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The articles below report on Historians Against the War (HAW) activities at the recent AHA meeting in Philadelphia January 5-8, 2006. The next major HAW activity is our conference in Austin, Texas, February 17-19, 2006:  "Empire, Resistance, and the War in Iraq.  For more information, including a full listing of speakers and a registration form, see http://www.historiansagainstwar.org/hawconf." 

“Was Anything Learned from Vietnam?”  Rusti Eisenberg
“The Role of Peace Movements in Ending Wars,” Larry Wittner
HAW at the AHA,  David Applebaum
Report on the HAW Roundtable, Alan Dawley

Was Anything Learned from Vietnam?

By Carolyn Eisenberg, professor of history at Hofstra University, and author of Drawing the Line: The American Decision to Divide Germany

For many historians of a certain age, the Vietnam War was the formative intellectual experience, which shaped our understanding of the United States and its history. There were searing realizations from that time that never left us: how political leaders could lie -- boldly, blatantly and repetitively -- and win a mandate for unnecessary war; how the cynical invocation of democracy and freedom could conceal American domination and support for dictatorship; how easy it was for the White House to co-opt Congress and intimidate the press; how the vast American “war machine” could rain unimaginable suffering on foreign civilians whom it was claiming to save; and (perhaps most shocking of all) how willing our political leaders were to sacrifice tens of thousands of young Americans in a project that could not succeed.

Now forty years later, all these elements are back as the US fights an unnecessary war in Iraq, in which victory is a receding possibility, where every fresh American initiative grows the opposition and each new step makes it harder to leave. So the question arises: “Was anything learned from Vietnam?”

I believe that at the level of mass opinion, the answer is “not much.” The once momentous events of the Vietnam era have been assimilated to the celebratory narrative of the Cold War. In that simple tale, Communist aggression threatened the peace and freedom of the world, but over the course of decades American power forced a halt, a retreat and then finally the collapse of a ruthless enemy.

A certain dark cloud still hangs over the Vietnam War. It was a war in which America was defeated, in which soldiers were somehow betrayed, and in which U.S. society was somehow rent asunder. But the central truth of that experience -- the death of literally millions of people for no defensible reason, caused by policy failures in Washington -- has been virtually eradicated.

In reflecting on this, I think that we as historians need to take some responsibility. While recognizing all the larger forces in our culture that bury uncomfortable realities, we might have done a better job. It is one of the ironies of my generation that the insights gleaned from the Vietnam experience sent so many of us into intellectual flight from the study of “powerful white men.” It is a positive development for our profession that history has become more inclusive and focused on diverse groups. But what is not positive is how attention drifted away from those whose decisions continued to shape developments here in the United States and abroad. And who are shaping them still.

This abdication has many aspects – a shortage of talented people specializing in the Vietnam War, a shortage of talented people specializing in the history of US foreign policy, the marginalizing of these subjects in the curriculum (not merely in the public schools but the colleges and universities), a neglect of these subjects in modern textbooks, the lack of well-written books accessible to a general audience, the paucity of historical “experts” participating in the contemporary debate.

I am offering these critical remarks because I think the present situation is so grave. Despite many parallel elements, Iraq is no Vietnam. It is far more dangerous and poses a more profound challenge to our domestic institutions. We urgently need historians to be on their feet, functioning as public intellectuals willing to address the actions of “powerful white men” and using our knowledge in every possible venue to debate the critical issues of our time.

In the minutes that remain, I want to turn to a central feature of the Vietnam experience - the forfeiting of American and foreign lives in a doomed endeavor. How can we understand this? And what is the relevance to the present? Among historians studying the Vietnam conflict, there is a certain silent competition about which president or period was the most “irrational.” With archives now open, what is striking about each phase is the accumulated intelligence pointing to an eventual defeat. And yet each Administration persists.

As someone writing about Nixon and Kissinger, I am supremely confident that these two gentlemen win the “irrationality sweepstakes.” To understand this, we need to go back to 1968. In the aftermath of Tet, the antiwar movement had scored a significant achievement by making it politically impossible for any American president to increase the number of troops going to Vietnam. And it created enormous public pressure (partly mediated through Congress) for a significant decrease in the American troops that were over there. When Richard Nixon began his presidency, he pondered the fate of Lyndon Johnson and heeded the advice of political advisors, who urged him to begin a policy of troop withdrawals. By the end of 1969, significant increments were coming out of Vietnam.

