Fighting on the Battlefield of Memory
Lessons from the Vietnam War
As we reflect upon the war in Vietnam and the vast popular struggle against it, we remember the lessons listed below. We invite others to recall and add lessons of their own utilizing the comment function below.
1. The Vietnam peace movement must be remembered as having shaken our country to its foundations and for defending democracy against secrecy and bureaucratic tyranny. There are many in power today who want us to forget that the peace movement even existed. They are the same people who want us to forget that America lost the war, and who are urging more military involvement and war today.
2. The paradigm of the Cold War was wrong: Vietnam was not an arm of the Soviet Union, China and the ‘international communist conspiracy.’ It was a communist-led nationalist revolutionary movement with deep popular roots. The same error is made today when the generals and media speak of stopping ‘international terrorism.’ The violence in Iraq and other countries springs at first from local and national grievances against corrupt oligarchs, many of whom are supported by the US and multinational corporations. US intervention cannot prevent these insurgencies and may even add fuel to their flames.
3. The claim that the American economy could afford both ‘guns and butter’ was false. The Vietnam War distorted the US economy and led to recession and stagflation. America's continuing wars and militarism are unaffordable and siphon funds away from urgent domestic priorities. More military spending means increasing budget deficits and slashing domestic programs for health care, education, and environmental restoration.
4. The Vietnam War was based on deception –from the Tonkin Gulf "incident" to claims of light at the end of the tunnel. Similar lies—"weapons of mass destruction" and Al-Qaida connections—led to war in Iraq. Fear mongering and distortion are used to justify unnecessary interventions and to coerce Congress and the public into open-ended war authorizations.
5. The secrecy and deceit of waging war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos undermined democratic accountability and weakened control over the military and the CIA. In today’s seemingly permanent wars against terrorism and insurgency, executive war-making powers have expanded even more and public accountability has eroded further.
6. The 1973 War Powers Resolution was a partial victory for the peace movement and those who sought to restore constitutional balance to political decision making. That law was cast aside and ignored in the rush to wage war against terrorism. It should be strengthened and extended to cover drone wars, cyberwarfare, and the CIA/Special Forces operations that have expanded dangerously since 2001.
7. The war in Vietnam was an assault on the environment. The United States sprayed tens of millions of gallons of herbicides and defoliants over large areas of Vietnam, causing mass suffering and calamitous forced urbanization. Wars are a major contributor to climate crisis, through unrestrained burning of fossils fuels, the destruction of forests and competition for water, often in the name of gaining access to fossil fuels. We must end these wars to save our earth.
8. The legacies of the Vietnam War continue to exact profound human and ecological costs decades after the conflicts end. These costs are the moral and legal responsibility of the war makers. Agent Orange continues to create devastation for the land and people of Vietnam and for American veterans, including their descendants. Unexploded ordnance and land mines constantly claim new victims who lose limbs and lives. Land must be remediated and cleared. Survivors must receive medical, social and economic assistance.
9. The peace movement helped end the war, brought down two presidents, and saved many people from unnecessary death and suffering. Those who worked to stop the war deserve credit in American history for attempting to save the nation from a gross injustice and grave national error. That movement—which Howard Zinn called “the greatest antiwar movement the nation had ever experienced”—must not be erased from history, nor vilified as having been a ‘stab in the back.’ Many who served in the military also opposed the war. Antiwar voices should be recognized and heard in national security forums and the media today.
10. The Vietnam peace movement was marked by internal divisions and sectarian strife that weakened its unity, future potential, and public image and legacy. The peace movement should be remembered for its rainbow character and diversity of approaches, from resisters to electoral campaigners. We must do for the future what we often failed to do before: unite ourselves in a common democratic movement towards peace and justice. We need greater alliances across race, gender and class lines, and internationally, to build true peace majorities that are stronger because they are more diverse.