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January 2002 • Vol 2, No. 1 •

Lessons of the Vietnam Anti-war Movement

by Carole Seligman

The Vietnamese declared their independence from France, their colonial masters, in a speech by Ho Chi Minh in 1945. There is a familiar ring to these stirring words:

“All men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth; all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.

The Declaration of the French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the Citizen also states: ‘All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.’

Those are undeniable truths.

Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standards of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow-citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.

In the field of politics, they have deprived our people of every democratic liberty.

They have enforced inhuman laws; they have set up three distinct political regimes in the North, the Center and the South of Vietnam in order to wreck our national unity and prevent our people from being united.

They have built more prisons than schools. They have mercilessly slain our patriots; they have drowned our uprisings in rivers of blood.

They have fettered public opinion; they have practiced obscurantism against our people.

To weaken our race they have forced us to use opium and alcohol.

In the field of economics, they have fleeced us to the backbone, impoverished our people, and devastated our land.

They have robbed us of our rice fields, our mines, our forests, and our raw materials. They have monopolized the issuing of bank notes and the export trade.

They have invented numerous unjustifiable taxes and reduced our people, especially our peasantry, to a state of extreme poverty.(1)

Much of what the Vietnamese were revolting for and against, as you can see, are things the American people will also revolt for and against, in the future. The things people want for themselves and their children throughout the world are similar and universal, but to get those things the Vietnamese were forced to make a revolution. And their revolution could not be like the U.S. revolution they hoped to model theirs upon, because capitalism had exhausted all its progressive character, its ability to develop the productive capability that could improve life for the working people. They were forced to fight against the world’s most powerful capitalist countries, especially America. They were forced to go beyond capitalism.

The Vietnamese revolution and the international response to the U.S. government’s efforts to smash it is an event full of rich lessons for people who want to learn from history with the idea of changing the world, especially those with the idea of ridding the world of its brutal wars.

Background to the revolution

Vietnam gained independence from China in the 10th century A.D. and took its present geographical shape early in the 19th century. The Vietnamese fought China six different times over its first 800 years and had a strong national identity as a people. The 20th century Vietnamese Revolution and war took place during a century of wars and revolutions—all a result of the world capitalist system’s absolute inability to solve the problems of humankind.

French colonial, and then, imperialist rule (consolidated in 1913) treated Vietnam, and the other countries of formerly French Indochina, as a servile colony, extracting minerals and rubber and later developing and investing capital in the rubber industry and manufacturing. The Russian Revolution, arising in part out of the First World War, is very much a part of the background to the Vietnamese Revolution, whose leaders were inspired by the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, and later, very negatively influenced by the Stalinist leaders of both the Soviet Union and China.

The Second World War, and its re-division of the world’s markets between the great imperialist powers saw the French colonial regime in Vietnam, when France was defeated and occupied by Germany, declare its allegiance to the Vichy, Nazi-occupation government. Japan occupied Indochina in 1940 and ruled Vietnam through the old French colonial administration, but when the German armies were thrown out of France, Japan ousted the French administration from Vietnam and declared Vietnam “independent,” under the Emperor Bao Dai, who cooperated with the Japanese.

The revolution begins

That year, 1940, marks the beginning of indigenous guerrilla resistance in Vietnam to both the French Vichy colonialists and the Japanese invaders. Ironically, the Anglo-American allies actually helped supply the Vietminh, which was a front of nationalist forces in Vietnam and the Communist Party led by Ho Chi Minh, who was the leader of the underground Indo-Chinese Communist Party. The Vietminh was a popular front of several classes—workers, peasants, and capitalist forces. During the anti-colonial struggle the Vietminh succeeded in gaining control of most of the countryside and then, with the surrender of the Japanese to the Allies, a popular revolution swept the cities of Vietnam on August 19th, 1945, and brought the Vietminh to power. Ho Chi Minh issued a declaration of independence (quoted above), modeled on the U.S. declaration of independence of 1776, and set up the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

At the end of World War II, the Potsdam Agreements provided that British troops were to occupy Vietnam! The Vietminh government, under the influence of the Stalinist government of the Soviet Union welcomed the British soldiers into Saigon. This was the first major betrayal by the Stalinists of the Vietnamese Revolution. Revolutionary forces, Trotskyists, with influence in important sections of the mass movement of workers and peasants, mostly in the South of Vietnam, opposed the British troops coming in, and warned that they would come as conquerors, not allies. The revolutionaries’ program was for “Opposition to imperialism and support for world revolution, a worker-peasant united front, the creation of peoples’ committees (soviets), establishment of a constituent assembly, arms for the people, seizure of land by the peasants, nationalization of factories under workers’ control, and the creation of a workers and peasants government.”


