Anti-war protests then and now

Articles, Protest, USA, Veterans, Vietnam
December, 1967 Stop the Draft Week

Draft cards burning in front of the door to the Oakland Army Induction Center in December 1967. (From the Harvey Richards Media Archive)

Forty-six years ago this week, a coalition of 40 anti-war organizations staged “Stop the Draft Week” demonstrations. Protesters burnt their draft cards — an act which Congress had made illegal two years before — and rallied outside of military centers. The week was just the latest in what had turned out to be a year of anti-war actions. In April, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam led 400,000 protesters on a march from New York’s Central Park to the UN headquarters. Well-known peace activists like Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Dr Benjamin Spock addressed the crowd, along with Vietnam veteran Jan Berry Crumb.

Crumb had served in Vietnam in 1963 as part of a group of military “advisors” the US had sent to Southeast Asia to train the South Vietnamese Army. What he saw in Vietnam disturbed him and not long after returning to the US, he resigned from the military. In June 1967, Crumb and five other veterans joined together and founded the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The organization would become a critical voice for anti-war veterans in the years to come. As Gerald Nicosia writes in “Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veteran’s Movement”:

The organization would put Richard Nixon into a panic, provoke FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover into breaking the law in order to destroy it, precipitate the last major conspiracy trial of the era, and bring to prominence at least one leader of national stature, John Kerry.

(Nicosia 2001:5)

A 1971 ad VVAW ran, which explained their reasons for protesting the war. This ad was funded by Hugh Hefner.

A February 1971 ad for VVAW, which explained their reasons for protesting the war. This ad was funded by Hugh Hefner and ran in Playboy magazine.

The Vietnam veterans who protested the war in the 60s and 70s blazed a trail for modern anti-war veterans. But American veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today protest without the support of a large anti-war movement. They are more easily silenced because fewer people are paying attention. Afghanistan vet Joe Glenton wrote a piece in Vice magazine last week highlighting some of the American and British veterans who are speaking out against war. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in peace activism.

Speaking at Quest Academy on Veteran’s Day

Chicago, Talks, USA, Veterans, Vietnam
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Photo taken by Sharon Rockhill (Quest Academy)

On Veteran’s Day, I spoke to the middle schoolers at Quest Academy in Palatine, Illinois about my research on veterans and peace. It was great to be back at my alma mater and spend time with the 80 or so students. Despite the snowstorm happening outside, the students were really engaged and had some interesting questions about the work being done in Vietnam, particularly with the remediation of the Da Nang Airport.

I was pleased to find out that the students already knew a little about the Vietnam War, since it’s so rarely taught in schools these days. Young people’s lack of knowledge about the war and its consequences is one of the reasons I decided to write this book. As the philosopher George Santayana wrote, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Already, we are seeing the effects of this amnesia. Gallup has found that young people are the only group of Americans today that think fighting in Vietnam was not a mistake. I am hopeful, however, that young people like myself can help teach the past to those to young to have lived it.

Remembering Giap and the “Misunderstandings” of War

Photograph, USA, Vietnam
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Giap’s coffin being driven through the streets of Hanoi today

Hundreds of thousands of people bid their final farewell to General Vo Nguyen Giap today, the Vietnamese military reported on its website.  As the principal commander of the Vietnamese People’s Army in the wars against France and the United States, Giap was described by US Gen. William Westmoreland as a “formidable adversary.” While Giap’s popularity waned in Vietnam after the death of Ho Chi Minh, he remained a prominent face of the Vietnam War here in the United States.

So it’s not surprising that in in 1995, when former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara sought out Vietnamese leaders for a conversation about the “missed opportunities” for peace between Vietnam and the United States, Gen. Giap was among the men he solicited. McNamara and Giap sat down in November 1995 and talked, among other things, about the reasons the war began. The American press was on hand to record Giap’s clarification of the Tonkin incident, which was cited by the US as a reason to escalate American involvement in the conflict.

Giap said that there was no attack on US ships on Aug. 4, 1964 and that an earlier attack on Aug. 2 was ordered by local commanders, not Hanoi. In one swoop, Giap had destroyed what many in the United States had assumed was our initial justification for war in Vietnam. McNamara’s response was not one of surprise but confirmation. He told reporters that he had long thought the second attack was dubious and Giap’s comment had merely settled the debate.

