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Confessions Of A One-Time “Peace Protester”

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 On August 5, an outstanding organization called Vietnam Veterans for factual history will be co-hosting a debate at the National Press Club on the meaning, justice and wisdom of the war. They asked me to contribute a brief reflection on my role as an anti-war organizer, mostly during my time at Yale University and as political speechwriter and consultant in the years that followed. Because of the sacrifice and patriotism of the veterans who served our country so admirably in Indochina, I felt honored to offer a brief contribution.

Between 1967 and 1974, coinciding mostly with my years at college and law school, I spent much of my time protesting the war in Vietnam. I not only attended demonstrations, volunteered my time in presidential campaigns for Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy and George McGovern, but also played a leadership role in the Vietnam Moratorium that organized nationwide protests in 1969. In that capacity, I served as co-chair of the Moratorium in Connecticut that drew an estimated 50,000 people to the New Haven Green on October 15, 1969.

Throughout my experience as an anti-war organizer, I always took care to emphasize patriotic themes and symbols – deploying American flags wherever possible, stressing our respect for the courage of our troops in the field, supporting the dream of a “negotiated settlement” that would allow our country to achieve “peace with honor.” Like so many other “moderates” among Vietnam protesters, I felt nothing but contempt and resentment for those strident voices on our side who justified violence or property destruction, or condemned the U.S. as an imperialist power, or chanted the hateful slogan: “Ho, Ho, Ho Che Minh/NLF is gonna win.” With a handful of obnoxious radicals stealing most of the press attention, no wonder that Middle America came to see the whole anti-war movement as anti-American. When President Nixon responded to the massive Mobilization Against the War that brought some 700,000 demonstrators (including me) to Washington, DC in November, 1969, he successfully rallied “the silent majority” and drove his own approval numbers to new highs. The smashed shop windows, rioting and anti-police slogans by a handful of arrogant radicals (led by the Weathermen later associated with Bill Ayres) helped turn the mass of public opinion against the self-proclaimed “Peace Movement” and boosted President Nixon toward his 49 state landslide in 1972.

For most ‘60’s leftists, such setbacks never shook our smug and self-righteous certainty in the justice of our cause though in retrospect it’s hard to see how we helped the country in any way. We never swayed a majority of the electorate toward our point of view and the peace-at-any-price McGovern campaign with its repulsive “Come Home, America” theme managed to lose every state except Massachusetts. It took the self-inflicted wounds of the Watergate scandal to destroy the Nixon administration and to install a majority of anti-war Democrats in Congress in the one-sided balloting of ’74. That assemblage of “Watergate Babies” blocked every determined effort by President Gerald Ford to assist our South Vietnamese allies after the North invaded in ’75, and shredded the integrity of the Paris Accords that had supposedly guaranteed the elusive combination of peace with honor.

By that time, war weariness had eroded public support for any new US involvement, just as the end of the draft in ’73 had drained all energy and urgency from the so-called Peace Movement. Those of us who devoted years to misguided activism convinced ourselves that our reluctance to serve in the military stemmed from selfless, ideological opposition to the war. But the equation also worked in the opposite direction: our opposition to the war stemmed at least in part from our very selfish reluctance to serve. With the draft no longer a direct, personal threat the imperative of protest seemed far less compelling.

Forty years later, historians can still disagree on the wisdom of American foreign policy in Indochina, and the competence of the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations in their handling of the war. They may even debate whether or not the cause for which we fought merited the sacrifice of 58,000 of our finest fellow citizens.

On two important points, however, no serious argument is possible.

First, the betrayal of our allies in 1975 and the abandonment of the solemn commitments of the Paris Accords brought some of the darkest days of recent American history. The brutal North Vietnamese invasion and subjugation of South Vietnam badly damaged the United States in terms of our national morale, global power, and international credibility.

This disaster led directly to the nightmarish American reverses of the Carter years.

Second, the anti-war movement made a fateful mistake in our naïve confidence that American withdrawal would bring peace and harmony to the troubled lands of Southeast Asia and would ultimately benefit the long-suffering peoples of the region. In fact, the political decision to remove our military brought genocide to Cambodia, and tyranny, re-education camps and waves of desperate refugees to South Vietnam.

The lessons for today are obvious: abrupt withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan may protect our troops but could still undermine America’s position in the wider world. Ending US involvement in these wars doesn’t mean ending the wars: the bloodshed and suffering will no doubt continue, and probably intensify, as American might recedes and our resolve evaporates.

This column originally appeared at on July 18, 2014.

