The People Make the Peace: Lessons from the Vietnam Antiwar Movement

51BzUlgI-uL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Edited by KarĂ­n Aguilar-San Juan and Frank Joyce. Just World Books, 2015. 268 pages. $23.99/paperback; $9.99/eBook.

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On June 5, 1969, I was arrested along with 12 other Quakers while sitting on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. We were protesting the war in Vietnam by reading from the Congressional Record the names of the war dead.

This was just one of the hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of antiwar demonstrations in which Friends participated during the course of the war (ca. 1955 to 1975). Along with many others, Friends provided leadership and nonviolence training for large demonstrations, such as the rally that brought 600,000 protesters to Washington in November 1969. Friends created our own distinctive antiwar groups, like AQAG (A Quaker Action Group), and supported the wide-ranging peace education efforts of American Friends Service Committee. In many ways, Friends discovered how to express our abhorrence of war, our commitment to nonviolence, and our holding of our ancient-but-ever-relevant peace testimony.

Hundreds of thousands of other Americans (students, veterans, celebrities, etc.) created the prodigious resistance and outcry that—combined with the almost unbelievable sacrifice of the Vietnamese people—finally brought the war to an end.

As author and activist Todd Gitlin wrote, “The American movement against the Vietnam War was the largest, most complex, and most effective antiwar movement in history.”

Do you take some satisfaction, not to say pride, in the contribution Friends made to “the largest, most complex, and most effective antiwar movement in history”? I certainly do. There’s no resting on our laurels, of course: many more challenges face us (think of “global scorching”). But, as is said colloquially, “We done good.”

Hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written about the Vietnam War. However, one important aspect of the story has been, if not completely neglected, at least not yet covered in depth. That is the story of those peace diplomats who risked both the hostility of the U.S. government and even their own lives to travel to Vietnam right in the midst of the shooting war. Many of them were leaders in the American antiwar movement, several with close ties to Friends.

The People Make the Peace goes a long way toward overcoming that neglect. This book depicts vividly the danger and difficulty of the peace ambassadors’ journeys, such as having to dive into a roadside ditch to hide from a low-flying American jet on a bombing run or crouching in a basement while just outside South Vietnamese soldiers with American-made M16s battled North Vietnamese guerrillas with Russian-made AK-47s.

As a sometime community organizer, I was fascinated to get a behind-the-scenes peek at how the journey was organized: the personalities, the phone calls, the meetings, and the outreach to find participants willing to overcome their fears and undertake such a dramatic and potentially dangerous venture.

The book tugs at our consciences by pointing out that although most Americans have forgotten about the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese people still live with its grim and often horrifying consequences. For example, thousands of birth defects still occur from the ongoing effect of spraying millions of acres of Vietnamese jungles with Agent Orange decades ago. That American toxin still contaminates ponds and streams where fish and animals swim and from which people must get their drinking water.

This book not only tells the story of the direct peacemaking journeys. The authors also reflect on the significance of this people-to-people diplomacy and the lessons we might learn from it, such as how to end our current state of perpetual war. The profound and beautifully written chapter by Rennie Davis, “Seeing Viet Nam with My Own Eyes,” is by itself well worth the price of the book.

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1 thought on “The People Make the Peace: Lessons from the Vietnam Antiwar Movement

  1. Remarkable. I knew some of the people involved. I spent some time with AQAG and with the WRL in 1971. Exciting times. Even then, Friends made links between militarism, capitalism and environmental (green) issues; but the last-mentioned has grown in importance and visibility ever since.

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