What Can Today’s Activists Learn From the Vietnam Anti-war Movement?

The lessons of the Vietnam peace movement are at risk of being distorted and forgotten, argues one of its founding voices.

America is again embroiled in — and losing — genocidal, racist wars whose only outcome seems to be millions of dead, further economic and social ruin for America, and the undermining of America’s democratic institutions. What, if anything, did the anti-war peace movement of the ’60s achieve?

Tom Hayden went from being a leader in the student and civil rights movements in the ‘60s to California state senator in the ‘90s. He was a member of the ‘Chicago Seven’, convicted of conspiracy and inciting to riot in the late ‘60s, and he was a member of the California State Assembly in the ‘80s.

If anyone epitomizes the awkward drift between activist and establishment, it’s him. Still an outspoken writer and community organizer in the early 21st century, he died on 23 October 2016. Hell No: The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement is his posthumously published call for the anti-war movement of the ’60s not to be forgotten, and his effort to explain why it needs to be remembered and how it remains relevant in our present age.

There’s a lot that’s important in this book. But first: the criticism. As a narrative, the book leaves a lot to be desired. It’s a rambling, largely unstructured set of reminiscences and reflections. It hops around chronologically and refers to a wide range of incidents — court trials, military engagements, government bills and debates — without explaining what most of them are or providing any background context. While the book is no doubt highly readable to those who lived through the era or scholars who have studied it, it would be highly confusing to most average contemporary readers.

That’s unfortunate because that’s purportedly the whole point of the book – to educate contemporary readers and younger generations on a critically important history, which is now at risk of being forgotten. Hayden’s passionate narrative is convincing in its plea for the importance of this historical task of remembering. But is this the book to do it? Hell no.

It’s hard to say how the book escaped more serious editorial control. Perhaps Hayden’s recent death has something to do with the nature of the book, which reads as though it was published without being finished or even thoroughly edited. It’s tough to speak harshly about the final publication of a public figure and scholar who’s clearly deserving of our respect. But readers ought to be warned that Hell No is not a useful introduction to the Vietnam peace movement. Had it been thoroughly edited, with sections put in chronological order, and with a hefty collection of notes to explain the various references Hayden makes in the text, it would have been a far more useful book. In its present form, it’s more of a supplemental resource on the period, somewhere between memoir and manifesto. Hayden himself refers to it as an essay. But an essay on events of 50 years ago requires reference material to make it accessible for today.

All that said, the book is not without value or importance. Quite the opposite: what Hayden does succeed in, is making a passionate pitch for the importance and value of remembering what is now being forgotten. The book lacks a structured argument, but between its disjointed chapters lie a wealth of insights and important observations. The key lies in ferreting them out.

Hayden writes with passion — his fury at the arrogance and impunity of the US government, and his sorrow at the tragic and preventable loss of life on both sides in the Vietnam War (he enumerates the millions of deaths from colonialist interventions in Indochina in the penultimate chapter) — is palpable. This accounts in part for the haphazard structure of the book — it’s a furious and invective tirade against a war which reflected so many strands of injustice that it’s hard to know where to start in singling them out. This is what he means when he says the peace movement must not be forgotten: it was about a lot more than hippies with flowers in their hair, and the end of the war was brought about by a lot more than exasperated generals finally throwing up their arms in frustration at opinion polls. Several points emerge in this extended rant, worth considering for the record. Their importance to the historical record lies in their relevance to the present, and to the wars in which America is currently embroiled. Let’s consider some of these points.

First, despite its failure, the Vietnam War never resulted in accountability. Those directly responsible for the slaughter of millions of Asians and tens of thousands of Americans went on to continue illustrious careers and are even today celebrated in historical and political texts. No one ever admitted defeated, no one admitted that they were wrong. No one went to prison for their role in spurring on the war, no one was forced to resign in disgrace. The result is that the same culture which spurred on the war still pervades American governance and political and military leadership today. There was never an effort to publicly acknowledge the mistake of the Vietnam War and root out from America’s leadership the sort of mentality which caused it. The result is that that same genocidal and unbalanced mentality exists in America’s leadership today.

