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The struggle that stopped the Vietnam War
The making of the movement

May 27, 2005 | Pages 6 and 7

PAUL D'AMATO, author of the Socialist Worker column "The Meaning of Marxism" and associate editor of the International Socialist Review, describes the birth of the movement against the Vietnam War.

THE VIETNAM antiwar movement emerged as a response to the escalation of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam into a full-scale war.

The U.S. had given financial and military assistance to Vietnam's French colonialists to subdue the colony, from the end of the Second World War to the shattering defeat of the French by the nationalist Vietminh forces at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

The Geneva accords that followed partitioned Vietnam into North and South, pending an election that would reunify the country. Knowing that the Vietminh--under the leadership of Vietnamese communist Ho Chi Minh--would win the election and establish an independent Vietnam, the U.S. moved in to establish a brutal puppet dictatorship in the South, making the divide permanent.

This was justified on the grounds of preventing the "domino effect" of communism spreading throughout Asia. South Vietnam, according to the U.S. government's rhetoric, was a bastion of freedom against the North's aggression. But hatred for the U.S. puppet regime stoked an even deeper commitment to winning liberation. The National Liberation Front (NLF) was formed in 1960 and grew rapidly.

John Kennedy began sending hundreds of military "advisers." Between 1962 and 1963, the number of U.S. military personnel in Vietnam rose from just under a thousand to about 17,000.

At this point, the war was still under the public radar screen. But the massive escalation of the Vietnam War under Lyndon Johnson changed this. Massive indiscriminate bombing of North Vietnam and the deployment of tens of thousands of American troops--to take over from demoralized South Vietnamese Army troops who were deserting in droves--began to make the war a central focus of U.S. politics.

By mid-1965, there were 47,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam. Six months later, the number had jumped to 220,000. At the peak of the war in the late 1960s, the U.S. had half a million troops in Vietnam.

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THE MOVEMENT against the Vietnam War didn't arise in a vacuum. The antiwar movement was itself part of a wave of radicalization involving a number of other issues.

The activists who began organizing against the war in Vietnam had been involved in, or influenced by, several other struggles: the Black struggle for civil rights in the U.S. South; the movement against the proliferation of nuclear weapons; protests against the anticommunist witch-hunts of the 1950s; and the struggle for free speech centered on the University of California-Berkeley campus.

Activists in the North were particularly inspired by the Black students who formed the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and spearheaded the sit-in movement to desegregate lunch counters and other public accommodations in the South.

There was a direct connection between these struggles. For example, Mario Savio, a leader of the Free Speech movement in Berkeley, which was the immediate prelude to the antiwar movement, had gone to Mississippi to take part in Freedom Summer civil rights organizing in 1964. He returned to participate in sit-ins against racial discrimination in restaurants, hotels and supermarkets in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The cross-fertilization of the different struggles helped to deepen and broaden these movements and instill in activists a sense that they were fighting for more than one thing. Thus, the Macomb, Miss., branch of the Freedom Democratic Party--formed by civil rights activists to challenge the racist Dixiecrats' control over the Democratic Party--issued a statement in June 1965, whose fourth point declared: "No one has a right to ask us to risk our lives and kill other colored people in Santo Domingo and Vietnam, so that the white American can get richer."

The antiwar movement would eventually become a mass movement, involving people throughout society--students; soldiers; poor Blacks and Latinos influenced by the civil rights struggles; and large numbers of workers. But initially, students were the spearhead of the movement. In the early years after Johnson's escalation of the war, a majority of U.S. society expressed some measure of support for the war, leading some activists to conclude that the mass of working-class people were "bought off."

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THE FIRST wave of protests against the war took place on college campuses in 1963 and involved relatively small numbers of people. It took two more years for the first substantial national demonstration against the war to take place. Called by the newly formed Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) on April 17, 1965, it drew 20,000 to 30,000 people to Washington, D.C.

This protest was accompanied by a series of campus teach-ins involving thousands of students across the country. The largest was the Vietnam Day teach-in at Berkeley--where the free speech movement had exploded a year earlier. Some 30,000 people participated. During his speech, novelist Norman Mailer called President Johnson a "bully with an air force." These two developments began to give the antiwar movement a mass character.

Alarmed, the Johnson administration decided to send out a "truth team" to Midwestern universities to make its case for war. But at every stop, the "truth teams" were grilled by students and put on the defensive--increasing student opposition to the war. At the University of Wisconsin forum in Madison, Truth Team leader Thomas Conlon faced derisive laughter when he claimed that the U.S. was fighting for South Vietnam's "freedom," and when he denied that the U.S. "runs the show."

The protests and teach-ins had an effect on tens of thousands of people, turning them against the war. As one historian noted, "Many Americans had been skeptical of the war before the spring outpouring; they now realized that their misgivings were hardly unique."

