Lessons from anti-Vietnam war movement — John Percy

by John Percy

[This talk was presented to an anti-war teach-in on October 28, 2001, in Sydney. At the time Percy was national secretary of the Democratic Socialist Party. Expelled from the DSP in May 2008, he is now the national secretary of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]

A New Antiwar Movement Needed
In the wake of the devastating September 11 suicide aircraft bombings in New York and Washington we’re faced with the most incredible, bloodthirsty and reactionary war drive by imperialism led by George Bush, and with Howard and Beazley groveling behind.

They’re killing hundreds of ordinary people in Afghanistan at the moment, with millions at risk of dying from starvation, but this war of retaliation is not just aimed at Bin Laden, or the Taliban, or “terrorists”, but at the people of the Third World, all those who have been oppressed and exploited by imperialism. And it’s aimed also at any dissenting voices at home, the movement against globalisation, the radicalised generations who provide an opposition to the capitalist status quo, anyone who looks or thinks differently. And it’s aimed at any democratic gains we’ve won in past decades.

The world’s divided increasingly between the haves and the have nots, the exploiters and the exploited. The rich have been getting richer, the poor poorer, and they’re erecting chain link fences around their citadels, and are planning to lay waste those beyond the pale.

We’re faced with a new challenge. Constructing the biggest and broadest mass antiwar movement to defeat that imperialist offensive.

Clear lessons can be drawn from our experiences in the campaign against the war in Vietnam. That’s what radicalised me, what Resistance and the Democratic Socialist Party grew out of, and it’s still one of the most inspiring mass movements of solidarity.

These lessons were not new; the movement against the War in Vietnam did not invent them. These lessons already existed from the previous century of struggle by the workers movement.

We know from the past experience of the socialist and workers movement what tactics and strategies are needed to defeat such ruling class offensives – whether it’s a drive to war, or attacks on our democratic rights, or attacks on our living standards. Mass action is the key.

We also know that key to bringing about fundamental social change in this rotten capitalist system is the mobilisation of the mass of people, to get the majority of workers and other oppressed confident that by organising, and acting collectively, they can address all their grievances and have a chance to combat and defeat the source of their problems, capitalism.

But the lessons were rediscovered, and thoroughly reinforced, in the ’60s. And since the movement against the War in Vietnam was very much a movement of young people, a new movement, these lessons were often rediscovered within and against the old movement.

Three core lessons stand out. The need for:

Principled demands directed on our own government;
A mass action perspective;
A democratically organised movement.
Power of Antiwar Movement
The two main protagonists in the 3-decades long War in Vietnam were of course the majority of the Vietnamese people on the one side, and the foreign invaders on the other. First were the French, until their ignominious defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Taking over from them were the United States, with a small group of allies, including Australia, until the major withdrawal of the direct US military intervention was forced in 1973, and the final liberation in 1975. The string of puppet regimes propped up in the south by the US were secondary players.

But there was also another player in this immense drama that had a material impact on the outcome — the enormous campaign against the US war in Vietnam by millions of people around the world, especially in the US.

The campaign against the Vietnam War here in Australia developed in similar ways to the movement in the US. Of course Australia was a junior partner, and tagged along behind the US. But the Australian ruling class had its own aims and ambitions and interests in Southeast Asia.

The Australian government had always supported the intervention politically. But needing to find the cannon fodder for a more active intervention, in 1964 Canberra introduced conscription, the “death lottery.” Birth dates were balloted to determine who would be called up. In May 1965 they sent the first contingent of troops to Vietnam.

The size of the movement and demonstrations that sprang up in protest were proportionately as big or bigger than the actions in the US. The hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life across Australia who participated in actions against the war helped make a difference. They helped force the withdrawal of Australian troops, they helped save many Vietnamese lives, and they aided the final liberation of Vietnam.

First Actions
The first actions in Sydney against the Vietnam War were pickets organised by the Eureka Youth League, the Communist Party of Australia’s youth organisation, outside the US consulate in early 1965. The CPA was the overwhelmingly dominant force on the left in 1965, and heavily influenced the peace movement, especially the Association for International Co-operation and Disarmament (AICD).

When the government announced in April 1965 that Australian troops were being committed to Vietnam there were immediate demonstrations in Sydney and other cities.

