[Marxism] fwd: A Participant’s Comments on “The War at Home” by Robin David
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Sat Dec 29 17:10:34 MST 2018
A Participant’s Comments on
“The War at Home”
by Robin David
As I remember it, when I originally saw “The War at Home,” made in 1979 by
Glenn Silber, my first reaction was that I was glad to see a generally
positive documentary about the Vietnam antiwar movement, especially one
centered at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where I was a student
and politically active between 1961 and 1969. I also remember being quite
critical. I’m in the movie confronting Massachusetts Democratic Senator Teddy
Kennedy, although not named.
I, of course, assumed it was a film about the antiwar movement at UW in
Madison. I am not alone. Netflix describes the movie as, “ ‘The War at
Home,” this documentary vividly chronicles the Vietnam War protest
movement….” IMDb, the internet movie reviewer says, “Interviews with
people involved with and leading the Madison, Wisconsin area resistance to
the Vietnam war.” Seeing the movie several times recently, it is clear to
me that the film maker, Glen Silber, is not so sure. That made the
contradictions and confusions in the movie much more understandable.
Starting in 1963, Silber takes us through the ‘60s virtually year by year.
He starts with the impact of the civil right movement on those who would
become antiwar activists, an accurate connection, and includes events
around the Mifflin Street Coop and the ensuing police riot. He later tries
to connect the Black led student strike for demands for Black studies and
greater opportunities for Black students back to the antiwar movement which
is more of a stretch. In reality, the Black movement had been evolving on
its own trajectory and the strike at UW was directly inspired by the Black
student strike at San Francisco State College (now University). Silber
wanted to make a movie about the social explosion of the ‘60s, rather than
about the antiwar movement. The film, though, is dominated by the Vietnam
war and the movement against it because to make a movie of any honesty it
couldn’t be otherwise.
The irony of his dilemma is expressed by Hank Haslach. Hank is the main
interviewee in the film so it is reasonable to take what he says as
speaking for the film maker. Hank says soon after he came to Madison, he
became aware of the Vietnam war but he joined SDS because it wasn’t just an
antiwar organization. It was for a more sweeping and general change. He
later goes on to say that he and SDS didn’t think the war was the main
issue they should be organizing around. The film only shows how wrong both
he and its director are. It is ironic that the only two things Hank claims
credit for having a major hand in, the DOW sit-in and the occupation of the
administration building were totally focused around the war.
I’m not going to go on any further about the general cultural and political
explosion of the ‘60s. Since the film is, in fact, dominated by the war
and the antiwar movement and Silber so badly presents it, I want to focus
on that. The kindest thing I can say is that movie seriously misrepresents
the dynamic of that movement in general and especially as it unfolded in
Madison. Some might see it as the revenge of those whose strategy and
tactics for the movement was largely rejected to rewrite that history.
Madison has a radical tradition that goes back, unbroken, to at least the
1930s. It was one of the very first centers of the anti-Vietnam War
Movement embodied in the Committee to the Vietnam War (CEWV). Throughout
this period, it was the main antiwar organization on the UW campus,
although Silber chooses never to mention it.
The three central factors in ending the war were, first and foremost, the
refusal on the Vietnamese people to be defeated; second, the eventual
refusal of the troops to fight; third the antiwar movement.
The antiwar movement became a powerful force because it involved hundreds
of thousands united around what became the central demand to “Bring the GIs
Home Now!” This slogan embodied three important concepts. First, the only
real way to end the war was to get out, now. Second, the best way to
“support our boys” was to bring them home, now. Third, the only way to
insure Vietnamese self-determination was to end U.S. intervention, now.
Hundreds of thousands of antiwar activists embraced these ideas to
different degrees based on their own understanding.
The movement was able to grow to have such numbers, to have such power and
clearly represent a majority opinion because its dominant strategy was to
build mass demonstrations that were legal, peaceful expressions of people’s
First Amendment rights. That allowed the average person to feel safe and
confident in participating and made it clear that any violence would be
initiated by pro-war forces, the police and other government agencies.
