar movement.”[5] A possible victory for peace was denied when Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June 1968 shortly after the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. By 1972, the Democratic Party had adopted a platform calling for complete and immediate withdrawal from Vietnam.

American politics would be changed for decades by the Vietnam generation, much as the Abolitionists and Radical Republicans were allies of the Underground Railroad and the “general strike” in which slaves turned the tide of war. The deaths of King and the Kennedys, like the murder of Lincoln, undermined the transformative possibilities of a Second Reconstruction.

A cautionary conceptual note: thus “general strike” was not in any sense a planned or coordinated campaign, nor one led by radical vanguards. Rather, it was a continuous series of populist reactions that took place because of a vacuum of leadership by mainstream institutions. Activist peace and justice groups gave inspiration and support to this Great Refusal to conform, but massive desperation was the motor force. The alternative was submission, and that was not the character of the times.

The general strike forced a systemic crisis, “As deep as the civil war (and caused a prediction that) the very survival of the nation will be threatened,” according to the Scranton Commission appointed by President Nixon after Kent State. It was a, “Crisis as deep as the civil war (and) the very survival of the nation will be threatened,” in the words of the 1970 Scranton Commission.

The crisis threatened the very stability of the economic system too; as early as 1967, “New York’s financial community and the interests it represented were seriously worried about the war.”[6] Business executives for peace started placing full-page ads in the New York Times that year.

There was no light at either end of the tunnel, from Berkeley to Saigon. The great rethinking was symbolized by the private consultations held between the president and a select group of business and military “wise men”, who at first backed the war but reversed themselves in a March 1968 White House discussion, shocking Johnson with their advice to cut his losses and disengage.

The war and the growing crisis at home had split the unity of the Cold War establishment, revealed most sharply in the Watergate crisis where Nixon chose to circumvent the Constitution in order to prolong the war. It was in this context that the hawkish ex-Marine Daniel Ellsberg chose to release the secret Pentagon Papers and face treason charges. His co-conspirator, Anthony Russo, was changed by face-to-face interrogations with Vietcong detainees, whom he came to respect. (Their action was the model for recent whistleblowers like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.)

When the new doves in the ruling institutions began to demand disengagement, their views converged with the more radical demands of the anti-war movement to erode all remaining support for the Vietnam policy. The pillars of the Vietnam policy had been undermined by people power.

The democratic process had prevailed over the “cancer on the presidency,” as John Dean described the Watergate scandal. In the eyes of many establishment figures who originally endorsed the war, it had become unwinnable, unaffordable, and a threat to domestic tranquility.

Instead of blurry images of chaos, the peace movement should be seen as a shaving unfolded with an inner logic: at first, from the margins of society among young people who could be drafted but could not vote; from the inner cities where they were drafted in great numbers; from the poets and intellectuals; and finally spreading into mainstream sectors considered centrist.

The trajectory was rapid, from 1964 to 1967. The peace constituency was large enough to polarize American politics, with the Democratic Party realigning between 1966 and 1968. The counter-movement was severe, ranging from police repression, to Nixon’s “dirty tricks” campaign, to false promises of peace to sway voters, and finally to the withdrawal of US ground troops combined with an invisible air war. The war ended nonetheless, both on the battlefield with the fall of Saigon, and the fall of Nixon at Watergate.

A second observation about the Vietnam peace movement is that it was so divided — a movement of movements, which it was impossible to cohere into a unified national force like the AFL-CIO or NAACP. There were internal divisions along the lines of class, race, and gender; civilian resisters and rebels within the military; street protestors and politicians; advocates of nonviolence, electoral politics, disruption, and resistance.

These different factions often quarreled bitterly, some at the instigation of the FBI but also due to ego sectarian and ideological rivalries. But in the end they interacted in cumulative ways that brought the war to an end, and with it the various internal movements themselves. For example, the students pushed their professors to call teach-ins, considered a moderate alternative to campus strikes, but which reached a much larger base of fence sitters.

Similarly, the growing street resistance encouraged political leaders like McCarthy and RFK to define their campaigns as alternatives to the radical outside confrontations (even using phrases like “Clean for Gene” to distinguish themselves from the hippies.) In the end, as argued above, moderate sectors of the establishment joined with the moderate wing of the movement to disengage from Vietnam in order to save the American system as a whole.[7]

The tragedy of the anti-war movement is that the whole never lasted as greater than its parts. It might have been unified from 1968 onward if Martin Luther King had lived, Robert Kennedy was elected president, and the war terminated in 1969. That possibility was destroyed by their assassinations, leaving a disoriented, scarred and scattered generation of “might-have-beens.”

When the war did end in 1975, many of its opponents already had drifted away, moved on with their lives, or taken up more promising agendas. The peace movement had exhausted its historic role. So fractious were its groupings that there never was a reunion or convention to explore its meaning.

The peace movement is losing on the battlefield of memory. The Pentagon is winning the war in the American mind, which it lost on the actual battlefield.

