A four-part podcast miniseries about opposition to the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the United States. We speak with Cora Weiss, Vivian Rothstein, Omali Yeshitela, Michael Novick and Joe Maizlish about their participation in a movement which grew from being a small fringe to having the support of the majority of the population.

Our podcast is brought to you by our patreon supporters. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merchandise and other content. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory

You can listen to our podcast embedded on this page, or on any major podcast app. Links to a few below.

Learn more

More from WCH on the Vietnam war:

About our guests

Sources

Acknowledgements
Thanks to our patreon supporters who make this podcast possible.
These episodes were edited by Jesse French.
Theme music is They Couldn’t Stand by by David Rovics.

Subscribe
Listen and subscribe to WCH in the following ways: RSS | Apple | Soundcloud | Stitcher | Podbean | TuneIn | Spotify Google Podcasts

Transcript

Part 1

John:

In 1955, after the defeat of French colonists in Vietnam, the United States stepped in as the colonial power and, for the next two decades, fought an increasingly brutal war of occupation. Through the 1960s and ’70s, a powerful and broad-based anti-war movement developed which opposed U.S. intervention with an increasingly militant wave of protest and direct action. This is Working Class History.

[Intro music]

John:

Hi, and welcome back to Working Class History podcast. This four-part miniseries is the final planned part of our intermittent series, that we’ve been putting out, of episodes about the U.S. war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. In it, we’re going to be looking at the anti-war movement which developed in the U.S. To learn more about other aspects of the conflict, you should check out the other episodes in the series. In episode 14, we talked to Noam Chomsky about the geopolitics of the conflict and learned about the human cost of the war from a member of the Vietnamese Women’s Union. In episodes 10 and 11, we learn about the anti-war movement within the U.S. military. In episodes 21 and 24, we tell the story of the Colombia Eagle mutiny of two anti-war sailors. In episode 7, we talk about the wave of workers’ strikes in the U.S. during the war. Finally, the story of the movement against the Vietnam War very much intersects and overlaps with the Black Liberation movement. We will be producing more episodes on this in future. Our episode 12 is about revolutionary Black auto workers organising in Detroit with the background of the war.

We’ve been working on this miniseries for just under two years now and have put in a lot of hours. This is only possible because of generous support from our listeners on Patreon. If you appreciate what we do, please consider supporting us if you can at https://patreon.com/workingclasshistory. Patrons get early access to episodes, exclusive bonus episodes and other exclusive content and benefits, like you can listen to this whole miniseries now, as well as three bonus episodes closer windows.

We were very happy to be able to speak with a number of people who played an active role in the movement and shared their experiences with us, especially given current events where a mass social movement is sweeping the U.S. and internationally – the Black Lives Matter movement – which reemerged following a succession of current and ex-police murders of unarmed Black people, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. For context, listeners should bear in mind that these interviews were conducted between late 2018 and early 2019.

Vivien:

My name is Vivian Rothstein and I live in Santa Monica, California.

Omali:

My name is Omali Yeshitela and I was born Joseph Waller in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1941.

Cora:

I’m Cora Weiss. I live in New York City in the United States. I’m a wife, a mother, a grandmother of five and a peace activist.

Michael:

My name is Michael Novick. I’m a long-time anti-racist activist. I live in Los Angeles now but I’m originally from Brooklyn, New York.

John:

As with all of the social movements in the U.S. in the late 1960s, they were all inspired by, or grew out of, the civil rights movement. Vivian Rothstein is a good example of this.

Vivian:

I grew up in California. I went to public schools and I was a student at UC Berkeley in the ’60s and that’s where I got involved in the civil rights movement and where my activism began. Just a little bit about my family background. My parents were refugees from Nazi Germany and they came here in the late 1930s. They lost most of their families. Both of my grandmothers were killed during the war; my paternal grandmother died in a camp in what’s now Lithuania and my maternal grandmother died in hiding in Holland. So I was raised with this sense that the world could be a very dangerous place and that your country could turn against you. It wasn’t a conscious thought but I think it had something to do with my being drawn to civil rights activities when I went to UC Berkeley. I got involved with the Congress Of Racial Equality and they were training young students to participate in non-violent civil disobedience and to learn the philosophy of non-violence as a social change strategy and also a moral stance. I got involved, as an undergraduate, in a number of demonstrations and when I turned 18 years old, I participated in my first civil disobedience and got arrested along with several hundred other people around the issue of employment opportunities for African Americans in the automobile sales industry in San Francisco. At first, my focus was really the civil rights movement.

John:

Vivian told us more about her experiences in the civil rights movement which you can listen to in our bonus episode attached to this one which is available for our Patreon supporters. For Omali Yeshitela, anti-colonial movements overseas as well as his experience at home shaped his views.

Omali:

My birthplace in St. Petersburg, Florida, obviously played an important role in shaping my consciousness but so did the time of my birth in the 1940s which was a time when the struggles for national liberation around the world began to heat up in a very serious way. In 1947, of course, India became independent and in 1949, China. Struggles were happening in various places around the world but I’m sure that, in retrospect, they played a role in shaping my consciousness as it did others of my generation. I’m of the generation of the Stokely Carmichaels, the Rap Browns, and Huey P. Newtons, etc. I think some of that played a role as well as the actual conditions that we lived in.

John:

Just to explain briefly, Stokely Carmichael, also known as Kwame Ture, and Rap Brown were both leading activists in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)         , a direct action civil rights organisation which became increasingly radical and later, briefly merged with the Black Panther Party of which Huey Newton was a founding member.

Omali:

St. Petersburg, Florida, is a city that was organised for the purpose of attracting tourists. It’s a tourist city. Florida, as you know, is a peninsula and St. Petersburg is a peninsula on on a peninsula and surrounded by beaches. Florida, the city, was organised through bringing and drafting African workers from other places in the South to come into the city clear it up. We cleared the swamps, we built the railroads and the general streets and roads. We were there afterwards to provide a cheap labour source for mostly white tourists who were coming from the North and sometimes from Canada. We were restricted to a two square mile area. We lived there. We were simply to show up for work but to restrict our presence to this small enclave. So I grew up with this but it was fortunate that this colonial relationship represented itself at that time as segregation. I grew up in all Black schools for which I’m very fortunate and I had a different kind of relationship with the African community than what I think most young Africans have today, in general. That helped to shape me. My father was a labourer. He worked on the railroad as a labourer in the yards. My mother was a beautician who, after developing a serious allergy to the chemicals that she used there, went back to school and became a nurse. That sort of informed how I grew up.

