May 30, 2008
The war in Vietnam resulted in the greatest military defeat ever
suffered by the United States. Ever since, the U.S. ruling class and
its intellectual pundits have had to try to overcome what has become
known as the "Vietnam Syndrome"--the fear of the American ruling
establishment that any large-scale military engagement might become a
"quagmire" and provoke mass domestic opposition.
Joe Allen is a regular contributor to the International Socialist
Review and a columnist on film and television for SocialistWorker.org.
He is the author of a new book, Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S.
Lost, an examination of the lessons of the Vietnam era, with the eye
of both a dedicated historian and an engaged participant in the
movement against today's U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here,
with permission, we publish excerpts from one of the book's later chapters.
THE YEAR following the Tet Offensive of 1968 was the bloodiest year
of the American war in Vietnam. As revenge for the humiliation
suffered during the Tet Offensive, the United States unleashed a
frightening wave of destruction. Despite the huge military cost to
the National Liberation Front (NLF), it was clear that the Tet
Offensive had destroyed the ability of the United States to
effectively prosecute its war in Vietnam. In response, President
Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election. In a
close race against Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon was
elected president, in part because he implied that he had a "secret
plan" to end the war in Vietnam. "The greatest honor history can
bestow is the title of peacemaker," he said in his inaugural speech.
It is a testament to the political quandary that the American ruling
class found itself in that an anticommunist militarist could package
himself as a "peace" candidate.
Despite all the talk of peace, the war would continue for another
four years. Almost as many Americans died in Vietnam during Nixon's
presidency as in the Johnson years. How does one explain this? The
incoming Nixon administration set itself the goal of bringing the
American war in Vietnam to an end without it being seen as a defeat
for U.S. imperialism. In attempting to achieve this, Nixon would not
only raise to new heights the destruction the United States would
inflict on Vietnam, but would widen the war into neighboring countries.
These war policies revived and deepened the antiwar movement in the
United States. The antiwar movement would surge to the zenith of its
strength, while soldiers, sailors and air force personnel began to
rebel in larger numbers. A special commission appointed by Nixon to
assess unrest on the campuses following the invasion of Cambodia, led
by William Scranton, the former Republican governor of Pennsylvania,
argued that the country was "so polarized" that the division in the
country over the war was "as deep as any since the Civil War."
Scranton declared that "nothing is more important than an end to the
war" in Vietnam. It was the strength of this opposition that not only
led to the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, but also to
the adoption of repressive measures by an increasingly paranoid Nixon
administration that would lead to its downfall.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Opposition to the War Deepens
Nixon may have weathered the domestic storm of protest, but he was
far from being in a secure political position. It became clear to him
that any further efforts to expand the war with U.S. ground troops
would risk another potential domestic upsurge. His Cambodia adventure
lifted the lid on protest in communities that had seen little antiwar
activity beforehand. This was particularly true among Mexican Americans.
One of the most important events of the antiwar movement that took
place in the wake of the Cambodia bombings was the Chicano
moratorium. "The war in Vietnam politicized the Chicano community,"
according to historian Rudy Acuña. "Although the Chicano population
officially numbered 10 to 12 percent of the total population of the
Southwest, Chicanos comprised 19.4 percent of those from that area
who were killed in Vietnam. From December 1967 to March 1969,
Chicanos suffered 19 percent of all casualties from the Southwest.
Chicanos from Texas sustained 25.2 percent of all casualties of that
state." This slow burn of casualty rates combined with a rising
movement against racial discrimination and oppression made the war in
Vietnam a particular flash-point of anger.
The Brown Berets, a revolutionary nationalist group of young Mexican
American activists predominately from the Los Angeles area, formed
the first National Chicano Moratorium Committee in 1969. They called
their first demonstration against the war, in solidarity with the
nationwide moratorium movement, on December 20, 1969, with two
thousand participants. They staged another protest two months later
on February 28, 1970, with about six thousand Mexican Americans in
attendance. In March 1970, at the Second Annual Chicano Youth
conference in Denver, it was decided to organize hundreds of local
moratorium actions against the war that would culminate with a
national event to be held in Los Angeles on July 29. In between the
conference and the planned national moratorium were the invasion of
Cambodia and the ensuing explosion of nationwide protest and the
state murders of protesters at Kent State and Jackson State.