As long ago as 1980, the award-winning journalist Frances Fitzgerald warned that the anti-war movement was disappearing from history textbooks which, she wrote, “Contain no reference, or almost none, to the peace movement or to any of the political turmoil of the late sixties and early seventies . . . in the future, this slate may be wiped clean.”[8] That danger of historical cleansing has only increased, despite excellent histories. As Fitzgerald predicted, the mainstream impression is that, “The war stopped because President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger decided that it should.”

The Vietnam protestors may never achieve the recognition given other movements from the same era — civil rights, women’s rights, farmworkers, the environmental movement, and more recent struggles like that for LGBT rights. Earlier struggles for workers’ rights were recognized, institutionalized, and legitimized in American politics in ways the peace movement has not been.

The hawks who conceived and carried out a war in which 3 million Indochinese and 58,000 Americans were killed, and which ended in an American failure, have lived on to enjoy comfortable roles in successive administrations and the dubious wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Virtually none of them have apologized or resigned. Instead they rose in the ranks of the national security establishment while carrying out military follies based on many of the same assumptions that led to the Vietnam quagmire.

Those who predicted and opposed the Vietnam debacle were rarely included in mainstream national security debates up to the present, thus narrowing and tilting the spectrum of “legitimate” policy options far to the right, while American public opinion evolved to become more skeptical towards foreign adventures and secret wars.

The so-called “Vietnam syndrome,” defined as popular norms against “policing the world” and the “imperial presidency” reflected in public preferences for “no more Vietnams,” were treated by the national elite has an infection which had to be purged from the body politic.

The trivializing of the peace movement’s history has even affected the public memory of Martin Luther King Jr., at whose Washington monument we gather for a vigil on May 2. Dr. King opposed the Vietnam War in a public speech as early as June 1965, just after the first March on Washington sponsored by SDS. His most important anti-war speech, in April 1967, was met by angry editorials in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and condemnations by the Johnson White House, and the leaders of labor and most civil rights organizations.

It was inappropriate, they claimed, for a “Negro spokesman” to stray into the territory of foreign policy. And though King’s anti-war message is included today on the plaque at the King memorial, he is generally remembered as a civil rights leader and not a figure who opposed the Vietnam War and who was organizing a Poor People’s Campaign until his last breath. The myth is preserved that freedom can be expanded at home while bombings escalate abroad. Few remember that after Dr. King’s death, amidst the police brutality and street battles at the 1968 Democratic convention, a mule train of civil rights workers from Dr. King’s organization were there in silent tribute to what might have been.

We will vigil at Dr. King’s monument to pay thanks to him as a peace and justice leader who resisted the Vietnam War and whose work for peace, civil rights, and economic equality remains unfinished. We were part of the cause he led, and he was part of us. History has shown that he was right, for the full realization of his justice agenda is blocked by the permanent war economy and national surveillance state.

One can only guess at why many in the elites hope to forget the Vietnam peace movement, why public memories have atrophied, and why there are few if any memorials to peace. The denial of our very impact, the caricatures of who we really were, the questioning of our patriotism, the snide suggestions that we offered no alternative but surrender to the external threat, has cast a pall of illegitimacy over our memory and a chilling effect among many peace dissenters.

One reason for this forgetting is that the Vietnam war was lost, a historical fact which representatives of a self-proclaimed superpower can hardly acknowledge.

Rather than admit that their war was a failure, it is more convenient to lay the blame on the peace movement, the mainstream media, the dovish politicians at home, and the so-called enemies within. For if the war rested on false assumptions, the deaths of 58,000 Americans and millions of Indochinese people would be blamed on a whole generation of American policy makers, intellectuals, and generals. Those at fault could never look the families of the dead in their eyes. Mass resignations would be required. Instead, the war critics have been ignored or scapegoated while those at fault have enjoyed decades of immunity from blame.

Since the Vietnam war-makers will never accept responsibility or acknowledge the full truth, those who opposed the war are needed more than ever to prevent history from repeating.

We must write our own history, tell our own story, hold these commemorations, and teach the lessons of Vietnam. One of those lessons is that peace and justice movements can make a difference.

The power of the past peace movement is fading from memory partly because the movement itself was deeply fragmented and rarely unified. It is not accidental that the Sixties peace movement has never gathered for a reunion. Our differences were too great to reunite. The anti-war movement reproduced many of the racial, class, gender, and cultural divides of the society from which we came.

On top of those differences there was the infection of sectarian power struggles that afflicts social movements in general. Thousands of informants and COINTELPRO provocateurs did their best to spread the poisons of distrust and division. In the end there were overlapping but uncoordinated insurgencies that could not be unified as a common organized force. Without that unity, how could a common story be told to future generations?

It is not too late. The Vietnam War is not even fully over. The soil of Vietnam is contaminated with Agent Orange. Unexploded ordinance covers the landscape. Those deformed by our defoliants will transmit their disabilities to their children for generations. Each generation has a responsibility to help mitigate this permanent damage.

Many of the worst aspects of the Vietnam policy are being recycled instead of reconsidered. For example, the current Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Manual describes the 1969-70 Phoenix Program in Vietnam as a misunderstood “success” that was forced to a premature end due to anti-war movement propaganda.

