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The People Make The Peace: Vietnam's Lessons For Today

By Steve Thornton

12 February, 2016

Last year there were 3,343 events scheduled to mark the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. In 2016 there are more to come. They are all funded by the Pentagon and its “partners.”

Most are reunions and DAR banquets. But the “Vietnam War Commemoration,” authorized and funded by Congress back in 2008, is not really about honoring veterans. The Pentagon’s purpose is to rewrite the history of the War.

That's why it is so important to read The People Make the Peace, recently published by Just World Books. It chronicles a 2013 trip to Vietnam by nine U.S. antiwar activists. Their first-hand accounts bring to a new generation some much needed clarity about our country’s criminal involvement in Southeast Asia.

The contributors were among 200 Americans who traveled to Vietnam during the course of the War, in spite of the dangers they faced there and the consequences that awaited them back home. The trip of the “Hanoi 9” (as they have dubbed themselves) was organized by Karin Aguilar-San Juan and Frank Joyce, both authors and activists in their own right. The two open the book with a sharp analysis about the state of American memory and the War. They point out, for example, that while the Civil Rights movement has held plenty of symposia to “debrief” and record collective experiences, the Vietnam antiwar movement has had precious few. This leaves a vacuum that Pentagon war apologists are racing to fill.

The center of the book (and its title) is the People's Peace Treaty, one of the many creative and powerful tactics devised by the U.S. antiwar movement. The Paris peace talks had been dragging on for two years when in 1970 students from around the country organized a people-to-people initiative that they eventually took to Saigon and Hanoi.

The next year the people's treaty gained traction when 188 college campuses used it as a focal point for protest. It was endorsed by a wide range of public figures and entertainers. Progressive members of Congress such as Bella Abzug and Ron Dellums introduced a resolution supporting the grassroots effort in 1971. Three of the book's authors played central roles in organizing the students’ international campaign. Jay Craven, Doug Hostetter and Becca Wison describe their organizing within the context of the other antiwar actions taking place at the time, which helps to keep this one project in perspective.

The writers in The People Make the Peace represent different political trends. Alex Hing, for example, was a self-described revolutionary nationalist. He recalls his development from Chinatown poverty, to San Francisco’s Free Speech Movement and SCLC Poor People's Campaign, to the Red Guard Party (formed by the Black Panthers), and finally his union activism with the Hotel workers. He traveled through Vietnam and Korea, and as part of the first U.S. delegation to visit China since the 1949 revolution led by Mao Zedong.

John McAuliff was a conscienous objector whose alternative service was to work for Goodwill (he printed antiwar material on their presses). McAuliff surveys the work done after the war to normalize relations with Vietnam and the frustrating attempts to maintain support for those efforts among the American public. Writer and journalist Myra MacPherson explores Vietnam past and present through the eyes of American ex-soldiers, all members of Veterans for Peace. Nancy Kurshan was a co-founder of the Yippies who links the torture and Tiger Cages of South Vietnam to the development of the U.S. prison system.

The words of Madam Ngyuen Thi Binh are saved for last. This extraordinary revolutionary, still active at 88, welcomed the peace veterans to Hanoi. A freedom fighter as a young woman, she was jailed and tortured by the French even as their colonial grip on her country was slipping. Madame Binh led the Vietnamese delegation in Paris when the Peace Accords were signed in 1973, formally ending the War.

There is an added benefit to this volume, a scrapbook of sorts. Scattered through the pages are personal documents from private collections of the writers and other prominent activists. There's a page from the antiwar comic book Julian Bond created after he was kicked out of the Georgia legislature for opposing the War; a photo of Judy Gumbo leading a women's march at the 1972 Republican Convention; Rennie Davis presenting to the President of Vietnam a framed photo of the 1971 May Day actions in Washington. Each photo and leaflet is a story in itself, often moving and enlightening.

In addition, the book provides a good list of resources-- groups, books and films-- that can be used to counter the Pentagon's whitewashing of what the Vietnamese call “The American War.” A recurring theme among the Hanoi 9 is the disastrous, ongoing effects of Agent Orange and unexploded ordinance. This resource guide lists groups with whom the reader can get involved.

In an unintentionally humorous disclaimer, the Pentagon’s Vietnam website states that its content is “evaluated for fairness and acceptability as being in the best interest of the public.” Yes, the military knows what's in your best interest. It pledges not to contain “misleading information or unsubstantiated claims, or be in conflict with our [Department of Defense] stated mission or policies.”

And yet, when I used the site’s research engine, I could not find the following terms: My Lai Massacre, President Diem Assassination, Operation Phoenix, CIA, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, or Agent Orange.

In fact, this self-serving effort by the military establishment is rife with errors and omissions. Most notable are the lies about the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident that provided cover for the U.S. Congress to declare war. One can spend a long time reading documents on www.VietnamWar50th.com without ever learning the most significant aspects of the Conflict. American involvement in Vietnam, if the site’s downloadable “fact” sheets are to be believed, was nothing short of noble.

Buy The People Make the Peace. Read it and share. Use it in your school curriculum. Learn its lessons. There are plenty more wars coming, and we will need the passion, courage and stamina of the Vietnam generation to help stop them.

The People Make the Peace, Lessons from the Vietnam Antiwar Movement
Karin Aguilar-San Juan and Frank Joyce, editors
Just World Books, 2015, 268 pages

Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer who writes for the Shoeleather History Project (www.ShoeleatherHistoryProject.com). His first arrest took place in 1972 at Sikorsky Aircraft in Connecticut, which produced Army helicopters for the Vietnam War.



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