“He who controls the past controls the future.” Nowhere is Big Brother’s dictum truer than in the case of Vietnam and the antiwar movement. Lately, one can detect a new and persistent attempt to remold the history and goals of the antiwar movement in a way designed to make it more acceptable to. the mass of the American people. And obviously, how one is taught to view the movement as it was in the 60’s will help determine how one ought to view various movement efforts of the 80’s: the encouragement of a nuclear freeze, for instance, or the fierce support for Commandante Ortega’s Nicaragua. Hollywood, of course, has always sentimentalized the radicals of the 60’s: the outrageous Running on Empty (1988), with its warm, fatherly and motherly ex-bomb throwers still (for some reason) pursued by a harsh and unbending government, is only the latest in a long string of ideological epics that stretches back to Alice’s Restaurant (1969) and Zabriskie Point (1970). But what is particularly at issue here is not the romanticizing of radicalism. Rather, it is the denial of the existence of radicalism, radical ideas, and radical goals among the movement in the first place.
As far as I am aware, this new tack was first taken by Stanley Kauffman, in his review of The Hanoi Hilton for The New Republic in March 1987. Kauffman bitterly objected to the depiction of representatives of the antiwar movement in that movie: the movement wasn’t sympathetic to the North Vietnamese (as it is portrayed in the film), didn’t idealize them, didn’t see them as angels. The mass of antiwar marchers, Kauffman insisted, had no opinion one way or the other about the Hanoi regime: they simply wanted the war to end, they wanted to “bring the boys home.” In that sense, they were, if anything, sympathetic to our soldiers in Vietnam. This same theme—that the antiwar movement was basically patriotic in its goals—recently appeared again in Curtis Cans’ review of an excellent new book of memoirs from disillusioned movement people such as Peter Collier, David Horowitz, and Carol Iannone: Political Passages: Journeys of Change Through Two Decades, 1968-1988, edited by John H. Bunzel. Writing in The Washington Post (July 24, 1988), Gans insisted that the authors of these memoirs had a fundamentally misguided view of the movement: the movement did not consist of sympathizers with the North Vietnamese, such people constituted a mere “handful”; and meanwhile “the millions of patriotic Americans” who actually made up the movement are ignored in the book. The same point is pushed by Kauffman. Oh yes, he says, there were a “few” people in the movement who dressed in Vietcong black pajamas, burned American flags, and wanted the North Vietnamese to win; but to concentrate one’s attention on such people misses the attitude of the vast majority of demonstrators and marchers.
Misses, that is, the dupes (I speak as one of the duped). Both Kauffman and Gans argue that sympathizers with Hanoi were only an infinitesimal and unimportant part of the movement. There is, I suppose, something to this, in that the actual numbers of such people were (relatively) small—though to tell the truth, I really don’t remember seeing very many waving American flags at the antiwar demonstrations I attended. But: what was important about the Communist sympathizers was not how many they were but who they were. They were the intellectual and political leadership of the movement. Both Kauffman and Gans need to face the fact that the intellectual and political leaders of the antiwar movement—the type of people who, as in the film, visited Hanoi—were firmly on the side of the North Vietnamese, did idealize and sanctify them, did see North Vietnamese society as angelic (as they saw America as Satanic). Kauffman and Gans may be uncomfortable with this, and they may try to obfuscate the implications of this, but there is plenty of evidence to show that both The Hanoi Hilton and Political Passages hit the nail right on the head.
During the war, the following central figures of the antiwar movement visited North Vietnam and brought back absolutely glowing accounts of its leaders, its society, and/or the way it treated American prisoners of war: Ramsey Clark (North Vietnam characterized as a country of total spiritual unity); Susan Sontag (North Vietnam a country of love); Mary McCarthy (a humane leadership, greatly concerned about the welfare of American prisoners); William Sloane Coffin (a humane, gentle, compassionate leadership—plus great good humor, too!); Daniel Berrigan (a country characterized above all by “a naive faith in human goodness”); Tom Hayden (a country characterized by deep humanity, and also by “poetry and music”); Jane Fonda (a leadership compassionate toward American prisoners, who, for their part, were “liars and hypocrites”); Staughton Lynd (a country of “humane socialism, socialism with a heart”—indeed, this was the specifically Vietnamese contribution to the world socialist movement). One may add Noam Chomsky, who never visited the North, but wrote in 1973 that it was the most genuinely popular system in the entire world, a just system, and a rewarding one.
In his attack on The Hanoi Hilton, Kauffman remarked that such idealization of the North would have been “sickeningly grotesque” especially after 1975, because of the terrible consequences of the Communist victory for the condition of the Vietnamese people. I fully agree. But Kauffman clearly means to suggest that because such idealization was “sickeningly grotesque” it did not occur, or if it did occur it was only of very minor importance. Once again, he is wrong. The panegyrics of the North did continue after 1975; they came from very prominent people; in fact, they came from the heart of the antiwar leadership.
