Commemorating the Vietnam War: Remembering the Unlearned Lessons

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Terry Provance and David Cortright

(Featured article: Issue #117 January 2015)

haverfordThis spring marks several important Vietnam War-related anniversaries: the 50th anniversary of the major US escalation of the war, and of the first antiwar protests; the 40th anniversary of the end of the war; and 20th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the United States. In response to these anniversaries the Pentagon is launching an ambitious, multi-year “Vietnam War Commemoration” program. The Pentagon program will include a special Joint Session of Congress and thousands of local, pro-military activities that will reach virtually every community in the country. The stated intention of this vast effort is to “honor” Vietnam Veterans, but the Pentagon program will have the effect of whitewashing the history of that era and will ignore the critical unlearned lessons of the war.

Congress has appropriated $65 million for the Pentagon’s public relations and education campaign. Its goal is to enlist 10,000 local partner groups, each of which will organize two events annually through 2017. Even before the formal launch this year, over 1,165 grassroots events have taken place.  The complete description of the Pentagon’s project as well as the full list of past and future local events with dates and places and information about their educational resources can be viewed atwww.vietnamwar50th.com.

Unmentioned in the planning for this high-powered taxpayer-financed extravaganza is any meaningful discussion of the war itself. No reference to the failed policy of aggression and intervention in Southeast Asia.  No mention of the slaughter of millions of Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian people. No reference to the horrific legacy of Agent Orange, carpet bombing, napalm and unexploded ordnance. No admission of the lies and deceit that led to the war. No acknowledgement of the violations of international law that occurred in the decision to go to war and the manner in which it was fought. These and other crucial facts of the war have been airbrushed out of the Pentagon commemoration program.

In response to the Pentagon program a growing group of present and former anti-war activists and scholars have come together to challenge the Pentagon’s retelling of the Vietnam War. We have formed a Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee and have sent an open letter to the Pentagon commission, now signed by more than 1,000 people, requesting a meeting. Our letter urges a voice for peace advocates in reviewing and preparing the commission’s education materials and a role for antiwar voices in the commission’s public events. Signatures are still welcome.

Our Peace Commemoration Committee is planning events this year to focus on the unlearned lessons of the war, and to pay tribute to the importance and power of the massive peace movement that arose in opposition to the war. The Committee is issuing a call to faculty and students at colleges and universities around the country to organize educational events that focus attention on the actual history of US involvement in Southeast Asia and the impact felt from the divisions and lies experienced domestically during the war.

umichOur call for educational events coincides with the 50th anniversary of the campus teach-in movement. The first Vietnam War teach-in took place at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on March 24, 1965.  Two hundred faculty members participated by holding special anti-war seminars.  Regular classes were cancelled, and rallies and speeches continued for 12 hours.  On March 26, there was a similar teach-in at Columbia University in New York City. The largest Vietnam teach-in was held on May 21-23, 1965, at UC Berkeley.  The event was organized by the Vietnam Day Committee made up of students and faculty.  The 36-hour event was held on a playing field where Zellerbach Auditorium is now located.  More than 10,000 people turned out. The State Department was invited by the VDC to send a representative, but declined.  Two faculty members from Political Science had agreed to speak in defense of President Johnson’s handling of the war but withdrew at the last minute.  An empty chair was set aside on the stage with a sign reading “Reserved for the State Department” taped to the back. Many other Vietnam teach-ins took place at campuses across the country that year.

This past November Vietnam commemorative events occurred at two campuses. On November 11, 2014, Haverford College sponsored a “Public Reading by Vietnam War Poets” that featured W.D. Earhart and others.  A panel discussion followed the next day and addressed the questions: “Does the Vietnam War have any relevance to the world and the country we live in today?” and “Can poetry about the Vietnam War inform our understanding of our world and country?” Also in November Cornell University hosted a reunion of twenty-five activists who were part of the Ithaca’s resistance to the Vietnam War. The event provided opportunities for the activists to recount their experiences during that era in a series of panel discussions, forums and a “teach-in.”  The reunion, named “Vietnam: The War at Cornell” was a part of a program sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences.  

These are examples of the kind of campus-based educational programming that we hope can take place this year. Just as the teach-ins of the 1960’s played a vital role in consciousness-raising for students and people in local communities, a similar wave of educational events is needed now to recall the unlearned lessons of the Vietnam War and emphasize the relevance of those lessons as our government deepens its military interventions in the Middle East.

The Pentagon may be coming to your college and university! At a recent public meeting of the Pentagon commission, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, chair of the commission, spoke glowingly of a commemorative event in November that took place during halftime of the Clemson-George State football game. Ridge wants to see similar military-style commemorations during halftime at many college football games this fall.

We need to respond to this challenge by planning our own commemorations of the war and convening educational events that focus on the critical unlearned lessons. Our Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee can help in the planning and implementation of local educational events by offering curricular materials, audio-visuals, speakers and information to students and faculty.

Our plans for commemorating the 50th anniversary of the war include a national scholarly conference in Washington, DC, on April 30-May 1, 2015, entitled “The Vietnam War Then and Now:  Assessing the Critical Lessons.”  Sponsored by the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the History Department and Provost’s office of New York University, the conference will be held at NYU’s new Center in Washington DC. A preliminary announcement of the conference is available here.

Our committee is also sponsoring a public event in Washington, DC, on Saturday, May 2, 2015, reuniting veterans of the anti-war movement and educating a new generation of activists on the necessity of resisting unjust war.  The May 2 program will commemorate the anniversaries of the war by:

  • Acknowledging the significance and breadth of civilian and military opposition to the war
  • Addressing the enduring consequences of the war on veterans and the people of Indochina
  • Applying the critical lessons of the Vietnam War to current U.S. war policies

The May event will feature speakers, music and a procession past the Vietnam Memorial Wall to the Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial.

Just as we spoke out against the Vietnam War 50 years ago, we must mobilize now to ensure full disclosure of the history of that war, including the role of the antiwar movement. We must not let the Pentagon whitewash that history, or use the 50th anniversary commemorations to glorify military service. Let’s use the occasion instead to recall the critical unlearned lessons of the war and insist that our political leaders turn away from the policies of military intervention that caused so much suffering then and have sparked so much continuing violence today in the Middle East and beyond.

About the authorsTerry Provance organized against the war by supporting Dan and Phil Berrigan as well as Dan Ellsberg in their anti-war trials, Medical Aid for Indochina and numerous demonstrations primarily with church constituencies.  He later worked with AFSC against B-1 Bomber and for Nuclear Freeze. David Cortright is the Associate Director of programs and policy studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame University and Chair of the Board of the Fourth Freedom Forum. The author or editor of 17 books, most recently Ending Obama’s War (2011, Paradigm) and Towards Nuclear Zero (Routledge, IISS, 2010) he also is the editor of Peace Policy, Kroc’s online journal. He blogs at davidcortright.net.

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