Oct 31, 1982
By August 1964, when Lyndon Johnson formally engaged the U.S. in its war against Viet Nam with the Gulf of Tonkin pretext, the U.S. already had 40,000 troops in Viet Nam. It was far from the beginning of the war. For more than a decade previously, the U.S. had been funding the war which other armies carried out against the Vietnamese people. When, in 1965, the U.S. finally sent several hundred thousand of its own troops into Viet Nam, the U.S. government had already, for 11 years, been paying the major share of that war fought by its proxies.
During most of those years, there had been little reaction inside the U.S. It was not until 1965 that any opposition was seen. During 1964 and early 1965, the draft protests began and spread, the teach-ins appeared. This opposition was, at first, hesitating and isolated. Within a few years, however, it had mushroomed to become a real mass movement against the war.
The opposition, for the most part, sprang from the university campuses. A combination of factors at that time had already brought a small fraction of the petty-bourgeois youth to turn against the expectations of their parents’ generation. These young students, most of them white, many of them products of the affluent and alienating suburbs, were often influenced by a black movement in which most of them couldn’t participate. A certain number of them had turned their backs on the fraternity-sorority life typical of the university campus at that time, and they searched for ways to express their disgust with a society still ensnared within the deadening effects of the McCarthy period. Some of them were dropping out of the universities to initiate community organizing projects. Some were forming alternative universities, or finding ways to put out underground newspapers. By the time of the Gulf of Tonkin pretext, a radical student organization, Students for a Democratic Society, had already existed for several years on the national level. The slogan of SDS which caught the imagination of the young people was “participatory democracy.” If the practical meaning of that slogan was not at all clear, nonetheless it typified the wish of the young people to turn their backs on the bureaucratization and regimentation they encountered everywhere.
It was such young people who provided the backbone of the organized movement against the war. They provided its activists, and they drew after them from the universities those who were to be the mass base of the movement. It’s not to say that there wasn’t opposition to the war in other layers of the population – quite obviously there was – but the activists were for the most part the petty-bourgeois youth.
The growing student movement provided the yeast for the protests which began outside the university campus. The first street demonstrations were small, and often the target of abuse, but they quickly grew in importance. In October of 1965, a nationwide protest, coinciding with days of protest in other countries, drew over a hundred thousand people. By the end of that fall, 100,000 came to Washington D.C. Over the next several years, national demonstrations every 5 or 6 months were regularly mobilizing 50 to 100,000 people. Most of the important cities and university areas saw smaller protests, numbering in the tens of thousands. The Democratic Convention of 1968 in Chicago was the site of an important demonstration against Johnson. By the fall of 1969, the organized protest had grown to the point that the National Moratorium Day Demonstrations drew two million people in a number of different cities across the country. In 1970, 200,000 came to Washington D.C. again to demonstrate against the government.
During these years, the movement continued to grow on the campuses, and to spill over into concerns no longer directly or even indirectly related to the war. It was marked by the occupation of buildings, campus-wide strikes and a real political life. By the end of 1970, the student movement had developed to the point that it had shut down most of the major universities for periods ranging from a day or two to several weeks, in some cases over Viet Nam, in some cases over other questions. In the spring of 1970, over 400 schools joined in the first nationwide student strike in U.S. history. A number of schools had been closed by student strikes when Nixon announced the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. One of these demonstrations was at Kent State, where the National Guard intervened, attacking the demonstration and killing four students. Almost immediately, schools across the country began to close in protest.
When the first protests were made in 1963, the large majority of the population was either unaware of or in support of the government’s policy in Viet Nam. By 1969, if we use the Gallup Poll as a measure, the opponents of the war had seen their opposition taken up by the majority of the population. But it wasn’t just a question of a passive attitude, recorded in a poll. Opposition to the war had coalesced long before 1969 into a genuine mass movement; it was to become the most important anti-war movement in U.S. history.
