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The Vietnam Protest

As critics of the current U. S. policy in Vietnam, we wish to make some proposals and comments about the protest movement that is beginning to appear in this country. We believe that the debate concerning Vietnam is far from over, in fact, that it has just begun; and we think that the protest movement has an important role to play.

1. Uneasiness about the war in Vietnam seems more widespread among the American people than the size of the recent protest demonstrations might suggest. That we have drifted into a full-scale Asian war which is likely to grow in magnitude; that this war requires for its prosecution bombings in South Vietnam that could devastate the entire country; that the Vietnamese government we are helping lacks both popular support and the moral legitimacy that might come from a commitment to democracy; that no matter what military “victories” are won here and there, the probable outcome of the fighting will be a stalemate, with the U. S. holding the coastal areas and cities and the Vietcong the rural interior—all this, and more, seems slowly to be filtering into the consciousness of a growing segment, though still a minority, of the population. If this supposition has any truth at all, there is now a genuine opportunity for the movement that wishes to change U.S. policy in Vietnam—provided it resolves upon a set of proposals and a program of action which can gain the approval of more than the small band already committed to protest.

2. The response of the Johnson administration to the recent protests has been disgraceful, a mixture of hysteria and foolishness. One might suppose from the cries of anguish coming out of Washington that the burning of a draft card by a young Catholic pacifist threatened the very foundations of the Republic. A nation tracing its origins to the Boston Tea Party ought not to become so jittery over the possibility of a few burned cards.

Nor should there be any question as to the legitimacy of protest against a policy that has never been seriously debated in Congress or candidly presented to the country. The Johnson administration seems incapable of distinguishing between consensus and unanimity; so eager is it for total support, it begins to approach the psychology of benevolent authoritarianism; and in regard to foreign policy it tends to replace public debate with invisible decree.

As for the argument that the recent demonstrations may persuade the Chinese and Vietnamese Communists to prolong the war because they might be misled into supposing the American people do not support the government’s policy, this does not even merit serious discussion. It is the kind of demagogic appeal characteristically advanced by governments embarked upon adventures in which they do not have full confidence. We believe the Communists can count as well as anyone else and know precisely (quite apart from what they may write in their press) the strength or weakness of the Vietnam protest movement.

The price—but also, let it be stressed, the glory—of democracy is that minorities may use their freedom to dissent. If the war in Vietnam drags on month after month, inconclusive in outcome but devastating in consequence, there will continue to be dismay, doubt, and opposition among serious persons in this country. At the very least, the Johnson administration must accept this prospect as a fact of life; the only alternative is to unleash or tolerate a renewal of the poisonous atmosphere associated with the name of McCarthy. (And something of that atmosphere has already reappeared, in the proposals made, for example, by some draft boards that student critics of the Vietnam war be immediately drafted as a punitive or “educational” measure.)

The Johnson administration might also remember something else: that if and when the moment comes to negotiate with the Communists in Southeast Asia—and unless we are to lapse into a state of permanent war that moment must come—the administration is certain to face a barrage of attacks from the far right. No matter what the terms of agreement might then be with the Asian Communists, whether favorable or harsh, the administration will be charged with “appeasement” and worse, by Republicans ready to make political capital out of national difficulties and rightists determined to talk this country beyond the brink. In such an eventuality, the administration will very much need the support of precisely those intellectual and academic critics under whose attack it now chafes. It would be useful here to recall that the student peace movement, at one point, picketed the White House in behalf of a ban on nuclear testing; not very long afterward, this proposal, which had been dismissed as “unrealistic,” was realized in official government policy.

3. Meanwhile the Vietnam protest movement—inchoate and without structure, but drawing upon deep sentiments of moral idealism—faces some serious decisions. There is a tendency, composed mainly of students but also drawing upon a few professors and nonacademic ideological advisors, to transform the protest into an apocalypse, a “final conflict,” in which extreme gestures of opposition will bring forth punitive retaliation from the authorities. Such a policy, appealing to sectarian ultimatism and impatience, is certain to produce a great deal of publicity but not much public support or political impact. It would “prove,” in the eyes of its supporters, various theses about the irrevocability of the reactionary course the U. S. has taken in foreign policy, the fascistic mentality of the “power elite,” etc., etc. Such questionable theoretical satisfactions would not, however, compensate for a failure to affect the actual course of events.

We believe there is a possibility of building a significant protest movement against the current policy in Vietnam. Such a movement would require agreement upon a reasonable program of “demands” appropriate to the present situation; it would require an appeal to large numbers of people not yet involved in any protest actions, including some in the labor, Negro, church, and academic communities who lend formal assent to the Johnson policy but might be persuaded to support specific proposals leading to a peaceful settlement in Vietnam. One prerequisite for such a movement is that it clearly indicate that its purpose is to end a cruel and futile war, not to give explicit or covert political support to the Vietcong. This is both a tactical necessity and a moral obligation, since any ambiguity on this score makes impossible, as well as undeserved, the support of large numbers of the American people.

The protest movement cannot be organized around a full-scale analysis of the Vietnam situation; its task is not to assign historical responsibility for the present disaster to one or another side, nor to undertake a study in depth of the Asian crisis. Such an analysis, bound to evoke many disagreements, cannot be the basis for common action; each participant, each group or individual who joins to protest the current policy of the Johnson administration can provide such analyses independently, apart from the immediate joint action. At the same time, it seems to us somewhat sterile and perhaps a little disingenuous to demonstrate under a slogan so vague and unfocussed—e.g., the one employed in the recent New York parade, “Stop the War in Vietnam”—that it provides no guidelines for action and could even, for that matter, be formally accepted by those who approve of the current administration policy.

