Howard Zinn: Vietnam, the Impossible Victory
- Hi. Today, April 30th marks the 30th anniversary of the Vietnam victory.
This singular commemoration is long, but memorable for many and a
history lesson for others. An important date and document.
Two important dates, actually - May Day is tomorrow. So, I begin with
information Howard Zinn would certainly relate to his great work.
I hope you do, as well. -Ed
----- Original Message -----
From: Michele Welsing
To: Ed Pearl
Sent: Friday, April 29, 2005 5:52 PM
Subject: So. Cal. Library: March Saturday and Voter guide to mayor's race
Dear Friend, a couple of things we wanted to be sure to let you know about
as we exercise our rights in demanding a more just society: an important
march for immigrant workers' rights today, Saturday, April 30, and a
non-partisan voter guide for the upcoming mayoral race. Scroll down for
In solidarity with workers everywhere as we celebrate International Workers
Southern California Library
Using History to Advance Social Justice
International Workers Day March
The Multi-Ethnic Workers Organizing Network (MIWON) is sponsoring a
march today, Saturday. The event starts at Broadway and Olympic with
program beginning at noon; the march beginning at 12:30 p.m., ending
at La Placita Olvera/Historic Olvera Street - Cesar Chavez and Main Street.
Stop the scapegoating; stop the immigrant bashing--celebrate a real Labor
Day. Join the people in a march for immigrant workers' rights and demand
legalization now! Contact Liz of MIWON for more information:
Non-Partisan Voter Guide Available at the Library
Non-partisan Voter Guides (in English/Spanish) are available at the Library.
The guides were created as part of the Liberty Hill Foundation's
LibertyVote! project, which focuses on bringing low-income communities
and communities of color into the electoral process. The guides provide
information about the vote for L.A.'s next mayor on Tuesday, May 17,
including information on the candidates and their positions on key issues,
an explanation of the mayor's responsibilities, and the city's budget. For
that information, go to www.libertyhill.org/libertyvote .
Vietnamese Children's Song
The enemy is not people
Kill people, who shall we live with then?
The enemy's name is cruelty
The enemy's name is no conscience
Its name is hatred; its name is bitterness
It's a group of phantoms
The enemy wears a coat of doctrine
The enemy wears the false front of freedom
It wears a deceiving appearance
It sifts and twists our words
People, oh people, have compassion for the weak
People, oh people, have compassion for the innocent
Have compassion for the sellouts
Have compassion for the cheats
Have compassion for those who pity us
The enemy's name is unjust accusation
The enemy's name is ignorance
Its name is greed
Its name is selfishness
Its name is jealous hatred
The enemy is no stranger
It lies here, inside each one of us
The enemy is covetous eyes
The enemy is an arrogant head
In a lonely head
In a narrow mind
In the dream of conquering
People, oh people, love people more and more
People, oh people, love people as people
Love people forever
Love people night and day
Love people hand in hand.
The enemy is not people
Kill people, who will we live with then?
The enemy is no stranger
It lies here, inside each one of us.
News of Victory
by Ho Chi Minh
The Moon opens my window, asking:
"Is your poem ready yet?"
-Wait a minute, Moon,
I am still busy on military matters
And can't possibly compose poetry.
-Just a moment, Moon.
There, the mountain bell
Awakens autumn dreams,
From the front lines
News of victory has just arrived!
The Impossible Victory: Vietnam
excerpted from "A People's History of the United States"
by Howard Zinn
In the fall of 1945 Japan, defeated, was forced to leave Indochina, the
former French colony it had occupied at the start of the war. In the
meantime, a revolutionary movement had grown there, determined to end
colonial control and to achieve a new life for the peasants of
Indochina. Led by a Communist named Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionists
fought against the Japanese, and when they were gone held a spectacular
celebration in Hanoi in late 1945, with a million people in the streets,
and issued a Declaration of Independence. It borrowed from the
Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, in the French
Revolution, and from the American Declaration of Independence, and
began: "All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator
with certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the
pursuit of Happiness." Just as the Americans in 1776 had listed their
grievances against the English King, the Vietnamese listed their
complaints against French rule:
They have enforced inhuman laws.... They have built more prisons than
schools. They have mercilessly slain our patriots, they have drowned
uprisings in rivers of blood. They have fettered public opinion.... They
have robbed us of our rice fields, our mines, our forests, and our raw
They have invented numerous unjustifiable taxes and reduced our people,
especially our peasantry, to a state of extreme poverty....... from
the end of last year, to the beginning of this year... more than two
million of our fellow-citizens died of starvation....
The whole Vietnamese people, animated by a common purpose, are deter
mined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French
colonialists to reconquer their country.