Soon after in May the annual Australian Student Labor Federation conference, organised at that time by all the ALP and Labor clubs on campuses around Australia, was held in Canberra. The conference decided to hold a protest action against the Vietnam War. So the delegates marched from the ANU campus to downtown Canberra, and sat down on a pedestrian crossing, blocking traffic. Sixteen of us got arrested.

I think these were the first arrests on the issue of Vietnam. Thousands were to follow in the next seven years. The demonstration was small, but got nation-wide publicity, in the press and on TV.

Vietnam Action Campaign
In Sydney in 1965 with the escalation of the Vietnam War and the beginnings of protests against it, some of the younger members of the Trotskyist group used the resources of CND, mainly its mailing list, to establish the Vietnam Action Committee. Bob Gould became the secretary. VAC must have organised dozens of actions, large and small, in its own name or in coalitions, often responding to the calls for international days of protest from the movement in the US.

VAC’s mailing list built up, and more names were added at each action, until we were organising mailouts of the newsletter to more than 10,000 people and groups. There seemed to be an action nearly every month. The demos grew in size, sometimes helped along by publicity from civil disobedience actions such as sit-down protests. Sometimes the burning of draft cards provided the focus for the demos.

VAC drew in a range of individual activists from different political backgrounds — Trotskyists, some Maoists, anarchists, some people in the ALP, and some from the CPA, especially the youth. The CPA had an ambivalent attitude to VAC. They had to participate, but they were very uncomfortable with Trotskyists in the leadership of it, and they wanted AICD to remain the main anti-war organisation, where their control was guaranteed.

VAC was clear and unequivocal about what the anti-war movement’s aims should have been — immediate withdrawal of all foreign troops. Others equivocated on this, wanting to restrict the demands we placed on the government to “negotiate”.

Opposition to the Vietnam War grew. When U.S. President Johnson visited Australia in October 1966 he was met by protests wherever he went.

In Melbourne his car was splashed with paint. In Sydney 10,000 demonstrated at Hyde Park corner as his motorcade came into the city from the airport. It was the largest action up to then, We broke onto the road, some lay on the road to block the cars. This is when Liberal Premier Askin uttered his infamous words “Ride over the bastards.”

In January 1967, South Vietnamese dictator Marshall Ky visited Australia, and was met by demonstrations around Australia.

The Moratoriums
The biggest, most effective demonstrations against the war were organised in 1970-71 through the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign.

The first Moratorium march was held in May 1970, with 100,000 on the streets in Melbourne, 30,000 in Sydney, thousands in other cities.

The second big Vietnam Moratorium demonstration was in October, with 60,000 people marching in Melbourne.

There was another big successful Moratorium action on June 30, 1971, mobilising 80,000 in Melbourne, and tens of thousands in other cities.

The strength of the Moratoriums were the big organising meetings of activists that made the main decisions. In Melbourne, 500 people regularly filled Richmond Town Hall.

Plans for peace were being negotiated. Nixon’s visit to Peking was announced, and the McMahon government promised on August 18 to withdraw Australian troops by December. Nixon returned from Peking on February 28, 1972. On March 1, US bombing resumed!

The massive bombing continued, until the signing of the peace agreement on January 27, 1973. But it was two more years before the final liberation of the country on April 30, 1975.

A special issue of Direct Action on May 2 welcomed the liberation of Saigon with a banner headline — “A Victory for All Humanity.”

That’s what it was, not just for the Vietnamese, but for all of us. The Vietnamese finally won their independence and freedom after decades of brave struggle. They showed that a people, united in its just aims, could stand up against the most powerful military force on earth.

They were assisted in no small measure by people in the US and Australia and around the world who raised their voices, organised, leafleted, put up posters, held teach-ins, resisted conscription, and demonstrated on the streets in their millions, demanding an end to the war and the withdrawal of US and Australian troops.

It showed the power of a truly mass movement.

The movement against the Vietnam War has added importance also because it was the spark or provided the culture from which many other campaigns sprang. Many other issues flowed from the radicalisation and greater political consciousness developed in the movement against the Vietnam War:

* Women’s Liberation

* Environmental movement

* Gay liberation

And thousands of young people were radicalised, had their eyes opened to the nature of imperialism and the capitalist system, became implacable foes of that system, and joined or formed Marxist organisations.

And for that, those of us who were radicalised, have an extra special debt to the heroic Vietnamese people.

Tactical Lessons:
And we have a debt to the movement against the War in Vietnam for the many rich tactical lessons from that campaign that can still help us today.