Los Angeles was infamous for the racism and violence of its police
and sheriff's departments toward Mexicans. The violence of the
virtually all-white Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department against
the Mexican Americans grew ominously as the moratorium approached.
Acuña captures both the confidence of the antiwar marchers and the
quiet hatred of sheriff's deputies as the march began:
On the morning of the 29th contingents from all over the United
States arrived in East Los Angeles. By noon participants numbered
between 20,000 and 30,000. Conjuntos (musical groups) blared out
corridos; vivas and yells filled the air; placards read: "Raza si,
guerra no!" "Aztlan: Love it or Leave it!" as sheriff's deputies
lined the parade route. They stood helmeted, making no attempt to
establish contact with the marchers: no smiles, no small talk. The
march ended peaceably and the parade turned into Laguna Park.
Marchers settled down to enjoy the program; many had brought picnic
lunches. Mexican music and Chicano children entertained those assembled."
Soon after the park filled, a small incident at a nearby liquor store
gave the police what Acuña calls "an excuse to break up the
demonstration." Five hundred helmeted, club-wielding deputies
attacked the peaceful crowd in the park. Their number eventually grew
to fifteen hundred as they occupied the park. Acuña again: "They
moved in military formation, sweeping the park. Wreckage could be
seen everywhere: baby strollers [were] trampled into the ground;
Victor Mendoza, walking with a cane, frantically looked for his
grandmother; four deputies beat a man in his sixties; tear gas filled the air."
There are many horror stories of racist violence from that day. "A
Chicano when he allegedly ran a blockade; his car hit a telephone
pole and he was electrocuted. A tear-gas canister exploded in a trash
can, killing a 15-year-old boy." But the worst was the murder of
Ruben Salazar, a popular reporter for KMEX-TV, the Spanish language
station. He and two coworkers stopped at a local bar after covering
the events at Laguna Park. Sheriff's deputies surrounded the bar and
shot a ten-inch tear-gas canister into the building that hit Salazar
in the head, killing him. Salazar was popular in the Mexican
community, making a name for himself by exposing police racism. He
had told coworkers that he received complaints and threats about his
reporting from L.A. Police Chief Ed Davis. Salazar's killers were
indicted by a federal grand jury for violating his civil rights, but
they were acquitted in federal court. The events at the Chicano
moratorium demonstrated not only the depth of anger toward the war
but also the willingness of government to use violence against
antiwar activists, particularly those who were people of color.
The invasion of Cambodia also accelerated opposition to the war in
the military. Vietnam veterans would now assume a leading position in
the antiwar movement, changing the face of the movement. Years later,
H. R. Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff, lamented, "If the troops are
going to mutiny, you can't pursue an aggressive policy." Discontent
was so high, and the cost of the war was cutting so deeply into the
country, that support was collapsing even in military towns
previously known for their strident pro-war stances. Jon Huntsman, a
special assistant to the president, complained of the growing
"antiwar sentiment in once hawkish San Diego," home of the Pacific fleet.
The war was no longer politically sustainable for Nixon, who was soon
facing re-election. By April 1971, a Lou Harris poll revealed that by
a margin of 60 percent to 26 percent, Americans favored continued
U.S. troop withdrawals "even if the government of South Vietnam
collapsed." There was a "rapidly growing feeling that the United
States should get out of Vietnam as quickly as possible." On April 7,
1971, Nixon announced that another one hundred thousand U.S. troops
would be withdrawn from Vietnam by the beginning of December, leaving
roughly 184,000 still there. Though Nixon was reluctant to offer any
deadlines for complete withdrawal, it seems clear in retrospect that
the deadline he had in mind was the November 1972 election.
