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.

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  • Part 4: POW organising, labour organising, militancy increases, war ends, legacy, lessons

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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.

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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.

Part 3

John:

Hi, and welcome back to Part 3 of our podcast miniseries about U.S. opposition to the Vietnam War. If you haven’t listened to Parts 1 and 2 yet, I would go back and listen to those first.

[Intro music]

John:

At the conclusion of our last episode, Vivian Rothstein and Cora Weiss spoke about the importance of autonomous women’s organising, both in Vietnam and in the U.S. Similarly, for Omali Yeshitela, Black people in the U.S. had to fight to have their demands heeded by the predominantly white-led movement. The mostly liberal-leaning whites also, in many cases, failed to make connections between colonialism in Asia and the history and legacy of colonialism in the United States itself; it being founded, on the one hand, on the genocide of Native Americans and, on the other hand, the abduction and enslavement of African people.

Omali:

It was an anti-colonial movement but around the same timeframe, I think there might have been an anti-war moratorium where white leftists in the state of Florida were pulling together state-wide action against the Vietnam War. It was really important to us because at the same time they were having this demonstration, we could never get them to pay attention to the war that was being made against Black people. We had all these political prisoners all over the state of Florida and they wanted to have a march and a rally. The basic slogan was ‘Bring the Boys Home’ and they didn’t want to raise any other question at all. We said, ‘No, you can’t do that. You’ve got to talk about these Black, political prisoners. That’s happening right now. You’ve got to talk about that. That’s got to be addressed.’ We persuaded them to talk about that but we also knew that they had no understanding of the state. They had no understanding of the state. They would play with the cops and had roses which they stuck in the barrel of their guns. They had no understanding of the state but we did and we knew what the possibilities were. In fact, at the beginning of the march, they said no signs could be carried with a stick on it and totally made sure everybody was disarmed. We got to Straub Park, in St. Peterburg, Florida, which was named after a very, rich white man who participated in the lynching of an African in the centre of St. Petersburg in the early part of the 20th century. We got to Straub Park and people began to speak on the platform. One speaker, who at the time was somebody we were very close to, made the statement ‘bring the damn war home’ or something to that effect. When he finished speaking, he came and he sat down. When he sat down, police came from everywhere. They were hiding behind shrubs and they had these long sticks. They were battle-ready. They came behind him, grabbed him and turned off the microphone and sound system so nobody could be given instructions. The white kids who were there were playing with the cops. Like I said, St. Petersburg is almost a beach and they were at the seawall dangling with their feet in the water. For us, this was a serious thing. It was anti-colonial and we said, ‘We are struggling like the Vietnamese. We are the Vietnamese here in this struggle.’ They had no understanding of that. The police came out of nowhere and began to grab them. The Africans started marching out of the park because we anticipated that possibility and we couldn’t convince these guys to go. They stayed there. They had nothing other than some empty, aluminium Coke cans or something to this effect and the police came armed to the teeth and they were brutalised very seriously. This is the only time I know where the Africans were not the ones who caught the hell. We got the hell out of the park and then when we got back to the African community, we stopped and then said, ‘Now you can come forward,’ but the police didn’t want to engage on those terms. Some people got hurt really badly. We participated any time we could in actions that were directed in opposition to the war but we also brought the colonial question to it. We made the point that the Vietnamese and African people were also colonised and tried to win white anti-war activists to unity with that understanding. It was a serious struggle even to get this anti-war group to include opposition or demand for a release of Black, political prisoners in the state of Florida. Like I said, we did convince them to do that [laughter].

John:

In parallel with the anti-war movement, other social movements (particularly the Black Liberation movement) were erupting.

Omali:

With regard to Vietnam, one of the factors that forced the U.S. to have to negotiate out of that situation, other than the heroic resistance of the Vietnamese people…. I will never be able to state the powerful significance of the Vietnamese struggle and what courageous, heroic people they were. They carried the whole colonised world on their shoulders almost alone for the longest period of time but one of the things that caused them real problems with that war was that they had to fight this Black war on this front. They had to bring troops in from Vietnam to Detroit. They had to bring troops into Newark and New Jersey. The resistance was happening in Vietnam to colonial domination and it was happening in the United States to colonial domination but unfortunately, most of the whites were not able to recognise the colonial domination of African people. As long as you fight against racism, which is to fight to make white people like you, it’s fine but to say that we have to be free and self-determining people, that was the difficult thing. That was the nut that was very difficult to crack.

John:

In terms of this view on racism, I think it’s worth taking a slight detour for a moment to elaborate a little, particularly for some maybe more liberally-minded listeners. Looking at the U.S., inequality between Black and white people today is essentially a combination of racism now. That is to say discrimination against Black people today and the cumulative history of over 400 years of racism, oppression and colonialism in the past from slavery, to segregation and to mass incarceration. So even if you could stop all anti-Black racism, i.e. discrimination tomorrow, massive structural racial inequality would remain. Just as one small example, as of 2016, the average wealth of a white family in the U.S. was $171,000. Whereas, for a Black family, it was just over $17,000. So even with no more overt discrimination, this gap will never be closed without much more being done. Anyway, we have links to more of Omali’s own words about this subject on our webpage for these episodes. Link above.

Going back to the Black Liberation movement of the ’60s, there were uprisings all over the country. After the 1967 Detroit rebellion, which was just mentioned, radical Black workers in the city decided to start organising autonomously in their workplaces. We learn more about that in our episode 12. Having to suppress this sort of dissent at home, undoubtedly, would have had a negative impact on the government’s ability to effectively pursue war abroad. Similarly, there was a wave of strikes by workers pursuing their own demands during the war. We talk about these in a lot more detail in our podcast episode 7. While these weren’t political strikes against the war as such, big strikes in essential industries, like mining, transport, postal services, auto manufacturing and public services, would also cause more problems for the state. It was while supporting one of these strikes of Black sanitation workers in Memphis that Martin Luther King Jnr. was assassinated. In the wake of his murder, there was a huge nationwide wave of rebellions. Nearly 60,000 National Guard and army troops would end up being deployed to repress it. Protests even took place across Vietnam by U.S. service personnel, as recounted by Leland Lubinsky in the bonus episode for Part 2 of this series. All of this had a very negative impact on the morale of U.S. troops, particularly African Americans.

For Michael Novick, as a student in New York, the struggle against the war also went hand-in-hand with struggles of Puerto Rican and Black students but this understanding wasn’t shared by all of his fellow white students.

Michael:

Towards the end of my senior year, mostly in the city school system, there were struggles over community control of the schools because the schools were failing to meet the needs of Black and Puerto Rican students. It was also at university level in places like City University of New York, Brooklyn College, Queen’s College, City College of Manhattan, and also a series of community colleges that were all part of that system. At Brooklyn College and most of the others, most of the student body was white and so there was a demand for open admissions. Towards the end of my senior year, we actually had a sit-in on the campus to protest the fact that… it was basically The Ole Miss of the North [nicknamed after the segregated Mississippi University]… out of 10,000 students, there were probably a dozen Puerto Ricans and 25 Black or African American students [the sit-in demanded a special admissions program for 2000 Black and Puerto Rican high school grads for the following year]. All year long, we’d had a lot of support from the students for various projects, including the strike against the cops and the military on campus. We had done a student evaluation of the teachers’ handbook that we distributed on our own because the administration pulled their support for it. We had a sit-in in the library when they tried to close the library in the evening.

However, when we started to raise the question of racism on the campus and the way it was internalised and institutionalised, a lot of our student support fell away. People who were in the school raised all kinds of objections and felt that somehow if there were Black and Puerto Rican students admitted, it would lower the academic reputation and the standards of the school; that it would reduce the value of their degree; that it might prevent their brothers or sisters from coming to the school. We tried to deal with those arguments but we didn’t realise the extent to which people had been invested in the school the way it was. It was kind of an abject lesson to me that you can be doing a lot of progressive work in this country but unless you’re actually struggling pretty consciously about the way that racism is institutionalised and internalised, a lot of the work you do ends up being a house of cards.

