Friday, April 17, 2015

Rebellion, Retrospect,and Regret: The 50th Anniversary of a Vietnam Peace March

by Nomad

Fifty years ago on this date, April 17, 1965, Washington saw one of the first and largest peace marches in its history. It was to become the first of many anti-war marches and demonstrations across the country.
Here's the story behind that history.


The planning for the anti-war march had been in the works since December 1964. Demonstrations against racial injustice had been remarkably successful in waking up the country and its leaders. Activists for peace were determined to inert similar pressures on Washington.
Up to that time, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was a little known student activist organization. However, as the America's involvement in the Vietnam War steadily grew, students and others in that age group suddenly faced the reality of the draft.
This was real and it was a matter of life and death.
As one source explains:
Even before they shipped out, those who were drafted had begun to see the horrors of the war, most notably on television. The growing presence of television in nearly every American household thus exacerbated divisions over the conflict and helped fuel the antiwar movement. What Americans watched on television each night shaped their perceptions of the Vietnam War, which came to be known as the “living room war.” For some young Americans, called on to fight but unable to vote until the age of 21, the situation was unacceptable.
The anti-war message was easy enough for a child to understand. America had no reason to be in Southeast Asia and the reason were equally simple: the war hurts the Vietnamese people, the war hurts the American people and the SDS was concerned for both Vietnamese and American people. Anybody who agreed with those three points was invited to join in on the march on Washington.
The book, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage explains:
The official call, hoping to appeal to a broad opposition, maintained that the war was fundamentally a "civil war" as well as "losing," "self-defeating," "dangerous" "never declared by Congress" and "hideously immoral."
These objections, the establishment press immediately labeled "pro-Communist," unpatriotic and at the very best, misguided and naive.

Nevertheless, students in campuses across the country began waking up en masse. Something really was happening here but what it wasn't exactly clear. One member of the SDS, Michael Ferber, recalls his own experience in the book, Against the Vietnam War: Writings by Activists:
By the beginning of 1965, having pondered the Tonkin Bay Incident and read a few book about Southeast Asia, I decided US policy was fundamentally wrong and I joined a Student for a Democratic Society march that April. So did twenty thousand others, most of them about my age, and I felt a surge of pleasure in seeing that a common spirit or mood of protest was spreading faster than anybody had guessed.
The complexity of the political situation made large scale activism indispensable.  Even amongst the anti-war protesters, there was confusion on the best course. 
I went on every major march for the next five years and they grew larger and larger. Students today who know something about American politics ask me why we marched and demonstrated and sat in and did things with our draft cards, rather than lobby Congress, which had the power to declare war and end it. What they do not appreciate is that the war was conducted by a Democratic president who had a tight grip on a Democratic Congress and the liberals who ought to have been lobbyable were afraid to oppose Lyndon Johnson, whose Great Society programs they were grateful for... It seemed hopeless to write letters and send petitions congresspeople.

Under those circumstances,  the political system provided for no means of halting the juggernaut of military conflict.  The only solution, said the activists, was to let the leaders know that war was unacceptable, especially for many of those who were to be tasked with fighting it.

In its early years before the Vietnam War, the SDS had, in fact, focused on domestic concerns. Students members had once actively supported President Johnson's campaign against Barry Goldwater. Republican senator from Arizona.
Goldwater's view was that United States had to commit itself fully to the war and do whatever it took to support U.S. troops in the war. Anything less was not acceptable.
If the administration was not prepared to “take the war to North Vietnam,” said Goldwater, it should withdraw. The subtext was that President Johnson was nothing less than a coward and not prepared to defend American values, even against a poor nation like Vietnam.

The stakes were too high, said the Right Wing Republicans. If the Communists took over all of Vietnam, the domino effect would spread to all Asian nations, ocean shipping could be easily closed at critical choke-points. Besides that, such a humiliation would make a mockery American might.

At the same time, the administration was able to paint Goldwater as a dangerous war-hawk, itching for war. The administration had even suggested that Goldwater would, if elected, consider using nuclear weapons to win the Vietnam war. As one source explains:
The President countered his opponent’s challenges by portraying himself as a model of statesman-like restraint. Concerning Vietnam, he mollified domestic concerns about a possible war by claiming that he would not send “American boys nine or ten thousand miles from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”
Those were words that would later leave a bitter taste in the mouths of many Americans by 1972.
In any case, the campaign strategy worked and on November 3, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson was re-elected by the largest popular vote margin in U.S. history, receiving a full 61 percent of the vote. 