How deeply antiwar sentiment cut into the country was revealed in
late April, beginning with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War
(VVAW) actions in Washington between April 19 and 23, followed on
April 24, 1971 by a day of national demonstrations against the war.
According to Tom Wells:
Throughout the morning of April 24, demonstrators flooded the Ellipse
in Washington, the staging area for the day's march to the Capitol.
Most were young. Rank-and-file unionists, GIs, and veterans were
present in greater numbers than in past peace demonstrations.
According to a survey by the Washington Post, more than a third of
the protesters were attending such a demonstration for the first
time. 'I'm a member of the silent majority who isn't silent anymore,'
a 54-year-old-furniture storeowner from Michigan remarked. The survey
found that fewer than a quarter of the protesters considered
themselves radicals; most were liberals. At least thirty-nine members
of Congress endorsed the demonstration. So large was the turnout for
it that cars and buses carrying protesters were backed up for three
miles at the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel by 11 a.m. Many of the occupants
never made it to the demonstration.
The demonstration in Washington was estimated to have grown to about
half a million by the end of the day, making it up to that date the
largest single demonstration in American history. That same day in
San Francisco, more than two hundred thousand people marched against the war.
The April 24 national demonstrations were followed by nearly a week
of actions, culminating in an effort to shut down the federal
government on May 3. Nixon declared Washington, D.C. "open for
business," but upwards of seventy five thousand antiwar protesters
scattered through out the city on May 3, blocking traffic, sitting in
at various government buildings, and harassing political figures. The
D.C. police, backed by the federal government, began mass arrests of
demonstrators early in the morning. By 8:00 a.m., more than seven
thousand had already been arrested, and more arrests were to come. It
was open season on anybody the police didn't like. "Martial law might
not have been declared, but it was in effect."
The city jails couldn't handle the numbers arrested so a makeshift
outdoor detention camp was built near RFK Stadium, surrounded by an
eight-foot-high fence. People were held without food, water, or
sanitary facilities. "Calling this a concentration camp would be a
very apt description," declared Dr. Benjamin Spock, who was also held
in detention. The Black residents of Washington responded
sympathetically to the protesters, giving them food, water, and other
necessities. Federal Employees for Peace held a rally in Lafayette
Park across the street from the White House in the middle of the
While the May Day protests were chaotic and didn't achieve their
objective of shutting down the government, they did, in the words of
a Ramparts article, send "shivers down its spine." The backlash
against the federal government's martial law–like tactics proved to
be a disaster for Nixon. Even such cynical insiders as CIA Director
Richard Helms later admitted, "It was obviously viewed by everybody
in the administration, particularly with all the arrests and the
howling about civil rights and human rights and all the rest of
it...as a very damaging kind of event. I don't think there was any
doubt about that."
From the first Vietnam moratorium events in November 1969, to the
explosion of rage following the following the Cambodian invasion, to
the spring events of 1971, millions of Americans were drawn into
political action against the war. The actions were become more
militant, more working class, more multiracial, and more left wing.
In mid-November 1972, Nixon announced that another forty-five
thousand U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Vietnam leaving roughly
139,000 there in early 1972.
The American ground war in Vietnam was grinding to an end, but the
bloody American air war continued to inflict unfathomable destruction
on the people of Southeast Asia. While antiwar activity continued
into 1972, it was much smaller; the movement too had already reached
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Did the Large Demonstrations Make a Difference?
"We had an agenda we wanted to implement, and the principal
impediment to that objective in Vietnam was the mass demonstrations,
given aid and comfort and support by the liberal media, which was
attacking the president constantly."
