Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 4, 2000
May 4 will mark thirty years since four students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University were murdered by Ohio National Guardsmen. It is no exaggeration to call it murder, since the students were unarmed and-- given how far they were from the troops-- could not have posed any threat. The closest of those killed, Jeffrey Miller, was shot at a distance of 265 feet.
The photo of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling beside his body, arms outstretched and screaming in anguish, was etched into the national consciousness as a searing image of the war at home.
The campuses responded with an explosion of protest, with five million students taking part in America's largest student strike. Kent State was a turning point in the history of the war-- "a shock wave that brought the nation and its leadership close to the point of physical exhaustion..," as Henry Kissinger would later write in his memoirs.
The war dragged on for five more years, and so we have recently been treated to a series of ruminations on the twenty-fifth anniversary of its conclusion. But not enough space has been given to those who got it right three decades ago: the anti-war movement.
The protesters put forth an alternative analysis of the war. It was not a war to save the world from a "Communist threat," as our leaders told us, but a colonial war. We took over the war from the French, who were trying to regain control of their former colony after World War II. We refused to allow elections in 1956, as provided for by the Geneva accords of 1954-- because (as President Eisenhower noted) we knew that our adversaries, led by Ho Chi Minh, would win overwhelmingly.
Instead we poured in arms and money, and then troops to support a corrupt, dictatorial client state in South Vietnam. We could never "win" the war, because most Vietnamese saw the United States as a hostile invader trying to take over their country. And the South Vietnamese army was understandably demoralized. So our involvement escalated, and we resorted to increasingly brutal methods-- including the bombing of civilians and defoliation of large areas of land. Two million Vietnamese civilians were killed, mostly in the South, in addition to more than one million fighters. As Nixon spread the war to Cambodia-- his invasion of which brought the Kent State protesters into the streets-- our bombing probably killed as many Cambodians as Pol Pot did, and helped create the conditions for the holocaust that ensued there.
The anti-war movement argued that these were heinous crimes that could never be justified. "We have destroyed their land and their crops," said Martin Luther King, Jr. "We have supported the enemies of the peasants. . . we have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. What liberators!"
A 1990 poll by the Chicago Council on Foreign relations found that 71% of Americans thought the Vietnam war was "more than a mistake; it was fundamentally wrong and immoral."
Yet the 25th anniversary has seen numerous attempts to find some middle ground, so that we may "put the war behind us." Fifty-eight thousand American soldiers died in Vietnam, and even more committed suicide after returning home. Some say it is a disservice to the millions of veterans who fought there to talk about the evils of the war.
But many veterans do not feel that way. Barry Romo, national coordinator of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, reminds us that his was the only organization of Vietnam veterans that existed 30 years ago-- and the only veterans who took to the streets were those protesting the war. "It's unfair to those who lost their lives, and their arms and legs, to pretend that the war had some value. We were lied to by the government and the media-- we should never have been there. The most important thing now is for people to know the truth so that it never happens again."
It's a compelling argument. Our government's support for the mass atrocities in Central America in the 1980s, which included arming the killers of tens of thousands of innocents, might well have been avoided if we had owned up to the truth after the Vietnam war. And since this more recent history, too, has been swept under the rug, we are currently going down the same road in Colombia.
To forgive is a virtue, but forgetting is an indulgence we can ill afford. Our foreign policy establishment remains addicted to empire, and is possessed by a hubris that is arguably even greater than the one that got us into Vietnam. Until they learn the lessons that the anti-war movement tried to teach them, we can expect more Vietnams ahead of us.