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.

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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.

I recommend the book wholeheartedly; it raises all the right questions and even answers some.

The following is a Q&A with author Penny Lews: 

Jane McAlevey: You chose this really interesting topic for a book, what in your background made you interested in challenging the dominant narrative about the antiwar movement?

Penny Lewis: I grew up in NYC. My parents are highly moral people and very community engaged people. They are the kind of people who would stop a fight on the street, yell at somebody who they thought was doing the wrong thing, get themselves involved in situations without even thinking if they thought an injustice was happening. They were highly engaged community people. I can’t really describe their politics, they are left of liberal but it’s more complicated than that, they were not and are not particularly ideological but they have strong moral convictions.

I grew up with them involved in parent stuff, we had a community garden and my mother probably started or led 10 voluntary organizations. They were involved in our coop. I grew up in a Mitchell Lama housing development in NYC and they were very involved in Mitchell Lama politics. All of these experiences shaped my politics.  And very specifically on this book, my Dad’s family was all military, and also both of my parents served in the military. My Dad was in the army and my mom was in the air force.

And, they were opposed to Vietnam, and everyone around me was opposed to Vietnam.  And I grew up near the VA hospital on 23rd street so we had a lot of vets in the neighborhood and who helped on the community garden that my parents started and so my own personal impressions about what it meant to be antiwar was very much that veterans are antiwar and that people who are pro military are antiwar. I had a lifetime of experience of living in a slightly different reality about war and I think this sensitized me to the mythic character of who is antiwar.

JM: Did you become a scholar to write about antiwar movements?

PL: I had a long history of left activism since before college through the time I got to graduate school. I was very interested in the issue of who is in social movements today and what the class cultures are of today’s social movements. But a story that I frequently confronted when I started as a grad student, is the story of new social movements being middle class in character and in orientation; that these social movements were post scarcity movements, and I was aware of the divides that existed and appeared to exist between the environmental movement and the labor movement. I was highly invested in the labor movement being successful and a powerful vector for social change and equality.

I decided I wanted to study labor and the environment. I wanted to see the extent to which these two movements could work together, but also to more closely examine the obstacles. I was influenced by big 1999 Seattle anti World Trade Organization (WTO) movement, a breakthrough of sorts. So I studied labor, social movements, and environmental sociology and was completely ready to have labor and the environment as my doctoral project. I took my orals on September 7th, 2001. Four days later, everything changed and I started working within the antiwar movement as an activist from my union. I basically took all the same questions I was examining but decided to instead look at the peace movement. I thought I would rather have a historical appreciation for what’s happening here. So I started talking to people I was working with, first with NYC Labor Against the War, then with people in US Labor Against the War. These are labor union orientated groups and I began to ask people about their experiences with the Vietnam War. I thought if I looked at antiwar activism historically, it would help me understand the present.

JM:What’s the top lesson for today’s movements?

PL: Today’s movements need to stop having preconceived notions of who will or won’t support the cause, and, set out with the broadest possible goals of who to involve from day one. Stereotypes of working class conservatism disabled the early antiwar movement because it prevented activists from making better connections among working class communities. This isn’t to say it would have been easy, but that some of the stereotypes didn’t get challenged and could have been pushed aside.

It’s not easy to build cross-class or intraclass coalitions on different issues. And of course, it’s not just class that’s difficult; it’s not easy to build diverse movements. The ways that different groups come at their connection to an issue looks different depending on where you come from and what your experiences are and who you trust and who you don’t and how you think change happens. People committed to building strong movements need to be flexible listeners and facilitators in order to draw out those differences. We have so much that unites us across all these differences but we don’t communicate well. We don’t bridge the gulfs in experience and in language or in ideas about how to make change. So I think that people building movements today from every angle need to be aware of these gulfs and need to learn better ways to bridge them.

Working class people have traditionally opposed wars in this country. When I look at the peace movement that I was a part of, the ways in which the peace movement blindly supported John Kerry was really troubling to me. Kerry was a real hero of the antiwar movement, back during the war. He was amazing during Vietnam in many respects. But then he ran completely distancing himself from any part of that old John Kerry. And he’s a total Boston Brahmin, the most alienating Democratic figure in a million ways, incredibly elite and elitist; not an antiwar candidate. And, the movement just saw getting rid of Bush as its complete mission. But in a peace movement, you have to be thinking how is my movement broadening, who is it connecting with well, and how can we make this movement as powerful as it can be? Kerry wasn’t the right choice.

JM: What can we be doing better?

PL: The economic draft, the issue of why people join the military, is the obvious issue we need to wrestle with. Aside from family tradition, the incentive for people to get into the military is because they need money and jobs, and they need access to college and benefits. We need to really think through what does that mean for today’s wars and who is going into the military and who is being killed. Some of the best recent antiwar work was the military families speak outs and gold star medal movements and of course Cindy Sheehan going to Crawford. She was incredibly effective and did start that connection and great for Cindy Sheehan and all the family organizations that were starting to do that. But I don’t think UFPJ and the more mainstream movement organizations were doing that work the way we could have been. 

JM: There’s starting to be activism around drones, but the issue of the economic implications of the automation of war hasn’t been taken up, has it?

