Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Antiwarriors Mobilize – Brothers Divergent

Brother Jeff and I returned to the States in the late spring of ’64, he from the Vietnam War still in its infancy, and I from the Soviet Union. I had just finished a year’s study of Marxist legal theory at Moscow University Law School. While I had been studying Communism, Jeff had been fighting it in Southeast Asia. How our experiences shaped us couldn’t have been more different.

We met again that summer at our parents’ place in Coral Gables outside Miami. It was an all too brief reunion – Jeff and I both had to get on with our stateside lives. I headed north to Washington to finish up research on my doctoral dissertation at the Library of Congress. Jeff went west, back to Indiana University (IU) – where I was taking my PhD – to complete his undergraduate education.†

Back from Vietnam – Jeff in Florida, Summer ‘64

A half year later Jeff and I were again off on our different trajectories, I starting my academic career at the University of Missouri (Mizzou), Jeff beginning spring term at IU. I was teaching introductory courses on politics and international relations along with an upperclass course on Soviet politics with no prior classroom experience.
 
Jeff was taking a full course load, including US and comparative politics, American intellectual history, a course on the novel, and a course on totalitarian political patterns—totalitarianism at the time was very much in vogue as a descriptor of Soviet Bloc and Asian communist regimes. Colleagues and I would later successfully challenge the concept, but that’s another story.
 
Meanwhile back in South Vietnam (SVN), the low-key war had been steadily heating up. The South Vietnamese army (ARVN), assisted by some 15,000 US military advisers, was fighting a communist guerrilla insurgency against the Viet Cong (VC) supported by North Vietnam (NVN). The war was not going well for SVN, which had persuaded the late President Kennedy (JFK) to accede to the South Vietnamese generals’ coup against President Diem in November ’63.
 
Unfortunately, the situation in Saigon had only grown worse following the coup. A junta of generals, divided among themselves, could not effectively govern. Political instability combined with military ineptitude weighed down the floundering regime. A second coup toppled the junta a few months later.  Then followed a series of coups and attempted coups throughout ‘64. None of this confusion was lost on the VC, nor on their military mentors in the North. By early ’65, the VC had achieved de facto control of large parts of the country.
 
All this produced alarm among the Washington policy makers. The CIA had forecast that the time was near when the VC could triumph. The US guarantee of the independence of a non-communist SVN was at stake. More and more, the emboldened VC were infiltrating the cities and populated areas specifically to attack US military facilities and places where American personnel gathered for recreation.
 
On January 20, 1965, President Johnson (LBJ) was inaugurated, and just two days at a confidential briefing of the congressional leadership he broadly intimated that he was about to begin bombing North Vietnam. All he needed was a pretext; the VC obliged in early February with a destructive attack on the American base at Pleiku in the Central Highlands, and LBJ responded with air strikes against NVN. A few days later, a concerned Jeff wrote me, “I could get recalled very easily (Ready Reserves, Vietnamese linguist, Intelligence experience).”
 
It was soon evident that the retaliatory strikes had been pre-planned dress rehearsals for a full-scale bombing campaign, code-named Rolling Thunder, that was launched in March. Marine combat battalions soon followed to secure the air bases from which strikes against the North were being flown. By those two abrupt moves, LBJ had dramatically escalated the war. The sudden exponential increase in American involvement in the civil war of a country most people couldn’t find on a map, in turn elicited a sharp negative reaction among faculty and students at a number of major universities.

We'll smash down your doors, we don't bother to knock
We've done it before, so why all the shock
We're the biggest and the toughest kids on the block
And we're the Cops of the World, boys
We're the Cops of the World
††

The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor quickly became the focal point of opposition to the escalation. A number of UM students were veteran activists of the civil rights movement in the South, and the campus had a strong chapter of SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, a national organization formed there in the early ‘60s. Michigan was also home to a sizeable number of politically active professors. These forces came together to organize what became the first ‘Teach-In’ on Vietnam, an initial step toward what would eventually become a nationwide antiwar movement.
 
As a political and moral response to Washington, a group of Michigan faculty planned a one-day teaching strike. The strikers would refuse to teach their regular classes and instead spend the time introducing interested students to the critical issues of America’s war in Vietnam. Nearly 50 professors signed up, but Governor George Romney and the university president opposed the strike. At the 11th hour, a compromise was reached: instead of cancelling classes, concerned faculty would teach their courses, but continue teaching through the night; thus was born the idea of a teach-in as a forum for informed protest.

 
 
Ann Arbor Teach-In Poster
 
The first teach-in began at 8 PM on Wednesday, March 24th and went on through the night until daybreak the 25th. The dorm curfew for women was suspended, greatly swelling the turnout to over 3,000 students; along with 200 faculty, it was the largest demonstration in the university’s history.
 
The main speakers were two academics with field experience in Vietnam who knew the country well, an economist from the East, and a Michigan State anthropologist. One speaker recited Vietnam’s long history of fending off invaders, while the other simply pronounced the war unwinnable.