The U.S. Defense Department study of the Vietnam war, intended to be
"top secret" but released publicly by Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo
in the famous Pentagon Papers case, described Ho Chi Minh's work:
"... Ho had built the Viet Minh into the only Vietnam-wide political
organization capable of effective resistance to either the Japanese or
the French. He was the only Vietnamese wartime leader with a national
following, and he assured himself wider fealty among the Vietnamese
people when in August September, 1945, he overthrew the Japanese...
established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and staged receptions
for in-coming allied occupation forces.... For a few weeks in September,
1945, Vietnam was-for the first and only time in its modern history-free
of foreign domination, and united from north to south under Ho Chi Minh...."
The Western powers were already at work to change this. England occupied
the southern part of Indochina and then turned it back to the French.
Nationalist China (this was under Chiang Kai-shek, before the Communist
revolution) occupied the northern part of Indochina, and the United
States persuaded it to turn that back to the French. As Ho Chi Minh told
an American journalist: "We apparently stand quite alone.... We shall
have to depend on ourselves."
Between October 1945 and February 1946, Ho Chi Minh wrote eight letters
to President Truman, reminding him of the self-determination promises of
the Atlantic Charter. One of the letters was sent both to Truman and to
the United Nations:
I wish to invite attention of your Excellency for strictly humanitarian
reasons to following matter. Two million Vietnamese died of starvation
during winter of 1944 and spring 1945 because of starvation policy of
French who seized and stored until it rotted all available rice....
Three-fourths of cultivated land was flooded in summer 1945, which was
followed by a severe drought; of normal harvest five-sixths was lost....
Many people are starving.... Unless great world powers and international
relief organizations bring us immediate assistance we face imminent
Truman never replied.
In October of 1946, the French bombarded Haiphong, a port in northern
Vietnam, and there began the eight-year war between the Vietminh
movement and the French over who would rule Vietnam. After the
Communist victory in China in 1949 and the Korean war the following year,
the United States began giving large amounts of military aid to the French.
By 1954, the United States had given 300,000 small arms and machine
guns, enough to equip the entire French army in Indochina, and $1
billion; all together, the U.S. was financing 80 percent of the French
war effort. Why was the United States doing this? To the public, the
word was that the United States was helping to stop Communism in Asia,
but there was not much public discussion. In the secret memoranda of the
National Security Council (which advised the President on foreign
policy) there was talk in 1950 of what came to be known as the "domino
theory"-that, like a row of dominoes, if one country fell to Communism,
the next one would do the same and so on. It was important therefore to
keep the first one from falling.
A secret memo of the National Security Council in June 1952 also pointed
to the chain of U.S. military bases along the coast of China, the
Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea:
Communist control of all of Southeast Asia would render the U.S.
position in the Pacific offshore island chain precarious and would
seriously jeopardize fundamental U.S. security interests in the Far East.
Southeast Asia, especially Malaya and Indonesia, is the principal world
source of natural rubber and tin, and a producer of petroleum and other
strategically important commodities....
It was also noted that Japan depended on the rice of Southeast Asia, and
Communist victory there would "make it extremely difficult to prevent
Japan's eventual accommodation to communism." In 1953, a congressional
study mission reported: "The area of Indochina is immensely wealthy in
rice, rubber, coal and iron ore. Its position makes it a strategic key
to the rest of Southeast Asia." That year, a State Department memorandum
said that the French were losing the war in Indochina, had failed "to
win a sufficient native support," feared that a negotiated settlement
"would mean the eventual loss to Communism not only of Indochina but of
the whole of Southeast Asia, and concluded: "If the French actually
decided to withdraw, the U.S. would have to consider most seriously
whether to take over in this area."
In 1954, the French, having been unable to win Vietnamese popular
support, which was overwhelmingly behind Ho Chi Minh and the
revolutionary movement, had to withdraw.
An international assemblage at Geneva presided over the peace agreement
between the French and the Vietminh. It was agreed that the French would
temporarily withdraw into the southern part of Vietnam, that the
Vietminh would remain in the north, and that an election would take
place in two years in a unified Vietnam to enable the Vietnamese to
choose their own government.
The United States moved quickly to prevent the unification and to
establish South Vietnam as an American sphere. It set up in Saigon as
head of the government a former Vietnamese official named Ngo Dinh Diem,
who had recently been living in New Jersey, and encouraged him not to
hold the scheduled elections for unification. A memo in early 1954 of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that intelligence estimates showed "a
settlement based on free elections would be attended by almost certain
loss of the Associated States [Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam-the three
parts of Indochina created by the Geneva Conference] to Communist
control." Diem again and again blocked the elections requested by the
Vietminh, and with American money and arms his government became
more and more firmly established. As the Pentagon Papers put it:
"South Viet Nam was essentially the creation of the United States."
