At 5:20am on November 9, 1965, a young member of the Catholic Worker group, Roger LaPorte, sat on the landing of the Swords into Ploughshares staircases opposite the United Nations building. Shivering slightly in the brisk autumn dawn, LaPorte poured gasoline from a two-gallon can over himself and ignited it. He died thirty hours later at Bellevue Hospital. Tom Cornell, a leading peace activist of the group, wrote of his death:
Roger was conscious and lucid for hours. He was not in pain; his nerve endings had been burned off. He spoke to the police and the ambulance attendants, saying, “I am a Catholic Worker. I am anti-war, all wars. I did this as a religious action… all the hatred in the world… I picked this hour so no one could stop me.” He spoke to the doctors and to several priests and to a nun. He made his last confession, and received the anointing of the sick and dying.1
Ironically, exactly twelve hours after LaPorte’s immolation the lights went out in Manhattan in the greatest power failure in the history of the northeast. Though LaPorte’s incident had been overshadowed by the events which took place later on in the day, the two events symbolized a greater darkness quickly befalling the nation–American military involvement in Viet Nam.
It is now seventeen years since the last U.S. combat troops departed Viet Nam. No single event in the nation’s history has had such a dramatic impact. For well over ten years the American public was torn between allegiance to the flag and opposition to the war. Families were bitterly divided in debating the virtues of the war. In particular, fathers, many of them veterans, implored their sons to respect the Constitution and what it stood for. Sons, reluctant to be drafted to fight in war, questioned why; some went so far as to encourage their fathers to read Thomas Hardy’s prophetic poem, “The Man He Killed.”
“Had he and I but met
By some old ancient in,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!
“But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place
“I shot him dead because–
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although
“Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat, if met where any bar is
Or help to half-a-crown.”2
Heated passions and angry disagreement ran deep.
During the period when U.S. military involvement in Viet Nam and the opposition were both mounting, a great many things were happening at once in the United States: sharp and sudden changes between the races; the passage of progressive legislation that had been pending since the 1930s, followed by a frustrating failure to put it into effect and make it work; a new readiness to question the most accepted institutions and principles; a spontaneous movement among the young to change society, then to reject it; a heightening of passions on all sides to the point where charges of treason and of genocide were not only casually made but widely believed; a growing atmosphere of violence culminating in urban riots; street battles between police and protestors; the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy; and, finally, distrust of government due to the Watergate scandal. All of these things played a part in public attitudes toward the war and, in varying degrees, were even consequences of the war. A history of that period must be a history of the passions it aroused and the manner in which they finally forced a deeply reluctant nation to recognize the fact of the war, to face the doubts it had raised, and finally to reject it.3
The activities of those millions who expressed public opposition to Washington’s involvement in the U.S.-Indochinese War are well worth remembering, for they succeeded through their efforts in affecting both the conduct of U.S. war policies and the national self-image itself. There is no need to doubt the abiding belief held by peace-seekers in the 1960s that victory on Washington’s terms in Viet Nam would be worse for the U.S. and world peace than any foreseeable alternative. “Victory in a war such as the United States is waging in Vietnam would demean our country more than defeat,” The Nation asserted in 1965. “That is the crux of the opposition.”4
What about those millions who protested? Is it not time to examine objectively and comprehensively the impact of antiwar actions during the Viet Nam conflict? One point must be made clear from the start, however. The opponents of the war found it always difficult, and often impossible, to agree on the best way of opposing it. One reason for this dissension within dissension was that the war was actually a secondary issue to many of the organizations most active in trying to end it. The dozen or so minor socialist and revolutionary groups in the United States made no secret of their primary interest in bringing down capitalism. The civil rights organizations were more concerned with injustice at home than war abroad. “I am not looked upon as an equal citizen in everyday life,” said a black activist named John Otis Dumrall in December, 1966. “Why am I looked upon as an equal citizen when it comes time for me to report for induction?… I would feel just like the KKK over there. Denying those people freedom of choice, just like black people are denied freedom of choice in the U.S.”5
Student groups were worried about the draft, and were especially prone to bruising ideological struggles on points of purely theoretical interest. Traditional peace organizations like SANE (Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy) and the Committee for Nonviolent Action were obsessed with being “responsible,” which generally meant trying to come up with an alternative Viet Nam policy which might conceivably be accepted by those in power.6
From time to time all those groups could be coaxed into uneasy and temporary agreement on a single slogan or course of action, but most of the time they were pulling in their own directions for their own reasons.
