Join Northeastern University-Seattle as we host one of the most consequential thinkers and agents of change in U.S. American political and cultural history of our time. Bill Ayers is the recently retired Distinguished Professor of Education at University of Illinois, and author of several books, including Teaching Toward Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action in the Classroom, Race Course: Against White Supremacy, and Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident. A leader in the Weather Underground, Ayers was committed to making a revolution in America to end the war in Vietnam, and spent several years living underground while on the FBI’s ten-most-wanted list. When Vice-Presidential candidate Sara Palin accused President Barack Obama of “paling around with domestic terrorists,” she had Ayers in mind. Bill Ayers will offer a community conversation about political change and social justice.
October 23, 2017
Vietnam Full Disclosure
A broad-based antiwar movement which challenges white and male supremacy and stands in support of oppressed people around the globe, from the Rohingya to the Palestinians, is an important part of a larger movement for social change; one that can navigate racial, class, gender, generational, ideological, spiritual and strategic and tactical differences is required.
The following is a slight revision of a talk by Howard Machtinger in Washington DC at the October 20-21 Conference: From Protest to Resistance: On the 50th Anniversary of the October 1967 March on the Pentagon.
It is offered—not in expectation of agreement—but to provoke a serious discussion about the current state of antiwar politics.
Burns and Novick in their PBS documentary: The Vietnam War could not ignore the antiwar movement, but exhibit little interest in its dynamics, except in its supposed hostility to American GIs. Since my interest still lies in how to build a more effective antiwar movement, I want to focus on the lessons learned and not learned by the Vietnam antiwar movement as a prelude to exploring how we might move forward to confront the multiple wars and threats of war that beset our world.
Of course, there was not one unified antiwar movement, but a conglomeration of tendencies featuring contending critiques, strategies and tactics. What follows is an attempt at a succinct, dispassionate description of those tendencies, which no doubt risks over-simplification. I will look at three general perspectives. I will begin with a critique of tendencies with which I was associated.
The first set of tendencies included the anti-imperialists, militants, and Marxist-Leninists. Members of these overlapping, but distinct groupings, all grasped the depth of the problem that the war in Vietnam exposed. The war was not a mistake or an aberration from the general direction of US global policy. Its goal was to dominate the world and, in this particular case, to gain a strategic foothold in mainland Asia. These movement tendencies recognized the need to do more and to widen the scope of protest. They also placed great importance in connecting to and humanizing the Vietnamese enemy, not merely viewing them as victims, but recognizing and honoring their capacity to resist.
Too often, however, the connection remained abstract or turned romantic. Che’s invocation of “2, 3 many Vietnams” not only decontextualized Vietnamese resistance, but led people to ignore or downplay the incredible price paid for this resistance. In the 1980’s an uncritical anti-imperialism led to support for leaders who proved to be problematic such as Cayetano Carpio in El Salvador, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. One version of anti-imperialism meant support for any leader hostile to the US; including people like Saddam Hussein or Bashar al-Assad. For them, the enemy of our enemy by definition became a friend. Anti-imperialists did not always acknowledge other negative forces operating in the world aside from US imperialism.
The romanticization of the Vietnamese resistance also led militants to overstate the revolutionary possibilities in 1960s and 70s America. Some resorted to violent methods that proved ineffective, isolating, and divisive for the movement as a whole. Though violence as a strategy, not as spontaneous outbursts, constituted a small part of the antiwar movement, it too often became the ‘issue’ and functioned to divert attention from the monumentally greater violence of imperial war.
The parts of this tendency that identified with global Communism–a relatively small, but influential sector–had little understanding of that movement, weak grasp of the Sino-Soviet split, and were often ignorant of differences within Vietnamese Communism. Sometimes the result was a dumbed-down and sanitized Maoism. Their version of democratic centralism was rarely democratic. And they were often drawn into obscure sectarian struggles.
The pacifist left tendency brought a solid grasp of the profound penetration of militarism in the US economy, its politics and culture. It offered a valuable overall critique of war and militarism. A. J. Muste and Dave Dellinger played unifying roles in an often-fractious movement. And militant pacifists like Dellinger forged a creative model of militant nonviolence that effectively expressed the depth of opposition to the war.
