April 28, 2000
Five experts discuss their memories of the Vietnam War era protest movement as the 25th anniversary of the war's end nears.
SUAREZ: For more on the antiwar movement the continuing lives of its
participants and the legacy it's left today, we're joined by Ruth Rosen,
professor of history at the University of California at Davis -- a student
war protester, she's the author of a new book, The World Split Open:
How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America; Representative
Bobby Rush, who served in the U.S. Army from 1963 to 1968, and was a
founder of the Illinois State Black Panther Party, he now represents
the state's 1st congressional district; the Reverend James Wallis is
a former student protester, now editor-in-chief with Sojourners magazine,
his new book is Faith Works: Lessons from the Life of an Activist
Preacher; journalist and author Haynes Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning
reporter for the Washington Star and the Washington Post,
who covered the domestic issues of the war in the 1960s and '70s; and
David Horowitz is an author and former student protester who now believes
that he and other antiwar demonstrators prolonged the war in Vietnam
-- he's the head of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture.
Professor Rosen, did this era in American life make a permanent addition to the kit bag, the tool kit of anyone with a grievance?
RUTH ROSEN: Well, I think in many ways the civil rights movement is the first real event that taught young people to question received wisdom. And antiwar activists learned to question the truthfulness and the accuracy of what government leaders were telling us. And from those two experiences alone a whole generation began to question tradition, custom, and the wisdom of an adult generation. And it was only one leap from there for women to question their subordinate status in the movement within itself, and then outside the movement as well.
RAY SUAREZ: So the women's movement, in part, takes its lessons from the '60s twin movements of civil rights and antiwar?
RUTH ROSEN: It does, because it's not a great leap to consider questioning and challenging racial superiority. It's not a great leap from questioning your federal government's officials' announcements about a war to questioning why should there be male supremacy, why should women have a subordinate status in society? If you think about the whole '60s as being one series of questioning overseas wisdom, the women's movement comes out specifically as the antiwar movement because the antiwar movement gave women tremendous amount of freedom and egalitarianism and yet, they were really treated as subordinates.
RAY SUAREZ: David Horowitz, when you look back over the last 30 years or so, how do you see the way we do politics in this country changed by the war experience?
DAVID HOROWITZ: Well, there's a false parallelism here. The civil rights demonstrators in the South were demonstrating against an undemocratic regime; black people didn't really have the right to vote, and they didn't have normal channels, you know, to redress their grievances. The so-called "antiwar movement" was led by and organized by people who wanted a totalitarian regime to establish itself in South Vietnam. That's really what it was about. And so, you know, if we amalgamate the two movements, we're going to draw a lot of false lessons. I think we can see the inheritors or the legatees of the new left movement of the '60s in the Luddites in Seattle in Washington who are protesting against the world market, the World Bank -- I mean, you know, global -- a global movement to improve people's lives. They're very much in that tradition, and I guess they've learned a lot from the '60s.
RAY SUAREZ: Jim Wallis, do you agree that that's the legacy?
REV. JIM WALLIS: Well, I became involved in the Civil Rights movement at about fourteen or fifteen and then the student antiwar struggles. They really set the course of my life, and it taught me that people can make a difference. Students, young people, made a difference in those days. Now I'm doing faith-based organizing. I wasn't then, but I am now. In the churches across the country we're forming new partnerships around the issue of poverty. We've got record prosperity and rising inequality at the same time.
And for many of us we've also learned that the left and right polarization confrontation doesn't help us find real solutions. So the legacy for me is that people can make a difference; organizing does change things; and social movements finally are what really alter the direction of the country. Right now, we're trying to build a new movement around people who are poor in the middle of all this prosperity, and so churches and faith-based organizations I think are making a great difference now. Many of us got our beginnings in the civil rights and antiwar struggles.
RAY SUAREZ: And Congressman Rush, where did that energy go when the war was over that had been ginned up -- the people's movements that came out of the '60s?
