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Suffering can make a people wiser and their future bright, the Chinese say. Hopefully they are right, for this is a time to face the war, not turn away from it

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Middle East peace activist Abbie Nathan stands with a volunteer sailor on his Panama-registered ship from which he broadcast messages of encouragement for peace between Israelis and Egyptians, July 8th 1975.


The wish to forget is strong, almost overwhelming, but will never be fully realized. Not only are the images of horror still fixed in the minds of those who planned, fought or opposed the war, but now they are also filling the minds of a whole new generation who have experienced the numbing catastrophe on television. As in our experience with the American Indian, our national subconsciousness will never be free of confusion and shame without a revolution in values and a reconstruction of national purpose. We have lost not only a war, we have lost the entire foreign policy of the last 30 years. Now we must find another policy and in that ordeal find ourselves.

I went to my first antiwar demonstration as a student. Now I’m 35 years old. My hair has gone from short to long to short, from black to partly gray. If anyone had told me in 1963 that the war would end in 1975 and that I would struggle those 12 years, I would not have been ready for the prospect. Nor would anyone I knew then.

But now it’s like yesterday, from the afternoon in 1963 when I worked on the sound equipment for Joan Baez at the Washington Monument to the day this January when I heard her sing antiwar songs perhaps for the last time on the Capitol steps. Like so many, my life was changed profoundly in those 12 years. I learned that Asian peasants could defeat American armies. I learned that beneath our democratic institutions and civilized culture lies a greed violent beyond description (a B-52 raid is just that, beyond description). And I learned from the Vietnamese and from my own experience that there is another America, a second America, represented in part by the Peace Movement.

Some of us had prematurely written off “society” by the late Sixties. In the early days of the movement we found that new ideas were a threatening force, and that in order to win a hearing we had to use many self-destructive means. But we also discovered that a just idea will gain acceptance if the original militants have a patient and persevering sense of time. We saw that the administration could confuse and mislead people as it did about the war “winding down,” about Nixon and about “peace with honor.” But the public always came back angrier when the truth was revealed.

The confrontations of the Sixties have led to the opportunities of the Seventies. The present thaw in the Cold War is an outgrowth of the Peace Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. Beginning with tiny minorities, these movements were able to break the Cold War consensus and challenge established institutions to reform themselves. The street demonstrations which began in 1965 with 20,000 people marching on Washington expanded into the millions by the Seventies, stopped the draft, disrupted high schools and universities and imposed severe domestic costs on those men determined to continue the war. The Democratic party, whose leaders launched the “Special Forces” war in 1961, the bombings and the conventional war from 1964 to 1968, literally was forced to reverse its policies in the following years. The Congress which gave Lyndon Johnson a blank check for Tonkin Gulf in 1964 has essentially closed off war funding in 1975.

What the Antiwar Movement gave the American public is the ability to look at the actions of our government –something that has never been possible before. When wars are won–like the Indian Wars of last century–official history buries the fundamental questions as surely as the bluecoats buried the dead. When wars are lost, governments often become hysterical, search for scapegoats or turn to fascism. But here is a war the administration has lost while the accompanying domestic situation is not hopelessly irrational and dangerous. It is not accidental that the film Hearts and Minds won an Academy Award just at the moment that America’s Indochina policy collapsed. The struggle after a war to define its meaning for the next generation is now underway with the consciousness of the Peace Movement reassuringly alive.

The administration would like to discredit the Peace Movement in the period ahead just as strongly as it wished to during the war itself. The White House would like to portray itself as “Internationalist” and stereotype peace advocates as “Isolationists.” But, in fact, the conflict is between two types of internationalism, military intervention and imperialism on the one hand versus humanism and respect for national self-determination on the other.