Also, the peace movement has been deliberately trivialized. Many of its leaders were involved in other movements — from civil rights to feminism to labour — and the consequence of this is that the peace movement, as a movement, has become increasingly blurred and subsumed beneath the memory of those other movements. It’s important to reclaim its memory, argues Hayden, and to acknowledge the role of its leadership — figures like Dr. Martin Luther King — in fighting for peace. Otherwise, the idea of a ‘peace movement’ becomes marginalized, seen as a quaint anachronistic joke, rather than a force capable of uniting other social movements and transforming the country, which is how its proponents in the ’60s saw it.

In many ways, they did unite movements and changed the country. It is fear that they could do so again, suggests Hayden, which leads conservatives to joke about and trivialize the peace movement and its historical legacy.

“The disaster that began in Vietnam still spirals on as a conflict between empire and democracy,” writes Hayden. “The cycle of war continues its familiar path. Truth, it is said, is war’s first casualty. Memory is its second.”

The peace movement was spurred on by the power of the student movement, notes Hayden, and the eroding memory of the peace movement’s strength and power parallels that of the eroding memory of the student movement’s strength and power. Despite intense divisions and faction-fighting, the student movement of the ’60s succeeded in pouring millions of people into the streets in marches, taking over entire campuses, mobilizing thousands on a day’s notice, and confronting armed troops and national guardsmen on their campuses. And they did it, Hayden notes wryly, without social media or instantaneous communications of any sort. Even without advanced technology, they were able to mobilize and organize just as quickly. It speaks to the power of movement building and commitment. “Instead of today’s blizzard of social media, something was in the air itself — an interpersonal connectedness far deeper than bulk communication without soul,” he writes.

Another myth Hayden confronts is that of public opinion. Conventional narrative suggests that protestors were a minority — students, hippies — and most of the public supported the war (or remained ambivalent) at least until near its end. Opinion polls and other research, however, show that public opinion turned against the war very early on. It was waged in opposition to public sentiment, by a government that flagrantly ignored public opinion, and only made lip-service to appease or manipulate public opinion briefly around election time. But the war, he says, was deeply unpopular and opposed by the American public from early on.

Another important aspect we must remember about the war, he rages, is its “thoroughgoing racism”. This manifested of course in the racist depictions and slurs aimed at the Vietnamese (which parallels today with the racism aimed at Arabs and Muslims). The war’s memory is racially biased, too. Even today, the South Vietnamese soldiers who were recruited, trained and fought for the US against Communist North Korea are ignored by the US government, which refuses to acknowledge them. Roughly 300,000 South Vietnamese died fighting for America, and the US government refuses to acknowledge them out of fear that it could become liable for paying benefits to their families.

But on another level, the Vietnam War also offered an opportunity to perpetuate racism in the US. A disproportionately high number of those recruited and killed during the war were African-Americans, Hispanics, and Puerto Ricans. The draft coincided with a period of renewed civil rights struggle and inner city uprisings by racialized minorities in America, and both the war and the draft were eagerly championed by segregationist and white supremacist politicians. They saw it as a way to target an increasingly restive non-white population.

This is also why the civil rights movement became a key ally to the peace movement, recognizing the inherent racism of the war, both in terms of who it targeted and who it sacrificed. The war threatened not only Asians: it threatened America’s racialized communities, too.

It was also a colonial war. Hayden notes that the tactics used by the US — trying to divide Vietnamese ethnic groups and play them off against each other, bribing ethnic minorities to join them as allies, signing treaties and then breaking them whenever convenient — echoes tactics used by other colonial powers in Africa and Asia, and was not unlike the US government’s strategy for undermining Native Americans: broken treaties and sowing division.