I was actually expelled and we had a sit-in for an open admissions and special admissions programme and eventually, I was readmitted on a suspension and got my degree. We did win the struggle and the school was transformed, essentially. Nobody lost their position in the schools. It has a very, very good academic reputation but it now has more than one-third people of colour. They increased the size of the campus and basically, they built some new buildings. They had a faculty that went from, let’s say, 10,000 to 15-16,000 students probably and so we did win that struggle in the end. The impact on me, in relation to the war, was that I then lost my deferment because I had been planning to graduate and then teach. You could get a deferment for teaching and when I lost my deferment, I was eventually called up. I got what was called a 4-F classification because, at that time, I was actively gay and I was exploring my sexuality. I spent a number of years living as a gay man later and eventually, ended up marrying a woman and helping her to raise her kids. At the time, it wasn’t even ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. It was seen as deviant and you weren’t allowed in the military. I really didn’t want to go and I probably either would have gone to prison or maybe left the country. Later, my brother-in-law became a Canadian and eventually, he got a pardon from Jimmy Carter and he returned to the United States but he is still a Canadian citizen. I think that was a very, very widespread phenomenon at the time. People were burning their draft cards and engaging in various forms of resistance, particularly to the draft but to the war in general.

John:

Much of the opposition to war, including resistance to the draft, was also inspired by the Black struggle.

Michael:

We ran both anti-war and anti-racist activities. The two were very, very closely linked all through that period and I think was a lot of the impetus for draft resistance and other things. You saw that with Muhammad Ali, who was the heavyweight champion of the world, when he became a Muslim, refused to join the U.S. military and was stripped of his crown. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee popularised the slogan ‘Hell No, We Won’t Go’ around the war and the draft. There was a very, very close link between anti-racist activity and anti-war activity in that whole period. I think they were inseparable. In fact, at one point the Black Panther Party offered to send forces to volunteer and assist Vietnam. They were thanked; thanks but no thanks. They were told, ‘We appreciate your offer but you should struggle for your own people in your own country.’ I think that level of internationalism was a guiding principle of at least a section of the anti-war movement that I identified with at that time.

John:

Influenced by numerous events at this time, including the Detroit rebellion, Joe Maizlish determined that only direct action would really be effective in disrupting the war effort.

Joe:

I was deferred from the draft as a student at the time. As the escalations increased and I learned more, I remember being very impressed with a veteran who I met while I was out house-to-house giving out anti-war information. He had been there and he said, ‘What do you think of us being there?’ I told him, ‘I think it’s terrible.’ He said, ‘You go through a village in the daytime and the people are all nice and quiet. You try to go back at night and they’re shooting at you.’ He didn’t necessarily mean those villagers but that people were doing that. He said, ‘It’s like hitting our head against the wall. They don’t want us there.’ You hear that from somebody who’d been through it and that deepened my impression also. To meet somebody always adds to the book learning and the media stuff. During those couple of years, I became aware of resistance in the military but I was deferred from the draft as a continuing graduate student but my brother graduated as an undergraduate and at that time, even if you were going to become a graduate student, you might be drafted. So he started to sweat and filled out a form to say that he was a conscientious objector to participating in the war. He was just sweating his way through that and I thought, ‘This is terrible. This is bothering my brother. Whether it ever bothers me or not directly, I don’t know.’ When I was a teaching assistant, some of my students were also under pressure. I remember one guy saying that he was working nights at the post office so that he could have enough funds to be a student taking enough number of units in his studies to be able to continue his full-time student status and his draft deferment. Actually, two of my students later became draft resisters also [laughter]. One of them was imprisoned and part of his prison time was in the same place that I was doing some of mine. I don’t think it’s what they learned from me. They just developed along the same direction. My draft confrontation was actually continuing all the time because I was maintaining my student deferment and applying every year, or maybe sometimes a couple of times a year but I’m not sure, to say, ‘Yes, I’m still a graduate student.’ That was an ongoing thing but I tried to keep it out of my consciousness a lot. However, in 1966, one of the people who had been a student of mine, and whose letters to his girlfriend in the South I read as part of my radio programme, and a couple of folks got together and said, ‘We need to have an open, conscious movement to reject the draft, including rejecting deferred status in the draft.’ In other words, giving up our protected status and just plain saying that we were having nothing to do with it, with the likely consequence of imprisonment. I thought, ‘That would be a good thing to consider.’ In 1967, a couple of things happened that moved me along in that direction a lot. One was this Middle East war and all the justifications being given for that with Israel, Egypt and Syria which resulted not only in the occupation of territories by the Israeli forces but they went on ahead and they annexed East Jerusalem. I thought, ‘That really stinks. If it’s really about self-defence, you don’t need to annex something.’ Annexation is about aggrandisement and expansionism. I thought that whatever may be said on the issues of self-defence, they were delegitimising that claim by annexing. That was one realm. Another one was when I was driving with my brother to help him get to the University of Michigan where he studied for his first graduate study year at the time of the Detriot Riots of 1967. There were curfews in the Detroit area but not quite in the Ann Arbor area where we were but you couldn’t buy as much gas. There were all kinds of limitations. So we were close to that physically and geographically and that impressed me. We had also both just gone through a peace demonstration in Los Angeles which I learned a lot about later about how it had been obstructed. A guy, who I later got to know quite well, helped stop this march from proceeding past the hotel where President Johnson was visiting and that’s what drove the police crazy enough to attack us, disperse the march and arrest several people but also beat a whole bunch of us. Not me but enough. That got me thinking that unless we undertook more direct action than a parade, action in our own lives to balance out the demands that we were making of others, things were going to get even more chaotic and the demonstrations would contribute to the chaos of war and not help people turn away from the war. That really compelled me to think some more. By the end of the summer, I went to the office of the L.A. Draft Resistance. It was a little office that was funded by a person who had been my Logic professor in history, six and a half or seven years before and was staffed by somebody who I was with yesterday when we went to a showing of the movie that’s in process called The Boys Who Said No. She and another person, also still a friend of mine, were the two women who were staffing this office, by the way. I went in there and told them that I was considering resigning from the draft and from my student deferment status. I tried to undraft everybody by declining to apply for a renewal of my student deferment status, even though I was a still a student and I sent my draft cards (my status card and my registration card) to the government during Stop the Draft Week from October 16th to 20th, 1967. At the demonstration on 16th in L.A., where people were going to be sending their cards in and turning their cards in, I was there and ready to do it. My father attended with me. He was opposed to me becoming a resister but he knew that something was wrong with this war and that we had to do something additional. He said, ‘Maybe they’re not sending in their draft cards.’ I said, ‘Dad, I think they are but even if they’re not, it’s right for me to send it.’  He said, ‘Well, wait a little while.’ So I sent mine on Friday, 20th and not Monday, 16th. During the demonstration on 16th, I saw a black patch on the patio entrance to the building and that’s where Florence Beaumont had immolated herself and died the day before on October 15th. She’d had a note and had expressed it as a war protest. I looked down and I saw that black patch and I said, ‘I think I know how that got there.’ On 20th October, I became a draft criminal. After I didn’t renew my student deferment, that would mean that I would become 1-A classification which meant available for being ordered to examination and if found suitable, an order for induction. In addition, the fact that I had unregistered and sent them my cards meant that I was something called a ‘delinquent’. At that time, if you were a delinquent, it meant that you hadn’t told them where you lived which was almost impossible for them to enforce. I didn’t have a draft card with me, obviously, because I had sent it to them. I figured, ‘It’s theirs. I’m not going to burn it. I’m just going to send it back and they will be put on notice this way rather than me just secretly disposing of it.’ That was another reason why I would be considered available for ordering for induction. They sent me another card in December and shortly after that, at the beginning of ’68, orders to show up on March 5th 1968 for examination and induction, if found suitable at the examination. As that day approached, I was already affiliated and having meetings with some of the other resisters who were supporting each other. I was an older one. I was older than most of the others which added some responsibility. Most people weren’t going to be drafted after aged 26. Some could be if you’d been deferred before. I didn’t know what that would have done. That might have scooted through had I retained my deferred status. It’s possible but I said, ‘Wait a minute. I would have to live with some uncertainty.’ I didn’t like that and decided that it was a chance to step down, feeling more solid in the sense that I was doing some of that personal disaffiliation. The war was in our pocket if we were males who were registered and carried our registration cards with us, as the law required us to do. I should add that it was also a way for me to express my appreciation of support for the members of the military who were refusing duty. Dr. Howard Levy was an army physician and I think he was being prosecuted then. Samas, Mora and Johnson were three people being imprisoned in the military around that time of 1966/67. I thought it was very helpful for discouraging the war plan but it was a tremendous step on their part and I knew they were going to facing a much worse justice system than I. I heard of a Green Beret who resigned, Donald Duncan, and who shared about his participation in the war in Vietnam in a much later interview, ‘We did the job right but the job was not right.’ All these things were weighing on me and my own rejection of the system and it seemed to be a way that joined them in what they were doing. By the way, the 1967 declaration of Dr. King against the war was helpful to me too. Although I knew that he’d made some statements opposing it before, that was his big public statement.