There were other strategies embodied in the Oakland anti-draft
demonstrations that tried to physically stop the working of the Oakland
Induction Center, draft card burnings and demonstrations like the one
against the DOW recruiters portrayed in the movie. These actions had both
positive and negative effects, the sum total still debated today. The
dominant strategy though, overwhelmingly, was that of legal, peaceful mass
action, approved over and over again by mass democratically organized
conferences and meeting both local and national.
“The War at Home” rather than focusing on the dominant strategy of the
movement, chooses to highlight every other kind of action from civil
disobedience to draft card burning to sailing off to Vietnam to campaigning
for McCarthy to blowing up the Math Army Research Center as the heart and
soul of the antiwar movement. The main interviewees, with the exception of
Evan Stark, were not leaders of the antiwar movement. By his own words
Haslach tells us that SDS didn’t want to concentrate on the war and it
didn’t. Contrasting the action around Kennedy and the DOW sit-in is a good
way to see both the different strategic approaches and the attempt of
Silber to rewrite history.
Evan Stark says that “we” announced at the beginning of that school year
that no pro-war speakers would be allowed on campus. I’m not sure who the
“we” was but some held that position. It was soon announced that Vice
President Humphrey would come to campaign for Patrick J. Lucey, the
Democratic candidate for governor, and that set off sparks, so Ted Kennedy
who was seen as maybe antiwar was switched in. A few weeks before he was
due to speak, antiwar students at Harvard had physically blocked State
Department speakers and the reaction was to circulate petitions of
apology. Tens of thousands signed. The antiwar activists were isolated.
I don’t recall whether or not they were expelled.
We, the Committee to End the War in Vietnam (CEWV) and other activists,
knew that Kennedy actually had a pro-war record. We were also very much
aware of what had happened at Harvard. At a CEWV meeting of over 300
people we decided what to do. We drafted a leaflet that included Kennedy’s
actual record on the war, insisted that in the spirit of free speech and
the universities policy of open debate that he open himself to questions
and we listed questions that seemed appropriate. We distributed 15 to
20,000 copies of the leaflet in the week leading up to Kennedy’s speaking.
We planned how to get our signs in and where to sit. We decided who would
speak and who would direct our actions. We were on the edge. Kennedy did
not really confront his program and fled the stage but we also did not win
over the majority of the audience. Witness the shot of Seymour Kramer with
his jacket pulled back from people around him trying to get him to sit
down. But because we insisted that he speak rather than not speak we were
able keep the war rather than his rights in the forefront.
All hell broke loose in the aftermath. The administration wanted to expel
the leaders and ban the CEWV. A petition of apology was circulated. We
held a CEWV meeting on how to respond, again 300+. The overwhelming
majority voted to defend ourselves. We drafted a statement apologizing for
not being more effective and distributed another 15 to 20,000 copies. We
spoke everywhere, dining halls, dorms, fraternities and sororities. After
a week, the student senate which was supposed to rule on banning the
committee and expelling us, apologized to us. The faculty senate refused
to take the issue up. We continued to organize and grow. Interestingly,
Silber chose not to mention that the CEWV organized the action or to interview
myself who was chair of the Committee or any of the other leading
participants in the action.
Demonstrations had been going on against DOW recruiters across the
country. So, with DOW coming back to UW, the question of what to do
naturally came up. Just as naturally it was taken up by the CEWV, the main
antiwar organization on campus. At a meeting of several hundred a narrow
majority voted to sit-in in the building where DOW would be recruiting.
This vote was passed despite the opposition of the Committee chair, myself,
and various other Committee leaders. We opposed it because it was clear
that the University would not allow this to be a peaceful demonstration. A
fundamental link between the university, business and the military was
being called into question and, breaking an historic precedent, city police
would be called onto campus. Police violence was a given and we felt that
the issue of DOW, Napalm and the war would be obscured by the questions of
free speech, the right of students to get a job and who caused the violence.
