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SDS Leader Tom Hayden on Vietnam: We Must Challenge the Pentagon on the Battlefield of Memory

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As the nation celebrates Memorial Day, we look back at the Vietnam War. Fifty years ago, on March 7, 1965, 3,500 U.S. marines landed in South Vietnam, marking the start of the U.S. ground war in Vietnam. That same day, in Alabama, state troopers beat back civil rights protesters in Selma trying to walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Weeks later, the first teach-in against the Vietnam War was held at the University of Michigan. By 1968, the U.S. had half a million troops in Vietnam. The war continued until April 1975. Some scholars estimate as many as 3.8 million Vietnamese died during the war, up to 800,000 perished in Cambodia, another one million in Laos. The U.S. death toll was 58,000. Today we spend the hour airing highlights from a recent conference titled “Vietnam: The Power of Protest.” We begin with Tom Hayden, who helped to found SDS, Students for a Democratic Society.

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AMY GOODMAN: As the nation celebrates Memorial Day, we look back at the Vietnam War. Fifty years ago, on March 7, 1965, 3,500 U.S. marines landed in South Vietnam, marking the start of the U.S. ground war in Vietnam. That same day, in Alabama, state troopers beat back civil rights protesters in Selma trying to walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Weeks later, the first teach-in against the Vietnam War was held at the University of Michigan. By 1968, the U.S. had half a million troops in Vietnam. The war continued until April 1975. Some scholars estimate as many as 3.8 million Vietnamese died during the war, up to 800,000 perished in Cambodia, another one million in Laos. The U.S. death toll was 58,000.

Today we spend the hour airing highlights from a recent conference titled “Vietnam: The Power of Protest.” It was held at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. Speakers included former Oakland Congressmember Ron Dellums, who chaired the Armed Services Committee; Colorado’s Pat Schroeder, one of the youngest women ever elected to Congress; Tom Hayden, who helped to found SDS, Students for a Democratic Society; and Wayne Smith, who served as a combat medic during Vietnam. Democracy Now! co-host Juan González moderated the event.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Good morning. I was here last night, as I know many of you were. It was really an inspiring evening to see so many of these elders, who really paved the way to build one of the great mass movements in American history. But a mass movement is not simply built by leaders. It is built by tens of thousands of people who make individual decisions at a certain point in their lives to risk the disapproval of their family, the possibility of derailing their education, the possibility of losing jobs, some even of losing their lives. They make individual decisions that something has to change. So the rest of this conference will be dedicated to looking at those individual decisions that were made by so many people, and the repercussions not only in the Vietnam—in the movement against the Vietnam War, but also in the movement—in the social movements and justice movements that emerged subsequent to the war.

I was a young college student at Columbia University, privileged to be a member of the Strike Coordinating Committee of the Columbia student strike of 1968, where I met many people—a strike against the Vietnam War and racism of Columbia University—and met many of the people who became so influential in my own life, and then, subsequently, after leaving SDS and Columbia, went on to participate in another great movement, the movement for the liberation of Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican communities in this country, and where we were one of the first organizations to stand up to the—and oppose the Vietnam War in the Latino community. So many of our members ended up being arrested for Selective Service violations. Pablo “Yoruba” Guzmán, the CBS reporter, spent two years in Tallahassee federal prison. I was arrested in 1972 by 13 FBI agents, who surrounded our offices with shotguns and hauled me out for Selective Service violation, and eventually was convicted. And so many others of our members ended up sacrificing their careers at that point to be able to stand up.

So—and we’re going to discuss now, with an incredibly tremendous panel, what they were doing, how they got involved in the movement against the Vietnam War and the impact it had on their lives. Tom Hayden, co-author of the Port Huron Statement, one of the founding leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society, part of the Chicago 8 after the demonstrations in Chicago, state senator and just a general voice of conscience for the American progressive movement for so long.

TOM HAYDEN: I want to start off by saying how many of you I love very much and known for such a long time, and I only hope that there’s enough minutes and occasions here for us to get to know each other again, because we have really been through a lifetime. Today, we’ll have plenty of time for discussion, for panels, for observations. And at 4:00, we’ll gather to march to the King Memorial. And I want to just say a word about that. I know that Ron Dellums is going to speak to this.

But why was that—why was that chosen? It’s because, in keeping with trying to make sure our history is told accurately, we have to tell it ourselves. And we have to recognize that Dr. King became a martyr because of his stand on Vietnam, not only because of his stand on race, justice, economic poverty. And there’s been a tendency over the many decades to make Dr. King a monument to nonviolence alone, and we need to remember that he was attacked by The New York Times and by The Wall Street Journal and by The Washington Post for being out of place. They wanted to put him back in his place and say nothing about Vietnam, take no stand on Vietnam. There were threats that he would lose funding. There were threats of all sorts. And to distort that, to forget that, to ignore that, his monument would be shaped in a certain way to serve certain interests, but not others, is a disservice to truth. And we have to march there and vigil there and commemorate him as a leader and a martyr for all of us, for peace, justice and civil rights, not only in the United States, but around the world, and persist in making sure that his whole story, including the campaign to end poverty in the United States, is told each and every year and in all of our schools and curriculum. So that’s the purpose.

