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Books

Can the People Make the Peace Again?

We can learn a lot from looking back at the peace movement.

Raise your hand if you are a U.S. American and you have lived one single day of your life when the United States government was not killing someone in some foreign country somewhere. I thought so. Very few hands.

The truth is we are a nation of permanent war, except for some short interruptions here and there, we have been ever since “pilgrims” landed in Jamestown in 1608. As much as we don’t like to talk about it, war has been the norm throughout our history.  

And yet, there was an extraordinary time when the people rose up against war in massive numbers, in the 1960s and '70s. That war was in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. As much as the great big forgetting and misremembering machine wants us to think otherwise, there is a lot to be learned from looking back at that movement.  

That’s the assumption behind the recently published book, The People Make the Peace: Lessons From the Vietnam Antiwar Movement (Just World Books) of which I am co-editor and a chapter author. 

What’s the book about? If you just read it as a collection of adventure stories, it’s a pageturner. It is also a work of history—neglected and important history in several ways. And it’s a mythbuster, debunking several falsehoods about the Vietnam antiwar movement. It’s not just the guy’s version either—half of the authors are women. Karin Aguilar San Juan is the co-editor.  

The adventure stories are from and about those who went to Viet Nam during the U.S. war in the 1960s and '70s, either as civilians or soldiers. All of them have been back to Vietnam since. Some of the ex soldiers live there now.

In a war-saturated culture such as our own, isn’t being in a war zone an adventure by definition? Certainly there are zillions of video games, movies, TV shows, and books based on that assumption. Making peace, especially during war is an adventure too. The authors of this book offer plenty of tales of risk and danger both in the U.S. and in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  

One of the writers, Doug Hostetter, a Mennonite, performed his conscientious objector service living in a village in the southern part of Vietnam during the war. Another, Alex Hing, tells of going from being an Asian American rebel in San Francisco to becoming a political activist who traveled in 1970 in a Black Panther group that included Eldridge Cleaver. They went to Algeria, North Korea, Vietnam and  then on to China where they were the first U.S. delegation to visit since the 1949 Chinese revolution.  

Journalist Myra McPherson reports the stories of military veterans who fought in Vietnam and now work to ameliorate the continuing impact of Agent Orange and other dangerous legacies of U.S. war strategy. Rennie Davis writes about his trips to Vietnam, his role in returning POWs home and the opportunity we now have to heal the wounds of war. Judy Gumbo, an original Yippie Girl, reflects on the Vietnam she visited in 1970 and again in 2013. Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, one of the Vietnamese negotiators of the Paris Peace Accords, contributes an afterword to the book.  

Chapters from Jay Craven, Nancy Kurshan, John McAuliff and Becca Wilson add more fascinating personal stories and valuable insights about the anti-war movement and its impact. My own chapter focuses on the connection between the Vietnam war and the history of U.S. racism.  

As for original history, the book tells for the first time the story of the People’s Peace Treaty. That chronicle is important in its own right but also because it highlights an aspect of Vietnam’s strategy for defending itself that has been almost completely ignored.  

Throughout the world the military prowess of the Vietnamese military under the leadership of General Vo Nguyen Giap is widely and correctly celebrated. He successfully led Vietnam’s army not only in the war with the U.S. but also in the earlier anti-colonial struggle against the French. What gets too little attention is Vietnam’s worldwide diplomatic strategy. This book includes a comprehensive history of the dramatic evolution of the People’s Peace Treaty as well as the stories of some the Americans who helped to give it life. It also recounts many encounters between antiwar activists and Vietnamese diplomats including Madame Binh, in Czechoslovakia, Paris,  Montreal, Vietnam and elsewhere.  

That alone is a mythbuster. But it’s not the only one. Contrary to prowar hype, the draft was not the cause of opposition to the war. That’s a right-wing talking point designed to portray opponents to the war as cowards. Ironically, even among tens of millions who opposed the war, it has come to be an accepted truth. But it is completely and totally wrong.  

We know that in many ways. But the simplest can be summed up in one word: Korea. The Korean war also had a draft. That draft also disproportionately affected African Americans and other poor people. Like Vietnam, that war too produced substantial U.S. casualties.  What it did not produce was massive opposition, including widespread draft resistance.  

The importance of the draft resistance movement was not that it caused hostility to the war. Rather the opposition to the war created the environment that produced both draft resistance and massive war opposition within the military. That in turn proved to be an enormously powerful tool to disrupt the war apparatus.  

The book also addresses in multiple ways the decades-long and still active prowar campaign to discredit and stereotype the antiwar movement as portrayed in the movie Forest Gump and elsewhere. The movement’s accomplishments and its failures are honestly addressed throughout the book.  

Last but by no means least,  The People Make the Peace is an expression of hope. Yes, the U.S. war machine is extremely powerful.  Prowar forces thus seem invincible, especially now when we are killing people in so many countries and in so many ways. But it isn’t invincible. The Vietnam antiwar mass movement proves that people can rise up against it. It happened once. It can happen again.  

And as Rennie Davis points out, as we get past being “invisible to one another,” we see that it is already happening again. Millions of Americans are fed up with all-war-all-the-time. The People Make the Peace can help us understand what we can do about it.  

Frank Joyce is a lifelong Detroit based writer and activist.  He is co-editor with Karin Aguilar-San Juan of The People Make The Peace: Lessons From the Vietnam Antiwar Movement

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