The youth of the mid-1960’s marched, struggled, scrapped, battled, and skirmished until they effected fundamental change to the way government worked. These young upstarts with ideals shined a strong beam of light down the mighty hole that was the CIA, opened the secret files of the FBI, challenged the federal government’s accounts of events, and ended the draft. They were an icon of the Cold War (1947-1991); the anti-Vietnam War protesters who waged their own counter insurgency. And, they made a difference. What Allen Ginsberg began with his poem Howl in 1955, the protesters punctuated in the ‘60s. The dissenters of yesteryear would be livid about the level of personal surveillance; scream at the lies of congress as well as the administration; furious over the diversionary wars and rumors of wars; and challenge the GMO threat to the food supply.
Where are they now? They can’t all be dead. Did they betray their principles? Did they quit? Some, I know, are still committed and fighting, through their words or deeds, but there are precious few of them. These anti-Vietnam War protesters were born of leftist intellectuals on college campuses and peace activists. They in no way resemble the progressive left of today. I cannot imagine an activist from the Vietnam era, for instance, tolerating a law providing a criminal penalty for annoying a police officer let alone tolerating the NSA turning its Cold War spying apparatus inward, countenancing photographing the front and back of every letter sent via the USPS, or allowing warrantless searches. In their own way and for their own reasons, the Vietnam war protesters fought and died for the first and fourth amendments of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
I was not among the protestors. In fact, I completely disagree with many of the things they did. I hated the way individual soldiers were treated for doing what they were drafted to do or chose to do. My choices took my life’s path in a different direction. Having starved under the most of the world’s available socio-political-economic systems, I became a committed capitalist. Having a full belly, roof over my head, and the ability to succeed or fail in life within my power and hard work, appealed to me. It still does. I spent the bulk of my professional career as a cold war warrior and enjoyed it unashamedly. Sitting on the other side of the protests, however, taught me to look at the world differently. I learned to appreciate what they achieved and respected them for what they did.
The protests started quietly enough, as a series of ‘teach-ins’ organized by the Students for a Democratic Society in the fall of 1964 after the Gulf of Tonkin (Vịnh Bắc Bộ) incidents. For those who are too young to remember, The Gulf of Tonkin incident was actually two naval actions between North Vietnam and the United States in the Gulf of Tonkin. The first incident, on August 2, 1964, involved a sea battle between the destroyer, U.S.Maddox, and three North Vietnamese Navy torpedo boats. The second incident occurred on August 4, 1964 and was originally reported as another sea battle. Based on these incidents, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. President Johnson used the Resolution as the basis to ramp up the Vietnam conflict. Finally, in November, 2005, the NSA declassified a 2001 article with a revised ‘corrected’ version of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The world learned that the allegations of the first of the anti-war protesters were more accurate than the spin provided by the federal government.
Johnson fueled the war in Vietnam and, by 1967, nearly 40,000 young American men were being drafted each month. By then, over 15,000 soldiers had died and about 110,000 had been wounded. At the time of this snap shot over 500,000 troops were in Vietnam. Many of those veterans are my friends. Bear in mind that this is all occurring in a country that had no declared war and no legal provision for a standing military. The federal government’s spin began to backfire. Citizens across the country asked questions and demanded answers. No longer was it just the leftist fringe on college campuses who were protesting.
On October 21, 1967, the Lincoln Memorial hosted over 100,000 protesters. It was one of the largest and most contentious protests of the war. There was a nasty confrontation with U.S. Marshals and members of the military that night when several thousand demonstrators tried to carry their protest to the Pentagon. Norman Mailer wrote about that night in his book, The Armies of the Nigth, which was published in 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. joined the burgeoning anti-war cause in 1967, when he opposed the war on moral grounds. King leveled solid, eloquent complaints about the cost of the war in dollars and lives. In his 1967 speech, A Time to Break the Silence, he denounced the reallocation of federal dollars from domestic programs and attacked the disproportionate number of African-Americans who were dying in the war.
By 1968, President Johnson was running for cover. In 2004, I taped about fourteen hours of interviews with Raúl Héctor Castro at his office in Nogales, Arizona. Castro was the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador in 1964. During the interviews he told me that, in 1968, he had hosted President Johnson for a Central American conference. Johnson, it seems, needed a break from the heat of Vietnam in the U.S. He needed a success and he needed it fast. Castro spoke of paying a large group to people, who looked like the country’s workers, to carry signs welcoming President Johnson and professing their love for him as a photo opportunity. He also talked of the challenges of gathering the heads of state of the other Central American governments for a conference to be led by Johnson. The pressure from the people of the U.S. was having an effect. The substance of Castro’s memory is collaborated by a declassified CIA Intelligence Assessment.
By 1970 anger on both sides of the protest movement was reaching another boiling point. At the end of April, 1970, President Nixon announced another front in the Vietnam War, the Cambodian campaign. On May 4th, 1970, the Ohio National guard opened a volley of 67 rounds on a group of war protestors at the Kent State campus; killing four and permanently paralyzing another. Not all killed were a part of the protests.
The terrible shooting at Kent State shocked the nation but the Vietnam War and the protests continued for another two years. Pressure on Nixon increased to a breaking point; Vietnam had to be resolved. By 1972, it was clear that the U.S. had to get out of Vietnam. Nixon, through Henry Kissinger, initiated secret peace talks. Meanwhile, U.S. soldiers continued to die, sustain injuries, and be drafted while US forces applied heavy bombing pressure on North Vietnam’s major cities of Hanoi and Haiphong. The last man was drafted in December, 1972.
A cease-fire agreement received its final touches and the proper signatures in Paris in 1972; all US troops left Vietnam; and Henry Kissinger took home the Nobel Peace Prize. While the protests lasted only five years, the U.S. that emerged from Vietnam was different. The political path was one of conciliation. Laws were passed eliminating the draft, the FBI was forced to disclose its secret files on individuals, and the CIA was handcuffed. Yet, here we are back in the business of secret files on individuals, the CIA running amuck with its drones, and the government spinning tales rather than telling the truth and being accountable for its actions. Well, as of now the U.S. still has no draft. That indeed is good news. Still, the voices from the past raised in outrage against today’s excesses are mostly missing. They need to be heard again and joined with the voices already singing out. More than once, the people have taken back the Republic that is the United States. Vietnam is simply the most recent event; a reminder that citizens are the responsible body politic, the sovereign.