Leon Trotsky's biographer Isaac Deutscher finished his speech at the Vietnam Day teach-in by saying that the solution to the world's problems was "one socialist world." At this point, most student activists hadn't reached this conclusion--that would come several years later, in the late 1960s.

But the fact that Deutscher could make such a statement and not be driven off the stage was testament to the political thaw taking place in U.S. society after the long period of McCarthyite reaction.

Doug Dowd, a radical professor at Cornell University during the Vietnam era, explained that when he taught at Berkeley in the 1950s, "You couldn't get anybody to say anything against the Korean War...Everybody was scared shitless to identify themselves with being against that war because it meant...that you must be a ranking member of the Communist Party."

The students of SDS who initiated the first national protest had to grapple with a legacy of anticommunism--not simply the right-wing variety on display in Washington, but within the liberal establishment and left organizations.

The civil rights and antinuclear movements of the 1950s had been careful to avoid the taint of being "red." The main antinuclear testing organization, Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), even went so far as to fire one of its key organizers after he was called in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and pleaded the Fifth Amendment.

This kind of behavior alienated many young student activists. They were turned off by what they considered the irrelevant political debates of the "old left"--but also by the politics of anti-communist exclusion and red-baiting so prevalent even among progressives.

As 1960s veteran and author Jo Freeman wrote: "One SNCC organizer spoke for many of the New Left when, answering accusations of Communist infiltration of the civil rights movement, he declared, 'I don't care what be believes. If he's willing to put his body on the line, he's welcome.'"

SDS had started out as the youth group of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID)--an organization of anti-Communist socialists and liberals such as Young People's Socialist League organizer Michael Harrington and Norman Thomas of the Socialist Party. LID leaders were staunchly pro-Democratic Party and allies of the conservative trade union bureaucracy under AFL-CIO President George Meany, a supporter of the war in Vietnam and a man who boasted that he never walked a picket line. Above all, they were united in considering the USSR a greater enemy to world peace than the U.S.

SDS students finally broke away from their conservative "parents" after several confrontations--including one in which LID leaders denounced SDS organizers and changed the locks on the group's office for allowing CP members to be seated at SDS's founding convention. In particular, SDS was criticized for placing "the blame for the Cold War largely on the U.S."

The irony of the LID's anti-Communist hostility was that the Communist Party (CP) shared the LID's devotion to the Democratic Party--and had played a decisive role, beginning in the late 1930s, in swinging support in the working class and radical movements behind the Democrats. Though its allegiance stemmed from a different source--a desire to prevent the USSR's isolation--the CP's operational conclusions were the same as those of the anti-Communist LID.

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AS THE growing movement against the war broke free of the restrictions that its early leadership tried to impose on it, activists grappled with a series of questions. One of the most important was whether the antiwar movement should stand for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops or a call for "negotiations now" to settle the war.

Liberal organizations such as SANE and Turn Towards Peace were worried about the radical direction of the new antiwar movement. Western Area Turn Towards Peace Director Robert Pickus, for example, issued a press release condemning the San Francisco march planned to coincide with the April 1965 national antiwar march.

"It is time that someone within the peace movement challenged activity which is, in fact, more hostile to America than to war," Pickus declared. Getting out of Vietnam, he argued, "is not the way to end the war in Vietnam."

Pickus pressed his opposition to the "out now" demand in antiwar organizing. During the lead-up to the Vietnam Day teach-in in Berkeley, for example, he "sought to impose an organizational apparatus to check the credentials of all the participants, in order to ensure that they agreed with his general views," according to participant James Petras. "His method of operation seemed to us a 'rule-or-ruin' approach."

On the day of the teach-in, Pickus debated Hal Draper of the Independent Socialist Clubs, over the question of whether the movement should call for negotiations or immediate withdrawal. "To oppose American intervention in Vietnam, as Hal Draper pointed out in his debate with Pickus, is to call for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops," Petras wrote. "To call for it 'later,' (under whatever pretense) is to legitimize violence in the here and now--since one cannot impose utopian dreams on what the U.S. Army does in fighting a war of conquest. One would not be too irreverent to refer to this type of 'peace' approach as 'War now--Peace later.'"

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THE SUCCESS of the April 1965 national march and the campus teach-ins transformed the antiwar movement. But ironically, the success of these events produced a sense of malaise in SDS--brought on to a large degree by a sense that national protests weren't effective.

For example, SDS leader Carl Davidson explained that after the national march, "I was convinced I was going to read on the front page that the war was over, that Johnson had seen all those people and would start to pull the troops out."