The Communist Party ordered the disarming and arrest of the revolutionaries, many of whom were then shot without trials. The predictions that revolutionaries had made about the intentions of the British came true. The British army attacked the independence forces and handed power in the Southern part of Vietnam back to the French colonialists (now under the DeGaulle government in France). The French and the Vietminh signed an agreement in which France recognized the Democratic Republic of Vietnam government as a semi-autonomous part of the French Union, but only in the northern part of the country, and then only for a short time. This constituted a second major betrayal of the revolution because the same agreement allowed the French to land troops in Hanoi from which they launched a massive bombing of Haiphong Harbor and drove the Vietminh into the countryside from which they launched a prolonged guerilla war against the French.

United States involvement against the Vietnamese revolution began during the Truman administration when the United States began to provide military aid to the French in their colonial war of aggression to reconquer Vietnam for its colony. With the victory of the Chinese revolution in 1949, the United States stepped up its aid to the French, but the Vietnamese defeated the French during this eight-year war culminating in the decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

The Geneva Accords of 1954 were the formal agreements for ending the war with the French, and they constitute another major betrayal of the Vietnamese revolution. The accords, although requiring free elections to reunify the country in 1956, also established a line of demarcation, the 17th parallel, both sides of which—the French (to the south), and the Vietnamese nationalists and communists (to the north)—were to withdraw troops. This division was supposed to be a temporary measure, with elections to be held in two years to reunify the country. Why, we may ask, would the victorious Vietnamese concede territory again to foreign influence? The Pentagon papers reveal that this disastrous concession was “the result of heavy pressure on the Vietnamese delegation at the Geneva Conference from Molotov and Chou En-lai, the two representatives respectively of the Soviet Union and China.”2

The United States moves in

France did withdraw from Vietnam, but, in violation of the Geneva Accords, the United States came in and set up a brutally murderous repressive puppet dictatorship government headed by Ngo Dinh Diem south of the 17th parallel. Diem, under the tutelage of the United States, refused to hold elections as agreed to by the Geneva Accords for 1956. The South Vietnamese proxy government proceeded to undo the results of the war against the French in which the peasants had taken over much of the land from which the French-supported landlords had fled. New guerilla fighting broke out and spread.

The war waged by the United States against the people of Vietnam mobilized the men and materiel of the wealthiest and militarily strongest state in the world against a small, war-torn poverty-stricken nation. (Does this sound familiar?) The succession of proxy puppet governments set-up by the United States in the South were so isolated from the people of Vietnam that they were chosen from among the Vietnamese mandarin class who had been part of the French colonial administration, like Diem, or had even fought on the French side during the anti-colonial war. The United States and its South Vietnamese puppets (the first of whom was Diem) violated the letter and the spirit of the Geneva Accords, which was supposed to unite Vietnam under the Vietminh government. The Vietminh enjoyed the support of the population of all of Vietnam. Even early U.S. government documents (as the publication of the Pentagon Papers proved) show U.S. political and military leaders acknowledging that Ho Chi Minh would have won the leadership of a united Vietnam should free elections have been held in 1956 like they were supposed to be.

The Geneva Accords, with U.S. maneuvers, turned the unqualified victory of the Vietnamese over the French into a defeat for the Vietnamese. It allowed time and territory for the United States to gain a foothold in the South of the country and build a small privileged group of Vietnamese Catholics into a support base for the puppet government by giving them land and special economic incentives.

By 1959, American combat soldiers, called “advisors” to the South Vietnamese Army, were dispatched to Vietnam and in response, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, based in the North, began to help the resistance movement in the South. In 1960, the National Liberation Front was formed.

