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 TruthRevolt.org on July 18, 2014.