During 1965, over 200,000 American soldiers were sent to South Vietnam,
and in 1966, 200,000 more. By early 1968, there were more than 500,000
American troops there, and the U.S. Air Force was dropping bombs at a
rate unequaled in history. Tiny glimmerings of the massive human
suffering under this bombardment came to the outside world. On June 5,
1965, the New York Times carried a dispatch from Saigon:
As the Communists withdrew from Quangngai last Monday, U.S. jet
bombers pounded the hills into which they were headed. Many Vietnamese
one estimate is as high as 500 were killed by the strikes. The American
contention is that they were Vietcong soldiers. But three out of four
patients seeking treatment in a Vietnamese hospital afterward for burns
from napalm, or jellied gasoline, were village women.
On September 6, another press dispatch from Saigon:
"In Bien Hoa province south of Saigon on August 15 United States
aircraft accidentally bombed a Buddhist pagoda and a Catholic church..
. it was the third time their pagoda had been bombed in 1965. A temple
of the Cao Dai religious sect in the same area had been bombed twice
this year. In another delta province there is a woman who has both arms
burned off by napalm and her eyelids so badly burned that she cannot
close them. When it is time for her to sleep her family puts a blanket
over her head. The woman had two of her children killed in the air
strike that maimed her."
Few Americans appreciate what their nation is doing to South Vietnam
with airpower... innocent civilians are dying every day in South Vietnam.
Large areas of South Vietnam were declared "free fire zones," which
meant that all persons remaining within them-civilians, old people,
children-were considered an enemy, and bombs were dropped at will.
Villages suspected of harboring Viet Cong were subject to "search and
destroy" missions-men of military age in the villages were killed, the
homes were burned, the women, children, and old people were sent off to
refugee camps. Jonathan Schell, in his book The Village of Ben Suc,
describes such an operation: a village surrounded, attacked, a man
riding on a bicycle shot down, three people picnicking by the river shot
to death, the houses destroyed, the women, children, old people herded
together, taken away from their ancestral homes.
The CIA in Vietnam, in a program called "Operation Phoenix," secretly,
without trial, executed at least twenty thousand civilians in South
Vietnam who were suspected of being members of the Communist
underground. A pro-administration analyst wrote in the journal Foreign
Affairs in January 1975: "Although the Phoenix program did undoubtedly
kill or incarcerate many innocent civilians, it did also eliminate many
members of the Communist infrastructure."
After the war, the release of records of the International Red Cross
showed that in South Vietnamese prison camps, where at the height of
the war 65,000 to 70,000 people were held and often beaten and tortured,
American advisers observed and sometimes participated. The Red Cross
observers found continuing, systematic brutality at the two principal
Vietnamese POW camps-at Phu Quoc and Qui Nhon, where American
advisers were stationed.
By the end of the war, 7 million tons of bombs had been dropped on
Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia-more than twice the amount of bombs
dropped on Europe and Asia in World War II. In addition, poisonous sprays
were dropped by planes to destroy trees and any kind of growth- an area
the size of the state of Massachusetts was covered with such poi son.
Vietnamese mothers reported birth defects in their children. Yale
biologists, using the same poison (2,4,5,T) on mice, reported defective
mice born and said they had no reason to believe the effect on humans
On March 16, 1968, a company of American soldiers went into the hamlet
of My Lai 4, in Quang Ngai province. They rounded up the inhabitants,
including old people and women with infants in their arms. These people
were ordered into a ditch, where they were methodically shot to death by
American soldiers. The testimony of James Dursi, a rifleman, at the
later trial of Lieutenant William Calley, was reported in the New York
Lieutenant Calley and a weeping rifleman named Paul D. Meadlo the same
soldier who had fed candy to the children before shooting them-pushed
the prisoners into the ditch...
"There was an order to shoot by Lieutenant Calley, I can't remember the
exact words-it was something like 'Start firing.' "Meadlo turned to me
and said: 'Shoot, why don't you shoot?'
"He was crying. "I said, 'I can't. I won't.'
"Then Lieutenant Calley and Meadlo pointed their rifles into the ditch
"People were diving on top of each other; mothers were trying to protect
Journalist Seymour Hersh, in his book My Lai 4, writes:
"When Army investigators reached the barren area in November, 1969, in
connection with the My Lai probe in the United States, they found mass
graves at three sites, as well as a ditch full of bodies. It was
estimated that between 450 and 500 people-most of them women, children
and old men- had been slain and buried there."
The army tried to cover up what happened. But a letter began circulating
from a GI named Ron Ridenhour, who had heard about the massacre. There
were photos taken of the killing by an army photographer, Ronald
Haeberle. Seymour Hersh, then working for an antiwar news agency in
Southeast Asia called Dispatch News Service, wrote about it. The story
of the massacre had appeared in May 1968 in two French publications, one
called Sud Vietnam en Lutte, and another published by the North
Vietnamese delegation to the peace talks in Paris-but the American press
did not pay any attention.