John:

Cora Weiss was part of a generation of young people, especially young women, who were pushed towards activism by the Cold War and the nuclear arms race.

Cora:

I was a member of Women Strike for Peace which came together in 1961 to protest and call for the abolition of atmospheric nuclear testing. They called it atomic testing in those days. That was because we discovered that strontium-90 was falling out of the planes when they were testing atomic bombs and we were concerned that that lethal chemical was getting into our babies’ teeth which were being examined at Washington University. Women Strike was very actively teaching newspaper editors how to spell strontium and to write editorials protesting the testing from the skies. Fast forward, in October of 1963, we went to the White House and stood outside the gates because Kennedy was signing what we called the Half Ban Treaty with the Soviets – the treaty that banned the atmospheric testing of atomic bombs.

John:

John F. Kennedy was President at the time until he was assassinated in late 1963 and was succeeded by his Vice President, Lyndon B. Johnson.

Cora:

Soon thereafter, we started hearing about the Buddhist monks who were immolating themselves to protest the beginnings of the war and about Cardinal Spellman who took thousands of dollars to ‘rent’ the South Korean Army to come and be our surrogates in the beginnings of the war. We decided that we had to put atmospheric testing aside and protest a war that was illegal, immoral and should never have happened.

John:

Student, Joe Maizlish, had been interested in human rights and anti-war activism since childhood.

Joe:

I was born in 1942, so I’m 76 now. In 1955, at aged 13, I cut a picture of Dr. King out of a magazine that my parents received and I guess I was thinking, ‘This is something important.’ In other words, I was taking an interest in social justice issues, like fairness and what was right. That was a streak of mine for a long time and as long as I can remember. I was in Los Angeles which is where I was born and where I am now. In 1960, I got to meet Dr. King, actually, and asked him if he wanted people to come and be in his youth training school, which he was talking about establishing, for youth who would be working on civil rights matters. He said, ‘There’s usually plenty to do where you are,’ or ‘where you’re living’. I don’t remember his exact words but that was definitely what he meant. I was trying to understand that. I mean we could say that a lot of my experience was trying to explore different understandings of where we were as individuals and as groups. In 1962, I met an organiser, and I would call them a speaker, for the War Resisters League. His name was David McReynolds. Unfortunately, he died about six or eight weeks ago. He was one of the first few to burn a draft card publicly. I think that was in 1965. I met him in 1962 around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and listening to him talk affected me. I don’t know if he said this directly himself but the way it affected me was to say that with regard to the non-violent activism for human rights that I’d been interested in, and which I started supporting actively in 1960, these principles can be applied internationally wherever humans are. I was an undergraduate student and then from 1963 onwards, I was a graduate student in U.S. history, specifically social and labour history which were my main interests. By 1964 or so, I was paying attention to and noticing the war itself and other things too, like what had happened in Africa with the dislocation and killing of Lumumba in 1960.

John:

Here, Joe is referring to Congo’s first, post-independence Prime Minister, the socialist Patrice Lumumba who was deposed and murdered in a coup sponsored by Belgium, the former colonial power and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Joe:

At the time, the Democratic National Convention was in Los Angeles at which I served as a press page. I got to distribute news releases to the media people there and I got to hear Eleanor Roosevelt speak for a good portion of her talk there. There were various inspiring things like that. In 1964, I met many people involved in the civil rights movement in the activism in the South but also in Los Angeles and California through working with partners that I met through my studies at UCLA and others.

John:

Michael Novick also became involved in the movement at university while young men were being drafted into the Army and sent to fight in Vietnam.

Michael:

I was a student at a high school and then Brooklyn College. My father was an immigrant from Poland and came here in the early 1930s. My mother was born here but most of her family were immigrants from Russia. I went to a Jewish parochial school, a yeshiva, through elementary school and high school and then I went to Brooklyn College which was and is a four-year public college and part of the city university system. At the time that I was there, most of us had what we called 2-S deferments from the draft. Obviously, during the Vietnam War until almost the end, compulsory military service people were called up by Selective Service Board and drafted into the military. College students had a deferment and there were other various deferments for people, like practising ministers, or medical deferments of different kinds. I got involved fairly early on in college. I started college in 1964 and by that time, the beginnings of an anti-war movement were pretty visible. I got involved in the struggles on campus around free speech. The campus was very, very restrictive at that time. The college was sometimes called The Little Red Schoolhouse because there was a long history of communist and socialist activity on the campus and it got purged a couple of times very, very significantly. Previously to my being there in the 1950s, they ended the student newspaper which was called The Vanguard and replaced with something else called The Kingsman. Kings County is a county of Brooklyn in New York. They also eliminated the student government entirely because a couple of student body presidents came out against the Korean War which was considered practically treason. So when I came to school, there was not really a student government but rather like a council of people from different clubs on campus and a lot of the clubs were secretly political organisations. There was a club called The Open Road Society which was really secretly the Student Peace Union but they couldn’t get recognition as the Student Peace Union and so they claimed that they were interested in hiking. There were other things like that and eventually there were a few political clubs allowed to form. I got involved with that and eventually with SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society, which did form a chapter on the campus.

John:

For Vivian, a shift in focus from civil rights to the Vietnam War came when she was invited on a trip to the Eastern Bloc.

Vivian:

I was aware of the war and I was aware, in the South, that people were starting to get drafted. It was not a major focus of mine, at least in terms of my activities, until 1967 when I was asked to participate in this conference between American peace activists and representatives from North Vietnam and from the Liberation Front in South Vietnam. I went as part of a delegation. I think there were about 40 Americans; clergy, professors, community organisers, pacifists and student organisers. We went to Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, and we met and learned about the whole history of Vietnam, the history of the war, the French involvement in Indo-China and about the development of something called a Provisional Revolutionary Government in South Vietnam which was like an alternative to the government there which Washington leaders were supporting. That was my first hands-on experience of being immersed in the war in Vietnam. When I was a student, I went to some teach-ins about it but the civil rights movement had been my focus up until then.