As activists used to seeing more immediate results around civil rights struggles in the early- to mid-1960s, SDS organizer Paul Booth explained, "We were completely disoriented by the phenomenon of mass protest and no reaction." Booth and others developed this sentiment into a theory that the U.S. was "impervious to pressure placed directly on it," as Booth wrote with another activist. "If we leave Vietnam, it will be a reflection of LBJ's tactical wisdom, not of our political force."

Partly as a result of this development, SDS--though it would be the largest radical student organization until its breakup in 1969--never again took the initiative in calling further national protests. However, this didn't stop local SDS chapters and other activists from continuing to organize.

The most important activities were a string of protests against military recruiters and the draft. The Vietnam Day Committee, based in Berkeley, organized for "International Days of Protest" against the war in October 1965, and the call was picked up by the newly formed National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam.

In the Bay Area, some 15,000 people turned out for a march to the Oakland Army Terminal, where demonstrators intended to leaflet soldiers shipping out for Vietnam--400 riot police turned the march back at the Oakland city limits.

The marchers' leaflet read in part: "You may soon be sent to Vietnam. You have heard about the war in the news; your officers will give you pep talks about it. But you probably feel as confused and uncertain as most Americans do. Many people will tell you to just follow orders and leave the thinking to others. But you have the right to know as much about this war as anyone. After all, it's you--not your congressmen--who might get killed."

All told, the October 1965 call saw 60 protests involving about 100,000 people around the country.

However, the question of whether larger protests were effective continued to emerge--pushed by liberal organizations. For example, Richard Fernandez, director of the Northwest Interfaith Movement, argued that "large rallies" were "kind of an ecumenical service where the already committed came... I thought they very rarely drew brand-new people."

Though he claimed that "local protests" were more important than national mobilizations, Fernandez's real agenda was shown by his conclusion--that the movement's main focus should be on lobbying Congress, with the aim (never successful) of convincing enough lawmakers to withdraw authorization for the war budget.

These sentiments were echoed by SANE--always worried about mass protest. When the group called a national demonstration for November 27, 1965, it announced that "kooks, communists and draft-dodgers" weren't welcome.

Worried about the turnout, however, SANE invited SDS to participate. SDS President Carl Oglesby explained that the group's choice was to "sit on the sidelines and let the march fail and give Johnson and his crowd the opportunity to crow over the death of the peace movement, or else go in there and try to make it work."

The discussions between Oglesby and SANE organizers highlighted the debate in the antiwar movement over the question of immediate withdrawal and the right of the Vietnamese people to self-determination.

Oglesby, for instance, had a "huge fight" with SANE leader Stanford Gottlieb after Oglesby offered the slogan "Vietnam for the Vietnamese." "I thought," said Oglesby, "that was a pretty normal thing for people to say, and there was no problem with it, but he saw it implicit endorsement of the communist side. This was the kind of thing I was up against."

At the demonstration itself, Oglesby made a pointed speech addressing the questions facing the movement. "The original commitment in Vietnam was made by President Truman, a mainstream liberal," Oglesby said. "It was seconded by President Eisenhower, a moderate liberal. It was intensified by the late President Kennedy, a flaming liberal. Think of the men who now engineer that war--those who study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons, and tally the dead: Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, Lodge, Goldberg, the president himself. They are not moral monsters. They are all honorable men. They are all liberals."

Oglesby speculated about a meeting between the "dead revolutionaries" of 1776 and the modern liberals prosecuting the war in Vietnam--in which the latter complained that Vietnamese rebels couldn't be fighting a "revolution" because they used terror and got help from foreign fighters.

"What would our dead revolutionaries answer?" Oglesby said. "They might say: 'What fools and bandits, sirs, you make then of us. Outside help? Do you remember Lafayette? Or the three thousand British freighters the French navy sunk for our side? Or the arms and men, we got from France and Spain? And what's this about terror? Did you never hear what we did to our own Loyalists? Or about the thousands of rich American Tories who fled for their lives to Canada? And as for popular support, do you not know that we had less than one-third of our people with us? That, in fact, the colony of New York recruited more troops for the British than for the revolution? Should we give it all back?'"

Oglesby concluded: "Revolutions do not take place in velvet boxes. They never have. It is only the poets who make them lovely. What the National Liberation Front is fighting in Vietnam is a complex and vicious war. This war is also a revolution, as honest a revolution as you can find anywhere in history. And this is a fact which all our intricate official denials will never change."

Such views remained in the minority among the antiwar movement when Oglesby gave his speech. But by now, they spoke for a core of activists who rejected the "common-sense" conceptions that had dominated the early days of the movement. Eventually, as the struggle spread, such ideas became accepted in the mainstream of the movement.

Efforts to stifle debate or confine the movement within political limits judged to be "acceptable" failed--because the course of events and demands of the struggle itself radicalized more and more people, leading them to look beyond the liberal orthodoxy.

In the end, this is what made it possible for the movement against the Vietnam War to change the face of American society.

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