‘Out Now!’: Halstead’s account of Vietnam antiwar activism provides rich lessons for revolutionaries


Fred Halstead: “Out Now! A Participant’s Account of the Movement in the U.S. Against the Vietnam War” (Pathfinder Press, New York) 1978, 1991, 881 pages.

Peter Camejo: “Liberalism, Ultra-leftism, or Mass Action” (Pathfinder Press, New York) 1970, pamphlet.

The U.S. emerged from World War II as the most powerful imperialist country the world had ever seen. American imperialism had unsurpassed military, diplomatic, and economic power, which it used aggressively in every corner of the globe. Its enemy was the world revolution, as rebellions accelerated rapidly after World War II. The U.S. war against Vietnam stands as a particularly grisly example of the application of these powers against an impoverished people trying to escape from colonialism.

Vietnam, along with much of South East Asia, had been colonized by the French since the late 19th century and occupied briefly by the Japanese during World War II. After the Japanese defeat in the war, the French attempted to reassert their colonial regime in Vietnam. But the revolutionary people of Vietnam defeated them in 1954 at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The Vietnamese revolutionary forces, led mainly by the Stalinist-dominated Viet Minh, withdrew from the south of the country, in accord with the dictates of the 1954 Geneva Conference. This allowed the United States to place a corrupt authoritarian regime into power in the south, while the Stalinists set up a deformed workers’ state in the north, with Ho Chi Minh as the head of state.

The United States took over the French role of colonial master in a failed attempt to keep Vietnam under the heel of imperialism. The United States fought a bloody war against the Vietnamese Revolution until they were driven out in 1975. Vietnam is now a free, independent (and thoroughly capitalist) country.

The resilience and combativeness of the Vietnamese people against U.S. imperialism engendered massive solidarity throughout the world. Fred Halstead’s “Out Now!” is a detailed Marxist analysis of the American component of the international movement against the war in Vietnam, from its emergence from the old peace movement of the 1950s until the humiliating defeat suffered by the U.S. military on April 30, 1975, when the North Vietnamese Army took over Saigon and occupied the U.S. Embassy shortly after embassy staff had escaped from its roof in helicopters. “Out Now!” takes the reader from the earliest antiwar activities like teach-ins through demonstrations involving tens of millions of American students, soldiers, and workers.

Fred Halstead in 1968.

Halstead was a member of the Socialist Workers Party and a central leader of a decisive wing of the antiwar movement. The book is based on Halstead’s memory of events and his extensive collection of written material. At over 800 pages, it is a hefty read, but worthwhile for contemporary activists seeking guidance through the tumultuous twists and turns of building a movement with the power to challenge the capitalist class.

“Out Now!” is rich in lessons for revolutionaries, but this review can touch on only a few of the most salient. The reader who carefully works through this book will learn a lot about the importance of democracy in meetings called to plan movement events, the importance of administrative efficiency, the factors that control the ebb and flow of mass movements over time, the value of cordial relations within movements, and much more.

We focus here instead on examining two events of the antiwar movement within the framework provided by Peter Camejo in his speech to the Young Socialist Alliance, June 14, 1970, “Liberalism, Ultraleftism or Mass Action.” Camejo’s speech describes three categories of approaches to building movements, and I will describe these first. I’ll then show how they apply to two important events in the antiwar movement of the 1960s: the melee that took place on the occasion of the Democratic Party convention in Chicago in August 1968, and the massive antiwar demonstration that took place in Washington on April 24, 1971.

Camejo’s three categories

Camejo’s three ways of approaching movement building are: The liberal orientation; the ultra-left approach; and the strategy based on building mass movements that are independent of the capitalist parties. Revolutionary socialists immediately recognize the last of these as our choice, because neither of the first two can mobilize the social and political power to seriously challenge ruling-class policies. But Camejo’s points may not be obvious to many activists.

Halstead shows in detail how the antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s was divided into these categories. The liberals’ approach is superficially obvious at first glance: The Democrats can influence events because they are part of the power structure, so we should work with the Democrats to put the brakes on the ruling class. However, liberals do not understand that capitalist society is organized around opposing class forces.

