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The War in Vietnam: Studies in Remembrance and Legacy, 2000–2014 (June 2016): Support for and against the War: Activism and Legacy

By Jerry Lembcke

Support for and against the War: Activism and Legacy

The books from which readers can draw some meaning for current military conflicts are the most significant contributions to scholarship in this subject area.  At the top of the list are Michael Foley’s Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance during the Vietnam War and John Hagan’s Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada.  Foley uses the resistance in the greater Boston region as a case study of the values that motivated young men to resist the draft, and the mobilization of religious, academic, and community resources that sustained them.  He details the tension between two factions of the movement: the working-class oriented Boston Draft Resistance Group, which honored all attempts to stay out of the draft, including accepting deferments for college, versus the Resistance (with the upper-case R), which viewed deferments as a copout.  Most valuable are the findings of his research project to survey and interview former activists in the late 1990s, some thirty years after the war, for their memories and feelings about their resistance.  Hagan is also interested in the dilemmas presented by the war and the draft, and portrays the move of 50,000 US war resisters to Canada as a “brain drain” that hurt the United States and benefited Canada.  Equally instructive is his documentation of the lives led by the Americans who settled in Canada, often with successful careers, as well as the legacy of the social and cultural disruption in their lives wrought by their emigration from the United States.

For some contemporaries, the antiwar movement changed the trajectory of their life courses as much as did the war itself.  That is most vividly obvious in autobiographies and biographies of those who opposed the war.  In Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen, Mark Rudd tells how he got involved in the 1968 Columbia University protests against university complicity with military research and was then thrust into a leadership position that led to building occupations, conflict with the police, and a brush with the revolutionary violence of the Students for a Democratic Society Weatherman faction.  Rudd’s recounting of his days as a fugitive living underground is absorbing, and the story of his later reconciliation with his parents and the mainstream United States is moving.  Bruce Dancis’s Resister: A Story of Protest and Prison during the Vietnam War is every bit as poignant as a personal story and riveting as a political memoir.  Dancis was an SDS leader at Cornell University, and the trajectory that took him to prison for draft resistance rather than a life on the lam (à la Rudd) makes his and Rudd›s books a spectacular combination for a comparative study of life courses.

Penny Lewis's Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory can be read as a history of the movement, but Lewis relies on studies done since the war to tease out the complexity of interclass relations during the 1960s and 1970s.  Working-class opposition to the war, she points out, was more likely to extend civilian forms of workplace resistance into the military (as a work site) and manifest there as GI rebellions against the brass.  Her focus on the creation of myths like that of the pro-war “hard-hat” worker makes the book more an epistemological inquiry into why people believe what they do than an empirical study of who did what in the 1960s and 1970s.  As such, it gives equal consideration to “now” as “then” and “us” as “them.”

Lewis’s attention to hard hats and hawks—nicknames for pro-war people during the war—is an acknowledgment that opposition to the war was not a universal sentiment; indeed, support for the war was sometimes substantial within certain demographics.  However, Sandra Scanlon makes clear in The Pro-war Movement: Domestic Support for the War in Vietnam and the Making of Modern American Conservatism that conservative opposition to the antiwar movement and support for the troops fighting it did not always mean support for the war itself.  Portions of the book constitute political biographies of figures such as William F. Buckley and Patrick Buchanan, who would shape the conservative movement in the postwar years.

Pro and con views on the war continue into the present, playing out now on terrain occupied by historians.  The outcome of those scholarly conflicts is central to what Americans remember and know about the war, making Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 an appropriate entry here.  Moyar divides the contending historians into “orthodox” and “revisionist” camps: the former are committed to showing US commitment to the war to be wrong and futile; the latter (among whom Moyar counts himself) believe the Saigon government could have defeated its communist opposition if Kennedy had not accepted a neutral Laos in 1961 (thus paving the way for North Vietnam to move military resources to the south on the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos) and the US press had not turned against Saigon President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, thereby abetting his assassination later that year.

There are some new general surveys of the antiwar movement that academic libraries should have in their collections.  The most important are Tom Wells’s The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam and Fred Halstead’s Out Now: A Participant’s Account of the Movement in the United States against the Vietnam War.  Melvin Small’s Antiwarriors: The Vietnam War and the Battle for America’s Hearts and Minds is a synopsis of other sources, but his effort to draw meaning from them for present conflicts recommends it for acquisition.  The anniversary of the 1970 shootings at Kent State brought out new work on that affair, of which Thomas Hensley and J. M. Lewis’s edited Kent State and May 4th: A Social Science Perspective is important to have.