The Phoenix Program — complete with informants, interrogations, and assassinations — was revived in Iraq in 2006, where the top counterinsurgency adviser to General David Petraeus even called for a “global Phoenix program.” Indeed, under the banner of counterterrorism such programs are being carried out in many countries.

The original Pentagon propaganda refrain that Vietnam was a case of “aggression from the North” is repeated in popular culture, most recently in Rory Kennedy’s documentary, “Last Days of Vietnam,” with an image of a sharp dagger pointing from Hanoi to Saigon.

This “northern aggression” thesis, which originated with the State Department’s 1965 White Paper, was debunked in the early teach-ins in Ann Arbor and Berkeley, as noted below. Blaming “outside agitators” for every ill has been a staple of law enforcement and military thinking for decades.

In our early twenties, we were required intellectually to learn about Vietnam on our own, and construct an alternative to the dominant paradigm over our lives; the notion that the Cold War was necessary to stop a monolithic international communism from knocking over the so-called “dominoes” of the Free World, one by one.

In our teach-ins, our research, and texts by Carl Oglesby, Robert Scheer, and others, we drew the conclusion that it was revolutionary nationalism (led by communists) that the United States was trying to oppose with military force and client dictatorships the world over, under the facade of the “Free World”. With respect to the 1965 State Department White Paper, “Aggression from the North,” we countered that Vietnam was a single nation that had been divided temporarily by the West at the 1954 Geneva Conference, and been denied the guarantee of a nationwide election which Ho Chi Minh would have won.

As I.F. Stone reported, 80 percent of the southern Vietcong’s weapons were captured from the US or Saigon militaries, and the Pentagon’s own charts showed only 179 communist-made weapons were found among 15,100 captured by Saigon between 1962-64.[9]

The teach-ins were the participatory method of our exploration. The March 24 1965 teach-in on the Ann Arbor campus of University of Michigan drew together several thousand students and faculty leaders in all-night discussions and lectures. The Ann Arbor event was carried by radio hookup nationally for 12 hours, and reached 122 campuses. The May 21-22 Berkeley teach-in included 35,000 participants over 36 hours.

The April 17 1965 March on Washington was the largest march against a war in American history.[10] That fall there were 40,000 marching in Washington, 20,000 in New York City, and 15,000 at the Oakland induction center. Thousands more marched in 80 other cities.

From zero draft protests in 1964, by 1967 there were anti-draft actions on half of all public university campuses. 3,000 young men signed “We Won’t Go” petitions in spring 1967. 5,000 turned in their draft cards and some 10-25,000 “delinquent cases” were reported to the Department of Justice between 1966-69.[11] Ramsey Clark’s Justice Department was prosecuting 1,500 draft refusal cases by 1968.

The November 1969 Moratorium was again the “largest peace march ever,” with a half-million in Washington alone.[12] During that decade as a whole there were at least two national protests per year involving over tens of thousands on each occasion.

Public opinion shifted against the war as early as 1966 when Robert Scheer and Stanley Sheinbaum won over 40 percent of the Democratic vote in insurgent primaries in California against Johnson Democrats. The percentage of Americans viewing Vietnam as a “mistake” jumped from 28 percent (1966) to 51 percent by October 1967. In 1969 alone, one hundred peace candidates ran in twenty states. [13]

Senator William Fulbright mesmerized the interested public with critical hearings on Vietnam, faulting an “arrogance of power” as the root cause. The path was opened to electing peace candidates in future Congressional races, among them (Bella Abzug [1970], Bob Kastenmeier [14], Ron Dellums [1970], Pat Shroeder [1972], Tom Harkin [1974], and presidential primaries [Robert Kennedy, George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy]. By 1968 Lyndon Johnson was surrendering the presidency and the peace forces were remaking the Democratic Party.

The assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, coupled with sharp divisions between organized labor, Cold War Democrats and the new peace and justice movements, made a presidential victory impossible in 1968. 30 million Americans voted for the flawed campaign of George McGovern in 1972, a total that was inconceivable at the time of the first march only seven years before. Both the movement and the peace candidates that grew out of the movement have to be considered together in weighing the immense impact that was generated from the margins to the mainstream between 1965 and 1968.

In the language of the Left, a domestic and global insurgency had driven open a “split in the ruling class” between those who favored “victory” at any cost and those who believed in cutting military, economic and political losses in order to restore stability at home.

This even took a conspiratorial form as when the so-called “Wise Men” met with LBJ in early 1968 and advised him to disengage, a shock which resulted in his dropping out of the presidential race a few weeks later. [15] It was a fracturing of the institutional order that took place, not simply an argument among the powerful. If not a “pre-revolutionary situation,” it was the greatest domestic conflict since the Civil War or Great Depression. Again, as the Scranton Report concluded, “If this trend continues, if this crisis of understanding endures, the very survival of the nation will be threatened.”

Hopefully, future conferences will reflect in depth and detail on the late 60s — early 70s when the growth and radicalization of the movement continued at a rapid pace not seen since the populist and radical labor movements of the century before.

