This is a rewrite and update of something I wrote and published elsewhere about 3 years ago. Perhaps many will think it is still relevant.
Lately, pundits and politicians have both pooh-pooh’d and drawn parallels between the Vietnam war and the present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But there is another, not-talked-about parallel, and it is much more important.
During the Vietnam war, the military brass and assorted apologists for this appalling adventure complained about how the US was fighting with one hand tied behind its back, owing to the treasonous antiwar movement and their bullying of those weak-kneed liberal politicians.
Until quite recently, the American military brass have avoided voicing similar complaints about the United States’ present efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although most of today’s military strategists do not think there are anywhere near enough “boots on the ground” to achieve US goals, they have mostly avoided voicing this sentiment too loudly. And there is a good reason why the US has not mobilized its military machine to the extent they did during World War II or even Korea. Looking at the Vietnam war and how opposition to it shook the empire to its roots can provide us with some insight.
During World War II, the United States mobilized almost all domestic economic activity to fighting the war. That meant most civilian consumer goods production halted except for absolute necessities. Strikes were banned. Work hours were lengthened owing to so many workers becoming part of the military. Auto plants made military vehicles instead of passenger vehicles, tanks instead of tractors. Airplane manufacture made war planes instead of commercial aircraft. Typewriter factories started producing guns and grenades. Raw materials for civilian production was diverted to military purposes. Plastics and other manufactured goods were adapted to military ends. Americans had strict rationing of all the basic necessities and small luxuries.
Enemy military action caused comparatively little actual damage to US territory, apart from Pearl Harbor (not part of one of the States at that time) and some minor damage in remote areas of the Pacific Northwest from Japanese balloon bombs.
Nevertheless Americans experienced severe rationing, a draft, and literally millions of men under arms, missing from the civilian scene. Every American family, indeed every American experienced this in an acutely personal way as our living standards dropped, our young men participated in the military and faced danger, although we suffered far less than the French, British, German, Japanese, Chinese, and Soviet civilian populations.
Our American armies were huge, with millions under arms, and millions more Americans involved themselves in other ways in the war effort. Almost all civilian production was geared primarily to war production.
For example, in 1940, President Roosevelt ordered the building of 50,000 planes for combat.
Can you imagine the political fallout if President Obama called for 50,000 aircraft to be built?
Meanwhile domestic spending and economic activity were cut, government programs gutted, most strikes outlawed–all for funneling America’s industrial resources into the war. Those who stayed home contributed to the war effort by working longer hours, having a reduced standard of living, and making many small and large sacrifices. There were neighborhood drives for surplus metal for the war effort, e.g. tin cans for tanks, rusting auto wheels for bullets and hand grenades. Some people even donated dinnerware and old family treasures. People sunk their spare change into war bonds.
But during the Vietnam war, the American government did not attempt a mobilization on anywhere near that scale.
This is a remarkable, though currently ignored, aspect of the Vietnam war era.
Consider the following: Pro-war government representatives, as well as pro-war hawks never tired of telling us Americans that if “we” did not fight the communists in Southeast Asia, “we” would find ourselves fighting communists over here in the streets of America. (Does this sound familiar?) Instead, President Johnson promised “guns and butter ,” and this actually became a campaign slogan.
Instead of a sudden emergency mobilization similar to that which had occurred after the Japanese bombing of Hawaii in 1941, the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations all engaged in a policy of “gradual escalation.”
And the support for that war came not only from conservatives!
Most of the so-called “liberal” establishment fell into lockstep support of the war for many years until it became too politically embarrassing in the face of mass antiwar sentiment.
So this poses an interesting question: Just why did the politicians hesitate to build an army of millions and mobilize the American public for a massive war effort?
The pro-war government faced three powerful forces that, if mobilized, could have inflicted a historic defeat. Before every escalation, the war makers wanted to know:
- What would the Soviet Union do (a major military power)?