The inevitable struggles over strategy and purpose were never fully resolved. Despite uneasy and temporary alliances, antiwar factions attacked each other more fiercely than they attacked the war itself. There remained throughout the war’s duration a contest between the New Left and the Old Left for control of the antiwar movement. The Old Left, led principally by the Trotskyists, wanted to build a mass movement around the single issue of the war, while the Students for a Democratic Society, and the New Left in general, favored an attempt to create a broad radical movement which would emphasize other issues along with the war.7
In the end it would be the Trotskyists who proved to be the most tireless opponents of the war. Their ideological rigor set the terms of debate within the movement, and one reason the SDS, for instance, eventually declared itself Marxist-Leninist was that Old Left groups like the Trotskyists took a hard revolutionary position. To prove its commitment, the New Left felt itself forced to do the same. One long-time “unrepentant radical,” the late Sidney Lens had this observation: “The Trotskyists were by no means the dominant force… but they were vocal, disciplined, and they had outmaneuvered the communists and pacifists to assert a dominant position…. The Trotskyists boasted a younger and more vigorous membership, and their contribution to the movement was serious and sizable.”8
Yet, despite such tactical and philosophical diversity, the antiwar movement survived. What enabled the movement to present an image of unanimity and consensus on the surface while below confusion and disagreement reigned supreme? The answer lies in the forces of coalitions formed throughout the years of antiwar protest. In fact, the most significant characteristic of the antiwar movement was its ability to coalesce and form new coalitions when confronted with varying situations. Unlike any previous peace movement in United States history, opposition to the Viet Nam war was based on a tenuous alliance between peace liberals critical of the immorality of Lyndon Johnson’s cold war policies and radical pacifists and leftists who perceived a connection between the Indochina war and domestic injustice and racial poverty.
Several distinguishing features differentiated this peace movement from previous ones. First, forcible resistance represented the movement’s loss of faith in the electoral wisdom of the United States public. It also illustrated the growing radicalization of the movement. Attempts to disrupt the war machinery were sometimes accompanied by violence. The surprising feature of this antiwar movement was not the erratic actions of a few, but that after years of frustration, the movement was still vital. Few American mass movements of such intensity have had such a history.
Second, the movement was unique in the history of American antiwar groups in the number of its activists. While comparable numbers of United States citizens opposed the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and World War I, never before were hundreds of thousands willing to take to the streets so urgently. Compared to the decade that preceded it, the 1960s and early 1970s were years of political turmoil and the antiwar movement was at the center along with the civil rights protests.
Third, the movement was also distinguished by its comprehensive nature. The protestors were as heterogeneous as American society. Small town demonstrations were likely to include housewives, business executives, doctors, dentists, ministers, and workers. Demonstrations in large cities added students, college professors, bohemians, clergy, teachers, veterans in uniform, and show-business celebrities. A number of retired generals spoke against the war as did even a handful of United States senators. The opponents of the war of 1812, on the contrary, were geographically centered almost entirely in New England; Mexican War opponents derived from abolitionist and Free Soil movements; and the opponents of World War I were chiefly from certain specific ethnic and politically radical groups.9
Finally, a point worth reiterating, while antiwar groups were traditionally suspicious of one another, they cooperated closely in this cause. At the movement’s grassroots, antiwar groups from pacifists to liberals viewed collaboration with American communists as far less heinous than the actions of their government and the indolence of the American people. Pacifists and political moderates saw the presence of racial activists or anarchists in their ranks as a tactical handicap but regarded the cause of ending the war as worth the association.
