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How the movement against the Vietnam War took shape
A struggle that stopped a war

November 1, 2002 | Page 8

BILL ROBERTS tells the story of the movement against the Vietnam War.

MORE THAN 25 years after the end of the Vietnam War, America's rulers are still dealing with the effects of the worst defeat ever suffered by U.S. imperialism.

Before Vietnam, Washington rarely hesitated to send troops abroad to enforce U.S. interests--at first in America's "backyard" in the Western Hemisphere, but increasingly around the globe in the years after the Second World War.

After the U.S. was forced out of Vietnam--defeated by a poorly armed guerrilla movement fighting for national liberation--America's military adventures were severely curtailed. To this day, U.S. politicians are very cautious about committing ground troops to a foreign war, for fear of the "body bags" coming home and turning popular sentiment against them--something that remained a consideration even in last year's war on Afghanistan.

This is one legacy of Vietnam that the Bush administration is still trying to overcome with its "war on terrorism"--the last remnants of what has been called the "Vietnam Syndrome."

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ONE IMPORTANT part of the U.S. defeat in Vietnam was the mass antiwar movement that arose in "the belly of the beast"--within the U.S. itself. The lessons of that movement are worth recalling for a new generation in the process of building a new antiwar struggle.

The first lesson is that it wasn't a mass movement in the beginning. The initial protests against Vietnam were little more than informational picket lines of a handful of people scattered across the country. Most of these early efforts were organized by pacifists or activists from the movement against nuclear weapons.

Most people were caught unaware when President Lyndon Johnson unleashed Operation Rolling Thunder--the first mass bombing attack on North Vietnam--in March 1965. After all, Johnson had campaigned as a peace candidate the previous fall and beat his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, in a landslide.

Domestic politics during this time was dominated by the struggles of the civil rights movement in the U.S. South, which produced a layer of activists not seen in a generation. Many of these activists saw the escalation in Vietnam as a diversion of resources by the government away from urgent domestic needs, and some began to apply the organizing skills they had learned in the South to protesting the war.

The early phase of the movement was viewed as an educational effort. Many thought that the government had made a terrible mistake and could be persuaded to turn back. At this point in 1965, polls showed that 57 percent of people supported Johnson's Vietnam policy, and only 24 percent opposed it. More than a quarter of people told pollsters that they thought antiwar protesters were communist tools.

But attitudes began to shift--starting first on college campuses. In March 1965, a group of students and faculty at the University of Michigan organized "a moratorium on teaching as usual"--a one-day debate on the war. The administration refused to cancel classes, so the event was held in the evening. It lasted until 8 a.m. the next day.

Over the coming months, hundreds of campuses organized similar events. The largest was at University of California-Berkeley in May. It attracted more than 30,000 people to a 36-hour marathon teach-in.

The teach-ins weren't just antiwar speak-outs. They were wide-ranging and included debates with defenders of the government's policy, often sent out from Washington. History, Cold War theory, strategy and tactics of peace, and the implications of imperialism were all part of the discussion. Meanwhile, poetry, skits and singing added to an emerging culture of political activism.

The campus teach-ins instilled confidence in the antiwar movement to take the next steps.

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INITIALLY, PEACE activists believed that once enough people made their voices heard, the government would respond positively.

It did respond--but with misinformation and repression. But that only fueled the determination of the movement. Besides speaking out, circulating petitions, distributing leaflets and lobbying politicians, activists began to research the economic and political forces that backed the war.

Campus activists discovered strong links between their universities, corporations and the military. This led to picket lines and sit-ins at war production plants, army induction centers and university administration offices.

Early on, there were tensions in the movement between those who welcomed anyone opposed to the war, regardless of their political affiliation, and others who wanted to exclude Communists and socialists.

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a small activist group, was one of the non-exclusionist organizations. SDS organized the first national antiwar demonstration in April 1965. Although traditional peace groups boycotted the event, nearly 20,000 people showed up--a completely unexpected turnout.

Organizations like SDS moved sharply to the left as the pace of struggle and movement activity increased. But no single antiwar organization or coalition would last the entire period.

The movement itself didn't recognize the headway it was making. Because the war dragged on without resolution and with growing casualties, many became discouraged with protest. It seemed that no matter how large the demonstrations were, the administration wouldn't budge. Two events in 1968 showed that the antiwar opposition was winning.

In late January, the National Liberation Front launched an offensive--known as Tet, after the new lunar year--with its forces surging into more than 100 cities and towns across South Vietnam. Tet put the lie to the Pentagon's claim that "there was light at the end of the tunnel" in Vietnam. U.S. forces defeated the offensive militarily, but not before the guerrillas proved that Washington was fighting a losing battle.

The other sign of the antiwar movement's accomplishments in early 1968 was the result of the Democratic primary in New Hampshire. Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who campaigned as an opponent of the war, nearly beat the incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson, in the first contest for the 1968 nomination. In short order, Johnson said that he was retiring from politics and vowed not to run in the general election.

Even so, the antiwar movement didn't fully recognize its victory. Only 20,000 showed up in Chicago for protests to confront the Democrats at their national convention. But that didn't stop Chicago police from rampaging against antiwar activists--exposing the brutality of the U.S. state as "the whole world was watching."

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WHO OPPOSED the war? College students grabbed the headlines, but the opposition was much broader. A 1971 Gallup poll, for example, found that 60 percent of those with a college education favored withdrawing troops from Vietnam, 75 percent of those with a high-school education favored withdrawal, and 80 percent of those with a grade-school education favored withdrawal. Among African Americans and Latinos, the opposition was overwhelming. No one could miss the fact that the soldiers sent to die in Vietnam were disproportionately minorities.

This growth of antiwar opposition within the working class set the stage for the disintegration of the U.S. army in Vietnam--the most decisive element in ending the war. After Tet, soldiers began openly to join the movement. They marched in uniform at demonstrations and threw their medals away.

Activists produced underground newspapers to agitate among soldiers and set up coffeehouses near bases as organizing centers.

Soldiers began to resist engaging the "enemy," with incidents of "fragging"--the shooting of officers who ordered soldiers into dangerous combat situations--jumping into the hundreds by the early 1970s. Troops had to be disarmed in many units to prevent fraggings. Thus, to protect the officer corps, the U.S. military was forced to disarm itself. Once the antiwar movement "infected" the army, the Vietnam War was lost--though it took several years for Washington to admit defeat.

This is a history that the politicians would rather we forget. But they can't erase the memory of a struggle that stopped a horrific war--and the lessons of that struggle remain important ones to remember today.

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