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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Is Trump Our New Vietnam?

Reprinted with permission from the Washington Spectator. 

On October 15, 1969, more than two million people in dozens of cities across the United States participated in a day of marches, vigils, and teach-ins against the Vietnam War. The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam was the largest nationwide protest in U.S. history at the time, and it signaled to President Nixon that the anti-war movement had mainstream support and could no longer be considered a marginal movement of a few thousand radicals and hippies.

Forty-eight years later, as 3.3 million women marched last Saturday in 500 locations nation-wide, including unlikely places like Roanoke, Virginia and Omaha, Nebraska, I couldn’t help but compare the 2017 Women’s March on Washington to the 1969 Moratorium. Like the Moratorium, the numbers of Women’s March participants far exceeded expectations, and protests took place in regions of our country that rarely host left-leaning political demonstrations.

The 1969 Moratorium took two months to plan with ol’ fashioned communication tools like telephone trees, mass mailings, and newspaper advertisements. With the help of social media, the Women’s March went viral. The Moratorium’s big turnout in red states and with people of all ages and economic backgrounds suggested to the Nixon administration that it had a growing mass movement to contend with. Nixon spent most of late 1969 and 1970 cowering inside the White House, pretending to watch football on TV, while chanting, sign-waving protesters heckled him from outside the White House fence on Pennsylvania Avenue. By May of 1970, following the Kent State shootings, protests in Washington, D.C., had grown so large and angry that the 82nd Airborne was deployed inside the Executive Office Building, and hundreds of school buses literally barricaded the White House grounds. “If you didn’t experience it back then, you would have no idea how close we were, as a country, to revolution,” Nixon aide Stephen Bull told me.

At the end of last week’s Women’s March, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children wearing knitted pink pussy (cat) hats exited the Mall and poured up 15th Street, next to the Treasury Building and just one block from the East Wing of the White House, chanting at the top of their lungs, “Hey Ho, Hey Ho Donald Trump has got to go!” I wondered, could Trump and the White House staff hear these mocking chants? Could they see the colorful “Free Melania,” “Lock him up,” and “Women’s rights are human rights” signs waving in the distance at the edge of the Ellipse? Only 24 hours after his swearing-in, the 45th president was publicly pilloried in Nixon-era-like protests. As one veteran 60s agitator predicted after spending the day at the march in Washington, “Trump is our new Vietnam.”

I don’t think anyone under 65 could have imagined how moving it would be to be part of a huge crowd of people uniting against a common foe. Born in 1963, I had only read and written about what it felt like to be part of a movement. Not until I was swept up in the jubilant, peaceful, purposeful crowd on the Mall on January 20 did I discover how empowering it is to share political opinions with hundreds of thousands of complete strangers and be a bit player in participatory democracy.

“It was fantastic and inspiring and it made us feel like this is the beginning of the resistance,” veteran activist and organizer Heather Booth told me at the Women’s March. “If people find the way to refocus this energy, it can be the beginning of people rising up.” Sam Brown, one of the four members of the 1969 Vietnam Moratorium Committee, told me that marching in Key West, Florida “was the first moment of uplift I felt since I crawled under the covers and hid my head on November 8.”

All of the former 60s movement leaders whom I spoke to agreed that today’s protesters need to learn from the successes and mistakes of their predecessors. “The New Left forgot power, or we thought that power was going to fall into place somehow automatically,” former SDS and Weather Underground leader Mark Rudd told me. “We thought the liberals would take power and we would be to the left of them. But that’s not what happened. What happened was a far-right reaction took place. . . .”

Rudd acknowledges that the backlash from the Republican right was in part a reaction to how violent and ideologically extreme some parts of the antiwar left, like the Weather Underground, had become. Today Rudd is trying to build movements, not bombs. “We need to build mass movements around specific issues—global warming, income inequality, women’s reproductive rights, etcetera, and use the power of the mass movements to overwhelm and transform the Democratic Party into a party of the people. Here in Albuquerque we’re organizing like little bunnies.”