We would therefore suggest the following proposals as a basis for common action:

a) We urge the U. S. immediately to cease bombing North Vietnam;

b) We urge the U. S. to declare its readiness to negotiate with the NLF, the political arm of the Vietcong;

c) We urge the U. S. to propose to Hanoi and the Vietcong an immediate cease-fire as a preliminary to negotiations;

d) We urge that the U. S. recognize the right of the South Vietnamese freely to determine their own future, whatever it may be, without interference from foreign troops, and possibly under United Nations supervision;

e) We urge Hanoi and the Vietcong to accept a proposal for a cease-fire and to declare themselves ready for immediate and unconditional negotiations.

The advantage of this program, we believe, is that it points toward a line of action, somewhat like that advocated by Senator Fulbright, which could satisfy the central need of the moment: an end to the blood-letting. It allows people of widely varying opinions to work together for a common objective, even while maintaining their separate valuations of what has been happening in Asia. And it may enable the protest movement to win support for these objectives from people who have given reluctant or partial or merely token support to the Johnson policy.

4. While we believe that civil disobedience is a legitimate, if ultimate, means of registering dissent and statements of conscience in a democratic society, we would urge that it be employed only after intense reflection and a full resort to other, more “normal” methods. Civil disobedience by its very nature, must in a democratic society be an exceptional measure; if employed as a routine tactic, it becomes self-defeating and destructive.

Analogies sometimes advanced with the Civil Rights struggle in the South are largely misleading. Civil Rights demonstrators violated on occasion local ordinances which denied them their constitutional privileges, or deprived them of their right to public protest. In behalf of their legal rights as American citizens, they took what the local authorities declared to be “extra-legal” measures but which were frequently upheld by the higher federal courts. And they acted in behalf of the legal norms and moral values to which the nation as a whole had given its approval.

The situation of the Vietnam protest movement is somewhat different. Thus far, it has by and large been able to express its dissent openly and publicly, through the usual channels open to members of a democratic society—and this fact would seriously call into question any effort to employ civil disobedience as a political tactic by an organized movement. We question the rightness, for example, of recent efforts to stop troop trains in California: they involve an action by a small minority to revoke through its own decision the policy of a democratically elected government—which is something very different indeed from public protest against that government’s decision or efforts to pressure it into changes of policy. Tactically, it might be added, such attempts at “symbolic” interference with the war effort are self-defeating, since they merely result in a display of impotence and alienate people who might be persuaded to join in political protest against the Johnson policy. A “revolutionary” tactic in a decidedly non-revolutionary situation is likely to do little more than increase the isolation of those who undertake it.

5. Similar considerations apply to the recent flurry of publicity and proposals concerning the draft.

Those young people who say they intend to claim a refusal to serve in a war of which they disapprove must recognize their responsibilities to authentic conscientious objectors, that is, pacifists who refuse on principle to employ violence under any circumstances. Not many of the students said to be contemplating a refusal to serve in Vietnam fall in this category, and there is consequently a possibility that, especially if public hysteria arises on this matter, the present status of conscientious objectors, achieved only after long and hard struggles, will be endangered.

We respect the scruples of anyone who feels morally obliged to refuse to fight in Vietnam and therefore requests that he be accorded a special status as a non-combatant under the provisions of the draft. But we also believe that it is the responsibility of any organization urging such a course of action upon young people to inform them of the possible consequences. It is not quite clear whether such claims would be honored under the present provisions of the law concerning conscientious objection, and it is possible that young people making these claims—or refusing to submit to the draft entirely—would face the prospect of severe jail sentences. Nor is it clear to us that the groups said to be advocating such a course have seriously considered its possible effects on the Vietnam protest movement as a whole.

At the same time, we wish to say that the insinuations of cowardice made by certain Congressmen and newspapers against the student protesters are almost entirely without basis in fact. Some of these students have proved their courage under fire in Mississippi and Alabama, as volunteers in the Civil Rights struggle. They now declare themselves ready to undertake hazardous service abroad, provided it does not involve active participation in a war they regard as morally insupportable. A mature and imaginative government would, we think, proceed to take them at their word.

Most important, however, is the fact that there is a crucial difference, which should not be blurred, between individual moral objection and a political protest movement. It is one thing to say, “I cannot in conscience fight this war.” It is quite another thing to advocate resistance to the draft or efforts to use its provisions for conscientious objection as a tactic of the protest movement. The latter course, we believe, could lead only to disaster, the reduction of what is potentially an expression of popular outrage to an heroic martyrdom by a tiny band of intellectual guerillas. To allow the question of the draft to become the central focus of the Vietnam protest—something that both the right wing and sections of the press would relish, for all too obvious reasons—is to forego in advance any possibility of affecting U.S. policy in the immediate future.

We believe that the present U.S. policy in Vietnam is morally and politically disastrous. We wish to see a movement of increasing scope appear in the United States which will press for a change in this policy. And we are convinced that toward this end it is necessary to employ every channel of democratic pressure and persuasion.

Irving Howe,
Editor of Dissent
Michael Harrington,
Chairman of Board, League for
Industrial Democracy
Bayard Rustin,
A. Philip Randolph Institute
Lewis Coser,
Executive Committee, PAX
Penn Kimble,
Chairman, New York Students for a
Democratic Society

(All the above sign as individuals, not as representatives of organizations.)

Letters

Vietnam January 6, 1966

Vietnam January 6, 1966

An Exchange on Vietnam December 23, 1965

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