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People's History Teach in on Vietnam War - Report by Duncan McFarland and Thea Paneth

A teach-in on the history of the Vietnam War, with a focus on resistance, was held on March 28, 2015 at MIT. The program was organized by United for Justice with Peace, the eastern Massachusetts coalition formed after 9/11 and hosted by MIT's Technology and Culture Forum.

Veterans For Peace put out a national call for programs to accurately reflect the events of the period in response to a major Pentagon effort to officially rewrite history and sanitize that war as a propaganda campaign to justify current wars.

This year is a commemorative year, the 50th anniversary of the first antiwar teach-in at the University of Michigan and the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in 1975.

Doug Rawlings, one of the six co-founders of Veterans For Peace started the day with a moving poem, Walking the Wall: “if your nightmares wait for the night, you are a survivor.”

Activists talked about the many types of resistance that took place – within the military, on college campuses, across U.S. society and the world as the war dragged on and on.

Professor Noam Chomsky talked about very early meetings in living rooms with six or seven people to oppose the war, as far back as the Kennedy administration. “We were already too late,” Chomsky said. “The U.S. had decided to back French colonialism ten years earlier.” He went on to describe the important work Fred Branfman had done publicizing the bombing of the Plain of Jars in Laos, that no one knew about and told how later in his life, Fred had learned that the reason for the northern Laos bombing during a Vietnam bombing lull in 1968 was due to bombers sitting around with nothing to do.

Chomsky also described how over time the antiwar protests grew into a massive movement that has had lasting impact and that resistance works!

Susan Schnall told her story about resisting the war while serving as a nurse in the Navy. Schnall and a friend flew a Piper Cub airplane and dropped antiwar leaflets on military bases in the Bay Area calling on active-duty soldiers to join an antiwar protest. Schnall marched against the war in full military gear. She was sentenced to six months in prison but did not have to serve the time although she was dismissed from the Navy.

Carl Davidson, a national leader of SDS at the time, talked about the 1965 SDS-organized first major antiwar rally in Washington, and how they resolved disputes among organizers by simply inviting everyone to participate. SDS hoped for 5,000 at the rally and 25,000 showed up! Davidson spoke of SDS organizing many other forms of resistance: GI coffeehouses, assistance for deserters, disrupting ROTC centers.

Draft resister John Bach dropped out of college to lose his student deferment, which he felt was racist and classist. He shared some of his story, which included a three-year prison term. He reminded the audience of Kitty Genovese who was grabbed off a street in New York in the mid-sixties and stabbed to death and how at least 40 people heard her screams and no one did anything and how doing nothing is always legal. This was one motivating factor for his own decision to oppose the "dirtiest little war imaginable."

Louise Bruyn recalled her strong feelings against the war. She decided to walk 450 miles from her Newton home to Washington D.C. to tell the government to stop the war. Along the way she got nationwide publicity in the media and the movement; supporters joined in and helped her with food and home-stays. Solidarity protests in 38 states were held on the same day she arrived in Washington, to be greeted by sympathetic politicians including Senator Kennedy and Congressman Robert Drinan. She recently published a book on the journey – She Walked For All Of Us.

The teach-in reviewed the history of the war. Paul Shannon from AFSC and Nguyen Ba Chung of UMass Boston both emphasized the importance of the August 1945 revolution in Hanoi, when Ho Chi Minh proclaimed hard won national independence after the defeat of Japan and their French collaborators. Ho read the US Declaration of Independence, hopeful because of US-Viet Minh cooperation during World War II. The subsequent French decision to refuse recognition and re-establish its colony by military intervention, backed by the US, laid the framework for the wars of the next 20 years.

The panels examined the legacies of the war. Wayne Smith, combat medic in Vietnam said that many African Americans serving in the military wanted justice and equality at home, and suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. He told of working to help vets deal with the psychological impact of the killing and destruction, the struggle for U.S.-Vietnam normalized relations and founding the international campaign to ban land mines (unexploded ordnance is still a danger in the Vietnamese countryside).

Pat Hynes, retired professor of environmental health, gave a detailed presentation of the lasting effects of Agent Orange, the poisonous chemical used in the massive defoliation campaign waged in Vietnam which also affected many US soldiers. Devastating birth defects persist now in the third generation for both Vietnam and Americans.

Susan Schnall described the Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign and congressional legislation sponsored by Representative Barbara Lee of Oakland (Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act, HR 2519).

Tu Anh Phan, a young Vietnamese-American from Dorchester, gave a spoken word performance that examined the younger generation’s struggle to find its own way out of the anti-communist, conservative politics of the immigrants from South Vietnam who settled in Boston after the war.

UJP’s Thea Paneth created a photographic display using iconic images from the war years and Duncan McFarland gave a slide show of a vital and energetic Vietnam today, using photographs from recent visits.

Chris Nauman from Arlington UJP ended the day with "The Times They Are A'Changin'.

The Vietnam teach-in was moving and educational. First-hand accounts of the experiences of the time countered the official Pentagon efforts to spin a version of the war minimizing the horrors and US government responsibility.

UJP raised funds at the teach-in to make a donation to support all victims of Agent Orange, the most important aspect of reconciliation today, which can only be based on the truth.

Audiences were attentive and appreciative and positive feedback keeps rolling in.

The struggle to end the endless wars of today continues.


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