“This was just one demonstration. But we make progress when we organize when times are the most difficult,” said Booth, who was a young activist during the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. “That’s when you expose what the opposition is really doing. The three things we need to do next is focus on unity and standing with those who have come under the greatest fire, hold Trump accountable to what he has said and expose his lies, and organize deeply for the long haul, both in communities of color as well as the white working-class. Unity, accountability, and organizing.”

The problem with taking the time to organize locally (as the Tea Party did) by electing Democrats to school boards, city councils, state legislatures, governors, is it will take years to put into place. “I think the incrementalism of it is not adequate to the challenge,” Sam Brown told me. “We need a national movement, but one sufficiently rooted in non-urban areas that we can change the tide more quickly. But a sense of urgency is not a substitute for a thoughtful strategy. I am reminded that in 1969 we, people from the anti-war movement, spent months focusing on the most effective way to reach middle America and involve them locally.” Brown is hoping that someone on the front lines of the Trump resistance will discover how to include and engage people in middle America the way he and his Clean for Gene colleagues did in October, 1969. “In the meantime, I will keep focused on the things I can do, and listening for that thoughtful idea that we can all follow.”

Clara Bingham is the author of Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul (Random House, 2016). You can read an excerpt of that book here.

IMAGE: Demonstrators yell slogans during anti-Donald Trump travel ban protests outside Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia. REUTERS/Charles Mostoller

Excerpt: Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul

From August 1969 to August 1970, America witnessed 9,000 public protests and 84 acts of arson or bombings at schools across the country. It was the year of the My Lai massacre investigation, the illegal invasion of Cambodia, Woodstock, and the Moratorium to End the War. The American death toll in Vietnam was approaching 50,000, and the ascendant counterculture was challenging nearly every aspect of American society. In Witness to the Revolution, Clara Bingham reveals through oral history that moment when the nation nearly broke into civil war at home, as it fought a long, futile war abroad.

By weaving together 100 original interviews, Witness to the Revolution provides a firsthand narrative of that year of upheaval in the words of those closest to the action: the activists, organizers, radicals, and resisters who manned the barricades of resistance. In this special excerpt for Memorial Day, Bingham brings us voices of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War — the organization that first drew attention to a young Navy officer named John Kerry.

President Nixon’s Vietnamization policy, which reduced American ground troops and increased the air war against North Vietnam, had an unintended consequence. Between 1968 and 1970, 200,000 Vietnam vets, many wounded, shell-shocked, and disillusioned with the war, came home to a country in turmoil and transition. Their war stories exposed the futility of the conflict and the grisly truth of what was really happening on the ground in Vietnam. As they began to meet, rap, and organize, the vets brought new vitality and credibility to the peace movement. Images of vets at antiwar rallies in their tattered Army jackets, or in wheelchairs with long hair holding signs saying “End the War in Vietnam” and “We Won’t Fight Another Rich Man’s War,” terrified the Nixon administration. Realizing the power of their message, the FBI targeted the vets for infiltration, surveillance, and disruption. FBI files on the activities of Vietnam Veterans Against the War covered 19,978 pages.

Wayne Smith (Vietnam veteran)

I got orders to go home. The next day, I was going to get on the plane, and this son of a bitch in the bunker next to me, that had these thin plywood walls, played what has become one of my favorite songs about America and Vietnam: Steppenwolf’s “Monster.” He played it over and over all night. The song sums up, in more ways than I can ever describe, my reality near the end of Vietnam and my understanding of this country. It is that powerful.*

The cities have turned into jungles

And corruption is stranglin’ the land

The police force is watching the people

And the people just can’t understand

We don’t know how to mind our own business

’Cause the whole world’s got to be just like us

Now we are fighting a war over there

No matter who’s the winner we can’t pay the cost*

* (“Monster” is the title song of Steppenwolf ’s most political album, released in November 1969.)

I had known Steppenwolf, of course, but this was the first time I had ever heard this song. At the time, I had this yearning to try to understand how I could have gotten it so wrong. How could I have believed in this country, when I swore to defend and protect the United States?

We flew out on a private carrier from Long Binh… I had so much anger and pain. I was crushed. I felt like I had blood on my hands. I resisted calling the Vietnamese gooks and dinks, but near the end of it I found those vulgar words would come out of my mouth several times; I had contempt for myself. How could I have been so stupid and foolish to believe this country? How I could have been so foolish to think that I could really save lives as a medic? How I could really make a difference in the face of so many catastrophic injuries?

