Remembering the Vietnam War



Earlier this month, I took part in a remarkable forum at New Jersey’s Vietnam War Memorial in Holmdel, New Jersey. Scholars young and old and veterans, working-class people primarily, spoke. There were conservative and nationalist “my country right or wrong” voices, but as a participant in the event, I was struck at how far so many had come. I will write about the panels and the responses later, but as an introduction, I am presenting here the remarks I presented as part of the Social Issues panel. A number of Veterans came up to me afterwards and expressed their interest in and support for the presentation.

One of the great truisms of the US is that from colonial times it became one the richest country in history, given its abundant natural resources, location between the world’s two greatest oceans, its rich river valleys and lack of any serious threat of invasion by a foreign power after the war of 1812. Since the reconstruction which followed World War II, it has also been true that the US – the richest country in human history – had more poor people that any other rich country in the world. 

Another truism is that the US, compared to all of the other great powers/rich countries in modern history, suffered by far the fewest losses in warfare and had the smallest military budgets of all the major powers until World War II ($1 billion in 1939 for example). 

What does this have to do with poor people’s movements and the Vietnam War? Actually, a great deal. The Vietnam War, while its origins and development in and through the Cold War was complicated, was nevertheless a war against what was the largest and most influential poor peoples movement in human history, the Communist movement. That movement sought to organize the workers, farmers and marginalized poor to take power and end exploitation and oppression through public ownership and control of the economy.

That movement won its greatest victories among poor people making revolutions first in Czarist Russia, then after World War II in China, in Vietnam, Cuba, and trying to make revolutions in many other places. Fighting that movement in Vietnam and other places meant objectively supporting with money and guns and later troops governments that represented the equivalent of country club Republicans in this country: landlords, wealthy business people, the elites in societies where the overwhelming majority of people were desperately poor.

Fighting the cold war primarily as a killing war in the poor countries which came to be called the third world, not a propaganda war and a war of NAT0 vs. the Warsaw Pact in Europe, meant fighting against the Communist movement and other forces that were designated as Communist or pro Communist in Asia, the Near East, Latin America and Africa, the non-white regions of the world. 

History is always about context, time and place. The escalation of the war in the winter of 1965 came eight months after Lyndon Johnson proclaimed an unconditional war on poverty in his “Great Society” speech, six months after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and three months after Johnson won a landslide victory against right-wing Republican Barry Goldwater. With his victory, Johnson broke the power of the conservative coalition of Republicans and mostly Southern Democrats that had blocked social legislation that the majority of Americans supported since the end of World War II. 

Placing the escalation of the Vietnam War within this domestic politic context exposes the major contradiction of Johnson's presidency, the tragic irony that would defeat the war on poverty at home and cripple the Great Society. Significantly, this contradiction divided Americans and made them susceptible to what Richard Nixon privately called the “wedge issues,” the social or social resentment issues which pitted whites against Blacks, men against women, and secular people against religious people.

In effect, two wars were waged simultaneously: one foreign and one domestic. Those who most supported the Vietnam War and the escalation of the bombing were most hostile to the war on poverty, the community organizing campaigns, the attempts to develop services and benefits for the urban and rural poor that would help them free themselves from poverty and become productive citizens. The people who most supported the war on poverty, the young, the activists of all races, colors and creeds, the people who were willing to act, even risk their livelihoods and in some cases their lives to fight against the mix of poverty and racism that tens of millions faced as migrant workers, non-union, unskilled laborers in slum ghettoes, were the most opposed to the Vietnam War. In his typically sexist fashion, Lyndon Johnson summed up this contradiction before he died: he had lost the women he loved, the Great Society, to pursue the harlot of war in Vietnam.

Fate of the Great Society   Now to the movements and a quick historical look at a few poor people’s movements and their fate. Johnson established an office of Economic Opportunity in the summer of 1964 to direct the war on poverty. Community based national welfare rights organization sprang to national prominence to lead efforts to organize the poor to fight for their rights. As the 1965 escalation of the bombing campaign in Vietnam continued, the Johnson administration began to pull back from its Great Society program in order to win the support from congressional conservatives to continue its Vietnam War escalation.

Meanwhile, community activism especially among white youth shifted to opposition to the Vietnam War. In slum ghettoes African American youth, whose hopes had been raised tremendously in the early mid 1960s, now saw a draft that was most likely to affect their communities. Deferments for college students or other reasons fell mostly to white, middle-class neighborhoods. The renewed emphasis on war undermined hopes for getting out of the slums, finding meaningful jobs, getting access to housing, let alone racial integration and the chance to change the system. The lesson in the slum ghettoes was this: if you want the government to seriously spend money to change things you riot, become insurgents, make them afraid, the way the insurgents were in Vietnam where the big money was being spent. The urban riots were repressed and became fuel for conservative politicians whose response to the war on poverty was the “law and order” slogan, whose most important “social program” was to fund police and build prisons.