But other pacifists enjoyed the role of the ‘good’ protestor as opposed to other less acceptable protestors, thereby dividing the movement and enabling an establishment critique, providing fodder for false equivalences between imperial violence and resistance to it. Pacifists could and did adopt a purer than thou attitude. It should have been possible to legitimize one’s own form of protest without delegitimizing other forms. Most significantly, the pacifist tendency was overwhelmingly white and middle class with insufficient connection to the powerful movements of people of color that had staked out clear and resonant positions against the war. This was not simply a question of coalition building, but of creating consistent, enduring relationships of trust.
Another tendency consisting largely of dissident and liberal Democrats saw the war as a losing proposition damaging US credibility, draining treasure, destroying morale and national unity, not to mention increasing battlefield casualties. This is in part the perspective of the Burns/Novick effort. This tendency brought to light the war’s corrosive effect on democratic institutions: the expanding imperial Presidency, the impotence and irrelevance of Congress, and the repression of protest. Innovative forms of working ‘the system’ were created, that while often frustrating, pointed the way to a possible political revitalization. These movements led to some Congressional scrutiny of the war, LBJ’s abdication, McGovern’s nomination as the Democratic candidate in 1972 and Nixon’s impeachment; generally forcing politicians to openly deal with the war.
But it proved unable to prevent Nixon’s election–allowing him to pose as a strange sort of stealth peace candidate—and didn’t achieve majority support in the Congress until very late in the war. It did not develop adequate means of holding politicians accountable. It both expanded the scope of mainstream politics and was simultaneously hemmed in by the establishment.
Parts of this tendency also posed as a preferred, less radical alternative to the politics of the street. Finally its overly pragmatic strategy implied that the war was a correctible mistake, not requiring a fundamental overhaul of the national security state and its imperial goals.
There are important parts of the movement that I have obviously so far ignored. The antiwar movement was a boost to the development of new creative and feisty women’s and queer liberation movements both by providing spaces for activism and then circumscribing these spaces because of the limits of iantiwar leaders’ consciousness of gender issues. So women and LGBTQ people were energized and then marginalized which simultaneously divided the movement and resulted in new organizational forms, including significant antiwar organization and action as well as a critique of military and movement macho.
The level and sophistication of GI and veteran resistance was unprecedented. Dewey Canyon III in Washington DC in 1971, when veterans threw away their medals, brought the issue of the war’s immorality and pointlessness home and helped transform the public face of the antiwar movement from that of cowardly, spaced out hippies and unrealistic pacifists. Often left buried in the dustbin of history are efforts like the coffee house movement where civilians and soldiers collaborated in spreading the antiwar message. It would certainly be worthwhile to further explore what was learned about civilian/soldier relationships from this experience.
After the war, the antiwar movement lost steam and direction in a sense succumbing to the fantasy that the end of the war allowed a return to normalcy without further consequence. We did not succeed in helping Americans come to terms with military defeat—to understand it as something positive for the American spirit.
Vietnam was more isolated in the 1980s than during the American war as it invaded Cambodia to overthrow the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime and then fought off a Chinese invasion. The Cold War framing of Southeast Asian conflict as part of a Soviet plot was reasserted by the US with little opposition from the remnants of the antiwar movement; the Maoist fringe, in line with Chinese policy, even supported the Khmer Rouge. There were brief upsurges of activity in response to Reagan’s Central America wars and before both Gulf wars, especially W’s 2003 war. Today there exists a barely perceptible antiwar movement. Its impotence allowed Donald Trump to play a bogus antiwar card during the 2016 campaign.
As antiwar activists we have allowed the myth—of which Burns/Novick partake—of the deep antagonism between the civilian antiwar movement and soldiers to penetrate American consciousness, including that of younger antiwar activists. I have met numerous young activists who take for granted that the antiwar movement typically spat at returning soldiers. We can credit Jerry Lembcke for Burns and Novick not further propounding that particular myth. They favor ’baby killers’. In any large, sprawling social movement almost any perspective can be found. Though I knew a few people who felt like targeting soldiers was legitimate; this was a quite marginal perspective in the antiwar movement. The same mythology led many of those opposed to the Gulf wars to so reassure the public that the movement was pro-soldier that they lost sight of the central task of any effective antiwar movement: projecting and humanizing the direct victims of the war in Iraq. It was a form of surrender to the prevailing Islamaphobia.