John:

Joe then just continued his refusal until he was eventually ordered to appear.

Joe:

During that period, I was a delinquent and I was ordered to show up on March 5th. My father actually came with me. My mother was living then but she didn’t come to any of this because she was very worried about it. My father came with me and we stood with another young resister named Christian Hayden, whose father was a decorated World War 2 veteran and a famous movie star, Sterling Hayden. Christian and I had our signs. We didn’t go into the induction centre. Many people, who were going to be refusers, did go in, went through the process and when ordered to step forward and take the oath of induction into the military, they didn’t do it. They refused. We stayed outside and gave out leaflets to people and had some signs with us. Many of our supporters were there too, so it was a nice crowd of 30 or so people – quite a few. My father started crying but not because of my refusal. He saw the young men being brought by families or getting off buses and coming from remote draft board offices, or wherever they collected, and hugging their family members and going into the centre. For him, families being broken up had a great impact on him. I could tell then that this war had more practical meaning for him and that moved me too. Of course, I realised he was an impoverished immigrant coming to the country, aged three, with five older siblings and a widowed mother. They only survived by pulling together as a family which is the story of many immigrants, of course. That was March 5th and because of Christian’s father having been interviewed on TV that night and calling the day of his son’s refusal ‘the proudest day of my life’, I think that’s the reason that the system wanted to prosecute us quickly. Usually, they had a lag of about five or six months because there were so many refusers. Half the federal cases in federal courts were about the draft. I think because of that, they indicted us at the end of that month, March 1968. To be fair, they didn’t indict just us; they indicted about ten other people who refused and who had been planning legal cases. They claimed that they were improperly denied conscientious objector status and things like that. They were kind of upset because they thought they’d have more time before they went to trial. So Christian and I started to have hearings and we showed up in May of that year and my trial was in June. Christian had a few hearings and I think the system stumbled over itself and I don’t even think they gave him a trial. Maybe they did but I just don’t know because I was pretty occupied and being imprisoned.

That was the refusal and immediately after being indicted. I remained a teaching assistant which was something I enjoyed very much. I taught U.S. history as additional discussion sections to the lectures that were given by the regular professors but I was not making headway on preparing a doctoral dissertation. I had passed my examinations for that. This other part was too enchanting, I guess. So in June, I was prosecuted at a one-day trial which was quite brief. The prosecutor and the judge said I couldn’t talk about the war, which I hadn’t planned to do anyway, but just to talk about the obligation to resist. I was convicted and the judge asked me, ‘Would August 12th be good for sentencing?’ He was going to take a vacation somewhere around June 18th for a couple of weeks somewhere in there. A stir of humour got to me and I thought, ‘Is any day going to be good for sentencing? No. How can it be? It’s a day of sentencing and that’s no good.’ I said to him, ‘It would be no worse than any other day, Your Honour.’ Of course, the courtroom and my supporters laughed but I don’t know if the judge did or not. I don’t recall. August 12th came around and I was sentenced as the judge had predicted and he said, ‘ Well, I told you what the sentence would probably be. Do you have anything to say?’ I said, ‘I’m not hurting anybody. I can’t see how my imprisonment is necessary.’ He said, ‘I have an obligation under the law.’ I told him, ‘The law does not have any minimum sentence for this,’ which was true. It had a maximum of five years and the minimum could be just as little as zero or some kind of probationary thing. Anyway, he sentenced me to three years but he forgot to tell me to report to the marshall’s office, so I walked outside with some of my friends and sat around. We didn’t try to leave. We just said, ‘Let’s go out into the sun,’ and we sat outside. Maybe I said, ‘Let’s go to the beach,’ but I didn’t try to go to the beach. A couple of U.S. Marshals came and my friends didn’t block them from getting to me. They might have thought my father was blocking them because he stepped forward and asked to be the one to put handcuffs on me. I thought that was most interesting because, of course, he didn’t want them to hurt me by putting handcuffs on too strongly. I’m sure it was quite an emotional moment. One of them pushed him and kind of struck him in the chest and that got me upset, so I just limp. Not because I had planned to go limp but because I needed to have a physical response to the person pushing my father. They picked me up and pulled me into the building which was the very place where I had paraded around, with a dozen others, in the drizzle in 1965 which I told you about. It was my first specifically anti-Vietnam War action.

From there, I went to various jails and I was actually in half of the existing federal imprisonment institutions that existed at that time. For odd reasons, I was transferred around quite a lot but I didn’t know that was coming at the time. I was in the Los Angeles County Jail for about ten days. My friends sang songs outside one of the jails and because it wasn’t one of those sealed jails, prisoners could hear them and jeered and shouted. I think that’s the reason that, maybe, the Los Angeles County deputies, who ran the jail, told the federal marshals to take me away. They took me to another county for a day and then back to the L.A. jail to be taken, with a couple of other prisoners, east towards the federal prison camp which was my first assignment. This is what happened in my trial and processing by the justice system.

John:

Joe Maizlish was one of the just over 3,000 people jailed for draft resistance out of the nearly 9,000 who were convicted and out of the half million-odd resisters. He was transferred around many different federal prisons. As in the case of Al Glatkowski, an anti-war mutineer in prison around the same time (who we talked to in our episodes 21-24), Joe and other activists got involved in resistance within the prison system itself.

Joe:

I was expelled during a strike which I did not have anything to do with organising. This was the male portion of the prison and there was a female portion adjacent. The word had gotten to us that some of the females were having their own strike and sit-in and using a tactic they had learned from peace prisoners, who had been in prison for spilling blood on the floor in a military courtroom when some military refusers were being tried. The other women at that prison used the tactic of grouping together and living in one house. They had cottages where the women stayed in the women’s section of the prison. Something had happened there. Some male guard was accused by the women prisoners of having pushed them around or treated them too roughly and so some of the women started a strike. The word got to the men and the men said, ‘We have to support the women,’ and so we also had a strike. Although none of us had witnessed anything of that, we insisted on having a full investigation and transparency. At a meeting the warden held with the prisoners, he said something that was very upsetting to me and so I stood up. I think that’s the reason that I was put on this bus with 23 others and sent on a 16-hour bus ride to a prison in west Texas. As you can see, I learned a lot through this and as a disobedient in prison, with all the stuff that was happening to me because of it, they sent me to the Medical Centre for Federal Prisoners for psychiatrist investigation [laughter]. I guess they were worried about other people imitating me or joining me, probably. For all of that, as a refuser, because I wasn’t cooperating with the system, I didn’t have to be so resentful of it. It’s strange. I started to feel thoughtful about who the guards were and appreciated what their position was like in ways that I couldn’t when I was a resentful cooperator. That’s something I learned from too and that by taking more personal responsibility, you don’t have to feel so blameful towards others, although I didn’t kid myself about what they were doing in the system they were part of.

