The throngs of Vietnamese who hailed Bill Clinton as “the antiwar President” demonstrated that they as a people remember something that we as a people have chosen to forget. It is time to restore our memory of that great antiwar movement by tens of millions of Americans, a movement that began with the first US acts of war in 1945.
Yes, 1945. In September and October of that year, eight troopships were diverted from their task of bringing American troops home from Europe to transport US-armed French soldiers and Foreign Legionnaires from France to recolonize Vietnam. The enlisted seamen on those ships immediately began organized protests. On arriving in Vietnam, the entire crews of the first four troopships met in Saigon and drew up a resolution condemning the US government for using American ships to transport an invasion army “to subjugate the native population” of Vietnam.
The movement kept growing. In 1954, when Vice President Nixon suggested sending American troops to replace the French because “the Vietnamese lack the ability to conduct a war or govern themselves,” thousands of letters and telegrams opposing US intervention deluged the White House. An American Legion division with 78,000 members demanded that “the United States should refrain from dispatching any of its Armed Forces to participate as combatants in the fighting in Indochina or in southeast Asia.” On the Senate floor, Senator Ed Johnson of Colorado declared, “I am against sending American GIs into the mud and muck of Indochina on a blood-letting spree to perpetuate colonialism and white man’s exploitation in Asia.” A Gallup poll revealed that 68 percent of those surveyed were against sending US troops to Indochina. Because of the American people’s opposition, the US war had to be waged by four administrations under the cloak of plausible deniability.
We have been depriving ourselves of pride about the finest American behavior during that war. In most wars, a nation dehumanizes and demonizes the people on the other side. Almost the opposite happened during the Vietnam War. Tens of millions of Americans sympathized with the Vietnamese people’s suffering, many came to identify with their 2,000-year struggle for independence and some even found them an inspiration for their own lives.
But in the decades since the war’s conclusion, American consciousness of the Vietnamese people, with all its potential for healing and redemption, has been systematically obliterated. Ironically, it was after the war that demonization of the Vietnamese began to succeed, thanks in part to the national beatification of POWs and the myth of POWs as martyrs still being tortured by Vietnam. Soon those who had fought against the war became, as a corollary, a despised enemy. They also became the villains in another myth, developed from the 1980s to the present: the spat-upon veteran. As Vietnam veteran and sociologist Jerry Lembcke has shown in The Spitting Image, there is not a shred of evidence of this supposedly widespread phenomenon.
In fact, Vietnam veterans and active-duty soldiers and sailors became the vanguard of the antiwar movement. At home, veterans led the marches and demonstrations, including the 1971 assembly of a half-million protesters headed by a thousand Vietnam veterans, many in wheelchairs and on crutches, who paraded up to a barricade erected to keep them from the Capitol and hurled their Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars and Silver Stars at the government that had bestowed them. In Vietnam, fraggings and mutinies helped compel the withdrawal of most of the ground forces, while rebellions and sabotage put at least five aircraft carriers out of combat. (Who today can believe that 1,500 crew members of the USS Constellation signed a petition demanding that Jane Fonda’s antiwar show be allowed to perform on board?)
As the antiwar movement spread even into the intelligence establishment, the American people got access to the most damning truths in the leaked Pentagon Papers. As Senator Mike Gravel noted in 1971, only a person who “has failed to read the Pentagon Papers” could believe we were fighting for “freedom and liberty in Southeast Asia.”
But we as a nation have forgotten all that, just as we have forgotten our government’s pledge to help rebuild the country it destroyed despite all our opposition.