Many universities were exposed by student research as being complicit in the war machine; the Voice student party in Ann Arbor, for example, discovered that the University was developing infrared sensors for jungle warfare.[16] Protests against Dow Chemical’s use of napalm erupted on more than one hundred campuses. [17]

Universities began calling in the police, “Marking the first time that outside force had ever been used on college campuses on such a large scale”. [18] The use of the epithet “pig” appeared in New Left Notes for the first time on September 25, 1967. [19] Escalation of the war caused an escalation of resistance.

There were 41 cases of bombing and arson in fall 1968, mainly against draft boards and ROTC buildings, quadruple the number of the spring before. By spring 1969 there were at least 84 bombing, attempted bombings or arson attacks in the first six months alone. The numbers rose — 169 cases of bombing and arson in May 1969, four ROTC buildings per day during a single week.

We must remember the severe lengths to which the state went to prosecute a war, which a majority of Americans thought to be a mistake.

Police, troopers, guardsmen or vigilantes while protesting against the war killed at least 29 Americans.[20] Four died at Kent State, four in the Chicano Moratorium, two at Jackson State. That doesn’t include the hundreds killed in black urban insurrections during those years, as black youth were conscripted for the front lines in Vietnam while funding for the war on poverty was scaled back.

The numbers must include at least eight Americans who took their own lives by self-immolation in protest of the war.

In evaluating the scale of the revolt, we must remember the counterinsurgency programs we faced at home. Deputy Attorney General Richard Kleindienst recommended in 1969 that we be “rounded up and put in detention camps.” [21] The FBI assigned 20,000 full-time agents and “at least an equal number of informers.” [22]

Twenty federal agencies including the US Army gathered “political dossiers on 18 million civilians.” [23] Lewis Powell, then head of the Virginia board of education, advocated mass expulsions, saying, “The only language student extremists understand is force.” [24] During Chicago 1968, the FBI alone assigned 320 agents. The Pentagon established a Civil Disturbance Directorate to suppress campuses and ghettos. Prosecutors and grand juries went after twenty “conspiracy” cases against anti-war defendants in Chicago, Seattle, Harrisburg, Gainesville, Boston and beyond. [25]

Drug arrests of American teenagers jumped 774 percent from 1960 levels. [26] The liberal New York Times editorialized in 1968 that, “The line has to be drawn somewhere if an orderly society is to survive.” [27] Having lectured Dr. King to stay in his place, the Times was calling for the suppression of an activist generation, in which an estimated one million students described themselves as “revolutionaries” in a national survey in 1970.

All this is dimly remembered in this time, and mostly through images of disorder and mayhem. Indeed, chaos is the chief cultural memory of the Sixties, but not the actual “Operation Chaos” unleashed by our intelligence agencies against thousands of youthful resisters, including such major icons as Muhammad Ali, Dr. Benjamin Spock and John Lennon.

The image of chaos smothers the logical sequence of domestic radicalization and repression that could have been prevented at any time by a policy of de-escalation, negotiation and American withdrawal, if Johnson and Nixon had been sincere in their promises of sending no American ground troops (1964) or that peace was “at hand” (1972). In the end, the democratic process did not override the will of the war makers until the Saigon regime collapsed and Richard Nixon was driven out of office.

As Thomas Powers summarized in his classic 1973 study The War at Home, “The anti-war movement in the United States created the necessary conditions for the shift in official policy from escalation to disengagement.” [28]


Neglected in most Vietnam narratives are three threads of resistance that underlay the growth of the larger peace movement phenomenon from 1965-75.

The first was Vietnam’s anti-colonial, nationalist resistance after World War 2, which arose long before there was a peace movement on the horizon. In the conventional narrative, the role of the Vietnamese on political, military and diplomatic battlefronts is rarely mentioned.

The Vietminh decided to take up prolonged armed struggle in relative isolation, but in the belief that their resistance eventually would provoke war-weariness and an anti-war movement in France. They made a key distinction between “the French government” and “the French people” that would carry over to the American war.

Whether Confucian or Marxist, this Vietnamese approach meant fighting fiercely on the battlefield while framing the struggle in terms that the French people eventually might understand, i.e., the rights of self-determination and national independence, harking back to the French Revolution. This same nationalist, patriotic approach attempted to unify Vietnamese of nearly all backgrounds in opposition to foreign colonial intervention.

The same framing would be applied to the American war. From the beginning, then, theirs was a military struggle with core political and diplomatic dimensions. (By comparison, ISIS, or the Islamic State, relies on a “management of savagery” strategy, which categorizes their enemy as “infidel” Zionists and Christians, as described in Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger’s ISIS, The State of Terror (2015).[29]

After World War 2, the US government had a fateful choice to make. They could have tried coexistence with Vietnam’s communist-led nationalist front (the Vietminh led by Ho Chi Minh), or intervened with weapons and funds to restore white French colonial rule.

For a brief period in 1945, OSS operatives on the ground advised cooperating with the popular Vietminh forces. Ho Chi Minh encouraged non-intervention by declaring Vietnam’s national independence in language that cited the US Declaration of Independence. But having chosen a Cold War against the Soviet Union, in which Vietnam would be a proxy, the US chose the path of shoring up the French.