One short very instructive pamphlet I’d recommend was written by Peter Camejo, a leader of the US anti-war movement. It’s titled “Liberalism, ultra-leftism and Mass Action.” We’ve reprinted it many times, here together with another very useful speech by Camejo, “How to make a revolution in the United States.”

The most thorough and useful history of the movement in the United States is Fred Halstead’s book, “Out Now!” Halstead was a leader of the US SWP, and a leader of some of the main coalitions that were built to organise the mobilisations there in the ‘60s.

1. Principled politics
Firstly, one lesson at the forefront was the importance of principled politics and clear demands directed against the government.

This lesson was won in the face of those in the Labor Party who wanted to favor compromising demands and slogans, increasingly wanting “respectability,” politics acceptable to the ruling class. At the same time, the Communist Party leadership, overwhelmingly the dominant force on the left at the start of the campaign against the War in Vietnam (a somewhat different matter at the end), tended to tail the ALP left, favoring liberal breadth and respectability.

It was essential that we put demands on the government, that if met, would materially assist our side.

Our current and VAC were clear and unequivocal about what the anti-war movement’s aims should have been — immediate withdrawal of all foreign troops. Liberal peace activists, ALP parliamentarians, and the CPA backing them up, equivocated on this, wanting to restrict the demands we placed on the government to “negotiate”, or “peace”. This mirrored the same debate and struggle that was taking place in the US anti-war movement,

Organisationally they started arguing that people were “tired of marching,” therefore let’s try other tactics… Polite letters, petitions to the government and so on. Really it expressed their faith in the ALP, which wanted to squash the mass movement so as not to scare the voters and damage their election chances.

Of course the people of Vietnam had already been the victims of many past “negotiations” not honoured by the colonialists and imperialists. And it was not for us to accept the US and Australian governments right to be in Vietnam at all.

We also had to debate with the ultra lefts, who wanted the mass actions to adopt a position of support to the Vietnamese Revolution, Victory to the NLF etc, or be explicit in our denunciation of imperialism.

We solidarised with the Vietnamese Revolution, of course, educated people, carried out propaganda activities, held forums, carried NLF flags on May Day and other events like that. But to reach and involve the maximum number of people, on the streets, to reach new layers, to reach workers, a demand like withdrawal was required. This was a demand that compromised nothing, a demand which if successful, would mean the victory of the Vietnamese Revolution.

We also argued against any attempt to impose a multi-issue program on the movement. Ironically, this was often pushed jointly by the ultralefts and the liberals. These people wanted a substitute for a party. They sometimes had left sounding rhetoric, but the effect of the movement adopting such a multi-issue program would be a lowest common denominator type party, not a socialist, not a Marxist party. And it would limit the participation of the broadest numbers of people.

Today, most antiwar committees have adopted clear demands. NoWAR.’s 4 points for example, are clear, and principled, and related to the central issue, and directed at the Australian government.

Steer clear of any attempt to add in a demand to “bring the terrorists before the World Court” or such. Who controls the court? US imperialism. A diversion

2. Involving the masses
In the ‘60sWe fought to build the movement as a united front around principled demands, organising mass mobilisations of all those opposed to the war demanding that US and Australian intervention cease. This was the necessary tactic, to involve the maximum numbers of people in action, to unite the widest range of forces in opposition to the war.

Mass street demonstrations provide an organising focus for the movement and proof of the movement’s power and size. They convince others that it is legitimate to dissent — that it is even their responsibility to join others in the street as the only means of making their opposition count. Such mass actions are also the key to involving social forces beyond the middle class and students.

Today, most would agree on the need for mass demonstrations! Who doesn’t want massive demonstrations? But opposition to that mass action perspective is sometimes expressed in support for tactics that will prevent us building the largest possible actions and an ongoing movement.

3. Democratic functioning
We also argued for the democratic functioning of the movement. There should be open meetings, involving as many activists as possible in the decision-making. Leadership should not be the monopoly of one particular group or political tendency.

Only by ensuring that decisions are made democratically about the course of the movement, its actions and tactics, can a viable antiwar movement be built, based on the real interests and opinions of those involved.

Non-exclusion had to be the principle of such a united front. Nobody, no group, was to be excluded from the action and the organising of it on the basis of their political views, as long as they were against the war, and wanted to build the protest action. We argued that there should be no exclusion of the left, no red-baiting. We argued against any attempt to exclude other left-wing groups, Trotskyists, Maoists, etc., but also welcomed the participation of Liberals, e.g., as long as they were against the war.