As a movement, we have failed to adequately challenge the deleterious effects of imperial war on democratic institutions. ‘Forever war’ means permanent limitations on freedom and the right to protest and continuing intrusions on privacy. We haven’t been able to convincingly demonstrate to Americans the connection between successive wars; how the Iraq war increased sectarianism and chaos in the entire region, catalyzing the growth of groups like ISIS; how we are imprisoned by the terrible logic of war in which the next war is seen as a justifiable and necessary response to the failure of the previous one.
Given this history, how might a more effective antiwar movement be constituted? First of all, we must acknowledge, embrace even, that maybe none of us in this room will be in leadership of this reconstitution. If we are together, we can offer perspective, some cautions, a necessary connection to past efforts. Multiracial forces already in motion will lead the new activist peace/antiwar movement. For instance, the M4BL highlights the militarization and racism of our criminal ‘justice’ system while connecting to global struggles of people of color. The immigration and refugee movements—with important experience in navigating cultural difference—has drawn attention to the connections between war, state violence, and population movement and alerted us to the role of racism and Islamaphobia in mobilizing and justifying aggressive wars. Environmental activists lead us to revalue the leadership of indigenous people as in Standing Rock; organizations like 350.org explicate the relationship between environmental degradation and wars and potential wars over natural resources, as well as leading to increased global migration. The new women’s and LGBTQ movements have led the way in expanding our consciousness of sexual violence in war and in the military. And even as the nature of war has changed, the voices of GIs and veterans remain vital. A new antiwar movement must be constituted and led by those forces which will both broaden and deepen the movement making evident the intersectionality of movements against oppression, white supremacy and militarism.
We are living in a treacherous moment for our and other species. The impact of climate change imposes a fateful due date. The prevalence of nuclear weapons along with authoritarian leaders eager to demonstrate their macho add to the immediate peril.
So a broad-based antiwar movement which challenges white and male supremacy and stands in support of oppressed people around the globe, from the Rohingya to the Palestinians, is an important part of a larger movement for social change; one that can navigate racial, class, gender, generational, ideological, spiritual and strategic and tactical differences is required. Absolute agreement is not required; rather a Zen-like mastery of the art of coordination, mutuality and solidarity is the order of the day. We don’t need one big organization but we do need accountable organizations with accountable leadership. Our movement must not be so ‘correct’ that it does not allow for experimentation and a diversity of tactics. The movement must strive for power as it creates an open and welcoming environment where, rather than being stigmatized or shamed for inevitable mistakes, activists can learn from them and grow with the movement. And we must make our case to ordinary people while still engaging in anti-racist and anti-sexist initiatives. The other side is driven by a mean-spirited white male nationalism that we must directly take on.
There is a lot we have to do. We must work in establishment politics and reinvigorate democratic forms, fighting for meaningful reform; and at the same time (not necessarily the same people) be on the streets, loud and passionate. We must be militant, but smart and strategic about our militancy; keep the engine rev-ed but prevent it from veering off the tracks. Be moral and not moralistic, nor purer or more radical than thou. Connections are local and global, virtual and personal. Be forthright and sure-footed, but humble about our importance and correctness. Nothing less is required.
My comments leave many questions unexplained and unanswered. My simple goal is not completeness or agreement but to both initiate and add to a discussion that will lead to more effective action. We sorely need some.
The Full Disclosure campaign is a Veterans for Peace effort to speak truth to power and keep alive the antiwar perspective on the American war in Viet Nam — which is now approaching a series of 50th anniversary events. It represents a clear alternative to the Pentagon’s current efforts to sanitize and mythologize the Vietnam war and to thereby legitimize further unnecessary and destructive wars
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Modern economists extol the wisdom of the “free market” in hushed tones typically reserved for glorifying a holy book, or they mumble about the “laws of the marketplace” as if explaining the laws of magnetism or optics or aerodynamics. When my oldest son was in college he took Economics 101 and within a couple of weeks he’d figured it out: if you substituted the word “capitalism” every time the textbooks or the professor said “market,” “economics,” or “industrialism” it made the readings and lectures completely sensible. Economics was simply a metric that reflected political choices and (with more or less accuracy) the social and class relations of society. When he asked why the course wasn’t called Capitalism 101, the professor responded, “Same thing.” Indeed.