Since the majority of the Vietnamese population sympathized with Ho and the Vietminh, the French-US strategy inevitably became a dirty war with torture, mass detentions, civilian casualties and iron-fisted rule, which gradually alienated much of the French population with their republican tradition.

The Vietminh defeated the French militarily on the battlefield at Dienbienphu in 1954, not in the salons or streets of France. But the war, “Created the necessary conditions for the shift in official policy from escalation to disengagement,” as Powers later wrote about the American war.

The government of Pierre Mendes-France negotiated a political settlement at Geneva in 1955, including French troop withdrawals, a temporary partition of the country at the 17th parallel, and a plan for nationwide elections and reunification two years later. The Eisenhower administration intervened to prevent elections and reunification, choosing instead to adopt the Korean War model of permanent partition into two Vietnams. That guaranteed the gradual escalation of the US war and the invention of a client regime in Saigon.

It also cemented a dark assumption that immoral means were necessary to defeat communism and preserve the option of pro-Western market economies under friendly regimes. The immoral means were justified in part by a racial superiority complex towards Orientals as inherently inferior savages who placed no value on individual life.

As Kennedy’s air force secretary, Gen. Curtis LeMay, expressed this reasoning, “We ought to nuke the chinks.” [30] And as a character in Joseph Conrad’s novel foreshadowing Vietnam, Heart of Darkness, declared, “Exterminate the brutes!” [31]

An early exposition of the “necessity” of dirty wars was contained in the 1960 novel, The Centurions by Jean Larteguy, re-released in May 2015. Extolling the professional warrior class of ancient Rome, The Centurians became a favorite work of later generals like David Petraeus, the US Special Forces, and neo-conservative hawks like Robert Kaplan, who penned the introduction to the 2015 edition. [32]

The premise of The Centurions was that civilian populations (back on the home front) had little tolerance or understanding of the need for repressive and repugnant measures in wartime. Torture was rationalized, according to one of Larteguy’s characters, because the Vietminh enemy would, “Go to any lengths . . . beyond the conventional notion of good and evil.” [33]

Kaplan, updating the novel 55 years later, writes that, “Vietnam, like Iraq, represented a war of frustrating half-measures against an enemy that respected no limits,” and was, “Not limited by Western notions of war.” [34] The first corollary of this sensibility was the dropping of far greater tons of bombs on Indochina than on the white Axis powers in World War II.

The US dropped 7.8 million tons of bombs on Indochina in comparison with 2.7 million tons dropped by Allied forces [35]. Frequent references to the Vietnamese or Chinese as “ants” or other insects suggested extermination as a solution. The second result was that the new centurions — our Special Operations forces — become a detached fraternal of professional warriors harboring disdain towards civilian voters, journalists and politicians, and thus towards democracy itself. In their view, wars are lost on the home front, which leads to thinking of the public as a potential enemy and democracy a process to be tolerated at best — and circumvented when necessary.


The second strand of the deep anti-war movement was the growing resistance from communities of color who linked their civil rights struggles to the cause of peace.

This Vietnam comic book by the young civil rights leader Julian Bond, published in 1967, shows the advanced perspective of African American students in the early years of the Vietnam war.[36]

Bond wrote this early people’s history, with illustrations by T. G. Lewis, in 1967, the year after the Georgia legislature expelled him from elected office because he opposed the draft and the war. He is an honored elder of our generation these days, but public memory of his unified stance on civil rights and the Vietnam War is often forgotten, as is the price he paid for his beliefs.

The same brutal and racist politicians he fought at home were busy drafting young black and brown men to die in Vietnam. These officials were not simply old-style southern segregationist like Eastland and Stennis of Mississippi, but liberal Democrats like Robert McNamara.

In those days McNamara announced his “Project 100,000” to induct thousands of young men into the military from the inner cities program as part of the Great Society. These youngsters, illiterate and unemployed, were not qualified for the military draft until McNamara implemented his “liberal” solution. The Pentagon drafted thousands who failed to meet the standards on the Armed Forces Qualifications Test, which McNamara explained by saying that:
“The poor of America have not had the opportunity to earn their fair share of the wealth of this nation’s abundance, but they can be given an opportunity to serve in their country’s defense and they can be given an opportunity to return to civilian life with skills and aptitudes which, for them, and their families, will reverse the downward spiral of human decay.” [37]

More than half the American soldiers killed in Vietnam were African-American, Puerto Rican, Mexican-American, Native American, and Asian-American, sending them to early graves instead of the jobs and training programs they were promised. In 1967, a presidential commission found that a “disproportionate” 22.4% killed in action the previous year were African-American.

At the time, no figures were kept for Mexican-Americans, but their percentage of those dying on the front lines was similar. [38] Puerto Ricans were listed as fourth in Vietnam combat deaths while their island was twenty-sixth in population ranking in the US. [39]

That’s why Julian Bond wrote his history at the height of the civil rights movement, because his Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) believed that every person had a right to debate, decide and vote on the policies that would affect their lives. “Let the people decide”, the slogan on a 1965 SDS button, was unsettling to those in power, especially when it was being demanded from the Selma bridge to the Oakland Induction Center.

