Why we cannot forget the war in Vietnam

Today’s featured story focuses on a speech delivered by Tom Hayden, leader of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), at a recent conference titled “Vietnam: The Power of Protest.” This conference celebrated the many people who risked their jobs, reputations, and lives to protest the war in Vietnam. These protests led to the largest mass movement in American history.

Brief Backstory: The Vietnam war was essentially a war between imperial powers. It was fought as a  proxy war between North and South Vietnam with the North supported by the Soviet Union, China, and other communist allies, and the South supported by the United States and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), the anti-communists. The U.S. had the largest foreign military presence in the war, and participated from 1965-1975. On March 7th, 1965 US marines landed in South Vietnam, the same day that Alabama State Troopers beat civil rights protesters attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. By 1968 over half a million US troops were in Vietnam. The Vietnam War was the longest war in US history until the War in Afghanistan. Thousands of young people were drafted, many of whom refused to serve. The U.S. ultimately failed to achieve victory. South Vietnam was eventually taken over by North Vietnam. It is estimated that as many as 3.8 million Vietnamese and 58,000 US troops perished during the war. Click here for more information about the war in Vietnam.

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

Tom Hayden’s speech is a profound ode to historical memory, to not-forgetting. Hayden begins his speech with Martin Luther King, saying “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, [and] economic poverty.” Hayden goes on to remind us that Dr. King was attacked by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post for denouncing the US invasion of Vietnam. King was also threatened in various ways including threats to remove his funding. (Watch MLK’s famous speech against the Vietnam War here)

Hayden’s speech highlights a few realities about this time period that have been forgotten by the general public and media. For example, many don’t know that the peace movement against the war in Vietnam began with young black students; “The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was the first to resist the war.”

Another forgotten reality Hayden’s speech explores is that many suffered from their decision to stand against the war. Muhammad Ali was stripped of his boxing titles when he refused the draft. Julian Bond, one of the first African Americans to be elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, and the founder of SNCC, was denied his seat in the House because he publicly opposed the war. Between 20 and 30,000 protesters showed up to a 1970 anti-war march in East Los Angeles, organized by the Chicano Moratorium, where clashes with the police left many injured, 4 civilians killed, and more than 150 arrested. Those killed included Rueben Salazar, a Mexican-American reporter for the Los Angeles Times who was shot in the head with a tear gas canister. That same year, 4 unarmed college students at Kent State were shot by Ohio National Guard during a demonstration. Two weeks later, 2 students were killed at Jackson State. Hayden recalls all of these moments, all of these lives.

Hayden’s speech attempts to remind us that we cannot forget those who helped bring U.S. involvement in Vietnam to an end. We cannot forget the 4 million students who walked out of class, shutting down high schools and college campuses across the nation. We cannot forget the “veterans who took the risk of standing up to their commanding officers and resisted from within the military.” Through these stories, Hayden beautifully reminds us that there is power in protest.

Hayden calls out our “national forgetting”  as “pathological.” He speaks truth to our systems —politics, media, culture— which are all “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 saying this, Hayden holds the media accountable for their role in helping us to forget the full story–and many would argue–the real story. Hayden is clear in his ethos: “we must establish a voice for peace in all of these institutions.” We must make peace and non-violent conflict resolution an intentional and intrinsic part of our cultural, political, and social fabric. Hayden tells us that in order to do this we must resist the Pentagon’s “military occupation of our minds and the minds of future generations.”

Today’s episode of Democracy Now aired 4 different speeches from the conference “Vietnam: The Power of Protest.” Click here to watch Hayden’s full speech. Click here to watch the entire show or to find links to each of the 4 speeches.

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