John:

Michael actually supported the war at first until one day, his mind was changed.

Michael:

When I started in college, I was briefly on the right. That was my rebellion because I grew up in a religious, labour union household. So my idea of breaking out of the mould was to try to explore right libertarianism, I guess you could say. There was a campus group called The B’nai B’rith Girls (BBG). B’nai B’rith is a Jewish fraternal organisation which had youth organisations. The BBG, as it was known, invited a few of us to come and talk about the war. I was supposed to be the right-winger and in the discussion, there was somebody from the Bureau of Government Research or something like, which is not a government agency but a student group, and then there was somebody who was already in SDS. In the course of the discussion, I convinced myself that I thought the war was wrong [laughter], although I was supposed to be there speaking to defend the U.S. role. As we talked about it more and more, I just felt that the war an improper interjection of the United States into the affairs of the Vietnamese people. I wasn’t quite at the point of supporting the struggle of the Vietnamese but I concluded, in the debate, that I was against U.S. involvement which was kind of a little erratic. I then moved fairly rapidly to the left based on that conclusion.

John:

By 1965, Vivian was becoming more involved in the anti-war movement.

Vivian:

I did go to the first national demonstration in 1965 in Washington D.C. I think it was in December. It was organised by Students for a Democratic Society and someone called Carl Oglesby. It was one of the very first national demonstrations.

John:

Women’s organisations, in particular, were very active.

Vivian:

Women Strike for Peace was getting involved in the Vietnam issue. One of the other women, who worked in my community organising project, went to Jakarta, Indonesia, as part of a delegation of American women with Vietnamese women. It was at the initiation of the Vietnamese to meet with women and talk to them about their perspective on the war.

John:

Cora also took part in specifically women’s groups.

Cora:

We were women and we didn’t use the word ‘feminism’ in those days but we used what would be today called feminist strategies, I guess. We made banners that we wore over our clothing, across our chests, that said ‘All Women Are Our Sisters’. We went on demonstrations which we demanded be safe for families, so they would preclude civil disobedience or any kind of violence. We worked with Members of Congress to get them to be aware of what was happening and to try to vote against further funding for the war against Vietnam. We did lots of different kinds of things. We spoke. I remember my first public speech, which was on top of a car in Union Square, holding a hand-held microphone and we were dressed the nines. We always went out in high heels, gloves and looking like proper women. That’s how it all started.

John:

Unlike Michael and Joe, Omali had already served in the military and despite experiencing appalling racism, at first, he actually wanted to volunteer to go to Vietnam. We hear more about his earlier experiences in the army and the civil rights movement in our bonus episode for patrons. Rather than a straightforward war, Omali came to see Western intervention in Vietnam as an example of colonialism; the same system which subjugated Black people in the United States.

Omali:

Initially, as I mentioned to you, I knew nothing about Vietnam. I’m volunteering. I’m trying to go to Vietnam to get out of Georgia. Georgia was so bad that I said, ‘I would rather go to Vietnam [laughter]. Send me to this place called Vietnam where the advisers are.’ After a while, the movement began to develop. It wasn’t just that the civil rights movement influenced us but I considered a certain kind of development that happened within the movement. We began to make the links between what was happening to people in Vietnam [24:40 – unclear] talking about Algeria. We saw the same phenomenon that was occurring and so we began to raise the questions about colonialism.

John:

Frantz Fanon was a leading anti-colonial philosopher, psychiatrist and revolutionary from the French colony of Martinique. He was a key supporter of the Algerian War of Independence against France. In a moment, Omali mentions Malcolm X, the Black Power activist who hopefully needs no introduction, and he also mentions James Forman who was another leading activist in SNCC and later was part of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit.

Omali:

Malcolm X mentions colonialism, Fanon talking about colonialism. Forman begins to talk about colonialism and what begins to happen is that that began to really influence how we saw things. For us, the movement around Vietnam was not like an anti-war movement as much as it was a unity of purpose and fighting against the same kind of system and imposition of foreign domination of a whole population. That’s what began to inform our politics. Malcolm was probably the earliest public figure who making the connection about Vietnam and scorning the civil rights leaders for demanding non-violence on behalf of Black people. Malcolm was criticising the French in Vietnam. He was making these laudatory statements about how the Vietnamese, with nothing but a bowl of rice and a blade, took on the French and the best military forces at the time and how people who are resisting can win. Malcolm played a big role in that. You may remember that, at one time in this process, Huey P. Newton of the Black Panther Party actually suggested to the Vietnamese government that he was willing to send forces from the Black Panther Party to fight on the side of the Vietnamese. This is what was happening in our communities. It wasn’t like the civil rights movement influenced us. It was like we developed beyond just talking about this empty thing called racism where people were taking courses and learning how to unlearn racism. It didn’t change anything on the ground for African people. We were beginning to understand that we had to be free. Nkrumah was talking about uniting Africa and African people. It was an incredible period. It wasn’t just about Vietnam. There were revolutionary, anti-colonial struggles happening all around the world. That phenomenon helped us to understand some things about colonialism and so you had a whole different trajectory.

John:

Kwame Nkrumah, mentioned just now, was the Ghanaian Independence leader who became the first president of Ghana after independence from Britain. Other people mentioned in the next clip include Fidel Castro, leader of communist Cuba and Ho Chi Minh, the leading figure of the Vietnamese anti-colonial movement and the Communist Party.