Thus George McGovern, visiting the South in 1976, found a moderate and humane government, far less dictatorial than the old Thieu regime. He found no signs of oppression, no signs even of secret police. In 1977 Richard Falk, Richard Barnet, David Dellinger, Corliss Lamont, Paul Sweezy, and Cora Weiss praised the Vietnamese government for its spirit of moderation, and its extraordinary efforts towards reconciliation (!) with its people. Two years later, in 1979, they went further and declared that “Vietnam now enjoys human rights as it has never known in its history.” Dellinger, in his most recent book on Vietnam (1986), still praises the regime’s human rights policies.
This group of people and their ideas were not insignificant, nor somewhere out on the fringes of the antiwar movement—as both Kauffman and Gans suggest. On the contrary: these people were the central leaders of the movement; their ideas were the leading ideas of the organizing cadre, and were influential to some extent everywhere. And those ideas, heavily criticized by the disillusioned authors of Political Passages, were every bit as sycophantic toward the Communists as the scenes in The Hanoi Hilton showed. (In fact, if anything the movie was more restrained than the reality. It did not depict the Jane Fonda figure doing some of the things Fonda really did do: like sitting at an enemy anti-aircraft gun and pretending to take aim at American planes, saying “I wish I had one of those murderers in my sights,” or ratting to the North Vietnamese when American POW.’s complained to her about being mistreated.) As for the alleged sympathy the broad movement displayed toward ordinary American soldiers—everyone remembers that returning veterans shed their uniforms as quickly as possible, for fear of being accosted by protesters and identified as “baby killers” and “rapists.”
“A handful”; “a few.” The story of the antiwar leadership, of course, is not the whole story of the antiwar movement. But it is an important—indeed crucial—part of the story. Those “few” formed the energetic organizing core of the movement, offered the movement its dominant ideology, and manipulated the popular emotions of hundreds of thousands so that the goals of the leaders might be fulfilled. What were those goals? The “unification” of Vietnam (under Communist rule), the defeat of the United States, the destruction of American power in Southeast Asia. It is highly misleading for Kauffman and Gans to focus solely on the myriad dupes of the antiwar leadership—those whose motives were (often) more honorable and less knowingly political—and not on the ideology and behavior of the leadership itself, as if those people were irrelevant or nonexistent, as if their purposes were never fulfilled.
But my point is not that the new depiction of a “patriotic” antiwar movement—a basically nonradical, nonpolitical “peace” movement—is bad history. The problem is that the movement, or rather its core of ideologues, continues to exist and function: it therefore belongs not to history but, precisely, to current events.
The movement cadre never ceased its activities, not even after the “victory” of 1975. It formed the Coalition for a New Foreign and Military Policy (CNFMP) in the late 70’s; it formed the backbone of the nuclear freeze project in the early 80’s; it now forms the backbone of opposition to American attempts to block the spread of Communist power in Central America. The ideology of these people remains the same. It was best expressed by Richard Barnet in 1969: “The first imperative is that the world must be made safe for revolution.” And the basic method used by these people remains the same. They cloak attempts to diminish American power (a purely political objective) under the name of appeals to general morality (e.g., “Stop the War, Stop the Killing!”; “Arms are for Hugging”; “No War in Central America: Nicaragua Wants Peace”). This is a tactic designed to mobilize thousands of people sincerely concerned about moral issues (hence the enormous and frightening success of movement people within the established churches), in order that the political agenda of the leadership can be fulfilled. And as long as the educated public (the real target of the movement) has no understanding of how it was manipulated in the 60’s, it will have no defense against being manipulated again in the 80’s. Thus bad history—bad historical understanding—can lead to disastrous present politics.
In fact, what is most disturbing is that some of these people, apparently unencumbered by their past, have in the 80’s achieved positions of increasing importance and influence. Frank Borosage, a leading light of the radical Institute for Policy Studies (founded by Richard Barnet and Cora Weiss), was a chief advisor to Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1988. Gareth Porter, after Noam Chomsky the leading apologist for the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, is now an important figure on the staff of Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts (and Kerry, in turn, is a pillar of the pro-Sandinista lobby in Congress). Richard Barnet himself appears as a political commentator on the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour. And in September 1988 the Democratic presidential nominee spent two full days campaigning in California with Tom Hayden—Tom Hayden, the pilgrim to Hanoi, the founder of SDS, known in the 60’s as “the American Lenin,” and husband of Jane Fonda. Hayden hasn’t changed much: at the time, he had one of his children down in Nicaragua, “serving the Nicaraguan people.” Mr. Hayden is currently only a member of the California State Assembly. But great things are expected of him. Revising the history of the antiwar movement will make the achievement of those great things all the easier.
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