Vietnam teach-in

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon May 1 07:58:30 MDT 2000

Yesterday I attended a teach-in on Vietnam at the Stephen Wise Synagogue in
NYC, which appeared to be organized by the Committees of Correspondence,
( a split from the CPUSA
precipitated by Gus Hall's support for the August 1991 coup against
Gorbachev. Basically, the C. of C. defends a more open and less sectarian
approach than the CP, but is still mired in the Democratic Party. The key
organizer of the event was Merle Ratner who lurked on this list briefly
until she unsubbed in a huff, telling us that it wasn't very useful to her.
Well, it's a free country, after all.

There were 3 panel sessions in the afternoon, followed by a rally in the
evening which included representatives from the Laotian, Vietnamese and
Cuban missions to the UN. Mostly, the panelists presented upbeat remarks on
how inspiring the Vietnamese struggle was to them and how the antiwar
movement transformed their lives.

The only counterpoint to all this was the presentation by Noam Chomsky, who
repeated an argument that he has made often, namely that the United States
won in Vietnam. Although it did not achieve its ultimate goal of
transforming the country into El Salvador, it did wreak such havoc that
countries in the region were "inoculated" against revolutionary struggles
themselves, especially Indonesia which suffered a huge anticommunist
bloodbath in 1965. Chomsky believes that 1965 was essentially the year in
which the US achieved its goals, a view shared by MacGeorge Bundy who
rendered his opinion in 1990, long after victory had been sealed.

What Chomsky was upbeat about was the continuing mood of distrust that
lingered in the population, long after the war had ended. A recent poll
revealed that 70 percent of the American population view the Vietnam war as
either wrong or immoral. This is in stark contrast to the dove view that
the war was fought for the right reasons, but not winnable because of the
power of the nationalist movement. We "blundered" according to this
perspective. Meanwhile, the hawks argued that the US lost the war because
it was not aggressive enough. As a sign of the lingering impact of
demonizing Vietnam brought on by the war and the economic war which
succeeded it, Chomsky pointed out that most people polled thought that the
casualty figures for the Vietnamese people was around 100,000. Considering
that more than 3 million were killed and 2 million wounded, what does it
say about a country that is so wide of the mark? What if Germans thought
that only 200,000 Jews were murdered by Hitler? You'd have to say that
there was something deeply sick about that country.

Despite the ignorance about Vietnam and what we did to it, there are
hopeful signs as indicated by protests in Seattle and Washington that
Chomsky embraced fully. He says that the 70 percent of Americans who think
the war was immoral or wrong  This presents a problem for the
powers-that-be. If there is a new Vietnam, it will be much more difficult
to manage public opinion. This is why politicians have tried to find ways
to avoid ground conflict such as in Iraq or Kosovo.

Another speaker Todd Ensign, of Citizen Soldier, dealt with the GI antiwar
movement that evolved out of the ferment of the broader antiwar movement.
It was during such a ground conflict in Indochina that many troops openly
disobeyed orders or "fragged" bellicose officers. Describing the GI antiwar
movement accurately as the most working-class in composition of the entire
movement, Ensign argued that this movement continues to be felt today. It
is manifested in challenges to the officer caste on various questions,
including Gulf War Syndrome and anthrax vaccinations. When the brass
proposed that sailors receive anthrax vaccinations recently, men and women
on naval vessels with access to the Internet began sending email here and
there, including to Ensign's Citizen Soldier organization, inquiring about
the possible health risks. When they discovered that there were indeed,
they began to resist the military. One pilot was the focus of a Sixty
Minutes episode recently. This type of military is completely different
from the one that existed prior to the Vietnam war. It is one of the
accomplishments of our movement.

What was missing in the panels and in the evening rally was any kind of
examination of the problems facing Vietnam today. It was almost as if it
had been swept under the rug. This I would consider a default of leadership
in the C. of C. which perhaps has inherited a certain style of functioning
from the CP, which also was never very good at combining solidarity with
critical analysis. Solidarity without critical analysis tends to fray at
the edges.

When so many of the activists around the anti-sweatshop movement are
targeting Nike operations in Vietnam, it incumbent on the radical movement
to address these sorts of questions courageously. As it turns out, many of
the same problems that exist in this movement with respect to China are
also related to the perception of Vietnam. As I pointed out recently,
Vietnam is not quite willing to sacrifice workers rights at the altar of
profits. On the next day after the NY Times discussed the resistance of
Vietnam to a trade agreement that compromise workers safety--openly
admitting that the labor codes in Vietnam are more stringent than anywhere
else in Asia--it reported that John McCain had lambasted Vietnam for not
being more subservient to multinational demands. There were too many
hammer-and-sickles around, he spat out.

Solidarity with Vietnam would include finding a way to strengthening the
hand of those Vietnamese officials who advocate retaining laws protecting
worker safety, while at the same time explaining why the revolution has
been forced to enter into a devil's pact to begin with. This involves
blending Brecht with Marx, a task that a romantic left seems to have
trouble with.

Finally, the teach-in gave me the opportunity to meet Daniel O'Connell, a
list member up from Washington, DC. Over dinner, Daniel, who is a 29 year
old graduate student completing a dissertation on the Neo-Platonist Proclus
in the philosophy department of Catholic University, explained how he was
won to Marxism. He found himself growing more and more alienated by press
coverage over Kosovo, which appeared utterly propagandistic. Then he read
some of Sartre's more popular works, including "Elections are for Fools".
Afterwards, the scales dropped from his eyes and he joined the Marxism list.

Louis Proyect

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