The movement played a certain, if small, role in the inability of the U.S. government to gain a victory in Viet Nam. Certainly the defeat of the U.S. was the result of the determination of the Vietnamese people to continue fighting. Nonetheless, there can be no doubt that the specter of social unrest and massive opposition to the war troubled the U.S. government, despite Johnson’s and later Nixon’s claims to the contrary.
In 1968, after the Tet offensive, when General Westmoreland asked for 200,000 more troops, the Pentagon advised Johnson against it. The main reason it gave was that the war did not seem winnable, so long as the South Vietnamese regime could not carry on its own war. But the Pentagon also gave domestic considerations as part of the reason: “This growing disaffection, accompanied as it certainly will be, by increased defiance of the draft and growing unrest in the cities because of the belief that we are neglecting domestic problems, runs great risks of provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions.” There are references to this same concern all through the rest of the Pentagon Papers, subsequently released by Daniel Ellsberg.
The government was intensely concerned by the so-called “unrest in the cities,” that is, the black revolt. U.S. cities were burning, as black people spilled out into the streets in rage and frustration. The year 1964 had seen, not only the Tonkin Resolution; it also saw the beginnings of the urban revolt. By 1965, the fighting in the Watts District of Los Angeles took on the character of an insurrection against the police. And then, came the big year: 1967. Detroit and Newark, N.J. burned; six other rebellions were labeled “major” by the government; 33 called “serious” and 123 “minor.” Finally, in April of 1968, there was a nationwide wave of revolt when Martin Luther King was assassinated, not long after the Tet Offensive.
The government was trying to carry on an increasingly unpopular war, while confronting several social movements, one of which had already taken to the streets in rage. And increasingly, the two movements were having a wider influence on other layers of the population. The best example of that is what was happening in the prisons.
By the end of the 1960s, the prisons, under the influence of the black movement, had become a relative hotbed of revolutionary ideas. The ordinary prisoners, those sent to prison essentially because they were poor, were becoming politicized after they got to prison. Many of the prison protests of the period drew the link between the war against the Vietnamese people and a judicial system which was biased against the poor and the black in this country. The widespread protests which erupted in the prison system at the assassination of George Jackson often made reference to Viet Nam. The prisoners of Attica, during their rebellion, announced they were fighting the same fight as were the Vietnamese. One indication of the mood in the prisons at that time can be seen in a statement signed in 1971 at Walpole Prison in Massachusetts. A statement demanding the immediate withdrawal of all American forces from Viet Nam was signed by every single prisoner at Walpole.
The years of the U.S. war against Viet Nam were marked by social ferment in the U.S. The student anti-war movement was itself a genuine mass movement, and coinciding as it did with the later stages of the black movement, it helped to encourage other social protest movements during this same time period. The movements of prisoners, Native Americans, women; the different environmental organizations, community organizations – all in some way were influenced by one or both of these two mass movements. Suddenly politics meant the streets, and not just the speeches of politicians and kissing babies.
All of this ferment was reflected by noticeable changes in the culture. For years, popular American culture – the movies, music, TV – had been marked by the sterility imposed on creative people by the witch hunts of the McCarthy period. The 1960s broke loose that hold, and suddenly once again there were TV shows which accurately reflected the lives of ordinary people. There were movies about political and social questions. The mark of the change in the country could most ironically be seen in the fact that Hollywood was to find it profitable to make a movie sympathetic to George Jackson and Angela Davis, or movies which gave an accurate picture of war, or of the cops, etc.
A whole generation of young people came forward, ready to protest, to organize, to take part directly in political life. They helped to break the hold that the McCarthy period had on American life, political and cultural. The fears and the phantoms of that witch hunting period were evaporated, the anti-communist assumptions were forgotten. Instead, disrespect for the politicians and distrust of the government became the watchwords of the day. The picture of Johnson, a recluse in the White House, unable to go anywhere in public because he would invite the chant “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” – that typifies the spirit of the period.
That disrespect towards the government, that confidence that young people of that time felt in their own power to address the problems, to intervene in political life, is one of the most important things that the anti-war movement produced.
The anti-Viet Nam War movement was in its composition essentially a petty-bourgeois movement, mostly students and other layers of the intelligentsia. That fact was reflected in the goals the movement set for itself and the methods it employed.
