The movement against the Vietnam War - its lessons for today

October 29, 2003


A national anti-war conference, called by the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign (VMC) and held in Sydney in February 1971, endorsed proposals to build the movement against the Vietnam War. We in the socialist youth organisation Resistance had consistently argued for these proposals from our organisation's founding in 1967.

The big majority of the conference's 1000 delegates voted to reaffirm that the VMC continue to be a non-exclusionary coalition that championed the immediate withdrawal of US and Australian troops from Vietnam as its central demand. They agreed that the main means to achieve this would remain the organisation of mass street demonstrations.

The VMC conference called for further mass protests to be held in April 1971. The conference adopted a motion on strategy which read as follows: "That the whole anti-war movement make the main direction of its activities towards achieving a forthright effort at all levels of the working class and labour movement for mass consciousness and action its aims. In doing so ... recognise that a significant percentage of workers are women and that Moratorium policies should be presented in such a way as to help break down sexist, chauvinist and discriminatory practices and attitudes to women.

"The main slogan directed to workers and the labour movement for their participation in anti-war action be 'Stop Work to Stop the War' with all necessary varieties of action enlisted to lead to the goal of a mass political strike..."

Stop work to stop the war

While this motion reflected a recognition among the main anti-war organisers of the need to mobilise the social power of the working class against the war, the ALP left factions and the leaders of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) began to argue that the central slogan of the April 1971 anti-war demonstrations — "Stop work to stop the war" — should become the central orientation of the movement. They counterposed industrial action by workers to mass street marches that could involve everybody who was opposed to the war.

In Sydney, Adelaide and Canberra, the ALP left and the CPA managed to have the April anti-war actions set for midday on Friday, April 30, rather than on a Saturday, as had been the case with previous Moratorium marches. In Melbourne, ALP left leader Jim Cairns and the CPA formed a political bloc with liberal pacifists to have "decentralised" suburban protest actions on April 30, rather than a central protest march in the city centre. Such actions, they claimed, would attract more workers.

However, all of these actions turned out to be small affairs. They involved far fewer people than the 150,000 who marched against the war in capital cities around the country on Saturday, September 18, 1970.

In a resolution adopted at its second national conference held over the Easter 1971 weekend, Resistance warned that this would be the outcome of prematurely projecting industrial action as the key means of protest against the war.

"Mass street demonstrations", we noted, "have shown themselves to be the best way of drawing the working class into action on the war issue. In the past, whenever the working class stirred into action, it has expressed itself in the streets. The Moratorium mass actions therefore present to the workers a traditional method of demonstrating their grievances. Workers are not attracted by window smashing or cop fighting or ultraleft rhetoric, but, as with the rest of the population, they will turn up in numbers in massive marches.

"While the Australian anti-war movement remains largely composed of youth and students, it must also be noted that the size of the marches in Melbourne last year showed that significant numbers of workers were becoming involved...

"It appears to us that if the workers will not join the Moratorium now, they will probably only do so when either the Moratorium grows in size to such an extent that the workers or their leaders cannot ignore it any longer, or when an important objective change within Australian capitalism (inflation, repressive labour laws, unemployment, etc.) manifests itself in a form visible to the workers, or both, or a combination of each."

Because of the smaller size of the April 30 actions, the ALP left and CPA leaders in the VMC were pressured by anti-war activists to call a mass anti-war demonstration for Saturday, June 30, 1971. However, claiming that the rank-and-file activists wanted something "new", the Melbourne VMC executive endorsed a plan to have three radial marches converge on the City Square and then"blockade" the city centre for the day.

At a belatedly called mass meeting of almost 1000 VMC activists, held in the Richmond Town Hall on June 7, Resistance members led the opposition to this plan. They pointing out that it would require an impossible level of coordination and synchronisation, and that it could end in a bloody and pointless battle with the cops. Our counterproposal — to return to the tested form of demonstration, with a march from the Treasury Gardens to a rally in the city centre — was overwhelmingly endorsed by the rank-and-file activists.

In Melbourne, the June 30 demonstration was a resounding success with 80,000 participants, the largest anti-war demonstration then seen in any Australian city. All up, probably 200,000 people participated in anti-war marches around the country on June 30.

Following the success of the June 30 anti-war marches, and most likely because of them, the ALP left and the CPA decided to postpone further nationwide anti-war protests until 1972. Instead of building on the success of the June 30 demonstrations, they called for a campaign to assist draft resisters.