Like many people, I often have doubted the potential humanism of this country only to rediscover it in the least expected ways. During the early Vietnam escalation I believed that our GIs, after killing Vietnamese, would all come home to kill peace demonstrators. But most of them returned from the war as confused as those who never went and a brave number spoke out against it. I also believed that the “Middle Americans” and “hardhats” would overwhelmingly support the war but I discovered that these were Nixon labels meant to divide and discredit the antiwar protestors. The opinion polls showed that working people who were forced to pay for the war were more against it than any other class. But the sight of privileged students apparently attacking their country and their values in nihilistic ways turned many workers against the Antiwar Movement.

When several of us with the Indochina Peace Campaign spoke in 90 cities a few years ago, we were moved again and again by the individual Americans we encountered: an old man who had been speaking out against the war since 1954, members of the Birch Society who shared our analysis of Rockefeller, Nixon workers who switched to McGovern after an hour’s conversation, a housewife who cried when she realized that her government had lied to her. Our movement was not clustering on the fringe as we had thought but instead was flowing out of the center of things, filling up with GIs and vets, former Pentagon officials, POWs, a baby doctor, actors and actresses, gold-star mothers, Democrats, parents of campus revolutionaries.

In a quite specific way I owe my freedom, such as it is, to the Antiwar Movement. Were it not for public concern and protest reaching the ears of jurors and judges I might only now be finishing the five-year prison sentence which John Mitchell’s prosecutors had planned for me in Chicago. I would have been caged these years, missed a lot of people, and the little boy who is sleeping now in the next room would not exist.

But it is not simply personal. Many more people would be in jail were it not for the good sense of those Middle American jurors who the Nixon administration thought could be trusted to carry out a political pogrom. A recent Justice Department study concedes that the “political trials” failed because “they were tried before jurors [Cont on 34] Peace [Cont from 31] at least partially composed of people willing to be convinced of government misconduct…The defense sought, and was able to evoke, the sense that the government used the legal system to legitimize or enforce unpopular policies or decisions.” It is a sign of the times that so many antiwar “conspirators” are free today while our former official persecutors are going to jail themselves.

Underlying these changes has been a remarkable transformation of American attitudes which is still going on. The 80% who opposed supplemental military aid to Saigon and Phnom Penh in the face of President Ford’s rhetoric about national security represent only the peak of a trend. Pollster Louis Harris wrote in 1973 that the Peace Movement “succeeded beyond its wildest dreams.” Comparing 1967 to 1973, Harris noted that in the first year majorities of 60-75% thought the following types were “dangerous or harmful to the country”: atheists, black militants, student demonstrators, prostitutes and homosexuals. But by 1973 none of these seemed “dangerous” to a majority; instead it was the people who hire political spies (52%), the generals who conduct secret bombing raids (67%), the politicians who engage in secret wiretapping (71%), the businessmen who make illegal campaign contributions (81%), the politicians who use the CIA, FBI and Secret Service for political purposes (88%). In a more recent survey Harris finds evidence that Americans are on the edge of supporting “a new humanism” in foreign policy: 65% do not want the U.S. to defend corrupt regimes; 74% do not want the U.S. to support repressive governments, even if they support us militarily; 63% are willing to give up meat one day per week to keep people in other countries from starving; 60% would give up fertilizer for their lawns to allow others to raise crops.

Even the outpouring of emotion for Vietnamese orphans and refugees, no matter how misdirected or exploited by the Pentagon, shows the latent idealism of Americans. Of course it is the same feeling which, when channeled wrongly, can lead to bombing cities to “save” them. But has any political leadership in our time tried to direct the same feelings toward strictly decent and uncompromised ends like overcoming famine, disease and underdevelopment?

No one in the American political generation now in power even seems aware that such a policy could be developed. Some officials are content to have gained more time in their 30-year anticommunist crusade; others lapse into breast beating over the fate of what they usually call “industrialized civilization.” The Metternich cast to Henry Kissinger’s personality, which seeks to shape a new world order, is now giving way to a Spenglerian gloom about the West.