Omali:

The anti-war movement was mostly white but the African liberation movement was the same kind of movement that the white people were protesting was happening in Vietnam but were unable to protest happening in the United States. There was a moment when SNCC said to the whites, ‘Listen, go into your communities. Leave SNCC and go into the white communities because that’s where the heart of our contradiction lies. That’s where we are catching hell. All of the contradictions are coming from the white community. Go there and organise in the white communities.’ They refused to do that and instead, they discovered the Vietnam War. One of the reasons they had to discover the Vietnam War was because the success of the Vietnamese people in fighting this struggle against them gave them a material interest in not going there. The body bags coming back here gave them a material interest in not going to Vietnam. This whole Black Power thing was a major development. When you start talking about power, as opposed to integration, then you thrust yourself into the whole anti-colonial arena because you can measure success by the achievement, or lack thereof, of power. You can say your status because you have no power but if you say that you’re struggling to make white people like me or to be able to go to church with white people, then you not only do not get power; what you have done is actually negated the need for your own power and left power in the hands of the forces that you are supposedly fighting against. The 1960s was the apex of intellectual challenge and discourse in the Black Liberation movement itself. I mean these were huge struggles that we were grappling with and most of us were young people. Stokely was in his 20s when he met with Fidel and Huey was in his 20s when he went into Vietnam. Of course, we were hearing from Robert Williams who was there. Many people don’t know, when we talk about Vietnam, that Ho Chi Minh himself spent time in New York, in particular, and he attended meetings of the Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. I know that informed him tremendously in terms of how, at least through propaganda and otherwise, they were able to deal with Black troop who were fighting them in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh wrote something, I think, in 1924 which was a pamphlet on the treatment of Black people in this country. That had to have been influenced by what he learned in the United States and particularly what he was learning through the Marcus Garvey meetings. It then takes an anti-war movement… for this connection to begin to happen among colonised peoples around the world.

John:

A key early tactic of the movement against the war was the teach-in. Cora attended several.

Cora:

A teach-in was getting a hall in a university, or a college, (not in high schools) and calling a meeting and having historians and/or activists come and speak about the war. They were organised by men, mostly historians but other activists and there was a sprinkling of women allowed to speak [laughter]. It was pretty male-dominated. They grew. I think the first one was in Michigan but I’m not sure. They were very, very important because they taught people about where Vietnam was, how it came to be split in half, the history of the French war that preceded it, why and what our war was about and whether it was legal. We had lawyers speaking. It happened in the beginning years of the anti-war movement and it created a generation… I don’t want to use the word ‘class’ but it created a large group of well-informed and motivated young people. People then started to protest the draft. I just watched some footage from the archive at Swathmore College, which has the largest peace archive in the country, of us (including me) protesting the draft and women pouring out of a bus with signs in Washington opposing the draft. There were protests at many levels.

John:

One of the early forms of resistance to the war that Michael got involved in was opposing military recruitment on campus.

Michael:

In 1967, we had a major strike. The Navy came to recruit. By that time, I’d actually been elected the student body president. We had the first campus-wide elections for student body officers since the Korean War, basically, and I was elected. There were still a lot of very restrictive regulations. There were only about two places on campus where you could circulate literature at all which were two tables in front of the administration building. The security had one table and the Navy had the other to recruit people to the Navy. SDS set up a table of its own and not even demanding the Navy get off the campus. They were just trying to do some counter-recruitment in the sense of educating people about what the Navy was doing. Even though they were the Navy, naval vessels were offshore in Vietnam and firing rockets and using vessels for aircraft carriers so that aircraft could attack Vietnam. The [34:09 – unclear] came out and told the students to leave. They didn’t leave and then the [34:14 – unclear] came out and told them they were suspended and maybe even expelled, I forget. Eventually, the police were called and they dragged people down the steps of the administration building by their hair and caused a big ruckus, so we had a student strike. I can’t say the strike was exactly against the war, although the idea that the Navy could recruit and students couldn’t protest against that was part of it. We did shut the school down for several days. The previous year, when I was elected, there was something called the National Student Association which was the main organisation in the United States mostly representing student governments. It wasn’t really a mass-based organisation but we went from Brooklyn College to the University of Maryland where the conference was being held. This was right after the disclosures came out that the CIA had been running international operations of the National Student Association. There were a lot of other things. There was an expose in Ramparts magazine that talked about the role of the CIA inside of the AFL CIO labour union, the National Student Association and inside various newspapers and academic institutions in the United States. So there was a counter-convention, which was run by Students for a Democratic Society, that talked about the war, the role of the CIA and about U.S. imperialism. Coming back from that and onto the campus, that’s part of what led to the strike. We also did draft counselling to try and get people to see what their options were. I believe that was the year that they started to institute what was called ‘ranking’. As they needed more and more students for Vietnam, they had to start lifting the student deferments of college students. They said they were going to do to that based on the order of how well you were doing academically. Schools were told they had to come up with a ranked list of students and so we were involved in protesting against the whole concept of ranking the students in order to decide who would get drafted. There were so many protests around the country, they switched to a kind of lottery in which, arbitrarily, people were given a number and based on the number you got, you might lose your student deferment and get called up into the military.

John:

Joe began his anti-war activism after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. This was a minor confrontation between a U.S. Navy ship and the North Vietnamese Navy on 2nd August 1964 off the Vietnamese coast. During it, four Vietnamese sailors were killed but there were U.S. casualties. The U.S. then claimed that there was an attack by Vietnamese vessels on 4th August as well. Although the Pentagon papers, that got leaked by an anti-war analyst called Daniel Ellsberg, later showed that this was false.

Joe:

In 1965, it was my first specifically anti-war action and I remember the Gulf of Tonkin incident had taken place in 1965. In 1965, in January or February, the U.S. started to bomb the territory of North Vietnam. U.S. forces started to do that and I knew that whatever was going on there didn’t warrant that kind of a response, unless it was meant to terrorise. No sufficient justification was offered, in my thinking, except stuff that I suspected was lies. I suppose I took as much personal offence for having my intelligence insulted by being lied to, not be alone, of course, as I did for the destruction. I joined some friends on a drizzly night in Los Angeles. There was a dozen of us or so parading around in a circle, in the drizzle, in front of the existing federal building at that time. Now, there are a couple of others also. In that building, I was later prosecuted. It was just about three and a half years later. That was 1965. I attended and helped to publicise some of the teach-ins that were famous all over the place at UCLA. In 1964 and 1965, I was part of the LA version of the Student Free Speech movement which was favouring no restrictions on student groups being able to invite whom they wished as speakers and collect funds for various causes on the campuses. In the spring of 1965, my younger brother was an undergraduate student at Berkeley. I went there with some friends for a couple of days for a Vietnam teach-in which was called End the War Teach-in or something like that. On the Berkeley campus, some amazing things happened. We got a telephone call from Bosch, the Prime Minister of the Dominican Republic, who was about to be deposed by a popular movement and the occupation by U.S. Marines. He talked to this teach-in. Here we were in a field and somehow, people had hooked up the audio and we got to hear him speak. There were various inspiring things like that. Taking a walk with my brother afterwards, I remember we were crossing a street in Berkeley and I said, ‘I think neither you nor I are going to participate in this war as soldiers, no matter what happens.’ He said, ‘Yes.’ That was pretty important for us. That was our bottom line whatever we did.

