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Understanding the Vietnam Antiwar Movement

Beyond “Spitters and Haters”

by MICHAEL UHL

The Vietnam War seems to be drawing attention increasingly from researchers born during or after the tumultuous decade in which that deadly drama played out.  One sees mostly this generation’s higher profile works, like Fredrik Logevall’s Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for History, and Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.  More in the academic shadows, but perhaps suggestive of a wider trend in the making, is a new study by Penny Lewis, Hardhats, Hippies and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory, rich in the vistas it surveys, and a seed bed for future scholars to expand on.

A reader will scan this book’s quirky title in vain for a quick fix on what the work undertakes to present.  Lewis, an assistant professor at City University in New York, and active in contemporary Labor and antiwar movements, devotes much of her book’s narrative to the project of sharpening an outmoded analysis of the American working class, accomplished in part by locating the class historically within what the late New York Times columnist Tom Wicker once called “a very broad spectrum” of public opposition to the Vietnam War, some of it organized, some of it not.

The distinction is critical, with the organized spheres of Vietnam War opposition, as highlighted in the book’s subtitle, easier to pin down and label.  Lewis comes to her interest in the Vietnam antiwar narrative through disappointing efforts in the last decade to mobilize public opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a movement that promised much in its early stages, then, she dryly notes, “faded.”  Serving as a representative of her union within a Labor movement far more sympathetic to an antiwar message in 2003 than it was in 1965, Lewis, “staffing tables, working on resolutions, organizing protests… spoke with fellow labor activists about their experiences within the Vietnam antiwar movement.”

Digging through this “buried history,” the author subsequently confirmed that antiwar forces in the US during Vietnam were every bit as “massive” and “dynamic” as the accounts she was hearing from her older comrades.  How, then, could a post-Vietnam generation individual with Penny Lewis’ credentials, a committed peace activist, a leader in her union, a solidly grounded career-bound academic, have missed that story?  Apparently because, growing up, what she had absorbed about that war and those times, as “fleshed out in numerous movies, TV shows, textbooks, journalist’s renderings, histories, memoirs, political speeches, and personal recollections,” exposed her to what she now accurately identifies as “half truths and, overall … is a falsehood.”

Myth holds sway in the “renderings” of this history earmarked for storage in the “collective memory,” and doled out with the greatest damage, as Lewis chillingly demonstrates, in the vast majority of text books that feed young minds through mainstream scholastic channels with “[h]ostile treatments of the movement… focused on the elite and out-of-touch nature of the protestors… as ‘spitters’ and ‘haters.’”  In contrast, “war supporters” during that period “are often imagined as ordinary… people from Middle America… who supported God, country and our boys in Nam.”

Lewis sets about restoring some of the nuance to the record, framed by the sociological ground rules in force where such discussions occur in her branch of the scholarly manufactory.  Fortunately she is sufficiently clear headed and graceful in expression, that the speed bumps of jargon, and occasional quoted infomercials from esteemed mentors and colleagues, shouldn’t deter a general reader drawn to this subject from reaping insight and satisfaction from Lewis’ summary, but deft, treatment of the twin themes she brings under investigation, class and protest.

Lewis frames correctly a chronology – too obvious to have been so often overlooked – that recognizes much attributed culturally and politically to the Sixties to have occurred or spread into the Seventies, a point of some significance when Lewis explores the demographic makeup of the opposition farther on.  But the most spectacular relic rescued here by Lewis is a shining image of the Vietnam movement’s voluminous mobilization of “6 million” antiwar activists… with another 25 million close sympathizers.”  Imagined hardhatshippiesvisually, it’s a perfect snapshot of what sustained mass organizing looks like, and it cannot be over-emphasized by interested parties seeking to defend and replicate this history in the present.  Let me put it this way, there wasn’t a corner of the land for a decade where an organizer couldn’t find a welcome crash pad, and a public forum for whatever on-going or up-coming antiwar action he or she had come to herald.

