The Myth of the Hardhat Hawk

Was the working class really the biggest proponent of the Vietnam War?

Bhaskar Sunkara

According to Lewis, the working class was divided along partisan lines with regards to Vietnam.

In 1969, Richard Nixon com­mend­ed the great silent major­i­ty” of Amer­i­cans who sup­port­ed the Viet­nam War while Vice Pres­i­dent Spiro Agnew denounced the effete corps of impu­dent snobs” who opposed it. This sto­ry has become ingrained in our nation­al mythos: Blue-col­lar work­ers dri­ven by patri­o­tism sup­port­ed the war, while resis­tance came from lib­er­al intel­lec­tu­als and degen­er­ate hip­pies. But City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York soci­ol­o­gist Pen­ny Lewis argues in Hard­hats, Hip­pies and Hawks: The Viet­nam Anti-War Move­ment as Myth and Mem­o­ry that this dichoto­my is a craft­ed fiction.

Penny Lewis’ book is a sound reminder that further progress will find its enemies among the ranks of the ruling class, not workers.

Icon­ic events of that peri­od did fuel notions of a pro-war work­ing class. In 1965, AFL-CIO Pres­i­dent George Meany said that for Amer­i­ca to sur­ren­der, to with­draw, to aban­don its solemn com­mit­ment to South Viet­nam would be the first step toward a world holo­caust.” And in 1970, con­struc­tion work­ers in Man­hat­tan phys­i­cal­ly assault­ed demon­stra­tors at an anti-war ral­ly. Then there was the invent­ed his­to­ry, apoc­ryphal sto­ries of vet­er­ans thank­less­ly defend­ing lib­er­ty abroad only to be spat on when they returned home.

Lewis’ own expe­ri­ence helped her re- cov­er the lost coun­ter­mem­o­ry” of this peri­od. The daugh­ter of two ser­vice mem­bers, she grew up with vet­er­ans, many of whom were suf­fer­ing from eco­nom­ic hard­ship and deeply opposed the war. The poll data she sum­mons sug­gests her expe­ri­ences were the rule, not the excep­tion: Elites were more like­ly to sup­port the war, work­ers more like­ly to oppose it. By 1971, 60 per­cent of those with col­lege degrees sup­port­ed with­draw­al, but even more — 80 per­cent — with only a grade- school edu­ca­tion did as well.

Close to a quar­ter of those who served in Viet­nam par­tic­i­pat­ed in the mil­i­tary anti-war move­ment. Black youth from dis­ad­van­taged back- grounds num­bered dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly in the ranks of non-reg­is­trants and desert­ers. They knew they had lit­tle at stake in the Viet­nam War.

Lewis’ argu­ment is not that the work­ing class was uni­form­ly rad­i­cal, but rather that it was split along a left-right divide. Not every­one was against the war, but sig­nif­i­cant num­bers were. Sim­i­lar­ly, many work­ers were shop-floor mil­i­tants. In 1970, 5,600 work stop­pages led to 6.2 mil­lion lost work­er-days. In 1971, 2.5 mil­lion work­ers were involved in major strikes. The era didn’t begin, or end, with flower power.

But the hard­hat hawk”/ hip­pie dove” dichoto­my was mas­ter­ful­ly ped­dled by con­ser­v­a­tive forces in advance of the Rea­gan rev­o­lu­tion. Lib­er­als, too, were com­plic­it in its con­struc­tion. Nixon’s re-elec­tion in 1972 and the specter of white work­ing-class con­ser­vatism gave cov­er to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty elites wary of bub­bling social move­ments. Chica­go May­or Richard J. Daley over­saw the infa­mous police riot dur­ing the party’s 1968 con­ven­tion and Hubert Humphrey warned of rad­i­cal­ism from with­in the George McGov­ern camp. Both men, and oth­ers with­in the par­ty, were quick to tout the tur­moil of the peri­od as a cri­sis of democracy. 

The real cri­sis, of course, was one of polit­i­cal legit­i­ma­cy. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, essen­tial­ly a par­ty of cap­i­tal, even dur­ing the height of the New Deal coali­tion, failed to rep­re­sent the class inter­ests of work­ers, bridge racial divides, or con­nect increas­ing­ly mil­i­tant rank-and-file labor actions to the new social movements.

A dif­fer­ent type of par­ty, though cer­tain­ly desir­able, has too often been a cure-all for the Left, a trap Lewis drifts toward. The chal­lenges of orga­niz­ing against Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism would not have been solved by a vic­to­ri­ous McGov­ern cam­paign or even the emer­gence of a tru­ly mass work­ers’ party.

Today, com­men­ta­tors on out­lets like CNN use the term work­ing class” to denote a small sub­set of white, male work­ers in the Rust Belt who may or may not want to have a beer with a John Ker­ry or a Barack Oba­ma. Democ­rats pan­der to the nar­ra­tive by pin­ing for the days when they com­mand­ed the sup­port of those who would lat­er become NASCAR dads” in the South. These are signs of a ten­den­cy, in both acad­e­mia and the media, to see class not as a cat­e­go­ry of exploita­tion, but rather as a nar­row identity.

Work­ing-class” vot­ers in Colum­bus, Ohio, then, are on the fence” every elec­tion cycle, while African-Amer­i­can” vot­ers line up for hours in Cincin­nati. The refusal to acknowl­edge peo­ple of col­or, care work­ers, pub­lic employ­ees and oth­ers as legit­i­mate faces of the work­ing class serves con­ser­v­a­tive ends. The aim of the Right,” as the late labor jour­nal­ist Robert Fitch not­ed, is always to restrict the scope of class con­flict — to bring it down to as low a lev­el as pos­si­ble. The small­er and more local the polit­i­cal unit, the eas­i­er it is to run it oligarchically.”

But it’s get­ting hard­er to pre­tend that oppos­ing mil­i­tarism and oppres­sion is a past-time for the priv­i­leged. A gen­er­a­tion has grown up after the Cold War, immu­nized against the red-bait­ing that under­mined rad­i­cal orga­niz­ing in the past. Con­tin­ued cul­tur­al lib­er­al­iza­tion is wide­ly pop­u­lar, a cause of con­stant con­cern among Republicans.

Lewis’ book is a sound reminder that fur­ther progress will find its ene­mies among the ranks of the rul­ing class, not workers. 

Bhaskar Sunkara is the found­ing edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @sunraysunray.
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