- What would China do (another major military power)?
- And what would the American people do?
A sovereign country with a skilled military command always wants to know what other militarized states might do if they object to their military activities.
But of course, the American people as a people have no military power. We have a constitutionally guaranteed right to bear arms, but on a state power level, it is the American government that monopolizes the control of potentially effective military power, not the American citizenry.
But we Americans did have and do have the power of mass action and mass protest. And during the Vietnam era, that power had just succeeded in knocking down the Jim Crow laws, at the cost of no little bloodshed, For those too young to remember, Jim Crow laws were the American form of Apartheid that mandated segregation in the American south and legitimized a reign of terror over African Americans that lasted from the 1880s to the 1960s.
The Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China offered very little resistance other than rhetoric. But the American people became more and more involved in a powerful antiwar movement. At first, the peace movement was comprised of a few pacifist groups and radicals, then student groups, and then eventually mainstream groups like churches and other organizations.
It reached a point where the organizations involved in antiwar activities actually represented the majority of Americans.
Finally, antiwar groups sprung up in the military, including among combat personnel. Military resistance was both organized and spontaneous. Soldiers refused orders to fight, there were mass desertions, and officers who insisted on combat were frequently killed (a practice called fragging), where a fragmentation grenade would end up in an officer’s tent in the middle of the night.
Then when national guardsmen killed antiwar demonstrators on the Jackson State College and Kent State College in May of 1970, there was a political explosion.
A nationwide student strike shut down most of secondary education in the country, especially in the big urban areas along the coasts, and at the same time, the truckers went on strike on the east coast (though not over the war). For a few days in that May, anti-government sentiment was higher than at any other time since the Civil War of 1860 to 1865, almost exactly a century earlier.
To those who did not live through the experience, it is almost unbelievable how unpopular the Vietnam had become and how deeply legitimate and heartfelt antiwar feeling had become during final 3 or 4 years of that war, even among a sizable segment of military personnel.
Antiwar sentiment infiltrated our culture, our music, our lives. According to this article in the Encyclopedia Britannica, around a half-million young men avoided the draft. Moreover, tens of thousands more deserted the military. Fragging incidents and outright refusals to fight escalated to unheard levels. Morale broke down completely in the Army and it became unreliable. The Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force were on the road to becoming unreliable. General public sentiment for immediate and unconditional withdrawal spread through the ranks of the fighting men. That is, in large part, what actually caused the politicians to “tie” the military’s hands behind their back by failing to sufficiently mobilize the vast economic and industrial resources necessary for a definitive defeat of the Vietnamese resistance. In the end, it was the antiwar sentiments of the American public that ended the war.
Today, President Obama and the American military brass faces a similar situation. The war in Afghanistan and Iraq are becoming less and less popular. Although there is no mass antiwar movement today, it could spring into existence at an unexpected moment.
It may well be that in order to achieve its goals in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American military brass would have to mobilize the United States on a scale that would cause rebellion in the United States. According to the CIA World Fact Book, there were nearly 29 million Iraqis in July, 2009. And in the same month, there were about 28 million Afghanis.
As of September, 2009, there were 124,000 US troops in Iraq. That is a ratio of 234 civilians to one US troop.
The US military is an occupying force in a country where according to ABC News, polls show 6 out of 10 Iraqis feel it is justified to attack US military personnel in order to drive them out.
And in Afghanistan, occupation troops are equally unpopular. The New York Times reported in late August, 2009, that there are 57,000 US troops in Afghanistan.
Today, the Iraq and Afghan wars are unpopular enough that one does not hear too many politicians or generals yammering about having their hands tied behind their backs.
Opposition to the Vietnam war legitimized dissent against wars. If the military policy makers and President Obama make a wrong step, the antiwar movement may spring back into life. We have the historical experience of stopping a shooting war by mass popular legal protest.
That legacy haunts the worst nightmares of the war makers and informs the conscience of the American public.