False memory

Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks:

The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory

On Memorial Day 2012, President Barack Obama issued a presidential proclamation to begin a Pentagon-directed campaign to rehabilitate the Vietnam War: “The Federal Government will partner with local governments, private organizations, and communities across America to participate in the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War—a thirteen-year program to honor and give thanks to a generation of proud Americans who saw our country through one of the most challenging missions we have ever faced.”

In a radio address on the same day, he added a bit more human touch to his dryly worded proclamation. “It’s another chance to honor those we lost at places like Hue, Khe Sanh, Danang and Hamburger Hill. And we’ll be calling on you—the American people—to join us in thanking our Vietnam veterans in your communities.”

This move surprised many Obama supporters who continue to hope for the best from the successful 2008 antiwar presidential candidate and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has proved to be a vigorous supporter of US military intervention around the globe as commander-in-chief. For Obama’s antiwar critics it was just another of a long list of broken campaign promises, betrayals, and support for “Bush-like” policies that has turned previous Obama enthusiasts into hardened cynics.

But if one takes a longer view of Obama’s actions they are the continuation of a three-and-a-half-decade campaign by the US political establishment, many of the country’s leading historians, and, all too often, Hollywood to “restore honor” to the Vietnam War and vilify the antiwar movement. Underlying much of the pro-war hostility to the Vietnam antiwar movement was its alleged “elitist” composition and degrading treatment of the largely working class soldiers who fought the war out of selfless patriotic devotion to their country.

Arriving just in time to help counter this false memory is Penny Lewis’s Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory. Lewis, an associate professor of Labor Studies at the City University of New York and a longstanding union and antiwar activist, has two goals in mind with Hardhats: to correct the “distorted representations of the class dynamics of Vietnam antiwar sentiment and protest, and a theoretical accounting of why such a distorted image developed and persists.”

Lewis was motivated to take on this subject because of her own experience organizing against the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the parallels (mostly incorrect) drawn with the Vietnam era. “Whether or not contemporary wars appropriately compared to Vietnam,” Lewis writes, “to some observers the antiwar movement that quickly emerged (and faded) in recent years was a different beast from the that of the Vietnam era.” She quotes from a New York Magazine article that she sees as typical of this misguided approach: “It’s no longer the good workers of America against the crazy liberal elitists.”

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One of the most enduring images from the Vietnam era is the “hardhat” (construction worker) assault on antiwar demonstrators on Wall Street following President Nixon’s illegal and massively unpopular invasion of Cambodia in the spring of 1970. This one disturbing incident (and the one large demonstration by the skilled trades unions that followed soon afterwards) became the basis for one of the most longstanding myths of the Vietnam era, that white, ‘ethnic,’ workers supported the war while the educated upper and middle class—especially their children—opposed it. 

This myth became part of a wider, media-driven “rediscovery” of the white, blue-collar workers who were almost always portrayed as reactionary bigots. All in the Family’s Archie Bunker was the most lovable of this stereotype, but Peter Boyle’s Joe, a feature film, was a menacing murderer. 

Lewis’s Hardhats, Hippies and Hawks is the latest book to take on this myth. Jerry Lembcke’s The Spitting Image exposed as a big lie one of the most horrid of myths that middle class antiwar protestors spit repeatedly on returning Vietnam veterans. Barbara Ehrenreich devotes a chapter of her book Fear of Falling to it. My book Vietnam: The (Last) War The U.S. Lost directly takes up the issue, along with the exploding class struggle during the later half of the war. 

Lewis delves, however, far deeper into the origins of the hardhat vs. hippies myth, along with the academic writing that was produced to give it a sophisticated veneer, what Barbara Ehrenreich called “snobbery disguised as sociology.” “The Vietnam antiwar movement was a massive, sprawling, multiheaded phenomenon” Lewis reminds us. “It is estimated that as many as 6 million Americans actively participated in it in one form or another, with another, 25 million close sympathizers.”

It was simply astonishing in its size, scope, and longevity. For a country that had a population of around two-hundred million people during the war years (1965–73), a movement that grew to have 25 million sympathizers is remarkable. All US antiwar campaigns since then have attempted to have the same impact on national politics that the Vietnam antiwar movement did.

