“Sometimes to Be Silent Is to Lie”: Vietnam

I was witness in the summer of 1964 to a dramatic encounter between the black Southern movement and the war in Vietnam. In early August, many of us in the movement drove from Jackson, Mississippi, into Neshoba County to attend the memorial service for James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman. Their bodies, horribly beaten with chains and then riddled with bullets, had been found about five weeks after they had disappeared from sight near the town of Philadelphia.

The memorial service took place over a pile of rubble, all that was left of the Mount Zion Baptist Church, whose burning the three young men had gone to investigate. It was a quiet, sunny glen, and our thoughts were turned to Mrs. Chaney, clad in black, mourning her teenage son.

Bob Moses spoke at the service, and we could see that his usual calm was missing. He held up that morning’s newspaper from Jackson, and read the headline: “President Johnson Says ‘Shoot to Kill’ in the Gulf of Tonkin.”

Bob spoke with a bitterness we were not accustomed to seeing in him. The government of the United States, he said, was willing to send armed forces halfway around the world for a cause which was incomprehensible, but it was unwilling to send marshals into Mississippi, though asked again and again, to protect civil rights workers from inevitable violence. And now three of them were dead.

The Tonkin incident—the supposed attack on American destroyers by North Vietnamese torpedo boats near the coast of Vietnam—became the excuse for the swift American escalation of the colonial war that the French had lost in 1954 and that the United States had taken over.

The president, the secretary of state, and the secretary of defense were lying to the American public—there was no evidence of any attack, and the American destroyers were not on “routine patrol” but on spying missions. However, Congress and all the major newspapers and television networks accepted the story without question. Congress immediately passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, giving President Johnson a blank check for massive intervention in Vietnam.

That fall, preparing to teach at Boston University, I felt immediately that military involvement in Indochina would be disastrous—for the people there, and for us in the United States.

As a schoolboy I had been taught to be proud of our nation’s march across the continent—it was always labeled “Westward Expansion.” Expansion—it seemed almost biological. We just grew. The map that showed it was bright and multicolored: green for the Florida Purchase, blue for the Louisiana Purchase, red for the Mexican Cession. All purchases and cessions! So benign.

A little study of history was instructive. To make the country ours, before and after the American Revolution, we had to displace or annihilate the indigenous people who had lived here for thousands of years. We had expanded by using deception and force, by military forays into Florida to persuade Spain to “sell” that to us (no money changed hands), by invading Mexico and taking almost half its land.

Later, the United States embarked on building an overseas empire, coming on the world scene later than the imperial powers of Europe, but making up quickly for lost time. We used military force to establish American power in Cuba and Puerto Rico, in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in Central America, in Hawaii and the Philippines.

Knowing this historical background, one had to become somewhat suspicious of our government’s motives in Vietnam.

Thus, when our leaders announced in the summer of 1964 that we had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, I didn’t really know what had happened, but some facts were plain. Our destroyers were far from home, indeed in the waters of Vietnam. We had been giving military aid to the French army in Indochina and then to our client government in Saigon for years, so we were hardly innocents. We were the greatest naval power in the world, and North Vietnam had a ridiculously small naval force, so we could not claim to be helpless victims of Asian bullies. Secretary of State Rusk told reporters that he could not explain why this tiny country would challenge the mighty U.S. fleet except that “their processes of logic are very different.”

History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history—while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance—might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.

I knew how often our government (like other governments) had invented excuses to go to war, found handy “incidents.” Our history was full of Tonkins:

In the Mexican War, a skirmish between Mexican and American troops on the Texas-Mexico border led President Polk to state that “American blood has been shed on American soil,” and to ask Congress for war. Actually, the encounter took place in disputed territory, and Polk’s diary shows that he wanted an excuse for war so the United States could take from Mexico what the United States coveted, California and the whole Southwest.

The expulsion of Spain from Cuba (a worthwhile venture) so that the U.S. could take control of Cuba (an unworthy venture) was preceded by a dubious story, never proven, that the Spaniards had exploded the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana harbor.

Our seizure of the Philippines (from the Filipinos) was preceded by a manufactured “incident” between Filipino and U.S. troops.

The German sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania in World War I was one of the instances of “ruthless” submarine warfare given as a reason to enter that war; years afterward, it was disclosed that the Lusitania was not an innocent vessel but a munitions ship whose papers had been doctored.

And now Tonkin. It was later revealed that the destroyer Maddox was not on “routine patrol” but was part of a secret intelligence operation against North Vietnam, and that the United States was looking for an excuse to come into the war full-scale.