Economists quantify everything, disguising their values and their meanings in a mystifying faux-language of objectivity. They advise the rest of us ordinary folks, as the Wizard advised the four seekers skipping down the yellow brick road toward Oz, “Don’t look behind that curtain!”
Let’s look anyway.
It would be more honest to admit that economics—like history or anthropology or political science—is a smashing together of the subjective and the objective, or, more precisely an interpretive look at facts and forces that exist in the world. It’s the gathering of statistics in order to describe and construct the world, and the decision as to what we count is of primary importance. Neither the facts and forces nor the interpretations are beyond the comprehension of us mere mortals. We don’t need to be technical experts to be active citizens engaged in the big questions that impact who we are or what we become as people or as a society. We can know we want clean food and water without being epidemiologists; we can say that we want bridges to hold up and airplanes to stay in the air without degrees in engineering; we can recognize that gross disparities in wealth distort and destroy democracy without spreadsheets that can only be read with a magnifying glass; we can decide that nuclear power plants are a bad idea without PhDs in physics. And we can decide we want a system of production and distribution that is transparent, participatory, and in the service of the general welfare—it’s not rocket science. Oh, and we can decide what kinds of rockets ought to be built, too, and how they should be used as well.
!n contemporary America, belief in the free market economy above all else is absolute. It is unarguable. And yet there is no such thing as a “free market,” despite the noisy claims of the fundamentalist marketeers, their apologists in the bought media, and the well-mannered barbarians from the business schools. The “free market” is highly contested, politically managed, extensively regulated, and supported by government policy and our tax dollars at every level—often, but not always, to the advantage of the rich. Historically the free marketeers have howled at the elimination of child labor (“Let the little tykes earn a buck!”), inspections at meatpacking plants, the organizing of trade unions (“Selfish Bolsheviks!”), environmental regulations, clean air and water standards (“The market will sort it all out in the long run”), health and safety regulations in mines and fields and factories, the eight-hour day (“How dare you arrogant elitists deprive the laborer of his freedom to work as many hours as he likes?”), and the abolition of their right to trade in human beings. Of course chattel slavery was but one form of human trade and trafficking, and wage slavery—though different—is another. Today a defining stance of the marketeers is roaming the world in the company of extravagant military power in search of resources and markets as well as dirt-cheap, super-exploited labor that can be had without those pesky rules (“Child labor has the added benefit of teaching the natives discipline and obedience right from the start”) and then get cast aside without consequence.
A New YorkTimes reporter was visiting with us recently, and she noticed the Che buttons gracing each of our shirts. “Oh, I love Che!” she said enthusiastically, which surprised us since she worked for the self-styled “newspaper of record,” an outlet that for over half a century echoed the State Department’s relentless attacks on the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara himself. But times change, and people as well as institutions are, of course, filled with contradictions, so, why not?
“You love Che? How come?”
“Oh,” she went on, “I was just in Cuba for the first time, and Che’s picture was everywhere. And he’s so appealing—those piercing eyes look right through you, and that valiant stance is so awesome. I bought Che T-shirts for my nephews, and Che coffee mugs for my parents!”
Well, it’s true: Che’s heroic image—larger than life—is everywhere you look, and not just in Cuba, but all over the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe. The famed Alberto Korda portrait—the one where Che gazes intently into the distance, eyes uplifted, beret slightly askew—has been reproduced more than almost any other image in the history of photography: on billboards and banners, commemorative plates and political posters, murals and mosaics. The iconic Che lives large in the popular culture, and the commodified Che is within easy reach of everyone.