Examining the evolving Vietnam era antiwar movement over time, Lewis could see that, until the mid-60s, when the public was finally being drawn into the debate, most of the vocal opposition had been limited to well-known figures from the Fifties’ ban-the-bomb’ network, like Dr. Ben Spock and A.J. Muste, a leading pacifist.  As the American combat role in Vietnam rapidly expanded, opposition soon spread to a vanguard of precocious students on several of the nation’s top campuses, and included, as well, their less privileged counterparts among young black civil rights workers in the South.

Initially, preoccupation with the war on campus was tangential to a rise in student involvement with civil rights, and demands for academic freedom.  The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964 was an act of defiance against in loco parentis that shocked college administrators who for years had expected nothing more rambunctious from their student bodies than cafeteria food fights and panty raids.  Student leader Mario Savio’s name became a house hold word overnight, and the actions of the Berkeley students ignited a political charge throughout a budding youth culture that spawned a collective resistance to the draft, and militant opposition to an escalating war.

At the University of Michigan, where it had been discovered that a program to advise the South Vietnamese government served as a front for the CIA, a handful of leftwing students affiliated with the League For Industrial Democracy, broke with their timid work-within-the-system and red-baiting elders, and, in 1962, formed Students for a Democratic Society.  Their impulse had a domestic focus, a desire to explore possibilities for what they called participatory democracy, which might in turn help strip some aggression from the nation’s foreign policy.  Then, in 1965, SDS organized the first mass anti-Vietnam war demonstration, bringing 25 thousand protestors to Washington, D.C., and, till the end of the decade, the organization inspired independent political action for a draft age generation, mostly white, middle class college students, female and male, who, as a demographic, remained the backbone of the protest movement until the war’s end.

But where were working class youths not bound for college with its privileged four year deferment from conscription in this generational upheaval?   The boys at least, or “proles,” as James Fallows once infamously described them, overwhelmingly filled the ranks of the armed services, where their own rebellion, in Lewis’ astute observation, “had as great, if not greater, an effect on the US military’s ability to fight the war than did the more typical protest actions” on the home front.

Lewis is understandably perplexed that an event of such powerful impact like the GI rebellion receives almost no attention in even the best historical accounts of the movement, like Charles DeBeneditti’s An American Ordeal.  Lewis has to provide an academic explanation for this mysterious oversight, arguing that studies of “social movements” are too narrowly defined to accommodate anomalous structures that don’t fit this or that discipline’s analytic criteria, and so forth and so on.  Lewis, of course, wants to expand the scholarly strike zone.  But the fact remains that the bibliography of works addressing the GI movement is so tiny and obscure that even in the heat of the hunt Lewis has failed to cite among the rare treatments two contributions of seminal importance, Matthew Rinaldi’s 1974 essay for Radical America, “The Olive Drab Rebels,” and James Lewes’ Protest and Survive, a book length survey of the scores of underground GI newspapers that circulated during the war.

The GI Resistance combusted from many acts of spontaneous, individual defiance, although civilian organizers who recognized the importance of working with GIs provided indispensable political and logistical leadership through a network of GI coffee houses and counseling centers that sprang up outside virtually every major US military installation at home, and near many bases overseas as well.  The movement in the military paralleled the civilian movement, but was in many ways dissimilar, not least in having erupted under the authoritarian environment of military discipline, and in the rice paddies of Vietnam.

Then, home from the war and discharged from the service, ex-GIs rose up en mass in 1970, energized a flagging movement, and helped to further erode whatever lukewarm public support remained for the war.  Never before had veterans anywhere opposed war in such numbers, and, even more unprecedented, did so while their war remained very much in progress, its outcome still in the balance.  The antiwar veterans have been only slightly less studied by movement historians, Lewis comments, than the GI resisters.