The Gulf of Tonkin affair was followed by a swift escalation of military force—full-scale bombing, hundreds of thousands of American troops. Reasons were given: the United States was doing all this to defend the right of the South Vietnamese to self-determination, to stop the spread of Soviet Communism, to promote freedom and democracy.

The history of U.S. foreign policy in the twenty years since World War II suggested that these claims were not to be believed. Self-determination? The United States did not respect the self-determination of Iran when the CIA in 1953 engineered a coup to restore the Shah to his throne and thus protect the oil interests of American corporations. Nor did it respect the self-determination of Guatemala when it organized an invasion in 1954 to overthrow a democratically elected government which threatened the interests of the United Fruit Company.

As for promoting freedom and democracy, it was a ludicrous claim considering U.S. support of dictatorships all over the world. Brutal tyrants were tolerable just so long as they were not Communist. Batista in Cuba, Somoza in Nicaragua, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Duvalier in Haiti, Marcos in the Philippines—the list of bloody military juntas kept in power by the United States was long.

It was clear that the Soviet Union had created a satellite empire in Eastern Europe, and that the United States did not want to see Communist governments established elsewhere in the world. But it was also clear that any government, even if not Communist (Iran and Guatemala, as examples), that defied U.S. business interests or U.S. political power became a target for overthrow.

As for Vietnam, the United States could hardly claim it wanted the Vietnamese to run their own country when it had done everything in its power to help the French establish control over its former colony. It could hardly claim a concern for democracy when the government in South Vietnam, in Saigon, rejected elections (on U.S. orders) and violently suppressed all opposition, whether Communist, or liberal, or Buddhist. (Buddhist monks were setting themselves afire in public squares in Saigon to attract the attention of the world to the tyranny there.)

And now, with no moral claim on any count, the United States was bombing and invading villages in Vietnam, killing large numbers of civilians, destroying a green and fertile land.

I did not have any illusions about the Communist government of North Vietnam, or about a future Communist society in all of Vietnam. I did not expect either to be free or democratic, although they might provide land, medical care, and education more equitably to the poor. But whatever regime Communists might set up in Vietnam, I knew that our invasion and bombing, directed against the population at large, was wrong. I therefore had no hesitation about plunging early into the small movement against the war.

In fact, Americans have a long history of protesting against wars into which their government tries to entice them or force them under threat of prison. The early colonists refused to be conscripted for the British wars with the French, and dissidents in the Revolutionary War resented the rich and powerful leaders of the Revolution as much as they distrusted the British. In the Mexican war, soldiers deserted in great numbers, seven regiments walking away from General Winfield Scott as he prepared for the march into Mexico City. During World War I, the government had to put on trial and imprison thousands of people to suppress their opposition.

The movement against the war in Vietnam started with isolated actions in 1965. Black civil rights activists in the South were among the first to resist the draft. SNCC’s Bob Moses joined historian Staughton Lynd and veteran pacifist Dave Dellinger to march in Washington against the war, and Life Magazine had a dramatic photo of the three of them walking abreast, being splattered with red paint by angry super-patriots.

In the spring of 1965 I spoke at what was to be the first of many antiwar rallies on the Boston Common. It was a discouragingly small crowd—perhaps a hundred people. I was on the platform with Herbert Marcuse, the German philosopher and radical who would become one of the intellectual heroes of the sixties for the New Left in Europe and the United States.

A year later, in the summer of 1966, with the escalation still going on, with the bombing more ferocious than ever, an invitation came from a Japanese group opposing U.S. intervention in Vietnam. I and Ralph Featherstone, a black SNCC worker I knew from Mississippi, were asked to do a two-week lecture circuit in Japan.

Our hosts, a group called Beheiren, were young intellectuals of the Japanese New Left—novelists, journalists, filmmakers, poets, philosophers, housewives. Their chairman was Oda Makoto, a famous writer, big, tousle-haired, with unpressed coat and trousers, who had studied Greek and Latin, spoke English well, seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of world politics, and never wore a tie no matter what the occasion (determined, it seemed, to break the stereotype of the well-dressed, formal Japanese).

Oda and the others were amazing organizers. In fourteen days we spoke at fourteen different universities in nine cities, plus tea gatherings, beer sessions, and press conferences. We found the Japanese virtually unanimous (polls taken by the major Japanese newspapers affirmed this) in their belief that the United States did not belong in Vietnam.

