In April 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered an eloquent and stirring denunciation of the Vietnam War and US militarism. The speech titled “Beyond Vietnam” is relevant to today’s war in Ukraine. In the speech at Riverside Church, King talked about how the US had supported France in trying to re-colonize Vietnam. He noted, “Before the end of the war we were meeting 80% of the French war costs.” When France began to despair in the war, “We encouraged them with our huge financial and military supplies to continue the war.” King went on to recall that after the French finally left Vietnam, the United States prevented implementation of the Geneva Accord which would have allowed Ho Chi Minh to unite the divided country. Instead, the US supported its preferred South Vietnamese dictator. The U.S. has played a similar role in blocking compromise solutions and international agreements to the Ukraine conflict.
A navy warship was waiting for us when our sailing ship Phoenix came close to Da Nang, South Vietnam. It was October 1967, during a recently-escalated hot war in Vietnam. The 50-foot ketch-rigged Phoenix was loaded with medical supplies for civilians wounded by the U.S. war. I’d already been to the South Vietnamese capitol of Saigon, now named Ho Chi Minh City, in order to negotiate this trip with the government. We weren’t surprised that warships would be looking out for us. The surprise was the word from Vietnamese officials when they came up next to us. “Turn around and go back to Hong Kong,” they said. “Your visas are no longer valid; your mission is denied.” I quickly convened a meeting of our crew to decide what to do.
Learning no lessons from the failure and mass slaughter of the Korean War in the previous decade, the US military commenced widespread bombing of Vietnam and sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers. At the time, spring 1965, about 400 US soldiers had died in the conflict. The war was not yet widely unpopular. Americans who protested against the Vietnam War were a small minority. It would be two years before Martin Luther King’s famous denunciation of the war. Years later, after hundreds of thousands had been drafted into the military with the deaths of tens of thousands, the war became widely unpopular. Ultimately, over 58,000 Americans and three million Vietnamese civilians and soldiers died in the war. The cost in human lives and wasted resources was immense.
On Sunday, CBS News’ “60 Minutes” profiled the Oath Keepers, a white-supremacist veterans’ group founded when President Barack Obama assumed office. The program traced the group’s history from its 2009 formation to its armed support of Cliven Bundy in 2014 to its open plotting of sedition in December 2020. Then CBS showed some cell-phone footage of the 40 members of the group on Jan. 6, 2021, as they breached the U.S. Capitol in perfect military formation. That insurrection’s aftereffects are still being felt, with 400 participants having been arrested by the Justice Department. Now, as indictments loom, at least one Oath Keeper is openly cooperating with the Department of Justice, and the country’s two political parties are broadcasting dueling narratives about Jan. 6.
When the Pentagon began gearing up for a future war with China in 2018, Defense Department officials quickly realized that they needed access to Vietnamese territory for troops armed with missiles to hit Chinese ships in a US-China conflict. So they initiated an aggressive campaign to lobby the Vietnamese government, and even Communist Party officials, in the hope that they would eventually support an agreement to provide them the permission. But a Grayzone investigation of the Pentagon’s lobbying push in Vietnam shows what a delusional exercise it was from its inception. In a fit of self-deception that highlighted the desperation behind the bid, the US military ignored abundant evidence that Vietnam had no intention of giving up its longstanding, firmly grounded policy of equidistance between the United States and China.
On a warm late February day in Santiago, I went to the grave of Victor Jara to pay homage to the man who was brutally killed on 16 September 1973. A theatre director, songwriter, and communist, Jara was arrested after the coup d’état against the socialist government of Salvador Allende. He was tortured and then murdered. At the rear of the Cementerio General in Recoleta, Jara was buried with other victims of the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. In 2009, Jara’s body was exhumed as part of the investigation into this murder and he was reburied a short distance away. On the original tomb in simple paint are the words el derecho de vivir en paz (‘the right to live in peace’). These words are from the title song of Jara’s 1971 album. The song, which opens the album, is an homage to the Vietnamese people, who were led by Ho Chi Minh in their fight against US imperialism.
