If the legacy of the Vietnam War is to offer any guidance, we need to complete the moral and political reckoning it awakened. And if our nation’s future is to be less militarized, our empire of foreign military bases scaled back, and our pattern of endless military interventions ended, a necessary first step is to reject – fully and finally – the stubborn insistence that our nation has been a unique and unrivaled force for good in the world. Only an honest accounting of our history will allow us to chart a new path in the world. The past is always speaking to us, if we only listen.
As a way to show that Hanoi wanted reconciliation above all else, Cora Weiss and the Viet-My coordinated one last prisoner release in September 1972. This time, Hanoi stipulated that prisoners must return to the United States via commercial airline; hence they would be able to hold a press conference upon their return before being debriefed by the U.S. military. Hanoi and Weiss made it clear that any intervention on the part of the U.S. government could imperil the future release of additional POWs before the end of the war. Anticipating U.S. interference, they announced a false itinerary of their return trip to the United States. As expected, the U.S. military met the plane that the three POWs were supposed to be on in Laos with the intent of forcing the three men to fly the rest of the way back to the United States via military aircraft. All the while the POWs were actually escorted by Weiss on another day via a different route. Weiss wrote a press release stating that the intervention was evidence of Nixon’s disregard for POWs’ safe return and his attempt to conceal the truth from the American people.
During the post-Geneva period, the United States propped up its client state with massive economic and military aid. From 1954 to 1956, the Diem government received half a billion dollars, more than 60 percent for military purposes. In February 1955, American advisers began arriving to train South Vietnamese army troops. Out of $260 million in U.S. aid received in 1957 and 1958, $200 million went to the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN). All of this directly violated the Geneva Agreements.
Lack of loyalty to the Diem government was more subtly apparent in the unwillingness of ARVN soldiers to fight. They were supposed to fight to the death for the government of South Vietnam (GVN), in a Washington-scripted play that divided the Vietnamese people into “good” non-communists and “evil” communists. Yet most had no cause for animosity toward the communist-led NLF and only wanted to survive and be paid. Hence when called to action, the results were often disappointing to U.S. military advisers. A case in point was the battle of Ap Bac on January 2, 1963, in which 350 lightly armed guerrillas routed a larger force of 2,000 ARVN soldiers equipped with Colt AR-15 rifles and light-weight jungle radios, and backed by aircraft and armored vehicles. The ARVN had one of the highest desertion rates in the history of modern warfare. Sixty-five percent of ARVN soldiers were forcibly conscripted, and many ARVN officers were patronage appointees who served the French and used their positions for personal gain.
The Americans can only accept the Geneva agreements provisionally…. As far as they are concerned, the general elections must be prevented by means of any excuse whatsoever. The only purpose of the Geneva agreements, as they see them, is to provide a cover for the political, economic, and military preparations for the conquest.”
Such harsh penalties undoubtedly dissuaded many GIs from directly challenging military authority, but other ways were found to debate and protest the war. With the support of local peace groups, coffee houses sprang up near military bases where GIs could freely exchange ideas. GIs began publishing off-base newspapers, one of the first being Vietnam GI in late 1967. More newspapers followed. Cortright counts a total of 259 over the course of the war, although many lasted only a few issues due to personnel relocation. In December 1967, the American Servicemen’s Union (ASU) was founded by socialist Andy Stapp, who purposely entered the Army in order to organize among soldiers. ASU developed chapters in bases at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and Fort Benning, Georgia, and offered legal assistance to servicemen in support of GI rights. An increasing number of GIs also applied for C.O. status while in the service. Even if denied, their applications backed up the military courts and sometimes delayed deployment orders. At the Oakland Army Base, a primary embarkation point for Vietnam, the Pacific Counseling Service aided GIs in filling out C.O. applications, resulting in 1,200 soldiers successfully delaying their deployment orders by March 1, 1970.
Open dissent on U.S. military bases slowly emerged. The first public act of defiance came on June 30, 1966, when three privates issued a public statement declaring their refusal to ship out to Vietnam on the grounds that the war was “immoral, illegal, and unjust.” The “Fort Hood Three” were court-martialed in September and sentenced to three to five year prison terms. In October, Army doctor Howard Levy refused to train Green Beret medics at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, asserting that Special Forces units were responsible for war crimes in Vietnam.
Many protests combined opposition to the war with some tangible concern such as university cooperation with the Selective Service System, military and CIA recruiters on campus, the presence of ROTC, or contracts with the Pentagon or Dow Chemical (the Pentagon distributed about $1 billion annually to universities for research projects). The draft, or conscription, made the war impossible to ignore.
In the most serious incident, 20 to 30 demonstrators slipped through lines of U.S. marshals and military policeman and into a small vestibule inside the office of the Pentagon’s Mall entrance. Once inside they encountered heavily armed troops. The troops, carrying rifles with sheathed bayonets, used gun butts to force some outside and carried others out bodily. Blood was spotted on the floor. Outside, the big crowd surged forward and began throwing what they had at hand – picket signs, magazines, leaflets, sticks and at least one rock which crashed through a Pentagon press room window…. Throughout the afternoon there were sporadic encounters between small groups and the troops. Several demonstrators were clubbed when they pressed too close to troop lines or refused to move out of forbidden sectors.
Liberal, leftist, and pacifist groups all supported mass demonstrations, but differences arose as to the degree of confrontation. Demonstration organizers decided early on to separate civil disobedience actions, such as sit-ins and the burning of draft cards, from main events. Disorder and violence nevertheless erupted in a number of demonstrations due to an untoward mix of rowdy individuals, leftist militants, aggressive counter-demonstrators, government agent provocateurs, and repressive policing. The Johnson and Nixon administrations, for their part, welcomed unruly behavior as it undermined the movement’s public image and allowed them to claim the moral high ground – standing up for law, order, and decency – even as they unleashed wholesale violence in Vietnam.
The liberal wing of the antiwar movement, represented by groups such as SANE, WSP, Student Peace Union, and Americans for Democratic Action, supported détente, diplomacy, and demilitarization of the Cold War, paying particular attention to the nuclear arms race. Liberal peace groups worked to build a broad-based movement, gain positive media attention, and influence members of Congress – all essential elements of movement-building. At the same time, they tended to narrow their vision and political goals to what was feasible within the American context, which fell short of what was needed to achieve peace in the international context. The unwillingness of liberal peace groups to support U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam not only divided the antiwar movement but also constituted a missed opportunity to combine domestic peace efforts with international diplomatic efforts led by UN Secretary-General U Thant, which were based on the Geneva formula. According to the historian Milton Katz:
King suggested “five concrete things that our government should do to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict.” These included ending all bombing in North and South Vietnam; declaring a unilateral cease-fire; curtailing the U.S. military buildup in Thailand and interference in Laos; accepting the National Liberation Front in negotiations; and setting “a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva Agreement.”