Yet Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger were determined to win the war, to retain South Vietnam as an anti-communist bastion. This left the question: if 550,000 American troops were unable to prevail, why would fewer succeed? The answer as we all know was “Vietnamization”—turning back increased responsibility to the South Vietnamese Army. But that policy too had been tried and failed. Kennedy and Johnson had escalated US involvement because no matter how much money and weaponry was sent, the Army of South Vietnam would not stand and fight.

For most top officials, the implication was clear: if the US continued drawing down troops, it would lose the war. Yet Nixon and Kissinger steadfastly resisted this logic and the associated stream of bad news. Something would work: cutting access routes from Laos and Cambodia, using air power in new and more devastating ways, seducing the Communist superpowers into pressuring Hanoi. None of this panned out. And the war continued.

Yet so many knew better, recognized the mutual delusions of Nixon and Kissinger, and understood that more American lives were being lost in pursuit of an unachievable goal. As late as December 1972, when the peace agreement was virtually signed, Nixon ordered the infamous Christmas bombings. Anguished military officials wondered why he was jeopardizing more US pilots and wasting the planes when everything was settled? These questions were ignored and the bombings proceeded. In Richard Nixon’s first term of office, close to 20,000 Americans died, approximately 1-2 million Southeast Asians.

Ironically, it was John Kerry who most eloquently addressed this profligacy when he testified in Congress in April 1971: “Each day…someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn’t have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can’t say we have made a mistake. Someone has to die so that President Nixon won’t be and these are his words, the “first American president to lose a war’.”
John Kerry had it right. By 1971, there were no important American stakes in Vietnam, other than a national reluctance to appear weak and Nixon’s political need be undefeated. Flimsy reasons, which controlled events. But what made this possible was the very existence of the “national security state,” which had developed over decades and eroded democratic controls. The business of that state was war and its untrammeled leader was the president. Any chief executive bent on making or continuing a war, would be almost impossible to stop, unless Congress -- still accountable to the people-- did the job.

Let us ask ourselves, why did so many former secretaries of state and defense line up this week for a photo opportunity with President Bush? Who only listened for ten minutes? Who clearly had no interest in their views? Because these were the national security managers of the past, people who by temperament, training and life experience could never resist the temptations of power and who could never definitively reject military force as an instrument of national policy.

Even though the delusions of Nixon and Kissinger were well recognized by members of the bureaucracy, who whispered in corridors and leaked juicy items to the press, nobody important quit, nobody important went public, nobody important directly challenged the president or Kissinger, nobody important said out loud, “You are killing people for nothing.”

If this sounds familiar and applicable to the present, there is one important difference, which we cannot afford to overlook. Unlike Vietnam, there are real risks to the United States in leaving Iraq and important stakes there. We can reiterate the many ways in which the American presence in Iraq is fanning the insurgency. But this does not mean that if the US leaves that the situation would stabilize. There might well be an expanding civil war, which could engulf neighboring states. And this would take place in a region, rich in oil and vital to the prosperity of the United States and the industrial world.

If it was so difficult to disengage from Vietnam -- a symbolic piece of real estate with no intrinsic importance-- how much more difficult will it be to leave Iraq? When Bush went to war in Iraq, I think most of us recognized that he was driving the car over the cliff, that there would be no good choices on the way down. And so it has developed. All the options are dangerous. From a humanitarian and even practical point of view, we might think that the wiser choice is to withdraw now. But can the custodians of the “national security”/ warfare state make that decision? To leave the battlefield voluntarily while danger lurks? I don’t think so. Which is why I would suppose that all those secretaries of state and defense gathered around Bush, will grumble and complain and tell each other how out of reality he is and how many mistakes have been made, and then turn around and say, “America must win.”

Therefore, the only hope resides in us -- the people who are not part of the “national security/warfare state” or trapped in its doctrines, who must keep organizing from the bottom up a massive resistance to this Iraq policy. We are finally seeing some movement in Congress, which is the only arena in which we can prevail. But that movement will be paralyzed by the Bush counter-attack and the warnings of the foreign-policy elite unless there is popular fire, an aroused and informed citizenry that will say, “Not one more soldier! Not one more dollar!” In that effort, we as historians have a vital role to play, if we find our voice.

The Role of Peace Activism in Ending U.S. Wars
By Lawrence S. Wittner, professor of history at the State University of New York/Albany and the author of Toward Nuclear Abolition:  A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present (Stanford University Press)

The role of peace activism in ending U.S. wars has received very little attention from scholars.  Despite the fact that historians and social scientists have studied U.S. peace movements extensively in recent decades, we know much more about peace movements' organizational history than we do about their impact upon public policy.  Thus, what I have to say today is a preliminary report.