The civil complaint targets more than 20 US chemical firms for their part in the production of Agent Orange, massively employed by US forces during the Vietnam War. In her 2016 autobiography, Ma terre empoisonnée (My poisoned land), published in France by Stock and co-written with journalist Philippe Broussard, Trân Tô Nga describes herself as “the girl from the Mekong, colonialism and war”. She recounts how, as a young woman in her native Vietnam, she enrolled as a messenger and liaison agent with the communist Viet Cong guerrilla movement engaged in the bitter 20-year war for independence against US imperialism and its allied regime in South Vietnam that would end in victory in 1975.
Recently, the U.S. Department of State issued a report in which they claimed that religious freedom is being suppressed in Vietnam. The Vietnamese government is of course capable of speaking for itself and responding to this defamation. However, I think that Americans also have a responsibility to speak out against baseless claims made by our reactionary government. And as an American living in Hanoi, I can tell you—this is a baseless claim indeed. Anyone that has spent any time in Vietnam can plainly see the evidence right in front of their face that accusations about a lack of religious freedom are lies. Walking around the capital city, there are Buddhist pagodas, temples of various sects, a mosque, and even a Chabad House Synagogue. Even though Christians make up a small minority of the population of Vietnam, on Christmas Eve the streets in front of the city’s churches are packed with worshippers and friendly onlookers listening to the music and enjoying the celebration alongside their fellow citizens.
Perhaps the greatest success story is New Zealand, which has stopped local transmission and has a plan to completely eliminate the virus from its territory. "The lesson is that it can be done," says Siouxsie Wiles, an associate professor of microbiology in New Zealand. "Obviously, the longer you leave it, and the more cases there are, the harder it becomes. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try." Wiles heads up the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab at the University of Auckland. Much of her work focuses on antibiotic resistance and infectious diseases. When the coronavirus hit, she got involved in communication efforts in New Zealand to help explain the virus, including by using a popular cartoon. But it wasn't just scientists who led the charge. Wiles — and many other New Zealanders — give much of the credit for their country's success to the swift and decisive leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in March.
President Richard M. Nixon prided himself on the accuracy of his political prognostication. Nixon was never more prescient than fifty years ago this month, in a remark made to his secretary, just before delivering a White House address that announced a U.S. military invasion of Cambodia. “It’s possible,” Nixon told her, “that the campuses are really going to blow up after this speech.” Blow up they did, as Nixon’s unexpected escalation of an already unpopular war in Vietnam triggered a chain of events culminating in the largest student strike in U.S. history. In May 1970, an estimated 4 million young people joined protests that shutdown classes at 700 colleges, universities, and high schools around the country. Dozens were forced to remain closed for the rest of the spring semester.
The war in Afghanistan, America’s longest, has cost about 2,300 US lives, over 20,000 wounded, and about $1 trillion. Now, thanks to the persistence of the Washington Post, we have an abundance of interviews which, like the Pentagon Papers, reveal the enormous wastefulness, ignorance, and deceit that make Afghanistan, like Vietnam, a chapter in the history of failed US interventions. The war in Afghanistan, America’s longest, has cost about 2,300 US lives, over 20,000 wounded, and about $1 trillion. Now, thanks to the persistence of the Washington Post, we have an abundance of interviews which, like the Pentagon Papers, reveal the enormous wastefulness, ignorance, and deceit that make Afghanistan, like Vietnam, a chapter in the history of failed US interventions.
Fifty years ago today, the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam protests swept the entire United States and showed that the antiwar movement was undeniably mainstream. Soldiers who had fought in Vietnam weren’t pitted against that movement — in fact, many were actually part of it. Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the October 15, 1969 Moratorium, perhaps the most important US protest during the war against Vietnam. Millions turned out across the United States in a historic day of action.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of both the Moratorium and Mobilization, it’s worth recalling one critical anti-war constituency whose role was less visible then and remains little-acknowledged today. Fortunately, three Vietnam-era activists have just published Waging Peace in Vietnam (New Village Press, 2019), which gives long-overdue credit to anti-war organizing by men and women in uniform, and their civilian allies and funders.