What about the working class as a whole?  Where did Middle America stand on the war?  Stored in the distorted memory bank described by Lewis, a white male worker stands upon a pedestal on which the word “hardhat, ”is engraved.  An unabashed flag waver and pro-war patriot, he appeared briefly in May 1970, and beat up some long hairs demonstrating against the war in the vicinity of Wall Street.

It does not matter that this prevailing caricature obscures the existence of female and minority workers, and fails to sum up fairly where white male production workers stood on the war overall – the antiwar vets and GIs providing the most glaring rebuttal of the hardhat thesis.  The bullying behavior of a battalion of jerks from the pampered and manipulated New York building trades is held up as evidence of a false and inverted reality where only elites of a leisured middle class with too much time on their hands opposed the war, while tradition-bound Archie Bunkers expected their sons to serve when called, even at the cost of coming back from Nam in a body bag.

There’s no doubt that class polarization on the war existed, but leaving aside large segments of rebellious middle and upper middle class young people, the well-heeled parents who paid their college tuitions were more likely to support the war than their opposite numbers among the Greatest Generation in the blue collar neighborhoods.  According to one comprehensive survey Lewis cites, “Opposition to the war was in fact higher among lower income than among higher income Americans.”  By using the term “in-fact,” Lewis explains, this study’s author “acknowledges the common misconception that the opposite was true.”  And yet, she muses, “no account… explains why such a misconception exists…”

Grappling with that conundrum, Lewis says, is the essential project of her book, and she casts the net widely.  Her extensive exploration of the inadequacy of the tools of contemporary social science to distinguish the structural conditions that define working class realities from contingent forces that contradict leftist notions of objective class interests, and are often manifest by workers in conservative and individualist political behavior, is easier to read than to review.  As the Dude would say, it’s complicated… lotta ins, lotta outs.  So, around that task I invite the reader to follow Lewis first hand.

But to the degree that misconception erases the rejection of the Vietnam War by a majority of low income Americans, suffice it say that, generational differences notwithstanding, bluecollar opposition was seldom expressed or politicized in any manner resembling movement activism.  Much working class skepticism of US military policy in SE Asia centered on the inability of the nation’s leaders to justify the burden in blood and treasure extracted disproportionately from their communities in pursuit of war objectives that could never be adequately explained to their satisfaction.  Such attitudes in Middle America, communicated as vox populi, seldom translated into sympathy for the more flamboyant aspects of the protest movement.

In fact, “[t]he countercultural expression of many parts of the movement challenged core values of many workers,” Lewis acknowledges.  Or as Notre Dame sociologist, Andrew Greeley, once quipped, “If the white ethnic is told in effect that to support peace he must also support the Black Panthers, women’s liberation, widespread use of drugs, free love, campus radicals, Dr. Spock, long hair and picketing clergymen,” you’re unlikely to find him in the peace movement.

Greeley’s observation, which echoes the witty pen of George Orwell describing eccentric Brit peaceniks of the Thirties, is likewise more parody than picture of a movement that was as eclectic as the society from which it was formed.  But you don’t have to be intolerant of cultural diversity to share in a critique of the infinite contradictions that riddled the organized Vietnam antiwar opposition, those which apply personally being currently under display in my work-in-progress. “Useful knowledge,” Lewis proclaims , can be gained by those carrying a “desire for social change” into the future, who study the Vietnam antiwar movement for its “shortcomings” as well as its “achievements.”

In Hardhats, Hippies and Hawks Lewis underscores two constants that link the Vietnam conflict with contemporary US military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.  All are or were driven by similar “economic and political imperatives.”  And, ultimately, all three were or are rejected by the overwhelming majority of Americans.  Only during Vietnam, however, did a people mobilized by an explicit antiwar agenda exercise a strong hand in bringing the war to an end. Obviously conditions differ from one epoch to the next, but it is still useful to emphasize what distinguishes a “faded” movement from a “dynamic” one.

Michael Uhl is the author of  Vietnam Awakening.

This article originally appeared on In the Mindfield.