The Campaign to Confront Nixon and End the War in Indochina

Now that Trump has been installed as President, many Americans are turning to history for inspiration in resisting his agenda. I suggest that a little-known group, the Indochina Peace campaign, an antiwar organization founded by Tom Hayden, actress and activist Jane Fonda, and others may offer a model and strategy. As much of the work on the 1960s social movements suggests, the peace movement faltered as the New Left split during the late 1960s, yet the IPC thrived by exploiting Nixon’s Watergate scandal.1 The organization built a left-liberal coalition of antiwar groups, which successfully pushed Congress to cut U.S. military and financial support for South Vietnam.

Building upon the mass antiwar mobilizations of the late-1960s and through President Richard Nixon’s first term, antiwar activists in the Midwest and Northeast organized a left-liberal coalition of peace organizations to stop the war. The campaign to end the war comprised a mix of radical and progressive chapters, and a range of leftist organizations that included liberals and leftists such as the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.2

Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, and others formed the Indochina Peace Campaign in late 1972 after a speaking tour in midwestern states in order to rally middle America against the war in Indochina and to stop Nixon’s reelection.3 After Nixon’s landslide victory against George McGovern, activists established IPC branches in battleground states such as Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. Cities in New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts also had IPC chapters. The organization’s headquarters, also known as the Resource Center, was located in Santa Monica, California. While each chapter’s politics conformed to local political culture, they still took strategic cues from the Resource Center. The Resource Center distributed IPC’s bi-monthly newspaper, Focal Point, and other organizational publications.

Original tapebox for KPFT Radio interview with Jane Fonda, Bob Chenowith, a POW in North Vietnam for five years, and Jean-Pierre Debris, French school teacher arrested in South Vietnam for distributing leaflets and jailed for 2.5 years. (Pacifica Archive and Archive.org)

The group was self-conscious about the effort being a “campaign,” which is a period of concentrated political activity in an effort to achieve a specific goal. The campaign linked grassroots organizing, mass mobilization, political education, and lobbying, which aimed to force Congress to halt U.S. military and financial support of Nguyễn Văn Thiệu’s government in South Vietnam. The IPC and the UC sought to do this by exploiting the Watergate revelations of Nixon’s surveillance regime. The campaign to end the war during the 1970s represented a left-wing attempt to stop what liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger deemed in 1973 as the “imperial presidency.”4

Activists thought the Vietnam and Cold Wars corrupted the executive branch of the federal government. Even if they expressed different politics, the IPC saw presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon as bound by Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson was forced to escalate the war while trying to maintain domestic spending. Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers further exposed the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam since 1945.

In June 1972, members of President Richard Nixon’s Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP) attempted to break into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters in the Watergate Hotel to steal Democratic Party documents and install wiretaps. However, the men were caught and arrested. The attempted burglary, as well as the Nixon administration’s cover-up effort, not only exposed Nixon’s willingness to use “dirty tricks,” but the resulting investigations by both Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, as well as Congress, exposed Nixon’s surveillance operations against his political opponents, including Ellsberg and the rest of the antiwar left. It also uncovered Nixon’s willingness to intimidate and punish political opponents.

For antiwar activists, Watergate also exposed a corrupt and overly powerful executive branch. The resulting constitutional crisis also offered the movement a target — Nixon and the executive branch — and a pressure point — Congress. Watergate also supplied an opportunity to highlight the connections between Watergate and the war in Indochina. Tom Hayden wrote in his notes,

Then came Watergate, a turning point in American history and in our personal lives as well. The year-long Watergate crisis gave us the opportunity to end the Indochina war, for if the Executive branch was weak, preoccupied and without credibility, it was more possible to pressure Congress to seize the opportunity to cut off funding for that Executive branch’s immoral and illegal war. Not only that, it was possible to foresee a new balance in Congress — both anti-Nixon and anti-war — emerging by the time of the 1974 elections … .5

Rather than focusing on Nixon’s personal preoccupations with maintaining power, Hayden took a structural approach to analyzing Watergate and how the peace movement could end the war. Hayden’s analysis served as the basis for the IPC’s and UC’s strategy.

The campaign to end the war began in the Fall of 1973. Fonda, Hayden, singer and activist Holly Near, former POW Bob Chenowith, and former Saigon political prisoner Jean-Pierre Debris embarked on a 20-city tour to organize a popular front against the war. The International Days of Concern in September helped raise the issue among the public and put added pressure on Nixon.