Let me begin by examining the provocative comment by some observers that, rather than peace movements putting an end to wars, wars put an end to peace movements.  This is sometimes the case, for--given the strength of nationalism--many people tend to rally `round the flag of their nation once war is declared.  Thus, not surprisingly, substantial U.S. peace movements largely collapsed with the entry of the United States into the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.  In more recent years, polls indicate that U.S. peace sentiment declined significantly (albeit temporarily) after the entry of the United States into the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the Iraq War.  Furthermore, direct government repression in wartime--for example, during World War I--has sometimes dramatically undermined or destroyed peace movements.

Moreover, even when powerful peace movements have persisted in wartime, they have not always been very effective.  The War of 1812 might well have been (as Samuel Eliot Morison claimed) the most unpopular war in U.S. history.  Certainly it drew a tidal wave of criticism, especially in the Northeast.  But the frequent denunciations of the war did not halt its progress.  The same phenomenon can be glimpsed in the case of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century "pacification" of the Philippines.  Although a powerful Anti-Imperialist League consistently challenged this war (which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos and 7,000 U.S. troops), it continued to rage right up to a U.S. military victory.

On the other hand, there are instances in which the peace movement brought an end to U.S. wars.  The Mexican War of the 1840s provides us with one example.  Condemned from the start as a war of aggression and as a war for slavery, the Mexican War stirred up remarkably strong opposition.  Thus, although the war went very well for the United States on a military level and President Polk pressed for the annexation of all of Mexico to the United States, when Nicholas Trist, Polk's diplomatic negotiator, disobeyed his instructions and signed a treaty providing for the annexation of only about a third of Mexico, Polk felt trapped.  In the face of fierce public opposition to the conflict, he did not believe it possible to prolong the war to secure his goal of taking all of Mexico.  And so Polk reluctantly backed Trist's peace treaty, and the war came to an end.

Another example of peace movement effectiveness can be seen in its impact upon the Vietnam War.  By late 1967, as Lyndon Johnson recalled, "the pressure got so great" that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara "couldn't sleep at night.  I was afraid he might have a nervous breakdown."  Johnson himself seemed obsessed with the opposition his war policies had generated.  Conversations with Cabinet members began:  "Why aren't you out there fighting against my enemies?"  After McNamara resigned and Johnson was driven from office by a revolt within his own party, it was the Nixon administration's turn to be caught, as Henry Kissinger complained, "between the hammer of antiwar pressure and the anvil of Hanoi."  Kissinger noted:  "The very fabric of government was falling apart.  The Executive Branch was shell-shocked."  The war and the peace protests, Kissinger concluded, "shattered the self-confidence without which Establishments flounder."  In a careful and well-researched study, Johnson, Nixon, and the Doves, the historian Melvin Small concluded that "the antiwar movement and antiwar criticism in the media and Congress had a significant impact on the Vietnam policies of both Johnson and Nixon," pushing them toward deescalation and, ultimately, withdrawal from the war.

Yet another example of the peace movement's efficacy occurred in the context of the Reagan administration's determined attempts to overthrow the Sandinista-led government of Nicaragua.  As in Vietnam, despite the immense military advantage the U.S. government enjoyed against a small, peasant nation, it was unable to employ it effectively.  Popular pressure against U.S. military intervention in Nicaragua not only blocked the dispatch of U.S. combat troops, but led to Congressional action (i.e. the Boland amendment) cutting off U.S. government funding for the U.S. surrogates, the Contras.  Although the Reagan administration sought to circumvent the Boland amendment by selling U.S. missiles to Iran and sending the proceeds to the Contras, this scheme backfired, and did more to undermine the Reaganites than it did the Sandinistas.

There is also considerable evidence that it was the peace movement that brought an end to the Cold War.  The peace movement's struggle against the nuclear arms race and its clearest manifestation, nuclear testing, led directly to Kennedy's 1963 American University address and to the Partial Test Ban Treaty of that year, which began Soviet-American détente.  The speech was partially written by Norman Cousins, founder and co-chair of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, America's largest peace group.  Cousins also brokered the treaty.