Opposition to the war was tragically dramatized on March 16, 1965, shortly after President Johnson announced the bombing of North Viet Nam and major troop increases. That day 82-year-old Alice Herz, a survivor of the Nazi terror, set herself on fire in Detroit. She lingered in the hospital for ten days before dying. Eight months later, two other self-immolations occurred–Quaker Norman Morrison set himself afire before the Pentagon and his two-year-old daughter on November second, and Roger LaPorte followed him seven days later. The actions of the self-immolators prompted the distinguished peace leader A.J. Muste to comment sarcastically: “But ours is a society composed of people who somehow feel that… the deaths of hundreds, thousands, millions in war is… somehow normal, human, civilized…. Even more, this is a society in which people contemplate, for the most part calmly, the self-immolation of the whole of mankind in a nuclear holocaust.”10
The self-immolations, Muste intoned, would have been open to criticism if they had occurred in a society which valued human life. But in 1965 more than just people were burning. “Great Society” or not, black anger against both racial injustice at home and war abroad burst into the open. Buildings and stores were systematically destroyed as millions of Americans perceived a connection between Washington’s war in Indochina and its failure to overcome poverty and social injustice at home. In August 1965, the nation watched in horror as the black Watts community of Los Angeles destroyed millions of dollars worth of property. Quickly, civil rights leader Robert Parris (Moses), and pacifists David Dellinger and Staughton Lynd organized the Assembly of Unrepresented People in an effort to fuse together the civil rights and peace movements.11
A symbiotic relationship was thus formed which emphasized social injustice as an outgrowth of war. This union led to the creation of the National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam; its headquarters was located in Madison, Wisconsin. The NCCEWV assisted local antiwar groups involving close to 100,000 people in demonstrating against the war during the October 15-16 “International Days of Protest”–less than a month before the immolations of Morrison and LaPorte. Some of the rallies consisted of draft card burning, now a federal felony due to recent congressional legislation.12
By the time of Morrison’s and LaPorte’s deaths, full-scale opposition to the war was well underway. On November 27 SANE, recharged by the war, sponsored a march on Washington for peace in Viet Nam. Two new groups, the pacifist Catholic Peace Fellowship and the interfaith Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, joined SANE’s antiwar march. Publicized as “A Call to Mobilize the Conscience of America,” the action attracted an estimated crowd of 35,000 “moderate and respectable” war protestors. SANE-approved signs dominated the picket lines and read: “Stop the Bombings,” “Respect 1954 Geneva Accords,” “War Erodes the Great Society,” and “Self-Determination–Vietnam for the Vietnamese.” In this way it strove to moderate both the demonstration’s tone and to preserve its general atmosphere of dignity and restraint.13
This period also witnessed vocal opposition to the war by some notable Americans. I.F. Stone, the respected journalist, called for an immediate withdrawal. Senator Ernest Gruening (D-Alaska), political theorist Hans Morgenthau, George F. Kennan, father of the United States containment policy, pediatrician Benjamin Spock, and retired Lt. General James Gavin either called for a ceasefire and negotiated settlement or urged the Johnson Administration to limit the United States military role in Viet Nam and turn the war over the the Vietnamese. What was so repulsive to these critics was the indiscriminate employment of bombings which killed innocent civilians as well as the view of those in power that government has a right to deceive its citizens.