This is a way of saying that the struggle for memory and for history is a living thing. It’s ongoing. It does not end. Even today, people are debating and reassessing the history of abolition of slavery, the role of slave resistance, the role of the Underground Railroad, the role of the abolitionist direct action movement, the role of the radical Republican politicians, the role of international politics in what came about, and the role—how it was derailed by the assassination of President Lincoln, the ending of the possibilities of Reconstruction, which were not taken up again until 1960, and the coming of Jim Crow. Each generation has to wrestle with the history of what came before, and ask: Whose interest does this history serve? How does it advance a legacy of social movements? How does it deny that legacy? We don’t know.

But we do know that we are here for the very first time as such a broad gathering of the movement against the Vietnam War. It’s been 50 years since Selma, 50 years since the first SDS march. So, it was a time that changed our lives, nearing a second Reconstruction before the murders of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy. Then came the budget cuts, the end of the war on poverty. Then came the Watergate repression. And we became a generation of might-have-beens. Like Sisyphus, our rock lay at the bottom of the hill.

We gather here to remember the power that we had at one point, the power of the peace movement, and to challenge the Pentagon now on the battlefield of memory. We have to resist their military occupation of our minds and the minds of future generations. Memory—memory is very much like rock climbing, the recovery of memory. Each niche towards the summit is graphed inch by bleeding inch and has to be carefully carved with tools that are precise in order to take the next step. Falling back is always possible. But as Dr. King himself said on his last night, there is something in humans that makes us aspire to climb mountains, to reach that majesty, if only for a moment. We are mountain climbers.

President Obama has reminded us to remember, he said, Selma, Seneca Falls and Stonewall. But not Saigon, not Chicago, not Vietnam. We have to ask ourselves collectively why that omission exists, and realize that only we can restore a place in the proper history of those times. We suspect that there was a reason, that it has to do with the programming of amnesia, that there are very powerful forces in our country who stand for denial, not just climate denial, but generational denial, Vietnam denial. There are forces that stand for ethnic cleansing, but not just ethnic cleansing, but also for historic cleansing. And that is what has happened. It serves their purpose because they have no interest in the true history of a war in which they sent thousands to their deaths and, almost before the blood had dried, were moving up the national security ladder and showing up for television interviews to advertise what they called the next cakewalks. Only the blood was caked.

There came a generation of career politicians who were afraid of association with the peace movement, who were afraid of being seen as soft, who saw that the inside track was the track of war. Our national forgetting is basically pathological. Our systems—politics, media, culture—are totally out of balance today because of our collective refusal to admit that the Vietnam War was wrong and that the peace movement was right. In the absence—in the absence of an established voice for peace in all the institutions, the neoconservatives will fill the foreign policy vacuum. Am I right? Will it not? Will it not advise both parties? I think, though, that American public opinion has shifted to a much more skeptical state of mind than earlier generations, but the spectrum of American politics and media has not.

So we can never forget that, of course, it was the Vietnamese resistance and their sacrifice that led to our awakening, along with the civil rights movement at home. It began with handfuls of young people, black students who led Freedom Rides, sit-ins. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was the first to resist the war. Julian Bond, who’s sitting here, was rejected after being elected to the Georgia Legislature. Muhammad Ali was stripped of his boxing titles. It also began with the Vietnam Day Committee in Berkeley, growing out of teach-ins, out of SDS, that called the first march, the draft resistance. There had never been a peace movement like the one in 1965 that arose out of the civil rights movement and came just weeks after Selma. At least 29 would die at the hands of police while demonstrating for peace.

I’d like here to introduce Luis Rodriguez and Rosalio Muñoz and Jorge Mariscal from the Chicano Moratorium, where four died, including Gustav [Montag], Lyn Ward, José Diaz and Rubén Salazar. Rubén Salazar was an early Juan González. Rubén Salazar was a great reporter for the Los Angeles Times who served as a journalist in Vietnam before he started critical reporting on the streets of Los Angeles. And he was shot by the sheriff’s deputies. I don’t know if he’s here, but is Alan Canfora here? Alan, please stand. Alan was wounded at Kent State. Four died at Kent State, two at Jackson State two weeks later. And every year, these two groups of people have observed memorials, have fought for their place in history, are coming up on their 50th anniversary commemorations and are here today to learn from us, as we’ve learned from them, the importance of organizing, organizing, organizing around the politics of memory. So, thank you for being here, and we will remember. We will not forget.

We will not forget the eight who sacrificed their lives by self-immolation. We will not forget the students who helped end the war by shutting down so many campuses. We will not forget the veterans who took the risk of standing up to their commanding officers and resisted from within the military. We will not forget this because this was something like a Du Bois characterization of the general strike by slaves who, through noncooperation, walked off plantations across the South when they saw the futility of any other alternative and chose to simply walk away and join the Union army. What happened at the end of the Vietnam War is that people walked away. The campuses shut down. Four million students walked away. The military was described by Marine colonels in military histories as being on the verge of collapse. They walked away. The counterculture walked away. We all walked away.

It might have been otherwise, if King and Robert Kennedy had not been assassinated. We might have been united, at least for a moment, at least for a moment. We might have elected a president. We might have ended a war. But instead, we were relegated to wondering what might have been. We lost any basis for our unity, and thus we have not come together since that time. The question for us is whether today we can unify, when we never could unify before. Can we do that for the memory of our movement and for the meaning that it holds for future generations? I hope so. I pray so. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Hayden was a leader of Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, speaking at “Vietnam: The Power of Protest,” a conference that was recently held in Washington, D.C. When we come back, we’ll hear from a combat medic, Wayne Smith, who served in Vietnam, and former Congressmembers Pat Schroeder and Ron Dellums, who chaired the House Armed Services Committee. Stay with us.

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