John Lewis, now an honored member of Congress and then the chairman of SNCC, asked the question, “I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam and can’t send troops to Selma, Alabama.”[40]

It spread from there, a peace movement out of the early days of the student civil rights movement. In 1966, Muhammad Ali, refusing the draft and preparing for prison, sent this message to the world:

“My conscious won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father . . . Shoot them for what? . . . How can I shoot them poor people, Just take me to jail.”

Another SNCC leader, Bob Moses, made this observation at seeing a photo of a Vietnamese child:

He saw, “a little colored boy, standing against a wire fence, with a big, huge white marine with a gun at his back. But what I knew was that the people in this country saw a communist rebel. And that we travel in different realities and that the problem in working for peace in Vietnam is how to change the isolated sense of reality this country has.[41]

At the first national protest against the Vietnam War, organized by Students for a Democratic Society in April 1965, SDS President Paul Potter issued these memorable words:

“The real lever for change in America is a domestic social movement . . . ”

Paul and SDS were part of a new peace upsurge, triggered by a new consciousness that the Vietnam War was about the same problems we were facing at home: racism, discrimination, poverty, voteless sharecroppers from the Mississippi Delta to the Mekong Delta. We all hoped that students would awaken (as they did), that liberals would awaken (as they did), that rank-and-file Democrats would awaken (as they did), but the outcome of the American war would be decided in large part by people of color from America’s inner cities whose children were drafted into a war they didn’t see as in their interest.

The political establishment worried about this. The liberals at the New York Times revealed their paternal bias when they denounced Dr. King for taking a stand against Vietnam in April 1967, the time when the Julian Bond pamphlet was circulating.

An African American preacher, they thought, was no more “qualified” to decide about Vietnam than the hundred thousand uneducated black and brown youth they were sending to the front lines. The Times’ worries were amplified greatly as ghetto after ghetto was burned in uprisings, which began as the war escalated.

The immediate causes were police violence, racial divisions and jobs, but it looked like, felt like, and was like Vietnam, a kind of internal colonialism that mirrored the invasion and occupation in Saigon. A massive surveillance and suppression system known as COINTELPRO was erected in America while Vietnamese dissidents were subjected a harsher version of the same “pacification.”

The space for peaceful political reform seemed to be shrinking by the day. The Pentagon established a Civil Disturbances Directorate for both campuses and ghettos.[42] As noted, in 1969 an assistant Attorney General, Richard Kleindienst, recommended that anti-war activists be, “Rounded up and put in detention camps.”[43]

The grievous losses in 1968 included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the first who had become our leading voice against Vietnam while the second suffered white hatred for his stance on race and the war. Malcolm X, the leading voice from the streets condemning racism and colonialism, was gunned down earlier, just before the 1965 March on Washington.

The Black Panther Party emerged on the Oakland streets at the same moment as Stop the Draft Week. Bombings and arson by students, a mirror of the black uprisings, began to rise in 1968. The New York Times declared that “the line has to be drawn somewhere if an orderly society is to survive.”[44]

Sometimes the struggles were directly linked. For example, in August 1968, mostly black troops from the First Armored Division called an all-night protest against orders to move into Chicago with live ammunition to quell the demonstrations at the Democratic convention.[45] 43 of them were court-martialed at Fort Hood.

In Los Angeles in August 1969, a massive Chicano Moratorium grew out of the earlier student, labor and civil rights struggles. The Moratorium was the largest Chicano outpouring of anti-war sentiment in history. Four were shot and killed that day, including the LA Times writer Ruben Salazar, all by county sheriffs.

Salazar, a frequent critic of police brutality and racism, died from a tear gas canister fired through his skull while he sat inside a restaurant to avoid the gas. The recovered notes for his next day’s column included this: “Chicano Moratorium. 8,000 died. Ya Basta!'[46]

The third strand of the deep anti-war movement was a widespread dissent by the troops themselves, sometimes bordering on “mutiny.” As the war ground on, the Pentagon found it virtually impossible to raise the morale of its own troops and conscript sufficient numbers of committed soldiers.

Missing in most histories of Vietnam is the clear pattern of rising dissent in the US military which nearly destroyed the capacity of the armed forces to wage war by the mid-seventies. After 1970 it was truly like Dubois’s description of slaves walking away from their plantations as the tide turned.

The underlying dilemma for the US military was how to build and sustain a killing machine out of conscripts from a civilian society in which there was rising dissent. Despite heavy Pentagon discipline, dissent began to rise in the armed forces by the mid-sixties just as it did before on campuses and in ghettos.

One of the great myths about Vietnam concerns an unbridgeable “divide” between the peace movement and the troops. Indeed there were class and ideological differences, but everyone came from the same generation, watched the same television news, and began to question the official propaganda against perceptions on the ground.

