Books of the Month

Mass anti-Vietnam War protests changed face of US politics

August 22, 2022
United Auto Workers contingent in May 5, 1971, mass demonstration in New York. Many workers, then some unions, became involved in fight against Washington’s war in Indochina.
Stuart KiehlUnited Auto Workers contingent in May 5, 1971, mass demonstration in New York. Many workers, then some unions, became involved in fight against Washington’s war in Indochina.

One of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for August is Out Now! A Participant’s Account of the Movement in the U.S. Against the Vietnam War by Fred Halstead. Representing the Socialist Workers Party, Halstead helped lead the international protest movement. The unwavering determination of the peoples of Indochina, the growing opposition of U.S. troops to the war, and anti-war protests from the early 1960s to mid-1970s that swelled to tens of millions across the world deeply affected the working class in the U.S. and forced Washington to pull its troops out of Vietnam. The excerpt below is from the “Afterword.” Copyright © 1991 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.


The Second Indochina War was the first in the epoch of American imperialism in which the United States went down to defeat. After emerging victorious from the Spanish-American War and two world wars, then encountering a stalemate in Korea, the Pentagon’s military machine was ignominiously evicted from Vietnam, thanks to the persevering struggle of the Indochinese plus the antiwar resistance of the American people. This was the most sustained and, except for Russia in 1905 and 1917, the most effective antiwar movement within any big power while the shooting was going on. …

U.S. intervention had a thoroughly imperialistic character. The colossus of world capitalism hurled its military might without provocation against a small and divided colonial nation thousands of miles away struggling for self-determination and unification. A series of American presidents sought to do what King George III’s empire failed to do against the rebel patriots of 1776.

On one side was a state armed to the teeth promoting the strategic aims and material interests of the corporate rich on the global arena; on the other was a worker and peasant uprising heading toward the overthrow of capitalist power and property, despite the limited political program of its leadership. …

Apart from genocide against the Native Americans, which involved intermittent warfare over four centuries, this was the longest war in America’s history. The first U.S. soldier was reported killed in Vietnam in 1959, the last in 1975, a span of sixteen years. (The Revolutionary War lasted eight years and the Spanish-American War only four months.)

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the total number of American military personnel engaged at one time or another in the Southeast Asian war — including bases in Thailand and elsewhere and on ships at sea — was over eight million. This was more than half the number of Americans engaged in World War II (8,744,000 compared with 16,112,566). Over three million Americans were sent to Vietnam itself. Sixty thousand were killed, 46,000 of these in combat; and 300,000 were wounded. …

The Indochinese were killed in the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, and their lands devastated. The Pentagon dropped more bomb tonnage on the relatively small area of Indochina than had been dropped anywhere in the world in all previous wars combined.

The direct dollar cost to the U.S. in South Vietnam alone was $141 billion. This was more than $7,000 for each of the area’s 20 million inhabitants, whose per capita income was only $157 per year. … Economists correctly link the rapid inflation of the late 1960s to the large federal deficits resulting from U.S. spending for the Vietnam War.

Most Americans today regard this as a colossal waste of lives and wealth in a shameful war. But the Pentagon strategists make a different assessment. To be sure, they did not cover themselves with glory or succeed in crushing the Vietnamese revolution and retaining a staging area for U.S. operations in the region. But they did hold back the advancement of the colonial revolution in Vietnam for a decade and a half. That was part of their job of policing the world for American big business, its multinational companies, and its clients in Japan and elsewhere. …

[T]he antiwar agitation and mass mobilizations spurred the radicalization of many sectors of the population. “It is no accident,” wrote Susan Jacoby for one, “that so many female veterans of the civil-rights movement and the antiwar movement ultimately became involved in the women’s liberation movement.”

It changed the political face of the United States and motivated a healthy distrust of the rulers in Washington that bore fruit in the Watergate revelations and their sequels.

It broke the fever of the anticommunist hysteria and weakened the efficacy of the “red scares” that have been used as a weapon against any challenge to the status quo.

It challenged and changed the stereotyped image of GIs as obedient pawns of the brass immunized against dissenting currents within the civilian population.

The abhorrence of any further military ventures abroad has restricted the options available to Washington in its imperial designs, as its dilemma over Angola in 1976 indicated.

The American movement against the Vietnam War broke the pattern of large and successful movements for social reform in the United States confining themselves to domestic matters and accepting uncritically the imperialist foreign policy, aggressive wars, and counterrevolutionary ventures of the American Establishment.

All this cannot but be reflected in future struggles for social progress within the United States and internationally. It is even possible that the antiwar movement will prove to have been in a number of aspects a rehearsal for the coming American socialist revolution. …

The American movement against the Vietnam War knocked a gaping hole in the theory that because of its control over the military, the police, the economy, and the tremendously effective modern media, the ruling class could get away with anything so long as there was some degree of prosperity. The antiwar movement started with nothing but leaflets. But it proved that people can think for themselves if the issue touches them deeply enough, technology notwithstanding. In human affairs there is still nothing so powerful as an idea and a movement whose time has come.