Their respectable protest coincided with the antiwar “teach-ins” that swept through the nation’s colleges and universities. Having supported Johnson in 1964 as the “peace candidate,” many faculty members and students felt betrayed as he adopted the Viet Nam war policies of his opponent, Barry Goldwater. On March 24th an all-night teach-in at the University of Michigan attracted 3,000 participants. It touched off a series of teach-ins across the United States during the remainder of the year. “We are using our power to thwart and abort an indigenous social and political revolution,” charged Professor William Appleman Williams at the University of Wisconsin. Speaking at the University of Oregon, Senator Wayne Morse predicted: “Twelve months from tonight there will be hundreds of thousands of American boys fighting in Southeast Asia–and tens of thousands of them will be coming home in coffins.” At the University of Michigan, Arthur Waskow of the Institute for Policy Studies, condemning militarism and conscription, cited Jefferson on slavery: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is Just.” Artists, writers, and intellectuals were in the forefront of the protest.14
The student antiwar movement that formed around the Viet Nam war, moreover, displayed some significant departures from previous antiwar student activism. It was prompted by neither internationalist nor pacifist sentiments, although its critique of American society contained many of their combined objectives. For instance, the movement that emerged was not as dependent on “parent groups” such as the Communist or Socialist Parties or the Fellowship of Reconciliation as were earlier movements like those of the thirties. A new group of young antiwar “antiheroes” led the movement as part of the incipient revolt against the older generation. The war became a vehicle for criticizing the society their parents had built. Noticeably, the 1960s marked the era of “obstructive demonstration” and a new tactical approach of “violence for violence” to counter warmaking attempts. Finally, unlike previous wars, the Viet Nam war did not weaken student protest, but rather invigorated it. The antiwar movement among students in the 1960s had more significant political impact than any of the earlier student movements.15
The student antiwar movement which emerged in 1965 represented a marked departure from the respectability of passive nonresistance. The idea that students might become the “radical agency of change” characterized their new approach to society’s problems. Violent acts in opposition to the United States war machine were regularly advocated by student leaders. Ironically, though opposed to war in principle, their violent tactics proved upsetting to mainstream U.S. peace groups seeking military disengagement. Traditional pacifist concerns–a commitment to principled nonviolence for meaningful social change and a condemnation of all wars and violence as destroyers of physical and spiritual life–were subsumed by the radical students’ search for a common course upon which to build a mass movement on behalf of social reform.
The strategy of building coalitions against the war continued early in 1966. In February the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade Committee, organized by Muste, and the NCCEWV in New York brought out 5,000 pickets to oppose the presentation of a Freedom House Award to Lyndon Johnson. The following month between 20,000 and 25,000 marchers came together at its call to participate in another international protest action under the auspices of the National Committee. Led by a sizeable contingent of disillusioned American war veterans and Afro-Americans against the war, parade participants were a racially and politically mixed lot. At a rally in Central Park Mall, Muste, Viet Nam war veteran Donald Duncan, and writer Norman Mailer attacked Johnson’s war. They were also harassed by hecklers and egg-throwers, of course.16
A month later, under CNVA sponsorship, Muste, veteran activists Barbara Deming, Brad Lyttle, and Karl Meyer, outspoken antiwar scientists William Davidson, and peace-movement novice Sherry Thurber, flew to Saigon to show the Vietnamese that some Americans opposed the war. The Americans held cordial meetings with the underground South Vietnamese peace movement, but were harassed by Vietnamese youth at public meetings. The peace contingent believed the harassment had been ordered by the South Vietnamese government, with the approval of the United States. Thus they returned home to eliminate the chance of further misunderstandings.17
Tax resistance also became a popular tool to oppose the war. In 1966, the federal telephone tax was raised, and in a rare moment of candor, the federal government admitted that the additional money would be used to help subsidize the war. Peacemakers, War Resisters League, CNVA, and other peace groups urged nonpayment of this tax. The IRS’s discomfort with the burgeoning movement grew, and as the government’s reprisals became more frequent, the need for legal information within the tax resistance community became manifest. In 1969 War Tax Resistance was formed. Under the leadership of Bob and Angie Calvert, it devoted itself to all the aspects and ramifications of conscientious tax refusal. WTR’s first press conference included Allen Ginsberg’s reading of a tax resistance poem, and Pete Seeger’s musical plea for peace.
One interesting tactic of tax resistance was for an individual to claim enough dependents on his or her form to prevent an employer from withholding any income taxes. Unfortunately, this tactic brought particularly strong counteraction by the government and a number of people were prosecuted and imprisoned, including a 64-year-old grandmother named Martha Tranquilli.
The popular singer Joan Baez symbolized her protest by establishing a small school in California’s Carmel Valley, the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence.18
This unconventional school performed ballet exercises to Beatles records, discussed the works of Gandhi, Thoreau, and Marshall McLuhan, and conducted periods of total silence “for clearing your mind of personal hangups.” While noteworthy from a physical and cerebral point of view, the nonconformity of Baez’s school tended to attract numbers of young people identified as “hippies.”