THE BLOG
03/20/2007 10:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cutting Off Funding for War: The 1973 Indochina Case

Yes, history repeats and these days, increasingly so. For those fighting over Iraq funding today, I believe history offers useful lessons in the role of patient political organizing.

In 1969, I was on trial for conspiring to disrupt the national Democratic convention. In 1972, I was campaigning to end the war by pressuring Congress and voting for George McGovern. I hadn't changed, but new possibilities were opening in the mainstream, in part because of militant pressure from the streets. Instead of the police state I feared in 1970, Nixon would soon face impeachment, a peace treaty would be signed, and a corrupt Saigon dictatorship would fall.

How did this happen? What were the ingredients? What lessons might there be for today?

Here is a brief history of those times. What is made of that history, of course, is up to present and future generations.

In 1968, Nixon won the presidency on the false claim that there was a "secret plan for peace." He arranged to delay the beginning of peace talks in 1968 in a maneuver to defeat Humphrey. Then he accepted talks with North Vietnam and the People's Revolutionary Government [PRG] in Paris, which lasted nearly five years. Nixon gradually withdrew American troops from South Vietnam while escalating the US air war to record levels. Far from lulling Americans with this pacification strategy as he intended, the peace movement actually grew and escalated, from the peaceful moratorium of 1969 to the arrests of 13,000 people at May Day in 1971.

Nixon claimed in his 1972 campaign, through Henry Kissinger, that peace was "at hand", and thus won a second term. He then launched the unprecedented B-52 bombings of Hanoi at Christmas time, followed immediately by agreeing to the Paris Peace Agreement of January 1973, which resulted in the release of all American POWs held by Hanoi. Nixon celebrated this "peace" as a victory, using the POWs as his proof of success. Meanwhile, however, Kissinger sought side assurances, through diplomacy with China, that there be a "decent interval" for the US-supported Saigon regime before another Vietnamese offensive. The Thieu dictatorship stumbled along for precisely that "decent interval" before imploding under pressure from the PRG and North Vietnam. Instead of a transitional negotiated arrangement as once was possible, it all fell apart. The Americans fled, and Vietnam was unified under Hanoi's leadership.

During that decade, the anti-war movement had expanded dramatically. From an initial 25,000 at the first peace march in April, 1965, it evolved towards "resistance" by 1967, the confrontations at the Pentagon in October 1967, Chicago in August 1968, the million-strong moratoriums beginning in 1969, the national student strike in 1970, and May Day in 1971.

After 1968, the Democrats were trying to catch up to the peace sentiment. Had he lived, Robert Kennedy probably would have captured the nomination, and our futures might have been very different. Eugene McCarthy, the Howard Dean of 1968, upset President Johnson but could not win the nomination, winding up with 23 percent at a rigged, top-down convention [where most of the delegates were chosen the year before]. Freed in a way by Nixon's victory in 1968, the Democrats swiftly adopted an anti-war stance and enacted sweeping internal reforms against the hawkish old guard leadership, many of whom eventually would migrate to the neo-conservatives. McGovern won the nomination, lost badly in November, but a new generation of anti-war congressional representatives were elected in November.

During 1971, the embryonic Indochina Peace Campaign [IPC] was formed, based on a strategy of mobilizing anti-war pressure to divide Congress from the executive branch. If remembered today at all, the IPC is associated with the Tom Hayden-Jane Fonda speaking tour in 100 cities in fall 1972, but it was much more than that. The public figures included singers [Holly Near, for example], former American POWs, and a Frenchman once imprisoned by Saigon. One million educational pamphlets were distributed by hand in 1972. Slide shows and films were produced and circulated everywhere. A staff lobbyist, Larry Levin, was sent to Washington DC. Activist offices were operating in California, New York, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio, Oregon and Arizona. Coalitions were formed with Medical Aid to Indochina, the Indochina Resource Center, the American Friends Service Committee, Clergy and Laity Concerned, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Women Strike for Peace, the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Peoples Committee for Peace and Justice, SANE, the War Resisters League, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and perhaps most importantly, exiled Vietnamese student groups inside the US. Though initiated in 1972, the IPC was formalized at a Dayton, Ohio, meeting of 200 representatives of activist groups.

The emphasis was on campaigning as action, not a permanent bureaucracy competing with other groups. The tool was an "Indochina Peace Pledge" for organizing pressure on elected officials to cut off aid to the dictators in Saigon and Pnomh Penh. Building a power base in keystates and congressional districts was the strategy.

Many of us were recovering from the intense radicalism, sectarianism, militancy, and resistance to repression that occurred throughout the late 1960s. To say the least, the anti-war movement was not popular with representatives of the State, nor even with a majority of Americans. Many individuals, collectives and organizations fragmented, collapsed from within, burned out, or suffered marginalization and counter-intelligence blows. Yet by 1969, just when everything seemed hopeless on the surface, millions of Americans began to wake up and take a more welcoming attitude to peace initiatives. My dad was a classic example; as a former Marine, he disowned me for fifteen years over Vietnam. But as he discovered that his own president was lying over matters of life and death, that the protesters were right after all, it became possible to thaw and reconcile our relationship. Such transformation was occurring on a much larger scale, paradoxically at the moment many movements of the 1960s were exhausting or marginalizing themselves for deeply understandable reasons. Some of us realized that we couldn't win the American people if we were disgusted by them at the same time. Dialogue and persuasion were the way, and any confrontations had to be consistent with that process. We concluded in a strategy paper that

While not forgetting the role of Congress in supporting this inhuman, immoral war for twenty years, anti-war sentiment in America and the present vulnerability of Congress to public pressure are important tools available to us to finally end the war.