REP. BOBBY RUSH: Well, I think that energy is still present. Of course, the students -- the young people who demonstrated in Seattle and also in Washington, D.C. -- are the heirs to the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement. But I want to just hasten to say that to me the ongoing current of the twin pillars that all of these movements have been based on is a concept of justice and a concept of equality. And I think that as long as those are issues that are before the American people, then those -- the movement will still have the energy to sustain itself. We will always have new recruits as long as those two pillars of moral behavior, moral responsibility, moral conduct is at the center of American life.
RAY SUAREZ: Haynes, our other guests were involved at ground zero in the protest. You were watching them. Their lives have taken very different courses.
|Old wounds not yet healed|
HAYNES JOHNSON: Just listening to what we're hearing tonight right here is fascinating -- the old wounds aren't healed. The war was the most divisive, painful, terribly searing experience in the United States since our Civil War, and I would argue worse, because that's the Civil War -- people actually banning together in ways that we didn't have in Vietnam. It divided us in our generations. It divided us among those who went to war and who didn't go to war. It divided us in the inner cities and those who were not in the inner cities. The white majority who went to the elite colleges didn't go to war; they all avoided service. People in the Congress today who were of age at that point did not serve in Vietnam. The military, all of the institutions in the United States took a tremendous lashing, including the press to this day. I think it sowed a poison in the country that has not been healed yet, and I think -- I agree with what they've said about the Civil Rights movement spawning others, and it certainly changed things, from women to all kinds of things and liberties and so forth, but it didn't heal the process of the war.
Let me just -- one little memory, if I may -- watching those clips earlier, I remember watching with King; I had been in Selma for six months. And we walked, and finally he arrived at the courthouse before the march to Montgomery, and the sun was rising up over the Alabama River; he had gone four blocks, and he had gotten there, and he gave this incredible extemporaneous speech, as only he could do, and talked about how out of this now we've got to turn our emotions to ending war and other things. In fact, there was a great sense of idealism and nobility. King, you saw in the clip you used, two years later, and I remember King very well up until his death; he had aged tremendously; he was frustrated, it wasn't going well, the country was being torn apart, and that sort of thing, so there was enormous frustration that existed, and still does and we're still trying to learn the lessons of war, which was, we were on the wrong side of history. We involved ourselves in a colonial war and a civil war, which was against our own traditions and our leaders didn't understand it and they never explained it to the public.
RAY SUAREZ: But David Horowitz, you don't see the idealism in that era -- go ahead.
DAVID HOROWITZ: It wasn't a civil war; it was a war for freedom, and we're going to win it; the Vietnamese will one day adopt a market system, private property, and civil liberties; it's just been prolonged by, you know, people like the people on this show. I have never seen -- except in Tom Hayden actually -- a single leftist recognize that by forcing the United States to withdraw from the battlefield in Vietnam they are responsible for two and a half million deaths of the peasants in Indochina who were murdered by the Communists that the so-called "antiwar movement" supported. I'd like to see a little honesty on this issue. You know, I just couldn't agree less with Haynes Johnson.
RAY SUAREZ: Congressman Rush, go ahead.
REP. BOBBY RUSH: I just have to intercede here -- and I'm sorry for cutting you off, but I don't feel -- not one small centimeter or millimeter of responsibility for killing the young people or killing the people of Vietnam. As a matter of fact, I'm motivated, and my civil rights involvement, my antiwar involvement, my involvement even today in terms of my own neighborhood and urban America in trying to eliminate violence in urban America. It's based on a profound concept of peace, not war, and I think that what we're concerned about -- and I think, for instance what motivated young people who demonstrated -- it wasn't about the regime in Vietnam. It was about peace. It was about the moral responsibility for trying to end not only the Vietnam War, but all wars.
RAY SUAREZ: Jim Wallis?