Several of the officers in the My Lai massacre were put on trial, but
only Lieutenant William Calley was found guilty. He was sentenced to
life imprisonment, but his sentence was reduced twice; he served three
years-Nixon ordered that he be under house arrest rather than a regular
prison-and then was paroled. Thousands of Americans came to his
defense. Part of it was in patriotic justification of his action as
necessary against the "Communists." Part of it seems to have been a
feeling that he was unjustly singled out in a war with many similar
atrocities. Colonel Oran Henderson, who had been charged with covering
up the My Lai killings, told reporters in early 1971: "Every unit of brigade
size has its My Lai hidden someplace."
Indeed, My Lai was unique only in its details. Hersh reported a letter
sent by a GI to his family, and published in a local newspaper:
"Dear Mom and Dad:
Today we went on a mission and I am not very proud of myself, my
friends, or my country. We burned every hut in sight!
It was a small rural network of villages and the people were incredibly
poor. My unit burned and plundered their meager possessions. Let me try
to explain the situation to you.
The huts here are thatched palm leaves. Each one has a dried mud bunker
inside. These bunkers are to protect the families. Kind of like air raid
My unit commanders, however, chose to think that these bunkers are
offensive. So every hut we find that has a bunker we are ordered to burn
to the ground.
When the ten helicopters landed this morning, in the midst of these
huts, and six men jumped out of each "chopper", we were firing the
moment we hit the ground. We fired into all the huts we could....
It is then that we burned these huts.... Everyone is crying, begging and
praying that we don't separate them and take their husbands and fathers,
sons and grandfathers. The women wail and moan.
Then they watch in terror as we burn their homes, personal possessions
and food. Yes, we burn all rice and shoot all livestock."
The massacre at My Lai by a company of ordinary soldiers was a small
event compared with the plans of high-level military and civilian
leaders to visit massive destruction on the civilian population of
Vietnam. Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton in early 1966,
seeing that large-scale bombing of North Vietnam villages was not
producing the desired result, suggested a different strategy. The air
strikes on villages, he said, would "create a counterproductive wave of
revulsion abroad and at home." He suggested instead:
Destruction of locks and dams, however-if handled right-might...
offer promise. It should be studied. Such destruction doesn't kill or
drown people. By shallow-flooding the rice, it leads after a time to
widespread starvation (more than a million?) unless food is
provided-which we could offer to do "at the conference table."...
The heavy bombings were intended to destroy the will of ordinary
Vietnamese to resist, as in the bombings of German and Japanese
population centers in World War II-despite President Johnson's public
insistence that only "military targets" were being bombed. The
government was using language like "one more turn of the screw" to
describe bombing. The CIA at one point in 1966 recommended a
"bombing program of greater intensity," according to the Pentagon Papers,
directed against, in the ClA's words, "the will of the regime as a
Meanwhile, just across the border of Vietnam, in a neighboring country,
Laos, where a right-wing government installed by the CIA faced a
rebellion, one of the most beautiful areas in the world, the Plain of
Jars, was being destroyed by bombing. This was not reported by the
government or the press, but an American who lived in Laos, Fred
Branfman, told the story in his book Voices from the Plain of Jars:
Over 25,000 attack sorties were flown against the Plain of Jars from
May, 1964, through September, 1969; over 75,000 tons of bombs were
dropped on it; on the ground, thousands were killed and wounded, tens of
thousands driven underground, and the entire aboveground society leveled.
In September 1973, a former government official in Laos, Jerome
Doolittle, wrote in the New York Times:
"The Pentagon's most recent lies about bombing Cambodia bring back a
question that often occurred to me when I was press attaché at the
American Embassy in Vientiane, Laos.
Why did we bother to lie?
When I first arrived in Laos, I was instructed to answer all press
questions about our massive and merciless bombing campaign in that tiny
country with: "At the request of the Royal Laotian Government, the
United States is conducting unarmed reconnaissance flights accompanied
by armed escorts who have the right to return if fired upon."
This was a lie. Every reporter to whom I told it knew it was a lie.
Hanoi knew it was a lie. The International Control Commission knew it
was a lie. Every interested Congressman and newspaper reader knew it
was a lie....
After all, the lies did serve to keep something from somebody, and the
somebody was us."
By early 1968, the cruelty of the war began touching the conscience of
many Americans. For many others, the problem was that the United
States was unable to win the war, while 40,000 American soldiers were
dead by this time, 250,000 wounded, with no end in sight. (The Vietnam
casualties were many times this number.)
