Tom Hayden :
From Vietnam to Iraq, lessons never learned

We cannot trust the ‘best and brightest’ to have the answers any more than students trusted their pedigreed elders 50 years ago.

tom hayden ann arbor 1969

Tom Hayden speaks at the Vietnam Moratorium in Ann Arbor in 1969. Photo by Jay Cassidy / Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan.

By Tom Hayden | The Rag Blog | September 17, 2014

[The following remarks, provided to The Rag Blog in advance, will be included in a speech that Tom Hayden will deliver tonight, Wednesday, September 17, 2014, at Angell Hall on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, on the lessons of Vietnam for Iraq. Angell Hall was the site of the first Vietnam teach-in in 1965.]

ANN ARBOR, Michigan — I am joining many peace groups around America in expressing opposition to the escalation of the Iraq War into a quagmire that is likely to be costly in lives, tax dollars, and our tarnished reputation.

Ann Arbor is the place, along with Berkeley, where the young American peace movement demanded a teach-in, an end to campus business as usual, an end to intellectual conformity, and congressional hearings as we confronted the growing horror of the Vietnam War.

There are many parallels between the wars of our youth and the latest one unfolding.

There are many parallels between the wars of our youth and the latest one unfolding. Once again, we need to suspend the monotony of our everyday lives and ask the questions that need to be asked. We cannot trust “the best and brightest” to have the answers any more than students trusted their pedigreed elders 50 years ago.

We need Congressional hearings, full debate, and a vote on authorization of this unilateral war. In 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” was contrived and exploited to stampede our country into a hasty and irresponsible authorization. Only two members of Congress had the good sense then to vote “no” on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which permitted an open-ended bloodletting for more than a decade before the Congress finally helped put an end to it.

I would hope that the present Congress learns from the past to check and balance the war “fever” gripping Washington as described this week by The New York Times. I would hope that the Obama administration re-reads history and thinks again before excluding the Congress and the American public from a war by executive fiat.

Only a Congressional debate with give legitimacy to the very real questions, and consideration of alternatives, many Americans deserve to have addressed about this crisis. Whatever the outcome of a Congressional vote, the dissent deserves to be aired, the hawks must be held accountable, and the questioning must begin. No threat justifies the exclusion of Congress from its constitutional role, nor the American people from a voice in a decision that will take American lives and resources.

The Obama administration needs to take its case to the United Nations as well, since war is being planned against Syria, a sovereign state, and because diplomacy, beginning now, will be the only way this conflict will end.

During Vietnam, we were told that the “faceless Vietcong enemy” was disemboweling innocent villagers, slaughtering Catholics, kidnapping children, and imposing a dictatorship through aggression against South Vietnam. What we were not told was that our government was intervening in a civil war that had been set in motion by the French colonialists who we replaced in trying to “save” South Vietnam. We were fighting against a communist-led army, yes, but one that represented national independence to most of the Vietnamese people.

We were told that Vietnam would be an affordable war, that our great country could pay for both ‘guns and butter.’

We were told it would be an affordable war, that our great country could pay for both “guns and butter,” that it would be short in duration too. It bankrupted the U.S. Treasury and lasted at least 15 years.

We were told, and still are told, that counterinsurgency would be the answer, that rounding up the villagers in “strategic hamlets” to isolate the guerrillas, then a targeted killing campaign against those guerrillas, would bring stability to South Vietnam at last. The infamous “tiger cages” and Con Son island were the precursors of Abu Graib and the dungeons in Iraq where eventually ISIS was born. Our own generals like David Petraeus wrongly interpreted the lessons of Vietnam to propose a renewal of Vietnam’s failed CIA “Phoenix Program” and tried in vain to apply it to Iraq in 2007.

We were told we were fighting for democracy, but in fact thousands of Americans were drafted against their will, families on all sides were deceived by one administration after another, secret bombings were carried out against Cambodia and Laos, secret CIA counterterrorism operations targeted alleged terrorists, and the repression came home in countless FBI campaigns to spy on, inform on, harass, indict and demonize the anti-war opposition, from Dr. Spock to Dan Ellsberg, from the Catholic resistance led by the Berrigans to the Chicago 8 defendants.

The Watergate conspiracy was properly described as a cancer on our democratic system, and two presidents were driven from office as a result of that war. Democracy was saved by the anti-war movement, including many soldiers in our armed forces, and by political leaders who found the courage to stand up.

Because our leaders didn’t listen, or listened too late, the end came in Vietnam as a total catastrophe.

Because our leaders didn’t listen, or listened too late, the end came in Vietnam as a total catastrophe, the implosion of the South Vietnamese government and its armed forces, and the literal expulsion of American diplomats from the rooftop of our embassy.

It may seem implausible, but who is to say these events won’t repeat in some ways again?

Our government even now is spending millions on a multi-year memorial campaign to teach “the lessons” of Vietnam in our schools, while excluding the voices of the Vietnam generation dissenters who were right, and while failing in its ability to accept that the Vietnam war was a mistake.

Some of us are meeting now to demand a say in how the Vietnam era is taught — just as we must demand a say in how to understand and approach Iraq. If a mistake is repeated over and over, the result will be the same. We must demand of our Secretary of State John Kerry, a Vietnam war hero who threw some of his ribbons away and became a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, that he reflect on the very question he asked the Senate 40 long years ago: who will be the last to die for a mistake?

It is a question as real today as before. Tonight we must begin again, announcing a demand for debate, diplomacy and democracy.

Read more of Tom Hayden’s writing on The Rag Blog, including his continuing commentary on Iraq and U.S. foreign policy.

[Tom Hayden, a regular contributor to The Rag Blog, was an early and outspoken critic of the War in Vietnam. Tom, who served in the California Legislature for nearly two decades, was a leader of Sixties peace, justice, and environmental movements. An enduring progressive voice, Hayden is the author of 20 books, is director of the Peace and Justice Resource center, and is editor of The Democracy Journal.]

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3 Responses to Tom Hayden :
From Vietnam to Iraq, lessons never learned

  1. ron jacobs says:

    It wasn’t a mistake. It was policy.

  2. Maddiemom says:

    I’m sorry that I CAN believe that we never learn, because this has nothing to do with the “common sense” general public, and everything to do the Powers That Be, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative who have an entirely different agenda. Our “all volunteer” army consists of young people who had no other options in today’s economy. In the Viet Nam era, my brother and many of my friends volunteered when they were looking at the draft, and knew that, for an extra year, they’d have access to training programs and technical support positions rather than become immediate “canon fodder.” Furthermore, we sadly had a generation of fathers who were WWII veterans and took some time to realize that this was a very different “war.” Our “leaders,” most of them, have never served. John McCain is a whole ‘nother puzzle, and what’ going on with John Kerry? Does being a leader in government mean that you must be a “warmonger?”

  3. Ethan Allen says:

    We can not stop the rush to war by logic nor by reference to historical precedent. The direct approach has dismally failed.
    We must try an oblique attack. World War style wartime tax rates on high income individuals and corporations including a retained profits tax. Only when those who are profiting from war see 80% of their bloated earnings taken by the IRS will the headlong rush to war falter. Surely this fiscally sound measure can be sold to both the American public and their elected representatives.

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