--Pat Buchanan, Nixon White House aide and speechwriter
One of the lingering debates concerning the antiwar movement of the
1960s was the effectiveness of the many national demonstrations in
stopping or not stopping the war in Vietnam. This debate existed from
the very beginning to the very end of the antiwar movement. Soon
after the first national demonstration against the war organized by
SDS, leading SDS members concluded that national demonstrations were
a waste of time. Every time proposals were advanced for a national
protest, arguments would surface about the efficacy of mass
demonstrations. Many student activists felt a vague sense that
something more was needed. For example, before the October 1967
Pentagon March, the SDS national office declared, "We feel that these
large demonstrations--which are just public expressions of
belief--can have no significant effect on American policy in Vietnam.
Further, they delude many participants into thinking that the
'democratic' process in America functions in a meaningful way."
It wasn't just SDSers who drew these conclusions; radical pacifist
Dave Dellinger in 1971 noticed "a fatigue, a quasi-disillusionment"
with legal, mass demonstrations, a view that they were "yesterday's
Part of the reason that many activists thought that mass
demonstrations were ineffective was because both Johnson and Nixon
claimed they weren't swayed by them, and simply because the war
continued, year in and year out, no matter how big the protests
got--at least until 1970, when large-scale pullouts began.
But there was also a more political aspect to the debate. As the
movement radicalized, there were those in the movement who elevated
the tactic of street fighting to the level of principle. On the other
side, there were those who made a fetish of legal, mass
demonstrations, to the point of actively discouraging more
confrontational tactics on the grounds that they would deter mass
participation in the movement.
The mass demonstrations were undoubtedly insufficient by themselves
to force the United States out of Vietnam, but they played an
important role in drawing in and educating new antiwar forces, as
well as raising activists' confidence that the movement was widening
its base and gaining overwhelming public support. Halstead offers the
example of 13-year-old Raul Gonzales, who described the impact of
running across the April 15, 1967, mobilization against the war in
Kezar Stadium on San Francisco:
I didn't know what was going on. So I asked someone. They said it was
a demonstration to get the troops out of Vietnam...Personally, I was
against the war, but I didn't really know why. I thought maybe I was
the only one against it. The rally impressed me...I had no arguments
against the war. From talking to people at the demonstration, and
listening to the speeches, I got arguments. It strengthened my
feelings. I took the arguments I learned there and the literature
that was being passed out and used that with my friends. Those who
were wavering tended to side with me now that I had the facts and
figures and the stuff I'd gotten at the demonstration.
Yet, at the same time, many activists were right in their conclusions
that more than large, set-piece protests were necessary to end the
war. Ultimately, it was a combination of protest at home (including
mass demonstrations, sit-ins, civil disobedience, student strikes,
etc.), rebellion among GIs, and the armed struggle of the Vietnamese
people that forced the United States to get out of Vietnam. In all
this, there was no Chinese wall between different forms of protest or
tactics--from mass peaceful demonstrations to blockades, sit-ins,
strikes, and so on. These different manifestations of protest flowed
in and out of one another and often one led to the other. The role of
mass protests was to mobilize the maximum public manifestation of
antiwar sentiment--a kind of movement roll call--used to feed the
movement's further growth in all its different manifestations.
The mass demonstrations also had an impact on soldiers, as well as on
the movement's attitude to soldiers. Fred Halstead recalls how all
this began at the October 1967 March on the Pentagon:
The army brought in several thousand troops--in addition to federal
marshals and police--to defend the Pentagon. Most of the troops were
ordinary soldiers acting as military police for the weekend. Of those
who confronted the crowd a few were angry, even brutal. But many were
visibly embarrassed by the situation, and some became friendly in the
course of contact with the demonstration. Word of this spread among
the demonstrators, and afterward throughout the movement as a
whole.... Before the Pentagon action, the idea of reaching GIs was
pressed by a minority. After the October 21, 1967 march, the movement
as a whole began to embrace the idea with some enthusiasm.
The impact of mass demonstrations on American GIs around the world
only grew as the war went on. It would be hard to see how soldiers,
sailors, and airmen would have moved against the war in such large
numbers without the impact of millions marching against the war at home.