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May 12, 2015

The Vietnam War Revisioned by Those Who Opposed It

tags: Vietnam

Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me."

            On Friday, May 1, and Saturday, May 2, 2015, 700 veterans of the protests against the Vietnam War gathered at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church ("Lincoln's Church") in downtown Washington, D.C. The meeting had been called by the "Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee," initiated by Tom Hayden, John McAuliff, and David Cortright.

            The Department of Defense provided the impetus for the formation of the Peace Commemoration Committee when it revealed its plans to spend some $30-60,000,000 that Congress had given it to commemorate the Vietnam War. I cannot just write "Department of Defense" without noting that it had been called the War Department until after World War II. Soon after its name change, DOD abandoned all pretense of limiting itself to defense, built bases all around the world including within gunshot of countries it defined as enemies, and has remained almost continuously at war ever since.

            About Vietnam, DOD's plans showed how prescient George Swiers, a Vietnam veteran, was, decades ago, when he said, "If we do not speak of it, others will surely rewrite the script. Each of the body bags, all of the mass graves will be reopened and their contents abracadabraed into a noble cause."[1]

            To head this off, the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee formed and met with the Pentagon. They challenged what they had heard about the K-12 school curriculum ideas that DOD planned. DOD's fall-back position was that we should now "honor our servicemen" by inviting them to speak in schools. Fine, said the Commemoration Committee, but they pointed out that schools should also invite veterans of the peace movement. After all, the protestors were right: our War in Vietnam was not in the best interests of the United States or Vietnam and was morally as well as politically wrong.

            I did not intend to write about the intense and well-planned reunion of protestors that took place in Washington. Apparently no one else has, however. Why no reporters attended I do not know. So I shall quickly record some of the things that took place. The plenary proceedings were video-recorded; hopefully they will show up soon on a website.

            The Friday evening program was called "Honoring Our Elders." Phil Donahue (still alive! still alert!) emceed. He proved to be a fine stand-up comedian! (Who knew?) For example, at the end of the program, trying to herd participants together for a photo, he said, "You know what Christ told his disciples at the Last Supper, right? If you wanna be in the picture, you gotta get on this side of the table!"

            Before the elders held forth, Bill Ehrhart read an interesting poem. Then Congresswoman Barbara Lee from Oakland (CA) spoke at length. She had replaced the legendary Ron Dellums and was the only person in Congress to vote against the blank check that legitimized George W. Bush's Iraq War. Then Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul, & Mary, sang a heartfelt and complex antiwar song.

            Then came the impressive array of elders. Each was introduced by a "younger," a young activist against our current wars or ongoing injustices. The elders were Daniel Ellsberg, Dick Fernandez, Judith Lerner, Staughton Lynd, Dave McReynolds, Marcus Raskin, George Regas, Arthur Waskow, and Cora Weiss. Quite a collection — if any are unfamiliar to you, look them up on the web! Donahue complimented them for figuring out that the war was wrong long before he did and proceeded to ask them useful general questions. Each person got to say something interesting; audience members asked questions; and suddenly it was time for Yarrow to be joined by his daughter and son-in-law for two antiwar songs that I did understand.

            Saturday began with an invocation by Monsignor Ray East, a song by Holly Near, and a welcome from Heather Booth and Marge Tabankin. Then a panel featured ten-minute presentations by Tom Hayden, Wayne Smith (a veteran who told his own story of becoming antiwar "in country"), and former Members of Congress Pat Schroeder and Ron Dellums himself. Each was effective, even eloquent. Comments and questions from the audience filled the rest of the time until 11:15AM. Simultaneous break-out sessions then lasted an hour, on such topics as "How to Teach about Vietnam K-12" (led by Julian Hipkins and me), "The War and the Women's Movement (Heather Booth), and "Vietnam Era Authors and Poets (Jan Barry and Bill Ehrhart).

