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How Revolutionary Socialists
Opposed the Vietnam War

By Ian Angus

Ian Angus is Director of the Socialist History Project. This article is based on a talk he gave as part of a session on "Is Iraq the new Vietnam?" at an educational conference sponsored by the International Socialists in Ottawa, on February 5, 2005. It was first published in the March 16, 2005 issue of Socialist Voice.

Until 1954, the area now organized as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos was ruled by France and called Indochina. The League for the Independence of Vietnam, or Viet Minh, decisively defeated the French colonial power in 1954, but they were forced by the leaders of the Soviet Union and China to accept a compromise that divided their country into two parts, north and south.

This was supposed to be a temporary situation, leading to nationwide elections and unification in 1956. Instead, the United States threw its support behind a puppet South Vietnamese regime that refused to hold the 1956 elections, and that began to restore land and power to the landlords who had been ousted in the liberation war.

This led to widespread peasant uprisings and a renewal of guerrilla war in the southern part of Vietnam. The U.S. responded by sending combat troops, initially described as "advisors." The first U.S. serviceman was killed in July 1959.

At about the same time, the peoples’ republic in the north of Vietnam began to aid the resistance in the south. In 1960, the various guerrilla groups united to form the National Liberation Front (NLF), which the imperialists dubbed "Viet Cong."

Fifteen years later, thanks to the heroism and perseverance of the Vietnamese people and the massive mobilizations of an antiwar movement in the United States and around the world, U.S. imperialism suffered its first-ever military defeat.

The anti-Vietnam War movement was, in Fred Halstead’s words, "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." (Fred Halstead, Out Now, Pathfinder Press, 1978, p. 709)

This presentation focuses on the role played by revolutionary socialists, organized in the Socialist Workers Party and Young Socialist Alliance in the U.S. and in the League for Socialist Action and Young Socialists in Canada, in building and leading the antiwar movement. Of course we weren’t alone -- indeed, the most important part of our strategy was to build a united movement including the broadest possible range of political views and currents -- but no one can deny that the influence of the socialist movement was far greater than might have been expected from our limited numbers and resources.

Our commitment to the antiwar struggle was based on our political evaluation of the importance of the war. Here’s how we expressed that, in a resolution adopted by the Young Socialists/Ligue des Jeunes Socialistes in Canada in 1969:

    "The war in Vietnam stands today as the central focus of the world confrontation between socialism and imperialism. The Vietnamese people have shown that the mighty imperialist military machine can be stopped in its tracks and thrown back by the struggle of a determined people. … Defense of the Vietnamese revolution stands as the paramount duty of every revolutionary today. Since the Vietnamese are struggling and defeating our common enemy, imperialism, proletarian internationalism demands that we do everything we can to aid them. It is this fundamental understanding that motivates our consistent defense of the Vietnamese revolution."

Because we had that political view, we threw ourselves into the antiwar movement heart and soul. Again and again, our newspapers made the case against the war and for an antiwar movement. Our members were central organizers of every demonstration--postering, leafleting, speaking, marching, marshalling, you name it. We were prominent public figures and day-to-day backroom organizers. If it needed doing, we did it, and we organized everyone we knew to do it as well.

In the mid-1960’s the right-wing Toronto Telegram published a series of articles attacking the antiwar movement. The editors could think of no better way to smear the movement than to proclaim that it was organized and led by "Trotskyites." It was a vicious, red-baiting attack—but it was also to some degree correct.

The Antiwar Movement is Born

In sharp contrast to the movement against the recent invasion of Iraq, the anti-Vietnam War movement did not emerge right away. I am not aware of any demonstrations against the Vietnam War in Canada or the United States prior to 1964, and there were no large protests before 1965. There were several reasons for that--the imperialist build-up in Vietnam was conducted secretly, with very little news coverage in North America; and the existing antiwar groups were weak and politically conservative. Socialist groups protested the war in Vietnam, but the demonstrations were small.

The first big antiwar demonstration was in Washington, DC, on April 17, 1965. 20,000 people took part in the largest demonstration of its kind in decades. By the end of the 1960’s, we were seeing demonstrations of a half million or more people in the United States. It reached the point where even rabidly pro-war politicians like Richard Nixon had to pose as peace candidates in order to get elected. And by the early 1970’s, it was clear that the combination of Vietnamese resistance and mass opposition at home had decisively defeated the United States.