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McNamara and Giap in Hanoi

Would the Vietnam-US war have been avoided altogether if Giap and McNamara had this conversation 30 years earlier? McNamara has often asserted that the war which so marred his name was due to “misunderstandings” by both the Vietnamese and Americans. Through better communication and attempts at understanding, McNamara hoped that he can not only resolve the controversy surrounding Vietnam but prevent future wars.

War is never that simple, however. De-classified documents and recordings from that early period suggest that the White House had already decided to escalate the war before the second Tonkin incident was even reported, so it is unlikely that rectifying the US’s mistake about Tonkin would have changed the course of the US.

Further, as anyone who has ever argued with a friend about politics knows, dialogue does not inevitably lead to a shared worldview. In his book “Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy,” McNamara shared part of his 1995 conversation with Giap. It is clear how different their thoughts on the causes of the war and so-called misconceptions are.

Giap and Mcnamara Screen Shot 2013-10-13 at 1.21.56 PM

In his book, McNamara noted that after a series of lengthy conversations with Vietnamese leaders in which he and the other Americans  continued to press the Vietnamese on their misunderstandings, the Vietnamese would come to “disagree profoundly with Giap’s self-satisfied assessment.”

They would make two discoveries in the dialogue that ensued: first, that their view of the US mindset and motives was wrong; and second, that their misunderstanding of the US mindset and motives may have led the Hanoi government to take actions that, in retrospect, were mistakes, which led to missed opportunities, and which contributed to the tragedy of the war we fought.

So who was right, Giap or McNamara? Most historians would probably say neither or both. The US was not a colonial power in the same way that France was, but some of its actions in the South had a similar bent.

Yet, neither McNamara nor Giap could see the world in such a nuanced fashion. In the conversations McNamara has with the Vietnamese, he seems to be on a self-righteous mission to set the facts straight. History has not treated the US role in the Vietnam war well, and Giap is eager to add salt to the American leader’s wounds. While their conversation illuminates their entrenched positions three decades on, it does not accomplish much in terms of improving relations.

Dialogue, argues German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, requires a person to first admit that they are biased and then to respect the bias of the other person. Through this process, participants may finally reach a “fusion of horizons,” where parties merge their perceptions of a situation to create a new, third perspective that incorporates elements of both viewpoints. It is a pity that Giap and McNamara could not reach this shared understanding before their respective deaths.

Shadows of Vietnam in the suburbs

Art, Chicago, PTSD, Rotary, Talks, USA, Vietnam
Fallen soldiers memorial at Palatine Square

Fallen soldiers memorial at Palatine Square

I visited Palatine, Illinois today to speak to the local Rotary club about my research on Vietnam veterans. After the talk, one of the club members told me about a man in his woodworking group who was greatly affected by the US-Vietnam War.

Binh Pho is a Vietnamese artist who was imprisoned in a re-education camp for refusing to accept the Communist government after the fall of Saigon in 1975. He spent a year in the camp, as he writes, “to supposedly get my brain-washed.” After four failed attempts to escape Vietnam, he and 38 other “boat people” made it to Malaysia on September 29, 1978. It wasn’t until another eight months that he was reunited with his family, who had successfully escaped Vietnam and were living in the United States.

Binh Pho now lives in Maple Park, 60 miles west of Chicago, where he creates wooden sculptures and furniture. His artwork is heavily influenced by his experiences in Vietnam and as a refugee. In one piece the Rotarian told me about, Binh Pho recreates the view he saw from his prison cell to the outside world. Four seasons pass; the weather changes, but the landscape stays the same. The artist writes:

There was a period of time that I looked through the window and asked myself the question,”What is it like on the other side of that window?” I then just let my imagination go.

The shadows of the Vietnam War stretch far. They reach well beyond the families suffering from dioxin poisoning in Vietnam to the shores of this country and into its quietest of suburbs.

An investigation conducted by the Orange County Register found that 1 million people were imprisoned without formal trials after the fall of Saigon, with one in three South Vietnamese families having a relative in a re-education camp. The US State Department reports that 34,641 former prisoners found a new home in America after leaving the camps. Others were not so lucky. Studies have estimated that 165,000 people died in the camps.