John:

Joe talks more about his time in prison in the bonus audio to Part 4 of this miniseries. As the war progressed, the mounting death toll of U.S. forces became the primary motivator of increasing anti-war sentiment and society became increasingly divided, as Cora Weiss explains.

Cora:

One reason the anti-war movement grew was that the body bags were coming back and it was before the prohibition of photographing body bags which eventually happened. With increasing body bags and burials at Arlington Cemetery and in community cemeteries across the country, the anti-war movement grew. The division in families grew, where some families had parents who supported the war and the kids opposed the war or whatever division took place. The country literally split in half on the war issue. Teach-ins became the critical and most important way of beginning this anti-war movement and gaining an intelligent and educated community of people to oppose it. I spoke at teach-ins and other women did too, although they were mostly teach-ins run by men.

John:

Perhaps the most famous example of the extent of division in the country was the Hard Hat Riot during which 200 construction workers, armed with clubs, attacked young people protesting against the war. The attack was organised by the New York State AFL CIO Union Confederation in conjunction with the White House. However, opposition to the war kept increasing as did state harassment and repression of anti-war activists.

Cora:

Oh, it was awful and if the anti-war movement became aggressive, the authorities were aggressive. People were arrested and people were bailed out. There was a lot of legal support and there were always legal observers at demonstrations and marches who were volunteers. There is suppression all the time when there is protest but as Edward Amaro, who was one of our most extraordinary journalists and radio broadcasters, said, ‘Dissent is not disloyal.’ We were pretty sure our telephone was tapped and the tapping became very annoying because it either cut out the phone or crackled on the phone and it interfered. That was one thing. Our mailman told us that there was a mail tap on our mail. He and his wife were in the anti-war movement. However, we persisted because there was no alternative.

[Outro music]

John:

That concludes Part 3 of this miniseries. Our Patreon supporters can listen to the final part now, as well as three bonus episodes. For everyone else, Part 4 will be out next week. You can listen and support us at patreon.com/workingclasshistory. We’ve got more info, further reading, sources, photos, links and more on the webpage for this episode, above. To everyone who already supports us on Patreon, we are extremely grateful as your support makes this podcast possible. 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 to you, thanks for listening. Catch you next time.

Part 4

John:

Hi, and welcome back to the concluding part of our four-part miniseries on opposition to the Vietnam War in the U.S. If you haven’t listened to Parts 1-3 yet, I’d go back and listen to those first.

[Intro music]

John:

As part of her anti-war activism, Cora Weiss was involved in a truly groundbreaking piece of work; building links with U.S. prisoners of war, POWs.

Cora:

Different groups of people had different strategies and engaged in different things. I was strictly with Women Strike for Peace. I did things with the women and we were careful not to do anything that our children couldn’t join us in, except for one thing. We did lay down in our finest clothing on, I think, Park Avenue which is a very elegant street in New York. We lay on the street and did a lie-in with signs on our bodies with the names of the dead Vietnamese and dead Americans. That was one protest that we did. Probably the most important that I did was to start a subgroup called the Committee of Liaison With Families of Servicemen Detained in North Vietnam. That was established in 1969 when I first went to North Vietnam. Nixon was claiming that the war would go on and the bombing would go on for as long as our soldiers were being tortured and taken prisoner. Of course, they wouldn’t have been tortured or taken prisoner if we hadn’t been sending pilots flying bombers over North Vietnam. The more we sent, the more were shot down and the crew, which was usually just a pilot and another person in the back of the plane, were taken prisoner if they survived their crash. It was a very brilliant move. It was the idea of a nice Quaker man named Stewart Meacham who worked with the American Friends Service Committee. He said, ‘Why don’t we try to take that excuse away from Nixon?’ The fact that it was all about prisoners of war was the pretext for continuing the bombing. Of course, the American government didn’t know who was a prisoner of war. They had no way of knowing because they weren’t talking to the Vietnamese [laughter]. They were fighting them. The Red Cross couldn’t say who was a prisoner of war because they weren’t allowed into North Vietnam. So we created an American citizen group which was very small. I think there were half a dozen of us and we worked with the Women’s Union of Vietnam, whom we met in Canada on our most patriotic holiday, July 4th. We proposed the idea to them and they invited us to put a delegation of three women together. I helped to organise the biggest demonstration on November 15th 1969 in Washington which, according to the press, was largely responsible for turning public opinion against the war. Following the demonstration, three of us left for North Vietnam with mail from American families who thought that their husbands or fathers were prisoners of war and we gave the mail to the women because you’re not allowed to negotiate with a foreign government in wartime. The Women’s Union, on the day that we left, gave us 300 letters to bring home from the pilots who were in the prison camp. That was the breakthrough and women did it – the three of us in Women Strike for Peace. It was an extraordinary breakthrough because it was the first time that there was a beginning list of who, in fact, was alive in a North Vietnamese prison camp. We were creative, successful and productive. The other unique, creative thing that we did was to get the Vietnamese to agree to receive three Americans, either strategic opinion-makers and/or mere mortal citizen activists, every month who would bring mail from the families and then bring mail back from the pilots. They were mostly pilots. Mail that was being sent through the mail lines was being opened and censored. That was unique. Every month for three years, I think with the exception of one month when there were severe floods, we brought mail to Vietnam and by bringing the mail back, we developed a list of who, in fact, was alive in the prison camps. I was called a ‘housewife from the Bronx’ by a number of newspapers in the early days when they said, ‘It took a housewife from the Bronx (where we lived) to get a list that the U.S. government couldn’t get.’ Another strategy was to embarrass the government and we did that frequently. The anti-war movement was doing something that the government couldn’t do. In fact, we were reassuring and helping families know that their guys were alive and we were having to tell just a few people that their relatives, their father or husband, was no longer alive and who had died parachuting or from his wounds. I’m not sure how many but any few are too many, obviously. The death rate was very small, I must say, in the prison camps. It was quite a miracle that the Vietnamese kept these guys alive. They fed them a lot of pumpkin because of the vitamin C in it. While the three Americans were there, they were taken around to see the damage and meet the people. They came home as eyewitness reporters on the nature of the war and they would get local publicity in whatever town they came from and they would talk to their local newspaper. All of that had a cumulative effect. They were all methods thrown into the mix to establish public opinion against the war and finally to persuade Congress, which had the power of the purse, to stop funding it.

John:

The anti-war movement was also able to score a major propaganda victory in 1972 by achieving something else the U.S. government had failed to do; getting some POWs returned to the U.S.

Cora:

The releases were one or two people at a time and three at the most. I brought home three in 1972 and before then, two guys brought home two or three. They were all anti-war people. That’s true. They were all peace gestures. When we brought the three home, I had the mother of one and the wife of a second with us which was extraordinary that they let us bring family. The wife of the third guy was persuaded by the Department of Defense not to have anything to do with us. He was a Jewish prisoner of war which was unusual. I’m Jewish and so the Vietnamese asked me to substitute and escort him out [laughter] because the other two guys had their mother and wife with them. That was kind of amusing. It was very important because, unfortunately, Kissinger’s response to that peace gesture was the horrendous bombing of Halong Bay and Hanoi in December and what we called the Christmas Bombing.

John:

By the end of the 1960s, some student anti-war activists also decided to try to take their activism beyond the campus into the broader working class, including Michael Novick.