PL: We need way more discussions about drones, period. I don’t accept the either/or of labor intensive warfare vs automated warfare, we need to shift the entire conversation to one of conversion. We have to get past the industrial military complex and convert the extraordinary final resources we spend on destruction and militarization and convert this money to green jobs, to all the people who need good jobs. To be clear I don’t think there’s enough organizing around drones, but to the extent that we are organizing around automated warfare, linking it to the question of automation and how this plays out in the lives of people in U.S. is important. We have to lift up the conversion demand because automation will strip some of the only jobs that come with a pension and benefits, assuming you survive the war. We also need to lift up the struggle with the Veterans Administration both because vets deserve better care, but also because the rightwing is using it as a wedge issue.

JM: One of the things you challenge well in your book is the notion that the working class, or, workers, are what you called “white, goods producing, men.” There’s still too much mythic symbolism about “oh, can we just go back to the days when white, beefy men could pull a leverl and go on strike.” Is the imagery of who a worker is today any better than the sixties?

PL: It’s evolved, but in some places there’s still an inaccurate short hand that’s used but I think that the racialization of the class is more explicit today. People now talk about the white working class as being more conservative. I think forty years ago people just said the working class was more conservative and now they say the white working class. And, I think it was the Vietnam period when this began to be challenged. It was in the sixties that we began to see unions organizing in the public sector and stronger unions beginning to be built in the service sector, and just the sheer diversity of these working classes began to challenge the image of the white working class. We’ve also lost a ton of those white male workers with deindustrialization, trade, and, more.

JM: Is the white working class a more conservative?

PL: Yes, I do think racially speaking white workers are more conservative. But I also think that like any of these categories, white workers look different in different parts of the country, and look different if they are organized into a union versus if they are not, and its difficult and shortsighted to purely generalize.

I think that one of the main reasons the Republicans can wedge white workers right now is because the Democrats and Labor are not doing an effective job representing working class interests. They aren’t framing the problems of the day with effective class character, there’s little difference from either party on questions of jobs and the economy. This provides an opportunity for what Thomas Franks talks about, the values voters, when there’s no economic platform around which we can coalesce a different kind of political grouping. So what we can do, the movement, because the Democrats won’t do it, is that we have to link the economic just demands that are at the core of how we envision a better society but make the strong arguments that these same economic demands mean we have to be anti-racist  and feminist and supportive of rights of gay people to marry and all the anti-oppressive values that get challenged by the Republican values work. 

We need a very strong economic platform, but I don’t know who the we is anymore. The language of the AFL-CIO is worlds improved to what it was 40 years ago, and the language and frames have finally caught up with what the labor left was pushing forty years ago but the labor movement has nothing like the power we used to have back then. And, I think the AFL-CIO should stop wasting all its money on national elections and instead spend its money talking with and listening and bringing people together across localities, issues, diversities, etc. We need national organizations and networks but the amount of money spent on chasing these national elections is bananas and imagine what could happen if these resources were being poured into ground up organizing?

JM: How does this book relate to the need for unions and greens to hook up in a serious way on climate change and the worsening ecological crisis?

PL: Unions are in a bind because they represent workers who want jobs and want to keep their jobs, and they represent workers who are displaced and recently lost jobs and who see the construction of a pipeline or fracking or all kinds of energy development jobs as great jobs that will keep them in their houses for another year and allow them to buy presents for their kids or send their kids to camp or just get child care. All workers want to provide for their family. But our model for what that kind of growth and what the direction is for our economy is suicidal for the planet and the communities involved. And yet beyond the Steel Workers union, no industrial unions have had strong conversations internally or worked hard externally to confront the question of at what cost do we create jobs? It’s safe to say there hasn’t been nearly enough of these kinds of hard conversations.

Given how weak the labor movement is right now, and how high the stakes of climate change are, I think labor doesn’t have that much to lose and would benefit if it dived into the climate change and green jobs debate way more robustly. Building an alternative economic model that involves uncritical support for clean energy, for infrastructure development and that calls for jobs that are not destructive  of the world seems like a no brainer despite how completely hard and risky that would be. But I blame this partly on the national environmental groups who have framed this without attention to jobs and conversion and who have put workers and unions into a terrible and false choice, paychecks versus poverty.

If the environmental movement doesn’t put good jobs at the center of their demands, it’s not going to go anywhere.

JM: You end the book touching on #OWS. I’ve heard that you’ve been doing some research on #OWS, too, any closing thoughts on this?

PL: For the first time really in eighty years, #OWS started with an economic question and raised inequality and class within a left social movement. That’s a little cut and dry,  people have been talking about economic inequality all through the social movements we have seen erupt, but not with that being the main focus. This was incredible to watch, and it was very popular and #OWS had support all over the country. It outpaces support for the Tea Party in lots of surprising places. Because of my deep research into the anti-Vietnam war movement, I was less surprised than others at how quickly the Occupy message spread. One of the key points of my book is the extent to which people have hardened and rigid ideas about how people think and how they will react and have wrong we often are. With #OWS, the media narrative was about hippies, and strangeness, and drums, and hippy hair, and the media tried to do all the things that the media does to disparage and push aside and mock a lot of social movements. But despite that, and, despite the fact that a lot of people fit that description, the points that Occupy was making cut through those images for a whole lot of people. If we want to wedge in the other direction, Occupy showed us the salience of a lot of economic questions. There are a lot of weaknesses to Occupy, but the salience of the message is powerful.

Jane McAlevey is the author of Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement, now out in paperback (Verso, 2014).