Resistance activists opposed this as another attempt to take the anti-war movement off the streets. In the August 1971 issue of our monthly paper Direct Action, we argued: "Appealing to people to support draft resisters won't mobilise a fraction of the people that the demand 'Out now' does. In the one case, the masses are reduced to auxiliaries to the basically individualistic protest of the draft resisters. Opposition to the draft (while correct in principle) doesn't focus directly on the war; it takes the pressure off the government to get out of Vietnam. On the other hand, 'Out now' is a demand which can unite broad masses against the war, and put direct pressure on the government to get out of Vietnam."

Collapse of the VMC

Only a month after the June 30 mass demonstrations, Liberal Prime Minister Billy McMahon announced that all Australian combat troops would be withdrawn from Vietnam by the end of 1971. McMahon's announcement was in line with the decision Washington had taken to gradually withdraw US troops and to "Vietnamise" the war by building up the size of the Saigon puppet regime's army.

Washington had decided to begin withdrawing its troops because anti-war sentiment inside the ranks of the US military in Vietnam, encouraged by the growth of the anti-war movement at home, had begun to reach the point where large numbers of GIs simply refused to obey orders and fight — killing or threatening to kill officers who tried to force them to engage in combat missions against the Vietnamese resistance fighters.

McMahon's announcement gave the ALP left and CPA leaders of the VMC the excuse they had been desperately searching for to call off further anti-war protests. Meanwhile, the Australian government continued to provide material aid to the US puppet regime in Saigon and US warplanes continued to rain bombs on South Vietnam.

Instead of continuing to campaign against the Australian government's involvement in the Vietnam War, or even against conscription, ALP and CPA leaders in the movement attempted to channel opposition to the war into a movement to support of the ALP's liberal-reformist political agenda.

At meetings of the VMC around the country in early 1972, CPA leaders succeeded in winning support for proposals to turn the VMC into a "multi-issue" movement, campaigning around issues ranging from free university education to environmental protection. They argued that this would broaden support for the Moratorium movement.

Resistance argued that it would do the opposite. The politically heterogeneous forces that made up the anti-war movement were only able to engage in united action because they agreed on a single issue — opposition to the Vietnam War. Any attempt to include other issues in its aims would inevitably cause the movement to splinter.

The real motive behind the "multi-issue" movement proposal was to transform the anti-war movement into a publicity machine for the election of an ALP government in the December 1972 federal election.

As it turned out, the "multi-issue" Moratorium failed to materialise. Aside from Melbourne, where the VMC staggered on for another year as a bureaucratic rump dominated by the CPA-influenced peaceocrats of the Congress for International Cooperation and Disarmament, the VMC ceased to function in other cities.

When the US launched a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam in April 1972, in order to crush a military offensive by the Vietnamese liberation forces in the northern provinces of South Vietnam, anti-war actions had be organised by new anti-war coalitions. These managed to mobilise some 20,000 protesters in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane two days after the US began bombing Hanoi.

While the US escalated its air war against Vietnam, the ALP "left" politicians and their CPA allies argued against organising anti-war actions, because they claimed the war was "winding down". This assertion was based on the fact that US troop numbers in Vietnam had been cut to 39,000. The fact that the US air war was escalating did not seem to bother them. In July 1972, for example, US B-52 bombers carried out 900 bombing missions over Vietnam — 111 more than were flown throughout all of 1971!

As in 1968, it was left to those of us in Resistance to take the initiative and call anti-war actions. Through the Australian Union of Students, we were able to organise a national anti-war conference in October 1972. It endorsed a call for anti-war protests on November 18 to demand the immediate withdrawal of all US forces from Indochina.

'Sign now!' or 'Out now!'

However, at most of the organising meetings held to build these actions, CPA leaders argued that the anti-war movement should mobilise around the demand that Washington sign a peace plan which was proposed by the Hanoi government on October 26, 1972.

Under pressure from the massive US bombing, Vietnam's leaders had made a diplomatic offer to cease hostilities, if the US would agree to set a date for the withdrawal of its forces.

While Resistance recognised that it was perfectly legitimate for the Vietnamese people to offer or accept concessions to remove the US occupiers from their backs, we argued that the duty of anti-war activists in the countries supporting the US aggression was to continue to keep the pressure on the US and its allies to immediately and unconditionally withdraw their military forces from Vietnam, and let the Vietnamese people run their own affairs without foreign interference.