Michael:

I continued living in New York for about a year. We were involved in some campus organising, even though I was not officially allowed on campus. I eventually moved to California because I felt like there was a lot more going on there, particularly workplace organising. I moved to Northern California and got involved in something called the Hayward Collective. Hayward is a small town that’s south of Oakland and one of the industrial suburbs. That collective had been set up by women who were part of Berkeley’s Women’s Liberation who were interested, as I was, in doing more base-building or grassroots organising with more working-class people off the campus, particularly people of European descent, and to organise them against racism, militarism and sexism. A lot of things people are still talking about today, we were trying to deal with then in 1969. Coming out of that experience with the National Student Association, there had been a struggle to get a more Left slate elected in the National Student Association which failed and the person who had been involved in that launched what was called The Moratorium. The Moratorium was an effort at having escalating national action, like student strikes and other things, against the war. We were trying to do Moratorium organising in working-class communities and at the factory gate. We didn’t feel we were in a position to try to get people to go out on strike but we were doing leafleting and different forms of political education to people around The Moratorium dates about what was going on with the war and what the role of some of those companies was. There were GM plants, Ford plants, Kellogg’s plants and a bunch of others that people were working in. Some of the automotive people were obviously involved also in the sense of contracting, so we were trying to expose the links between industrial conglomerates in the U.S. and the war machine and educate people who were involved in factory work about that. That was not something that a lot of the student movement paid attention to at that time.

John:

At the same time, many people within Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the largest student anti-war organisation, were starting to think that more militant action was necessary to end the conflict.

Michael:

As the war intensified, there was also a sharpening struggle inside the Left and so a number of people, who had been previously involved in the SDS, went to the Flint, Michigan SDS conference that is sometimes referred to as the ‘War Council’. People felt that there was a need to intensify the level of struggle within the United States against the war as the war intensified. There was a faction within SDS at that time called the Weatherman which later became the Weather Underground Organisation. It sent organisers around and they came out to the Hayward Collective and a number of us joined that organisation. I can’t say it was exactly underground yet, although we began to lay the groundwork for doing that. We were involved in a lot of militant street actions. There were protests in Berkeley and Oakland against the draft and against the war. The situation at that time was that a lot of demonstrations would start out and seem like a peaceful rally but they would be attacked by the police with tear gas and rubber bullets. A lot of people would go to the demonstrations in what we called ‘affinity groups’ which were prepared to deal with those situations by masking up and bringing things to protect themselves from tear gas. People were throwing the tear gas canisters back to the police, rock-throwing and a lot of other stuff like that. As this deepened, you’d get reports around the country that there was mass… I don’t like to call it armed struggle but people were attacking the ROTC and JROTC facilities. ROTC is Reserve Officer Training Corps which were on most campuses at that time and even down to the high school level, they had JROTC which is Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. These were military training programmes in the schools. There were struggles about other Defence Department contracts with scientists and so on. In several cases, as the Weather organisation began to develop its capacities, you’d read about concerted actions against ROTC. Some of those took place in Berkeley although very often, for some reason, they were duds at Berkeley. I’m not sure why. That was not just clandestine groupings doing that. That was the era in which a lot of mass actions took the same form. I think the ROTC building on the Berkeley campus was actually burned down because of people throwing Molotov cocktails at it in a protest and that was not from within the clandestine organisations. That was within the level of intensity of the mass struggle that was going on at that time.

John:

One potential flashpoint for confrontation was the Chicago 8 trial. The trial took place from September 1969 to February 1970 of eight people involved in organising protests outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, including Black Panther Chairman Bobby Seale.

Michael:

There was a trial for the people who were accused of leading the protest in Chicago against the Democratic Convention in 1968. That trial dragged on for a long time. That included Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman from the Yippies and the various other peace activists like David Dellinger. Bobby Seale was separated. He was bound, gagged and prevented from speaking in the courtroom because of his protest against the racism and unjust way in which he was being treated. It was a demonstration which was billed as TDA which stood for The Day After. This was in advance of the verdict coming down on that case and people were saying, ‘The day after the verdict, everybody into the streets to protest.’ We anticipated a guilty verdict and so the grouping I was with planned to carry out street actions to raise the level of intensity, struggle and resistance within that context.

John:

In the end, Seale was charged with contempt of court and tried separately and jailed for four years. In a very surprising verdict, the remaining Chicago 7 were all acquitted by the jury on conspiracy charges, despite the clear hostility displayed toward them and their defence throughout the whole trial, but five of them were jailed for five years for crossing state lines with the intention of inciting a riot and all of them, as well as their lawyer, were sent to prison for contempt of court. Although in 1972, all these convictions, apart from Seale’s, were reversed in appeals. Elsewhere, thousands of people protesting against the Vietnam War were being violently attacked by the police, beaten and arrested. On 4th May 1970, National Guard troops in Ohio opened fire and shot 13 unarmed students at Kent State University killing four. Just a few days later, city and state police in Mississippi opened fire on protesting Black students at Jackson State College killing two and injuring 12. This caused tensions to escalate significantly. After the Kent State shootings, hundreds of thousands of students went on a student strike and took to the streets in often violent protests and militancy, in general, increased.

Michael:

As I say, there was a tremendous level of frustration. On the one hand, we would have these mass rallies and giant demonstrations and they would have absolutely no impact on what was happening. The government continued to escalate. It went from a Democratic administration to a Republican administration and the war just continued to increase in intensity with bombings, the expansion of territory that they were fighting in and the level of napalm. Through a good deal of that period, as I say, compulsory military service was still in effect and so you saw, within the military itself, that there was a lot of resistance and direct action. There was a whole history of what was called ‘fragging’. People would throw fragmentation grenades at their own officers who were just putting too many people’s lives at risk and carrying out too many atrocities. You saw Vietnam veterans against the war. People were coming back and testifying about crimes against humanity that they had participated in and throwing their own medals off. I think the level of awareness of what the U.S. was involved in was much higher then than it is today. The war was on TV and people could see the villages being bombed, strafed and burned. Thousands of people were coming back dead and wounded. There was a sense of the level of intensity but there was also a sense of the potential power of people’s struggles. I think there were movements going on all over the world. Che Guevara put out the slogan ‘Two, Three or Many Vietnams’ and there was a sense of The War of the Flea with them being successful against the U.S., despite all the firepower. The resistance of the Vietnamese people was continuing and you saw struggles in Cambodia and Laos and opening up in different African countries that were still colonised by the Portuguese. South Africans and Rhodesians, who were white minority, settler, colonial governments were facing struggles at a very high level of intensity from the people that they were oppressing. There was a sense that all around the world, people were rising up and putting imperialism, militarism and colonialism on the defensive. You felt like you could be part of that and that you had a responsibility to do something. You felt that there was a capacity to carry out direct actions or disrupt the war machine in different ways that would have an impact on that struggle in a way that just marching round in a circle or at a rally didn’t seem to have any effect. I recently saw a film, which I saw a few years later again, that came out in 1979. By that point, the war was over and I was living in Chicago then. The film is called The War at Home and it was about the anti-war movement in Madison, Wisconsin and it showed that arc very clearly. The students started out in suits and ties and very politely raising questions, having teach-ins and starting to educate themselves about what was going on. As the repression of peaceful activities increased and the sense of futility about that… you saw increasing militancy and you saw people fighting back when they were attacked by the police. The Black students on that campus launched a whole struggle of their own connected to racism in the institution which pushed the white anti-war students to understand that it was not just something going on overseas but something going on in this country. Eventually, in that context, a small group formed at that campus called the New Year’s Gang. They chartered a private plane and attempted to drop a bomb on a munitions’ factory outside the city of Madison. It didn’t have much damage and eventually, they blew up the Army Mathematics Research Centre on the campus which was an institution that had major contracts with the Defence Department. Although it sounds kind of innocuous with mathematics, they were basically involved in trying to figure out the mathematics of mass murder or the mathematics of how to subvert anti-colonial organising in Vietnam, like how many people you had to impact or how to figure out who the key organisers were.