As a result, there was virtually no prior organization for the sit-in and
many who participated thought they would be involved in a peaceful, none
obstructive sit-in rather than a police riot, especially after a first day
of peaceful activity as portrayed in the movie. Whatever leadership or
direction actually took place was a matter of self-appointed individuals
rather than elected leaders. Haslach and Paul Soglin are quoted on length
about the sit-in, implying that they were somehow leaders of it but there
is no evidence in the film or otherwise to back that up. The film recounts
a successful defense campaign in the aftermath, but Soglin and others are
quoted as saying that in the aftermath things died down on campus and moved
into the community. The movie provides us with a cascade of quotes from
Haslach on down about the frustration that our demonstrations aren’t doing
anything to stop the war and how we have to do something dramatic to up the
By 1968, at the campuses that had long been the centers of student antiwar
activity, like Madison, Berkeley and Harvard, frustrations began to set
in. We had been active for so long -- for students, three or four years is
“so long” -- and worked so hard and yet the war machine goes on. The idea
that we had to “escalate” our activity, somehow put our bodies on the line,
throw ourselves onto the gears, began to gain currency. Actions like DOW,
trying to bar recruiters from industries that fed the war machine, barring
pro-war speakers and vandalizing ROTC offices became more common. The
mistake caused by this frustration is not to understand that the real way
to “escalate” the movement is to make it bigger and more representative not
do things that would allow the pro-war forces to isolate us from the
majority. Our tactics and strategy must keep the focus on ending the war
not on our right to bar somebody from campus, destroy property or fight
with the police.
This frustration was grounded in a profound miscalculation of the political
dynamic in the country at that time and led to a serious miscalculation of
what strategy would build the movement and actually help end U.S.
intervention in Vietnam. By 1968 antiwar sentiment was growing, overt
actions by disaffected GIs increasing and the Democratic Party felt forced
to field an “antiwar” candidate, as tepid and ineffectual as he was.
Police and the media can deal with several thousands of students throwing a
fit, but when demonstrations of hundreds of thousands begin to reflect the
will of the majority, it’s another matter. Silber includes a young woman
repeating Nixon’s claim to be watching football during the demonstrations.
Some of us knew then and by 1979 when the film was made everybody knew that
was a fiction. Nixon was peeking out from the curtains quaking in his
boots and on the phone to J. Edgar to launch a campaign to disrupt the
antiwar movement. Silber quotes Ken Mate as saying that sit-ins were play
revolution and bombing was real revolution. The reality is that the
potential for revolution is only on the agenda when hundreds of thousands
of peaceful protesters become frustrated.
The movie highlights two focuses for antiwar activists after DOW. One
focus was going into the community which, in this case, meant campaigning
for Eugene McCarthy, trying to lead the movement out of the streets and
into the Democratic Party behind a uninspiring candidate and a tepid
opponent of the war. The other focus was “escalation” and the ultimate
“escalation” was the bombing of the Math Army Research Center. Although
the film attempts to cast the bombing in a sympathetic, even heroic, light
it did nothing to build the movement, end the war or even stop
collaboration between the university and the war machine. To the contrary
it totally chilled the antiwar atmosphere and tended to isolate campus
activists from the growing antiwar political climate.
DOW was not so much a high point as the film tend to portray. It was more
of a watershed as the even division in the CEWV vote indicates. Those who
would stay the course and play a major part in ending the Vietnam War fell
off to one side. Those who would let their frustration get the better of
them would fall off to the other. This film tends to focus on and salute
those who gave in to their frustrations.
A note on rewriting history not directly related to the antiwar movement:
Silber quotes Ken Mate to saying that the organizers of the Black student
strike called SDS to inform it of their plans to strike and asked them how
many they could turn out. Mate, in a burst of wishful thinking, says 300
or so. SDS could never turn out more than a dozen or so on its best day.
The impression is that SDS was somehow the left ally of the strike. In
fact, the organizers approached every left group to seek collaboration. I
met with Rashad. Also, in fact, support from the student body, of all
colors and stripes, went far beyond anything the left could “mobilize.”
Mate goes on to say the motherfuckers were going to burn the place down
which can only be seen as patronizing tinged with liberal racism when, in
fact, the Black students were launching a carefully planned strike with
very specific demands aimed at winning broad support from the student body
which they got.
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