Posted on Feb 24, 2017
By Sarah Jaffe
“Hell No: The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement”
The United States has long had a problem with historical memory.
The protesters who recently flooded the country’s airports, in response to President Trump’s ban on refugees and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, carried handmade signs declaring the United States a nation of immigrants, and some of those signs took a longer view of the latest immigrant backlash. Some, for example, noted that the current wave of Islamophobia was ginned up after Sept. 11, 2001; others reminded viewers that there is already a border fence, begun in 1994 under President Bill Clinton. The urgency of the protests and the sense of violation engendered by Trump seem so immediate that we can feel disconnected even from the recent past, missing the threads of how we got here in the first place.
On the campaign trail last year, as Americans weighed who would be the next president, Bernie Sanders breached what often appears to be a silent understanding that politicians should not bring up history more distant than a year or two. His target: Hillary Clinton’s chummy relationship with Henry Kissinger, the architect of much of the Vietnam War. “I happen to believe that Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country,” Sanders declared.
The reaction to his comment was a stark reminder of our tendency toward historical amnesia. It was seen as almost rude to point out that past actions — actions that cost thousands of lives — have relevance today. Kissinger was just another elder statesman to be courted, while any discussion of his deeds was off-limits. For Sanders to disobey the dictum, made famous by Barack Obama but that certainly predates him — look forward, not backward — felt radical.
Tom Hayden’s final book, “Hell No: The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement,” is a strike against such forgetting. To remember the power of the movement, Hayden argues, is to remember that there were those who at the time accurately saw the Vietnam War for what it was. It is to remember that our actions have echoes, that our present is shaped by the choices of the past.
Hayden, who died Oct. 23, 2016, may have considered that this book would be landing in a United States that had just elected Donald Trump president. He certainly felt the urgency of his advancing age; it is palpable when he writes: “Who will tell our story when we are gone? So much has already escaped memory, and now the time to capture remembrance is rapidly passing.” After his death, with Trump in office, Hayden’s call to remember the value of resistance is even more poignant.
“Hell No” is brief yet rambling; reading it feels as if one is listening to Hayden reminisce, wandering backward and forward in time, recalling some events in great detail and others with the barest mention. For a book concerned with memory, perhaps its biggest flaw is that it tends to assume that Americans have a knowledge of their own history — that they know, for example, about the moratoriums, as those massive marches against the Vietnam War were called.
It’s understandable: U.S. politics continues to exist in the shadow of the 1960s. Figures like Hayden continue to play a strong role in discussions and debates, and for a while have been the generation with the money and the power. But the call to remember — taken up ably by many recently, including Greg Grandin with “Kissinger’s Shadow” and Penny Lewis with “Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks” — obscures the fact that these days, many of us never knew.
Hayden argues that the generalized disruption that the anti-war movement caused was akin to a general strike, a widespread refusal to take part in “the regnant political culture.” In particular, he draws on W.E.B. Du Bois’ argument that the refusal of enslaved people to work any longer under the Confederacy brought about victory for the Union in the Civil War. It’s a rather strained analogy, but it contains the seeds of an important lesson: Protest derives its power from its ability to halt business as usual. To shut down the war, the anti-war movement and the country as a whole had to become ungovernable.
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