John:

Even protests by pacifist activists escalated and they began taking more confrontational forms of action. COINTELPRO, an FBI operation Michael mentions here, was a series of efforts by the agency to undermine Black Liberation, anti-war and revolutionary movements through a number of underhand methods, including infiltration, disruption, sabotage and even assassination.

Michael:

A lot of the people in the pacifist wing, they were not going to carry out armed actions but they were prepared to carry out illegal actions, and sometimes face arrest, and sometimes avoid arrest. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the story of the burglary. People’s awareness of the whole COINTELPRO operation of the FBI grew out of a group of pacifists who had been involved with the Berrigan brothers who were Catholic war resisters and doing anti-draft and anti-war actions. They would throw blood on draft files. They were pacifists but they were quite militant and strong in their resistance. The particular group that came out of that carried out a break-in at the FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania. They were a clandestine group. They were pacifists but they were anti-war and anti-draft. They broke in looking for files. Originally, they were looking for files related to draft resisters and thought they could disrupt possible prosecutions. They ended up taking every single file out of the FBI office and discovered a massive snitch network, for one thing. They steadily released files to the media. They were never caught and they were never identified but they finally came forward decades later. So I think that pacifism had a much different aspect to it than it does these days. Martin Luther King was a pacifist but he spoke out very, very strongly against the war and the civil rights movement, at that time, was engaged in massive civil disobedience, mass arrests and defying legality and unjust laws. I think that there was a sense of common purpose and commonality because the level of militant struggle was quite intense among people who were committed to non-violence as a strategy or philosophy in a different way than they are today. I think that a lot of people talking about non-violence today are basically saying, ‘Let’s just have a demonstration.’ For the people who were engaging at that time, or even during the Central American wars, there was still a sense of preparing to disrupt the order of things. People know the case of Brian Willson who lost his legs by trying to stop a military munitions train in the Concord facility in Northern California that was shipping arms into Central America. The train ran over him and cut his legs off. Some people, who were non-violent resisters at that time, were prepared to engage in a level of resistance that puts most of us to shame. I think there was much more cross-fertilisation in those days. As I say, people were prepared to break unjust laws and to operate from clandestinity. I think it’s important to recognise that the state is going to infiltrate movements and try to disrupt them. Even if you’re committed to non-violence, that doesn’t exempt you from that threat of provocateurs and other things. I think there was much more cohesion in that sense. Obviously, there was a range of activity in every sphere and sector of the movement but I think that people who were committed to non-violence were much more open to different forms of direct action as long as they were not physically disruptive or attacking people at that time than they are today.

John:

As we mentioned before, industrial disputes also began to have an impact on the war effort.

Michael:

Although people are more aware of hard hat construction workers supporting the war, there was a level of labour militancy that was also influenced by the anti-war movement and by the Black Liberation struggle. I talked about the fact that we were at the factory gates around the Moratorium of the war but we were also supporting labour struggles and strikes that were going on in that area. There was a big influence in the auto industry, in particular, from the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. They had groups called DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) and ELRUM (Eldon Avenue Revolutionary Union Movement). These were Black-led but not exclusively Black formations that were frustrated with the labour bureaucracy and with the deals that were being cut between the unions and management and who were not touching issues of racism within the plant. There were hierarchies within the labour movement that favoured certain elements of labour at the expense of a lot of other working people.

John:

As a reminder, we talk more about the wartime strike wave in our podcast episode 7 and about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in episode 12. In general, a real strength of the movement was that different wings, while disagreeing on tactics, still had a basic level of solidarity with one another.

Cora:

Yes, because if you didn’t like their tactic, you didn’t join their thing. The mobilisation had many names. There was the New Mobilisation, the Spring Mobilisation and the Mobile Mobilisation [laughter] because they happened in different seasons. What they represented was large demonstrations and if you wanted a large demonstration, you had to bring everybody to the table, whether you liked them or not.

John:

While this was going on, Michael ended up parting ways with the Weather Underground faction of SDS. The Weather Underground went on to carry out numerous attacks in protest against the Vietnam War and in solidarity with the Black Liberation movement. For example, they carried out a number of bombings of U.S. military and government facilities, including the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. Other attacks also took place which were organised by other urban guerilla groups which arose at the same time, as well as those organised by individuals or informal groups.

Michael:

What happened with me, personally, in that whole tendency was that the Weather Underground got a lot more serious and went deeper underground and cut a lot of people loose. I was one of them. I think I was not really part of the core group of people who had come up together in it. I had no particular resources to contribute as compared to a lot of them who came out of very well-to-do families and had networks of people prepared to support them. So I got ‘cut loose’, as they called it, and I was no longer part of it after they intensified their level of clandestinity. I went briefly back to New York and I came back to California again and by that time, it was roughly the era when Nixon expanded the war into Cambodia and Laos. I connected up with people who took over a school called the California College of Arts and Crafts in North Oakland. Basically, we took all the resources of the campus and turned them into making anti-war posters that could be spread around. We were involved in repurposing billboards. I remember one billboard that people climbed up which said ‘Everybody Needs Milk’ (which was a popular advertiser’s slogan for the dairy industry) and we changed it to ‘Everybody Needs Peace’. We made silk-screen shrouds for the funeral of George Jackson or maybe it was for Jonathan Jackson because I think it was in ’70 and then George wasn’t killed until ’71.

John:

George Jackson was a member of the Black Panther Party and who was one of a group known as the Soledad Brothers which was a group of Black inmates at the San Quentin prison. He was accused of killing a white guard. In 1970, his 17 year old brother, Jonathan, took part in an armed invasion of the Marin County Courthouse in California and demanding the release of the Soledad Brothers. In the ensuing shootout, Jonathan Jackson was killed, as was a judge. George himself was killed the following year in San Quentin prison during an escape attempt. As a slight aside, Jonathan Jackson’s guns were actually registered to a famous, Black communist, Angela Davis, who was subsequently prosecuted but later acquitted of all charges after a sensational trial. We’ve got a collection of her writings about this available on our webpage for this episode. Link in the show notes. Initially, many radicals had a gung-ho attitude to the repression but eventually, it took its toll and as usually happens in democratic countries, alongside the repression, went recuperation.

Michael:

At the time, we had a slogan ‘Repression Breeds Resistance’ but I don’t think that that is actually true. Unless you can figure out clear ways to deal with the repression and build resistance, repression eventually does lead to surrender. I think they were very effective at targeted repression, particularly. The reason I emphasise this is because part of the Black struggle was that level of repression and the intensity of the state operations against the Black Liberation movement and the Chicano struggle. One of the leading anti-war things in California was called the Chicano Moratorium. Chicanos were Mexican migrants in the United States who were disproportionately dying in the war and so they had an anti-war march. It was attacked and disrupted, predominantly, by the L.A. Sheriff’s Department and different leaders of that movement were picked off. People who were involved in both the high school student movement and the community struggle were targeted and resulted in criminal conspiracy trials. The same thing happened with the Black Liberation struggle. The Black Panther Party was the target of military-level assaults and various things, including here in Los Angeles but also in Chicago and around the country. People were killed and people were imprisoned. The state had an effective strategy of cutting off the head and so they went after people in the Black Panther Party like Bobby Seale, Ericka Huggins, Huey Newton, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago but also in other similar types of organisation around the country. Eventually, I think that had a withering impact on the resistance and disorientated it. They created a lot of disunity, internal struggle and factionalisation within the Black Liberation movement and which was promoted by agents in place and by different FBI dirty tricks, like writing letters from one to the other and accusing them of things. In fact, the letter was actually written by the FBI but pretending to be people in factions. You saw the same thing in the Chicano struggle. There were a series of assassinations, in the early ’70s, in the Chicano student movement in Colorado. As I said, there were arrests here. In L.A., there were similar things happening with Mexican and Central Americans in the Bay area with a case called Los Siete de la Raza. I think at the start of the repression, people fought back but eventually, I think it did break a lot of those movements without the leading edge of those liberation struggles inside the United States. We’re talking about the carrot and the stick. The other part of it was cooptation and they did abolish the draft to go into a volunteer army. They were able to find enough people who bought into the mission of the U.S. military and fill its ranks without drafting people without compulsory military service. So I think there were two factors which were the targeted repression that effectively demoralised the movement, particularly the liberation movements inside the U.S., and then cooptation. As the war ended and the movement became somewhat irrelevant as an anti-war movement and didn’t want to become an anti-imperialist movement, a lot of people made their separate peace. They joined different non-profit organisations and lost the mass base and went in favour of forming these board and staff organisations where people had jobs and careers doing good work but it wasn’t connected to a grassroots based in the movement that was organising to change the world. It was providing social services and following the money that grant writers would seek from foundations or wealthy individuals. We haven’t recovered from that yet and I think that’s still predominant. As you say, party politics people just look to the electoral system. Which I think has mostly been the graveyard of those mass movements, particularly of militants and resistance, I know they’re using the slogan “Resistance” now, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of resistance that existed in that period by a long shot.