It had however came at a cost. The Far Right had forced Johnson's hand on the war issue and to win the election, the President promised (and would deliver) a tough, winner-take-all attitude, courtesy of the US military. Pulling out was not an option. The president had already committed the nation to stopping the Communist advance, come hell or high water. 

Following Johnson's victory, the SDS had initially refrained from anti-war rhetoric in order to avoid alienating the president and possibly endangering the social programs of the Great Society. 
At that time, the SDS was not yet an anti-war organization. It was largely only a civil rights advocacy group but it was soon prove to be an important link between the two issues. Apart from ideologies, the organizational and logistical experience gained from the civil rights movement was crucial in putting together a cohesive anti-war front. 
By the beginning of 1965, all that was needed was a catalyst.

Rolling Thunder of War
Although the US war campaign in Southeast Asia officially began around March of 1965, the winds of war had already been blowing as far back as the last year of the Kennedy era.
By August 1964, the Joint Chief of Staff had exerted pressure on President Johnson by drawing up a list of 94 targets to be destroyed as part of a coordinated eight-week air campaign against North Vietnam's transportation network.
It was supposed to send a diplomatic signal to Hanoi that America' was committed to blocking all attempts at a takeover of the South Vietnam. To draw a line in the sand.

Nonetheless, it was not as easy a decision for the president who feared that any direct intervention could lead to an all out world war with the Soviets or the Red Chinese. The Soviets had made little secret of its desire to render active support to the Hanoi regime in its political and military confrontation with the United States.
Militarily speaking, North Vietnam was already a client state for the Soviet Union.
On 17 November 1964, the Soviet Politburo decided to send increased support to North Vietnam. This aid included aircraft, radar, artillery, air defense systems, small arms, ammunition, food and medical supplies. They also sent Soviet military personnel to North Vietnam-the Democratic Peoples' Republic of Vietnam (DRVN). Some 15,000 Soviet personnel served in Indo-China as advisers and occasionally as combatants. The largest part of the Soviet adviser personnel were air defense officers.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff had no such worries. It was all about showing the Vietnam who was the boss. As the Commander of the US Armed Forces,  Curtis LeMay, stated:
"My solution to the problem [of North Vietnam] would be to tell them frankly that they've got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we're going to bomb them back into the Stone Age. And we would shove them back into the Stone Age with Air power or Naval power, not with ground forces."
None of the top brass questioned at the time whether air and naval power alone would suffice. 

Gen William Westmoreland saw Washington too afraid to use the force that the mission required. He referred to “an almost paranoid fear of nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union” that influenced many of the decisions made in Washington about the conduct of the war. 

Whether those fears of an out of control escalation were legitimate is hard to say but in a democracy, they could not be easily dismissed. With the Bay of Pigs and the October Missile Crisis Johnson has seen how regional conflicts could easily and quickly led to catastrophic miscalculations. One misstep could ignite a nuclear war with America and its allies on one side and the Soviet Union and China on the other. 

In the end, the military won over Johnson's concerns.
In February,  the president formally authorized a sustained bombing program. It was code named Operation  Rolling Thunder. Its goals were based on crippling the nation in the same way that bombing runs crippled Japan or Germany. The bombing campaign would target bridges, rail yards, docks, barracks and supply dumps.

As Col Dennis M. Drew, the director of the Airpower Research Institute, explains:
The American objective in Vietnam was not unlimited and was not calculated to destroy North Vietnam. American air power would not be unleashed in a major strategic bombing campaign to destroy the enemy’s “vital centers” and to destroy the enemy’s will and ability to continue the war.
However, what might have worked in a developed country was doomed to failure in an underdeveloped country like Vietnam. Drew points out:
North Vietnam was not a modern, industrialized state, contrary to the second assumption of American air power doctrine. If American air power had been unleashed, there were precious few high-value strategic targets located in Vietnam. Even when the Rolling Thunder campaign turned to interdiction in mid-1965, the primitive North Vietnamese transportation system proved to be somewhat of an advantage to the enemy. The North Vietnamese quickly repaired primitive roads and structures, and the entire transportation system displayed more than adequate resilience.
Amazingly, from the start of the campaign, Washington attempted to micro-manage every aspect of the bombing campaign. Administration officials "dictated which targets would be struck, the day and hour of the attack, the number and types of aircraft and the tonnages and types of ordnance utilized, and sometimes even the direction of the attack." 

Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, later known as Johnson's "Architect of a Futile War" and in 1964, he addressed critics of the Vietnam war by saying that he was “pleased to be identified with it." 

