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April 17, 1965: Students picketing in front of the White House to protest the U.S. policy in Southeast Asia and to demand an end to the war in Vietnam. (© Bettmann/Corbis)

Invitation to a Movement

It’s been half a century since 20- or 25,000 mostly young Americans, incensed, earnest, inexperienced, joyful, but weirdly hopeful, congregated in the Washington sunshine to declare opposition to the Vietnam War. I, one of the organizers working with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), was flabbergasted at the sight of all those rented buses parked by the Mall like a herd of friendly elephants. We who loathed the booming war were accustomed to puniness. That we could suddenly be counted in five figures was, for the moment, enough to make us think that we might actually accomplish the impossible—end a war. The civil rights movement had already shown wondrous things to be possible. Something was happening and none of us wanted to be left clueless on Desolation Row with Mr. Jones.

Aside from collective intoxication, the occasion was bristling with tensions that would take years to play out. The folksinger Phil Ochs sneered out a sardonic song “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” which drove the next speaker, the journalist I.F. Stone, to say, “I’ve seen snot-nosed Marxist-Leninists come and go.” It was Stone, one of the most grounded Old Leftists who ever lived, who had spurred SDS to take Vietnam seriously at a time when the United States wasn’t yet steadily bombing the country and the U.S. “advisers” could still be counted in the five figures, too.

Oratorically, the day belonged to SDS President Paul Potter, just turned 26, lean, intense; Thoreau and abolitionism and civil rights in his veins; “spiritual” before the word acquired its later valence. Potter upped the ante with the most memorable words yet spoken in public by a ’60s white radical:

I believe that the administration is serious about expanding the war in Asia. The question is whether the people here are as serious about ending it.

What would it take to end the war and “change the institutions which create it”?

The people of this country must create a massive social movement. … A movement rather than a protest or some series of protests … a movement that understands Vietnam in all its horror as but a symptom of a deeper malaise.

Energy and will would make up for numbers:

Twenty thousand people, the people here, if they were serious … would be, I’m convinced, enough … [if] we desert the security of our riches and reach out to people who are tied to the mythology of American power and make them part of our movement.

This was stirring if you were waiting for a clarion call, hazy if you were not; or both at the same time.

One way or the other, we were no longer a handful of oddballs. We might as well have inhaled giddiness dust. At the end of the day, after the rally, a remnant few thousand souls headed on down the Mall toward the Capitol, in a mood to keep on surging until they were stopped by armed guards.

Over the following months, on the heels of the civil rights movement, a morally serious revival flourished. Millions did their damnedest, most wisely, some not so wisely, some liberal, some radical, some more militant, some less, some empirically minded, some doctrinaire, all resolute if sometimes bewildered, to put their intelligence and ingenuity and at times spirited mindlessness to work on behalf of the movement that Potter invoked. Millions tried to thwart, resist, and eventually to end the accelerating war. The result was, for all its bravado and misjudgments, the most effective antiwar movement in history.

Had it been shrewder, more persuasive, less indulgent of demented ideas, might it have succeeded sooner? Probably not, I think, though it would have been vastly better to keep a smart movement intact than to blow it apart with revolutionary pretensions. Paul Potter’s recognition that the war was rooted in something immense—not just erroneous policy but civilizational lunacy—was correct, and one president after another proved more attached to a mad, weirdly utopian idea of victory than to common sense.

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How To Make Sense of a Senseless War?

On April 17, 1965, the number of demonstrators in front of the White House and along the Washington Mall was approximately the same as the number of American troops in Vietnam.

The war would grind on for 10 more years. By the time it was done, more than 58,000 Americans would be needlessly dead. So would be 2 million to 3 million Vietnamese and who knows how many Laotians and Cambodians. As Thomas Fuller reported in the Times of April 6 this year, brave souls in Laos are still picking unexploded cluster bombs out of the ground. Since the war ended,

more than 8,000 people have been killed and about 12,000 wounded in Laos by cluster bombs and other live, leftover ordnance. … From 1964 to 1973, American warplanes conducted 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, one of the most intensive air campaigns in the history of warfare.