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Comments (26)

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  1. Barbara  •  Jul 24, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    PLEASE please do not forget somewhere around 5,000 POW/MIA never came home. Nixon was more worried about getting reelected than bringing home ALL of the living soldiers. Along with an unknown number of journalists, aid workers, etc.
    The contract Kissinger and the North Vietnam government agree to was a smoke screen. A contract that has never been honored by any of the presidents. Not one!
    Two books go into the history of how and why “JFK” by Fletcher Prouty. “An Enormous Crime” by Bill Hendon explain the after math of the Vietnam War.
    Repeatedly Vietnam has tried to get the US government to honor the agreement. This would indicate there are living soldiers.

    • Ron Collins  •  Jul 24, 2014 at 10:20 pm

      I have the book Enormous Crime also. On page 470 they came to the conclusion that as of September 15, 1972 the North held 515 Americans that were not returned. This figure does not include any that were shot down and captured in the later bombing campaigns. Nor does it include prisoners held in Laos.
      I served from 10/29/68-10/29/69 in the Mekong Delta, IV Corps area. What really pisses me off is the revelation that the North was within a week of capitulating during the Christmas Bombing campaign of 1972. They had run out of SAMs and notified Kissinger they were ready to negotiate again. If not for the anti-war effort that the communists had infiltrated in this country, giving them a political edge, things might have turned out differently.
      I will never forgive those that protested here at home even though it was their first amendment right to do so. I think most of the males were just chicken shits and afraid to go. Well, someone had to go in their place. I’ll bet they never lost a nights sleep over their actions.
      One of the Command and Control Hueys of my outfit rescued green beret Captain James N. (Nick) Rowe from his captors in the U Minh Forest. He wrote a book about his experiences called “Five Years to Freedom.” He went on to conduct counter insurgency, escape and evasion training in various places including Panama and the Philippines. In April 1989, while riding in the back of an unarmoured car near Quezon City, Manila, he was shot in the head by communist subversives operating on Luzon. Word came down from Hanoi to get him as payback for escaping them in 1968. He was 51 and now rests at Arlington.
      Are there any living soldiers still being held captive by the Vietnmese? Possibly, but I lay the blame for that on Henry Kissinger and the democrat controlled congress. Kissinger for agreeing to pay $5 billion for reconstruction as “reparations” and the democrats for stopping funding of the South Vietnamese and any chance of the return of all our men. Holding back the men as hostages was at the suggestion of our friend down south, Fidel Castro. Castro had gotten paid in equipment for the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
      Given current events it seems some of the hard lessons learned have been forgotten. For one thing, it should be noted that it is not a very good idea to end a war before it is over and won. Another lesson is never negotiate with a communist and that same thought applies to muslims. Examples, North Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and soon Afghanistan.
      Lastly, remember, you don’t just take the military to war, you take the whole country to war as in WWII. If the country is divided and not all are convinced the cause is just and necessary to our survival, stay on the porch.

      • Howard  •  Jul 25, 2014 at 3:06 am

        Thank You
        A veteran who also served

    • Vic Kessinger  •  Jul 24, 2014 at 11:21 pm

      A Columbia professor once wrote a book on causes of radicalism and the ’60’s saying that materialism replaced parental nurturing resulting in a homicidal hatred for their country – an aspect of this is a hatred of authority and insertion of themselves as the authority and arbitrators of revenge.

    • Vic Kessinger  •  Jul 24, 2014 at 11:29 pm

      Ron Collins, thank you so much for what you wrote. Did you hear of the treacherous end of John Wheeler, credited with getting theVIet Nam war memorial in D.C., done, himself a Viet Nam vet – probably his demise was due to work on exposing vulnerabilities regarding Cyberspace attacks – ?

    • Jim Antrim  •  Jul 25, 2014 at 5:54 pm

      I served with the 2/17 CAV, 101st Airborne Division in I CORPS in 1969-70. Google this book if you are interested.

      Great read: “Tears before the rain:an oral history of the fall of South Vietnam”.
      by Larry Engelmann – August 1997

      In this stunning history, soldiers and civilians, both American and Vietnamese, tell what it was like in the spring of 1975 as Hanoi carried out its final, successful offensive against the Republic of Vietnam. Generals, ambassadors, pilots, marines, politicians, doctors, seamen, flight attendants, journalists, children, and even Vietcong soldiers describe the growing demoralization, panic, and chaos as the collapse gained momentum. American survivors recall with raw emotions the escape of the last airliner out of Danang, the chilling helicopter airlift from the U.S. embassy roof in Saigon, and the painful abandonment of their South Vietnamese allies. Former boat people relate their hair-raising encounters with Thai pirates; and in a new postscript, an American government official describes the resettlement of 130,000 Vietnamese refugees in America over the ensuing months. Touching, heroic, and unforgettable, these dramatic narratives illuminate the closing act of one of the central events of modern history.

  2. Judy Tyler  •  Jul 24, 2014 at 5:20 pm

    How refreshing to hear from someone who was once so misguided! The truth is truly a beautiful thing! I only hope there are many others who have come to the same realization!