Lyndon Johnson had escalated a brutal war and failed to win it. His
popularity was at an all-time low; he could not appear publicly without
a demonstration against him and the war. The chant "LBJ, LBJ, how many
kids did you kill today?" was heard in demonstrations throughout the
country. In the spring of 1968 Johnson announced he would not run again
for President, and that negotiations for peace would begin with the
Vietnamese in Paris.
In the fall of 1968, Richard Nixon, pledging that he would get the
United States out of Vietnam, was elected President. He began to
withdraw troops; by February 1972, less than 150,000 were left. But the
bombing continued. Nixon's policy was "Vietnamization"-the Saigon
government, with Vietnamese ground troops, using American money and
air power, would carry on the war. Nixon was not ending the war; he was
ending the most unpopular aspect of it, the involvement of American
soldiers on the soil of a faraway country.
In the spring of 1970, Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger
launched an invasion of Cambodia, after a long bombardment that the
government never disclosed to the public. The invasion not only led to
an outcry of protest in the United States, it was a military failure,
and Congress resolved that Nixon could not use American troops in
extending the war without congressional approval. The following year,
without American troops, the United States supported a South
Vietnamese invasion of Laos. This too failed. In 1971, 800,000 tons of
bombs were dropped by the United States on Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam.
... In August of 1965, 61 percent of the population thought the American
involvement in Vietnam was not wrong. By May 1971 it was exactly
reversed; 61 percent thought our involvement was wrong. Bruce Andrews, a
Harvard student of public opinion, found that the people most opposed to
the war were people over fifty, blacks, and women. He also noted that a
study in the spring of 1964, when Vietnam was a minor issue in the
newspapers, showed that 53 percent of college educated people were
willing to send troops to Vietnam, but only 33 percent of grade
school-educated people were so willing.
It seems that the media, themselves controlled by higher-education,
higher-income people who were more aggressive in foreign policy, tended
to give the erroneous impression that working-class people were
superpatriots for the war. Lewis Lipsitz, in a mid-1968 survey of poor
blacks and whites in the South, paraphrased an attitude he found
typical: "The only way to help the poor man is to get out of that war in
Vietnam... These taxes-high taxes-it's going over yonder to kill
people with and I don't see no cause in it."
The capacity for independent judgment among ordinary Americans is
probably best shown by the swift development of antiwar feeling among
American GIs-volunteers and draftees who came mostly from lower-income
groups. There had been, earlier in American history, in stances of
soldiers' disaffection from the war: isolated mutinies in the
Revolutionary War, refusal of reenlistment in the midst of hostilities
in the Mexican war, desertion and conscientious objection in World War I
and World War II. But Vietnam produced opposition by soldiers and
veterans on a scale, and with a fervor, never seen before.
It began with isolated protests. As early as June 1965, Richard Steinke,
a West Point graduate in Vietnam, refused to board an aircraft taking
him to a remote Vietnamese village. "The Vietnamese war," he said, "is
not worth a single American life." Steinke was court-martialed and
dismissed from the service. The following year, three army privates, one
black, one Puerto Rican, one Lithuanian-Italian-all poor-refused to
embark for Vietnam, denouncing the war as "immoral, illegal, and
unjust." They were court-martialed and imprisoned.
In early 1967, Captain Howard Levy, an army doctor at Fort Jackson,
South Carolina, refused to teach Green Berets, a Special Forces elite in
the military. He said they were "murderers of women and children" and
"killers of peasants." He was court-martialed on the ground that he was
trying to promote disaffection among enlisted men by his statements. The
colonel who presided at the trial said: "The truth of the statements is
not an issue in this case." Levy was convicted and sentenced to prison.
The individual acts multiplied: A black private in Oakland refused to
board a troop plane to Vietnam, although he faced eleven years at hard
labor. A navy nurse, Lieutenant Susan Schnall, was court-martialed for
marching in a peace demonstration while in uniform, and for drop ping
antiwar leaflets from a plane on navy installations. In Norfolk,
Virginia, a sailor refused to train fighter pilots because he said the
war was immoral. An army lieutenant was arrested in Washington, D.C., in
early 1968 for picketing the White House with a sign that said: "
120,000 American Casualties-Why?" Two black marines, George Daniels
and William Harvey, were given long prison sentences (Daniels, six years,
Harvey, ten years, both later reduced) for talking to other black
marines against the war.
As the war went on, desertions from the armed forces mounted. Thousands
went to Western Europe-France, Sweden, Holland. Most deserters crossed
into Canada; some estimates were 50,000, others 100,000. Some stayed in
the United States. A few openly defied the military authorities by
taking "sanctuary" in churches, where, surrounded by antiwar friends and
sympathizers, they waited for capture and court-martial. At Boston
University, a thousand students kept vigil for five days and nights in
the chapel, supporting an eighteen-year old deserter, Ray Kroll.
