This article originally appeared at TheGuardian.com.
Photo Credit: Popperfoto/Getty Images
By Clara Bingham.
Tom Hayden’s death, in late October at the age of 76, could not have been more untimely. The 60s protest leader missed by just three months the dawn of a new US mass movement, the likes of which we have not seen since Hayden led the charge against the Johnson and Nixon administrations’ relentless escalation of the Vietnam war.
If it’s any consolation, his sage voice lives on in a posthumously published book, Hell No: The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement. Indeed, for the same reasons that Hayden’s death was untimely, his book could not be more timely. Millions are taking to cities, airports and town halls across the US and around the world, protesting against the Trump administration and its policies.
Hayden is, of course, one of the country’s most well-known crusaders for social justice. He was the founder of Students for a Democratic Society, a civil rights and peace activist, a husband of Jane Fonda, a California state senator, a college lecturer, a prolific author. This, his final book, is a compelling homage to the effectiveness of the peace movement – a demand that we award the credit it deserves for the role it played in ending the Vietnam war, which stretched from 1965 to 1975 and killed 58,000 Americans and three to five million Indochinese.
The impetus for this richly researched and argued book-length essay came when Hayden and other veteran peace activists met in January 2015 with a Pentagon team in charge of commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam war. Hayden’s group pointed out that a timeline on the Pentagon’s commemorative website ignored the peace movement and whitewashed the government’s role in the war’s prosecution.
Only three peace marches were listed, the Pentagon Papers leak was shrugged off in one line, and the My Lai massacre and Vietnam Veterans against the War did not even merit a mention. Hayden’s point: the largest protest movement in American history was being written out of history.
In Hell No, Hayden surmises that not until America reckons honestly with the hard truth about Vietnam can the nation heal. Only by admitting that we lost the war, and the peace movement was right in opposing it, can history be honored.
“The cycle of war continues its familiar path,” he writes. “Truth, it is said, is war’s first casualty. Memory is second.”
We are well directed to remember. The numbers are staggering: 29 student protesters were killed by police, guardsmen and vigilantes; eight Americans took their lives by self-immolation; 84 anti-war bombings and arson attacks occurred in the first six months of 1969; the largest ever protest (at that time) in American history saw 500,000 march in Washington in November 1969.
Four million high school and college students went on strike in May 1970, shutting down more than 800 educational institutions in response to the invasion of Cambodia; 12,614 people were arrested in a peace demonstration in Washington in 1971; 400,000 enlisted military personnel deserted; the US government imprisoned 3,250 draft resisters.
By 1970, a million American students described themselves as “revolutionaries”, and the FBI had collected dossiers on a million activists. Hayden’s own FBI file is 20,000 pages long. Though the war dragged on, the movement opposing it unseated two presidents, ended the draft, dropped the voting age from 21 to 18 and convinced Congress both to pass the War Powers Act in 1973 and to halt funding for the war in 1974.
Hayden puzzles over why other social justice movements – like civil rights, feminism, gay rights and environmentalism – have honored places in our nation’s history while the peace movement does not.
“One can only guess why so many elites want to forget the Vietnam peace movement by history cleansing, why public memories have atrophied, and why there are few if any memorials to peace,” he writes. He suggests that one rationale is that “rightwing diehards would use the victorious peace movement and its veterans as a scapegoat for the manifest failures of American adventurism”.
The question Hayden does not answer is why was it so easy to vilify the peace movement. He misses a chance to inform newly politicized resisters to Trump, by not examining the movement’s actions and analyzing which of their strategies helped and which hurt. While admitting that his movement “was divided with splits among radicals, revolutionaries, sectarians, moderates, and militants”, he fails to expose how the radicals and militants alienated the broader public and unwittingly provided ammunition for the rightwing backlash.
Though a large majority of Americans were against the Vietnam war (66%), very few were Marxists who wanted to overthrow the government. The extreme rhetoric and militarism of groups like the Weathermen and the Black Panthers (in the group’s later stages), and bombings like the one that destroyed Sterling Hall at the University of Wisconsin in August 1970, accidentally killing a researcher, severely tainted the movement’s reputation.
Committing violence in the name of peace and justice proved self-destructive. The moral hypocrisy of violence against violence was the achilles heel of the movement.
“Every time they burn another building,” said one Nixon administration official in 1970, “Republican registration goes up.” Or as the Weatherman leader Mark Rudd told me about the organization’s role in dismantling SDS: “If I had been an FBI agent, I couldn’t have done it better.”
The vast majority of the peace movement deployed peaceful civil disobedience, but the radical outliers attracted substantially more publicity and FBI attention than their small numbers deserved. It is to be hoped that in 2067, the official timeline of history will give more credit to a large, peaceful resistance movement against Trump that achieved real change by learning from the mistakes of its predecessors. Tom Hayden tells us, convincingly, that protest works.
- Clara Bingham is the author of Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Hippies, Vets and the Year America Lost its Mind and Found its Soul, published in the US by Random House.