My object tonight is not to offer a history of the antiwar movement, but rather to discuss some of the debates that confronted activists in Canada and the United States, the issues that ultimately determined the movement’s course.

Three options

There were many issues and debates that confronted the diverse forces protesting the war, but they consistently reflected disagreements between three political viewpoints: reformism, ultraleftism, and revolutionary socialism.

The reformists, most notably the Communist Parties, sought to pressure the warmakers to pull back and accept a compromise settlement with the liberation movement. In the U.S. they focused their efforts on influencing the Democratic Party. They promoted "peace", not antiwar, candidates in elections. They consistently argued for "moderation" so as not to alienate the powers that be, and argued for slogans like "Negotiate with the NLF", thus implicitly accepting that the imperialists had a right hold the Vietnamese people hostage to a negotiation process.

In Canada, the Communist Party promoted the illusory vision of an "independent foreign policy" for Canada, rather than focusing their fire on the very real complicity of the Canadian government in the war. It supported proposals to send Canadian soldiers to Vietnam as "peacekeepers."

There were various ultraleft currents within the movement, ranging from those who promoted violent confrontations with police to those whose would try to center antiwar protests around such slogans as "Victory to the NLF" and such chants as "Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is going to win."

There were obvious differences between the reformists and the ultralefts, but what they had in common was a lack of confidence that the majority of the population could be mobilized to stop the war. So they focused on trying to get the ruling class to change its mind – either by convincing the imperialists with reasonable arguments, or by scaring them with revolutionary rhetoric. (Some of the ultraleft left groups didn’t believe that the antiwar movement could contribute in any way to a Vietnamese victory—they only participated in the antiwar movement in order to recruit to their organizations.)

The revolutionary socialists, by contrast, had a class struggle perspective. Our goal was to mobilize mass working class action in the United States and internationally. We were convinced that such mobilizations would attract the ranks of the armed forces – the working class in uniform – to an antiwar perspective. We did not seek to persuade or scare the imperialists, but to make it impossible for them to continue the war.

These three positions remained central to all the debates in the movement for the years from 1965 on. The movement repeatedly split over these issues. Initially, the class struggle approach was supported only by the revolutionary socialist movement. To most, the idea of winning over the majority of the working class seemed a utopian dream. But more and more people became convinced of this possibility, and in the end, it happened.

The debate over the three visions was worked out around three central questions in the United States:

  • On slogans: "Withdraw Now" vs "Negotiate"
  • On program: "Single Issue" vs "Multi-Issue"
  • On tactics: "Mass Actions" vs "Vanguard Actions"

In Canada there was a fourth, related debate on whether we should focus our demands exclusively on the U.S., or expose and condemn Canada’s support for the war.

Withdraw Now or Negotiate

The slogan "Negotiate with the NLF", which was supported by the Communist Party and others, had an obvious problem in political principle: it violated the Vietnamese right to self-determination. The Vietnamese might choose to negotiate, but it wasn’t appropriate for us to demand that they do so.

In contrast, "Withdraw now" said clearly that the U.S. had no right to be there; it also had strong appeal to people at home whose sons were fighting and dying. The slogan took various forms: it began as "Withdraw from Vietnam Now," then evolved to "Bring the Troops Home Now," and by the end of the sixties it was very simple and clear: "Out Now."

By 1970, "withdraw the troops" now had majority support among working people in the United States. Nonetheless, the reformist wing of the movement was arguing for "Set the date to withdraw" as a more responsible demand.

Single Issue or Multi-Issue

The various coalitions and national coordinating committees repeatedly split over proposals to have the antiwar coalition campaign on issues other than the war, usually the draft, racism, and/or poverty. There were two central problems with this multi-issue proposal.

First, while everyone in the coalitions favored broad social change, there was no agreement on what changes were needed, or on how they should be brought about. Many were already in political organizations with specific views on just those questions.

Second, and more importantly, the most critical issue was to stop the U.S. war against Vietnam. "Broadening" the movement to include other issues would actually reduce its impact on the war, and limit our ability to win the majority to action on the Vietnam question.

This issue was debated again and again, but it was resolved in practice by the success of the antiwar movement and the complete failure of every attempt to build a multi-issue coalition.