Kroll's story was a common one. He had been inveigled into joining the
army; he came from a poor family, was brought into court, charged with
drunkenness, and given the choice of prison or enlistment. He enlisted.
And then he began to think about the nature of the war.
On a Sunday morning, federal agents showed up at the Boston University
chapel, stomped their way through aisles clogged with students, smashed
down doors, and took Kroll away. From the stockade, he wrote back to
friends: "I ain't gonna kill; it's against my will...." A friend he had
made at the chapel brought him books, and he noted a saying he had found
in one of them: "What we have done will not be lost to all Eternity.
Everything ripens at its time and becomes fruit at its hour."
The GI antiwar movement became more organized. Near Fort Jackson,
South Carolina, the first "GI coffeehouse" was set up, a place where
soldiers could get coffee and doughnuts, find antiwar literature, and talk
freely with others. It was called the UFO, and lasted for several years
before it was declared a "public nuisance" and closed by court action. But
other GI coffeehouses sprang up in half a dozen other places across the
country. An antiwar "bookstore" was opened near Fort Devens,
Massachusetts, and another one at the Newport, Rhode Island, naval base.
Underground newspapers sprang up at military bases across the country;
by 1970 more than fifty were circulating. Among them: About Face in Los
Angeles; Fed Up! in Tacoma, Washington; Short Times at Fort Jackson;
Vietnam Gl in Chicago; Graffiti in Heidelberg, Germany; Bragg Briefs in
North Carolina; Last Harass at Fort Gordon, Georgia; Helping Hand at
Mountain Home Air Base, Idaho. These newspapers printed antiwar
articles, gave news about the harassment of GIs and practical advice on
the legal rights of servicemen, told how to resist military domination.
Mixed with feeling against the war was resentment at the cruelty, the
dehumanization, of military life. In the army prisons, the stockades,
this was especially true. In 1968, at the Presidio stockade in
California, a guard shot to death an emotionally disturbed prisoner for
walking away from a work detail. Twenty-seven prisoners then sat down
and refused to work, singing "We Shall Overcome." They were
court-martialed, found guilty of mutiny, and sentenced to terms of up to
fourteen years, later reduced after much public attention and protest.
The dissidence spread to the war front itself. When the great Moratorium
Day demonstrations were taking place in October 1969 in the United
States, some GIs in Vietnam wore black armbands to show their support.
A news photographer reported that in a platoon on patrol near Da Nang,
about half of the men were wearing black armbands. One soldier stationed
at Cu Chi wrote to a friend on October 26, 1970, that separate companies
had been set up for men refusing to go into the field to fight. "It's no
big thing here anymore to refuse to go." The French newspaper Le Monde
reported that in four months, 109 soldiers of the first air cavalry
division were charged with refusal to fight. "A common sight," the
correspondent for Le Monde wrote, "is the black soldier, with his left
fist clenched in defiance of a war he has never considered his own."
Wallace Terry, a black American reporter for Time magazine, taped
conversations with hundreds of black soldiers; he found bitterness
against army racism, disgust with the war, generally low morale. More
and more cases of "fragging" were reported in Vietnam-incidents where
servicemen rolled fragmentation bombs under the tents of officers who
were ordering them into combat, or against whom they had other
grievances. The Pentagon reported 209 fraggings in Vietnam in 1970 alone.
Veterans back from Vietnam formed a group called Vietnam Veterans
Against the War. In December 1970, hundreds of them went to Detroit to
what was called the "Winter Soldier" investigations, to testify publicly
about atrocities they had participated in or seen in Vietnam, committed
by Americans against Vietnamese. In April 1971 more than a thousand of
them went to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate against the war. One by
one, they went up to a wire fence around the Capitol, threw over the
fence the medals they had won in Vietnam, and made brief statements
about the war, sometimes emotionally, sometimes in icy, bitter calm.
In the summer of 1970, twenty-eight commissioned officers of the
military, including some veterans of Vietnam, saying they represented
about 250 other officers, announced formation of the Concerned Officers
Movement against the war. During the fierce bombings of Hanoi and
Haiphong, around Christmas 1972, came the first defiance of B-52 pilots
who refused to fly those missions.
On June 3, 1973, the New York Times reported dropouts among West
Point cadets. Officials there, the reporter wrote, "linked the rate to an
affluent, less disciplined, skeptical, and questioning generation and to
the anti-military mood that a small radical minority and the Vietnam war
But most of the antiwar action came from ordinary GIs, and most of these
came from lower-income groups-white, black, Native American, Chinese.