 
 

University of Michigan Teach-In, March 24-25, 1965

At other colleges and universities, small groups of activists gathered to listen in to the Michigan speakers via telephone hook-ups. At IU, Jeff was undoubtedly one of the best informed on the subject, judging by the discussion of Vietnam in his letters from that period.


Activist Leaders at Indiana – Bernella & David Satterfield, ‘64

Thanks to national media coverage of the Michigan event, the teach-in format was soon replicated at over 100 other campuses, including the University of Missouri. At Mizzou, however, the organizers decided to stage a teach-in as a balanced debate between pro- and anti-Administration speakers. In contrast to brother Jeff’s growing opposition to US policy, I along with an American historian was the lead debater on the pro side of the question. We were opposed by two scholars of South Asia, one a political scientist, the other a historian.
 
For nearly five hours, the four of us debated US policy in Vietnam before an audience of 500+ students crammed into an auditorium in the Business School. The South Asian specialists both viewed the Vietnam conflict in historical and regional contexts, emphasizing the need for a negotiated settlement before the US got in too deeply. At the time as a JFK liberal internationalist, I looked at the problem within the framework of the bi-polar Soviet-American Cold War conflict.
 
The Cold War was then at an uncertain point. Khrushchev, a reformer, had been ousted from power in Moscow by a coalition of former Stalinists just six months earlier. Although he’d been aggressive in the international sphere (witness the Cuban Missile Crisis of ’62), the following year he’d agreed to JFK’s proposed treaty banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere – a very important step in the effort to slow down the dangerous arms race. By the spring of ’65 when I spoke at Mizzou, the full foreign policy intentions of Khrushchev’s successors, especially in the former colonial world now called the Third World, were by no means yet clear.
 
Hence, I saw Vietnam as a surrogate war between NVN, a Soviet and Chinese Communist ally, and SVN, a US ally. In those years, the US had put in place a policy of global ‘containment’ by means of an encircling network of bases and military alliances. The idea was to keep the Soviet empire and, by then, its rival Chinese sphere of influence, in check, i.e., not permit either the Soviets or the Chinese to extend the authoritarian communist model beyond their borders.
 
The US was particularly concerned about the Third World, which was undergoing rapid decolonialization that left power vacuums in its wake. South Vietnam was, of course, a Third World country; from a Cold War angle of vision, both the USSR and China were probing, via their proxy NVN and its agent, the VC, to expand the international communist domain to the South. No one, not even the ‘doves’ had any illusions that the North could carry the fight to the South without massive military and economic aid from the two giants of the Communist world.
 
After the debaters presented, the Mizzou audience was invited to pose questions or make short statements from the floor. In retrospect, the most prescient remark of that long afternoon was made by Professor William Allen, a noted young historian of Germany. He vigorously opposed US policy and advocated complete withdrawal from Vietnam. Of course, he was right.

It's written in the ashes of the village towns we burn
It's written in the empty bed of the fathers unreturned
And the chocolate in the children's eyes will never understand
When you're white boots marching in a yellow land†††
 
At the end of the debate, the moderator asked the audience to signal by applause which set of arguments they found most persuasive. While both sides found support, by dint of applause, the pro-Administration position seemed to prevail.
 
Most notable of the post-Michigan teach-ins were the national teach-in in mid-May and the ‘mother’ of all teach-ins that season, the huge one at Berkeley toward the end of the month. At the national event in Washington, broadcast live on radio and television throughout the country, two leading specialists on Vietnam, Kahin of Cornell and Scalapino of Berkeley, duked it out.
 
The Berkeley affair attracted an aggregate of 30,000 participants from the San Francisco Bay area listening to nearly 50 speakers over a period of 36 hours, by far the longest and the largest teach-in that spring. Although not intended as a balanced debate, at least one pro-Administration speaker was included. He and the lead-off presenter ended up as polar opposites in the spectrum of comments at the teach-in – one wildly idealistic, the other darkly dystopian.
 
A historian from Yale opened the teach-in, proposing civil disobedience so massive and persistent that LBJ and his war cabinet “will forthwith resign.”* At the other end of the spectrum, a Berkeley political scientist foresaw – absent continued US resistance – SVN as “Communist totalitarian regime” with a regimented population wakened in the mornings to the sound of bugles and forced to work long days in pursuit of the regime’s goals.**
 
That first turbulent spring of the newly escalated American war in Vietnam came to an end with what would become legions of ‘antiwarriors’*** mobilizing on the nation’s campuses. As for Jeff and me, our respective academic business finished for the summer, we continued our separate ways – he off to Mexico to hang out with friends; I to Washington to advise on US-USSR arms control. Brothers divergent.
 
*L Menashe, ed, Berkeley Teach-In: Vietnam (1966), 3

**Ibid

***The term is from Melvin Small, Antiwarriors: The Vietnam War and the Battle for America’s Hearts and Minds (2002) 
 


††† White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fq42reX_MPA

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