For fifty years the protesters of the Vietnam War have posed a challenge to American culture. What should we make of them? Were they rightful civic activists, facing down institutional injustice? Or were they providing “aid and comfort to the enemy,” the phrase used in the Constitution to define treason?
The military has used the “aid and comfort to the enemy” epithet, blaming the protesters for the U.S. losing the War. They undercut domestic support for the War, or at least that’s the story. This, of course, is shameless scapegoating, since it was the military that lost the War by using fatally flawed strategies and tactics.
The protesters are equally adamant that they prevented an even greater debacle than the one that occurred. Had they not forced Johnson’s hand for withdrawal in 1968, it is a certainty that the carnage would have been even greater, that many more millions of Vietnamese would have died and many more tens of thousands of American soldiers would have come home in body bags.
So, are they heroes or goats? Saviors or saboteurs? The question is relevant because it reveals the answer to an even greater question: when the government goes awry today can the people have any influence over it? If they cannot, then we don’t have a democracy.
The Vietnam War was misbegotten from the start. It was lost in the very act of its beginning. The wounds the U.S. inflicted on itself never stopped. The savagery was epochal. And throughout it all, the government lied relentlessly. If ever there was an act of state worthy of protest, this was it. Knowing the War is knowing why.
In 1946, Ho Chi Minh approached Harry Truman asking for American help in evicting the French colonial occupiers. Hadn’t the U.S. itself once fought a war for independence from colonial domination? But Truman helped the French instead. The Vietnamese would never forget — or forgive — that betrayal.
In 1954, the Vietnamese defeated the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The French quit the country. U.S. Army Chief of Staff Matthew B. Ridgway warned against the U.S. getting involved, arguing that even with the use of nuclear weapons the U.S. could not win a war in Vietnam.
Eisenhower, however, decided to double down. In 1955, he divided Vietnam into two. He needed to avoid the national elections that had been agreed to in the Geneva settlement following France’s defeat. He stated flatly, “Our guys would have lost.” The Vietnamese saw it as so much shifty deceit on the part of the Westerners. Again, they would never forget it.
Eisenhower set up a puppet government in the South, further deepening Vietnamese conviction that the U.S. was not to be trusted. No government of the South ever earned legitimacy with its own people and no amount of bombs dropped on them could inflict it. Without such legitimacy, the U.S. could never win the War, because winning required a durable political solution, and that is what the U.S. repeatedly squandered.
It was Kennedy who came to recognize the War as not just a lost cause, but a wrong cause. In October 1963, he issued National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263, stating that the U.S. would begin removing its troops from Vietnam by the end of the year.
He was assassinated one month later.
Johnson escalated the War, sending American soldiers to do the fighting and unleashing American bombing. He did this even though he knew the War was being fought on false pretenses and could not be won.
In March 1965, before the insertion of ground troops that would make the War irreversible, before the beginning of the bombing campaign that wrought so much devastation on Vietnam, Johnson was told by the Pentagon that the true U.S. goals in the War were:
“…70% to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat; 20% to keep Vietnam (and adjacent territories) from Chinese hands; and 10% to permit the people of Vietnam a better, freer way of life.”
That is the “smoking gun” of the lie that was Vietnam. But it is hardly the only one.
The following year, 1966, Johnson asked McNamara what were the chances of U.S. victory. McNamara replied, “One in three.” But Johnson, like Eisenhower and Kennedy before him, and Nixon after him, was captive and, in fact, subservient to the ideology of anti-communism.
He and the others had lived through the McCarthy era. He didn’t want to appear to be “soft on communism.” He was adamant that he was “not going to be the first American president to lose a war.” So, he soldiered on, or had others soldier on, condemning millions of people to death.
Throughout all of this, the public was repeatedly told that the War was necessary, a grave matter of national security, that all was going fine, that we were winning the War, and that there was “light at the end of the tunnel.” All of it was lies.
Congressman Pete McCloskey, a former Marine who had earned the Silver Star, the Navy Cross, and two Purple Hearts in Korea, summarized the lying by the government, stating that, “The Pentagon’s thousands of instances of deceit with hundreds of congressmen amount to attempts to brainwash both the Congress and the American people.”
In other words, long before the protesters ever came onto the scene, the highest-level people in the government, both civilian and military, knew the War was a fraud. They knew that the War could not be won. They knew its staggering costs, in both lives and treasure. Yet, they lied about it to continue it. That is what the Pentagon Papers were all about.
There was too much ideology at stake with the politicians. There were too many promotions being awarded in the military where officers gain status and advancement for combat experience. There was too much money being made by the weapons makers. Given all of this, how could the protesters be culpable of the U.S. loss in the War?