A twenty-year-old New York City Chinese-American named Sam Choy
enlisted at seventeen in the army, was sent to Vietnam, was made a cook,
and found himself the target of abuse by fellow GIs, who called him "Chink"
and "gook" (the term for the Vietnamese) and said he looked like the
enemy. One day he took a rifle and fired warning shots at his
tormentors. "By this time I was near the perimeter of the base and was
thinking of joining the Viet Cong; at least they would trust me. " Choy
was taken by military police, beaten, court-martialed, sentenced to
eighteen months of hard labor at Fort Leavenworth. "They beat me up
every day, like a time clock." He ended his interview with a New York
Chinatown newspaper saying: "One thing: I want to tell all the Chinese
kids that the army made me sick. They made me so sick that I can't stand
A dispatch from Phu Bai in April 1972 said that fifty GIs out of 142 men
in the company refused to go on patrol, crying: "This isn't our war!"
The New York Times on July 14,1973, reported that American prisoners of
war in Vietnam, ordered by officers in the POW camp to stop cooperating
with the enemy, shouted back: "Who's the enemy?" They formed a peace
committee in the camp, and a sergeant on the committee later recalled
his march from capture to the POW camp:
Until we got to the first camp, we didn't see a village intact; they
were all destroyed. I sat down and put myself in the middle and asked
myself: Is this right or wrong? Is it right to destroy villages? Is it
right to kill people en masse? After a while it just got to me.
Pentagon officials in Washington and navy spokesmen in San Diego
announced, after the United States withdrew its troops from Vietnam in
1973, that the navy was going to purge itself of "undesirables"- and
that these included as many as six thousand men in the Pacific fleet, "a
substantial proportion of them black." All together, about 563,000 GIs
had received less than honorable discharges. In the year 1973, one of
every five discharges was "less than honorable." indicating something
less than dutiful obedience to the military. By 1971, 177 of every 1,000
American soldiers were listed as "absent without leave," some of them
three or four times. Deserters doubled from 47,000 in 1967 to 89,000 in
One of those who stayed, fought, but then turned against the war was
Ron Kovic. His father worked in a supermarket on Long Island. In 1963, at
the age of seventeen, he enlisted in the marines. Two years later, in
Vietnam, at the age of nineteen, his spine was shattered by shellfire.
Paralyzed from the waist down, he was put in a wheelchair. Back in the
States, he observed the brutal treatment of wounded veterans in the
veterans' hospitals, thought more and more about the war, and joined the
Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He went to demonstrations to speak
against the war. One evening he heard actor Donald Sutherland read from
the post-World War I novel by Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun, about a
soldier whose limbs and face were shot away by gunfire, a thinking torso
who invented a way of communicating with the outside world and then beat
out a message so powerful it could not be heard without trembling.
Sutherland began to read the passage and something I will never forget
swept over me. It was as if someone was speaking for everything I ever
went through in the hospital.... I began to shake and I remember there
were tears in my eyes.
Kovic demonstrated against the war, and was arrested. He tells his story
in Born on the Fourth of July:
They help me back into the chair and take me to another part of the
prison building to be booked. "What's your name?" the officer behind the
"Ron Kovic," I say. "Occupation, Vietnam veteran against the war."
"What?" he says sarcastically, looking down at me.
"I'm a Vietnam veteran against the war," I almost shout back.
"You should have died over there," he says. He turns to his assistant
"I'd like to take this guy and throw him off the roof."
They fingerprint me and take my picture and put me in a cell. I have
begun to wet my pants like a little baby. The tube has slipped out
during my examination by the doctor. I try to fall asleep but even
though I am exhausted, the anger is alive in me like a huge hot stone in
my chest. I lean my head up against the wall and listen to the toilets
flush again and again.
Kovic and the other veterans drove to Miami to the Republican National
Convention in 1972, went into the Convention Hall, wheeled themselves
down the aisles, and as Nixon began his acceptance speech shouted,
"Stop the bombing! Stop the war!" Delegates cursed them: "Traitor!" and
Secret Service men hustled them out of the hall.
In the fall of 1973, with no victory in sight and North Vietnamese
troops entrenched in various parts of the South, the United States
agreed to accept a settlement that would withdraw American troops and
leave the revolutionary troops where they were, until a new elected
government would be set up including Communist and non-Communist
elements. But the Saigon government refused to agree, and the United
States decided to make one final attempt to bludgeon the North
Vietnamese into submission. It sent waves of B-52s over Hanoi and
Haiphong, destroying homes and hospitals, killing unknown numbers of
civilians. The attack did not work. Many of the B-52s were shot down,
there was angry protest all over the world-and Kissinger went back to
Paris and signed very much the same peace agreement that had been
agreed on before.
The United States withdrew its forces, continuing to give aid to the
Saigon government, but when the North Vietnamese launched at tacks in
early 1975 against the major cities in South Vietnam, the government
collapsed. In late April 1975, North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon.
