The Vietnam Protest

Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon Johnson; drawing by David Levine

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…

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