Philip S. Foner, US Labor and the Vietnam War
(NY: International Publishers) 1989
Part 1 of a review by Jacqueline R. Smetak
Whether we are old enough to remember the Vietnam war or not, we all see the images--of the soldiers, of the victims of the war, of those who opposed it. Absent from the pictures are working people who, if they appear, seem strange and alien creatures--the young construction worker captured in a New York Times photo as he attacked a wheelchair-bound antiwar veteran with an American flag, or perhaps those sad and foolish people at the end of The Deer Hunter singing their sad and foolish little patriotic song. American working people, although it was they and their sons and husbands and brothers who were sent off to fight the war, are dim and silent in our memories. Philip Foner, Emeritus Professor, Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, old time radical and respected Labor historian, wrote his book to fill in some gaps and set some records straight. US Labor and the Vietnam War, barely 150 pages, doesn't and can't, tell the whole story. It exists as an outline and a collection of documents; a place to start with what people in Labor did. It doesn't fully answer the why, and those who are curious will have to search further. But Foner is a teacher, and like all good teachers, he gives us a start. The finish we will have to do ourselves.
The story of Labor and the Vietnam war exists with the larger context of the story of American radicalism. In the 1960s, a significant number of American Leftists gave up on the revolutionary potential of working class people. Following the lead of Herbert Marcuse, they shifted their attention to students. Marx had defined revolutionary potential not in terms of attitude or ideology or even specific activities, but in terms of the relationship of a particular class to the means of production. The more essential a class was to production, the more inherently revolutionary this class would be. In simple terms, if all the lawyers walk, it's an inconvenience. If the line workers walk, everything shuts down.
In the 1930s, the revolutionary potential of the working class was fairly obvious, widely understood, and readily accepted. Labor unions went from near extinction to being a political force that had to be reckoned with, and the New Deal so thoroughly incorporated the radical agenda that the Communist Party USA, with an estimated membership of over 80,000, endorsed New Deal programs with unbounded enthusiasm. Three decades later, working class people were regarded by many radicals as rock-headed bigots solidly in support of a hopelessly racist and imperialist system. As Carl Oglesby stated it in 1969:
Indeed, how could one convince the workers to rise up and overthrow a system which was benefiting them in real and material ways? The dominant angst of the era shifted from a proletarian angst--"Brother, can you spare a dime?"--to an angst afflicting the middle and upper middle classes and the intelligentsia. Radicals were set adrift and when the civil rights movement became the dominant cause, what progressives saw on the other side were white workers. When the Vietnam war heated up, what they saw again were white workers opposing them.
The biggest single factor in the latter perception was AFL-CIO president George Meany's support for Lyndon Johnson and his war policies. Labor spoke with a monolithic voice. Worse, Labor spoke with a Neanderthal voice. In May of 1965, Meany declared that the AFL-CIO would support the war in Vietnam "no matter what the academic do-gooders may say, no matter what the apostles of appeasement may say." He further argued that those who criticized the war were "victims of Communist propaganda." (20-21) From organized Labor, no other voice was audible.
But other voices should have been audible. According to polling information from the late 1960s, most Americans were highly ambivalent abut the War and among working class Americans, the symptoms of war weariness were particularly acute. Working class people should have, therefore, joined the peace movement in droves, but they didn't. Citing this polling information, Milton Rosenberg, Sidney Verba, and Philip Converse pointed out in 1970 that among white male union members, twenty-seven percent were "convinced hawks," that is, "people who both refuse to say we made a mistake in getting into Vietnam and feel we should now escalate the war." However, seventeen percent were "convinced doves," that is, people who "feel we did make a mistake and now prefer to pull the troops out." (77) Therefore, although these "doves" were clearly outnumbered, as one out of five white male union members, they should have made some sound loud enough to be heard.
It was the opinion of Rosenberg, Verba and Converse that cultural differences between workers and peace activists accounted for, at least in part, this silence since these differences made communication between these groups, at best, difficult. Although workers, because of their ambivalence and because they were bearing a disproportionate share of the cost, were predisposed to support an end to the war, they were not particularly eager to join forces with peace activists. Rosenberg, Verba and Converse comment:
The origins of this baiting reach further back than the war, and one could argue that it all started with the Massachusetts Bay Colony and John Winthrop's notion that the Puritans were the Chosen People. The more immediate source of the problem, however, was American pacifism as it developed following World War II. During the war, pacifists had been unable to go beyond support for conscientious objectors and, after that war, found themselves almost totally isolated. Maurice Issermann reports that the pacifist movement split between those who wanted to engage in active resistance and those who felt that "'cultural and personal areas' were really more important than... political and economic concerns." (136) The peace movement thus turned inward, limiting itself to bearing witness. In 1960, when pacifists attempted a change in strategy and tried to combine bearing witness with active resistance in a futile effort to close down the shipyards at New London and Groton, Connecticut, where Polaris submarines were being built, workers attacked them. Issermann comments:
Issermann called this an "unfortunate legacy of the New England moral reform tradition."