A Peoples Peace Treaty- Indochina Peace Campaign Flyer with Attached Letter
(Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh)

Soon after, the IPC, along with twenty other peace organizations, assembled in Germantown, Ohio to devise their strategy and objectives. They decided that they would continue trying to build popular opposition to the war through grassroots organizing, but they would also combine that with congressional lobbying. The campaign agreed to take advantage of the “Watergate opportunity.” They also agreed to three goals: to continue to raise consciousness about US foreign policy and what they viewed as Thiệu’s brutal regime, to build a popular movement against U.S. involvement in Indochina, and to pressure Congress into cutting military and economic aid.6

To help concentrate their organizing efforts, the campaign devised their Indochina Peace Resolution, which called for the U.S. to stop military involvement, uphold the 1973 Paris peace treaty between North and South Vietnam and the U.S., and to end U.S. aid for police and prisons in South Vietnam.7 The resolution served as an educational tool for canvassers. The goal for the organizers was to get community, labor, civic, labor, women’s, and other activist organizations to endorse the pledge. Most importantly, the resolution served as a means for the organizers to gain access to lawmakers in local, state, and federal government.8

The campaign scored many victories between the fall of 1973 and the end of the war in April 1975. Members of the Cleveland IPC branch persuaded four congressmen to endorse the resolution. Left-wing U.S. Representative Ronald Dellums (CA) introduced the campaign’s resolution to the Committee of Foreign Affairs in January 1974.9 Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden secured endorsements from several members of congress after Dellums introduced the resolution as a bill. The campaign’s organizing efforts helped lay the groundwork for the House of Representatives’ rejection of Nixon’s request for more funding that April.

The House voted 177 to 154 against providing more aid to South Vietnam. Washington Post columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak not only slammed the administration for its “bungled response,” but credited the Campaign’s organizing efforts. They wrote: “This dovetails with the campaign laid out last October when veteran radical Tom Hayden invited 260 antiwar activists to Germantown, Ohio for a strategy session. The propaganda line set forth then have [sic] vigorously relayed on Capitol Hill; the Thiệu government, not Hanoi, is the aggressor and would collapse without provocation should the United States withdraw aid.”10

The campaign secured another victory days before Nixon’s resignation. Congress passed the Flynt-Giaimo-Conte amendment that cut U.S. war aid further. Richard Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. The momentum of the war had come to a screeching halt. Thiệu’s regime began to suffer losses. The war would end that summer.

Pip R. Lagenta with his “Impeach Nixon” t-shirt and the historic “Nixon Resigns” newspaper headline. This photo was taken a year or two after Nixon actually resigned. The t-shirt was starting to get too small. The San Francisco Chronicle newspaper is from August 9, 1974. (Lagenta/Flickr | CC BY 2.0)

The IPC successfully mobilized a broad consensus against the war that included antiwar progressives, Democrats, disaffected Republicans, and other Americans who agreed that the war had gone on too long. Activists in IPC organizations maintained their radical, anti-imperialist, analysis of U.S. foreign policy while exploiting Watergate. The controversy and fledging US foreign policy created a serious political crisis that allowed progressives to pressure Congress and articulate structural critiques of the executive branch of government that allowed for U.S.’s involvement in Indochina under false pretenses.

It is tempting to point to the IPC as a model for organizing in the Trump era. Like Nixon and Watergate, IPC’s organizing illustrates how organizers and protesters confronting Trump will have to be opportunistic. The political autopsy of Nixon’s administration would feature the president’s desires to spy on his political enemies, including antiwar protesters, and his willingness to continue U.S. military intervention in Indochina.

With the many questions swirling around Trump’s unreleased tax returns, conflicts of interests, cabinet nominations, and willingness to publicly criticize private citizens, as well as civil rights legends like John Lewis, there is a good chance the President could present another opportunity for the Left to build a successful coalition. However, the IPC case also illustrates the need for left-wing activists, progressives, and Democrats to leverage Trump’s mistakes into legislative gains in the 2018 midterms. Only then, like the IPC, could leftists deliver a fatal blow to Trump’s presidency.

Further Reading

DeBenedetti, Charles. An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990.

Hall, Simon. Rethinking the American Anti-War Movement. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Hershberger, Mary. Jane Fonda’s Words of Politics and Passion. New York: The New Press, 2006.

Notes

  1. Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao, and Che (New York: Verso, 2002); Eli Zaretsky, Why America Needs a Left: A Historical Argument (Cambridge, MA: Polity, 2012). Return to text.
  2. Indochina Peace Campaign, “Indochina Conference Report, October 26-28, 1973,” Box 12, Folder 263. James K. Miller Papers, Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, OH. Return to text.
  3. Tom Hayden, The Indochina Peace Campaign: A Working Paper (Santa Monica: Indochina Peace Campaign, 1973). Return to text.
  4. Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Imperial Presidency (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973). Return to text.
  5. Tom Hayden, “Untitled Notes,” Box 7, Folder — Hayden 1960s-1970s, Writings, Untitled Misc Articles and Notes, 4, Tom Hayden Papers, Joseph A. Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI. Return to text.
  6. “A Strategy to End the War,” Focal Point, October 1-15, 1973. Return to text.
  7. Indochina Peace Campaign, “1974 Indochina Resolution,” Ohio Newsletter, Vol. II, No. 1, January 1974. Return to text.
  8. “Indochina Peace Campaign’s winning ‘congressional strategy,’” The Indochina Peace Campaign, January 1975. Return to text.
  9. Congressional Record, January 24, 1974. Return to text.
  10. Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, “The New Crisis in Vietnam,” Boston Globe, April 10, 1974. Return to text.

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