When the hawkish Reagan administration revived the Cold War and escalated the nuclear arms race, these actions triggered the greatest outburst of peace movement activism in world history.  In the United States, the Nuclear Freeze campaign secured the backing of leading religious denominations, unions, professional groups, and the Democratic Party, organized the largest political demonstration up to that time in U.S. history, and drew the support of more than 70 percent of the public.  In Europe, much the same thing occurred, and in the fall of 1983 some five million people turned out for demonstrations against the planned deployment of intermediate range nuclear missiles.  Reagan was stunned.  In October 1983, he told Secretary of State George Shultz:  "If things get hotter and hotter and arms control remains an issue, maybe I should go see [Soviet Premier Yuri] Andropov and propose eliminating all nuclear weapons."  Shultz was horrified by the idea, but agreed that "we could not leave matters as they stood."

Consequently, in January 1984, Reagan delivered a remarkable public address calling for peace with the Soviet Union and for a nuclear-free world.  His advisors agree that this speech was designed to signal to the Russians his willingness to end the Cold War and reduce nuclear arsenals.  But the Soviet leadership was not interested in following up on Reagan's proposals until the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev in March 1985.  Gorbachev, unlike his predecessors, was ready to take action, for he was a movement convert.  His "New Thinking"--by which he meant the necessity for peace and disarmament in the nuclear age--was almost a carbon copy of the peace movement's program.  As Gorbachev himself declared:  "The new thinking took into account and absorbed the conclusions and demands of . . . the movements of physicians, scientists, and ecologists, and of various antiwar organizations."  Not surprisingly, then, Reagan and Gorbachev, spurred on by the peace movement, moved rapidly toward nuclear disarmament treaties and an end to the Cold War.

We might also give some thought to the wars that, thanks to peace movement activism, did not occur.  Historians have maintained that the anti-imperialist crusade against the Philippines war blocked the occurrence of later U.S. wars of this kind and on this scale.  They have also suggested that peace movement pressures helped to block war with Mexico in 1916 and helped to soften the U.S.-Mexican confrontation of the late 1920s.  And how many wars, we might ask ourselves, were prevented through the implementation of many ideas and proposals that originated with the peace movement:  international arbitration; international law; decolonization; a league of nations; disarmament treaties; a United Nations; and nonviolent resistance.  We shall probably never know.

We do know, however, that the peace movement played a major role in preventing one kind of war since 1945:  nuclear war.  Given time constraints, no more than a tiny portion of the evidence for this point can be presented today.  But it is laid out in great detail in my trilogy, The Struggle Against the Bomb.

In 1956, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, complained that the atomic bomb had acquired "`a bad name,' and to such an extent that it seriously inhibits us from using it."  Later that year, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other administration officials called for greater flexibility in the employment of nuclear weapons, President Eisenhower responded:  "The use of nuclear weapons would raise serious political problems in view of the current state of world opinion."  In mid-1957, brushing aside ambitious proposals for nuclear war-fighting, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told a National Security Council meeting that "world opinion was not yet ready to accept the general use of nuclear weapons."

This belief continued to haunt U.S. officials during the struggle in Vietnam when, in Dean Rusk's words, the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations deliberately "lost the war rather than `win' it with nuclear weapons."  McGeorge Bundy, who served as the National Security Advisor to two of these presidents and a consultant to the third, maintained that the U.S. government's decision not to use nuclear weapons in the war did not result from fear of nuclear retaliation by the Russians and Chinese, but from the terrible public reaction that a U.S. nuclear attack would provoke in other nations and, especially, in the United States.

The proof of the pudding came during the Reagan administration, whose top national security officials -- from the President on down -- entered office talking glibly of fighting and winning a nuclear war.  But this position quickly changed thanks to a massive popular outcry against it.  Starting in April 1982, Reagan began declaring publicly that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."  He added:  "To those who protest against nuclear war, I can only say:  `I'm with you!'"

Thus, although there is considerable room for additional research on peace movement efficacy, I think it is fair to say that, on numerous occasions, peace activism has exercised a restraining influence on U.S. foreign and military policy.

By David Applebaum
 HAW celebrated its third birthday at the AHA Convention in Philadelphia.  The first order of business was the annual election of a national steering committee.  Results will be posted on our web.  This was followed by Ben Alper's report on affiliation with the American Historical Association and the unanimous decision to take advantage of the opportunity, possible because we meet the AHA requirement for three years of work.  As an affiliated group HAW will no longer be dependent upon other groups - MARHO and the Radical History Review - who graciously helped us up to now.  . 

David Applebaum presented the third agenda item, the "Urgent Appeal to Save Iraq's Academics - http://wwwbrusselstribunal.org.  HAW voted to join this effort.  It  will publicize the indiscriminate killing that has taken the lives of 250 Iraqi colleagues as well as the United Nations University report that 84 percent of Iraq's institutions of higher education have already been burnt, looted or destroyed.  This is a key step in addressing a problem that will cripple democratic possibilities in Iraq.   