Tactical flexibility
We also needed tactical flexibility. The general goal was to involve the largest number of people around principled demands.

We favoured and worked towards large rallies and marches, that through their size took the space, took the streets, forced greater democratic rights. We favoured mass action rather than. small confrontationist stunts, heroic individual efforts, that left the masses passive.

But the tactical role of civil disobedience, confrontation was used frequently as a way to build the mass movement, to grab attention and publicise larger actions, through sit-downs, occupations, spectacular paint ups.

But these types of activities should not be seen as a substitute for mass action, and not as ends in themselves. And certainly not as part of an infantile delusion that the struggle was further advanced than it was, that a few radicals were making their revolution.

More recently, the anti-corporate actions have often been built by imaginative non-violent direct action, sometimes proposing blockades. This obviously can’t be elevated into a permanent principle or strategy. For the anti-war movement that’s developing now, for example, it will be especially important to emphasise our opposition to war, to violence, and to avoid allowing the ruling class to portray our actions as in any way violent.

A new anti-war movement is now building, and it’s useful to revive the lessons of the successful movement against the War in Vietnam

We should also be aware of the differences, as well as the similarities

For example, it’s not a struggle in solidarity with a liberation struggle that we can support.

Although at the beginning of the Vietnam War, most in the West accepted the demonisation of the Vietnamese liberation fighters, the National Liberation Front

This time, there’s no similar struggle, the immediate target of the mad dogs in Washington and their corporate masters are the mad people who were previously their hirelings.

But our solidarity is still with the people, in Palestine, or Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Iran, or Kurdistan. They are the targets, and the losers, and hopefully organisations with clear and principled political perspectives will develop, to lead the struggles there.

There are some other differences, we have some advantages that we start from.

1. The Vietnam syndrome is still here, in spite of all their propaganda efforts and loosening up exercises over the years. We’re building on that.

2. The anti-corporate, anti globalisation movement provides a base. For the last few years in most of the imperialist centres, including Australia, the movement has been growing, radicalising young people in opposition to the corporate rulers’ attacks on the people of the world.

3. In the 60’s the movement began within a framework of prosperity and lethargy, the conservative atmosphere of the Cold War.

On some levels the movement is weaker – the collapse of the Soviet Union and the regimes in Eastern Europe, distorted and deformed non-models of socialism that they were, they still provided some backing for Third World struggles.

On the other hand, the parties that they backed, the Stalinist CPs were dominant in the movements and this was a mixed blessing, so often bureaucratically and conservatively clamping down on the possibilities for developing movements.

The role of the ALP
The Vietnam War struggle also helped confirm the role of the ALP, its fundamental loyalty to the capitalist system.

Opposition to the war did develop in the ALP, and sometimes erupted strongly. But the ALP leadership couldn’t be relied on to lead the movement, and ultimately could be relied on to sell it out and channel it into their parliamentary goals.

Arthur Calwell, an old style right winger, was an exception, who took a principled stand on Vietnam, and got ousted by Whitlam to usher in a more “responsible” opposition

Whitlam was elected in 1972 very much on the basis of the mass mobilisation against the Vietnam War in the preceding years. Big election meetings and rallies (good sales of DA!) And then, rely on us. Until 1975, when he was tipped out, and again, urged moderation, maintain your rage, but rely on the ballot box.

Today, Beazley and the ALP are falling over themselves to get to the right of Howard on this issue.

The importance of a party
For those of us in Resistance and the DSP the mass movement against the war in Vietnam can’t be separated from the beginnings of our party. The two are separate but related. The antiwar movement can’t be a substitute for a Marxist party, but we also insist that such a Marxist party is needed. If we’d been stronger at the start of the Vietnam War, we could have taken even more advantage of the youth radicalisation and the campaign against the war, to build a stronger party, and be even more effective in the movement.

Vietnam’s legacy and its significance for the left today continues. The youth radicalisation of that era has not been eliminated, and has left us with gains on a whole range of political questions, that youth today begin from: anti-racism, anti-intervention, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, protection of the environment.

Howard and co are continually trying to reverse this of course. They’re very pleased about the secondary gain from their Timor intervention – trying to play up the role of the army as a humanitarian tool, wipe away the legacy of the Vietnam War and conscription. The attempt to drum up a new Australian patriotism around the ANZAC myth is only the latest and most disgusting example.

But the gains of the 60s and 70s still remain, and the lessons remain for us to build on.