The American embassy staff fled, along with many Vietnamese who
feared Communist rule, and the long war in Vietnam was over. Saigon
was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and both parts of Vietnam were unified as
the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
Traditional history portrays the end of wars as coming from the
initiatives of leaders-negotiations in Paris or Brussels or Geneva or
Versailles-just as it often finds the coming of war a response to the
demand of "the people." The Vietnam war gave clear evidence that at
least for that war (making one wonder about the others) the political
leaders were the last to take steps to end the war-"the people" were far
ahead. The President was always far behind. The Supreme Court silently
turned away from cases challenging the Constitutionality of the war.
Congress was years behind public opinion.
In the spring of 1971, syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert
Novak, two firm supporters of the war, wrote regretfully of a "sudden
outbreak of anti-war emotionalism" in the House of Representatives, and
said: "The anti-war animosities now suddenly so pervasive among House
Democrats are viewed by Administration backers as less anti-Nixon than
as a response to constituent pressures."
It was only after the intervention in Cambodia ended, and only after the
nationwide campus uproar over that invasion, that Congress passed a
resolution declaring that American troops should not be sent into
Cambodia without its approval. And it was not until late 1973, when
American troops had finally been removed from Vietnam, that Congress
passed a bill limiting the power of the President to make war without
congressional consent; even there, in that "War Powers Resolution," the
President could make war for sixty days on his own without a
The administration tried to persuade the American people that the war
was ending because of its decision to negotiate a peace-not because it
was losing the war, not because of the powerful antiwar movement in the
United States. But the government's own secret memoranda all through
the war testify to its sensitivity at each stage about "public opinion" in
the United States and abroad. The data is in the Pentagon Papers.
In June of 1964, top American military and State Department officials,
including Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, met in Honolulu. "Rusk stated
that public opinion on our SEA policy was badly divided and that,
therefore, the President needed an affirmation of support."
Diem had been replaced by a general named Khanh. The Pentagon
historians write: "Upon his return to Saigon on June 5 Ambassador Lodge
went straight from the airport to call on General Khanh... the main thrust
of his talk with Khanh was to hint that the United States Government
would in the immediate future be preparing U.S. public opinion for
actions against North Vietnam." Two months later came the Gulf of Tonkin
On April 2, 1965, a memo from CIA director John McCone suggested that
the bombing of North Vietnam be increased because it was "not
sufficiently severe" to change North Vietnam's policy. "On the other
hand... we can expect increasing pressure to stop the bombing...
from various elements of the American public, from the press, the United
Nations and world opinion." The U.S. should try for a fast knockout
before this opinion could build up, McCone said.
Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton's memo of early 1966
suggested destruction of locks and dams to create mass starvation,
because "strikes at population targets" would "create a
counterproductive wave of revulsion abroad and at home." In May 1967,
the Pentagon historians write: "McNaughton was also very deeply
concerned about the breadth and intensity of public unrest and
dissatisfaction with the war... especially with young people, the
underprivileged, the intelligentsia and the women." McNaughton worried:
"Will the move to call up 20,000 Reserves... polarize opinion to the
extent that the 'doves' in the United States will get out of
hand-massive refusals to serve, or to fight, or to cooperate, or worse?"
There may be a limit beyond which many Americans and much of the
world will not permit the United States to go. The picture of the world's
greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1000 non-combatants a
week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission, on
an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one. It could
conceivably produce a costly distortion in the American national
One sign that the ideas of the antiwar movement had taken hold in the
American public was that juries became more reluctant to convict antiwar
protesters, and local judges too were treating them differently. In
Washington, by 1971, judges were dismissing charges against
demonstrators in cases where two years before they almost certainly
would have been sent to jail. The antiwar groups who had raided draft
boards- the Baltimore Four, the Catonsville Nine, the Milwaukee
Fourteen, the Boston Five, and more-were receiving lighter sentences for
the same crimes.
The last group of draft board raiders, the "Camden 28," were priests,
nuns, and laypeople who raided a draft board in Camden, New Jersey, in
August 1971. It was essentially what the Baltimore Four had done four
years earlier, when all were convicted and Phil Berrigan got six years
in prison. But in this instance, the Camden defendants were acquitted by
the jury on all counts. When the verdict was in, one of the jurors, a
fifty-three-year-old black taxi driver from Atlantic City named Samuel
Braithwaite, who had spent eleven years in the army, left a letter for the
To you, the clerical physicians with your God-given talents, I say, well
done. Well done for trying to heal the sick irresponsible men, men who
were chosen by the people to govern and lead them. These men, who
failed the people, by raining death and destruction on a hapless country..
You went out to do your part while your brothers remained in their ivory
towers watching... and hopefully some day in the near future, peace
and harmony may reign to people of all nations.
The Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110