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The protesters were very much like the child in the tale of the Emperor’s Clothes. They were the ones who declared what everybody could see—that the Emperor was naked—but that the “sophisticated” were too invested in to admit.
In 1965, Alice Herz, a Jewish survivor of Nazi Germany, burned herself to death in Detroit to protest the War. Within months, 25,000 people protested the War in Washington D.C. By 1967, 50,000 protested, and by November 1969, 250,000 people assembled in Washington D.C. to protest the War. More than six million people eventually took part in the protests, twice as many as served in the War.
In May 1970, during a peaceful march at Kent State University in Ohio to protest the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, the Ohio National Guard shot from a distance and killed 4 students in an unarmed crowd. Within days, over 500 colleges and universities around the country had erupted in protest, not just of the War itself, but of the government’s tactics to suppress dissent.
The scope and intensity of the protests were major factors driving Johnson’s “Committee of Wise Men” to tell him in early 1968 that he had to end the War. Not only could it not be won, the protests were tearing the country apart. The protests were enormously influential in convincing Johnson to not run for re-election in 1968.
The question is, had the protesters not mobilized themselves as they did, if they had not exercised the kind of influence that they had, what would have ended the carnage? Who had the moral temperament, the authority, and the persuasiveness to say “Enough”? How does a country save itself from its own most self-destructive impulses?
It would certainly have never come from the military.
At the time of the Tet Offensive in early 1968 — the event that would prove the turning point of the War — William Westmorland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, had a request in for another 200,000 soldiers, on top of the 535,000 already there. The Secretary of the Air Force, General Curtis Le May, wrote that “we should bomb them back into the Stone Age.”
Nor would the decision to end the War have come from the civilian side of the government.
Nixon, once in power, said to Kissinger, “I want to level the goddamn country.” More than half of the total casualties of the War were inflicted after Nixon’s 1968 election in which he promised “Peace with Honor,” and claimed to have a “secret plan to end the War.” During one twelve-day period in December 1972 (the “Christmas Bombings”), the U.S. dropped more tons of bombs on North Vietnam than it had dropped during the two years from 1969 to 1971, the military height of the war.
The War had long been lost and those in power knew it. But they could not bring themselves to end it or acknowledge that they had lost it. They were too invested in their political positions, their ideologies, their career advancement, their profiteering. Those were more important to them than American honor or all the lives they had destroyed in their astonishingly hubristic conceit.
The protesters undoubtedly accelerated the ending of the War. In doing so, they undoubtedly reduced the number of people who would ultimately be killed and maimed in it, both American and Vietnamese.
It is important to remember that the United States literally came into being through the acts of protesters who saw the acts of their government as wrong. Protest of government action by the people is one the most sacred rights accorded Americans. Its protection is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Its exercise has never been for a more worthy cause.
But it’s perhaps even more important to understand that there are powerful forces afoot today that want to prevent protest of government action and demonize those who disagree with state action as traitors, just like they did in Vietnam. Think of Trump’s rants against football players who exercise their right of protest by calingl attention to manifestly racist police policies.
Unfortunately, those who want to demonize protesters in order to de-legitimize protest are winning.
Iraq was at least as great a travesty and a tragedy as was Vietnam, yet you would hardly know it. It was entirely built on lies and it was known at the time that they were lies. It didn’t matter. Those who wanted war and who profit from war were intent on having their War, and they got it. The protests against it were impotent. It has cost more than $3 trillion, enough to have made Social Security solvent forever. One of its most virulent progeny is ISIS.
The weapons makers, the military, their PR arm, the mainstream media, and their bought lackeys in Congress are now ratcheting up a war against Iran. The Iraq War is the model. Iran is built on similarly easy-to-discern lies. Iran has not attacked another country in more than 400 years. It has passed eight inspections for its compliance with the nuclear deal. It doesn’t matter.
Those who profit from wars need wars to justify their existence. And they will have this one. And the next one. And the next one. And the next one.
Until people remember and reclaim their own power.
Until they remember that there was a time when ordinary people just like them spoke truth to power and forced that power to desist from its heinous, psychopathic predations. It was the protesters who brought an end to the Vietnam War, one of the greatest tragedies in American history. We owe them our undying respect, and gratitude. We have been passive — and pacified — too long since then. It will be hard to get our government back, having let it go for so long, but something like this is the only way it will ever happen.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed the quote, "This is not our war," to President John F. Kennedy. " Those words, in fact, were said by his father, Joseph Kennedy, about Vietnam. The reference has been removed.