Mass Action or Vanguard Action

When peaceful protest by half a million doesn't budge Washington, what should the movement do next? For some, the answer was confrontation. "Shut down the government!" "Trash Chicago!" This meant actions by an elite, at most a few thousand at a time, that were easily outnumbered and outmaneuvered by the police. In the worst cases, these actions provided an excuse for brutal police attacks. They had no impact on the war. Worse, they demoralized most participants and gave credence to right-wing attacks on the right to legal protest. The message they sent to the population at large was that going to a protest was dangerous.

So what to do when peaceful protest by half a million doesn't budge Washington, what next? The correct answer: after a big action, organize another big action.

Confronting Ottawa

The fourth debate was specific to Canada.

In 1965, as today, there were widespread illusions in Canada about this government’s role in world affairs. Ottawa’s posture as an "honest broker" and "peacemaker" in Vietnam or elsewhere in the world was widely believed. Some in the antiwar movement bought into that. They thought the movement should focus all its fire on the U.S., and that insofar as Canadian issues were raised, it should be in the form of urging the government to be a voice for peace, to act independently of the U.S., etc.

Like those in the U.S. who thought the movement should be reasonable and try to influence the Democratic Party, the reformist wing of the Canadian movement thought the goal should be to persuade Liberal politicians to be nice, and to avoid anything that might alienate them.

However, the fact was that the Canadian government had consistently acted as the U.S. representative on the International Control Commission, set up to "monitor" the 1954 Vietnam peace treaty. In addition, weapons and other war machinery were being manufactured in Canada for use by U.S. forces  in Vietnam.

From the very beginning, the revolutionary socialist wing of the Canadian antiwar movement argued that it was essential to expose and condemn Canada’s complicity in the war. "End Canada’s Complicity," became a key demand in all of the demonstrations. That helped make the war and the antiwar movement relevant to Canadians. And it helped prevent the antiwar movement here from becoming a nationalist, anti-American campaign.

U.S. Troops: Enemies or Allies?

While the refusal of some to be drafted got a lot of publicity, draft resistance actually had very little impact on the course of the war, and was peripheral to the antiwar movement. The Marxist wing of the U.S. antiwar movement focused its attention on the majority of draftees who didn’t leave. They viewed them as workers in uniform, and defended their rights, as citizens, to debate political issues and take part in protests.

Sentiment among the troops evolved in step with antiwar sentiment in the working-class communities to which they belonged. Antiwar coffee houses sprung up near military bases, and underground papers were passed around in barracks. Soldiers became frequent speakers at mass protests.

The impact of this movement on military morale cannot be overstated.

As early as mid-1969, an entire company of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade sat down on the battlefield, and a rifle company from the 1st Air Cavalry Division flatly refused—on television—to advance down a dangerous trail. Resistance among the ground troops grew into a massive and widespread "quasi-mutiny" by 1970 and 1971. Soldiers went on "search and avoid" missions, intentionally skirting clashes with the Vietnamese, and often holding three-day-long pot parties instead of fighting. By 1970, the U.S. Army had 65,643 deserters, roughly the equivalent of four infantry divisions.

In an article published in the Armed Forces Journal (June 7, 1971), Marine Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr., wrote:

    "By every conceivable indicator, our army that remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers.… Sedition, coupled with disaffection from within the ranks, and externally fomented with an audacity and intensity previously inconceivable, infest the Armed Services.…"

This remarkable situation was the direct result of the massive growth of antiwar sentiment in the American working class, especially among Black workers. Between 1965 and 1970, many unions, and almost all organizations in the black community, moved from supporting the war (or, at best, grudging acceptance) to active opposition. Opposition to the war played an important role in the explosion of many Black ghettos in U.S. cities into rebellion during the sixties and early seventies.


In the end, the Vietnamese people won. The world’s greatest imperialist power was defeated by the combination of heroic resistance in Vietnam, and an international movement that changed the political framework of the day, and American soldiers who refused to be cannon fodder. The workers at home actively opposed the war, and the workers in uniform were refusing to fight.

The Marxist left in the U.S. and Canada can be very proud of the role it played in that victory.

Vietnam, by 1975, was united and independent. The Vietnamese capitalists and landlords were driven from power. Their victory was a key factor in encouraging colonial revolts from Iran to Nicaragua. And it led to the Vietnam syndrome: for a quarter century the U.S. rulers were unable to launch a major military assault anywhere in the world.

Today, when imperialism is again trying to crush a third world country, the antiwar movement begins with a much more favorable relationship of forces, and with an arsenal of lessons on how such a fight can be won.

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