  3. Rick Fuller  •  Jul 24, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    Way to go Mike.

  4. Bob Hux  •  Jul 24, 2014 at 6:23 pm

    Having volunteered for Vietnam (was not able to go into the Military due to the fact that I had a child already) and being a part of that era I learned that there was a reason for so many lawyers popping out of law schools during that era — it was they did not want to serve for selfish reasons as the author pointed out. Yet, today, it is still the legal profession who provides most of the “excuses” for leaving Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. Today we are no longer respected in the world as a keeper of the peace but only a bunch of elected officials trying to be sure they retain their seats and power — the right course of action be damned. We should have left troops in Iraq (we still have them in many places in the world from WWll but no we have pulled and left a vacuum to be filled by ISIS and those who will eventually attack us again while the peaceniks continue their chants and demonstrations. All so sad to see a country that was once the leader of peace in the world through strength now become a laughing stock. Simply sad and one could write forever but as the illegals continue across the border the voting is over in this country.

  5. 2WarAbnVet  •  Jul 24, 2014 at 6:45 pm

    The bottom line is that you supported and encouraged the enemy, whatever your good intentions may have been. the blood of American fighting men is on your hands, and your BS at the current time means nothing,

    • Dan  •  Jul 24, 2014 at 7:17 pm

      D2WarAbnVet anyone could understand your hard feelings, but repentance sought and gained, especially when done publicly, is hardly ‘BS.’ Mike would have gotten a lot more mileage by trumpeting his anti-war activities as though he were some kind of hero as so many have done. Instead he speaks out to a wide-ranging audience about the mistakes he made and regrets, and discourages others from doing the same. Time to let it go, mac…

    • MacBeagle  •  Jul 24, 2014 at 8:32 pm

      Please read Michael’s book Right Turns to get a better understanding of the role that Michael Medved played during this era. Ever since he got it figured out, he has always admitted that he was wrong. It is no great sin to have been wrong about something once and then to have repented.

    • 5thSFVet  •  Jul 24, 2014 at 8:35 pm

      None of us can change the past. It takes a big man to outgrow the errors of his youth. If Ayers, Clinton, Kerry, Obama, et al, had done the same, we might be in a better Nation today. Without excusing any past deeds, I salute the ability and willingness to grow past those errors – and to admit it.

    • annie  •  Jul 25, 2014 at 4:15 pm

      I think he’s paid his penance and then some, sir. You try doing what he does for 24 hours and then resume your complaining about “BS”.

  6. jay  •  Jul 24, 2014 at 6:46 pm

    As a veteran and having served in the VietNam conflict, I was shocked to hear flippantly one day that my Brother in Law actually went to Canada to escape the draft. Too much time had passed and understandings of the war and effects, to make me think less of him, but I would have had I known him directly after serving.

    It was a different time with the same problems of today. I cannot remember another time in our history with the exception of Mr. Carters administration, where we have been thought of so low due to our present leader and his administration. I surely don’t want war at every door step and forever in America, but when called to give the right response, our government is lacking and seems more craven as the days progress.

  7. Ted  •  Jul 24, 2014 at 8:17 pm

    2WarAbnVet I respect your feelings but he did say it was a confession. I would suspect he is a man of conscience and has had to live in the shadow of his actions still to this day.

    I was in high school toward the end of Vietnam and never understood the disrespect shown to the troops. I also never respected the fact that our soldiers were not allowed to win the war by the politicians guiding it along. So many died in vain it seems. If you are going to fight a war fight it to win, the stakes are too high as to drag it out and prolong the suffering of those who till the soil of its struggle. I went to DC to a protest but could not embrace the call to arms by liberals. For those who believed in the struggle against Communism, I am grateful, I am just sorry American’s paid such a heavy price. Politicians always try to make peace with tyrants and bribe then into “Friendly relations”. In general politicians are the problem as they are more often than not, Lawyers, not leaders.

    I am a Libertarian/Conservative and in principal agree with Mr. Medved. Still I often find him abrasive and annoying, but he, as far as I can tell has been honest about his liberal roots and his change of mind and heart. For his past I am sure he has made peace with his God as best he can for his thoughts and actions. As a vocal conservative he seems to work hard to shed light on the plague of liberalism that has infected our social consciousness.

    For one I am glad he is on the “Right” side of the political spectrum these days putting his energy and talents to work there. Not to equate him with, but Ronald Regan was also a Democrat at one time and had a change of mind and heart. I for one am glad that RR became a Conservative. I for one am glad that Mr. Medved is now a steadfast conservative serving the cause of things similar to Reganism.

    It is also refreshing to know he is a conservative in the Jewish community. I have several conservative Jewish friends who are incredibly intelligent and bucking the trend of being Democrat. Bravo to all of them brave enough to speak out.

    Blood is truly only on the hands of politicians who fight politically correct wars and dictators and tyrants who sacrifice lives and countries for their own ego’s.