This is only the latest report of the appalling slaughter. One could go on interminably, compiling evidence of the damage done, but perhaps one more statistic will do: The United States dropped on Indochina four times as much bomb tonnage as it dropped in all theaters during World War II. This is not a typo. It is the madness where bad ideas and dissociation from human reality lead.

The outcome, aside from lives cut short, bodies mangled, forests poisoned, land destroyed? In the three nations that made up the former French Indochina, Communist governments were, and remain, in power—the same Communist governments that would have prevailed had the United States not gone to such pains to forestall the inevitable. In the United States, democratic reform was blasted, hearts were curdled, careers and new starts were made and remade, worlds were discovered.

From the start, the Vietnam war was as egregious and dumb as it was futile, predicated as it was on a dire combination of grotesque national arrogance and self-delusion. The war’s successive advocates in the White House understood, in private, to greater or lesser degrees, that a ground war in Asia was ill-advised. Transfixed by a Cold War black-or-white calculus, they went rigid with stupidity. One American president after another was traumatized by the fear of being upended by the charge “Who lost Vietnam?”—as if Vietnam was America’s to lose. Hadn’t Joseph McCarthy and his allies hijacked American politics with the charge that China, before Mao’s 1949 victory, had been “ours” to lose?

America’s political class, still flush with victory over Hitler and the Japanese, kept assuring the American people that we knew all and could scrub the world of evil. Flush with self-righteousness, they were imprisoned by a misguided metaphor, “falling dominoes,” as if polycentric Communism was like panzer-borne Nazism and nations were inert objects. In the name of that metaphor, they lied and lied again about a light of freedom they saw ahead at the end of the tunnel of war. Most of America followed along—until it dawned on them that, as Robert Lowell put it, “if we see a light at the end of the tunnel/ it’s the light of an oncoming train.”

The longer the war went on, the more Americans would ask themselves Paul Potter’s question of April 17, 1965:

What kind of system is it that justifies the United States or any country seizing the destinies of the Vietnamese people and using them callously for its own purpose? What kind of system is it that disenfranchises people in the South, leaves millions upon millions of people throughout the country impoverished and excluded from the mainstream and promise of American society, that creates faceless and terrible bureaucracies and makes those the place where people spend their lives and do their work, that consistently puts material values before human values—and still persists in calling itself free and still persists in finding itself fit to police the world? … We must name that system. We must name it, describe it, analyze it, understand it, and change it.

Later, allies would task him for refraining to call the system by its true name—“imperialism,” “capitalism.” But the word “capitalism” stuck in his throat, Potter wrote later, not because he was evasive, not because he was afraid to say it, but because it was a “hollow, dead word tied to the thirties.” Potter was not a closeted Marxist but a radical pragmatist, a Midwestern Transcendentalist who grew up on a farm, now reporting his dismay, radicalization, and grief at an America so radically at variance with the triumphalist textbooks. What he intuited about the America of the Vietnam war was that a whole civilization had poured itself into the slaughter, not just an economic system—a civilization of reckless power and reason gone mad, so much so that, as SDS historian Richard Rothstein put it, the challenge was to stop “the seventh war from now.”

Today the prevailing forms of wild unreason are different. The Vietnam War and its circumstances will not repeat. History isn’t so tidy or tedious. Neither Osama Bin Laden nor Saddam Hussein was Ho Chi Minh, nor is ISIS the Viet Cong, whose ambitions, contrary to the hysterics who saw them making a beachhead in San Diego, were decidedly local. The movements required today are—no surprise—today’s, not those of a half-century ago. (It was the lunacy of successive Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon to think that they were presented in Southeast Asia with a chance to win World War II all over again.)

But it’s worth pausing a moment to note that, in the course of human events, wild things become possible. For a very long stretch, the Vietnam monstrosity seemed a fate decreed by a demented civilization. Today, the iron grip of the carbon-combustion complex may seem likewise fated. So, too, the flaming hatreds of the Middle East. Yet moments pass. Fates expire. Climates change. Stand by for surprises.

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