            After lunch, there were "Simultaneous Mini-Plenaries," such as "Opposing Our Country's Agenda," with Todd Gitlin, David Hawk, Judith LeBlanc, Rosalio Munoz, and Taylor Branch. I attended "American Foreign Policy: From Then To Now," featuring Phyllis Bennis, Daniel Ellsberg, Michael Klare, Larry Korb, and Marilyn Young. It was interesting, but not what I'd hoped for; I wanted to hear Ellsberg, in particular, analyze our adventures in Lebanon, Panama, Iraq, etc., etc. Instead, we got ideas about what we should have done to oppose our militaristic foreign policy.

            Then Tom Hayden offered a reflective, even pensive, summary. He told how the antiwar movement had splintered over small differences, hence didn't accomplish as much as it might have. He issued no clarion call to arms — which might have worked, had he done so — but his remarks were honest and informative.

            In the late afternoon, we walked to the King Memorial. Supposedly we were going to do so via the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which would have been appropriate, but we did not. We should have had a flier to hand out to onlookers, who were appropriately curious. Our fogy status was confirmed when one person collapsed on the walk and others took the bus alternative. To some degree, the weekend was about passing the torch, but an inadequate number of young (or even younger) people attended. Passing the torch requires someone to pass it to. No DC high school students attended. I met no one from Howard, GW, AU, or any other local college. At the King Memorial, Danny Glover presided, along with Julian Bond and others. Back at the church, we enjoyed a dinner of Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese food, followed by an evening program that I did not attend.

            A dinner companion commented on the fact that no one had spoken of the sex or drugs that permeated some happenings of the antiwar movement half a century earlier. I saw no sex or drugs at the reunion. (One sticker, "Make Out / Not War," was widely handed out. I took one and wore it, but I had no idea why it was changed from the original, "Make Love / Not War." The weekend was also surprisingly sober in spirit.

            The various fiftieth reunions of the Civil Rights Movement, such as for Freedom Summer last year at Tougaloo College, were at least somewhat triumphant. Although they recognized the continuing injustices in our society, they also took pride in the changes that they had wrought, especially in the South. This peace reunion was much more subdued. Speakers were careful not to praise the peace movement for ending the Vietnam War — credit for that went primarily to the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. Two speakers did note that Richard Nixon himself said he would have used nuclear weapons against North Vietnam, had it not been for the peace movement and the furor he knew he would trigger.

            There are reasons why peace movement alumni find it harder to congratulate themselves, compared to Civil Rights Movement alumni. Our society has formed a consensus that it is wrong to deny people citizenship, voting rights, jury duty, the use of hospitals and restaurants, etc., based on race. We have not formed a consensus that it is wrong to invade other countries thousands of miles away that pose no threat to our existence. On the contrary, we do it all the time.

            Similarly, our society commemorates on its landscape leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Every city has its Martin Luther King Avenue. Medgar Evers gets an airport in Mississippi; Thurgood Marshall gets one in Maryland. Serious museums treat the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis, Selma, Birmingham, Montgomery, Greensboro, and elsewhere. But no major museum treats the peace movement anywhere in the United States.

            Nevertheless, we were right. The Vietnam War was wrong. The United States was wrong to "ask" its young men to travel around the world to "stop Communism" in Vietnam. The war killed almost 60,000 Americans and more than a million Vietnamese. It cost a fortune, imperiling LBJ's "War on Poverty." It also changed how Americans view their government, because as the edifice of lies that U.S. leaders constructed about the war collapsed, Americans' trust in government tumbled as well. It has yet to recover.

            HNN has posted a handout at the conference written by the committee, "Fighting on the Battlefield of Memory: Lessons from the Vietnam War." I understand the key authors were Tom Hayden and David Cortright. Most of its points are both useful and indisputable. I invite other attendees to flesh out this report, here or elsewhere on the web. I also invite readers to get involved in remembering and teaching about Vietnam. We cannot let the Pentagon, with its millions, tell the story of this war and its impact on America, Vietnam, and the world, all by itself.

[1].Quoted in William Appleman Williams, et al., eds., America in Vietnam (New York:  Norton, 1989), p. ix.

Copyright James W. Loewen

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