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Reshaping the Vietnam Narrative

We came dangerously close to nuclear war when the United States was fighting in Vietnam, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg told a reunion of the Stanford Anti-Vietnam War Movement in May 2014. He said that in 1965, the Joint Chiefs assured President Lyndon B. Johnson that the war could be won, but it would take at least 500,000 to one million troops.

The Joint Chiefs recommended hitting targets up to the Chinese border. Ellsberg suspects their real aim was to provoke China into responding.  If the Chinese came in, the Joint Chiefs took for granted we would cross into China and use nuclear weapons to demolish the communists.

Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower also recommended to Johnson that we use nuclear weapons in both North and South Vietnam. Indeed, during the 1964 presidential campaign, Republican nominee Barry Goldwater argued for nuclear attacks as well.

Johnson feared that the Joint Chiefs would resign and go public if Johnson didn’t follow at least some of their recommendation and he needed some Republican support for the “Great Society” and the “War on Poverty.” Fortunately, Johnson resisted their most extreme proposals, even though the Joint Chiefs regarded them as essential to success.

Ellsberg cannot conclude that the antiwar movement shortened the war, but he says the movement put a lid on the war. If the President had done what the Joint Chiefs recommended, the movement would have grown even larger, but so would the war, much larger than it ever became.

‘The Most Dangerous Man in America’

Ellsberg, a former U.S. military analyst and Marine in Vietnam, worked at the RAND Corporation and the Pentagon. He risked decades in prison to release 7,000 top-secret documents to the New York Times and other newspapers in 1971. The Pentagon Papers showed how five presidents consistently lied to the American people about the Vietnam War that was killing thousands of Americans and millions of Indochinese.

Ellsberg’s courageous act led directly to the Watergate scandal, Nixon’s resignation, and helped to end the Vietnam War. Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, called Ellsberg “the most dangerous man in America,” who “had to be stopped at all costs.” But Ellsberg wasn’t stopped.

Facing 115 years in prison on espionage and conspiracy charges, he fought back. The case against him was dismissed due to egregious misconduct by the Nixon administration. Ellsberg’s story was portrayed in the Oscar-nominated film, “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” Edward Snowden told Ellsberg that film strengthened his intention to release the National Security Agency documents.

The April Third Movement

On April 3, 1969, 700 Stanford students voted to occupy the Applied Electronics Laboratory (AEL), where classified (secret) research on electronic warfare (radar-jamming) was being conducted at Stanford. That spawned the April Third Movement (A3M), which holds reunions every five to ten years. The sit-in at AEL, supported by a majority of Stanford students, lasted nine days, replete with a printing press in the basement to produce materials linking Stanford trustees to defense contractors.

Stanford moved the objectionable research off campus, but the A3M continued with sit-ins, teach-ins, and confrontations with police in the Stanford Industrial Park. Many activists from that era continue to do progressive work, drawing on their experiences during the A3M.

This year, we discussed the political economy of climate change, and the relationship between the counterculture of the 1960’s and the development of Silicon Valley. Highlights of the weekend included three keynote addresses – Ellsberg’s; one delivered by Stanford political science Professor Terry Karl; and a talk by Rutgers Professor of English and American Studies, H. Bruce Franklin.

Terry Karl is a Stanford professor who has published widely on political economy of development, oil politics, Latin America and Africa, and human rights. She also testifies as an expert witness in trials against Latin American dictators and military officers who tortured, disappeared and killed civilians in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when their governments were supported by the United States. Karl’s testimonies have helped to establish guilt and accountability for the murders of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero, the rape and murders of four American churchwomen, and other prominent cases.

Karl quoted President George H. W. Bush, who announced proudly after the first Gulf War in 1991, “The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian peninsula.” Nevertheless, Karl observed, we have been involved in “permanent war” since Vietnam, in part because there had been no accountability, abroad or at home, for each of our past wars.

The U.S. global military presence around the world, according to Karl, is not there for defense, but rather to maintain the United States “at the top.” No defense can be based on having soldiers in 150 countries.

Beginning with Vietnam, we stopped paying taxes for the wars we fight, Karl said. The Korean War was financed with taxes, but the Vietnam War was paid for through inflation. This helped to produce the recession that was the basis for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Wars in Central America, Iraq and Afghanistan have been “paid for” through debt.

In this respect, permanent war not only threatens our democracy, Karl pointed out, but also our economic future. In one example, Karl noted that the United States fights wars to secure oil and gas; yet the largest consumer of oil in the world is the Department of Defense because of those very wars.

Karl also observed that we have not “won” all of these unpaid wars – if measured against their original objectives. The United States fought in Vietnam to prevent communist reunification of the country; yet that is exactly what happened.

The Reagan administration decided to “draw the line” in El Salvador to prevent FLMN rebels from coming to power; yet the FMLN is the government today.  And the Reagan administration supported the contras in Nicaragua to prevent the Sandinistas from governing that country; the Sandinistas are now in control. She predicted we would see similar “victories” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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