Antiwar and Proud of It

                     By H. Bruce Franklin

(from the Nation, December 11, 2000; copyright 2000 by H. Bruce Franklin) The throngs of Vietnamese who hailed Bill Clinton as the antiwar

President demonstrated that they as a people remember something

that we as a people have chosen to forget. It is time to restore

our memory of that great antiwar movement by tens of millions of

Americans, a movement that began with the first U.S. acts of war in


Yes, 1945. In September and October of that year, eight troopships

were diverted from their task of bringing American troops home from

Europe to transport US-armed French soldiers and Foreign

Legionnaires from France to recolonize Vietnam. The enlisted seamen

on those ships immediately began organized protests. On arriving in

Vietnam, the entire crews of the first four troopships met in

Saigon and drew up a resolution condemning the US government for

using American ships to transport an invasion army "to subjugate

the native population" of Vietnam.

The movement kept growing. In 1954, when Vice President Nixon

suggested sending American troops to replace the French because

"the Vietnamese lack the ability to conduct a war or govern

themselves," thousands of letters and telegrams opposing US

intervention deluged the White House. An American Legion division

with 78,000 members demanded that "the United States should refrain

from dispatching any of its Armed Forces to participate as

combatants in the fighting in Indochina or in southeast Asia." On

the Senate floor, Senator Ed Johnson of Colorado declared, "I am

against sending American GIs into the mud and muck of Indochina on

a blood-letting spree to perpetuate colonialism and white man's

exploitation in Asia." A Gallup poll revealed that 68 percent of

those surveyed were against sending US troops to Indochina. Because

of the American people's opposition, the US war had to be waged by

four administrations under the cloak of plausible deniability.

We have been depriving ourselves of pride about the finest American

behavior during that war. In most wars, a nation dehumanizes and

demonizes the people on the other side. Almost the opposite

happened during the Vietnam War. Tens of millions of Americans

sympathized with the Vietnamese people's suffering, many came to

identify with their 2,000-year struggle for independence, and some

even found them an inspiration for their own lives.

But in the decades since the war's conclusion, American

consciousness of the Vietnamese people, with all its potential for

healing and redemption, has been systematically obliterated.

Ironically, it was after the war that demonization of the

Vietnamese began to succeed, thanks in part to the national

beatification of POWs and the myth of POWs as martyrs still being

tortured by Vietnam. Soon those who had fought against the war

became, as a corollary, a despised enemy. They also became the

villains in another myth developed from the 1980s to the

present: the spat-upon veteran. As Vietnam veteran and sociologist

Jerry Lembcke has shown in The Spitting Image, there is not a

shred of evidence of this supposedly widespread phenomenon.

In fact, Vietnam veterans and active-duty soldiers and sailors

became the vanguard of the antiwar movement. At home, veterans led

the marches and demonstrations, including the 1971 assembly of a

half-million protesters headed by a thousand Vietnam veterans, many

in wheelchairs and on crutches, who paraded up to a barricade

erected to keep them from the Capitol and hurled their Purple

Hearts, Bronze Stars, and Silver Stars at the government that had

bestowed them. In Vietnam, fraggings and mutinies helped force the

withdrawal of most of the ground forces, while rebellions and

sabotage put at least five aircraft carriers out of combat. (Who

today can believe that 1,500 crew members of the USS Constellation

signed a petition demanding that Jane Fonda's antiwar show be

allowed to perform on board?)

As the antiwar movement spread even into the intelligence

establishment, the American people got access to the most damning

truths in the leaked Pentagon Papers. As Senator Mike Gravel noted

IN 1971, only a person "who has failed to read the Pentagon Papers"

could believe we were fighting for "freedom and liberty in

Southeast Asia."

But we as a nation have forgotten all that, just as we have

forgotten our government's pledge to help rebuild the country it

destroyed despite all our opposition.

H. Bruce Franklin, the author or editor of eighteen books,
including the just-published Vietnam and Other American Fantasies
(Massachusetts), is the John Cotton Dana Professor of English and
American Studies at Rutgers University, Newark.