Of course, class differences had caused problems for other efforts to promote change, most notably the abolitionist and the suffragist movements, and some of the same factors were operating in the case of the Vietnam antiwar movement. As Charles DeBeneditti notes, the organized opposition to the war came "mainly from middle-class, college-educated whites, materially comfortable and motivated by largely moral considerations." These people were also "tolerant of changes in popular culture, sexual mores, and race relations":
Further, indicates DeBeneditti, these potential doves may have been "alienated by qualities they associated with militant radicals who, although not representative, got much media exposure." (394)
Although the media was credited with increasing public awareness and changing public perceptions of the war, thus helping to bring it to an end, what actually happened was somewhat different. According to William Hammond in Public Affairs: The Military and the Media, 1962-1968, the problem with the public perception of the war lay not with the supposedly uncooperative press, but with President Johnson's own public relations strategy:
Although the press "dutifully repeated every one of the president's assertions.... each official statement of optimism about the war seemed to have a pessimistic counterpart and each statistic showing progress an equally persuasive opposite." (386) What turned the public against the war "was not news coverage but casualties." Public support "dropped inexorably by 15 percentage points whenever total U.S. casualties increased by a factor of ten." (387)
Similarly, the news media did not undercut the war effort by presenting antiwar activists in a positive light. Todd Gitlin, in The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left, argues that the supposedly "typical" protester was actually a media construct:
As Michael Parenti notes, "protesters are portrayed as a deviant and unrepresentative sample of the American people... marginalized groups presumably lacking in credible politics," portrayed as "violent and irrational, or linked to groups thought to be violent, or in some way threatening or disloyal." (100) This alone would make working class Americans, themselves marginalized and anxious about that status, hesitant to identify themselves as peace activists. In turn, as DeBeneditti reports, "although radicals tended to romanticize blacks and poor whites, for the most part working-class Americans were regarded as inert and inaccessible." (394)
In other words, a peace coalition which would have included large numbers of working class people was rendered virtually impossible by mutual distrust. In part, this distrust was created and exacerbated by each side's respective reference groups. DeBeneditti states, "According to contemporary opinion analysts, most people responded to the Vietnam War as they did to other foreign policy developments--not out of a knowledge of the situation, but rather in response to cues issued by respected reference groups... political parties or religious and social affiliations." (395) Although American radicals had identified rather strongly with working class people for several decades--hence the persistent tendency to romanticize them--the McCarthy Purges had made radical identification with the working class and working class identification with radicalism risky for both groups since such an identification signified a Marxist Leninist orientation. Because the 1956 exposure of the horrors of Stalinism had thoroughly discredited the Communist Party USA, since the early 1930s the dominant group on the American Left, the tiny Socialist Workers Party remained as virtually the only radical group with both the desire and the wherewithal to draw workers into the peace movement. DeBeneditti notes that SWP did have some success in this regard and a detailed account of the Party's participation in the antiwar movement may be found in Fred Halstead's Out Now! A Participant's Account of the American Movement Against the Vietnam War.
Halstead read the situation a bit differently than did some of the others. He did not blame radical insensitivity to worker sensibilities for the chasm which existed between Labor and peace activists. Rather, he placed primary responsibility squarely on the shoulders of AFL-CIO leadership. Halstead argued that the "AFL-CIO's 'obsession with anticommunism' had led it into 'open collaboration' with the most right-wing, antiunion agencies 'both at home and abroad.'" (363) Although a serious rift had developed between AFL-CIO President George Meany and UAW President Walther Reuther over the AFL-CIO's "blind obedience to the State Department and its associations with the CIA... the top UAW leaders never laid it out before the rank and file." (362-363) Halstead felt that if UAW leadership had been willing to take on George Meany, the antiwar movement would have developed in a very different direction:
This the leadership was not willing to do because their own political power had, since World War II, depended on their ability to control the rank and file to prevent strikes and excessive worker demands. Tom Geoghegan in Which Side Are You On? Trying to Be for Labor When It's Flat on It's Back, Gary Gerstle in Working-Class Americanism: The Politics of Labor in a Textile City, 1914-1960, and George Lipsitz in Class and Culture in Cold War America: "A Rainbow at Midnight," deal with this in some detail. In essence, the undemocratic bureaucracy which came to characterize American labor unions was the result of government efforts to control the labor force in order to fight the Second World War. This control continued after the war, maintained by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and by the anticommunist McCarthy era purges. Lipsitz notes:
Thus, another way to read the Vietnam war situation vis à vis Labor is that antiwar labor leaders could not have done more than they did no matter how much they may have wanted to. In spite of Halstead's assertion that these people had the resources, their access to these resources was blocked by political and institutional factors.
This is essentially the position taken by Philip Foner in U.S. Labor and the Viet-Nam War. Although American Labor had a history of opposing war and had vehemently condemned the Spanish-American war, criticized President Wilson's intervention in Mexico in 1916, and initially opposed American involvement in World War I, by 1917 the AFL, under the leadership of Samuel Gompers, had endorsed the idea that the United States should join that conflict, and issued a statement which said in part that the AFL would "offer our services to our country in every field of activity to defend, safeguard and preserve the Republic of the United States against its enemies." (3) The AFL also supported Wilson's policies regarding the Soviet Union, supporting the Kerensky government and opposing the Bolsheviks. This would continue unabated through the 1920s and 1930s.