Bobby Muller
 (spokesman, organizer, Vietnam Veterans Against the War)

I was shot April 29, 1969. It took a while to get back to the States. I wound up at a naval hospital on Long Island, and then I got transferred from the naval hospital to the veterans’ hospital up in the Bronx. I spent a year there as an inpatient, and started on an outpatient basis, probably around July, August of ’70. So that’s where I was parked.

My first day in the veterans’ hospital, the chief of the service walks by. He looks at my three-by- five card and he says, “Well, son, I hope you realize you’re going to be hopelessly paralyzed for the rest of your life.” The fucking first words out of the chief of the service’s mouth off of a three-by-five card. I didn’t respond.

Wayne Smith

Landing in Seattle, Washington, there was an announcement: “Anyone that was injured, or if you have problems of any kind, get in that long line over there. Anyone who doesn’t have any problems, go there to get on the bus to take you to the airport, to take you home.” I was really pretty bad off, but I wasn’t going to get in any long line.

I went into the airport men’s room and there were all of these khaki uniforms bulging out of the trash bin, where people had taken off their uniforms and thrown them away as soon as they could. It was unbeliev- able. When I got on the plane home, there were guys who were wearing long-hair wigs. I don’t even know how they got them, but they were obviously wigs. It was absolutely amazing. The uniform thing was big, not wanting people to know you were in the military.

When I saw the uniforms in the men’s room trash bin, I was like, “Whoa . . . Welcome home!” Walking through the airport in uniform, people didn’t make a lot of eye contact. I was trying to find friendly faces, and I was just not getting any connection. I thought, Okay, America, you motherfuckers. I’m home. I’m going to deal with you. I’m going to get through this bullshit. You know, Fuck you. It was like getting my false combat face on; in some ways I was thinking I was in a different style of war. I felt like it was a hostile environment. It didn’t feel friendly. It didn’t feel like home. I didn’t believe in America anymore. I couldn’t tell if it was me that changed, or the country that had changed. I guess that was the question for a lot of us.

Bobby Muller

The notable thing that happened was that one of the guys on my ward at Kingsbridge VA hospital in the Bronx, a fellow by the name of Mark Dumpert, became the centerpiece of a cover story that Life magazine put out, May 22, 1970. It was the Walter Reed scandal of our times. The cover of Life had two photos. The top one was a color photo of some wounded American soldiers riding on the top of an armored personnel carrier. And below that was a black-and-white picture of this guy, Mark, who was a quadriplegic, meaning no use of his legs or his arms, sitting in the shower at the VA hospital, with a towel draped over him. The article inside had a lot more photos—again, a lot of them on my ward—depicting the overcrowding and filth. Overall, the article described the place as a medical slum. It turned out to be the second-largest-selling issue Life magazine ever put out. It created an uproar.

Jan Barry (cofounder, Vietnam Veterans Against the War)

I happened to be in upstate New York when the invasion of Cambodia took place (May 1, 1970). I was on Syracuse University’s campus. The invasion of Cambodia happens. This university closes down. The students refuse to go to class. I was initially looking for student veterans and trying to have the conversation about war crimes testimony, and I discovered there were something like 500 student veterans on campus and they were outraged by what had happened at Kent State. A couple of these vets said, “Come with me,” to a house they rented just off campus, and they were turning it into a center for organizing vets. They even imported a whole bunch of phones and made all kinds of phone calls, and they were going to have their own march. They had vets coming in from campuses across the whole of upstate New York, and it was a big story in New York State.

They put out the word that if the police even thought about coming onto the Syracuse University campus, they were going to have to wade through a line of vets. A group of them decided they were going to have a protest at a veterans’ memorial in downtown Syracuse. They were mainly conservative veterans and they wanted to protest the war as veterans at this setting. There were a couple police cars in the vicinity, and all of a sudden the police cars disappear, and some other cars come roaring up, and these American Legion types jump out, and they’re going to attack this group of hippies who are protesting the war and beat them up. But all of a sudden they’re confronted by veterans, one of whom takes a flagpole and aims it at them. He’s going to charge them with the flagpole and he says, “Get the fuck out of here! We’re vets!” They were going to do a mob scene and beat up some hippies, and that further fueled other vets hearing about this: “I’m going to come and march through the streets of Syracuse and tell these people what I think of them.” And that’s what they did. The police, of course, treated them with great care.