The capitalists figured out decades ago how to dupe vast portions of American society into believing that we’re just an unorganized mass of people with varying points of view among us, and our problems have come about because the piggiest of our lot have gotten control of the levers of power. Therefore, our task is to elect rational and humane politicians who can put the selfish narcissists and the sycophants in their place. Since we have the best Constitution the world has ever seen, we should keep the faith and work within the current political framework to straighten out whatever mess the bad apples among us have gotten us into. Halstead’s book provides copious illustrations of how that approach was a road to perdition for the antiwar movement, as it has been for all social movements.

The second approach described by Camejo, ultra-leftism, is actually the flip side of the first. Ultra-lefts are rare among the working class, but they’re relatively common among petty bourgeois radicals. Like the liberals, they reject the idea that it’s possible to mobilize workers to challenge imperialist policies. They usually start off as liberals, but they become frustrated when they see that legal, peaceful demonstrations don’t bring about a quick reversal of ruling-class policies. So, they work hard to try to get the attention of the establishment by dramatic means, sometimes called “direct action,” involving small bands of people essentially engaging in political theater.

The third strategy, mass action that is truly independent of capitalist politics, consists of attempts to bring large masses of people into struggle against ruling-class policies. This is the policy that in fact led the antiwar movement to the successes it did attain, and its efficacy is vividly shown by the 1971 demonstration, described later in this essay. The final chapter of “Out Now!”— the “Afterword”—elegantly shows the profound success of this approach in having had a significant effect on imperialist policies and world history.

The Chicago debacle

The first example illustrating Camejo’s categories is the melee that took place on the occasion of the Democratic Party convention in Chicago, the week of Aug., 26, 1968. On Jan. 31, during the Lunar New Year known as Tet in Vietnam, the Vietnamese revolutionary forces mounted a powerful offensive throughout South Vietnam that caught Washington completely off guard. “For months the United States military spokesmen had been telling the American public that there was light at the end of the tunnel” (p 378). Washington had been claiming that the indigenous resistance was negligible and that the only military problem was “aggression” from the North. The Tet offensive exposed these lies and turned massive new sectors of American and world opinion against Washington’s war.

President Johnson faced vociferous opposition wherever he went. Campaigning was impossible, because the press tended to focus on the demonstrators more than the candidate, so he withdrew from the campaign in March. The Democrats sought candidates who would be acceptable to a public that opposed the imperialist war yet not pose a serious challenge to capitalist policies. Eugene McCarthy was the leading “dove” candidate going into the August convention. He had the strong support of the liberal wing of the antiwar movement, and he was quite explicit that his goal was to get the antiwar movement off the streets; he was running to “alleviate … [the] sense of political helplessness and restore to many people a belief in the processes of American politics and of American government” (p 365).

A main focus of discussion within the antiwar movement was whether or not to hold major demonstrations at the Chicago convention. Liberals, who were organized in moderate organizations like Women Strike for Peace and SANE[i], supported the McCarthy campaign and advocated orderly, peaceful demonstrations that were explicitly pro-McCarthy.

Ultra-lefts were organized into a number of groups. The Yippies (Youth International Party), an anarchist group, envisaged bands of thousands of young people running through the streets of Chicago, “forcing the President to bring troops back from Vietnam to keep order in the city” (p 406). Radical pacifists differed from the Yippie types, but they still fit into Camejo’s second category. A leader of this group, David Dellinger, “insisted that mass action be subordinated to individual resistance and confrontation tactics” (p 722/3). He “disparaged mobilizations for ‘immediate withdrawal’ as united fronts on the lowest common denominator” (p 724), despite the fact that getting the U.S. out of Vietnam was the entire goal of the antiwar movement. The liberals, the Yippie types, and the radical pacifists all favored holding demonstrations in Chicago, even after Johnson announced his departure from the race.

Camejo’s third approach, the one centered on building the largest mass mobilizations, was represented by the YSA, the SWP and the Student Mobilization Committee. They had supported the Chicago demonstrations when they were to be focused on opposing Johnson; the president is, after all, legitimately the lightning rod for popular discontent. But they withdrew support for them as soon as Johnson resigned because demonstrations on the occasion of the Democratic Party convention would perforce be seen as attempts to influence the convention to choose a capitalist “dove” candidate.