Everyone was lied to equally. Like the movement to support civil rights in the South, peace activists established “GI coffee houses” adjacent to US military bases by 1967, as centers for dissent, dialogue and community-building. Underground GI newspapers began appearing the same year, and would number in the hundreds.

Jane Fonda, seen in conservative histories as an “enemy” of the American troops, began her work in the peace movement with “FTA” rallies on military bases worldwide, attended by thousands of cheering troops. Clandestine networks were built to protect deserters or ferry them to Sweden or Canada.

Open dissent in the military came early. As early as February 1966, Special Forces sergeant Donald Duncan published a sensational article in Ramparts titled “The Whole Thing Was a Lie.” That same year three soldiers at Fort Hood, James Johnson, Paul Mora, and David Samas, publicly announced their intention to refuse orders for Vietnam, and Dr. Howard Levy refused to train Green Beret medics.

300 veterans held a peace rally at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on the Fourth of July, 1967. By 1967, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) declared themselves by unfurling a banner at the giant march in New York City. The VVAW would lead a historic “Dewey Canyon” protest on Memorial Day weekend in 1975, with 485 arrested at the old revolutionary battleground of Concord, Massachusetts, and hundreds encamped in Washington DC and threw their medals over the Capitol fence. Among them was John Kerry, who challenged the Congressional hearing with the famous question, “Who would want to be the last to die for a mistake?”

In addition to organized veterans for peace, there were over thirty events classified as “riots” on military bases from 1965-70, from Ft. Hood and the Presidio to Long Binh and Binh Duc, South Vietnam.[47] And that was before the war turned ugly in the years 1971-75.

Between 1968 and 1975, 93,000 desertions were reported; triple the scale during the Korean War.[48]

Fragging, literally, attacks by soldiers against their own officers using grenades, grew rapidly after 1970. By official estimates there were 800-1,000 attempted fraggings during 1970-72, and 368 court-martials brought. There were 1.5 million AWOL “incidents”, 550,000 deserter “incidents”, 10,000 soldiers underground. [49] As for those facing the draft, there were 3,250 who went to prison, 5,500 who received suspended sentences or probation, 197, 750 whose cases were dropped, and 171,700 conscientious objectors. [50]

Soldiers were withdrawing from the war just as the slaves had withdrawn from the grip of the Confederacy, by means small and large, direct and indirect. In 1970 an article in the Naval War College Review warned that, “Negro civil rights action has introduced definite constraints on the military capability of the United States . . . The factor of morale is extremely important, and a low morale on the part of Negro personnel lessens their effectiveness and that of the forces to which they are assigned.” [51]

The article noted how many troops were deployed “to quell civil disturbances” which diverted them from their overseas mission. During FY 1968 alone, 104,665 National Guardsmen were used to suppress civil disorders from Washington DC to the Madison campus, “The first case in which Guardsmen were used to restore order on campus.” The Detroit “disturbance” alone took 5,547 active Army personnel and 10,399 active duty Guardsmen to occupy the streets.[52]

As the Armed Forces Journal noted in a June 1971 article by Marine Corps historian Robert Heinl, “Our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and NCOs, drug-ridden and dispirited where not near mutinous.” Heinl compared the army’s collapse to the French army’s Nivelle mutinies in 1917 and that of the Tsar’s armies in Russia in the same year.

Without reliable ground troops, the only military options left to the US were an escalating air war and the deployment of an ineffective Saigon army. In the period 1965-1975, the Saigon army was similar to the later Afghan and Iraqi armies, or the earlier Cuban Bay of Pigs invaders, simply unable could match their revolutionary nationalist adversaries.

The policy lesson for the US should have been to avoid any involvement in sectarian-religious wars on the side of traditional colonial clients. The primary interest group lobbying for the Vietnam War was the Catholic Church, which protected a small population of Vietnamese Catholics who were colonized by the French.

In addition, US Special Forces recruited a Montagnard tribal minority to fight on the American side. It was folly from the first to believe that the US could win by rallying Catholics and Montagnards to convert a 90 percent Buddhist country fresh from a triumph over the French.

The second lesson is that forcing the end of the military draft in 1975 — a great victory for the peace movement — was a sign that the establishment feared the specter of a civilian army, one of our country’s great democratic traditions. Ending the draft meant ending a reliance on soldiers drawn from the rainbow of civic society.

The option was to end unpopular, unaffordable wars like Vietnam, which was out of the question for the elite. In place of a diverse, multi-racial and often unruly civilian army came the shift to the New Centurians, described as a “professional” force. The concern over the reliability of a civilian army was accompanied by equal worries about the trustworthiness of the democratically-elected Congress and the independent mass media.

In essence, the American failure in Vietnam led directly to the increased reliance on a Big Brother-style surveillance state and secret wars using mercenary troops in remote locations. The threat to democracy signified by Watergate, after a brief democratic thaw, accelerated during the Central American wars and the Iran-Contra scandal, then became a “full-spectrum” military strategy emphasizing Special Operations, drone attacks, cyber-warfare, and a doctrine of “information war” aimed at manipulating and deceiving public opinion.

