AROUND 100,000 marched through London against the Vietnam War in October 1968
by MARTIN SMITH
THREE DECADES ago a mass movement against the Vietnam War shook the US ruling class to its core. At its height 750,000 marched in Washington and 100,000 demonstrated in London.
But just three years earlier it would have been hard to imagine that an anti-war movement even existed. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre refused to address a US anti-war rally in 1965, saying it would be a complete waste of time. He wrote that "the political weight" of those in the US who were against the war "was nil". In a way he was right. In 1964 only 600 marched in New York against the war and there were some small protests in a handful of colleges.
In 1965 the US military launched the biggest bombing campaign in the history of warfare against the people of Vietnam. The US ruling class was scared that if Vietnam fell to Ho Chi Minh it could spark a chain of anti-Western regimes in Asia. Over the next ten years more bombs would be dropped on Vietnam than were used by all sides in the Second World War. The US war machine also used napalm and chemical weapons. They wanted to "bomb North Vietnam back into the Stone Age".
The bombing campaign did not immediately produce a mass movement against the war-but it did lead to a number of people questioning the role of the US in Vietnam. The focus for this was the teach-in movement at colleges all over the US. The teach-ins were not protests. They were discussions and debates which involved both supporters and opponents of the war. They were massive. Some 2,500 students attended a teach-in at the Columbia and Ann Arbor universities, and a staggering 30,000 took part in a 36 hour teach-in at the University of California in Berkeley.
The campaigning and debates began to take effect. In October 1965 30,000 demonstrated against the war in New York. The slogan of the march was "Stop the War Now!" Six months later 50,000 demonstrated. This time the marchers directed their anger at Lindon Baines Johnson, the US president, with the chant, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?"
ONE STUDENT described how quickly his political views began to change. "When I first got involved in the protests I was a Republican. I thought you could be a patriot and speak out against the war. Two years later I was carrying a red flag and shouting, 'Victory to the National Liberation Front' [North Vietnamese]." On the early anti-war demonstrations most of the participants were well dressed. Many of the men wore jackets and ties. It was only after the movement mushroomed that the anti-establishment mood was reflected in drug taking, long hair and "dropping out".
Today it would be hard to find anyone in the political establishment or the media who would be prepared to defend the US intervention in Vietnam. But that was not always the case. In 1967 not one single mainstream US newspaper opposed the war. In 1969 the New York Times newspaper called anti-war protesters "left wing fascists".
By 1967 half a million US troops were in Vietnam. The Ladies Home Journal magazine sent a woman journalist to Vietnam to counter the anti-war protesters' claims of US military atrocities. This is what she wrote: "I had heard that napalm melts the flesh. I thought that was nonsense. Well, I went to Saigon and saw these children burned and it's absolutely true. The chemical reaction does melt the flesh. When gangrene sets in, they cut off their hands, fingers or their feet. The only thing they can't cut off is their head."
The anti-war movement also organised pickets of army recruitment depots and occupations of weapons factories. The US government announced that students could be sent to join the army if they failed an exam. Anti-war activists turned the tables on the authorities by setting up counter-exams in over 900 colleges. The following question was typical: "How many Communist Chinese troops are actively engaged in combat in Vietnam? (a) None (b) 1,000 (c) 50,000 (d) 100,000" The correct answer was A. The vast majority of students got the wrong answer.
The counter-exam made many students question the US government's aims, and a new wave of recruits joined the anti-war movement. The demonstrations against the war grew massively. In 1967 400,000 marched in New York and 75,000 marched in San Francisco.
THE ANTI Vietnam War movement was not confined to the US. In Britain, Europe and Australia small groups of socialists in colleges organised teach-ins and agitated against the war. In Britain the struggle against the war was linked to the Labour government's support for the US in Vietnam. It was not easy, but eventually the activists won over greater numbers of people. In 1967 the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, an organisation supported by many different political groups, organised a demonstration of 20,000. The demonstration opened up an audience of tens of thousands to socialists. Over the next few months many local and college based demonstrations were set up against the war.
In October 1968 another demonstration was called, and the night before students at the London School of Economics occupied the college. Around 100,000 joined the magnificent march. Some universities had contingents of over 1,000 and there were hundreds of trade union and community group banners. It was the most militant demonstration in Britain in living memory. The anti Vietnam War movement spread right across Europe, radicalising tens of thousands of people.
Many of this new generation of activists inspired by the anti-war movement went on to lead mass movements directed at their own rulers. By 1968 US opinion polls indicated for the first time that a majority of people were opposed to US intervention in Vietnam. Some 400 US troops were coming home in body bags every week, and when the NLF launched the Tet Offensive it was obvious that the US could not win the war.
Things got even worse for the US ruling class as thousands of troops got involved in the anti-war movement. In 1967, when 30,000 anti-war protesters surrounded the Pentagon, one soldier guarding the building dropped his rifle and walked towards the protesters. He was switching sides. He was the first, but many would follow in the years ahead.
Conscript troops refused to fight. Over 150,000 GIs went absent without leave. In 1968 some 239 US officers were "fragged". This is a term used to describe how officers were blown up with fragmentation grenades thrown by their own troops who no longer wanted to fight the war. At the height of the discontent there were 70 rank and file anti-war papers circulating among GIs.
WHEN RICHARD Nixon was elected US president in 1968 he promised he would end the war. Many believed him. The anti-war movement began to flag. The US establishment was caught between the anti-war movement and the belief that it had to win the war. The stalemate could not last forever. In April 1970 Nixon and Kissinger authorised the invasion of Vietnam's neighbour Cambodia. Suddenly the anti-war movement revived.
On the third day of a student protest at Kent State University the state governor called in the National Guard. They opened fire on the unarmed students, killing four of them. Anger swept the country. Within a few days 350 colleges were on strike. There were demonstrations across the country and half a million marched in Washington. US war veterans in uniform led what became the biggest demonstration in the country's history. By 1970 two major unions had come out in opposition to the war and a secret government memo admitted that workers were "participating in anti-war protests in unprecedented numbers".
The anti Vietnam War movement dispels the myth that demonstrations don't achieve anything. Although it was not obvious at the time, the anti-war protesters forced President Nixon into an early withdrawal of US troops from Cambodia. Years later Henry Kissinger wrote in his autobiography, "Nixon ordered troop reductions because of our domestic situation. The US appetite for withdrawal had become insatiable."
Once again we are seeing the US backed by Britain bombing a small country. The lesson from the Vietnam War is that mass protest movements do not appear like magic. The seeds of the mass anti-war demonstrations of the 1960s were the small protest groups, the teach-ins and local demonstrations. Through protest and debate we can forge a new anti-war movement. We have to start building that now.