THE POWER OF PROTEST, RESTORING THE MEMORY OF THE PEACE MOVEMENT
Thank you Mark Updegrove, Director of the LBJ Library
Thank you Colonel Mark Franklin, Chief of History and Legacy at the Pentagon's Vietnam Commemoration Office
Thank you Jim Knotts & Reema Ghazi, from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund
Thank you Jim Popkin for reaching out at the beginning of this process
Thank you for your gracious invitation to this significant opportunity for introspection into the Vietnam War and its peace movement opposition. The reconstructions of our legacies live on. I myself have just finished my third book on Vietnam, to be published next year by Yale University Press, tentatively titled "Vietnam and the Power of Protest." My earlier books appeared decades ago: "The Other Side", with Staughton Lynd [1966, New American Library, 1966], and "The Love of Possession Is a Disease with Them" [Holt Rinehart Winston, 1972.] I also have taught Vietnam classes at Immaculate Heart College, Pitzer and Scripps colleges in Claremont, and a seminar with Democratic staff in the US House of Representatives. Currently, I am excited by the works of Viet Thanh Nguyen, on memory and forgetting, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize this month for his novel, The Sympathizer.
The debate over the War and anti-war movement is still alive. Last year 1000 peace activists gathered at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington D.C. to challenge and engage with the Pentagon's narrative of the war, which we considered to be unbalanced. Those discussions, held at Fort Myer, have been fruitful, unresolved, and ongoing. I note the presence here today of Joe Galloway, who took part in that first Fort Myer's dialogue.
Today I am distributing a new House of Representatives Resolution by Rep. Barbara Lee, a peace and justice leader over many years, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War and the movement to end it. The resolution reads in part that, "The movement to end the Vietnam War was one of the largest and most prolonged efforts to achieve peace and justice in many generations and war critical to bringing and end to the war."
There is no question of our impact. We helped turn two presidents out of office. We ended military conscription. Year after year, our numbers in the streets grew until it reached millions and became the largest peace movement in our country's history. The peace movement was not unlike the "general strike" described by W.E.B. Dubois in his history of Reconstruction. It included resistance and walkouts among our troops from military bases to battleships. It spread through communities of color, African-American, Puerto Rican, Latino, Native American, and Asian-American, and from there to campus communities in unprecedented student strikes and moratoriums. While hippies were being demonized, they too were withdrawing from what they considered a repressive and militarized culture. The movement led as well to the opposition of many Democrats and not a few Republicans. The military, the universitie,s and the political order were shaken by the withdrawal of millions from their first attachment to the status quo. American women withdrew from militarism and helped lead the anti-war movement too, as did so many then-closeted LGBT people. The whole phenomenon deserves greater respect and serious research at future conferences like this.
Though many Americans will agree with this assessment, many others hold firm to the belief expressed by President George H.W. Bush after the first Gulf War in 1991 that "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all." Thousands of Americans and millions of Iraqis later died in this war to stamp out a syndrome, which President Bush likened to a mental disorder.
The fundamental reason for these persistent efforts to reclaim victory in Vietnam is a fear in many politicians and their national security advisers of accepting our defeat in 1975. Many of us would argue that the Vietnam war was doomed to failure as early as 1946 when our government armed the French for their march to folly at Dienbienphu, then blocked the nationwide elections promised by the Geneva Accords of 1954.
An official acceptance of defeat in battle, a kind of Custer Syndrome, would lead to a reputational loss as well a painful acknowledgement to military families that their sons fought honorably but under misguided policies imposed by a bipartisan caste of politicians. The political corollary at home was a frightening threat to our own democracy, from McCarthyism to Watergate to COINTELPRO.
This backlash continues today. I felt it was astonishing that our Secretary of State, John Kerry, who was a founding member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War [VVAW] was viciously ‘swift-boated’ out of the presidential race in 2004. He suffered wounds in actually fighting communist forces while so many others in office sat home and enjoyed their immunity. An exception that fought and suffered was Senatir John McCain, who went on with Kerry to a historic diplomatic breakthrough when the US-Vietnam relationship was normalized.
The irony is that our two countries are in a de facto partnership to promote trade and limit China's expansionism in the Pacific. I myself pray that the partnership fulfills our obligation to do everything possible to treat Agent Orange victims and remove the unexploded ordinance that continues to wound or kill this generation of Vietnamese civilians.
Here is another painful contradiction we must confront. Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese troops were paid for, trained and sent to their deaths under our command, but their honor has never been recognized. One reason that our own government does not recognize their fate is that such a change in policy would entitle their families to benefits. The Boat People are honored, but not the Saigon troops who sacrificed for us. Reconciliation requires respect for their side, from Hanoi to Washington DC.
The people of Laos and Cambodia are receding from our memory as well.
I ask you, are we not all Vietnam veterans in our own way? Were we not all lied to and divided by our government? Isn't the shared experience of our generation that we were mutually manipulated into that cauldron? And who was responsible, those of us in our twenties or those who were in power? Judge for yourselves.
Dr. Henry Kissinger, who operated from the very pinnacle of power during those Indochina Wars, and who defended the establishment throughout, must especially reflect on the responsibilities he carries. I personally would welcome a real dialogue with Dr. Kissinger, which requires a frank admission of the part one played. I personally regret my own part in many decisions the peace movement made, and await an acknowledgement and apology from Dr. Kissinger as well. This conference offers a great opportunity for inner reconciliation. In the absence of that opportunity, I must decline your invitation to the dinner with Dr. Kissinger on April 26.