The turn-out for the demonstrations was relatively small. In the evening of Aug. 25, the Yippies were holding an event of about 1500 people in Lincoln Park, for which they had been refused a permit. The police raided the protest, systematically clubbed people, threw them into the park pond, and sprayed tear gas over a large area. The cops continued to riot over the next several nights, beating and bludgeoning people with clubs indiscriminately, including journalists (p 415). Perhaps the most horrific scene, in front of the Conrad Hilton Hotel the night of Wednesday, Aug. 28, was broadcast world-wide on TV. Police pushed a large group of demonstrators against a large plate-glass window of one of the hotel’s lounges, terrifying the demonstrators and customers in the lounge. Finally, “the window shattered, and screaming men and women tumbled through, some badly cut by jagged glass. … [Cops] burst into the bar, clubbing all those who looked to them like demonstrators” (p. 413). The convention, where these events were unknown, concluded: McCarthy was defeated and the party nominated Hubert Humphrey, a darling of the liberals, Johnson’s vice-president, and an ardent supporter of the imperialist bloodbath in Vietnam. Many conventioneers then returned to their hotels, only to become swept up in the melee around the Hilton” (p 414). In all, about 660 people were arrested, over 1000 injured, and one person was killed.

Although the Chicago Police were responsible for their riots, it must be noted that there was a tragic lack of planning on the part of the demonstration leadership. As Dellinger wrote years later, “We had no sound system capable of reaching the crowd, no plan of action, no training of marshals” (p 414). Nevertheless, “the leadership of the action counted … [the Chicago actions] as a victory” when the Chicago Tribune wrote that “even the TV commentators and the liberal delegates have dubbed this convention city a ‘police state’” (p 416). Halstead points out that it was hardly a victory because as a result, “the antiwar movement itself was in something of a shambles, badly divided, and that part of it which had organized … [the Chicago] action soon entered a prolonged crisis” (p 416).

Lew Jones, a leader of the YSA at that time, reflected that we should see the Chicago debacle as part of the struggle for an effective line forward in the antiwar movement. “Our line says that [we should organize] around two or three simple themes, such as end the war, [and] bring the troops home now” (p 419). This was opposed to Dellinger’s idea that the movement should “get small brigades of youth, confront armed authority, [and] by doing that expose the real nature of the system [in hopes that] masses of people are influenced” (p 419). In light of the Chicago events, it’s hard to see how the ultra-left approach can lead to an American revolution. By contrast, the events of April 24, 1971, demonstrate the revolutionary potential of the mass mobilization approach.

The mass mobilization of April 24, 1971

Chapter 22 of Out Now! describes the antiwar demonstration of April 24, 1971, which gives a flavor of what an American revolution might look like. The action in Washington, D.C., estimated by antiwar organizers to have included well over 500,000 protesters, was the largest demonstration in American history and was organized around the single demand that the United States immediately withdraw from Vietnam. A march in San Francisco on the same day brought out 350,000 or more. There had been strong signals that both civilian and GI opposition to the war was growing. Although President Nixon had ordered a major escalation of the war, “antiwar referenda passed by majorities in the scattered places they were on the ballot” (p 582) in the biennial elections of Nov. 3, 1970.

Protest at the White House, October 1967.

In the days immediately preceding April 24, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War “pitched an encampment on the Mall a few hundred yards from the capital” (p 605), from which they launched an imaginative variety of protests. The Justice Department got a court order against the war vets’ encampment, which was upheld by the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, the vets refused to evacuate: “‘Vets Overrule Supreme Court’ blared the headline in the April 21 Washington Star” (p 606). The Justice Department, recognizing the balance of forces, went back to court the next day and withdrew the order.

The demonstration itself was immense! Not only were the spaces that had been designated for the demonstration overwhelmed, but buses and cars bringing in demonstrators were backed up for 20 miles; uncountable numbers of would-be demonstrators did not reach the site until after the march and rally. The breadth bespoke its revolutionary implications: “Almost every element of the American population had its representation; … older veterans of earlier wars, an all-Black contingent and a Third World section embracing Blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans, Iranians, and Palestinians, each bearing their own banners” against the war (p. 611).

