Three decades ago a mass movement against the Vietnam War shook the US ruling class to its core. At its height 750,000 people marched in Washington and 100,000 in London. The growth of that movement holds vital lessons for the struggle against the US-led war on Afghanistan today.
For just three years before the mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War it would have been hard to imagine that an anti-war movement existed. The radical French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre refused to address a US anti-war rally in 1965, saying it would be a complete waste of time. He wrote that the 'political weight' of those in the US who were against the war 'was nil'.
In a way he was right. In 1964 only 600 people marched in New York against the war, and there were some small protests in a handful of colleges. In 1965 the US military launched the biggest bombing campaign in history against the people of Vietnam. Over the next ten years more bombs were dropped on Vietnam than were used by all sides during the Second World War.
Anti-war campaigners faced the deep chauvinism of the world's most powerful country and a barrage of propaganda to justify the escalation of military involvement. Every politician and the whole of the media championed the 'domino theory'. This conjured up a picture of 'Communism' moving down from China, 'knocking over' Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, and moving onwards to Australia. The bombing campaign did not immediately produce a mass movement against the war-but it did lead to a number of people questioning the role of the US in Vietnam.
The focus for this was the teach-in movement in the colleges. The teach-ins were not protests. They were discussions and debates which involved both supporters and opponents of the war. They were massive. Some 2,500 students attended the teach-ins at Columbia and Ann Arbor universities. A staggering 30,000 took part in a 36-hour teach-in at the University of California in Berkeley.
Gradually the pro-war arguments were exposed. Gradually a growing minority was moved to actively protest against the war. But the minority remained small. Only 30,000 marched in a national anti-war demonstration in New York in October 1965-equivalent to 7,000 here. Six months later 50,000 marched. This time the marchers directed their anger at Lyndon Baines Johnson, the US president, with the chant, 'Hey, hey, LBJ-how many kids have you killed today?'
The army's thirst for more soldiers meant that by the end of 1966 there were 200,000 US troops in Vietnam. The protests did not budge the government, which claimed the war could be won if more and more soldiers were deployed. Almost half a million US soldiers were in Vietnam by the end of 1967.
In April 1967 the number of people demonstrating in New York hit 400,000-eight times the number a year before, and equivalent to about 90,000 here. Still not one single mainstream US paper opposed the war. But people were beginning to discover the truth about it. The Ladies Home Journal sent a journalist to Vietnam to counter the anti-war protesters' claims of US military atrocities.
But she wrote back, 'I had heard that napalm melts the flesh. I thought that was nonsense. Well, I went to Saigon and saw these children burned, and it's absolutely true. The chemical reaction does melt the flesh. When gangrene sets in they cut off their hands, fingers or feet. The only thing they can't cut off is their head.'
The anti-war movement spread across Western Europe, Britain and Australia. Small groups of socialists in colleges organised teach-ins and agitated against the war. In Britain the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, an organisation supported by many different groups, organised a demonstration of 20,000 in October 1967. A larger demonstration took place six months later. Then in October 1968 there was a militant 100,000-strong march.
Some universities had contingents of over 1,000, and there were hundreds of trade union and community group banners. In January 1968 the Vietnamese liberation forces had launched the Tet Offensive-a coordinated series of uprisings across South Vietnam against US occupation. They took 36 major towns, including the third largest city, and attacked the US embassy compound in Saigon.
The offensive broke the myth that the US was on the verge of crushing the guerrillas even though it was beaten back militarily. It boosted the anti-war protests. And in Britain the mass demonstrations of 1968 were key to convincing Labour prime minister Harold Wilson that he could not get away with committing British troops to Vietnam. In the US it meant opinion polls in 1968 for the first time indicated that the majority of people were opposed to the war.
The ruling Democratic Party was riven with debate. Its convention in Chicago in August 1968 became the scene of running battles between anti-war protesters and the police. There were rows on the conference floor. The movement flagged when the new Republican administration of Richard Nixon claimed to have a plan to end the war.
Many were prepared to give the policy of replacing US troops with South Vietnamese forces a chance. But bombing of the North intensified. And then in April 1970 Nixon announced that the US and South Vietnamese troops had invaded Cambodia. Colleges across the US struck in protest.
Nixon ordered the protests put down, and four students were shot dead when the National Guard opened fire on 1,000 protesters at Kent State University in Ohio. The murders sparked massive protests, even touching conservative areas such as Austin, Texas, where 20,000 marched.
Commentators began talking about rebellion against the war becoming a 'revolution at home'. A November 1970 referendum in the working class city of Detroit showed 63 percent against the war. That city and many others had been rocked by a series of rebellions by black people against racism and poverty. Those uprisings had drawn in support from disaffected young white people who had been conscripted to fight in Vietnam.
No one could now claim that the anti-war movement was isolated to students. It touched the army itself. Drug taking became widespread. So too did 'fragging', the killing of hardline officers by their own men (often using fragmentation grenades).
Troop withdrawals did not stop the protests. More saturation bombing and the invasion of Laos in early 1971 sparked huge demonstrations-500,000 in Washington and 300,000 in San Francisco. Soldiers in uniform joined them. By the autumn of 1973 56,000 US soldiers had died and over 200,000 had been wounded in Vietnam.
The army was falling apart. The US ruling class was split. Wall Street was screaming for an end to the huge sums being committed to the war. Demonstrations were not only huge, but raised slogans openly against US imperialism. Nixon was forced to reach a settlement to end the war. The world's greatest war machine had been beaten by one of the poorest countries on earth.
Protests in many countries against Bush's war today are already bigger than those three years into the Vietnam War. And the US military is resorting to the same methods used in Vietnam, only this time within weeks, not years, of the start of the conflict.
So called smart Cruise missiles have given way to Vietnam-style B-52 carpet bombing and obscene 'daisy-cutter' bombs. There is the possibility of building an even more powerful anti-war movement today than 30 years ago. Already mass anti-war feeling in the Middle East has led regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to fear internal revolt. There is also wider bitterness with the capitalist system, which is now wrecking the lives of workers and the poor as it sinks into its fourth recession in the last quarter of a century.
The anger over the war against Afghanistan can connect with the rage workers feel at the war on their lives at home. The lessons of Vietnam are that an anti-war movement that clearly directs itself against the big imperialist powers can help humble them. In so doing it can spur on the fight against the capitalist system which lies at the root of all wars.