Socialists Played a Key Role in Mobilizing Against the Vietnam War: Lessons of a Winning Antiwar Movement


The U.S. war against the people of Vietnam lasted 15 years. By its end in 1975, the Vietnamese had won a victory against the mightiest nation of all time. But it came at the cost of over 4 million dead, millions wounded, the countryside poisoned, and the economy destroyed.

The United States lost over 58,000 killed; hundreds of thousands wounded; at least a half-million vets suffering from postwar psychological trauma or chemical poisoning, with hundreds of thousands drug-addicted and imprisoned; and an economy that had provided both “guns and butter” for the last time. By 1971, before the war ended, a post-World War II trend of steadily-improved living standards for American workers had been permanently reversed.

Vietnam was no mistake. The policies that led to this brutal war were the conscious policies of a capitalist class willing to use any and all means to maintain the private-profit system at virtually any price.

Yet the antiwar movement in this country made the price that the U.S. ruling class had to pay too high at home, while the Vietnamese made the price too high abroad.

During the 10 years of the anti-war movement from 1965-1975, the revolutionary Marxist wing of the movement, represented at that time by the Socialist Workers Party* (SWP), went from being a small minority within a small movement to part of the leadership of a movement of millions.

Our strategic approach

Underlying the approach of the revolutionary wing of the anti-war movement, which began as a mostly student movement, was the Marxist view that the working class is the only class with the potential and actual power to transform society.

Related to that idea, is the know-ledge we have from studying history that masses of people generally only move into political action when they perceive their self-interest is affected. With these ideas in place, the task for the antiwar movement was to appeal to the masses of American people.

Our strategy was a working-class strategy with these components: mass action, independence from ruling- class politics and parties, and principled demands on the government that respect the rights of the Vietnamese people for self-determination.

Our strategy was internationalist; we sought to link the interests of the Vietnamese revolution with the interests of American working people.

Each aspect of this strategy was based on the idea that only a mass working-class movement could force the U.S. out of its war. Mass action provided the alternative to the government, and independencefrom the Democratic and Republican parties and principled demands kept the movement from being coopted by the ruling class.

The tactics advocated by the revolutionaries flowed from this basic strategy. The mass actions we advocated were street demonstrations called for by united fronts of all who could agree to come together in common antiwar actions. We organized them to be peaceful and legal demonstrations with permits.

In the beginning of the movement (not that far removed in time from the Joe McCarthy witch hunt of the 1950s) there was a significant amount of red-baiting, intimidation, and even physical attacks on the antiwar movement.

It was important to make it as easy as possible for people to take their first tentative steps into opposition to their government.

The revolutionaries of the SWP promoted the tactic of peaceful, legal street demonstrations because we had the confidence that the movement would be able to win a majority over to the antiwar cause, and this method would put no roadblocks in the way of that goal.

The strategy of independence was tactically implemented through the creation of independent, single issue, anti-war committees and single-issue united front coalitions, usually organized to build a specific action with a date, time, and place.

Some coalitions lasted for more than one action while others were so tenuous that they were really ad-hoc coalitions that could only stay together for one event, and then the political differences between the organized participants drove them apart.

The student movement, having organized first, and being the most supportive of self-determination for the Vietnamese, generally played the role of the left-wing in the broad coalitions that formed to carry out city-wide, regional, or national demonstrations.

They were the left-wing because they were the most resistant to the electoral aspirations of the organized reformists in the peace movement-the Communist Party, the Social Democrats, and assorted liberals, who, every time an election campaign came around, tried to get the movement to support the “lesser of two evils” candidates instead of demonstrating against the war.

This problem got more difficult as the movement got bigger. At first there weren’t any anti-war candidates. Later, when the American casualties started to become unacceptable to larger numbers of the American people, even Johnson and Nixon ran for president on promises to de-escalate the war.

“Bring the troops home now!”

The slogans the revolutionaries advocated for the movement likewise reflected our strategic orientation to the working class. “End the war in Vietnam. Bring our troops home now!” was the central demand that revolutionaries promoted in the antiwar movement.

Believe it or not, it took several years before the majority of the organized antiwar movement came to agree with that slogan. The conscious reformists, who played a big role in the organized movement, counterposed slogans advocating a “negotiated” solution to the war.

But the revolutionaries said that Washington had no right to negotiate for anything in Vietnam and that the only demand on the U.S. government that honored the right of the Vietnamese people to determine their own destiny was to withdraw.

This “Out Now!” slogan was also a thoroughly revolutionary slogan because the biggest obstacle to the success of the Vietnamese revolution was the United States. To withdraw the U.S. troops, bombs, and bases was to guarantee the reunification of Vietnam and the carrying out of a social revolution.

But there was a third and very important reason for the slogan to bring our troops home now, and that was the strategy of building the movement into a working-class movement with the social power to affect the actions of the U.S. government.

Reaching out to the GIs

The U.S. government and capitalist media did everything in their power to convince the public that the student demonstrations were against the GIs and would even lead to their deaths. So the slogan of bringing the troops home was a concrete way of reaching out to the soldiers with the message that the antiwar movement would save their lives.

Antiwar sentiment soon became so strong among the soldiers that the strongest military machine in the world became an unreliable fighting force in Vietnam.

In 1971 Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr. wrote, in the Armed Forces Journal an article titled the “Collapse of the Armed Force.” He noted that [the bad] “conditions among American forces in Vietnam have only been exceeded in this century by the French Army’s Nivelle mutinies of 1917 and the collapse of the Tsarist armies in 1916 and 1917.”

He documents the existence, in 1971, of 144 underground newspapers published on or aimed at U.S. military bases, at least 14 GI dissent organizations, and 11 to 26 off-base antiwar GI coffeehouses.

One of the biggest debates in the antiwar movement, a debate held almost twice a year for 10 years, was whether or not to call another mass street demonstration.

The revolutionary wing of the movement was consistent in calling for escalating street demonstrations. This was the form that made it possible to reach more and more workers-and soldiers as well-as objective events changed their minds.

There were those who argued that the government ignored the antiwar movement, so what was the point of demonstrating against it? The publication in 1972 of the “Pentagon Papers” (documents released by former government consultants Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo) proved once and for all that the government only pretended to ignore the movement.

At the time the government decided to give up its effort to win the war, they had already calculated that the capitalist system would have more to lose vis a vis the American population than if they persisted in escalating and trying to militarily defeat the Vietnamese people.

While it is true that the movement didn’t develop into the kind of a movement that could prevent the next series of U.S. interventions into the affairs and revolutions, of other countries (Chile, Panama, Grenada, Iraq, Dominican Republic, Peru, Colombia, and many more), it did alter and narrow the U.S. government’s prerogatives in future ventures.

In order to deprive U.S. imperialism of the ability to use its military might against other countries and revolutions, we will need more than an antiwar movement. We will need an organized working class who wants to take control of society and run society in its own name.

During the Vietnam War era, the organized labor movement never joined in the antiwar actions in a major way, with some exceptions among hospital workers, teachers, and other progressive unions. That is a major reason that the antiwar movement couldn’t go beyond its single issues of ending the war, to ending the U.S. war machine permanently.

That will take more than a movement. That will take a revolution.

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