A final and important point is that the US did not just give up and walk away. The US was soundly defeated by the Vietnamese, who deployed an effective political-military strategy. In addition to defeating US troops on the ground in military combat, the Vietnamese reached out to Americans in a cultural and political sense. They welcomed peace delegations, fact-finding missions and other non-hostile Americans, and framed their struggle in anti-colonial, democratic language that resonated with everyday Americans. They waged both a military and a diplomatic struggle, and they won. But at a terrible cost.

An often forgotten element of America’s military defeat is the role of resistance among US soldiers, particularly in the face of the draft. The story of war resisters and draft dodgers is well known; less well known is the more militant resistance on the part of American soldiers. There was, Hayden notes, “a significant GI revolt that… saw more than five hundred ‘fraggings’ (attacks by soldiers against their own officers using fragmentation grenades) in 1969 and 1970, scores of ‘riots’ on military bases, forty thousand desertions to Canada and Sweden, and official reports that the armed forces themselves were ‘approaching collapse.’” The US government didn’t just move away from the draft under public pressure; it did so because it feared the consequences of arming rebellious, racialized and increasingly mutinous youth.

Lessons for Today?

“What is certain.. is that the yearning for justice and dignity is inextinguishable, for it defines us as a species seeking to give meaning to our otherwise inchoate lives.”

The Vietnam war and the peace movement it provoked has important meanings for today’s America as well. Hayden is critical of how American media covered their country’s wars with Iraq. Instead of seeking out peace activists, especially Vietnam War-era activists, the media predominantly turned to current or former members of the military for ‘expert opinions’. But what about the ‘expert opinions’ of those who had successfully organized against the Vietnam War? The media’s approach framed the war in a deliberate way, marginalizing the historical presence and impact of the peace movement and relegating it to a place in history, as opposed to a movement with relevance for the present. Instead of presenting a debate between war and peace, the media presented debates between differing military strategies: the inevitability of war was accepted by the media as a foregone conclusion.

The Vietnam War also led to the development of political and institutional mechanisms designed to prevent the worst excesses that characterized government impunity during that period. This included laws to restrict the ability of the executive branch to wage war and to restrict the ability of intelligence and security agencies to undermine civil liberties. Yet these safeguards, which only ever existed in nascent form, have been systematically undermined, especially in recent years. They’ve been treated with disdain and scorn as irrelevant, and essentially ignored by those they’re intended to restrain. Hayden sees a pattern in this.

“The permanent pattern of scandal, expose, reform, and counterreform is this: the escalation of secretive and press-managed war inevitably is accompanied by the smothering or diverting of dissent, raising the ultimate stakes between democracy and empire. Token changes are then designed to dull the sharp edges of dissent before it spills over to new conflict and disobedience. Step by step, the system that is first targeted for reform is gradually consumed by its original targets, like moss growing over a stone. In this example, the CIA, the original focus of the Church Committee reforms, evolved malignantly until the roles were reversed and today it stands exposed as spying on its own oversight committee. Thus does the fox stealthily creep back into the henhouse.”

(Yet the lesson of the Vietnam War, he notes, also offers hope. “Despite its best efforts, though, the system is never all controlling, however ‘effective’ its spying and counterintelligence. The more secrets are divulged, the more revelations appear in the media, the more protests erupt.”)

Protest movements offer other parallels. Vietnam began as a liberals’ war, he says, but it didn’t take long for liberals to turn sour on it and become key allies in the struggle against it (which parallels with America’s current middle eastern conflicts). Yet this provoked a challenge, as the protest movement became divided between those seeking to work within the system — government resolutions, petitions, bargains and compromises — and those seeking a solution outside the system (protests, rallies, militant confrontations and bombings of police and military targets). Hayden’s sympathies are clearly with the liberals, and he was a key player in many of the ‘establishment’-driven initiatives to end the war. But he acknowledges that it was both sides of the struggle — the ‘inside-outside’ nature of the peace movement and its activism — which is what contributed ultimately to its strength and effectiveness.

