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Important Lessons from the Vietnam Anti-War Movement

A Q&A with author Penny Lewis on her new book examining working class opposition to the Vietnam War.

Photo Credit: spirit of america /


A new book examining working class opposition to the Vietnam War, Hardhats, Hippies and Hawks (Cornell University Press, 2013), by Penny Lewis, is a timely and important book filled with lessons for today’s labor, peace and especially, environmental movements. She unpacks the myth that working class Americans supported the Vietnam War. A fiction created by Nixon and the Republicans in service to the industrial military complex. The book’s subhead, "The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory," challenges the constructed narrative of the antiwar movement and focuses our attention on the motivations of those who created the false storyline. Though the research for and origins of her book were the subject of her doctoral dissertation, the book is a good read, accessible to all. She argues that in the early years of the antiwar movement, the formal organizations that opposed the war were dominated by middle class and often college students, but that shifts dramatically in the later years. And, had the early activists reached out to broader audiences, like workers, the movement could have been more successful, much sooner. She examines the many characters and films about Vietnam, from Gump to Platoon and everything in between, and compares Hollywood to reality. The book documents the particularly important contribution to end the war made by Chicano and Black movements.

Lewis explains the crucial role of the active duty and Vietnam veterans during the war. Anyone who has successfully gotten Vietnam vets to open up and discuss the war will not be surprised by the stories Lewis recounts. But most will be surprised at the sheer volume of everyday acts of resistance by warriors trying to save themselves and their coworkers, and, get out of Vietnam altogether. The key turning points in the war were the veterans as they came home, themselves suffering mightily. This brings us to the present in the USA, and why Lewis’ book is so timely. With two absurd wars raging, and at least theoretically one hundred thousand vets coming home (we are told), what are progressives doing to engage vets? Today’s movements err in the same ways the movements in the sixties did, with veterans sort of sitting all by themselves. A constituency largely ignored by social movements.

And yet, according to all polling, it’s veterans who support government and see paying taxes as their patriotic duty. There’s no better messenger for a pro-government and pro-taxes narrative then the women and men who have worn a US uniform. As an organizer-turned-doctoral graduate student myself, now significantly removed from the day-to-day of forging decisions in our movements, I have repeatedly asked almost every organization I know of and work with the following question: Why aren’t you working with today’s new veterans? They have no economy, the automation of the war through the use of drones is going to increase the jobless rate for working class families that used to rely on military jobs, and veterans are a unique voice in both calling to end war and support government. They are skilled in the art of battle, often making them an asset in union and other campaigns. They are resilient against employers and politicians, and aren’t easily pigeonholed as “left” or “progressive” or “communist” the way non-military service people can be by the opposition.

In the context of our enfeebled barely-a-progressive-movement summer I decided to sit down with Lewis to ask her about the lessons for today’s movement that line the pages of her book. Both of Lewis’ parents were in the military, as were both of mine. My father piloted a P-51 Mustang fighter in the 359th Fighter Group, flying 29 missions into Germany during his four years as a fighter pilot in the European Theater during WWII. My mother was a WAVE, the acronym for the US Naval Reserves, Women’s Reserve (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). Within weeks of returning home from WWII, my parents became pacifists and began to volunteer with the Dorothy Day Catholic Workers in NYC. Lewis’ parents were fortunate, signing up for the military just after the Korean War and before the Vietnam War.

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