Remembering the antiwar movement

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Oct 16 08:01:44 MDT 2000

Chronicles of Higher Education, October 20, 2000

The Antiwar Movement We Are Supposed to Forget


Visualize the movement against the Vietnam War. What do you see? Hippies
with daisies in their long, unwashed hair yelling "Baby killers!" as they
spit on clean-cut, bemedaled veterans just back from Vietnam? College
students in tattered jeans (their pockets bulging with credit cards)
staging a sit-in to avoid the draft? A mob of chanting demonstrators
burning an American flag (maybe with a bra or two thrown in)? That's what
we're supposed to see, and that's what Americans today probably do see --
if they visualize the antiwar movement at all.

We are thus depriving ourselves -- or being deprived -- of one legitimate
source of great national pride about American culture and behavior during
the war. In most wars, a nation dehumanizes and demonizes the people on the
other side. Almost the opposite happened during the Vietnam War. Countless
Americans came to see the people of Vietnam fighting against U.S. forces as
anything but an enemy to be feared and hated. Tens of millions sympathized
with their suffering, many came to identify with their 2,000-year struggle
for independence, and some even found them an inspiration for their own lives.

But in the decades since the war's official conclusion, American
consciousness of the Vietnamese people, with all its potential for healing
and redemption, has been deliberately and systematically obliterated.
During the first few years after the war, while the White House and
Congress were reneging on aid promised to Vietnam, they were not expressing
the feelings of most Americans. For example, a New York Times/CBS News
poll, published in July 1977, asked this question: "Suppose the President
recommended giving assistance to Vietnam. Would you want your Congressman
to approve giving Vietnam food or medicine?" Sixty-six percent said yes, 29
percent said no. Ironically, it was only after the war was over that
demonization of the Vietnamese began to succeed. And soon those tens of
millions of Americans who had fought against the war themselves became, as
a corollary, a truly hateful enemy as envisioned by the dominant American

The antiwar movement has been so thoroughly discredited that many of the
people who were the movement now feel embarrassed or ashamed of their
participation -- even such prudent and peripheral participants as William
Jefferson Clinton. One would never be able to guess from public discourse
that for every American veteran of combat in Vietnam, there must be 20
veterans of the antiwar movement. And there seems to be almost total
amnesia about the crucial role that many of those combat veterans played in
the movement to stop the war.

When did Americans actually begin to oppose U.S. warfare against Vietnam?
As soon as the first U.S. act of war was committed. And when was that? In
1965, when President Johnson ordered the Marines to land at Da Nang and
began the nonstop bombing of North Vietnam? In 1964, when Johnson launched
"retaliatory" bombing of North Vietnam after a series of covert U.S. air,
sea, and land attacks? In 1963, when 19,000 U.S. combat troops were
participating in the conflict and Washington arranged the overthrow of the
puppet ruler it had installed in Saigon in 1954? In 1961, when President
Kennedy began Operation Hades, a large-scale campaign of chemical warfare?
In 1954, when U.S. combat teams organized covert warfare to support the man
Washington had selected to rule South Vietnam? Americans did oppose all of
those acts of war, but the first American opposition came as soon as
Washington began warfare against the Vietnamese people by equipping and
transporting a foreign army to invade their country -- in 1945.

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Louis Proyect
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