The Power of Protest: Lessons From the Anti-Vietnam War Movement

Thirty years ago in Vietnam, the US government was defeated for the first time in a major war. With the revival of the anti-war movement, and a possible new US war on Iraq, what can we learn from the anti-Vietnam War movement?

In August 1964, following decades of US support for the French occupation of Vietnam, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson manufactured a fake attack on US forces, known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident, in order to create political support for a massive US assault on Vietnam.

The US intervened in Vietnam to prevent a corrupt capitalist government in South Vietnam from being overthrown by the popular National Liberation Front (NLF) guerillas. The NLF was linked to North Vietnam, where capitalism had been overthrown and replaced by a stalinist system which was politically ruled by a privileged bureaucracy.

Although the NLF had a Stalinist leadership and did not base itself on a genuine Marxist policy of workers’ democracy and international socialism, they did challenge capitalism and landlordism. The US feared that the victory of “communism” in Vietnam would spur socialist revolutions throughout Asia.

By 1965, 200,000 US troops were stationed in Vietnam, growing to 500,000 in 1968. During this war the US dropped 8 million tons of bombs, more than twice the total dropped during World War II. 20 million tons of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange were sprayed, destroying vegetation and spreading dioxin throughout Vietnam’s food chain, leading to a massive rise in birth defects. Altogether, the US government used $150 billion and 2.8 million troops fighting in Vietnam, 57,000 of whom died there.

On the other side was a desperately poor country with a guerrilla army that used weapons from a previous era. Its only supply line through North Vietnam to the Soviet Union was bombed every day by the US and rebuilt every night. The massive bombing destroyed 70% of North Vietnam’s villages, leaving huge areas barren and the capital, Hanoi, completely destroyed.

The US was defeated largely by the Vietnamese people’s heroic determination and fighting spirit. At least two million Vietnamese died in wars against Japanese, French and US imperialism between 1945 and 1975. The NLF’s program of national liberation from imperialist domination, land to the peasants, and a decent life for workers inspired the most astonishing support, self-sacrifice, and willingness to fight to the death. This determination could not be defeated by all the military hardware the US could rain down on Vietnam. The result was that the US found itself bogged down in a costly, drawn-out war.

The Emergence of the Anti-War Movement

The earliest protesters against the war came out of the civil rights movement. Malcolm X and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, for example, came out against the war in 1965.

The anti-war movement started as a small minority, with student sit-ins and demonstrations. But as the war dragged on, its social and economic consequences triggered a much larger, more effective opposition. When the bombings began, a Boston Commons protest attracted 100 people. This grew to a massive 100,000 by October 15, 1969, with 2 million in total protesting across the country.

By 1969, there were 500 underground newspapers in high schools, and protests had been held on 232 college campuses across the country with 3,652 people arrested and 956 suspended or expelled. The existence of the draft, where all young people could be randomly selected to serve in the army, led to mass draft dodging. Many middle class students were able to dodge the draft, leaving working class and African American youth to be the majority of those forced to fight. By early 1968, 40,000 soldiers were dead and 250,000 were wounded, with the numbers growing daily.

The media has attempted to portray the anti-war movement as being mainly made up of well-off students. However, with working class youth on the front lines in Vietnam, opposition to the war was actually strongest in working class communities. A University of Michigan poll in June 1966 showed that 27% of people with a college education favored immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, compared to 41% of those with only a grade school education.

Revolt in the US Army

Eventually, mass opposition developed within the armed forces themselves. With no confidence in the goals of an unwinnable war, rank-and-file soldiers (essentially workers in uniform) revolted. With African Americans disproportionately represented in the army, the effects of the civil rights movement was a key factor. Black soldiers saw little reason to risk their lives fighting a racist war, in a racist army, for a racist government.

In 1970, there were over 50 underground newspapers on military bases. By 1971, 17.7% of US soldiers were listed as AWOL. In 1972, a quarter of US soldiers had mutinied or defied military orders. Units refused combat, fragging (soldiers killing their officers) was widespread, and almost a quarter of US troops had become heroin addicts. Over 700,000 soldiers received less than honorable discharges.