By the third Iraq War (2014-) the single greatest legislative achievement of the Vietnam protest era, the 1973 War Powers Act, was in shreds. When President Obama himself asked Congress to “rein him in,” the Congress seemed ready to hand all war-making powers back to the secret units of the executive branch.

Today’s escalation of secret wars and surveillance originated in the Vietnam era when government and the military became fearful of relying on public opinion, that is, on democracy itself. Voters became objects of official suspicion, and democracy was placed in their emergency care. Ending wars in the future depends on the coming of new movements for democracy and social justice at home.

[1] Dubois, “The General Strike”,

[2] Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS, p. 636. Sale says that 536 schools were, “Shut down completely for some period of time,” 51 of them for the entire year.

[3] Lawrence Baskir and William Strauss, “Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, The War and the Vietnam Generation,” Vintage Books, 1978.

[4] Jonathan Neale, A People’s History of the Vietnam War”, The New Press, p. 163, 2001.

[5] Andrew Glass, in Politico, January 27, 2012

[6] Powers, p. 197

[7] See the diagrams of these dynamics in The Long Sixties, especially the chapter on “Movements against Machiavellians”, Paradigm, 2009.

[8] Frances Fizgerald, America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century, Vintage, 1980, p. 127. see also Keith Beattie, “The Scar That Binds: American Culture and the Vietnam War,” 2000

[9] Thomas Powers, The War at Home, Grossman, 1973, p. 58

[10] Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS, p. 186; Melvin Small, The Anti-Warriors, “The largest antiwar demonstration in American history to that point.” p. 26

[11] Staughton Lynd, Michael Ferber, The Resistance, p. 423

[12] Sale, p. 618

[13] Powers, p. 121

[14] First elected in 1958, received strongest mandate in 1964.

[15] Walter Isaacson, Evan Thomas. The Wise Men: Six Friends and The World They Made, 1986.

[16] Sale, p. 380

[17] Sale, p. 382

[18] Sale, p. 381

[19] Sale, p. 374

[20] Sale, p. 550. Sale doesn’t include the four killed during the Chicano moratorium, and limits his list to students only.

[21] Elizabeth Drew, Atlantic, May 1969

[22] Sale, p. 543

[23] Sale, p. 543

[24] Sale, p. 498

[25] Gerald Nicosia, Home to War, Carroll and Graf, 2001. Medsger’s The Burglary, Knopf, 2014, and Bruce Dancis’ Resister, Cornell, 2014.

[26] Sale, p. 500

[27] Sale, p. 443

[28] Powers, p. 318

[29] Stern and Berger, p. 23. The “management of savagery” was written in 2004 in Arabic, translated into English in 2006. Radical Islamic movements have generally characterized the enemy as crusaders, Christians and Zionists. In some of his writings, Osama Bin Laden attempted to make a distinction between American war-makers and American public opinion, offering coexistence. But the distinction was not pursued, and the 9/11 attacks clearly targeted civilians in the main.

[30] Powers, p. 40

[31] Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness, 1899.

[32] Petraeus’ father-in-law, William Knowlton, was involved in the Vietnam Phoenix Program, formally known as CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support), which implemented the “strategic hamlets” program which, in turn, was based on the model of controlling Native Americans on military reservations. Petraeus “devoured” The Centurions as; “One of his favorite books, period,” even modeling his battalion’s uniforms after a French officer in the book. Fred Kaplan, The Insurgents, Simon and Shuster, 2013, pp. 15-17

[33] Kaplan introduction to Larteguy, p. xii.

[34] Kaplan introduction to Larteguy, pp. xiii-xiv.

[35] The bombing data is from James Harrison, “History’s Heaviest Bombing”, Jayne Werner and Luu Doanh Huynh, The Vietnam War: Vietnamese and American Perspectives, Routledge, 2015.


[37] Jorge Mariscal, Aztlan and Viet Nam, Chicano and Chicana Experiences of the War, University of California, 1999, p. 20

[38] Jorge Mariscal, Atzlan and Vietnam, University of California, 1999.

[39] Mariscal, p. 2

[40] James T. Patterson, The Eve of Destruction, 2012, p. 79

[41] Bob Moses

[42] Sale, p. 500.

[43] Richard Kleindeinst, in Elizabeth Drew article, The Atlantic, May 1969.

[44] Sale, p. 427

[45] Neale, A People’s History of the Vietnam War, 2000.

[46] Steve Lopez, LA Times.

[47] James Lewes, Protest and Survive, Underground GI Newspapers During the Vietnam War, Praeger, 2003.

[48] James Lewes, p. 158

[49] Lawrence Baskir and William Strauss, Chance and Circumstance: the Draft, the War and the Vietnam Generation, Vintage, 1978. See also David Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance during the Vietnam War, Haymarket, 1975.

[50] Baskir and Strauss. Over 500,000 received dishonorable discharges, 164,000 faced court-martials, and 34,000 were placed in military incarceration.

[51] Commander George L. Jackson, Constraints of the Negro Civil Rights Movement on American Military Effectiveness, Naval War College Review, Jan. 1970.

[52] Jackson article cited, 1970.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.