REV. JIM WALLIS: Well, I was a 14, 15-year-old kid, and I wasn't involved to support a totalitarian regime in Vietnam or the Viet Cong; Mr. Horowitz was. I read his articles of that time. I was --
DAVID HOROWITZ: You supported them in Central America. You're part of the movement to prop up the Communist dictatorships in Nicaragua, to support the Communist guerrillas in Salvador -- supporting a monster in Havana, Fidel Castro -- that's what you were doing. I mean, let's be honest.
RAY SUAREZ: Let Jim Wallis discuss what he's doing, David Horowitz.
REV. JIM WALLIS: What I am part of is a faith-based movement now, bringing together conservatives and liberals, left and right, to overcome poverty in this country. It's an emerging movement that is based on the legacy of what I heard from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who inspired a 15-year-old kid. And there are moral rights and wrongs. Movements are based on rights and wrongs. When they become polarized by left and right -- as we're hearing again today -- we're still poisoned. Haynes is right by this. Left and right politics prevent solutions from happening. Grassroots movements, on the ground, I think find our ways to solutions. So what I've taken from that is a kind of a morally based politics that rejects the extremes of both left and right, and like Bobby was saying, talks about fundamental issues of justice, fundamental issues of peace. And I think that's where the common ground is indeed being found around the country, and a lot of Americans who don't like left and right are finding a moral basis for their involvement in a great cause like overcoming poverty in the midst of prosperity.
|After the war|
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Rosen, let me bring you back in here, because you've watched how people have gone on with their lives after the war into other movements. But a lot of people just went home. What was the difference between those who channeled their energy into new movements and new political causes in the country, and those who said "that was for this time, and now it's over"?
RUTH ROSEN: Well, first I'd like to address, I think, the very specious arguments that David Horowitz made that most of the antiwar movement wanted a totalitarian state. I was involved in the antiwar movement, after being involved in the civil rights movement, from 1964 on. And I was at Berkeley, in graduate school, so I was here on the West Coast, and of course there were many people who were very violent, who did want a totalitarian state. But they were fringe, and they were a minority, and to characterize the entire antiwar movement in such ways is so historically inaccurate.
About what happened after the war, I think that most historians have not looked carefully at how much the war influenced various movements, but they didn't take on the kind of eruptive and violent or disruptive quality during the 1970s that they had in the '60s. Let me just give you an example. By 1970, the women's movement had become a household word. The environmental movement had taken off. The gay and lesbian movement had taken off. These people didn't go home. These people, in fact, continued, and by the early '80s, there was a very profound anti-nuclear movement in the United States, and today the young people are involved in again, addressing the question of social and economic injustice. They are not totalitarian. They are hoping that our country can live up to its rather fantastic and wonderful ideals. But to portray everyone who cares about social and economic injustice as a demonic Communist is to continue the kind of red-baiting of the 1950's, and it's shameful. And it's disgraceful.
DAVID HOROWITZ: Of course, I didn't do that at all. I said the movement was led and organized by people who wanted the Communists to win. That's why the slogan was "bring the troops home now," because that's what we'd accomplish.
RUTH ROSEN: But that's not true.
DAVID HOROWITZ: Wait, wait, wait. Let me finish.
RAY SUAREZ: Let him finish the question.
DAVID HOROWITZ: You know, you can judge people by what they do, I mean, not by the smooth surface they put over it afterward. There were no demonstrations when the Vietnamese people, whom we all claimed to be concerned about, were oppressed by the Communists of the North, when they incarcerated hundreds of thousands, and executed 100,000 people. When the people of Vietnam were fleeing a much... horrible tyranny, in boats, millions of them, there were no demonstrations by the antiwar, so-called, movement against that tyranny. I didn't see anybody demanding social justice for Vietnamese peasants when their oppressors were Communists. And I have to tell you, you know, having been in the movement, I know very well what the people who led it, and people like Ruth Rosen, believed, and that's what they believed. In my view, you know, people can fall out however they want on that war, but you cannot have any progress towards social justice or any good until people are willing to confront the truth -- what they did, the mistakes they made.