But Che Guevara was also a flesh-and-blood human being—flawed, contradictory, trembling, and real—and as we mark the anniversary of his murder on October 9, 1967, it feels important to reflect on the Che who burned, intense and vital, for 39 years. This Che was a Marxist revolutionary and anti-imperialist, who saw the ravages of US foreign policy and fiercely fought against them; he was an internationalist, a believer in popular uprisings to end oppression and poverty—and for this he was assassinated with the active support and participation of the United States.
Dead now for 50 years, Che wasn’t much older than those of us who were radicalized in the 1960s, and he was formed by conditions not altogether different than those that affected us. To us, Che was a symbol of boldness, intelligence, internationalism, self-sacrifice, solidarity and, as he said, “at the risk of appearing ridiculous,” love. Che rejected personal gain and privilege for the leaders in a struggle for a fair and just society; he lived as he asked others to live.
It’s been said that Che was a citizen of the world. Perhaps more accurately, Che was a citizen of a world that did not yet exist.
Che’s earliest political ideas were forged in the bohemian home of his parents, offbeat Argentine aristocrats with more blue blood than money. Books and magazines covered the furniture, and the young Che, who had a capacious capacity for learning, imbibed it all. He read assiduously, including his father’s entire 25-volume collection of the Contemporary History of the Modern World, the collected works of Jules Verne, Freud, Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, Mussolini, Stalin, Zola, Jack London, and Lenin. He read The Communist Manifesto, dipped into Das Kapital, and intended to write a biography of Marx.
By the time he reached college, Che was an activist, demonstrating early on against the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco in Spain. He got a summer job shipping out with the Merchant Marines, and traveling and keeping a journal became a lifelong habit. In 1952, Che headed across Argentina and toward Chile with a friend on a Norton 500cc motorcycle, freeloading food and lodging whenever they could. They visited the copper mines in Chile and the tin mines of Bolivia; his Motorcycle Diariesdocumented the trip and highlighted the injustices he encountered in every corner of the continent, with each new horror pointing an accusing finger to the north. With his characteristically caustic tongue, he commented that the Yankees had taken everything and left the native people “only an ox.”
Still, for Che, the road to Cuba ultimately went through Guatemala. Che moved there at the end of 1953, after graduating medical school, in hopes of getting a job as a doctor. He never did. Instead, he immersed himself in the swirl and ferment of the socialist experiment then unfolding in Guatemala, where reformer Jacobo Árbenz had been elected just a few years before. But six months after Che’s arrival, the CIA succeeded in overthrowing Árbenz, who had stepped on corporate America’s toes but nationalizing some of the vast land holdings of the United Fruit Company. Che joined the resistance and finally had to flee the country. He left for Mexico with his girlfriend, soon to be wife, Hilda Gadea, a Peruvian radical more experienced and more advanced politically than he. It was she who continued and solidified his political education.
Che brought with him three truths from his experiences in Guatemala. These truths, which were opposed by the Moscow-oriented communist parties of Latin America, were, first, that the monopoly land holdings had to be broken up and given to the peasants who work them; that the population had to be armed to defend their victories; and, finally, that the old ruling repressive apparatus had to be eliminated.
It was in Mexico City that Che met Fidel Castro, who was organizing a movement to overthrow the US installed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Che described Castro as “a young man, intelligent, very sure of himself and of extraordinary audacity; I think there is a mutual sympathy between us.” After hours of intense conversation, Castro invited Che to join the guerrilla movement, and Che signed up on the spot to be the doctor for the group. He later wrote that,
The truth is that after the experiences of my wanderings across all of Latin America, and to top it off, in Guatemala, it didn’t take much to incite me to join any revolution against a tyrant, but Castro impressed me as an extraordinary man. He faced and overcame the most impossible things. He had an exceptional faith that once he left for Cuba, he would arrive. And that once he arrives, he would fight. And that fighting, he would win. I shared his optimism….[It was time] to stop crying and fight.
Eighty-two revolutionaries crammed into a small boat called the Granma,and sailed across the dangerous Florida straits landing in Cuba later than they had planned and in the wrong place. Batista’s troops massacred them. Only 12 were left. It was a start.
Che Guevara became a military commander, and helped to win the decisive battle of Santa Clara, cutting Cuba in half, and forcing the dictator to flee.