[Outro music]

John:

That brings us to the end of Part 1 of this miniseries. As a reminder, this episode has a bonus episode attached for our Patreon supporters which we think is one of our best ever, including testimony from Omali Yeshitela and Vivian Rothstein about their involvement in the civil rights movement. Some of our interviewees are involved in ongoing projects. We’ve got information and hyperlinks to all that on the webpage for this episode on our website workingclasshistory.com. Link to that is in the show notes. Omali Yeshitela is Chairman of the African People’s Socialist Party and Michael Novick works on Turning the Tide and Change Links. As always, we’ve got more information, photos, sources and links on the webpage for this episode. We’ve also put together a playlist of Vietnam War protest songs. You can check those all out on the link in the show notes. Our Patreon supporters can listen to all four parts of this miniseries now, as well as three bonus episodes. For everyone else, subsequent parts will be out each week. You can listen and support us at https://patreon.com/workingclasshistory. If you can’t spare the cash, that’s totally fine. We know that times are hard, especially right now, but we would still really appreciate a five-star review on Apple Podcasts or your favourite podcast app and please do share our episodes on social media and tell your friends about us.

Huge thanks to all of our existing Patreon supporters. This miniseries is a culmination of many hours work over a two-year period and simply wouldn’t be possible without your generous support. Thanks to David Rovics for providing the theme music for this episode, They Couldn’t Stand By. Links to that above. Thanks to Jesse French for editing this miniseries and thanks to you for listening. Catch you next time.

[Outro music]

Part 2

 

John:

 

Welcome back to Part 2 of our miniseries on opposition to the Vietnam War in the U.S. If you haven’t listened to Part 1, I would go back and listen to that first. As a content note, this episode contains mention of sexual violence.

 

[Intro music]

 

Nowadays, many people believe myths about soldiers being spat on, etc. In fact, building solidarity with U.S. service personnel was a central part of the anti-war movement. Cora Weiss explains more about how this happened in the U.S. mainland.

 

Cora:

There was an organisation called USSF (United States Servicemen’s Fund), I think, and I don’t have files and notes in front of me. There was a campaign to send entertainers to the bases in the United States where they were training. The entertainers were, of course, all anti-war people and they would sing songs against the war, like I Ain’t Marching Anymore by Phil Ochs, for example. That was one thing that happened. They were sent to coffee houses. They established coffee houses at the bases where soldiers could come and learn about the war and be entertained by mostly folk musicians.

 

John:

Our podcast episodes 10 and 11 are about the resistance to the war in the military itself, while we also go into more detail about the spitting myths. In the bonus audio to this episode for our Patreon supporters, we also include an interview with another Vietnam veteran, Leland Lubinsky of 101st Airborne Division, about his experiences of anti-war activism.

 

As Vivian Rothstein explains, there was a myriad of other tactics used to oppose the war.

 

Vivian:

Every church had a peace committee. There were vigils against the war everywhere. There was a whole campaign. Because the government got the Congress to allocate money for this war because there was no consensus about the war, Johnson imposed a telephone tax. The tax would go to the war in Vietnam and so there were local campaigns all over the country not to pay your telephone tax. The telephone companies didn’t want to shut off your telephones because they wanted the business [laughter] and the government threatened to take people to court and throw them in prison for not paying their telephone tax but I don’t think it happened to anybody [laughter]. There was all kinds of resistance and people were very creative. There were protests everywhere and demonstrations all the time. There were different kinds of groups and creative actions, just like there are now.

 

John:

The Johnson administration introduced a 10% phone tax in 1966, initially for two years but it was extended afterwards specifically to pay for the war.

 

Joe Maizlish:

I noticed that the demonstrations seemed not to be enough and not only not to be enough but some aspects of it might be harmful to the cause of peace since the anti-war movement didn’t have King’s philosophy. Some of it did and some of it didn’t. People were just hostile or panicked and worried about being drafted. That’s normal enough and fine. People were speaking derisively of the government just out of frustration of not being able to stop this terrible thing. I started refusing parts of my federal taxes; the part that was added on to our phone bills. There was a federal excise tax on our phone bills that almost went out of existence but in the debates in the U.S. Congress, somebody mentioned that ‘the war requires us to maintain this small tax’. It went into the U.S. budget but in this debate, not one of the senators said that the war was the only reason that we needed to maintain this. That was another aspect. So I began to be a legal disobedient to war in 1966 by refusing that tax and explained to the phone company that I was paying their parts of it. I just wasn’t paying the tax. This was an organised effort also and I still have some connection with the war tax resistance movement.