REV. JIM WALLIS: There were faith-based people, and other people who after the war supported the Buddhists against the Communist persecution of them who were against the war. I was against the regime in Saigon before the war and I've spoken out against it after the war. Faith-based people and people of conscience don't fall into neat right and left categories like your characterization today of Seattle and Washington. Sure, they were busting up Starbucks windows -- stupid -- and being against global trade -- stupid -- but there are movements there for the cancellation of the unpayable debt, burden of debt, of third world countries. The pope supports that, Billy Graham supports that. Religiously inspired movements around the world are talking about morally based politics. And the politics of left and right, which we're hearing from you again tonight, are just dysfunctional. They don't work on the ground. We want what's right and what works, whether it be canceling the corrupt debt of third world countries, that shouldn't have been incurred in the first place, or changing our own neighborhoods. So I don't care about left and right, I care about finding answers.
DAVID HOROWITZ: What is moral...
RAY SUAREZ: I'm going to go to Haynes Johnson at this point. Haynes?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, you know, just listening again, here we have an argument that's been going on for years and years and years, and on one side Mr. Horowitz is polemical and sort of extreme, and he's talking about the monster, Castro, all the old rhetoric that -- that's not where the world is today. Vietnam --
DAVID HOROWITZ: He's not a monster? Fidel Castro, who has murdered his personal friends and put people in solitary confinement --
HAYNES JOHNSON: And interrupting people and being rude and not historically correct either -- I mean, so you have -- he was right when he was on the left, and now he's right when he's on the right. That's the -- that's not what the lesson -- Vietnam really did profoundly affect the psyche of America and all Americans. And I think we're beginning, hopefully, to come out of it and learn some lessons. Our military --
|The war's legacy lives on|
| RAY SUAREZ: Are we still living with it today?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Oh, yes, absolutely. We have no -- nobody serves in the military today, but I served three years during the Korean War for instance.. And I covered stories all over the world, riots and so forth, and wars, with combat here and abroad, and today you have nobody who goes in the military unless it's volunteer. That was a complete aftermath of the war. I think in a way it's unfortunate, because we divided ourselves more. And I think the distances between the inner cities and the rest remains very great. And I salute the people that are trying to bridge those distances.
And I think the lesson too, in terms of policy, we will not commit American force... No President since Lyndon Johnson is willing to commit American force as they did in Vietnam. We spent a few days in Somalia, and 12 people die, and we're gone and the Secretary of Defense is fired. We go to Haiti, and we won't even go ashore, because we're afraid of that. We have Bosnia, we fly 50,000 feet over here, because we don't want to commit ground forces so no one will get hurt. I mean, the legacies of Vietnam are many. That's just from the military side. The psychic side of trying to understand the experience is I would hope that out of this comes some sort of thoughtfulness about how it affected us and what we can take from it.
RUTH ROSEN: I would like to say that...
REP. BOBBY RUSH: Mr. --
RAY SUAREZ: Bobby Rush, go ahead.
REP. BOBBY RUSH: And I just would certainly agree with you. And I just think that we don't do a service to those goals, those objectives, those individuals throughout the nation, through the world, who have given their lives in order to try to promote peace. We don't serve them well by questioning their motivation. There aren't any perfect human beings around. And sure, David, if you want us to agree that -- or want me to agree -- that there might be some who had some misguided ideals, some very extreme ideals during the '60s, you have my agreement. But that don't mean that the entire civil rights movement, the entire antiwar movement, should be cast aside. We can't afford to allow your jingoistic justifications to permeate and to dominate here, because it's absolutely wrong.
RUTH ROSEN: I'd like to address...
RAY SUAREZ: The tyranny of the clock is intervening now, and I'm afraid I have to cut it off there. Guests, thank you all.