We argued that adopting the "Sign now!" slogan would commit the anti-war movement in Australia to endorsing a compromise forced on the Vietnamese leaders at gunpoint. Over the five days from December 24 to December 29, 1972, for example, US B-52 bombers dropped more than 40,000 tonnes of bombs on Hanoi alone.

Following this massive bombing, the Hanoi government and the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) signed a peace accord with the US and its Saigon puppet regime, in which the US agreed to end its air war on North Vietnam and withdraw its remaining combat troops from South Vietnam.

However, the accords permitted Washington to continue to arm, fund and advise the Saigon regime's army. A cease-fire was to take place, and representatives of the NLF and the Saigon regime were to form a National Council of Reconciliation to prepare elections in South Vietnam.

When the accords were signed in Paris, Resistance hailed the accords as a recognition of the victory won by the liberation movement on the battlefield. The US occupation army had been fought to a standstill. In a front-page editorial in the February 8, 1973, edition of Direct Action, we said: "The agreement by the US to halt the bombing and to withdraw its remaining troops from South Vietnam is a long-sought victory for the Vietnamese people. It is also a victory for the anti-war movement here and throughout the world. But the imperialist intervention in Vietnam is far from ended...

"The Vietnamese, of course, have every right to negotiate and sign an agreement with the US and Saigon. But we must not give support in any way to the conditions the US imposes on them. Any attempt to paint these conditions as a 'victory' can only disarm and disorient the international anti-war movement and the defenders of the Vietnamese struggle for self-determination. Our job is to tell the truth about the conditions Washington [has] imposed on the Vietnamese people. We must prepare to continue mobilising opposition to US war aims in South-East Asia."

Unfortunately, the idea that "peace" had been achieved in Vietnam was not only promoted by Washington and its allies, but by the ALP left and the CPA. As a result, it proved very difficult to organise further mass anti-war actions even as the war in Vietnam continued, with the Saigon regime repeatedly breaching the cease-fire agreement.

Vietnamese victory

In early 1975, Hanoi and the NLF decided to abandon the January 1973 Paris accords and launched a counter-offensive. The success of the Vietnamese national liberation forces' offensive revealed the total political bankruptcy of the pro-US Saigon regime.

Lacking any popular support and only kept in power with US arms, the Saigon regime and its 1-million-strong army simply collapsed. As the May 1, 1975, Australian put it in an editorial: "In just eight weeks, from its first major attack in the central highlands to its appearance in Saigon, the North Vietnamese army has waged one of the swiftest and most successful campaigns in military history."

The anti-war movement internationally, above all in the United States, had played a key role in this victory. Thanks to the anti-war movement, public opposition in the US was so overwhelming that Washington calculated that the political costs of resuming US bombing or sending its troops back into Vietnam to save the Saigon regime would be just too high.

There is a large element of truth to the claims of right-wing commentators that the US and its allies did not lose the Vietnam War on the battlefields but at home.

Of course, it was the inability to the US war machine to militarily crush the Vietnamese armed resistance movement which fuelled growing domestic opposition to the war in the US and Australia — opposition which spread into the ranks of the US Army in Vietnam and destroyed it as an effective fighting machine. This, in the final analysis, is what caused the US rulers to lose the Vietnam War.

As this account illustrates, the history of the Vietnam anti-war movement was not only one of a succession of mass street demonstrations. It was also a history of internal struggle within the movement around orientation and tactics that could best generate and mobilise mass sentiment against the war.

The right-wing of the movement, led by ALP left and the CPA, persistently tried to subordinate the anti-war movement to the electoral interests of the ALP. At the same time, the ultraleftists tried to divert it into small, ineffectual and adventurist actions which would have isolated it from broad masses of people.

By contrast, we in Resistance fought for the building of mass street demonstrations organised by a non-exclusive and united coalition that functioned through open mass meetings of anti-war activists. We argued for the movement to adopt as its central demand, the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the imperialist military forces.

The correctness of this approach was shown by the fact that the Vietnam anti-war movement achieved its greatest public visibility and political impact when this orientation — mass street marches demanding "Troops out now!" — was adopted in 1970 and 1971.

Today, opponents of the US war in Iraq need to apply the same basic orientation: to build mass protest actions against the war, organised by non-exclusive coalitions controlled by anti-war activists through open mass meetings, and to advance the demand for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the imperialist military forces from Iraq.

[This is the second article in a two-part series. The first appeared in Green Left Weekly #558.]

From Green Left Weekly, October 29, 2003.
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