With 1971 came the McGovern-Hatfield amendment to cut off funding by December of that year. Even after the disclosure of the Pentagon Papers and 13,000 arrests during May Day, the measure failed, except as a marker. In 1972, the so-called Case-Church amendment to ban all US military operations in Indochina was withdrawn for lack of sufficient support. Then came McGovern's crushing defeat in November, followed by the Christmas bombings and POW celebrations.

But Nixon had trampled democracy in his quest to turn the White House into a throne room. In April 1973, the Watergate break-ins were acknowledged, and the slow unraveling of the imperial presidency began. With the White House thus weakened, our strategy of Congressional pressure gained leverage. In May 1973, the House voted for the first time to end funding for combat activities, but Nixon used his veto threat to block the move. In June, however, the Congress took up a funding cut-off once again, and our pressure campaign mounted in intensity. Finally, both houses passed a deadline of August 15, 1973, to end any further direct or indirect funding by US military forces [US training and funding for the Saigon regime was not cut off]. Kissinger insisted the White House would not abide by any deadlines as a matter of principle. An effort to cripple the measure was defeated on a 204-204 tie vote in the House. Congress at least had won an "advise and consent" role over any future military action, although a final compromise allowed Nixon a 45-day bombing extension until the August 15th cutoff. By then, Watergate had weakened his ability to defy the legislation, but the war still continued for another two years.

Our congressional coordinator, Larry Levin, measured how far we'd come: "Seven years ago, on May 6, 1965, President Johnson asked Congress to approve a multi-million dollar request for an appropriation to finance American combat forces in Vietnam. That request was opposed by only three members of the US Senate, two of whom - Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska - were subsequently defeated by voters of their state...Many of those same Senate colleagues who then supported the war were still around last week when Congress took its unprecedented and historic actions." Acknowledging the 45-day compromise on bombing, Levin emphasized that the crucial difference was that the legislation transferred power to Congress to specifically approve any new combat operations, giving the Senate "its own veto over Indochina policy" - a foreshadowing of the War Powers Act. "This subtle transfer of power", Levin went on, "was an important factor in persuading such longtime anti-war Congresspeople such as Sen. Fulbright and Rep.George Brown to support the compromise. The closeness of the votes in the formerly hawkish House of Representatives reflect how important our lobbying efforts have been in bringing all this about", he wrote, referring to the one vote margin on the amendment to weaken the deadline legislation.

The demand to stop the bombing of Cambodia would take two more years to succeed. More immediately, the IPC supported a measure by Sen. James Abourezk [whose top aide was a young activist named Tom Daschle] to block Nixon's requested $4 billion for Vietnamization, which would essentially perpetuate a Saigon gulag with "tiger cages", torture chambers, secret jails, and the CIA's Operation Phoenix program aimed at neutralizing [assassinating] thousands of alleged Vietcong. at the time becoming the largest police state - per capita - in the world. This system was aided by 10,000 US "civilian contractors", funds from the AID Office of Public Safety, supervised by US federal prison officials, and Phoenix itself paid 637 US personnel. Describing Gen. Thieu, a Washington Star reporter wrote on Mar. 26, 1972, that

The seizure of power by this cabal, grouped around a secret society known as the Mandarin Dai Viet...[despite] national elections in 1967 and 1971 has effectively denied the South Vietnamese people any chance whatsoever of creating a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

We believed Americans would oppose torture in their name, even if American casualties were in decline. Our strategy paper wrote that

Our movement has reached the objective ability to terminate police-military aid to Saigon and Phnom Penh. We have reached a turning point in the long struggle to organize a majority for peace. The task now is to focus and energize the anti-war feelings of the majority. After a generation of protest we now have the power to end the war.


And so we lobbied for the Abourezk bill. We supported Congressional hearings that revealed the American funding. We built tiger cages wrapped in concertina wire and huddled in them outside of Congressional offices. We printed up summaries of the Pentagon Papers and handed them out. We sent delegations to be arrested at the US embassy in Saigon for handing out leaflets against the prisons. We circulated a British documentary showing the shrunken, twisted limbs of Vietnamese prisoners released from the tiger cages.

Not everyone in the movement was synchronized. There were those who opposed lobbying Congress and electoral politics for ideological reasons. They believed in an escalation of radical tactics. Others moved along to other issues, sensing that it would be harder to continue while the war was "winding down." Others thought the old establishment - the "wise men" - would intervene to end the war from the top down, for the broader interests of US imperialism. There was no need and little possibility for a continuing movement, these voices said. But it required a sustained effort for three years - 1972 through 1975 - to end the war, and the danger of re-escalation of the war, through hard-won congressional action in response to a shift in public opinion. By July 1973, Gallup polls showed 2:1 opposition to the Cambodia bombing, and at the end of 1974, Gallup showed that 60 percent of Americans favored an amnesty for draft resisters. The war was ended by a movement that overcame its outsider status to engage the soul of America, and learned the insider skills of pressuring the system. Post-war normative lessons had been absorbed widely as well: no more land wars like Vietnam, no more policing the world, no more imperial presidencies. This was the "Vietnam Syndrome", a profound democratic threat to empire.

[to be continued...]

TOM HAYDEN is the author of Ending the War in Iraq [Akashic, June 2007]. His video on ending the war is available at www.veoh.com/videos/v273051XbqnAHKC