How the war was fought

Peace Now!
June 16, 2000

By the Vietnam era, the epitome of American privilege was more the WORM than the WASP. "White old rich men" advised successive presidents to stop the communists in Southeast Asia or risk a tumble of nation-sized dominoes and subsequent electoral landslides. Many students, African-Americans and women protested against the Vietnam war. However, in a book destined to become required reading for university students of US foreign policy, Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones explains how, when the Worms faced their antithesis in this revolt of blacks, youth and women, they also found a working-class ally. Union leaders, especially from the "manly" trades, such as national labour leader George Meany (a plumber), backed the war effort. The so-called "hard hats" felt little sympathy for anti-war protesters.

In this well-crafted study, Jeffreys-Jones tests the validity of what he calls the "breakthrough syndrome". American women in the 20th century, for instance, have generally used their loyalty to advance their status. African-Americans made a similar calculation. In April 1967, when Martin Luther King Jr described the US as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today", he was immediately condemned by Roy Wilkins, a moderate civil-rights leader, and by the only other African-American Nobel peace prize winner, Ralph Bunche. Both felt that King's stance would damage black interests. On Vietnam, organised labour had an acute case of breakthrough syndrome, consistently regarding patriotism as a stance that countered efforts to smear unionism as a way station to un-Americanism and simultaneously protected thousands of jobs that depended on the military-industrial complex. Since the second world war, the defence gravy train had carried a generation of unionised workers from the penury of the Great Depression to a deeply cherished level of consumerism, which was for them the American way of life. Students had fewer investments to endanger by their actions and little sense of a collective breakthrough syndrome. Most were conservative politically but overall, they were a social group for whom immediate issues of principle could prevail over pragmatism.

Students were vital to the anti-war movement's launch. Electoral calculations and the fact that the Vietnam supply run flowed from the west coast gave the Berkeley unrest of 1964-66 leverage, but more with the press than with the WORM. The youth revolt shocked the powerful but did not sway them. The more massive anti-draft protests of 1966-68 had a greater impact on policy, according to Jeffreys-Jones, but a far more ambiguous one than simply driving the "war-monger" Lyndon Johnson from office. Troop reductions and Richard Nixon's policy of Vietnamisation reduced the number of draftees without ending the war itself. Moreover, Nixon skilfully used the protesters' radicalism to appeal to the so-called silent majority.

Initially, most blacks, like most Americans, backed Johnson. But the bias of both the draft and military training brought disproportionately heavy black casualties. This, along with pressing domestic issues, fuelled African-American anger. Black opposition peaked in 1967, adding to the anti-war movement's effectiveness, in Jeffreys-Jones's view. However, students and African-Americans damned America for its racist imperialist war by 1969 and thereby played an involuntary part in the "backlash" politics that delayed US withdrawal. Thus it fell to women to be the pivotal protesters of the 1970s.

Established women's groups, such as the League of Women Voters, were slow to speak out, and the draft-resistance movement had enough of the general male chauvinism of the time to inhibit women's protest leadership. Instead,women had their biggest anti-war impact in electoral politics after 1970. By 1972, the success of peace candidates such as Bella Abzug had convinced Nixon that an imminent peace settlement was an electoral prerequisite. Diplomatic negotiations had mirrored the military stalemate since 1969, but growing discontent among organised labour warned Nixon that the time had come to settle. In 1974, Meany admitted that he had been wrong about the war. By then, the New Deal coalition that had represented organised labour's breakthrough into political influence was a shambles, and far too many blue-collar families had grim personal reasons for lamenting the breakthrough syndrome.

Peter Ling is senior lecturer in American history, University of Nottingham.

Peace Now!: American Society and the Ending of the Vietnam War

Author - Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones
ISBN - 0 300 07811 0
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £16.95
Pages - 308

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