There was one major problem and it was something that Johnson soon came to understand. US air power alone could not make a difference without a substantial military force - boots on the ground- to drive the North Vietnamese back.
*   *   *
The escalation of the war was rapidly proceeding in the spring of 1965. On March 8, the first U.S. combat troops arrived in Vietnam as 3500 Marines land at China Beach to defend the American air base at Da Nang. They joined the 23,000 American military advisers that were already in Vietnam. The following day, the president authorized the use of napalm

On April 1, 1965, Johnson, authorized sending two more Marine battalions and up to 20,000 logistical personnel to Vietnam. The President also authorizes American combat troops to conduct patrols to root out Viet Cong in the countryside. 

That decision did not become public knowledge for two months. Johnson had every reason to keep secrets. It was, after all, direct contradiction to what he had earlier said about not sending "American boys nine or ten thousand miles from home." 

Two days before the planned march- on April 15, 1965 - a thousand tons of bombs are dropped on Viet Cong positions by U.S. and South Vietnamese fighter-bombers.

The March of Peace
There was a feeling of momentum in the days leading up to the demonstration. On Friday April 16, the day before the march, notable names in the peace movement released a press statement giving their signed approval. They affirmed "interest and sympathy" in the goals of the student activists and hoped that the administration would listen and appreciate the message of the demonstrations.
The statement read:
In an effort to register such concerns with our government and people, we welcome the cooperation of all those goups and individuals who like ourselves, believe in the need for an independent peace movement, committed to any kind of totalitarianism nor drawing inspiration from the foreign policy of any government."
It was exactly the thing that was needed to counter the suspicion that the peaceniks were nothing more than disloyal pinkos, the conservative nickname for Communist sympathizers. To be against the war, for whatever reason, was seen as being weak on American values. 

Even the more liberal New York Times had earlier that week run an editorial, decrying the proposed march as "pro-Communist production" and "a frenzied one-sided anti-American show." 

On that Saturday morning the crowds began to gather at about 9 am. The crowd was estimated at anywhere from 15,000 to the official police count of 25,000. They marched southeast of the Washington Monument to Sylvan Theater. 

At this point, from around 1 pm to 3:30, there were various speeches by figures like former journalist turned Senator Ernest Greuning (D-AK), activists like I.F. Stone, and academics like Staughton Lynd of Yale University.
Between the speeches against the war, folk artists as Joan Baez and Judy Collins, sang protest songs, such as "We Shall Overcome" and "The Times They Are A-Changing."

What Kind of System?
The 26-year-old president of SDS, Paul Potter, then delivered his own speech, known as "Rebels with a Cause." 
Potter told the crowd: 
the freedom to conduct that war depends on the dehumanization not only of Vietnamese people but of Americans as well; it depends on the construction of a system of premises and thinking that insulates the President and his advisers thoroughly and completely from the human consequences of the decisions they make.
What kind of system, asked Potter,  is it that allows good men to make those kinds of decisions? 
What kind of system is it that justifies the United States or any country seizing the destinies of the Vietnamese people and using them callously for its own purpose? What kind of system is it that disenfranchises people in the South, leaves millions upon millions of people throughout the country impoverished and excluded from the mainstream and promise of American society, that creates faceless and terrible bureaucracies and makes those the place where people spend their lives and do their work, that consistently puts material values before human values‑and still persists in calling itself free and still persists in finding itself fit to police the world? What place is there for ordinary men in that system and how are they to control it, make it bend itself to their wills rather than bending them to its?
We must, he said, name that system. For by naming it, and describing it and analyzing it, we can all understand it and perhaps change it. 

Following that speech, the demonstrators then marched the mile and a quarter from the Washington Monument to the Capitol Building. It was estimated that three-quarters of the participants in the March were student. However, there were also many union leaders, and clergy in attendance.

The New York Times described the mix as "Beards and blue jeans mixed with ivy tweeds" with an occasional blue collar in the crowd.

The Civil Right of Peace
There was another interesting element, as one essay explains:
It is also significant that upwards of 10 percent of the crowd consisted of African Americans. Calling it the largest African American turnout for an antiwar rally to date, the National Guardian championed the march as "a step toward integrating the movements for peace and civil rights."
Really, that shouldn't  have been a surprise. After all, the right to live in peace should always be considered a civil right. In the end, throughout the war, blacks suffered disproportionately high casualty rates in Vietnam. 