At the beginning, the goals were those most appropriate to the university students themselves. One of the earliest demands was for a continuation of student draft deferments. Many of the other issues which the movement focused on seemed important primarily on the college campus: an end to ROTC; an end to campus recruitment by representatives of companies such as Dow Chemical; an end to weapons research carried out by the universities themselves.
The question of U.S. involvement in Viet Nam was seen as a kind of aberration, a blot on the American record, as it were, a mistake made by particular politicians, especially Johnson. In the early days of the movement, it was the assumption widespread across the movement that its task was to persuade the government that the war in Viet Nam was a mistake, or at least to persuade the population of that fact so that the population would bring pressure to bear on the government.
One section of the movement, which was more suspicious of the goodwill of the government, turned to civil disobedience to dramatize the immorality of the government’s policies. That section, often tied to the Catholic left, tried to interfere with the war machine itself. It tried to obstruct the work of the draft boards by interfering with induction, destroying draft records, etc. In 1971, the Pentagon itself was symbolically “stormed;” thousands of people surrounded it, with the purpose of being arrested in order to clog up the judicial system. About 14,000 people presented themselves to be arrested, the largest mass arrest in U.S. history.
More commonly, it was through the means tied to the electoral process that the movement tried to influence the government. In demonstration after demonstration, the organizers of the demonstration called on the demonstrators to make their voices heard by voting, or by writing Congress, or by petitioning for referendums on the war, or by going through the courts.
The movement began essentially as a student movement. It kept the preoccupations of a student movement, and, at least in part, for that reason, it never really broke out of its original framework. It stayed isolated from those layers of the population, other than the petty-bourgeoisie, wherein there was widespread opposition to the war.
This can be seen in the stance of the movement toward the working class. In general, for the anti-war movement, the hard hats, with their well-publicized attacks on demonstrators, exemplified the working class. In fact, that was not true. If we can judge by the polls, at each point in the evolution of the war, the working class was significantly more opposed to the war than was the petty-bourgeoisie. Of course, it was possible the working class, even if addressed, would not have actively expressed its opposition – the working class was not particularly active at that period. But the student movement did not even find the way to address itself to the working class, and by all accounts, it never seemed particularly preoccupied by this problem.
The stance of the student movement toward the black population was more complicated. The black people tended to see the war as an extension of their own situation: the draft weighed more heavily on them than on other layers of the population; the war against the Vietnamese people shared many of the same racist attitudes which underlay violence against black people in this country. If we judge again by the polls, the black population was always more opposed to the war than were the corresponding layers of the white population. When Muhammad Ali refused the draft, giving up his heavyweight boxing crown, his explanation that he would not take part “in a white man’s war against colored peoples” was clearly approved of by the black population.
Many of the first statements of protest against the war came out of the black movement, before the student anti-war movement had really begun. In 1963, Malcolm X condemned U.S. covert activities in Viet Nam. In 1964, at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin pretext, activists of the Mississippi Summer project linked the American intervention in Viet Nam with the murders of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman in Mississippi. Long before King’s statement in 1967, SNCC militants like H. Rap Brown argued that black people should not participate in nor support the war. The more radical sections of the black movement had always linked that war to the system of racist oppression in this country.
The students understood for the most part that there was this deep-seated opposition to the war; but they never found the way to link their struggle to that of the black people.
The fact that the anti-war movement was isolated from the working class and from the black people was reflected in its relations to the draftees.
In the first year, the draftees, who were forced to fight, often resented the students, who demanded the extension of student draft deferments or who had the means to escape to Canada. The ordinary soldiers in Viet Nam were, for the most part, working class, black and white, and they saw no way to avoid the war themselves, so long as the war continued. At the beginning, their resentment against the students may have translated into a certain support of the war. But as the war dragged on, more turned against it. In 1967 alone, almost 50,000 soldiers deserted. By the late 1960s, officers were coming under attack from the troops. In 1970 alone, the Pentagon itself admitted more than 200 cases of fragging (fragmentation grenade attacks) on officers. By the end of 1970, there were large numbers of returning veterans who started to organize their own protests. It was at this point that the opposition among the soldiers made some contact with the student movement. For the most part, however, even though the ordinary soldiers in the army came to be opposed to the continuation of the war, they continued to distrust the students.
