The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement

The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement

The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement

An eloquent call to reclaim our history and honor those who resisted the war, from a key architect of the opposition.


On January 13, 2015, I drove from our nation’s capital across its historic bridges to a cold parking lot at Fort Myer, Virginia, where I felt jarred at seeing the vast hillside of solemn gravestones honoring those Americans who had sacrificed everything in our nation’s wars, including 58,000 who perished in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. I had visited Arlington many times before, and I had been to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington many times as well. Being there made me feel grounded in grief.

But I could not linger. I was here to talk to the Pentagon. With me was David Cortright, who had been an active-duty soldier in 1968–71 and who chose to oppose the Vietnam War and organize GIs. He was now the director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the author of the definitive history Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War. Cortright was our leader in initiating this attempt at honest dialogue with the Pentagon. His associate Terry Provance, an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ and a lifelong peace activist, cleared our way into the building. We were joined by John McAuliff, long affiliated with the Quaker-inspired American Friends Service Committee and now a leading figure in peace and reconciliation efforts between the United States, Vietnam, and Cuba, and by Margery Tabankin, who grew up in the Weequahic neighborhood on the white suburban border of the Newark ghetto where I, in 1964–67, knocked on poor people’s doors with the Newark Community Union Project, sponsored by Students for a Democratic Society. She had migrated to the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin during a time of mass antiwar confrontations.

Also joining us that day was Heather Booth, a successful organizer and trainer of new organizers over the past 50 years. In the wings to report any newsworthy developments was Ira Arlook of Fenton Communications.

After walking through the doors of Fort Myer Communications Center Building 405, we were greeted by the Pentagon team, led by retired Col. Mark Franklin of the History and Legacy Branch at the Pentagon’s Vietnam Commemoration office. With him was Phil Waite, a communications specialist, and the affable former war correspondent Joseph Galloway, the kind of guy you could swap stories with all day. Galloway had spent many years reporting from Vietnam and had written the best-selling We Were Soldiers Once… and Young, co-authored with retired Lt. Gen. Harold Moore, about the 1965 battle in Ia Drang Valley. Now he was involved in a project to document the lives of Vietnam vets on tape. It was a massive undertaking, and the challenge was daunting. Of almost 9 million Vietnam-era veterans, he said, almost 2 million had already died, and the losses were accelerating as time passed. Tabankin immediately offered to help raise funds and open Hollywood doors to expedite Galloway’s project.

* * *

We started by telling our personal stories and expectations for the meeting. I shared a story more personal than political. Since everyone knew of my activities during the Vietnam War—my unauthorized trips to Hanoi to seek the release of American POWs, my marriage to Jane Fonda, my trials in Chicago for helping to organize protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention—I simply said that all the stories of my efforts to end the war were true. I said my father, a World War II Marine, had disowned me for 16 years, cutting me off from my younger sister, all because of what he read in the papers about my adventures. My mother had virtually lived in hiding every time my name was in the news.

I described my experience when I was hauled into a New York induction center: All I recall seeing was a room full of confused, fearful, and naked 18-year-olds like me. I explained that torment and breakups had occurred in the families of soldiers, veterans, and political radicals alike. We were a generation divided by big lies and propaganda, although many had finally achieved reconciliation on personal levels. We wanted now to honor Vietnam veterans for their sacrifice and suffering, including the many thousands who had created an unprecedented GI peace movement and led the effort to end the war. We believed we must put a stop to false and sanitized history; real truth and sharing of stories were crucial to any authentic reconciliation. We had learned, almost accidentally, that the Pentagon was embarked on a congressionally mandated and funded effort to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the war’s escalation in 1965, when the first combat troops were sent to Vietnam. Already Franklin and his team had posted an “interactive timeline” on the Internet. It seemed, on its face, to be a den of denial, glossing over some events of the past and cherry-picking others to highlight. Under the guise of honoring veterans and their service, the timeline presented a distorted version of reality and seemed more an exercise in propaganda than an honest attempt to grapple with a complicated and disobliging historical record.

For example, the July 1, 1968, entry referred to the notorious Phoenix program only by its goal to “break Vietcong support in the countryside.” It didn’t mention that the program relied on systematic torture and assassination and that it was shut down after media exposure and congressional hearings.

The June 13, 1971, entry described the Pentagon Papers as a “leaked collection of government memos written by government officials that tell the story of U.S. policy.” The characterization was at best banal, and at worst neglected what was most significant about the whole affair, which ruptured government secrecy by exposing the deliberate and long-standing practice of the White House and the Pentagon to confuse and mislead the American people about the war. Nowhere did the timeline acknowledge that the Nixon administration failed in its attempt to convict Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo, who had leaked the papers to The New York Times and The Washington Post, of espionage. The Pentagon Papers were important because they suggested that our critique of the war was right, or at least that those of us who had long opposed our deepening disaster in Indochina weren’t wrong. The government’s own documents proved it. There were also no entries in the timeline describing draft resistance, opposition among GIs, deserters to Canada and other countries, prayer vigils, moratoriums, letters written to Congress, civil disobedience, peace campaigns for Congress and the presidency, massive teach-ins, and so on.