Is it possible that a movement that had such size and scope could only produce a negative reaction from white working-class people? Part of the problem in historical writing on the Vietnam War era is to identify the attitudes of white, male, union members separate from that of their conservative, hawkish leaders such a George Meany, the head of the AFL-CIO, the main trade union federation, during the war years. 

Meany and many other national union leaders were vigorous supporters of the war. Even liberal trade unionists like Walter Reuther of the UAW, who had a socialist background and was uneasy about the escalation of the war during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, chose to remain publicly silent. They chose war and reform. Did all union members make the same choice?

Lewis, quoting the great radical historical Howard Zinn, concludes from many surveys taken during the course of the war that Americans “with only a grade-school education were much stronger for withdrawal than Americans with a college education.” For example, in a 1967 referendum on the war in Dearborn, Michigan, the headquarters of the Ford Motor Company and the home to many UAW members, 41 percent voted for withdrawal.   

Veteran UAW activist, revolutionary socialist, and later a member of the International Socialist Organization, John Anderson, initiated the referendum. Dearborn Mayor Orville Hubbard was a terrible reactionary but opposed the war, and believed that a majority of those who lived closest to the huge Ford River Rouge plant, and had “fewer cars and more children” voted for withdrawal.

These examples point to an institutional gap between the worries, anxieties, and political positions of rank-and-file workers and the union leaders who represented them during the Vietnam era. The trade union movement, especially those associated with the CIO, were subject to a severe anticommunist mauling during from the late 1940s through the 1950s, when the foreign policy stances of unions were a particular flashpoint for government investigation and repression. By the time the United States launched a full-scale invasion of South Vietnam in 1965, the major unions were well rehearsed in uncritically endorsing US foreign policy.

As the war progressed and the brutality of the US war against the Vietnamese became an international scandal—replete with discussion of possible war crimes trials—and with the escalating American casualties and cost of the war, opposition to the war widened. The Tet Offensive shocked US politics with many people concluding that the war was lost, and many wanting an immediate end to US involvement. After the Republican Richard Nixon won the presidency, many unions went into opposition to Nixon’s domestic and foreign policy, opening up a space for opposition to the war inside many mainstream unions. 

The most important political development for the Vietnam antiwar movement was GI opposition to the war. Returning veterans and on-duty soldiers possessed enormous moral authority when they spoke out against the war. But it was also their overwhelmingly working class backgrounds that added important authenticity to their opposition, many of them had volunteered for combat, seen some of the worst combat of the war, and were physically disabled from their service. Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) literally took over leadership of the antiwar movement. Yet, when the media “rediscovered” the working class it was not these VVAW activists or the growing working-class opposition to the war they focused on but on a single hardhat assault on antiwar demonstrators. Why?

Lewis argues, and I agree, that the college-educated reporters, writers, editors and producers in the US media of that generation were predisposed to holding the worst stereotypes of US workers. Many were influenced by such academics as ex-socialist Seymour Martin Lipset, whose 1959 article Democracy and Working Class Authoritarianism,” according to Lewis, “served as a reference point for nearly all sociological as well as many popular discussions of working class politics during the Vietnam era.” 

Lipset portrayed white, male workers as supposedly the most susceptible section of the population to pro-war, nationalist appeals. Lipset’s article was included in his widely reviewed and discussed book Political Man: The Base of Politics that sold 400,000 copies in the mid-1960s!

Many of these stereotypes persist to this very day, especially on college campuses. James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, reports on a “Vietnam exercise,” according to Lewis, “with more than one thousand undergraduate and several hundred non-students” in the decade following the war. He asked students to look at a chart of responses from a January 1971 Gallup Poll question: “A proposal has been made in Congress to require the US government to bring home all troops before the end of this year. Would you like to have your congressman vote for or against this proposal?” After excluding the “I don’t knows,” over 73 percent of the respondents indicated that their congressman should vote for the proposal. Loewens’s students overwhelmingly assumed that the respondents were college educated and middle class, but they were, in fact, high-school educated and working class.

Despite the best efforts of many historians, sociologists, reporters, and editors, the Vietnam War had a sizeable working class opposition from the beginning that only escalated during the course of it. In that way, it had much in common with the working-class opposition to Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the last decade. Penny Lewis has written a great book about the working class and the Vietnam antiwar movement that should be on the bookshelf of every antiwar activist.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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