The anti-war movement was strengthened by the thousands of veterans who returned home radicalized by their experience in the war. Driven by anger at the US government’s lies and the atrocities they witnessed, they moved to the forefront of the anti-war movement – in their uniforms, many on crutches or in wheelchairs.

This process was summed up by Col. Robert D. Heinl Jr. when he wrote “The morale, discipline and battleworthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States. By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous.” (“The Collapse of the Armed Forces,” Armed Forces Journal, 6/7/71)

The most powerful army in the world disintegrated. This is an important lesson for activists today, as the ruling class attempts to make its massive firepower appear unstoppable. In reality, the US military is not immune to wider social and political processes. Any major wave of radicalization and revolt in US society will inevitably find an expression within the rank-and-file of the US armed forces, who are mostly working class, thus tending to undermine the military’s effectiveness as a tool for repression by the ruling class.

Mass Anti-War Movement

The war also hit people in the pocket book. At first, increased war spending boosted the economy, but the cost of the war and increased social programs at home (to stem an uprising of African Americans) forced the government to print excess dollars to pay for it. This led to a spiral of price increases, inflation, a ballooning budget deficit, and the erosion of the purchasing power of workers’ wages – which triggered an increase in strikes and opposition to union leaders who refused to fight the bosses in order to win decent contracts.

At this point, the anti-war movement developed into a truly mass movement, cleaving society in two. After national guardsmen, recently coming off a Teamster picket line, shot dead four students at a Kent State University protest, mass occupations of colleges erupted. By 1972, one million blacks considered themselves revolutionary. Millions began to see clearly through the rhetoric of a “war against communism”, and saw the naked aggression of the US ruling class in its pursuit of profits and imperialist domination.

By this point, important sections of big business concluded that it was better to end the war rather than suffer further social explosions at home. They feared the civil rights movement, the growing threat of ordinary workers going out on wildcat strikes, and the youth movement all coalescing into one giant movement against the government and the capitalist system.

Lessons for Today

In 1973, Nixon was finally forced to withdraw all US troops. Two years later saw the complete victory of the NLF. Suffering such an embarrassing defeat, and terrified of provoking new social upheaval at home, US imperialism held back from major military interventions abroad for almost 20 years. Only in the last decade have they been confident enough to contemplate starting wars that risk a serious loss of US lives.

Since then, the spokesmen and politicians of big business have been trying to re-write history. The right wing argues that the US never really lost the war, but just failed to conduct it energetically enough. These same elements believe that their quick victory in Afghanistan has shown that determined military action can overcome all obstacles.

This is a completely wrong conclusion. As New York Times correspondent C. L. Sulzberger wrote: “The US emerges as the big loser and the history books must reflect this…We lost the war in the Mississippi valley, not the Mekong valley. Successive American governments were never able to muster the necessary support at home.”

The distinguishing mark of the Vietnam War was that the US waged a war against a social revolution. The majority of peasants and workers in Vietnam were fighting for their national and social liberation and were therefore prepared to make great sacrifices.

There is no comparison between the war in Vietnam and the war in Afghanistan, where the reactionary Taliban was hated by the majority of the population. As soon as the ground war began, the Taliban was isolated with no social base and quickly collapsed. It became a conventional war of armies in which the US had a huge advantage. This was the key factor that led to the swift US victory. The terrorist outrage of 9/11 and the reactionary nature of the Taliban also meant that there was no social support for the Taliban in the US, making it much easier for Bush to win public support for his war.

The enormous worsening of social conditions in the semi-colonial countries, due to neo-liberal globalization, will force the workers and peasants in the ‘third world’ into struggle in the coming years. As the main global policeman of corporate interests, the US will attempt to throttle these movements. But any military intervention in a revolutionary situation, like in Vietnam, would force the US once again to put hundreds of thousands of ground troops into the field of battle, risking significant US casualties. The US would be forced to restore the draft, opening up the potential for revolt among the armed forces.

September 11th represents a turning point in history, ushering in a new period marked by great instability, crises, and wars. The tremendous anti-Vietnam War movement is rich in valuable lessons. In the more turbulent and violent epoch we have entered, these lessons can be of great use in building a powerful, effective anti-war movement, which contains the seeds of a new world.

Justice #31, September 2002