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.

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