However, notes Foner, "large and important sections of the American labor movement enthusiastically supported the Bolshevik Revolution, and bitterly opposed Wilson's interventionist policy." (3) When the CIO was established in 1935, "new and large sections of the labor movement asserted themselves in a progressive manner in the field of foreign policy." (4) but by 1949, the CIO was firmly behind the policies of the Cold War. In 1955, the AFL and CIO merged with Jay Loveston, a vociferous anticommunist, in charge of the International Affairs Department.
Loveston is an interesting study in and of himself, although Foner doesn't talk much about his past. Born in 1898, Loveston joined the Socialist Party while a student at City College of New York. He soon emerged as an articulate defender of the Bolshevik Revolution, supporting an extreme left wing faction of the Socialist Party which favored "underground" organization. By the end of the twenties, he had moved to the right within the American Communist movement, espousing "American Exceptionalism," and supporting Nikolai Bukharin's "Right" policies within the Comintern. In 1929 this, and his love of factionalist infighting, led to his expulsion from the Communist Party USA. He took a few hundred others with him to form the Communist Party Opposition. In 1941 he dissolved this group, by that time renamed the International Labor League of America, and joined the AFL's Free Trade Union Committee. When the AFL and CIO merged, this became the International Affairs Department. There, Loveston worked closely with both the State Department and the CIA. According to Paul Buhle, Loveston was "the personal architect of interventionist trade union policy" and "facilitated the entanglement of the American 'New Right' and the AFL-CIO leadership." (437). For Loveston, a veteran of American Marxist-Leninist factionalism, opposition to Stalinist communism was not mere opportunism. For him, it was personal.
Although anti-Stalinism had long been a legitimate position to take, as Alan Wald notes, the term "eventually became a catchall slogan in the United States to rally together diverse elements against radical social change." (367) Purging Communists from American unions was not done to save American workers from the horrors of totalitarianism, but, as Lipsitz argues, to increase "collaboration between unions and employers in the name of industrial peace." (17) It also guaranteed that labor unions, no matter what their members might have wanted, would support government foreign policy. Initially it seemed that this support benefited union members. Labor leaders were anxious to cooperate not only because such cooperation increased their own power, but also because such cooperation offered a solution to the specter of rising unemployment. Although the economy in the early 1960s was booming, it was not, as stated in the AFL-CIO American Federationist (October 1962), "generating the number of jobs needed to meet the nation's requirements." (Foner: 13). To solve this problem, unions demanded shorter hours and more defense spending. Thus, the Vietnam war, so long as the body count remained low, could be seen, and was seen, as a positive benefit. By 1970, however, the economic burden the war was imposing on working class Americans was outstripping the economic benefits. As Foner comments:
Voicing Labor frustration, a full-page ad appeared in the Washington Post on 25 February 1970. It said, in part: "As long as we are in Vietnam we will have insufficient housing, education and health care. Our cities will rot." (Foner: 91).
But even by 1970 when, according to polling data, over eighty percent of American people wanted out of the war, the voices of dissent within organized labor were still in the minority. Disagreement over the war had so split the labor movement that in 1972, the AFL-CIO refused to endorse any candidate for president. In spite of strong opposition to Nixon, George Meany issued the rather disingenuous statement that the AFL-CIO had never been "motivated by political partisanship.... We are neither the property nor the proprietor of any political party, and we have never deviated from this policy." (Foner: 145) However, individual unions did, on their own, endorse. Over twenty-five unions, including the UAW, AFSCME, the Newspaper Guild, the Transport Workers Union, and ILGWU, endorsed McGovern, and a handful, most notably the Teamsters (Foner notes evidence of a payoff since Nixon had pardoned imprisoned Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa the previous year), went for Nixon.
This scattering of what had previously been virtually unanimous support for Democratic candidates had been a long time in coming and strong disagreement over foreign policy was a major factor. Foner wrote U.S. Labor and the Viet-Nam War in order to dispel stereotypes, to assure people that "Meany and the AFL-CIO Executive Council did not represent the entire labor movement." (147) In fact, voices of dissent, however faint, could be heard early on. In October of 1962, for example, William H. Ryan of the International Machinists Union testified before a House Subcommittee that machinists felt that "government defense contracts subjected them to the whims of the Pentagon and that there was more reliability in civilian employment than in jobs tied to war production." (13) Union members started to voice opposition to the Vietnam war early in 1965. The first union to come out against the war was Local 1199, Drug and Hospital Employees Union, in a telegram sent to President Johnson on 24 February 1965. In May of 1965, the Negro American Labor Council adopted a World Peace Resolution, and on May 9, the Missouri Teamster carried an editorial criticizing Johnson's war policies. Others followed but strenuous opposition was not possible. Meany was too powerful and could retaliate against antiwar unions in inter-union disputes. Also, Labor had grown overly dependent on the Democratic Party. ILGWU President Harry Bridges, a long time radical activist, put the matter most succinctly:
As Bridges was well aware, there was no such movement.