The antiwar movement was a never-ending fount of new organizations and projects. From 1965 to 1967, new organizations included Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, Veterans for Peace in Vietnam, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Another Mother for Peace, RESIST, and American Writers and Artists Against the War. Among the new projects were the National Voters Peace Pledge Campaign, organized by SANE, “Vietnam Summer,” a community organizing project led by Martin Luther King and Benjamin Spock, and “Negotiations Now,” a petition drive led by prominent liberals such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
Such harsh penalties undoubtedly dissuaded many GIs from directly challenging military authority, but other ways were found to debate and protest the war. With the support of local peace groups, coffee houses sprang up near military bases where GIs could freely exchange ideas. GIs began publishing off-base newspapers, one of the first being Vietnam GI in late 1967. More newspapers followed. Cortright counts a total of 259 over the course of the war, although many lasted only a few issues due to personnel relocation. In December 1967, the American Servicemen’s Union (ASU) was founded by socialist Andy Stapp, who purposely entered the Army in order to organize among soldiers. ASU developed chapters in bases at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and Fort Benning, Georgia, and offered legal assistance to servicemen in support of GI rights. An increasing number of GIs also applied for C.O. status while in the service. Even if denied, their applications backed up the military courts and sometimes delayed deployment orders. At the Oakland Army Base, a primary embarkation point for Vietnam, the Pacific Counseling Service aided GIs in filling out C.O. applications, resulting in 1,200 soldiers successfully delaying their deployment orders by March 1, 1970.
Criticism of imperious U.S. policies in Vietnam began long before U.S. troops were deployed. During the 1950s, insightful critiques were proffered by investigative journalists Bernard Fall and I. F. Stone, political scientist Hans Morgenthau, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, and peace leaders A. J. Muste and Sidney Lens, to name a few; and in publications such as I. F. Stone’s Weekly, The Christian Century, The New Republic, The Nation, Dissent, Monthly Review, and Liberation. In the November 1952 issue of The Christian Century, for example, the editors castigated the U.S. for supporting French imperialism in Vietnam and ominously warned, “American boys are not dying in Indo-China – yet. But American policy is getting into a deeper and deeper morass there.” In the June 1954 issue of Monthly Review, following the defeat of the French, Marxist scholars Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman issued another warning:
The strength of the movement lay in its grassroots authenticity, creativity, and overall tenacity. People joined local peace organizations, committees, and study groups, exchanged information and opinions, wrote to legislators and newspaper editors, arranged educational programs, placed ads in newspapers, set up draft counseling centers, worked in election campaigns, lobbied legislators, boycotted products of Dow Chemical (maker of napalm), organized vigils, protests, guerrilla theater, and prayer services, engaged in civil disobedience actions, and boarded buses for national demonstrations. What could not be done at the local level was to create a sense of movement identity and momentum. In lieu of national leadership, coordinated national demonstrations served this function. Organized by a succession of coalitions, mass demonstrations of 100,000 or more people were held semi-annually from the spring of 1967 through the spring of 1971.
Reorienting American thinking about the war was an uphill climb. The generation that came of age during the Vietnam War was raised on heroic World War II stories, pumped full of national pride, and indoctrinated to believe in the benevolence of American foreign policies. Still, the purported “threat” of a communist-led government in a small country halfway around the world did not elicit the same fighting spirit as defending the nation in the aftermath of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. This was true for the general population as well – the necessity of the war was not obvious. Hence, the administration had to work assiduously to persuade the public that developments in Vietnam did indeed pose a dire threat to the security of the United States as well as to the survival of the so-called Free World.
Official U.S. denial of responsibility for the death and destruction wrought in Vietnam was reinforced by various cultural expressions. Accounts of the war in films such as The Deer Hunter (1978), First Blood (1982), Uncommon Valor (1983), Missing in Action (1984), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Hamburger Hill (1987), and Rambo III (1988) present American soldiers as righteous warriors who were prevented from winning by inept Washington politicians, the “liberal” media, and the peace movement. These films were part of a larger reactionary movement designed to restore America’s noble self-image, assuage guilt, and drown out the outrage felt by other Americans convinced that the administration had lied its way into an unnecessary war. Stories were spread that antiwar activists had spit on returning vets and that American POWs were being held in Vietnam, making America appear the victim rather than the aggressor in the war. The “lesson” for the hawkish crowd was that the U.S. should have, and could have, won the war.
For too long, we have lived with the “Vietnam Syndrome.” Much of that syndrome has been created by the North Vietnamese aggressors who now threaten the peaceful people of Thailand. Over and over they told us for nearly 10 years that we were the aggressors bent on imperialistic conquests…. It is time we recognized that ours was, in truth, a noble cause. A small country newly free from colonial rule sought our help in establishing self-rule and the means of self-defense against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest. We dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause when we give way to feelings of guilt as if we were doing something shameful, and we have been shabby in our treatment of those who returned…. There is a lesson for all of us in Vietnam. If we are forced to fight, we must have the means and the determination to prevail or we will not have what it takes to secure the peace. And while we are at it, let us tell those who fought in that war that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to let them win.
For humanity, war is immoral. The war waged against the Vietnamese people was even more immoral because it did not serve the interest of either of the two belligerents; its only aim was to impose the domination of one nation over another, impose the ideology (way of thinking and way of life) of one group on another. Many opportunities arose for putting a reasonable end to the war, in the interest of peace and honor for all sides, but they were not taken advantage of.”
New Mobe and SWP organizers called for a demonstration in Washington on May 9. With only a week’s notice, 100,000 people showed up on the Ellipse behind the White House in a nationally televised rally. Several hundred federal employees waved banners outside office windows, one proclaiming, “We Have Found the Enemy and He Is Us!” Nine members of Congress joined Dr. Benjamin Spock on the platform. The rally was peaceful except for about 1,000 protesters who went off-route to engage in vandalism and block traffic in the street. Police wearing steel helmets and gas masks forcefully removed them. Rallies were also held in other cities, drawing 60,000 in Chicago, 50,000 in Minneapolis, 20,000 in Austin, and 12,000 in San Diego.
In fact, Nixon waited until June 8th to announce the first withdrawal of 25,000 GIs, which amounted to less than five percent of the 540,000 troops stationed in Vietnam. Nixon knew that the withdrawal of U.S. troops would reduce U.S. leverage in negotiations, but he was obliged to appease public opinion at home. His duplicitous strategy toward the peace movement was to steal its thunder by gradually withdrawing U.S. troops while at the same time denouncing the movement for urging withdrawal. Sam Brown commented, “It seemed that he was going to get out of Vietnam as slowly as possible, while selling the idea that he was getting out as fast as possible.”
Critics of the war might offer a different set of goals: (1) beyond thanking veterans, to discuss whether the war itself was necessary or honorable; (2) in regard to the Armed Forces, to examine the debilitating effects of U.S. aerial assaults, ground operations, and counterinsurgency doctrine, especially on civilians; (3) on the home front, to recognize the contributions of those who opposed the war as patriotic and honorable; (4) with respect to science and technology, to examine the environmental and human devastation wrought by high-tech weaponry and poisons such as Agent Orange, and to reassess the slavish dependence on statistical benchmarks that obscured the inhumanity of the war; and (5) to recognize that America’s most important allies did not support the war and that the United Nations and other nations strongly advised against it. Such goals would likely produce sobering lessons that would strengthen efforts to prevent future wars.