We were mindful that former Republican senator and defense secretary Chuck Hagel had said at the Vietnam Memorial that Americans had a duty “to be honest in our telling of history. There is nothing to be gained by glossing over the darker portions of a war…that bitterly divided America.… We must learn from past mistakes, because that is how we avoid repeating past mistakes.” Secretary of State John Kerry, a Vietnam combat veteran who later came to prominence opposing the war, had also chosen the road to reconciliation, playing a key role with Senator John McCain, a former POW, in forging the historic mutual recognition between the United States and Vietnam in 1995. Kerry said in Hanoi on August 7, 2015, in a ceremony marking 20 years of normalized relations, “We have the ability to overcome great bitterness and to substitute trust for suspicion and replace enmity with respect.”

It was with such hopes that we had arranged to meet with Franklin and his colleagues at the Pentagon. Our first obligation was to history and its tangled truths, so Cortright was blunt when he said, “Your Vietnam narrative simply can’t stand up to public scrutiny.” Franklin said he was heartened that we, too, wanted to honor the sacrifice of the veterans. A sense of relief washed over the room. He invited us to collaborate on revising the website by the inclusion of Vietnam scholars we would help to select. Congress, however, had approved the project seven years before. The design was all but done.

In addition, we were told that ultimately there would be a “wall of faces of every lost soldier” and a display of every item left at the Vietnam Memorial (there were already 400,000). There would also be a revised version of the Pentagon’s timeline, and the peace movement’s efforts to end the war would be included. But how? Clearly, progressive members of Congress and veterans of the vast opposition to the war would have to race to achieve inclusion. We realized that our fight over memory had just begun. The scales were tipped, but we had experience with flipping stories, from the underground press’s coverage of the My Lai massacre to coverage of the Pentagon Papers. Experience showed how activism, combined with critical thinkers and news media funded by our donations or foundation grants, could put projects of historical reclamation and protest on a faster track. And now, with the advent of social media, we had a new edge, the potential power to dramatically and publicly expose the false stories that had circulated from the 1950s to the Obama presidency, and to cast into sharper relief the pivotal role that our protests had played.

In the time we had for back-and-forth, we learned that the music being considered to accompany the timeline might include both Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets” and Edwin Starr’s “War,” with commentary. But where, we wondered, was Country Joe and the Fish’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” or Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” or John Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son,” or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio” and “Find the Cost of Freedom”?

The history of the antiwar movement needed to be portrayed, including the crucial role of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. There would need to be inclusion and funding for women’s experiences in the war as well.

* * *

We needed to reclaim our history on a grand scale. Many players—members of Congress, including Barbara Lee, Jim McGovern, and several others, as well as members of the clergy, foundations, liberal movements, and the new labor movement—would need to help plan this long campaign of historical reclamation. Storytellers, artists, actors, and musicians would need to be engaged in this effort. The more people were aroused, the more they might demand of Congress and the media, and the more the truth of history could be presented.

Some on the left would perhaps denounce the whole project—some already had. Some might want a memorial to anticolonial and anti-imperialist movements and an admission that Vietnam was never a “mistake” but a systemic genocidal program. And maybe such ideological positioning, brewed through bitterness and rage, is correct. Our movement, now as then, was divided, with splits among radicals, revolutionaries, sectarians, moderates, and militants, including legions of paid FBI informants and provocateurs sent by our government. Disparate groups triggered a huge movement, but the war was finally ended by Vietnam veterans, the civil-rights leadership, and a congressional bloc that woke up and took action. We should give credit and honor to the movement, however it splintered and burned out, because the broader struggle was a turning point in our history, notwithstanding all our mad, outrageous diversity. What we should honor and strive for today is an inclusive demonstration of the power of the peace movement.

There are liberal forces that may want to coopt us, and conservative forces that surely want to erase us from history altogether. There are wealthy donors and hawks who seek to use the example of Vietnam to escalate other wars and pursue endless campaigns of demonization against Islam to wipe out terrorism.

The Vietnam protest movement may never achieve the recognition already given other movements from the same era: civil rights, women’s rights, farmworkers’ rights, the environmental movement, and more recent struggles like the one for LGBTQ rights. Earlier struggles for workers’ rights in the 1930s were recognized, institutionalized, and legitimized in American politics in ways the peace movement never has been. Even Barack Obama, a brilliant wordsmith, distanced himself from the ’60s with sarcasm in his book The Audacity of Hope, writing: “Sometimes I felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation—a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago.” Obama does credit “the sixties generation” with success in the admission of minorities and women into full citizenship, but the antiwar movement, including the role of Julian Bond, Martin Luther King Jr., and Vietnam Veterans Against the War goes unmentioned. A movement that partly made Obama’s achievement possible is stricken from the record he writes.