John:

Despite the repression, the movement against the Vietnam War, combined with events on the ground, did successfully turn public opinion against U.S. involvement in the region. From only around 10% of the population supporting U.S. withdrawal in 1965, this grew to 50% in 1970 and up to 70% or more by 1971.

Cora:

Our goal was to convince the majority of Americans that this war was wrong and I think it happened not just because of us but I think we undermined any kind of consensus that supported this brutal war. I think that’s why it ended, plus the Vietnamese just would not give up.

John:

Eventually, with an ever-increasing death toll of U.S. troops and facing the absolute determination of North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front forces, Republican President Richard Nixon was forced to sign a peace agreement with North Vietnam. Undoubtedly, the primary reason for this was the failure of the U.S. military to defeat the anti-colonial struggle of the Vietnamese people but U.S. service people being increasingly unwilling to fight and constant protests and turbulence at home were also factors in forcing Nixon to the table. Under the 1973 Paris Peace Agreement, U.S. troops would be withdrawn and U.S. prisoners of war were returned. The U.S. did try to keep propping up its unpopular and violent puppet regime in South Vietnam by providing it with military aid in a process it called Vietnamisation but after Nixon resigned in the Watergate scandal, Vice President Gerald Ford took power. Whilst Congress had agreed $700 million in funding for the South Vietnamese military, Ford requested an additional £300 million but Congress refused it and the South Vietnamese regime quickly collapsed. Eventually, on 30th April 1975, around a century of colonial occupation of Vietnam by France, by Japan, by France again and then finally by the U.S. came to an end.

Cora:

The war ended and it took everything to get it to end. It took all the strategies that we’ve mentioned; eye witness reporting; bringing home prisoners; encouraging the mail; marching in the streets; defying the draft; getting Members of Congress to vote against funding. It took teach-ins and it took every kind of person and every kind of activity. All of those things eventually got Congress, in the end, to say, ‘No more money.’ That did it. That took ten years, 55,000 American lives, maybe one or two million Vietnamese lives (I don’t know what the official figure is), Cambodian lives and Laotian lives with those terrible landmines. So it took a lot to end that war which should never have happened and it was immoral and illegal. It could not have ended without the movement. I mean look at Afghanistan. How many years has it been? It’s the longest-running war and there’s no anti-Afghan war movement and the war keeps going on and on. People are being killed unnecessarily and lands, homes and families are being destroyed unnecessarily because we’ve demonstrated with the Afghan war that war doesn’t work. I’m not an ideological pacifist but I’m sure as hell a nuclear pacifist and I just don’t think we’ve had a just war since the end of the Second World War.

John:

While the U.S. war on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos eventually ended, it left a legacy of destruction and devastation in the region.

Cora:

The consequences are now generational and the second and third generations are suffering from the Vietnam War because their parents were hit with Agent Orange or because their daddies and mommies got PTSD and couldn’t take care of the children. I don’t know. War is just wrong.

John:

The U.S. imperial project suffered a major setback in Vietnam and so this forced a rethink and change of strategy in the coming decades.

Michael:

With regard to the intensity and duration of the war and the inadequate nature of peaceful protests that had no material impact on the operations of the war, I think those lessons have continued. You saw what was called the Vietnam Syndrome where the level of opposition inside the United States and inside the military became so intense that the United States actually stepped back from a kind of military interventionsthat they had been engaging with in Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere for a period of time. They then had to rebuild and refashion a consensus that would allow the U.S. to intervene militarily. They started small with Grenada and Panama and then moved on to the wars in Central America where they were proxy wars. There were fewer U.S. troops involved but there was a lot of U.S. military assistance. Eventually, that was stopped.

John:

In recent wars, like the one in Iraq, the U.S. government learned from its experiences in Vietnam and it, and the war in Afghanistan, were also different because they were officially declared wars.

Cora:

But you know the military in the United States is no longer allowing journalists to go. They have to be embedded with military units because they don’t want journalists to get the truth out. In a declared war, it’s very hard for civilians to go and meet with the people from the country involved. Vietnam was an undeclared war and they could not stop us from going to Vietnam. They took our passports away but they could not arrest us for doing that. In a declared war, it’s a different situation. The ability now for ordinary people to get real information and for journalists to get real information about weapons, strategies on the ground and the impact on civilians, is much harder.

John:

Michael thinks that there were some problems in the movements of the ’60s and ’70s which we can learn from and improve on today.

Michael:

I think my own personal experience was frustrating in a lot of ways. I think that there is tremendous potential for the movements but I think that people often don’t treat themselves or each very well out of a sense of urgency and a sense of antagonism towards the enemy. I think the other thing we need to work on is that sense of solidarity and that sense of taking care of ourselves and each other without losing the edge or the militancy. I think people haven’t figured that out very well yet and I think it tends to fluctuate or be one or the other. People who talk a lot about self-care or concern for how we deal with each other in the movement don’t always have the other piece of it and vice versa. The people who are focused on militant action and fighting hard sometimes don’t develop their other emotional capacities. I do look to certain movements that I’ve seen that have handled that better, like with the Puerto Rican independence struggle and the Chicano movement, in particular. I see it now more in the Black struggle with Black Lives Matter. They talk a lot about Black love. I think that’s developing but I think that among people of European descent, especially, we need to figure out how to divide the aspects of ourselves that are tied into the system and the aspects of ourselves that really want a different and better world. We need to figure out how to struggle in an uncompromising way with the system but, at the same time, in an uplifting way with each other [laughter].

John:

In retrospect, he has some criticism of his own actions and those of the Weather Underground faction.

Michael:

I have mixed feelings about my own participation in some of the things I did. I think that they had too much of a ‘my way or the high way’ attitude towards the rest of the Left to the extent that they disrupted other Left activities that were not consistent with their view. I think that was an error on their part. Later, a lot of them surfaced one way or another and they’re still around. Mark Rudd and a lot of the leadership are now living regular lives. Compared to some of the other people involved in that kind of activity in that era, I think that the Weather people probably got off fairly easy and fairly light and certainly compared to people in the Black Liberation movement or Chicano struggles and Puerto Rican movements where there were assassinations. People were locked up and are still locked away to this day from the Black Liberation movement. There are a few people that I knew like that from that period, like David Gilbert who is probably going to be in for the rest of his life. He is somewhat unique among the white prisoners as he did get caught for anti-imperial and anti-war activities. Most of the rest were eventually released.

John:

Michael also cautions that we should try to ensure that direct action movements should still relate to our everyday lives and experiences.