When the movement treated the war against the Vietnamese people as a mistake of American policy, it called in question that particular war, but it did not call in question the system which had produced the war. In fact, what the movement called in question was the sending of American soldiers to Viet Nam. And when American troops began to be withdrawn in sizeable numbers in 1971, the movement disintegrated. But imperialism remained intact, even able to continue its war against the Vietnamese people. In fact, the war was not finally over until 1975.
If the movement called in question specific politicians, it did not call in question bourgeois politics. And because it didn’t, because it focused so much on Johnson, it left the door wide open for politicians such as Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern to channel the protest of the young right back within the system. In fact, both McCarthy and McGovern tied up the energies of many young activists for the better part of two election campaigns. Those activists forgot what they had learned in the struggles of the movement itself – that is, to the extent that those in power listened at all, it was because of the threat of social disruption, not of the ballot box. Johnson was willing to step down, but the war went on for seven more years. Nixon came in on the promise to end the war – only to drag it out for almost two terms in office. The elections changed nothing but faces. But the preoccupation by thousands of young militants with electoral campaigns did change something: it drew their protest back within a framework the American bourgeoisie could tolerate, even while still carrying out its war.
While masses of young people were mobilized against a particular policy carried out by the American bourgeoisie, they did not see beyond the framework of bourgeois society. While they opposed the war, for the most part, they accepted the premises of bourgeois society, its political and economic system which underlay the war in Viet Nam.
Of course, a certain number of them didn’t. Several thousands of them in fact, called the system in question. Compared to the hundreds of thousands mobilized by the movement, several thousands was not a very large number. But there was a real potential in those several thousands of young people. In fact, several thousands of young people like that could have been the cadre which would have allowed a new revolutionary party to be built.
Many of those young people, selfless, ready to desert the posts that bourgeois society had prepared for them in order to fight against the war, could have become the cadres of a revolutionary party. They could have set as their goal the destruction of that society which will continue to produce wars if it is left alone. Their preoccupations could have been freed from the student ghetto and directed to the working class, to that social class which has the potential for revolutionary change. Their energies and devotion could have been employed in building up a real communist party.
The proof that the opportunity was there was that so many activists went looking in search of a left: they formed the Weather Underground, and all the other organizations of the so-called “New Left;” they joined the already existing organizations of the so-called “Old Left.”
And yet a revolutionary party – or at least its beginnings – did not come out of all that ferment.
The activists themselves, in general, were not able to go beyond what they had done in the anti-war movement. We see this in the ways they formulated the problems afterwards. Those who came to form the Weather Underground, outraged that the war could continue as it did, began a series of bombings and other acts of individual terrorism. While their frustration was understandable, nonetheless their attempt to substitute themselves for a mass social movement which had the power to overthrow that society took them on another path than that of revolution.
Those people who formed the organizations which usually were characterized as those of the “New Left” held in common the view that the working class was no longer a revolutionary class, that it had been replaced by “the people” or even by the students and other layers of the intelligentsia. It was another perspective which took activists far away from the goal of revolution. Tom Hayden, who was one of those who most clearly formulated this view, took this position to its logical conclusion: he became a member of Congress as a Democrat.
Certainly, several thousands of young people went to the already existing organizations of the left. They often went because the militants of some of these organizations were the best organizers of the student movement, or later because some of those organizations had a certain amount of unionist activity. But those organizations did not propose to them a revolutionary perspective, a perspective to build a revolutionary organization rooted in the working class. That is, they did not propose it in deeds, as well as words.
What was lacking at that moment? A relative handful of people – whether from among the students themselves, or from the already existing organizations of the left – a relative handful of people who saw the necessity to build a real communist party, rooted in the working class, able to attract the best of the students and show them the way of the working class.