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.

Hell No: The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement

Publisher: Yale University Press
Price: $25.00
Author: Tom Hayden
Length: 168 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-01
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.

Next Page

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.