The U.S. war against the people of Vietnam lasted 15 years. By its end in 1975, the Vietnamese had won against the mightiest state of all time at a cost of over four millions dead, millions wounded, the countryside poisoned, the economy destroyed. The United States lost over 58,000 killed; hundreds of thousands wounded, at least one-half million Vietnam veterans who suffer postwar psychological trauma, chemical poisoning, hundreds of thousands drug-addicted and imprisoned, and an economy which had provided both “guns and butter” for the last time. In 1971, before the Vietnam War ended, a post-World War II trend of steadily improved living standards for American workers was permanently reversed.

U.S. brutality

A few statistics about the air war provide a small inkling of the brutality the U.S. government unleashed against the peoples of Vietnam. During World War II the United States dropped a combined total of two million tons of bombs in all theaters of war. By the end of 1972, (and this was before the United States had stopped bombing Vietnam), the United States had dropped 6,300,000 tons of bombs in Indochina. In the two-year period of 1968 and 1969 the United States had dropped over one and a half times more tonnage of bombs in South Vietnam than all the Allied Forces dropped on Germany throughout World War II. By 1969, North Vietnam was being hit each month with bombs, the total explosive force of which equaled two atomic bombs.

In the 1972 Christmas bombing alone the United States dropped more tonnage on Hanoi and Haiphong than Germany dropped on England from 1940 to ’45. From 1965 to ’69 the U.S. dropped 50 pounds of bombs for every man, woman, and child in Vietnam. The United States created 21 million bomb craters in South Vietnam alone.

In the Northern part of Vietnam the target of U.S. bombing was the economy. Almost the entire modern industrial output was halted. Hospitals, schools, and churches were especially targeted. In the South, the U.S. targeted villages in order to force the peasant populations into concentration camps called strategic hamlets, or the Pacification Program. In 1961 President John F. Kennedy authorized massive chemical warfare, Operation Ranch Hand, which lasted over 10 years. In South Vietnam alone the United States sprayed 18 million gallons of poisonous chemicals (including Agent Orange and napalm) to defoliate land, poison crops, farm animals, and the people, including American soldiers, and causing birth defects among other horrendous results.

My Lai

To cite only one specific event that sheds light on what the United States perpetrated in Vietnam, consider the village of Xom Lang—the U.S. military mistakenly called it My Lai. Charlie Company, First Battalion, 20th Infantry, Americal Division went into Xom Lang. They were completely unopposed. They saw no soldiers of the National Liberation Front (NLF), no weapons at all, but they proceeded to massacre 504 villagers, mostly old men, women, and girls (some of whom were gang-raped before being murdered), and children, including babies in arms. It was a racist slaughter against an unarmed civilian population. The massacre, which was not an exception to U.S. war policy in Vietnam, was part of the holocaust the U.S. visited upon Vietnam.

Another example of the brutality of the American side was revealed by television producers April Oliver and Jack Smith, who were fired in 1998 from CNN for telling the story of a top-secret U.S. mission into Laos (where supposedly the U.S. never went), to drop poison gas on American defectors and Indochinese revolutionaries and kill them. This story was revealed for the first time 28 years after the fact and caused not only the firings but also a campaign of apologies by CNN working in collaboration with the Pentagon. After all, this story revealed that not only did the U.S. make 30,000 sarin gas weapons during the Vietnam War, but also the U.S. was carrying out a secret war against Laos. It was caught using weapons banned by international peace conferences, using weapons it has accused Iraq of having, and that it uses as its excuse to continue the sanctions against Iraq that are responsible for so many thousands of deaths there.

These few facts indicate a most important lesson of the Vietnam war—the brutality of the U.S. ruling class, the lengths to which they are willing to go to get their way. This is a fundamental truth that those who want to change society must know and teach. This is a society that cannot be meaningfully reformed. To end this kind of brutality, power must be wrested from the U.S. government and state and taken over by those who have no reason to do violence against other peoples. Vietnam was no mistake. The policies that led to these brutalities were the conscious and consistent policies of a capitalist system willing to use any and all means to maintain that system at any price. The beauty of the antiwar movement that developed in the United States is that it made the price for the American government to pay too high at home while the Vietnamese made the price to pay too high in Vietnam.

