8 Essential Lessons We Learned From the Vietnam Antiwar Movement

The Vietnam War is back, suddenly re-appearing in public consciousness on the 50th anniversary of the US escalation and 40thanniversary of the war’s end. In late April PBS aired several documentaries on the war—including My Lai Massacre, Last Days in Vietnam and The Draft. The Nation, Harpers, Mother Jones, AARP,The New Yorker and many other magazines have published feature articles in recent weeks.


This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the first antiwar protests, the beginning of what Howard Zinn described as “the greatest antiwar movement the nation had ever experienced.” Despite the historic scale and impact of that vast struggle, the movement for peace in Vietnam has been erased from history, unremembered and dismissed by those in power.

On May 1st and 2nd more than 800 people gathered in Washington to pay tribute to the antiwar movement with an event entitled, “Vietnam: The Power of Protest.” Marge Tabankin and Heather Booth chaired. Phil Donahue, Juan Gonzales, Amy Goodman and Danny Glover emceed. Tom Hayden, Barbara Lee, Julian Bond, Patricia Schroeder, Ron Dellums and many others spoke. The purpose of the gathering was to recall the lies and deception that led to the war, acknowledge the role of the antiwar movement in helping to end the carnage, and identify the lessons of the war for the future of US policy.

Many different lessons of Vietnam were considered at the Washington event. Here are a few that were drafted by the organizing committee for the “Power of Protest” event.

1.     The Vietnam peace movement must be remembered as having shaken our country to its foundations and for defending democracy against secrecy and bureaucratic tyranny. The people today who want us to forget that the antiwar movement existed are the same people who want us to forget that America lost that war, and who are urging more military involvement and war today.

2.     The paradigm of the Cold War was wrong: Vietnam was not an arm of the Soviet Union, China and the ‘international communist conspiracy.’  It was a communist-led nationalist revolutionary movement with deep popular roots. The same error is made today when the generals and media speak of stopping ‘international terrorism.’ The violence in Iraq and other countries springs at first from local and national grievances against corrupt oligarchs, many of whom are supported by the US and multinational corporations. US intervention cannot prevent these insurgencies and may even add fuel to their flames.

3.     The claim that the American economy could afford both ‘guns and butter’ was false. The Vietnam War distorted the US economy and led to recession and stagflation. America's continuing wars and militarism are unaffordable and siphon funds away from urgent domestic priorities. More military spending means increasing budget deficits and slashing domestic programs for health care, education, and environmental restoration.

4.     The Vietnam War was based on deception –from the Tonkin Gulf "incident" to claims of light at the end of the tunnel. Similar lies—"weapons of mass destruction" and Al-Qaida connections—led to war in Iraq. Fear mongering and distortion are used to justify unnecessary interventions and to coerce Congress and the public into open-ended war authorizations.

5.     The secrecy and deceit of waging war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos undermined democratic accountability and weakened control over the military and the CIA. In today’s seemingly permanent wars against terrorism and insurgency, executive war-making powers have expanded even more and public accountability has eroded further.

6.     The 1973 War Powers Resolution was a partial victory for the peace movement and those who sought to restore constitutional balance to political decision making. That law was cast aside in the rush to wage war against terrorism. Limits on war making should be strengthened and extended to cover drone wars, cyberwarfare, and the CIA/Special Forces operations that have expanded dangerously since 2001.

7.     The war in Vietnam was an assault on the environment. The United States sprayed tens of millions of gallons of herbicides and defoliants over large areas of Vietnam, causing mass suffering and calamitous forced urbanization. Wars are a major contributor to climate crisis, through unrestrained burning of fossils fuels and the destruction of habitats and competition for water, often in the name of gaining access to fossil fuels. We must end these wars to save our planet.

8.     The Vietnam peace movement was marked by internal divisions and sectarian strife that weakened its unity, future potential, and public image and legacy. The peace movement should be remembered for its rainbow character and diversity of approaches, from resisters to electoral campaigners. We must do for the future what we often failed to do before: unite ourselves in a common democratic movement towards peace and justice. We need greater alliances across race, gender and class lines, and internationally, to build true peace majorities that are stronger because they are more diverse.  

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