 

John:

The resistance of the tax began almost as soon as it was introduced and soon spread across the country. In 1970, the tax was extended further but to be decreased by 1% per year until, eventually, disappearing entirely. By 1972, it’s estimated that half a million people were refusing to pay the tax. One of the most important aspects of the anti-war movement was resistance to the draft. To start off with, I think it’s worth explaining a bit about how the draft worked. All U.S. men, aged 18-25, had to register for selective service and still do today, in fact. This makes them eligible for the draft at any point. There was never actually a declaration of war on North Vietnam, so the draft occurred entirely during ‘peacetime’. The draft had actually been pretty much in continuous use since World War 2 but after the end of the Korean War in 1953, numbers were generally pretty low and most people who were drafted did their service unquestioningly but with President Lyndon B. Johnson mobilising ground troops, numbers being drafted rocketed. Between 1965 and 1969, an average of 300,000 men a year were drafted. In these first four years, the selective service chose who got drafted and who didn’t and while they didn’t have information on the socio-economic status or race of individuals, the draft was highly discriminatory largely because of deferments. So depending on your occupation or your health, certain people could be excused from the draft at a given point in time. Occupational deferments were allocated predominantly to college students and people working in professional occupations, like engineers, scientists, teachers and doctors. Potential draftees were also given very brief check-ups by military doctors and these were very unlikely to result in any health conditions which would have allowed an exemption to be detected. Whereas, for the wealthy, they could afford to pay for private doctors who could potentially diagnose any number of conditions, then provide a report on that which could be passed to the military doctors. To see how that worked in practice, a couple of examples would be the current Republican President Donald Trump. He got four deferments for college, then a medical deferment after a private doctor diagnosed him with bone spurs which didn’t previously prevent him from taking part in sports. Similarly, presumptive Democratic nominee for the forthcoming 2020 Presidential election, Joe Biden, also got four college deferments before also getting a medical deferment for supposedly having asthma as a teenager which, again, didn’t prevent him from playing sports at the time or working as a lifeguard. All of this meant that those drafted were disproportionately people of colour, particularly African Americans, and also they were overwhelmingly working-class. Various tactics began to be used to try to resist the draft.

 

Cora:

It was extremely voluntary. It was only a male draft and men didn’t want to go to Vietnam, so it didn’t require any of us to encourage them. They were lining up. Some of them went to Sweden and some went to Canada to escape the draft. Some claimed that their hands hurt when they held a gun and they used medical excuses which they got their doctors to send affidavits about. I did draft counselling inside the Riverside Church where people could come and learn what the draft was all about and how to not get drafted. Two of us ran a draft counselling centre out of our peace office at the famous Riverside Church in New York.

 

John:

Eventually, resistance and anger over the clear unfairness of the draft caused the government to switch to a lottery in 1969. That worked as following. Every day of the year would be allocated a number from 1-366 by putting the date on 366 plastic balls in a glass container and drawing them one at a time. The first ball drawn was the 14th September, so that was number one. The second date drawn was allocated the number two and all the way up to 366. So anyone born on September 14th between 1944 and 1950 would be the first to be drafted and so on. This slightly less unfair system didn’t stop the resistance.

 

Vivian:

This was before the draft was eliminated. The government eliminated the draft partly because it was a political issue but they went into this lottery system. During the draft, there were people who got deferments, like college students and people who had little children. There was also conscientious objector status. My husband, at the time, became a conscientious objector and a lot of people did. It depended on where their draft board was. His draft board was in New York, so it was possible but people who had draft boards in more conservative areas had no chance to be conscientious objectors. People fled to Canada to get out of the draft. I knew a number of more working-class young people who were put into prison for draft evasion and they did it to make a political statement but it was very difficult. Their wives often had kids and they had to go and live with their parents or their in-laws who were very critical. At the time, I was a community organiser in the western suburbs of Chicago which were working-class, white suburbs and I worked with a number of young people whose husbands were resisting the draft. We knew that when the draft was eliminated, and even when there was still a draft, poor people and people of colour did not get deferments. Most of them were not in college and they didn’t have the resources to go through the conscientious objector process. They certainly didn’t want to go to prison. Increasingly, the armed forces in Vietnam were poor men of colour. So the burden of the war was not equally being carried in the United States. It was being carried by poor communities in a really disproportionate way and so it became a civil rights issue. It united the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. Shortly before Martin Luther King was killed, he united those issues and I think it’s one of the reasons he was seen as so dangerous by the political establishment. He united those movements. It was a race issue; it was an economic issue; it was an issue of democracy; it was a human rights issue because of what was happening to the Vietnamese. So it became extremely intense and a lot of American, myself included, felt haunted and implicated in the war. I felt it was partly our fault and thought, ‘We need to figure out how to end it.’ Some people got kind of crazy and thought they could just commit acts of violence and that was going to end the war but the Vietnamese always said to us, ‘You need to convince the American people.’ They used to say, ‘If the American people knew the truth about Vietnam, they would oppose the war. You need to tell them what is going on here.’ They didn’t believe in acts of sabotage or anything like that. They wanted the U.S. out. They really wanted us to get a majoritarian peace movement. We really felt a responsibility and that responsibility drove some people crazy.

 

John:

Others burned their draft cards in public displays of defiance. Still others, like legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, chose to be sent to prison rather than join the military. An estimated 40,000 people fled to Canada with maybe 60,000 going to other countries and up to 570,000 people in total ended up avoiding the draft in one way or another. Many others, especially those with low lottery numbers, decided to voluntarily enlist in the military so they could at least choose where and how they served, like Bart who joined the Navy. While some anti-war activists, like Vivian, didn’t approve of acts of violence, as with social movements today, they began to receive more media coverage when violence occurred.

 

Cora:

We got a lot of press then. There was a story about me in the New York Post. There were short stories about women protesting because it was unusual. It was the first time. It was a movement that began out of the civil rights movement. There was a cascade of movements from the ’50s forward to the present day and one sort of rolled into the next and then from our movement to the women’s movement and so forth. We got some press and we were on radio programmes. I had my own radio programme. I think I was the only woman, or one of two women, who anchored a radio programme in New York on the dial. I think the press came when the demonstrations escalated and they were always looking for violence or turbulence which was unfortunate.

 

John:

Another way that activists sought to mobilise opposition to the war was by trying to undermine official narratives about the conflict.

