William Conrad Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships, Part II (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1995), pp. 42, 43.
“Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the Conference on Vietnam Luncheon in the hotel Willard, Washington, D.C., June 1, 1956,” ; U.S. Congress, Senate, “Background Information Related to Southeast Asia and Vietnam,” 89th Congress, 1st session (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1965), p. 73; and Clarence R. Wyatt, Paper Soldiers: The American Press and the Vietnam War (University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 63-65.
During the siege, Paris urgently appealed to Washington for U.S. warplanes to bomb Viet Minh positions. President Eisenhower was prepared to militarily intervene, but lack of international and domestic support persuaded him otherwise. British leader Winston Churchill, who had warned in 1946 of an “iron curtain” being drawn across Europe, now advised the American president to let the French colony go, recognizing that historical conditions had changed (the British reluctantly gave up India, the crown of the empire, in 1947).
On May 7, 1954, the French command surrendered. Giap later reflected that the Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu validated a “great historic truth, that a colonized and weak people, once it has risen up and is united in the struggle and determined to fight for its independence and peace, has the full power to defeat the strong aggressive army of an imperialist country.” The lesson was not lost on other colonized peoples around the world. Nor would the Vietnamese forget this lesson in the next unexpected phase of the struggle.
This accommodation was undoubtedly the product of a particularhistorical moment and of a cultural background dominated by Protestantism ofseveral varieties and by the Enlightenment, but it has survived despitesubsequent changes in the cultural and religious climate.
The American people, by and large, are against colonialism and aggression, and believe in the right of every country to manage its own affairs free from outside interference. Rarely have these simple principles been so clearly and grossly violated as in the present United States policy towards Indochina…. Are we going to take the position that anti-Communism justifies anything, including colonialism, interference in the affairs of other countries and aggression? That way, let us be perfectly clear about it, lies war and more war leading ultimately to full-scale disaster.
Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the son of an émigré Hebrew scholar, addressed the issue of the moral responsibility of intellectuals in a special supplement in the New York Review of Books in February 1967. Based on a thorough examination of U.S. policy in Vietnam, he judged that it was genocidal in conduct and imperialist in intent. Like other intellectuals on the left, he viewed U.S. involvement in Vietnam as neither an aberration nor a simple mistake but rather as part of a larger design to extend American hegemony. Chomsky examined the role of the intellectuals in World War II, particularly those in Germany and Japan who failed to speak out against the atrocities committed by their respective governments. Considering the relative freedom of Western societies, he argued that academics and intellectuals had a responsibility to “seek the truth hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us.”
Having spoken from his conscience, King was labeled an enemy of the state by his government, and derided as a dupe of the communists by the press. He was not alone in this. Both the Johnson and Nixon administrations besmirched antiwar activism as support for the communist cause, if not actually being controlled by communists. Using an expansive definition of “subversion,” they employed the FBI and CIA to conduct surveillance and sabotage of antiwar groups, including King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). As for the mainstream media, its denunciations of antiwar activism decreased over time as more Americans joined the antiwar movement and the costs of the war increased.
King suggested “five concrete things that our government should do to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict.” These included ending all bombing in North and South Vietnam; declaring a unilateral cease-fire; curtailing the U.S. military buildup in Thailand and interference in Laos; accepting the National Liberation Front in negotiations; and setting “a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva Agreement.”
The strength of the movement lay in its grassroots authenticity, creativity, and overall tenacity. People joined local peace organizations, committees, and study groups, exchanged information and opinions, wrote to legislators and newspaper editors, arranged educational programs, placed ads in newspapers, set up draft counseling centers, worked in election campaigns, lobbied legislators, boycotted products of Dow Chemical (maker of napalm), organized vigils, protests, guerrilla theater, and prayer services, engaged in civil disobedience actions, and boarded buses for national demonstrations. What could not be done at the local level was to create a sense of movement identity and momentum. In lieu of national leadership, coordinated national demonstrations served this function. Organized by a succession of coalitions, mass demonstrations of 100,000 or more people were held semi-annually from the spring of 1967 through the spring of 1971.
King devoted a large part of his speech to reviewing the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He recounted how the U.S. turned its back on Ho Chi Minh, supported “France in its reconquest of her former colony,” undermined the Geneva accords of 1954, and implanted in the south “one of the most vicious modern dictators, our chosen man, Premier Diem.” Having established this factual history, still unknown to many Americans at the time, he called on Americans to atone for their government’s misdeeds as a prelude to changing course.