The Vietnam War sparked a nationwide peace movement on a scale not seen before in U.S. history. On numerous occasions, demonstrators numbering more than 100,000 took to the streets. More than a dozen young war protesters were murdered. Tens of thousands were arrested. The greatest student strikes in American history shut down campuses for weeks. GIs rebelled on scores of bases and ships, refused orders, threw their medals at the Congress, and even attacked their superior officers, prompting warnings about the “collapse” of the armed forces. President Lyndon Johnson was forced to forego reelection because of a revolt within his own party. Even the hundreds of rebellions by black Americans were driven in part by the government’s shift in attention and resources from the War on Poverty to the War in Vietnam.
Despite its vast scale, the Vietnam-era peace movement is losing on the battlefield of memory. To mark the 50th anniversary of the start of the ground war, the Pentagon is spending $60 million on a decade-long Vietnam War Commemoration, ostensibly to “thank and honor veterans” who served in the war. The commission’s website, however, distorts the war’s history. It has entries for the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Incident that was used as an excuse to go to war, but does not mention that the attacks against U.S. ships never happened, as declassified NSA documents proved in 2005. It reports the killing of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in 1968, but says nothing about the many other massacres and crimes committed by U.S. soldiers. The website lists only three of the thousands of antiwar protests and gives no indication of the peace movement’s breadth and strength.
Our foreign policy elites hope to reimagine a war they lost — a hard fact to accept. Since the war-makers will not tell the full truth, those who opposed the war must do so. We must write our own history, tell our own stories, hold our own commemorations of the war’s anniversaries, and teach the lessons we learned from Vietnam. One of the most important of those lessons is that peace and justice movements can make a difference. The antiwar movement drove a president from office, forced the war makers to withdraw troops, constrained military escalation, and eventually persuaded Congress to end the bombing and cut military aid.
Despite these achievements, we could have done better. The power of the 1960s peace movement is fading from cultural memory partly because the movement itself was deeply fragmented — a series of overlapping but uncoordinated insurgencies that rarely unified. The movement reproduced many of the racial, class, gender and cultural divides of the society from which it came. It was further splintered by the thousands of FBI informants and COINTELPRO provocateurs who did their best to spread the poisons of distrust and division.
If we don’t take our own lessons from Vietnam, we will be left with the lessons those in power learned. Today’s escalation of secret wars originated in the Vietnam era, when government and the military became fearful of being answerable to public opinion, of democracy itself. American failure in Vietnam led directly to our increased reliance on a Big Brother-style surveillance state, and secret wars using mercenary troops in remote locations. The Watergate revelations prompted a brief democratic thaw, but surveillance and dirty tricks resurfaced in the 1980s during the Central American wars and the Iran-Contra scandal. The 1990s saw the first “full-spectrum” military strategy emphasizing special operations, drone attacks, cyber-warfare and a doctrine of “information war” to manipulate public opinion. By 2014 and the beginning of the third Iraq War, the single greatest legislative achievement of the Vietnam protest era, the 1973 War Powers Act, was in shreds. Even when President Obama proposed new restrictions this year in his request to Congress for military authorization to fight ISIS, some Republicans wanted to hand back even greater war powers to the executive branch.The issue remains undecided.
Vietnam was the cause that made voters objects of official suspicion, and the government placed democracy in its own emergency care. We are still living in that shadow. Ending wars in the future depends on the advent of new movements for democracy and social justice at home.