When we took the high-speed train from Tokyo to Kyoto, our host, who met us at the station, was a sweet-faced, mild-mannered philosopher named Tsurumi Shunsuke. He had studied at Harvard and was in his last year there when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Tsurumi was picked up by the police as an enemy alien and put in the Charles Street Jail in Boston.

Tsurumi was interrogated. “Are you loyal to the Japanese government?” He answered, “No.” “Are you loyal to the American government.” Again his answer was “No.” Whereupon they said, “You are an anarchist. You will have to be kept in jail.” (Tsurumi was released some time later, when the Red Cross arranged a prisoner exchange.)

It was late at night when he met us at the Kyoto train station. He said, “We thought it would be interesting for each of you to spend the night at a different Buddhist temple.” We thanked him. Tsurumi took me to a beautiful temple. The monk, he told me, was a strong antiwar person. In front of the altar was a blown-up photo of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk sitting cross-legged on the street in Saigon, setting himself afire.

In Kyoto a thousand people came to talk about Vietnam. A pediatrician spoke from the audience, and our interpreter whispered to us that this was the famous Dr. Matsuda, the “Dr. Spock of Japan,” whose books on child care had sold millions. Matsuda said, “What the United States does not understand is that Communism is one of the ways in which underdeveloped countries can become organized. Its reaction to this phenomenon is neurotic. Perhaps the United States needs”—the interpreter hesitated—“a laxative!” There was a short silence, then the interpreter apologized and corrected himself: “ … a sedative.”

We took the night train to Hiroshima, along the inland sea, touched by mountains and beautiful in the predawn. We talked with students at Hiroshima University and to survivors of that day when the city died: a professor whose left eye was missing, a fragile girl who spoke halting English in a voice so soft one had to strain to hear “I was inside my mother when the bomb came.”

In the city of Sendai, in northern Honshu island, a thousand students gathered to hear us. Afterward fifty young men and women led us to a nearby park, where we all sat cross-legged on the grass and talked into the wee hours of the morning. They were conscious and ashamed of Japan’s history of aggression. Again and again they said, softly but firmly, “You are behaving in Asia as we did.”

(After spending two weeks in Japan with Ralph Featherstone, day and night, I didn’t see him again. He sent me a wedding announcement, and I heard he was running a bookstore in Washington featuring black literature. Then, about two years after our Japan trip, I had what I can only describe as a mystical experience. I was sitting on a bus in Boston, and several seats in front of me was a black man. I could only see the back of his head and his neck, but I could have sworn it was Ralph Featherstone. Was it possible that he was in Boston? I walked over, sat down next to him, and turned to look. It was not Featherstone at all, but a man I did not know. He was reading a newspaper. I looked at the headline: “Civil Rights Workers Killed in Bomb Blast.” And there was a photo of Ralph Featherstone. He had been riding with a friend in an auto on the way to the trial of a SNCC worker in Maryland when a bomb, its origin still unknown today, exploded.)

After my trip to Japan I continued to speak against the war all over the country: teach-ins, rallies, debates. I was becoming frustrated by the fact that no major public figure, no leading periodical, no published book, however critical of the war, dared to say what seemed so clear to me—that the United States must simply get out of Vietnam as quickly as possible, to save American lives, to save Vietnamese lives. Again and again, these cautious critics of the war would say, The war is wrong, but of course we can’t simply withdraw.

I wrote, as quickly as I could, a little book of a hundred and twenty-five pages, which Beacon Press published in early 1967, called Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. I said in the book, “To wait until all of the sensitive and stubborn elements are fitted together in that intricate mechanism of negotiation—the NLF, its sympathizers and advisers in Hanoi, the split personalities of the Johnson administration, plus its client government in Saigon—is to consign thousands more each month to injury or death.… The sanity of unilateral withdrawal is that it makes the end of the war independent of anyone’s consent but our own. It is clean-cut, it is swift, it is right.”

Various people had said to me, Yes, I agree. But it’s not politically feasible—how can the president explain to the American people the sudden change in policy?

I decided therefore to end my book with a speech which I wrote for Lyndon Johnson, making use of all his powers of rhetoric, his homespun stories, having him quote “a letter” he received from his old elementary school teacher, another “letter” from a marine, and explain to the American people how both realism and concern for human life required a change in policy. And so, “I have given orders to General Westmoreland … to halt offensive operations and to begin the orderly withdrawal of our armed forces from that country.”