Lessons from the antiwar movement

The “age of war and revolution” affected the U.S. directly. Just 10 years after the end of World War Two, the Black Civil Rights Movement burst out throughout the South and spread through the whole country, winning majority support, forcing a division in the ruling class with the decisive sector moving to end the Jim Crow system of legal segregation in the South and granting civil rights for the Black population. The Civil Rights Movement dealt the decisive blow to McCarthyism and created the openings for a militant student anti-war movement and the student radicalization of the 1960s. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 was also an important inspirational source of the nascent radicalization in the United States. The spread of the Civil Rights movement to the whole country accounts for the different reactions of the students, and later the working class in its majority, to the war against Vietnam, in contrast to the response to the U.S. war against Korea.

From the very beginning of the movement against the Vietnam war in 1964, (which was five years after the United States had begun its direct military intervention,) the various people and groups who participated in the movement engaged in sharp debates over the course, strategy, and tactics for the movement. Some of these debates had decisive consequences for the movement and the war itself. During the 10 years of the anti-war movement from 1965 to 1975, the working class revolutionary Marxist wing of the movement, represented by the Socialist Workers Party (forerunners of the Socialist Workers Organization), went from being a small minority within a small movement to part of the leadership of a movement of millions, a movement which came to have a decisive impact on the course of the war itself. Not only that, but the impact of the Vietnamese Revolution on the U.S. population, while it could not at that time lead to the U.S. working class coming to power here, contained within it many of the seeds of a future socialist revolution in the U.S. itself.

Likewise, the debates in the developing antiwar movement mirror in many ways the elements necessary for a change in the entire class structure of the United States. This may sound far-fetched, but I think the case can be made for its truthfulness.

Self-interest and the antiwar movement

Underlying the approach of the revolutionary wing of the anti-war movement, which began as a mostly student movement, was the Marxist view that the class struggle is the engine of social change, and that the working class is the only class with the potential and actual power to transform society. That fundamental, basic idea informed the whole approach of revolutionaries to the developing antiwar movement. Related to that idea is the idea that masses of people move into political action only as they perceive their self-interest at stake. Therefore, the task for the antiwar movement was to appeal to the masses of the American people and do so on the basis of their self-interest. (This is true for today’s antiwar movement as well.)

The strategy advanced by the revolutionaries in the Vietnam anti-war movement had these components: mass action, independence from ruling class politics and parties (Democrats and Republicans), organized on the basis of principled demands on the U.S. government that respected the rights of the Vietnamese people for self-determination. This strategy was internationalist. That is, the strategy sought to link the interests of the Vietnamese people with the interests of the American people, and ordinary people all over the world. Each aspect of this strategy is based on the idea that only a mass working class movement could force the United States out of its war. Mass action provides the alternative to the government and independence from the Democrat and Republican Parties. The principled demands on the government kept the movement from being co-opted by the ruling class. Mass action is a working class strategy as opposed, for example, to petitions, letter writing, lobbying, electoral projects (though all of these could be useful tactics from time to time), because mass action—street demonstrations—involves a key strength the working class has—its numbers and its potential to rule society in its own name, though the antiwar movement never developed to that point.

Antiwar tactics flowed from strategy

The most effective tactics flowed from this basic strategy. The mass actions were street demonstrations called by united fronts of all groups who could agree to come together in common antiwar actions. They were organized as peaceful and legal demonstrations with permits. It’s important to remember that the early and mid-1960s were not that far removed from the Joe McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s. Demonstrations in opposition to U.S. foreign policy were not that common. There was a significant amount of red baiting, intimidation, and even physical attacks on the early anti-war movement. It was important to make it as easy as possible for people to take their first tentative steps into opposition to their government. The tactic of peaceful, legal street demonstrations met this requirement. The revolutionary wing of the movement had great confidence that the majority of the American people could be won over to the antiwar cause and this method would put no roadblocks in the way of that goal.

The strategy of independence was tactically implemented through the creation of independent, single issue, anti-war committees and single-issue united front coalitions, usually organized to build a specific action with a date, time, and place. Some coalitions lasted for more than one action; others were so tenuous that they were really ad-hoc formations that could only stay together for one event. After that event the political differences between the organized participants drove them apart.