In reexamining our national purpose we might listen more closely to what Ho Chi Minh said at the very beginning of his struggle. Ho quoted the opening lines of the American Declaration of Independence when he declared the same for his own country in September 1945. He began: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense this means that all the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, that all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.” Those words should tell us that America indeed has a positive role to play in the world. Of course the hawk intellectuals will dismiss Ho’s gesture as a maneuver to divide the West. But how, in 1945, after fighting alongside Western allies against fascism, could Ho have known that the future would bring war with America? All he knew was that there was a possibility at that particular historical moment for the United States to choose self-determination over embarking on the path of policing a new empire in Indochina. Roosevelt before his death had considered the option of independence for the people of Indochina but the moment passed and 30 years of folly began.

Ho Chi Minh’s hope was not in Roosevelt, just as it was not in Woodrow Wilson when 30 years earlier he had approached that American president at Versailles with a petition for Vietnam’s independence. Ho Chi Minh’s hope was in the spirit of the American people which had inspired those opening words to the Declaration of Independence. Vietnamese leaders in later years, including Ho himself, wondered about the decline of this spirit. Ho asked Harrison Salisbury what had happened to the Statue of Liberty, why she was standing on her head. The Vietnamese feelings were strained when they read the books of Vance Packard or experienced saturation bombing during American religious holidays. But never in the worst of the war did they abandon their belief in the “two Americas.” While the Pentagon bombed Hanoi at Christmas, Joan Baez was singing carols in the bomb shelters.

It is high irony that the new government of Cambodia came to power on a day exactly 200 years after Paul Revere’s ride, but now the shots heard ’round the world were coming from Indochina. The new rallying cry was “the Yankees are coming,” and the anti-imperialist U.S. had turned into an imperial power.

But it would be premature fatalism to assume that those words of 1776 are dead for us while they live for the Third World revolutionaries. Especially when a foreign policy, based on those ideas, has not yet been tried.

Under a foreign policy based on the Declaration of Independence there would be no secret executive-decreed wars run by CIA mercenaries, no corporate collusion with right-wing dictatorships, no funding of elitist regimes lording over impoverished and degraded majorities and no tax loopholes for the corporations picking up cheap labor in the Saigons of the world. There would be no taxation without representation, an end to the foreign policy decided by the good old boys of power and wealth.

We could free billions of dollars in waste from our defense budget without in the slightest weakening our own national defense. The net savings from such cutbacks alone are incalculable. With just a fraction of that money we could crucially contribute to international food and relief programs and join in worldwide endeavors to share the fruit of scientific, technological and medical discoveries. With a humanist foreign policy we would find ourselves more easily adapting to the interests of a majority of countries within the United Nations, instead of threatening to pick up our marbles and leave when we no longer control its votes. With a genuine respect for self-determination we could more credibly work, as an example, for the national security of both Israeli and Palestinian.

Above all, a humanist foreign policy would begin at home. A country racially divided like ours can do little for the freedom of Asians or Africans. Without public control of our own governmental institutions, we will never have the information and ability to affect foreign policy, and without a reorganized and fully productive economy, we will never overcome the economic insecurity which turns Americans against foreign aid.

It is not isolationism to work for the improvement of this country, but it is escapism to boast, strut and meddle abroad about ideals we seldom achieve here at home. If the Vietnamese experience teaches anything, it is that material might, technology and stock market indicators are faulty measures of strength. Human spirit, the will to make sacrifices and solidarity of purpose are the essential things. This country, with all its bristling defenses, could disintegrate just as surprisingly and rapidly as the South Vietnamese government and army if we continue to fatten our arsenals while starving our souls.

Here are two parables which I believe can guide us along the hard way ahead:

A Vietnamese peasant woman once pulled my wife into a tiny, cylindrical bomb shelter where they huddled, clasped together in each other’s arms while American planes dropped American bombs on Vietnamese soil. When the skies had cleared they came out and Jane was shaken with shame. The Vietnamese woman said, “The struggle in your country will be very hard.”

A North Vietnamese author was asked by American visitors whom he would like to meet most of all if he came to the United States. He replied, “Babbitt.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Vietnam


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