The continuation of war under other guises today also parallels that of the Vietnam War. At the same time as the US government ended the draft and committed to ‘bringing the troops home’ from Vietnam, it actually escalated bombing. This parallels the pattern in the Middle East: withdrawal of combat troops but escalation of drone warfare. Some of the ’60s activists, notes Hayden, recognized that ending the Vietnam War wouldn’t end their struggle against American-led colonial wars. They saw the peace movement as beginning a multi-generational struggle. They knew there would be future wars, and they argued that the movement-building they were doing — popular education, teach-ins, and other innovative tactics — were the beginning of an effort to transform society, one which would take generations. They weren’t in it just for Vietnam; they were in it for the long haul.

The Vietnam War may have also been the beginning of America’s economic decline, suggests Hayden. The astounding escalation of military spending not only began driving the US toward indebtedness and bankruptcy, but it also came at the expense of spending on America’s social programs. The trend continues to the present.

But what are the practical lessons the Vietnam peace movement has for us today? On this Hayden’s wide-ranging essay is less clear. In many ways he seems to be struggling with the question himself. Given all the immense effort the peace movement put into stopping the Vietnam War in the ’60s, how can its activists understand the fact that America is again embroiled in — and losing — genocidal, racist wars whose only outcome seems to be millions of dead, further economic and social ruin for America, and the undermining of America’s democratic institutions? What, if anything, did the peace movement achieve?

Hayden’s final reflections on the Vietnam war take place amid the backdrop of America’s ongoing wars in the Middle East. One of his final chapters offers reflections on a recent trip to Vietnam. The country is now one of America’s close allies in the region, and intently pursuing a neoliberal capitalist economy. During the war, America’s conservative pundits had warned that if the US gave up or was defeated by communist Vietnam, it would be a fatal blow for the West and for capitalism. Yet the doomsday scenario they used to justify over a decade of war never came to pass, even after the US was defeated in Vietnam. It provokes a bitter reflection; What was all the useless sacrifice for, on both sides? Why did millions have to die, if both countries were going to just carry on in jolly fashion once it was over?

Perhaps it offers a lesson for the Middle East: if the West would just walk away, things might get back to ‘normal’ a whole lot quicker. Of course, Hayden notes, there are differences. The Vietnamese embraced supportive westerners and actively sought networks and coalitions with them; Islamist militants seem less interested in international friendship alliances with the West. At times Hayden comes close to idolizing the Vietnamese, and while this is fine and well, it doesn’t much allow for universal lessons to be drawn.

His depiction of the racism inherent in the Vietnam War also has clout in today’s world. The wars in the Middle East have serious racist implications as well, and they take place amid a domestic backdrop where black lives are again very visibly under siege not only in the country’s various institutions but also at the hands of its police forces. Could the ‘GI Strike’ offer lessons for hope? Will the US government be forced to take racism seriously if racialized police officers start turning their weapons against their own officers, as they did in Vietnam? Yet the US soldiers who did so in Vietnam were drafted and treated miserably; so long as America’s police forces are paid and treated well they are probably less likely to rebel.

So is there any hopeful lesson to be drawn from the Vietnam peace movement? Well, it did persevere against an American government that threw everything it had against it. It did manage to unite fractious and divisive movements and groups from across the country into common cause and managed to ultimately end the attacks on Vietnam. Even Hayden doesn’t seem entirely sure how they managed to do it, but the key point, he asserts, is that they did.

The message to today’s generation is: don’t give up hope, and don’t forget that the Vietnam peace movement shows that it is possible for a movement to overcome the most daunting odds. He turns to the metaphor of a redwood forest and the complex ecologies of which it is comprised. “Social movements follow a similar course, from seeds to saplings to maturity, through storms and failures, until they, too, climax in exuberance, scattering seed again.”

“Thus do movements of reform and radical change rise and fall, and rise again. The alchemy of change isn’t a science. It is elusive and unpredictable. What is certain, however, is that the yearning for justice and dignity is inextinguishable, for it defines us as a species seeking to give meaning to our otherwise inchoate lives.”

Well, it’s a fragile metaphor, but a hopeful one.

“Mistakes were made [in the antiwar movement], serious mistakes, but our America is a better place because we stood up against all odds.”