Since there is today virtually no popular, well-funded, and permanent activist peace movement, our recognition of such powerful grassroots groups is fading away into legend, banished to the musty bookcases of the left. To be sure, groups like Peace Action, the Quakers, and the Institute for Policy Studies thrived during the nuclear-freeze campaign of the early 1980s and during the Iraq invasion and occupation, but their influence rapidly declined. Even so, peace groups have mounted feisty opposition, albeit on a much smaller scale than in the Vietnam era. To avoid the consequences of negative public opinion, Washington has launched secret drone wars as an alternative to deploying US troops, thereby lessening casualties. That demonstrates the power of the Vietnam memory and represents a major achievement for a peace movement 50 years after American soldiers fled Saigon. Political worries about drafting and deploying American troops is one of the peace movement’s most powerful and enduring legacies.

* * *

Even though the Vietnam War ended in a historic US failure, the hawks who supported it have gone on to enjoy comfortable roles in successive administrations. Few of the pro-war pundits, elites, and think-tankers have apologized or resigned since Vietnam. Instead, they have risen in the ranks of the national-security establishment while implementing further military follies based on many of the same assumptions that led to the Vietnam collapse. Meanwhile, the spectrum of “legitimate” opinion has tilted to military options while marginalizing anyone with proven experience in the Vietnam peace movement.

The trivializing of the peace movement’s history has distorted the public memory of Dr. King, who opposed the Vietnam War in a speech in August 1965, a few months after the first SDS march on Washington. His most important antiwar orations, delivered in April 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York and at a mass rally in Central Park, were met by angry editorials in The New York Times and The Washington Post. He was condemned by the Johnson White House, as well as by the leaders of labor and most civil-rights organizations. It was inappropriate, many claimed, for a “Negro spokesman” to stray into the territory of foreign policy. And though his antiwar message is included on the plaque at the King Memorial, he is generally remembered today as a civil-rights leader, not as a man who opposed the Vietnam War and was organizing a Poor People’s Campaign until his last breath. The myth persists that freedom can be expanded at home while repression is imposed and massive bombings escalated abroad. Few remember that shortly after King’s death, amid the police brutality and street battles at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, a mule train of civil-rights workers from King’s organization was there in silent tribute to what might have been. We were part of the cause he led, and he was part of us. History has shown that he was right, for the full realization of his justice agenda is still blocked by the permanent war economy and the national surveillance state.

One can only guess why so many elites want to forget the Vietnam peace movement by history cleansing, why public memories have atrophied, and why there are few memorials to peace. The steady denial of our impact, the persistent caricatures of who we really were, the constant questioning of our patriotism, the snide suggestions that we offered no alternative but surrender to the Communist threat, have cast a pall of illegitimacy over our memory and had a chilling effect on many journalists, peace dissenters, and the current generation of students. Of course, one reason for this forgetting is that the Vietnam War was lost—a historical fact that representatives of a self-proclaimed superpower can never acknowledge. Accepting defeat is simply not permissible.

It is more convenient to lay the blame on the peace movement, the liberal media, dovish politicians at home. For if the war rested on false assumptions, the deaths of 58,000 Americans and millions of Indochinese might reasonably be blamed on a whole generation of American policy-makers, intellectuals, and generals. Those at fault could never look the families of the dead in the eye. Imagine the grief and rage among those families. Resignations might be required. Instead, the antiwar movement has been ignored or scapegoated, while those truly at fault have enjoyed decades of immunity.

Since the Vietnam War’s makers cannot accept responsibility or acknowledge the full truth, those who opposed the war are needed more than ever, to prevent the dimming of memory and to keep history from repeating. We must write our own history, tell our own story, and teach our lessons of Vietnam. We need to understand better why we did what we did and what it meant, not only for those of us who helped to make this history, but also to tease out for the generations to come what lessons might be learned from the legacy that these great upheavals left us. Of one lesson, I have no doubt: Peace and justice movements can make a difference.

It is true that our movement was deeply fragmented. The antiwar movement reproduced many of the racial, class, gender, and cultural divides of the society from which we came. On top of those differences there crept the infection of sectarian power struggles that still afflicts social movements in general. Informants and provocateurs from COINTELPRO (the notorious FBI counterintelligence program) did their best to spread the poisons of distrust, division, and violence.

It is not too late to recover and begin again. This is already happening in the reconciliation process between the Vietnamese and our country. But we must not forget that for the Vietnamese, the war is not fully over. The soil of Vietnam is contaminated with Agent Orange. Unexploded ordnance still covers the landscape. Those deformed by our defoliants will transmit their disabilities to their children for generations. Each generation of Americans has a responsibility to help mitigate this permanent damage. And yet, by the tens of thousands, American veterans and their families are touring old battlefields, shaking hands and sharing tea with their old enemies. The sentiments of resolution are palpable. So are the feelings experienced by visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

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

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