The student movement, having organized first, and being the most supportive of self-determination for the Vietnamese, generally played the role of left-wing in the broad coalitions that formed to carry out city-wide, regional, or national demonstrations. They were the left wing because they were the most resistant to the electoral aspirations of the organized reformists in the peace movement, the Communist Party, the Social Democrats, and assorted liberals. Every time an election campaign came around the reformists tried to get the movement to support the “lesser of the two evils” candidates instead of organizing demonstrations against the war. This problem got more difficult to overcome as the movement got bigger. At first, there weren’t any “anti-war” candidates. Later, as the movement got massive, there were lots of “peace” candidates trying to co-opt it. And, when the American casualties started to become unacceptable to the American people, even Presidents Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Nixon ran for president on promises to de-escalate the war.

The slogans revolutionaries advocated for the movement likewise reflected a strategic orientation to the working class. “Bring our troops home now!” was the central demand revolutionaries promoted in the movement. Believe it or not, it took several years before the majority of the organized anti-war movement came to agree with that slogan. After all, the conscious reformists, who played a big role in the organized movement, were opposed to that solution to the war. Many, (such as the U.S. Communist Party, for example), sought to compromise with the U.S. government and proposed that the movement call for a negotiated solution to the war. The revolutionaries said that the United States had no right to negotiate anything in Vietnam and that the only demand on the United States government that honored the right of the Vietnamese people to determine their own destiny was for the United States and all foreign powers to withdraw. That was a very advanced idea in the 1960s, but today’s anti-war movements against the U.S. wars in Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan have begun with demands for the United States to get out. That is a legacy of the Vietnam anti-war movement.

Out Now!

The “Out Now!” slogan was the most important slogan because the biggest obstacle to the success of the Vietnamese struggle for self-determination was the United States. To withdraw the U.S. troops, bombs, and bases was to guarantee the re-unification of Vietnam and the carrying out of their social revolution. The conscious revolutionary wing of the U.S. anti-war movement understood this. But there was another important reason for the demand to “Bring our troops home now!” and that was the strategy of building the movement into a working class movement with the social power to effect the actions of the U.S. government. The slogan of bringing the U.S. troops home, of bringing our troops home, was a concrete way of reaching out to the soldiers themselves and their families, friends, and loved ones at home with the message that the antiwar movement was not a movement to hurt the soldiers, but a movement that, if successful, would save their lives too.

The U.S. government and the capitalist media did everything in their power to convince the public, the workers, and the soldiers that the student demonstrations were against the soldiers, against “our boys,” would harm them, and lead to their deaths. This was a cranked up, powerful propaganda machine coming out of the reactionary patriotic 1950s (an era which could produce soldiers who could go along with officers in carrying out brutal war crimes against civilians like the My Lai massacre). The far-sightedness and optimism of those in the antiwar movement who fought for the “Out Now!” slogan that could actually reach out to the soldiers themselves was quite amazing. The fact is that the impulse came from revolutionaries who knew that historically, during great revolutionary upheavals, masses of working people, even those serving in the armed forces of the capitalist state, could come over to the side of the revolutionaries, that they could change. And that is exactly what happened.

The anti-war movement and the soldiers

The Socialist Workers Party was so serious about this orientation to the soldiers that they made a conscious campaign to educate the antiwar movement by publishing a pamphlet called “GIs and the Fight Against War” and touring the author of it, Mary Alice Waters. This pamphlet was about the actual events following World War Two in 1945 and 1946, a real hidden chapter in U.S. history when a large scale “bring us home” movement developed among U.S. soldiers in the Pacific Theater who were being used to intervene in the Chinese civil war on the side of Chiang Kai-Shek against the communist revolutionaries. This movement was suppressed but it certainly played a role in demobilizing U.S. forces more quickly than the U.S. government intended, which advanced the success of the Chinese revolution, which the United States definitely wanted to stop. The “Bring Us Home” movement was organized within the armed forces with meetings, leaflets, and propaganda. This was a wonderful example of the possibilities for organizing soldiers against the Vietnam War.

