I have several strong impressions about this film. One is that almost all the footage – and all the footage of the war itself – was new to me. That’s because when I transferred from a small, conservative Catholic women’s college to the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 1967, I was primed to get involved in the antiwar movement. The first time I ever passed out a leaflet it was to tell my fellow students about a protest against Dow Chemical recruiters coming up on October 18. Dow, the makers of napalm. You’ll note that we just passed the 50th anniversary of that event.
I went to my Sociology 101 class and the professor dismissed us early, telling us our assignment was to either participate in the protest or to observe it, and then share our impressions either way. I don’t remember if I tried to enter the building where the recruiters were going to be and couldn’t get in, or preferred to join the protest outside, but in any case, I was outside when all hell broke loose. The cops went crazy shooting tear gas everywhere (they were wearing masks that did make them look like pigs, though I never called them that) and beating any protester they could get their hands on.
When I watched the report in my dorm on the nightly network news, I was so disgusted by the coverage – all pro-cop and anti-student – that I vowed never to watch TV news of the war or protests again, and I didn’t.
Seeing the unbelievable destruction the U.S. carried out in that small country – dropping more bombs than we did in all of World War II, defoliating a quarter of the land with birth defect-creating Agent Orange, dropping napalm bombs on civilians and combatants alike, burning villages and killing men, women and children – underscored why I was so against the war, why I marched with fellow students and was tear-gassed on what seemed like a weekly basis.
Another thing I was unaware of was how many Americans marched in favor of the war as late as 1972. I knew about the “silent majority,” and I heard about the hard hats who beat protesters in New York City, but I didn’t know there were big marches with people as motivated to protest for the war as we were against it.
With the burning of the cities in the 1960s, the assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK, and the rage of the anti-war movement and corresponding rage of the cops and the National Guard, it seems a miracle so many of us survived that decade from 1965 to 1975. While I was in the middle of it, it didn’t seem that crazy or dangerous. Maybe it was the confidence of youth.
I had a sign in my dorm room that read, “Girls say Yes to boys who say No” (unaware of the sexism inherent in that) and in fact my first really serious boyfriend had not even registered for the draft and then had taken part in a draft file burning action as a member of the Catholic Left. I spent a lot of time going to trials in Milwaukee, Chicago, Indiana and Washington, D.C. and visiting folks in prison.
There is a false equivalency portrayed in the Vietnam War film, showing that both sides did terrible things. I’m sure both sides did do terrible things, but the level of destruction carried out by the U.S. military was unprecedented and we had invaded their country, after all, so it was not surprising the Vietnamese fought back.
What are the lessons? Well, one is that it’s good to have some protection against tear gas (and now pepper spray), which is why some protesters – not just the cops – now wear gas masks.
Another is that the military learned not to let reporters and photographers have unfettered access to a war zone, to show what’s really happening on the ground.
Another is that, even though I felt part of a big, collective, anti-war society, we were in fact very isolated from anybody who didn’t think as we did, and it’s important to have conversations with others who have different points of view, and to build broader coalitions than we had 50 years ago.
Trump just visited Vietnam, and polls show he’s more popular there than he is at home. American companies operate all over the country. It’s not exactly the outcome I expected when I protested the war and the U.S. lost.