The fourth agenda item at HAW's meeting was debate on resolutions scheduled for the AHA Business Meeting opposing the "so-called" academic bill of rights.  HAW played the lead role in this effort, initiating discussion, delegated drafting the text to Ellen Schrecker, and gathered almost one hundred co-sponsors.  The “Resolution opposing Academic and Student Bills of Rights and Similar Regulations of the Academic Community,” was approved by HAW, the AHA Business Meeting and received unanimous approval from the American Historical Association Council. 

Alan Dawley made a progress report on HAW's first major conference, scheduled for the University of Texas-Austin on February 17, 2005.  The rich and diverse program, organized around the theme of "Empire, Resistance and the War in Iraq" attracted more than fifty submissions of scholarly work.  Almost forty people are already signed up.  We anticipate several hundred at a plenary session featuring Howard Zinn.  Detailed information on the program and registration is available at http://www.historiansagainstwar.org

HAW offered a taste of the lively and thought provoking agenda for Texas at its well attended roundtable on "Historical Perspectives on Bush's Foreign Policy."  Dawley chaired the session and discussion.   The speakers were John Prados, "How We Were Hoodwinked on Iraq," Rusti Eisenberg, "Historical Lessons from the Vietnam Era," and Larry Wittner, "The Role of Peace Movements in Ending Wars."  The session produced vibrant and vital debate and discussion.  The materials are ripe for a new HAW pamphlet.  The new panels and papers scheduled for the Texas Conference hold the promise of more pamphlets and the potential for a book.  

The last item on the agenda of the HAW Business meeting was a call for support from HAW members.  There are no dues or fees.  Additional funds will allow HAW to increase publication of affordable and accessible materials, which contribute to scholarly debate as well as provide guidelines for effective teaching.  We hope that next year, HAW as an affiliated society under the umbrella of the AHA will sponsor more events, and have a "table of our own" with sufficient funds to expand our work.    

In addition, HAW sponsored two breakfasts and an evening social.  They were made possible by Larry Robin’s Bookstore.  Approximately thirty new members joined HAW during AHA meetings
David R. Applebaum
HAW National Steering Committee, 2006-2007

HAW Roundtable at the AHA: Bush’s Policies in Historical Perspective Report by Alan Dawley, Moderator
In an unusually stimulating discussion that carried on well past the allotted time, panelists and audience members (about 35) engaged the central question of how U.S. foreign policy can be changed after elites run the country off a cliff into a senseless, murderous war.

John Prados got us thinking about splits in ruling circles as a factor in undoing the policy of war.  In his opening comment, he showed how the Bush inner circle was so fixated on going to war with Iraq that it did not request CIA intelligence for fear that it might upset the applecart by showing there were no weapons of mass destruction.

To Rusti Eisenberg, on the other hand, there was no point in looking to the “National Security/Welfare State” for a change of course. Having learned virtually nothing from the Vietnam experience, the Bush circle is almost as irrational as the Nixon-Kissinger team in pursuing a policy that is doomed to fail, though not before slaughtering countless innocents. The only hope for change is a mass movement that will pressure elected representatives to change course, just as Congress cut off funding for Vietnam. For those wanting to believe that the peace movement can effect policy change, Larry Wittner offered some hopeful evidence. In an insightful review of the role of peace movements in ending U.S. wars from 1812 to Vietnam, he argued that even warmongers like Reagan had to change course in response to the world-wide movement against nuclear weapons. Having been invited to comment, Bruno Cartosio (editor of the Italian U.S-studies journal Acoma) affirmed the importance of social movement in mobilizing opposition in Italy even before the Iraq war began.

In numerous exchanges between audience and panelists, analysis of the way to end war was deepened, often in reference to the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era. One important issue that emerged in discussion was that of “linkage” among movements. Where some felt strength lay in a single-issue focus on war, others felt world-wide opposition to the anticipated Iraq war was as strong as it was because it grew out of the post-Seattle anti-globalization movement. This raised the question of whether the ultimate causes of war lay in the needs of capitalist expansion, the imperatives of the National Security State, the tribalism of US v. Them, or some other cause.

Let me add that this roundtable admirably fulfilled one of HAW’s main missions, that is, to act as a forum for analyzing the historical roots of war. One aspect that was not addressed in Philadelphia was the imperial dimension of U.S. war, which will be taken up at the Austin conference in February on “Empire, Resistance, and the War in Iraq,” another step in pursuit of that mission.