Fred Halstead’s book, “Out Now!” quotes a speech by James Johnson, one of the Fort Hood Three soldiers who, in 1966, were among the very first to speak out publicly against the war and announce that they were refusing orders to go to Vietnam. Pfc. James Johnson said:

Now there is a direct relationship between the peace movement and the civil rights movement. The South Vietnamese are fighting for representation like we ourselves …. Therefore the Negro in Vietnam is just helping to defeat what his black brother is fighting for in the United States. When the Negro soldier returns, he still will not be able to ride in Mississippi or walk down a certain street in Alabama. There will still be proportionately twice as many Negroes as whites in Vietnam. …

It is time that the Negro realizes that his strength can be put to much better use right here at home. This is where his strength lies. We can gain absolutely nothing in Vietnam. All this is leading to the decision I have made. I know it is my right to make this decision.

Another one of the Fort Hood Three, David Samas, made a speech, in which he urged the peace movement to:

Give the G.I. something to believe in and he will fight for that belief. Let them know in Vietnam that you want them to come home, let them know that you are concerned about their lives also. Tell them you want them to live, not die. Bring home our men in Vietnam!

In the end we depend entirely upon the public. We have placed ourselves in the hands of the people of the United States, and all of our hopes lie with them.

These speeches and signs of G.I. resistance to the war were early signs of what was to come later, when antiwar sentiment and opinion became so strong amongst the soldiers that the strongest military machine in the world became an unreliable fighting force in Vietnam.

In 1971, Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr. wrote an article entitled, “The Collapse of the Armed Force,” in the Armed Forces Journal. He opened the article:

The morale, discipline and battle worthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possible in the history of the United States.

By every conceivable indicator, 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 noncommissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near-mutinous.”

In the same article Heinl writes

‘Frag incidents,’ or just ‘fragging’ is current soldier slang in Vietnam for the murder or attempted murder of strict, unpopular, or just aggressive officers and NCOs. With extreme reluctance (after a young West Pointer from Senator Mike Mansfield’s Montana was fragged in his sleep) the Pentagon has now disclosed that fraggings in 1970 (209) have more than doubled those of the previous year (96).

Word of the deaths of officers will bring cheers at troop movies or in bivouacs of certain units.

Heinl documents the existence in 1971 of 144 underground newspapers published on or aimed at U.S. military bases (having increased 40% from the previous year), the existence of at least 14 G.I. dissent organizations including two made up solely of officers; the existence of 11 to 26 off-base antiwar GI coffee houses; and more.

“Conditions among American forces in Vietnam have only been exceeded in this century by the French Army’s Nivelle mutinies of 1917 and the collapse of the Tsarist armies in 1916 and 1917,” Heinl wrote. In other words, American military conditions approached those at the time of the Russian Revolution when the soldiers went over to the side of the Bolshevik revolution!

The role of the Civil Rights Movement

These conditions of breakdown in the military, which constitutes a breakdown of a pillar of the capitalist state apparatus, had their roots in the war itself—the many casualties, the fact that politically the war could not be justified to the U.S. soldiers, and the alternative of peace presented by the civilian antiwar movement. But just as significant, and in fact fundamental, was the effect of the Civil Rights Movement, the growth of Black nationalism, and the role of the conscious Black leadership in opposing the Vietnam War as well as the exposure of the disproportionate deaths and wounding of non-white soldiers in Vietnam due to the disproportionate numbers of these soldiers in combat.

A pivotal turning point for the growth of Black G.I. resistance to the war and the antiwar movement as a whole was a speech made by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City. This was a thoroughly revolutionary speech that defended the right of the Vietnamese people to revolt against their puppet dictators and the United States. King made the key arguments against the war from the point of view of Black people: “America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destruction suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and attack it as such.”

King pointed to the irony of sending “… young black men who had been crippled by our society 8,000 miles away to [supposedly] guarantee liberties which they hadn’t found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” He pointed out the irony of the country sending Black and white soldiers to kill and die together but unable to seat them together in the same schools. “So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit.” King said, “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.” What a bombshell this speech was—calling the U.S. government the greatest purveyor of violence in the world!