With Batista gone and the country in the hands of a new revolutionary government, Che became a crucial figure in the new Cuba. He was president of the National Bank of Cuba and Minister of Industry and wrote and helped to administer the Agrarian Reform Act, which distributed land to the peasants who worked it, land that had been owned by US corporations. But when the new government offered to pay for the land in the amount that was listed on tax forms, the corporations refused, and instead attempted to bring the Cuban economy to a halt. When the land was distributed, the CIA encouraged Cuban counterrevolutionaries to burn down sugar crops. When the new government nationalized the land, the oil refineries, then the telephone company, the nickel mines, and much more, the United States imposed a brutal economic blockade, which cost the Cubans billions of dollars. When the Cuban government implemented the most successful literacy campaign in history, Cuban counterrevolutionaries, supported by the CIA, assassinated teachers.
The Cuban people took control of their own land and industry, but the United States fought it at every turn (including by making dozens of attempts to assassinate Castro, to terrorize the population, to invade and disrupt), and this became the story of the Cuban socialist revolution. To this day, most critics don’t fully appreciate the role of US imperialism in assaulting and undermining the gains of the revolution, trying to ensure its failure, and then blaming shortcomings and errors on socialism.
About the Cuban experience Che had written: “The example of a revolution and the lessons it applies for Latin America have destroyed all coffee house theories; we have demonstrated that a small group of men supported by the people without fear of dying can overcome a disciplined regular army and defeated.”
But in revolution, timing is everything, and in Bolivia the movement was on the decline, not on the rise. Che mistakenly elevated guerilla warfare from a tactic to a strategy and went there misreading the actual situation. He thought he could create a guerilla force and spark a revolution. He got no help from the Bolivian Communist Party, nor from the leaders of Soviet Union for that matter who viewed Che as a threat to their policy of peacefully co-existing with imperialism. There was a no organic mass movement of Bolivians as there had been in Cuba. Nor was there a revolutionary organization. Unlike the Cuban peasants, the Bolivian peasants, mostly indigenous, were suspicious, not supportive of Che and his small band.
The United States was not caught off guard this time. They instantly identified the guerilla band’s location. Bolivian Rangers were flown in and trained and supervised by American Special Forces troops, who had learned their lessons well in Vietnam. Che’s Group was quickly encircled, and Che captured. The next day, he was shot in the chest by a Bolivian army sergeant. The order came from the military dictators in La Paz, who had received prior approval from the CIA, and was relayed to Washington by CIA contract agent Felix Rodriguez, who was on the scene and had provided the intelligence for his capture.
When Walt Rostow, President Lyndon Johnson’s National Security Advisor, who helped coordinate Che’s capture out of White House office, learned of his death, he wrote a memo on Whitehouse stationery to Johnson saying that the troops the US trained “finally got him.”
Fifty years later, Che’s vision remains unrealized, suspended in the distant past. Che thought globally and had a vision of the “new man” living in a society of abundance where the exploitation of people by people has ended. But the imbalance between the global north and global south remains vast, the reach of US power over distant lands barely diminished. The gap separating the richest from the poor has widened.
So while we are not at all interested in heroizing or romanticizing Che, we do want to remember what he taught us, and what we need to keep in our own rebel backpacks as we continue to fight for a world at peace and in balance, a place of joy and justice.
So why do we remember Che today? Victor Hugo described in the following lines why John Paul Marat, a leader of the French revolution, and also a physician, remains a timeless symbol of social revolution:
“They guillotined Charlotte Corday and they said Marat is dead. No. Marat is not dead. Put him in the Pantheon or throw him in the sewer; it doesn’t matter—he’s back the next day. He’s reborn in the man who has no job, and the woman who has no bread, in the girl who has to sell her body, in the child who hasn’t learned to read; he’s reborn in the unheeded tournament, in the wretched mattress without blankets,in the unemployed, in the proletariat, in the brothel, in the jail house, and your laws that show no pity, in your schools that give no future, and he reappears in all that is ignorance and he re-creates himself from all that is darkness.
Oh, beware, human society: you cannot kill Marat until you have killed the misery of poverty.”