What Followed

Opponents of the war began to build a center-left coalition against the war. Center-left coalitions have always been the foundation for meaningful change or reform in the US. But why that coalition against war emerged, the coalition that had pushed for a domestic Great Society collapsed. What followed was Richard Nixon, law and the bombing in Indochina and what I call presidential McCarthyism at home.

Martin Luther King Jr. best represented the contradiction between these two wars and in the last years of his life sought to overcome the contradictions by fighting to save the war on poverty and end the escalation of the Vietnam War itself. He had the courage to break with Johnson and condemn with all of his eloquence the philosophy behind US involvement in the war, the false claims of the Johnson administration in defense of the war, and the practical domestic effects of the war. He organized through the SCLC a national poor people’s movement, bringing together poor whites, Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans around the common issue of ending poverty through renewed and unified activist to achieve legislation. Just as the National March on Washington had in August 1963, provided the mass pressure to advance comprehensive Civil Rights legislation, King hoped that the unified National Poor Peoples Movement would, through a National March on Washington and encampment, revive the war on poverty and in effect save the Great Society program from its Cold War liberal leaders, before their Vietnam War policy crippled liberalism itself. His assassination deprived the American people of his leadership.

The riots that followed the assassination the subsequent assassination of Robert Kennedy, the total collapse of any hope for center-left politics at the Chicago convention, all set the stage for the triumph of Nixon, law and order, secret plans to end the war in Vietnam, peace with honor, Vietnamization, and four more years of war in Vietnam and counter-insurgency at home led by the Nixon administration against radical groups like the Black Panther  Party, civil rights and women’s rights groups, policies which ranged from surveillance and harassment against liberal groups to set ups and police frame-ups, including against the Black Panther Party.

All of this amounted to a policy that I call presidential McCarthyism.  As the Vietnam War continued, the Nixon administration moved to break the United Farm Workers Union by using the corrupt and conservative Teamsters Union, which under Frank Fitzsimmons leadership had endorsed Nixon, to raid the UFW, use strong arm methods against UFW organizers, and work with growers to break UFW locals. Ronald Reagan used the California State police in alliance with Nixon and the Teamsters. The National Welfare Rights Organization, using a philosophy of grassroots organizing and protest, was subject to harassment and eventually broke apart. Although Nixon would destroy his administration by carrying domestic counterinsurgency and presidential McCarthyism to its extremes in the Watergate conspiracy, (just as his bombing would fail to do anything except kill large numbers of people, including Americans, some from “friendly fire”) he was, one might say successful in dividing and conquering his enemies. He successfully blamed the anti-war activists for the course of the war and the poor for their poverty, even though, like right-wing leaders in many countries, he provided both carrots and sticks, advancing affirmative action policies in some areas.

We are in the midst of the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression. And we have our first post Cold War liberal president, Barack Obama. We have lived for 30 years under the domination of Goldwater Republicanism, its domestic philosophy and its worship of the military and military spending, which has led directly to the crisis. Politically we have been maimed, beaten down, by those policies and we struggle to pull ourselves up, walk again, and begin to heal our economy and our politics.  In Afghanistan we face another war.

The Great Society Democrats destroyed themselves in Vietnam. They fought third world revolutionaries whose hopes for social and economic justice were far closer to their own than the cynical corrupt forces in Saigon, who were somewhat like third world Goldwater Republicans. In Afghanistan, the Obama administration is fighting the Frankenstein monsters of Reagan-Bush policies, the people Reagan and the first Bush supported in the 1980s and the second Bush let off the hook with his invasion of Iraq in 2003. But while the differences are great, the same thing can easily happen. Afghanistan can demoralize the people whose activism elected Obama and whose continued activism he needs to make his program a success. That is why the Republican right-wing, politicians like McCain and especially Palin, who vilify Obama on virtually everything else, are supporting  him on the Afghan war.

Brzezinski and the Afghan Trap

Let me conclude by reading parts of what I consider the most accurate, significant  and sadly prophetic explanation of the effects of Vietnam War on both Vietnamese and Americans “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” This presentation was given by Martin Luther King at the Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, a year before his assassination. It is far more eloquent than anything that I have said today and as true today as it was then. It can be accessed on the Internet and I strongly recommend that everyone, especially veterans, whatever their views, read it.