“Tens of thousands of trade unionists marched, their affiliations identified by placards and banners, in many cases defying top union officials. They also bore slogans condemning Nixon’s recently imposed wage freeze. One of the most popular was: ‘Freeze the War, Not Wages.’” There were contingents of Native Americans, womens’ organizations, professional bodies, business organizations, and the list goes on.

Camejo describes how people radicalize: Typically, they become active around one issue, and then others, and then they perceive the interconnectedness among them. Demonstrations like that of April 24 go beyond radicalization; they have a deeply empowering effect on its participants and observers. Demonstrators have a sense of awe when they see mammoth crowds of people, filling broad avenues from curb to curb, backed up as far as the eye can see, with side streets packed with people waiting to join in, and a widespread sense of jubilance. Participants feel that they are part of a powerful historical process that cannot be stopped, that the government officials in their near-by offices are irrelevant.

This sense of empowerment had been building for a long time as the antiwar movement gained strength over the years. That could only have developed if the population had become aware of the movement, and that was due to massive street demonstrations. For demonstrations to reach the necessary proportions, the organizers had to concentrate on the single demand of immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all military forces from Vietnam.

The logic in the preceding paragraphs throws light on an apparent but false paradox. On the one hand, the antiwar movement had been built by focusing on the single issue of Out Now! On the other hand, many of the groups participating in the April 24 demonstration raised issues on their banners proclaiming “their own special concerns, grievances, and demands” (p 611). Gays were especially prominent, and this was significant because it was difficult for LGBTIA+ people to boldly affirm their rights at that time before Stonewall. However, buoyed by the sense of empowerment deriving from the strength of the antiwar movement, gays and other previously silent groups felt emboldened to assert themselves openly and proudly.

The antiwar movement had been riven from its very inception by controversy over whether the movement should adopt a “single issue” or a “multi-issue” approach. As Halstead notes of April 24, “here in gigantic living reality was a practical resolution of that false dilemma” (p 612).

The American ruling class had clearly lost the war on all fronts, although it ground on for four more bloody years. Halstead describes in Chapter 23 the crumbling of U.S. military morale: American soldiers would regularly refuse orders to engage in combat, conspire with revolutionary Vietnamese forces to avoid hostile encounters, and even resort to murdering their commanding officers rather than obey orders.[ii]

Halstead ends his book with an “Afterword,” which is essential reading for revolutionary socialists. Here is an important excerpt, from pages 724/725:

“In 1965 and earlier it was not at all evident that Vietnam would bulk so large in American life and become the overriding issue in its politics. The SWP did not foresee this, but it did not commit the mistake of underrating the war’s importance. It considered that as a revolutionary socialist organization it had an internationalist obligation to do all it could to combat its own government’s attempt to crush a colonial revolution. It was this Leninist guideline that put the SWP on the right track from the beginning. Moreover, in accordance with its orthodox Marxist class-struggle approach, the SWP was oriented from the beginning toward winning sympathy for the antiwar movement among workers and GIs. …

“The SWP upheld the autonomy of the antiwar movement as a mass force. It consistently emphasized the necessity for mass mobilizations as counterposed to the futility of getting sucked into two-party politics or embarking on isolating forays by bands of daring and well-intentioned individuals. This was essentially a class-struggle approach based on direct action by the masses against the regime.”

Top photo: About 500,000 antiwar protesters converged on Washington, D.C., on Nov. 15, 1969.

[i] SANE was a prominent organization representing the peace movement, starting in the late 1950s. It continues to this day as Peace Action. They were major supporters of McCarthy’s presidential campaign.

[ii] For an insightful description of the breadth and effectiveness of antiwar sentiment among active duty GI’s, I recommend the movie “Sir, No Sir,” digitally available from a number of sites as of this writing. Camejo was presumably unaware of the breadth of antiwar sentiment and activities among soldiers when he suggested in his speech that Nixon was refraining from launching a full-scale invasion of Cambodia because of civilian antiwar sentiment; civilian sentiments were certainly a large factor, but antiwar feeling among soldiers, including especially troop mutinies, made a full-scale invasion a military impossibility.


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