Revolutionary youth held first protest of Vietnam War

Center, Deirdre Griswold in a protest against the Vietnam war
in the late 1960s after the mass anti-war movement had risen.

When a fledgling youth organization goes out and organizes one of its first demonstrations, it may not realize until later that it was planting the seeds of something that would grow to become a history-changing force.

Back in August 1962, those of us in Workers World Party, who were quite young at the time, had been keeping an eye on what the Pentagon was doing in the far-off country of Vietnam.

We had already formed a revolutionary youth group earlier that year to protest the head of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell, who was scheduled to speak at a campus in New York City. He canceled when 1,000 people, from high school students to concentration camp survivors, picketed the school.

But along with the rise of ultra-right groups like the Nazis, which opposed the Kennedy administration for various reasons, we saw something even more dangerous happening: the state-sanctioned buildup for a war against a people who had defeated French colonialism under the leadership of a popular Communist movement, but were still having to fight to liberate the southern half of their country. South Vietnam had a puppet government whose president, Ngo Dinh Diem, after being handpicked by U.S. strategists, invited in the Pentagon.

YAWF calls historic protest

When Youth Against War & Fascism set up a picket line in midtown Manhattan on Aug. 2, 1962, we hoped to alert the progressive forces to the danger of the government sending military “advisers” to Vietnam. They were not supposed to be there in any combat role — there had been no vote in Congress to authorize a military action. But U.S. soldiers were already dying in Vietnam.

What we didn’t fully realize at the time was that this was the first protest against the Vietnam War to take place in the U.S. We only got the full measure of what we had accomplished when we read a message, printed in the National Guardian, from Ho Chi Minh, the leader of Vietnam’s long liberation struggle and president of the Socialist Republic of North Vietnam.

He thanked YAWF by name for the demonstration and urged us to continue the struggle. That gave us an even greater sense of responsibility.

YAWF: ‘the cutting edge of the New Left’

The Vietnam War was the last one in which hundreds of thousands were drafted to fight and die in the interests of U.S. imperialism. And for good reason. The war eventually became so unpopular at home that the very stability of the system was called into question.

The war laid bare all the ugly features of imperialism. Most explosive was its racism toward not only the Vietnamese people but also Black and Brown soldiers from the U.S., who were sent in disproportionate numbers to the front lines. As anti-war consciousness and the struggle against racist oppression grew inside the U.S., so did repression at home. The secret COINTELPRO operation targeted groups like the Black Panthers and the Young Lords for subversion and outright murder.

YAWF insisted that the anti-war movement support these courageous organizations, and everywhere raised the banner “Stop the war against Black America.”

By 1967, YAWF was in touch with many anti-war GIs who wanted to fight the racism, exploitation and imperialist objectives of the military. It helped them form a union of soldiers, sailors, and airmen and -women whose 10-point program was anti-racist, anti-sexist, pro-worker and thoroughly anti-imperialist. The American Servicemen’s Union grew to 30,000 members stationed all over the globe.

YAWF became what African-American journalist William Worthy called “the cutting edge of the New Left,” in a feature article he wrote for the Boston Globe magazine. Worthy was famous for having won his passport back after he sued the State Department for taking it away when he made a visit to revolutionary Cuba. (Phil Ochs wrote a protest song about him: “The Ballad of William Worthy.”)

The Vietnamese people pledged to fight for 100 years if that’s what it took to liberate their country from foreign domination. YAWF recognized that this incredible heroism of a small country against the most powerful military machine on Earth reflected the determination to defend the profound social changes that their socialist revolution had brought to the liberated territory.

Struggle for socialism

Socialism is not merely a moral movement to change people’s way of thinking. It is at bottom a struggle of the working class, allied with all oppressed peoples, to break the stranglehold of the ruling class over the vast means of production that the workers have built but cannot own under capitalism. It is a global struggle because capitalism is global and moves from country to country in quest of greater profits — while restricting the movement of workers under reactionary immigration laws.

Many youth were won over to the struggle for socialism in the 1960s. At that time, the capitalist government of the U.S. enacted many reforms — programs to alleviate poverty, an end to segregation — hoping to pursue its global ambitions without opposition at home. While it was a time of great struggle, the organized labor movement was largely absent, with a few notable exceptions.

Today, the effects of capitalist globalization have come full circle, with workers in the U.S. being forced into competition with workers all over the globe. The tremendous technological development that has given U.S. imperialism such an edge in both the competition for markets and the projection of its military power has now resulted in an unending crisis of overproduction — too many goods for too few buyers — and long-term unemployment. Wages are being cut, benefits and social programs eliminated, and poverty is on the rise.

The same is true in Europe and most of the globe.

Moreover, while there is no longer a draft in the U.S., high unemployment provides a steady flow of “volunteers” to fuel the military machine, as the wars to recolonize the world continue under both Republicans and Democrats.

Fifty years ago, we helped start a movement. Today, a new movement is being born out of all the struggles generated by this decaying, repressive society. As before, the youth — audacious, full of energy and love for the struggle — are in the forefront. But this time the multinational working class, which Marx called the “grave diggers” of capitalism, will be central to its outcome.

Griswold, a founding member of Workers World Party and a leader in Youth Against War & Fascism, participated in the Aug. 2, 1962, protest.

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