 

Vivian:

There was the official line about what was going on in Vietnam and there was very little information about what actually was going on in Vietnam, so it became really important. There was a lot of distrust for the official government line. For one thing, it was never a declared war. Congress was never asked to vote to support the war. It was always an undeclared war. It was a war that was initiated by the political establishment in Washington and sustained by them. We had this draft and all of us had friends who were getting drafted into the war. People didn’t want to go to Vietnam and there was a lot of consciousness about the level of poverty that we had in our country and the amount of money that was going into the Vietnam war was enormous. People were getting drafted into something they know anything about and didn’t really support. There was that part of it and then the Vietnamese made a conscious decision to try to have face-to-face contact with Americans to tell their side of the story. I personally think that that was an extremely powerful way to get a message out and the message was a completely different message than the message that was being distributed by the military and the political leadership. Basically, the message from the Vietnamese that we learned was that this was a country that was fiercely independent; that did not want to be dominated by any outside power; that it was not run by Russia or run by China and that they were independent; that they had a history of fighting for their rights going back centuries; that they defeated the French and they were going to fight to the end to get rid of the Americans; and that they wanted to run their own country. The message from Washington was that Vietnam was a tool in communist domination of Southeast Asia. It was just another domino in this domino theory that the communists were going to take over the world and that they were being run by the Russians and the Chinese. That wasn’t true. They had their own leaders. They had their own philosophy. They had their own history and that it was a people’s war that the entire population, particularly North Vietnam, was mobilised against the United States and to survive the bombing of North Vietnam. I had the opportunity to go on this delegation for 17 days to North Vietnam and see the kind of weapons that were being used. Our government said, ‘We don’t use napalm. We don’t use anti-personnel weapons. We’re only destroying military targets.’ We saw hospitals, schools and people covered in anti-personnel pellets from these anti-personnel weapons that were exploded all over the countryside. We saw how people were defending themselves with rifles against B-52 bombers. I mean it was really not just a people’s war but a poor people’s war against the biggest military power in the world at the time. So there was a counter-message, from our point of view, which was that these were people just like us and they believed in independence and they weren’t going to stop fighting because they were fighting for their country. They weren’t fighting for some communist leader. They were fighting for themselves. There were, of course, journalists that were there and who were starting to understand that message and the depths of opposition to United States involvement and then there were our soldiers who found themselves killing women and children in little villages. I think the combination of that information slowly started to get out. Anybody who had any contact with the Vietnamese felt just an enormous responsibility to do whatever we could to end the war and to convince other people that the war was wrong. For one thing, I had to borrow $1,200 to go and so I had to pay it back. The way I paid it back was in increments of $25 and I spoke anywhere to any church, any school or any organisation. I felt that I needed to. I took an anti-personnel weapon that I was given, which no longer had explosives in it, to show Americans what our tax dollars were paying for. I told them the stories I’d heard and I brought photographs. I spoke hundreds of times all around the Midwest and other people were doing the same thing. I also had a tape that a Vietnamese woman made and it was a message to American women and I played that hundreds of times. She talked about the impact of the war on women and children. There were many other people like me. There weren’t many but there were other people like me who had this opportunity and felt this responsibility to bring the human side of the war to other Americans.

 

John:

The tape that Vivian refers to there was recorded by Mrs. Van of the Vietnamese Women’s Union. We include it in its entirety in our episode 14. Cora, too, learned a lot from the stories of Vietnamese women.

 

Cora:

I went to Vietnam four, five or six times mostly during the bombing and one or two times after the war was over. I met remarkable families who survived horrific moments. I met with young women and older women who were survivors of the My Lai massacre. I had to sit and listen to them tell their story and I couldn’t hold it. It was unbearable. I still can see the ditch in my mind’s eye as I’m telling you the story. That was a huge moment.

 

John:

The South Vietnamese village of My Lai, in 1968, was the location of the most notorious massacre by U.S. forces in which 300 unarmed civilians, including elderly people, women and small children were brutally murdered by bayonet and gunshot, some of them being raped beforehand. A number of villages were made to get into a ditch, then machine-gunned. News of the massacre was eventually broken by a Vietnam vet, Ron Ridenhour, who learned of it from a colleague who was there and told journalist Seymour Hersh. Back in the U.S., in 1967, Cora and her fellow activists began to try to make connections with other movements.

 

Cora:

Women Strike for Peace had several splinters during the course of its history but one of them that we had was to form a new organisation named for Jeannette Rankin, who was the first woman Member of Congress. She was a pacifist. None of us were ideological pacifists, even though we were opposed to unjust wars but she voted against World War I, which was okay, but she also voted against World War II, which was not okay with us. However, on everything else, she was absolutely terrific. She was a peace activist. A considerable group of women from Women Strike for Peace, like Amy Swerdlow, Judy Lerner and Ethel Taylor, decided that we had to be more inclusive in our work which was code [laughter] for ‘there should be African Americans, younger people, people from the religious communities and faith groups’. So we reached out and created this Jeannette Rankin Brigade and African American women came along, like Coretta King, Maxine Waters and others. The women were leaders of the women’s groups within the Methodists, the Loreto Sisters, a Protestant group and a Jewish religious group. The Jeannette Rankin Brigade’s slogans were ‘End Poverty and Racism at Home and the War in Vietnam’. So we joined the poverty and race issue with the war issue which we should have done from the beginning but it never happened. It was important, it was significant and it was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, it wasn’t sustained. Sustainability is a very important issue when you’re organising, especially sustainable peace which means a sustainable peace movement too [laughter]. Inclusivity is very important and we’re learning all of that now when it’s time for new movements, like the movement to abolish nuclear weapons or the movement to stop climate change which should also be merged and aren’t yet because they both have the same apocalyptic consequence. You learn from experience, I guess, that one movement cascades into another and new strategies emerge. The Jeannette Rankin Brigade was a good thing that happened. It was important and it was short-lived but we were all enriched by it. It was very important to me and to us. We made new friends which was the best part, I guess. Many of them became my friends forever until they no longer were around.

 

John:

As happens with many social movements, despite much of the organising work being done by women, leaderships of the official organisations were mostly male and there were many instances of sexist and misogynist behaviour.

 

Cora:

There was clearly male dominance of everything. I was one woman out of four co-chairs of the National Mobilisation Committee to End the War in Vietnam which was the 1969 demonstration in Washington. They got used to having me around but I was one person and there were not a lot of women. The leadership of Women Strike for Peace was always working together, along with the membership. We were not very hierarchical.

 

John:

Vivian found that, in Vietnam, there was a big contrast with the U.S. in terms of the roles being played by women in the liberation movement. As a content note, there is some description of sexual violence in the next clip, so if you do not wish hear that, you can skip forwards about 90 seconds.