    • Neal from PA  •  Jul 25, 2014 at 7:51 pm

      Very wise and astute observations Ted. While it has never been our preference, we have been a force for stability, providing American “can-do” spirit to problems and places that many Americans have never even heard of, much less been to. The fact is the world doesn’t look to other big powers like China or Russia when there is a pressing problem for the so-called “international community,” knowing Beijing and Moscow are willing to look the other way unless they’re directly affected or happy to let someone else do the heavy lifting (usually America).

      The world, instead, looks to America as the country with the will and capability to make things happen — and to do so in some of the planet’s toughest neighborhoods. This, of course, comes courtesy of the world’s best military. It’s the only one with a true global, we-can-get-there-supply-ourselves-get-the-job-done-and-get-home type of mobility and sustainability that is the envy of all other armed forces.

      For those that think the world would be a better place without America, I have some really bad news…it would be far worse than where it finds itself today. And if America turns to “Isolationism”, “Liberalism”, or “Obamaism” (or any variation of) the current situations will only get worse; probably becoming the catalyst for WWIII; forcing America to once again, save the world from itself.

      America and the West have and are making big mistakes about Putin and the Middle East. These are powder kegs ready to explode into what Putin, the extremist and radical Islamist want; and will eventually ignite WWIII. Without America’s leadership it’s certainly very probable.

      “Never has one country done so much for so many — and for so little thanks — as the United States.” Not because of people like Obama and Hillary; but in spite of them.


      “Often Tested, Always Faithful, Brothers Forever”

  8. Pilar  •  Jul 24, 2014 at 9:17 pm

    Currently and back in the 60/70s, the Media, the biggest, loudest, far-reaching mouthpiece of the Left, distorts truth for their collective agenda—incrementally indoctrinating our citizenry into the folds of the Socialist. The Media and those who can’t think independently are indeed The Enemy Within, marching lock step their their own loss of freedom.

    • Patrick Buell  •  Aug 3, 2014 at 10:03 am

      “those who can’t think independently are indeed The Enemy Within”. I could not agree with you more. Every time I debate someone from the left I hear the same ole talking points that have been canibalized from some highly popular liberal from the past. Thats why they are so often unable to defend their position, because when presented with the facts they run out of quotes and are unable to develop an original thought of their own to support their position. Thats when they resort to calling you a racist, bigot, uncompassionate etc.

  9. jguy  •  Jul 24, 2014 at 10:37 pm

    You can’t unscramble eggs – it is futile to try

  10. Vic Kessinger  •  Jul 24, 2014 at 11:17 pm

    A Columbia professor once wrote a book on causes of radicalism and the ’60’s saying that materialism replaced parental nurturing resulting in a homicidal hatred for their country – an aspect of this is a hatred of authority and insertion of themselves as the authority and arbitrators of revenge.

  11. Neal from PA  •  Jul 24, 2014 at 11:54 pm

    Ever since my days in Vietnam; after seeing what I’ve seen, feeling what I’ve felt—I knew I would never be the same again. I have been asking myself; “What the heck happened to this country?”…

    The United States won the Vietnam War. After all, America was never defeated on the battlefield, and the United States compelled North Vietnam to sign a peace treaty. When American troops left South Vietnam, it was still a sovereign, independent, non-Communist country, and American troops had also given the rest of East Asia a 2 1/2-year breathing space from Communist expansion. It was only after the liberal Democrat Congress refused to hold North Vietnam accountable for violating the peace accords and walked away from America’s commitment to South Vietnam that victory became defeat.

    Also, let’s set the record straight…the majority of the troops (65%) were volunteers; with only 35% being draftees, of course the majority of that 35% were front-line soldiers.

    John Kerry, like Jane Fonda, is a traitor and like all traitors are a disgrace to the country they call home. They should never be trusted or hold public office or receive any kind of positive recognition.

    AMERICA… “Never has one country done so much for so many — and for so little thanks — as the United States.”

    “Often Tested, Always Faithful, Brothers Forever”

  12. David Welch  •  Jul 25, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    More than 54 years have passed since the U.S. started getting involved in French Indochina. Young people are naive and believe they own the world. They make mistakes that they later regret. All of us have done or said something in our life that we later regret. Forgive the one’s that want forgiveness.

  13. Doug  •  Jul 25, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    Excellent Michael! Love your commentary about the fight for freedom around the world!

  14. Bill  •  Jul 26, 2014 at 7:38 pm

    Thank you dear veterans for serving our country in Vietnam and elsewhere. You are truly heroes.

  15. Jerry F.  •  Jul 31, 2014 at 9:18 am

    Thanks for the great article! I’d recommend the purchase of “Three Big Lies” about Vietnam War to all of the people who have read this.

    Jerry F. 101st Airborne, Vietnam 67-69

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