In 1970, Commander George L. Jackson, writing in the Naval War College Review acknowledged that the effect of Dr. King’s 1967 speech “… was of profound significance on the national scene.” He wrote, “The growing public disillusionment with the Vietnam war, of which Dr. King’s declaration was an essential part, made it more difficult for the military ... by reducing its ability to generate effective military-political pressure .... Just as the civil rights movement has served as a restraint upon the ability of American forces in Vietnam ... so it has altered and restricted the use of military resources ....” He continued:

The most apparent effect that the civil rights movement has had upon military force employment has been the necessity of using troops to quell civil disturbances. The National Guard has traditionally been used for this purpose. During the fiscal year 1968, 104,665 National Guardsmen were called to quell civil disturbances, many of which were precipitated by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. National Guard units were alerted for possible commitment in civil disturbances 77 times in 29 states and the District of Columbia. About one-fourth of those units alerted were used to quell disturbances in Detroit, Washington, and Chicago. The Detroit disturbance alone required 10,399 active duty Guardsmen and 5,547 active Army personnel to restore order. In February of 1969 the Guard was also called to the campus of the University of Wisconsin to quell student disorders stemming from demands to establish a Negro curriculum and increase numbers of Negro students and faculty members. This was the first case in which Guardsmen were used to restore order on campus.

In the same article Jackson states that the most important constraint on the military introduced by the civil rights movement “… is that produced by the coalition of civil rights organizations and the antiwar organizations. This coalition has spearheaded the shift of public opinion away from support of the Vietnam conflict.”

The Pentagon papers confirm that the U.S. government agreed with just this analysis. One recommendation from the Secretary of Defense to President Nixon acknowledged that “In dealing with public opinion and Congress the administration would have to prove that the administration would have the resources ‘for the ghetto fight’ in order to justify continued intervention in Vietnam.”

While objective factors of the casualties and the experience of being part of an invasion force against a popular revolution played a giant role in shaping the attitudes of soldiers and working people in general toward the Vietnam War, the action of the antiwar movement helped the objective factors to become part of the conscious response to the war.

Debates in the antiwar movement

One of the biggest debates in the antiwar movement, a debate held almost twice a year for ten years, was whether or not to call another mass street demonstration. The left wing of the movement was consistent in calling for escalating street demonstrations. This was the form that made it possible to reach more and more workers as objective events changed their minds and more soldiers’ minds as well. In 1969, almost 1,000 Marines participated in an antiwar march in Oceanside, California. An anti-racism rally in Heidelberg, Germany in 1970 drew over 1,000 GIs. One thousand sailors out of a crew of 4,500 on the Naval Attack Carrier USS Coral Sea, scheduled to sail to Vietnam for a bombing attack tour in the fall of 1971 signed a petition circulated secretly on board the ship stating that “We do not believe in the Vietnam War,” and that the ship “should not go to Vietnam.” Three hundred men from this ship led the antiwar demonstration in San Francisco that November 6th.

During the debates over whether or not to call another mass demonstration, there were those who argued that the government ignored the antiwar movement, so what was the point of demonstrating? The publication of the Pentagon Papers proved once and for all that the government only pretended to ignore the movement. The movement, and its steady growth, its growth in the Black and Chicano communities, its impact on the armed forces—all these were watched and carefully gauged by the government. At the time the government decided to give up its effort to the win the war they calculated that the system would have more to lose vis a vis the American population than if they persisted in escalating and trying militarily to defeat the Vietnamese.

During the Vietnam War the working class was at a very low ebb of class-consciousness, though probably most of the participants in the antiwar movement, at least at its height from 1968 on, were working people. Most, however, were not there with the support of their unions or other working class organizations. The unions themselves never joined in the antiwar actions in a major way, with some exceptions among hospital workers, teachers, and other progressive unions. That is a major reason that the antiwar movement couldn’t go beyond its single issue of ending the war, to ending the U.S. war machine permanently. That will take more than a movement. That will take a revolution.

While it is true that the Vietnam antiwar movement didn’t develop into the kind of a movement that could prevent the next series of U.S. interventions into the affairs of other countries, it did alter and narrow the U.S. government’s prerogatives in future ventures.

In order to deprive U.S. imperialism of the ability to use its military might against other countries and revolutions we will need more than a massive anti-war movement. For a permanent end to war we will need a self-conscious, organized, working class who will take control of society and run it democratically in its own name and for its own benefit.

1. Vietnam Declaration of Independence, September 2, 1945, printed in Vietnam and America, A Documented History, Grove Press, NY, p. 39.

2. Out Now! A Participant’s Account of the American Movement Against the Vietnam War, by Fred Halstead, Pathfinder Press, NY, 1978.





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