Some African American activists made the connection. They compared the use of force against the Vietnamese with the violence used against blacks in the South.
By 1965, young blacks in Mississippi were handing out leaflets that read: 
No Mississippi Negros should be fighting in Vietnam for White Man's freedom, until all the Negro people are free in Mississippi... No one has the right to ask us to risk our lives and kill other colored people in ... Vietnam, so that the White American can get richer.
In 1965 alone they comprised almost one out of every four combat deaths.

Wrong, Terribly Wrong
Despite the crowds that gathered on that spring day in 1965, despite the impassioned speeches, the protest had little effect on the people who made the decisions.

Three days later, in Hawaii, the president's top brass, Secretary of Defense McNamara, Gen. William Westmoreland, General Earle Gilmore Wheeler, foreign affairs adviser William Bundy, and Ambassador to South Vietnam, General Maxwell Taylor met and agreed to recommend to the President sending another 40,000 combat soldiers to Vietnam. 

The escalation of the war continued as if the march had never happened. 

By May 3, 1965 some 3500 men of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, arrived in Vietnam.The first U.S. Army combat troops, A month later, on June 28-30 Westmoreland ordered the launch of the first purely offensive operation by American ground forces in Vietnam. The operation targeted the Vietcong territory northwest of Saigon. Three thousand American troops participated, along with 800 Australian soldiers and a Vietnamese airborne unit, launching an assault in a jungle area 20 miles northeast of Saigon.

On July 28, 1965: President Johnson announced that another increase in US military forces in Vietnam from the present 75,000 to 125,000. That decision required the monthly draft call to be raised from 17,000 to 35,000. 

The public overall approved of this decision. In August 1965, according to a Gallup poll, only 24% thought the U.S. made a mistake sending troops to fight in Vietnam. (All through the war, that percentage never exceeded 60%.)

Even before he stepped down in 1969, McNamara came to realize that the war had been a futile mistake. It was a pity that he did not share that insight with the public until late in life.
In his 1995 memoir, In Retrospect, McNamara wrote:
"We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why."
The irony is that all McNamara had needed to do to prevent the mistake was simply to step outside of the Oval Office in April 1965 and listen to the young men and women who protested that day.

The Dreadful Insulation of Decision Makers
Instead  it became an expensive mistake in every sense of the word. According to his NYT obit, McNamara "oversaw hundreds of military missions, thousands of nuclear weapons and billions of dollars in military spending and foreign arms sales." 
And all told, more than half a million American soldiers went to war on his watch. More than 16,000 died; and as the article says, after he retired, "42,000 more would fall in the seven years to come." 

During the period 1965–1974, the period in which the U.S. was most engaged in the war, it has been estimated that 1,313,000 total deaths in North and South Vietnam. In every respect, it was a brutal conflict and that brutality was caused by both sides. A significant percentage of total deaths- anywhere from 30 to nearly 50 percent- were civilian deaths. 

(Admittedly, due to the nature of the war , it was often impossible to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants.)

All of the great works of President Johnson's term, his war on Poverty and his series of social reforms known as The Great Society- were tarnished by the disaster of a needless war. Ultimately, the fears of a domino effect were based on false assumptions.

Yet, all this hindsight genius was unnecessary. The futility of the war in Vietnam was well-recognized long before so many American soldiers were drafted and sent off to die.
The problem was nobody bothered to listen.

As the protest song, The Grave, by Don MacLean goes:

When the wars of our nation did beckon,
A man barely twenty did answer the calling.
Proud of the trust that he placed in our nation,
He's gone,
But Eternity knows him, and it knows what we've done.


As Potter told the crowd that sunny April afternoon, we all must understand that what happens in Vietnam "in all its horror" is "but a symptom of a deeper malaise."
There was something deeply wrong with how decisions were made. If thousands marching on Washington cannot affect some change of attitudes, then what can?
How do you stop a war then? If the war has its roots deep in the institutions of American society, how do you stop it? Do you march to Washington? Is that enough? Who will hear us? How can you make the decision makers hear us, insulated as they are, if they cannot hear the screams of a little girl burnt by napalm?
If those screams can not awaken some iota of conscience in leaders, to cause them to re-think the necessity of launching the world's most powerful military into war. then sadly there is nothing that can.

As America's involvement in Iraq in the first decade of the new century showed us, we have apparently learned nothing. Even today the leaders of that war fail to accept the consequences of their decisions. Even today, they insist their crusade was based on morality, on the liberation of an oppressed people and- most despicable of all- on American values. 

The worst part is knowing that until there is some degree of accountability imposed on presidents and their advisers we can be sure it will happen again.

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