The vets wanted nothing to do with the peace movement. They wanted to speak as this group of veterans who were outraged about Kent State and the invasion of Cambodia. I was talking to vets all across the country on the phone, and the same thing was happening all across the country. They made it very clear that if any police or National Guard were going to come on campus, they were going to have to go through a line of vets.

Bobby Muller

I don’t know if you remember who Phil Donahue was. Phil Donahue was the Oprah Winfrey of the Seventies and Eighties. I quickly became a spokesman for the spinal cord injury guys because I was college educated and I had the bonafides of being a combat casualty. I didn’t give a shit anymore, so I would talk to anybody. I got called upon to comment on the situation at the hospital, and wound up rapidly doing a lot of media. Donahue was operating out of Orrville, Ohio, where they made Smucker’s jelly, and he flew me out there to do his TV show. It was all about, “What’s going on with the veterans hospital? How’d you get there? What’s it like? What do you think about the war?” So because I was getting media attention, I started talking to some guys that were part of Vietnam Vets Against the War.

Michael Uhl 
(Vietnam vet, Citizens Commission of Inquiry organizer)

Vietnam Vets Against the War was really emerging as a mass organization after the revelation of My Lai (November 1969), so by the summer of 1970, VVAW was now marching primarily under its own steam…This is a period where everybody was fighting; fighting against the war, fighting each other, escalating the polemic. It was hardly peace and love. So Al Hubbard (the then president) and others had now begun to assemble a talented core of organizers. By the end of 1970, VVAW claimed, at least on paper, to have over 25,000 members but that figure certainly underestimates the size of the antiwar veteran community in the early 1970s. Consider, for example, that I never officially joined VVAW.

Jan Barry

We were hearing about the conditions at the Bronx VA Hospital, where rats are running over people’s feet who are paralyzed, and they can’t chase the rats off. That’s where Bobby Muller was, who also became active in VVAW. Bobby Muller and some other people would soon be leading the marches in their wheelchairs.

We called them rap groups, which got picked up from the black libera-tion groups, and the women’s liberation groups were also using the same terminology. It was the concept, “Let’s sit down and compare notes about something that society doesn’t want to talk about. . . .” Many of these vets couldn’t keep a marriage together, couldn’t keep a friendship together, and they’d been out of the war for a while, but their life was still a mess. They may or may not be finishing college, and they just felt like their life really didn’t hold together well, and why is that?

Robert J. Lifton had written about Hiroshima and a number of other issues from a psychological perspective. He’d been an Air Force psychiatrist in the Korean War, and he was teaching at Yale. He testified before a congressional committee in 1970 about something that he was tentatively calling post-Vietnam syndrome. He explained that a lot of these veterans are having a hard time readjusting to society. I sent him a letter, and I said, “I have a group of veterans who are wrestling with this. I wonder if you could meet with us.”

He said yes and I said, “We don’t want to be treated as patients. This is peer-to-peer. We’re veterans. You’ve been in the military. What are we looking at here?” And in those conversations, what we initially seemed to be hearing was there wasn’t a terminology for this. In World War II it was shell shock, or World War I, combat fatigue, various other terms that actually were more applicable if you’re under constant bombardment.

Bobby Muller

I didn’t get a chance to talk to the guys in the hospital about actually being in the war. So when I got out of the hospital and started talking publicly about the conditions there, it ended a sense of isolation. I had thought that I had just had a bad experience; I just drew a bad hand. It wasn’t until talking to other guys that I started to really put it together. I said, “Wait a second, it wasn’t just me?” These guys are saying the same thing. And there was a process of communalizing the shared experience we’d had, one by one, and then we started to realize that, “Okay, it wasn’t just me.”

Excerpted from WITNESS TO THE REVOLUTION: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, And The Year America Lost Its Mind And Found Its Soul, by Clara Bingham. Copyright © 2016 by Clara Bingham. Excerpted by permission of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.