Marxist strategies for Vietnam War & the draft

Les Schaffer schaffer at
Wed Nov 22 15:40:55 MST 2000

[bounce from Dayne Goodwin <dayneg at> ]

On Mon, 20 Nov 2000, Peter R Santina wrote:

> I've heard that the Progressive Labor Party and another group (I think the
> SWP?) recommended that their cadres join the military if drafted, in order
> to organize within the ranks of soldiers. Some have said that this
> policy was successfuly, raising a great deal of consciousness in the
> military and causing soldiers to shoot their commanding officers.
> I know in other pacifist groups, members resisted the draft personally,
> and many went to jail or to Canada because of that. Which strategy was
> better? How successful was the strategy of joining the military?
> Thanks.
        - - - - - -
        Hello Peter,
I am familiar with the SWP which did encourage its members to go into the
military if drafted during the Vietnam War.  However you would be mistaken
to think that the ultimate purpose was to specifically organize
rank-and-file soldiers to shoot their officers.  The purpose was to build
a mass movement against the war which could potentially mobilize workers,
both in and out of uniform, to go on strike against the war and end U.S.
aggression against Vietnam.  If mass strikes by workers and soldiers
against the war developed, they potentially could become part of a general
revolutionary insurrection which could overthrow the capitalist
        We didn't quite get that far down the road before the U.S.
government decided to get out of Vietnam.  But we were headed in the right
direction.  On the 'home front' by the early 1970s national anti-war
demonstrations were multi-millioned, so huge that not everyone who tried
could succeed in participating(due to traffic jams, etc.). Soldiers
("active-duty GIs;""GI"="soldier" in U.S. slang) and Vietnam veterans were
a large and visible part of the growing anti-war movement.  Marxists were
a key part of the political leadership of the mass action anti-war
        SWP members in the U.S. army exercised their constitutional rights
to speak out and organize against the war when they were off duty.  I
think it was Louis who mentioned the Ft. Jackson 8, a group initiated by
an SWP member - who were court-martialed by the army for organizing
meetings and leading barracks political discussions about Malcolm X and
the Vietnam War.  When I first had contact with the SWP in 1968 they were
building a GI Civil Liberties Defense Committee which eventually won legal
vindication for the Ft. Jackson 8 - and presumably all soldiers - to speak
out, organize and build the anti-war movement on their own time while in
the army. This political victory was very important; it told the Pentagon
they had to put up with freedom of speech within the armed forces.
        The Ft. Jackson case, the earlier Howard Petrick case which Louis
also mentioned, and lots of work by other political organizations(some of
it already mentioned on this list) represent IMO the most important
Marxist political work inside the military: exercising and successfully
defending democratic rights for soldiers.  This was a potent political
trajectory.  My first experience organizing an anti-war action was an
outdoor rally at Utah State University to defend the Ft. Jackson 8 and GI
civil liberties which was attended by maybe a hundred sympathizers and
more than 500 hostile spectators who were deterred from disrupting the
rally by the moral authority of two recently discharged army veteran
speakers on the program.
        Successfully defending freedom of speech for GIs meant that the
anti-war sentiment growing among the general public(which we were doing
our best to organize and spread) could and did readily flow into and grow
among U.S. armed forces.  It would have anyway of course but Marxists were
leaders in turning the anti-war movement away from pacifist-style general
hostility toward the military and toward reaching out to GIs as likely
anti-war allies and concretely building the anti-war movement with
soldiers and within the military.
        One reaction by the government and the military, as Carrol
referred to in the case of Clark Kissinger, was to avoid drafting known
anti-war organizers.  This became one of many ways to get out of the draft
- show up for your physical with a bull-horn and a crowd - or in one case
I heard about(i think its true) with a huge hammer and sickle painted on
your back.
        I knew several SWP members who were quietly drafted into the army
before the army knew their politics.  Once the army found out who they
were, they were often sent to extremely isolated locations where they
would be with only small numbers of soldiers.  That's how one SWP member
ended up at a tiny missile testing base in remote southeastern Utah.
Although he was hundreds of miles away from us, with his help Utah's
largest anti-war demonstration (around eight thousand) was led by a
contingent of dozens(from several military bases) of "Active-Duty GI's
Against the War" as their large banner said(and fortunately the local
newspaper memorialized in a photograph).  The second, larger contingent
was Vietnam Veterans Against the War. And there were many more contingents
(i.e. Chicanos, high school students, clergy).
        Marxists aren't pacifists of course but the line between pacifism,
especially just instinctive abhorrence of war, and Marxism was often a
blurry one for individuals who were learning and changing as they were
radicalized by the Vietnam war.  So IMO your suggestion(though probably
unintended) that Marxists *and* pacificists resisted the war by a variety
of means, going into exile, becoming conscientious objectors, etc. is
valid.  Eventually the majority, i.e. millions, of young people were
coming up with hundreds of ways to get out of the draft and avoid the
possibility of going to Vietnam.  So many thousands of young men just
refused to cooperate with the draft and violated military recruitment laws
that domestic law enforcement and the court system simply couldn't
physically deal with it.
        Because GI resistance and personal or pacifist-organized
resistance were intertwined and mutually reinforcing in a burgeoning,
multi-faceted anti-war movement, it's difficult and somewhat unrealistic
to try to separate and compare their impact on the war. I think the
leadership of the anti-war movement encouraged a variety of anti-war
manifestations while also trying to build cooperation among the profuse
anti-war forces. But if you think of it from the individual point of view,
I think an individual who chose to go into the military and organize
against the war had a more powerful, direct impact on the course of the
war than an individual going to jail for refusing induction into the army.
        IMO the least understood factor in the U.S. defeat in Vietnam is
that the U.S. military was disintegrating.  The late Fred Halstead's
-Out Now!_ (Monad Press, 1978) is the key source for the SWP slant on the
anti-war movement.  Halstead makes the following reference on page 637:

        "Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr.(Ret.), a marine corps historian, was
one of the many American military experts who considered the force the
U.S. Army had in Vietnam in 1967 to have been the best American army ever
put into the field.  Yet, in the June 7, 1971, _Armed Forces Journal_, he
made the following astounding statements:
        "'The morale, discipline and battle-worthiness of the U.S. Armed
Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any
time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.
        "'By every conceivable indicator, our Army that now remains in
Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding
or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned
officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous.
        "'Elsewhere than Vietnam the situation is nearly as serious.' [end
        [Halstead continues]"The author [Heinl] cited some evidence to
substantiate his conclusions and then continued:
        [Heinl again]"'All the foregoing facts-and many more dire
indicators of the worst kind of military trouble-point to widespread
conditions among American Forces in Vietnam that have only been exceeded
in this century by the French Army's Nivelle Mutinies of 1917 and the
collapse of the Tsarist armies in 1916 and 1917.'"[end entire quote]

        Many thousands of Vietnamese Marxists, and millions of Vietnamese
people, had much more to do with creating this situation than hundreds of
U.S. Marxists, of course.  But U.S. Marxists did play a significant role
in organizing and building an anti-war movement which spread throughout
U.S. society including the armed forces.
        I hope you understand that GI's killing their officers in Vietnam
was a by-product of the mass opposition to the war among U.S. soldiers,
not something advocated by Marxists who "infiltrated" the military. It was
much more obvious and widely understood twenty-five years ago than it is
now that soldiers were a vital and large part of the anti-war movement.
        The right-wing, the military, the government and the media have
worked might and main for over two decades to erase "the Vietnam
Syndrome."  This tremendous, ongoing work of revisionist history has at
its center a largely successful effort to falsely rewrite the anti-war
movement as being hostile to rank-and-file soldiers.
        A Vietnam veteran who is now a university professor, Jerry
Lembcke, published a book about four or five years ago(i think) called
_The Spitting Image_ which describes how the image and myth of anti-war
activists spitting on GIs returning from Vietnam was purposely fabricated
and spread into popular culture as part of the preparation of the Gulf
        There was a recent brief thread on this list about how individual
soldiers do and do not, to one degree or another, come to understand the
overall/underlying politics of a war. My friend Cordell, one year older,
like me raised a patriotic, anti-communist, right-wing Mormon, was drafted
and went to Vietnam in the first massive intervention of 1965.  His first
letter from Vietnam simply announced his arrival.  His second letter,
maybe a month or two later, said roughly "Everything the government is
saying about this war is a lie.  These people don't want us here.  We're
not helping them.  We're just destroying their country and killing lots of
        Cordell wasn't a genius, he was just a farm boy from rural Utah.
And this remained a personal, private observation for Cordell with no
immediate political implications, even if deeply troubling for him.  I
think this is because he never had contact with, or even saw an anti-war
movement in his experience, while at home before leaving, while in the
military, or within a year of returning home.  In 1968 in a rare
conversation, Cordell (who had become withdrawn and reclusive) told me he
was going to vote for George Wallace (right-wing, racist, populist
candidate in U.S. presidential elections) because Cordell sympathized with
his populist attack on the "pointy-head bureaucrats" who run the
        Another friend, Larry, who I met after he had returned from
Vietnam, volunteered into the Marines right out of high school in 1967 and
re-upped twice(he blames John Wayne), before getting really badly shot up
and spending a lot of time in a hospital.  By then Larry had seen anti-war
activists in the news media and heard anti-war opinions, at least
superficially. He decided to use his hospital time to try to figure out
what was going on.  He asked his mother to send him every book she could
find on Vietnam.  I know he read several Bernard Fall books and I think
George M. Kahin's "The U.S. in Vietnam."  When Larry got out of the
Marines he bee-lined straight for the anti-war movement and became a
leader of the Salt Lake City chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War
in 1970.
        Dayne Goodwin

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