The speech ended, “The dream I have always had since I was a boy in Texas, I still have—and I want to fulfill it for America. We are about to embark on a venture far more glorious, far more bold, requiring far more courage—than war. Our aim is to build a society which will set an example for the rest of mankind.… My fellow Americans, good night and sleep well. We are no longer at war in Vietnam.”

The book went quickly through eight printings. Two Beacon Press employees traveled with carloads of the book to sell it at antiwar rallies. A businessman bought over six hundred copies and sent them to every congressman, every senator. Senator Ernest Gruening of Alaska (only he and Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon had voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution) inserted part of the book in the Congressional Record.

In Santa Barbara, California, a group of citizens took a full-page ad in the local paper, reprinted excerpts from the book, and called for a peace procession.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer ran simultaneous articles by Congressman Mendel Rivers of South Carolina, urging escalation of the war; by Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas, calling for de-escalation and negotiations; and by me, arguing for immediate withdrawal. They polled their readers to see which of the three positions they favored: 9,162 responded, and 63 percent favored immediate withdrawal; the rest split equally between the Fulbright and Rivers positions.

The same articles were reprinted in the Charleston, West Virginia Gazette-Mail, and 80 percent of readers polled favored immediate withdrawal.

A columnist for the Plain Dealer wrote, “Howard Zinn, a professor of government at Boston University, who served as a bombardier in World War II, has written a speech for Lyndon Johnson which, if he delivered it, would make the President one of the great men of history, in my opinion.”

All of this was enormously encouraging. Despite the attempts of the government to play down the protests against the war, and to suppress them, it seemed clear there was a large section of the American public open to the idea of withdrawal from Vietnam. This meant there was a point to our speaking, writing, protesting, and we must continue.

President Johnson never delivered that speech, or one like it. He did pull out of the 1968 presidential race, and began negotiations in Paris with the North Vietnamese. But the negotiations then went on for four years while the bombing and strafing and search-and-destroy missions continued and the body bags of twenty thousand more American soldiers were sent home to their families.

Desertions from the military multiplied. About a year after my trip to Japan I was awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call. A Japanese speaking English was on the other end. He told me his name. It was one of my Beheiren friends. “Howard, can you come to Tokyo? There are some Americans here you would be interested in meeting.”

I knew what he meant. Beheiren had been helping American servicemen based in Japan who wanted to desert, hiding them, getting them out of the country. They wanted someone to interview a few men before they disappeared.

“When would I have to come?” I asked.

“Tomorrow.” I couldn’t pick up and travel to Tokyo the next day, but I promised I would find another person to do it. I had someone in mind: Ernest Young, a professor of Asian history at Dartmouth. Roz and I had become close friends with Ernie and his wife Marilyn when they were graduate students in Asian studies at Harvard and I was a Fellow there. Ernie was deeply opposed to the war; he had worked in the American Embassy in Tokyo at one time as an aide to Ambassador Reischauer; he spoke Japanese.

Early that morning, a few hours after the call from Tokyo, I phoned Ernie in Hanover, New Hampshire. That afternoon he arrived at our house in Boston, suitcase in hand, and I drove him to the airport. When he got to Tokyo the Beheiren people arranged a clandestine meeting with four sailors who were deserting from the aircraft carrier Intrepid (they became known as the Intrepid Four). Ernie talked to them, then Beheiren smuggled them onto a Polish freighter going to Europe. (Years later, when I got my FBI file—at least that part of it they were willing to give me—they had a record of the phone call from Tokyo, so it seems my phone was tapped.)

By early 1968, the war was at its most intense. There were now 525,000 U.S. troops in South Vietnam. The antiwar movement had grown; resistance to the draft was widespread. All over the country young men were turning in their draft cards, and many others were refusing induction.

The horrors inflicted by American firepower were coming home, reported in news dispatches, in the letters of soldiers, on television screens. For the first time in our nation’s history, Americans could see close up the effects of war: the torching of peasant villages by U.S. Marines, Vietnamese children frightened, wounded, disfigured by napalm. A friend told me how one day, driving through Boston listening to the latest war news, she thought of the waste of lives, Vietnamese and American, and, overwhelmed by grief and frustration, began to cry and almost lost control of the car.

A student of mine at Boston University named Philip Supina, summoned to a preinduction physical, wrote to his draft board in Arizona, “I have absolutely no intention to report for that exam or for induction, or to aid in any way the American war effort against the people of Vietnam.” Sentenced to four years in prison, Supina quoted the Spanish philosopher Miguel Unamuno, who said during the Spanish Civil War, “Sometimes to be Silent is to Lie.”

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