Michael:

I do think that, somehow, the militant and direct action has to be connected to a sense of engagement with people’s lives and a connection between what people are experiencing day-to-day and the rest of the operations of the empire. I think all of that is actually much clear today than it was then. At that time, people had the illusion that we were living high on the hog. I think that 40 or 50 years of economic stagnation and two or three rounds of economic crises have disillusioned a lot of people. Today, I think we need two things. As they say, we need to connect the idea of direct action with the conditions that people are living under but also we have to give people a sense of capacity or power to deal with the problems themselves. I think that the resistance aspects of it have to be connected to solidarity and liberation. People talk about pre-figurative things and all those people can organise community gardens, food coops, cooperative housing, rent strikes and other mechanisms that are capacity building, so that you have a basis from which you’re resisting.

John:

For Vivian, one of the lasting legacies of the Vietnam War is the widespread lack of trust in authorities which persists today.

Vivian:

I think one legacy, which is good and bad, is that because of the Vietnam War, a lot of people stopped trusting the American government. Many of us felt the government was not telling us the truth and now, of course, it’s come out that they weren’t and that they knew that this was a popular war and not a war engineered by communist forces from Russia or China. They knew all of that stuff. They didn’t tell us the truth and I think, as a result, a lot of people don’t trust the government at all. The government is our collective vehicle for running the government in a democracy and I think we outed the government and the people responsible but I think we need to have faith that we can vote in a government that can do the people’s will and can tell the truth. It’s a little harder now because people are cynical and I think some of that cynicism, Donald Trump used to get elected. Demagogues use it to get elected by saying, ‘The government is terrible. It’s just a big bureaucracy that wants to take your freedom away.’ All of those messages fall on somewhat receptive ears because a lot of people lost trust in government as a result of the Vietnam War. There’s good and bad that have come out of it. It’s complicated. That’s one of the bad legacies. A good legacy is that for Americans in contemporary America… and this is why Ken Burns fell short because he could have really educated people about what people did to build a broad-based, majoritarian movement and about how hard it was but how people did it and shared some of those skills because people want those skills right now.

John:

Ken Burns is a documentary maker who recently made a series on the Vietnam War but Vivian feels he left out a lot.

Vivian:

I think he could have gotten across the kind of organising and agitation that went on within almost every American institution about the war in Vietnam, certainly within every religious denomination, within every college campus, within professional associations including medical and academic associations. Organisations and people stood up, made statements, lobbied their congressional representatives, worked on elections to get rid of some people and put other people in. There was a whole generation of people who went to Congress who came out of the anti-war movement and were very important. People learned how to organise. Of course, now there’s a new generation needing to learn how to organise and using a lot of new techniques in terms of communication. I think they have a legacy that they can draw on and that’s a good thing. That’s a really good thing. It’s very important, in general, but I think it’s important right now because there is so much dissatisfaction and upset about the direction of our country. The easiest thing is for people to just give up and just focus on their personal lives and be hopeless. So hearing about movements, and the excitement and the profound impact of being involved in these kinds of things could be an inspiration for people to get involved now.

John:

For Michael, unfortunately, recent wars show that many of us haven’t learnt the lessons of Vietnam.

Michael:

Unfortunately, that has faded and people today need to relearn the lessons. They see the U.S. carrying out wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, supporting the Saudis in Yemen and military operations all across Africa. Unfortunately, there’s not a commensurate anti-war movement on any level; not even a peaceful one, let alone militant direct actions to protest against those things. I think that a new generation, unfortunately, will have to learn the same way we did; that it’s an empire and that here at home or abroad, anti-democratic, militaristic, repressive apparatuses have to be challenged. There was a massive, massive global opposition to the war in Iraq until the war in Iraq started and then it became a fait accompli. In the U.S., in particular, the anti-war movement evaporated. I don’t know what it was like in other places but in the United States, people sort of threw up their hands and said, ‘Oh well, they’re ignoring us. We had these giant anti-war protests and it didn’t make any difference.’ Instead of escalating their tactics and increasing their struggle, they wanted to look for somebody else but they got Obama who continued most of it for another eight years without effective opposition.

John:

The United States today has become an increasingly divided society which, in many ways, mirrors the situation in the 1960s.

Vivian:

It was a period of a lot of organising, a lot of hopefulness and a lot of agony because watching the news every night, you saw people being killed in Vietnam in a war that our government never voted on and was recruiting and drafting our friends and pretty much destroying the consensus in the country. It was very painful but it was a time of activism. It was a little bit like it is right now. There’s a lot of pain in the United States about our current leadership but there are people who are becoming active and organising groups in their own communities, in their churches and in their schools and feeling they need to take action. Things are so bad that they need to take action, so it’s an exciting time also. It was very much like that in the late ’60s.

John:

We thought we’d conclude today’s episode with these parting words from Cora Weiss.

Cora:

I also wanted to say that the anti-war movement doesn’t belong to any one group or any one group of people. It really was a huge, diverse – not diverse enough but diverse movement of different kinds of people with different tactics and different strategies but all had one thing in common and that was to end the war. I think war is now the issue and the legacy is there should be war no more.

[Outro music]

John:

This brings us to the end of our four-part miniseries on U.S. opposition to the Vietnam War. If you enjoyed it, why not check out the rest of our Vietnam War series. In episode 14, we talk to Noam Chomsky about the geopolitics of the conflict. In episodes 10 and 11, we talk to veterans about the GI resistance. In episodes 21 and 24, we talk to a mutineer on a U.S. military supply ship and in episode 7, we talk about the strike wave during the war. There’s also a very brief mini-episode attached to this one with just a couple of clips we weren’t able to fit into the main episodes. Our Patreon supporters can listen to that now. Our work on this miniseries over the last two years has been made possible by listeners like you supporting us on Patreon. In return, patrons get access to exclusive benefits like early access to episodes, bonus content, free and discounted books, merch and more. So if you can, please consider supporting us at patreon.com/workingclasshistory. Link above. If you can’t, absolutely no worries but if instead, you could take a moment to give us a five-star review on Apple Podcasts or share on social media, that would also be very much appreciated. Check out our webpage for this episode for more info about our interviewees and more. Link in the show notes. Finally, thanks to all of our existing patrons who make this podcast and the Working Class History project, more generally, possible. Thanks for Jesse French for editing this miniseries and thanks to all of you for listening. To conclude this episode, we’re going to play the entirety of our theme music for this miniseries, They Couldn’t Stand By by David Rovics.

Lyrics to They Couldn’t Stand By by David Rovics

It’s a story everyone should know
It happened a half century ago
All across this sprawling nation
The rising of a generation
It started slow and then gained speed
Nobody knew where it would lead
First there were marches, then there were more
Way too many to keep score
They shut down classes, couldn’t learn
Once they ascertained how napalm burned
They had to find out how to defy
People stood up because they couldn’t stand by

There were parades held by the military brass
There were cities filled with CS gas
Real wars and war games
Recruitment centers up in flames
Light a match, then in a flash
Draft cards turned to ash
Thousands moved across the border
Refusing military orders
Every army base in the USA
Had an antiwar cafe
There are times when you just can’t comply

Soldiers insisted on free will
Put down their guns, refused to kill
Newspapers of the underground
Ubiquitously could be found
Across the country, across the sea
Throughout the ranks of the military
Take a grenade, pull out the pin
Praise be to Ho Chi Minh
Another fragging every night
A war that many refused to fight
Bombs were falling, some asked why

The ruling classes, with all their powers
Shook inside their ivory towers
They were brought to their knees back then
That’s why we don’t have the draft again
Even back then some of them knew
They had to be careful, what they tried to do
Rulers who miscalculate
Lose control of their ship of state
In order to govern you need consent
And all of that just up and went
In ’68 came the reply

People stood up ‘cos they couldn’t stand by

People stood up ‘cos they couldn’t stand by

People stood up ‘cos they couldn’t stand by

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