The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam

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Almost immediately after the United States’ began its involvement in Vietnam a domestic antiwar movement arose that, along with the armed revolutionary movement led by the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF), would be able to severely impair the capacity of the world’s greatest superpower to wage unrestricted warfare and would eventually force the United States to withdraw from Vietnam. The movement against the Vietnam war was varied and far from cohesive with members from the clergy, various communist and social sects, radical pacifist groups, armed left-wing groups, students, media workers, disgruntled governmental members, veterans, active-duty soldiers, and more all vying for influence and leadership in a national movement that despite having no set underlying goals or ideology beyond ending the war was able to rally millions of people in the years from 1964 to 1973 to participate in a variety of educational activities, protests, militant street fighting, community organizing, political campaigns, and other activities designed to end the United States’ military action in Vietnam.

The antiwar movement in Vietnam, spanning nearly ten years, adopted a host of different tactics that enabled it to exert a long-term effect on United States policy towards Vietnam. Unfortunately, as Wells frequently points out, at critical junctures the antiwar movement was unaware of its power, yet as early as 1967 the Johnson administration was curtailing decisions based on the possibility that they might unleash significant domestic unrest. Among the successes of the movement cited by Wells was preventing Nixon from significantly increasing the war in 1969, including the possibility of using nuclear weapons in a drastic effort to bring a quick end to the war. With antiwar protestors frequently unaware of their influence as the war continued seemingly undeterred, a healthy amount of debate over tactics in the movement occurred, with some organizers stressing the importance of educational activities and big demonstrations that “displayed” the power of the movement while others advocated direct action as a way of “exercising” power over the government. However, despite internal debates over their effectiveness, antiwar protestors were successful in focusing scrutiny on US policy, exposed the lies routinely told about the war, highlighted the costs of the war, encouraged questioning, and pushed Congress towards action on Vietnam. Both Presidents Johnson and Nixon were personally interested in antiwar protests and watched them closely, and while initially dismissive, both increasingly realized that the protests had the capacity, and in many cases were, changing the war.

Unfortunately, Wells, like so many of the writers examining the antiwar movement against the Vietnam War brings a considerable amount of personal bias to his discussion which occasionally limits the lessons that can be drawn from the movement. Like most of the authors who write with strong personal bias, the bias stems from the shift among some groups in the New Left, most notably Weatherman (later Weather Underground), towards militant actions including bombings targeting state and corporate property that were necessary to the functioning of the war machine. While Wells’ critical view towards the militant aspect of the movement occasionally contains important insights, it also results in an almost complete write-off of student protest in the movement which he views as largely unorganized and often the product of “inexperience” and “frustration” rather than a genuine desire to end the war. There was certainly much to object within many of the militant groups—macho attitudes that reinforced the values of a patriarchal culture, tactical recklessness whereby decisions were made with little regard to overall strategic efficiency, and an unquestioning glorification of violence—yet Wells focuses solely on the tactics and dismisses those without any substantive examination of the questions about the effectiveness of peaceful protests that the militants raised, instead dismissing them as a vain attempt by militants to find “existential satisfaction.” Yet, despite all of his dismissals of militant protest, Wells recognizes that it was the totality of the movement’s varied forms, coupled with the armed movement in Vietnam that ended the war. Wells is equally dismissive of anti-capitalist sentiment in the antiwar movement, and while serious criticisms can be made of much of what was described as “revolutionary” thought and activity, dismisses it too easily with little substantive discussion as a distraction from antiwar organizing.

With the ongoing Iraq War, in some ways an imperial engagement similar to Vietnam, comparisons between the antiwar movements against Vietnam and Iraq inevitably arise. Even before the war on Iraq began, activists were comparing the two movements with many marveling at the speed at which protests against the Iraq War began, with many noted scholars commenting that the protesting of the Iraq War before it even started presented a significant improvement over the slow construction of a movement against the Vietnam War. In light of these comparisons, The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam can provide important historical perspective to the debates within the antiwar movement against the Iraq War and offer many examples of both what to do and what not to do when organizing opposition to the Iraq War. One of the key lessons for organizing that can be gleaned from The War Within is the importance of sustained organizing, whether that be anti-draft work, national mobilizations, coordinated days of action, letter writing campaigns, and other such activities, which occurring at regular intervals, exerted a continued pressure on the United States government. It is also important to understand that building an antiwar movement takes time, and while most involved in antiwar organizing would like to find the one action that could halt the war, it is necessary to understand that it will be a combination of tactics—letter writing, public protests, militant actions, and other activities, that will cumulatively work together to stop the Iraq War as they did with the Vietnam War. There is no simple blueprint for ending the war, but rather, activists must realize that a variety of well-organized and strategically chosen tactics will stop the war. Additionally, as was the case with the NLF in the Vietnam War, the Iraqi insurgency will play a significant role in bringing an end to the Iraq War as it is the insurgency that will raise the human cost of the war to the United States and open the way for increased resistance in the United States as casualties rise. The question of whether or not to support the NLF opened large division during the Vietnam War (and similarly posing the question of whether or not to support the Iraqi insurgency would open a similar question in the contemporary movement), highlighting one of the most destructive forces that acted against the antiwar movement, sectarianism. Sectarianism destroyed numerous antiwar coalitions during the Vietnam War, generally facilitated by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), there is a fair amount of sectarianism in the contemporary antiwar movement that threatens to both turn away people who unknowingly come in contact with sectarian front groups such as International A.N.S.W.E.R. and World Can’t Wait (front for the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP)The War Within) and isolates antiwar activists who get burnt out seeing their effectiveness diminished by sectarian infighting.

The War Within is one of the more comprehensive evaluations of the movement against the Vietnam War, and despite its flaws, offers a valuable analysis that will be of interest both to those interested in the movement against Vietnam as well as those who would like to see a more visible movement against the Iraq War. Unfortunately, given the wide variety of organizations participating in the movement against the Vietnam War, no single volume is going to give a complete overview of the movement, yet The War Within, coupled with a reading of Kirkpatrick Sale’s SDS, comes close to providing a workable history that can be used both to understand the period and provide important historical lessons for organizers. It is unfortunate that so few contemporary organizers have more than a simplistic understanding of the movement against the Vietnam War, because without a sense of historical understanding, the contemporary movement, despite its unique historical realities, seems poised to falter despite the fact that a shift to sustained organizing could produce a movement that could potentially rival that of the Vietnam War.

Tom Wells, The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam, (Henry Holt and Company, 1994).

Author: mediamouse

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