 

Vivian:

When I was in the South, most of the grassroots leaders of the Mississippi Freedom movement were women, like Fanny Lou Hamer. There were a number of women. It was the first time I really saw women in political leadership and it was very inspiring. When we met with the Vietnamese, I don’t know if it was half women in the Vietnamese delegations but it was close and they talked a lot about the impact of the war on women and children and then about the leadership of women. They also talked about the importance of American women speaking up against the war because of the concerns and the credibility that women would have in the public debate. This was a very important message for me and other women. First of all, in Bratislava at the conference that we went to, the Vietnamese women asked to meet separately with the American women which was only the second time I’d ever been in a political environment where women met separately. They felt like they had a message and they had information that we would care deeply about, probably more than men. They also wanted to promote our leadership and our commitment to reaching other women and other Americans. It was a big deal that they felt like we were important to them and important organisers. I had never thought of myself as an organiser of women before. They kind of elevated our sense of strategic importance. They would talk about the sexual brutality of American soldiers against Vietnamese women; how Vietnamese prostitutes were parachuted onto GI bases; how soldiers put rifle butts and hand grenades up women’s vaginas. It was just horrible brutality. I don’t think they wanted to talk about it in a mixed environment. They also talked about what they called the ‘long-haired army’ which was women in villages, when they knew American soldiers were coming, would gather and try to go out to them and beg them not to destroy their village. They talked about Vietnamese women in the armed forces, including women who were nursing babies, and who were part of local guerilla units. They told us about the Vietnamese Women’s Union which was an organisation that helped women with childcare, health education and also promoted them as leaders in the village, at a provincial level and in the Politburo, their national political structure which had women representing the Women’s Union in it. They saw themselves as playing this role and the role of reaching women internationally because they felt women were just very effective peace organisers. It was stunning.

 

John:

Like women in the U.S. also played a central role in the movement against the war, as well as the Black Liberation struggle in general as Omali Yeshitela explains.

 

Omali:

I think that’s really important. It’s one of the least respected and understood factors in the struggle. The African People’s Socialist Party and our predecessors, the precursors, have always had women leaders; not just symbolic and not just one woman, one man symbolic thing but actual leaders. In fact, there were some nationalist groups who used to refer to us at the time as ‘Joe Waller and the girls’, as my previous name was Joseph Waller. That was the influence of the African women in our party and our movement. The women have always been extraordinarily heroic and not just heroic but, in perhaps every instance, were the least liberal, most demanding, fiercest fighters in our movement. That’s just the way it is. There used to be a saying that the men were the jawbone and the women were the backbone. Increasingly, what we find today is women are determined to be both the jawbone and the backbone. Women played magnificent, heroic roles in this whole struggle and this entire movement. I don’t just mean people like Ella Baker, who was a fierce anti-imperialist and somebody I loved very much. I don’t mean just people like Fanny Lou Hamer. These were people who the whole world has come to know but there were other women everywhere, like SNCC women and others who were part of this movement on the grassroots level. The women were profoundly significant and profoundly important in the struggle and, as I said, the ones who were least liberal than anybody and just filled with determination. There’s this whole thing that comes from nationalists about how the women are the ones who provide culture and teach the children but these women were fighters. That’s how that’s been historically in the struggle, even when we were confronting what was happening in the war. In fact, many women in our movement were learning from the women in Vietnam. They were learning how the women in Vietnam were engaged in struggle on the battlefield but also how women in Vietnam were engaged in the struggle against backwardness in Vietnam at this very crucial moment in history. The women played incredibly important roles.

 

John:

Participation in the struggles had a transformative impact on many of the women involved.

 

Cora:

My favourite, little anecdote is that a friend of mine, who was a leader in SDS (a guy), said to my husband at the time, ‘My god! Vivian has completely changed. This trip to Vietnam has completely changed who she is and what she thinks.’ My husband said to him, ‘That’s not true. You just never listened to her before,’ which was absolutely true. I had opportunities to speak publicly. I had never really spoken publicly before. I spoke at meetings and rallies. I was interviewed by the press and stuff that never would have happened before and never did happen before. It was a huge push on me to overcome my insecurities and be able to do this and it was a push on other men. Frankly, there wasn’t much of a place for women who had political experience and wanted to be leaders in the Midwest. I came back and got very active in the Women’s Liberation movement. I helped to start an organisation called the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. Myself and a group of friends had learned how to be organisers and there really wasn’t an organisation on the West where we could exert that leadership. Using this model of the Vietnamese Women’s Union, we decided to form a women’s union of our own. I did keep working against the war. There was a whole group in the women’s union that was active against the war but we also worked on other issues. We had a rape crisis line and we had a campaign for government-supported childcare. There was a group that worked on abortion rights and we had an abortion service that was run by women in Chicago that actually did 11,000 abortions over that time while abortions were still illegal. We started doing what the Vietnamese Women’s Union did and probably still does. It offers services so women can survive but it also supports women in leadership roles and it tries to change policy. So that idea that you could organise a multi-faceted women’s organisation that organised for political leadership was a really new idea. There were a few women’s unions that developed across the Midwest and so that was very exciting. We had hundreds of women coming to our activities. I was part of running a school called the Liberation School for Women and we had hundreds of people coming to our classes. We had no idea how they even heard of us because there was no internet. We had these little mimeograph machines and we’d pass out these leaflets. There was just enormous interest.

 

[Outro music]

 

John:

That brings us to the end of Part 2. In the bonus audio to this episode, we talked to Leland Lubinsky who served in 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam and was active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War. This is available to our Patreon supporters. Our Patreon supporters can listen to all remaining parts of this miniseries now, as well as three bonus episodes. For everyone else, subsequent parts will be out each week. You can listen and support us at patreon.com/workingclasshistory. Link in the show notes. We have more info, further reading, photos, sources, links and more on the webpage for this episode. Check it all out through the link the in show notes. Finally, thanks to all of our existing supporters on Patreon. This podcast is only possible because of your generosity. Thanks for Jesse French for editing this miniseries and thanks to all of you for listening. Catch you next time.

Transcribed by

PODTRANSCRIBE

If you value our work please take a second to support Working Class History on Patreon!