Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Anti-War Movements, Now and Then: A 1991 Interview With U.S. Political Prisoner David Gilbert--Part 3

What follows is part 3 of a 1991 interview with jailed former Weather Underground activist David Gilbert. See parts 1-2 below.

(The following interview originally appeared in the June/July 1991 issue of New York City’s Lower East Side alternative newspaper The Shadow )

Q: What about the role of the media?

David Gilbert [DG]: As much as the media functioned as an uncritical cheerleader for the government in the Iraq War, it was even worse in the early stages of the Vietnam War. This statement may seem strange to students because of the now-pervasive myth that the media were staunchly anti-war in the 1960s. But that myth was consciously created to convince the U.S. public that the war in Vietnam was lost because the media and anti-war movement handcuffed the military. They need that myth so that people here don’t see the reality that the U.S. military was defeated by a people fighting for independence. They also use the myth to intimidate the media, which had developed a tad of independence late in the war, back into total lockstep with the government.

This time around the media were much more conscious about burying and downplaying news of anti-war activity. I think in the mid-1960s anti-war activity was somewhat of a novelty. But they learned from that experience that once people saw what was happening, the movement could really grow. So this time around they were much more conscious about suppressing or at least containing that news.

I know what it was like in the early 1960s. I remember the footage of Walter Cronkite cheering the troops on in Vietnam. I remember the many times when the media dutifully suppressed news of illegal, clandestine U.S. military operations in Indochina. But here, I’ll just spell out one particularly striking example.

When President Johnson commenced those February 1965 bombings of North Vietnam, he went on national TV and justified it by citing the 1954 Geneva Accords. He said quite clearly that he was doing it to uphold the Accords because they provided for or guaranteed an independent South Vietnam.

That didn’t fit with my sense of the history, so I went to the international law library and looked up the Accords. They were quite explicit—the division into North and South was in no way a permanent boundary but was only for a temporary regrouping zone. This was to let the French colonial troops get out without a rout. The Accords called for an election to reunify Vietnam in 1956. The U.S. and its client regime blocked the election because their intelligence estimates told them, as later recounted in President Eisenhower’s autobiography, that Ho Chi Minh would win overwhelmingly.

I was amazed. LBJ’s whole justification for this bloody escalation pivoted on a claim that the Accords called for an independent South Vietnam. The Accords in fact said just the opposite. It wasn’t a matter of interpretation; it was very clear, black and white. I was sure that the next day there would be blaring headlines that the president had lied about the Geneva Accords. Instead, it wasn’t mentioned in any establishment media. We made copies of the Geneva Accords and started passing them out by hand on Columbia’s campus.

By 1967-1968, the media began presenting some more critical material for two reasons. First, the drain of the war on U.S. power and prestige produced a split in the ruling class with significant sectors now wanting the U.S. to get out before it was further weakened and discredited. Second, there was a big enough underground alternative press to potentially embarrass established media for too blatantly suppressing certain information. At its height, the alternative press had four million readers—and it too became an object of an FBI-led COINTELPRO campaign to destroy it. For example, the established media never showed pictures of children who had been napalmed until Ramparts broke that open and created a sensation.

In the context of a losing war, the anti-war movement played a secondary but still important role. We helped legitimize the alternative of getting out. We helped shorten the range of brutal escalations that wouldn’t have changed the outcome but would have cost even more Vietnamese and U.S. lives. But the main brake on the air war was the heavy losses of U.S. planes to Vietnamese anti-aircraft fire. The main barrier to the “nuclear option” was fear of Soviet and/or Chinese response.

Q: What about the charges that the anti-war movement vilified the troops returning from Vietnam?

DG: Honestly, when I first heard reports of people vilifying troops returning from Vietnam, I thought it was a pure propaganda creation. I just never heard anything like that happening in our sectors of the anti-war movement. We realized that GI’s—disproportionately Black, Latino, and poor—were being used as cannon fodder for the rich man’s war. GI organizing became an important part of the anti-war movement. Of course, we urged GI’s not to kill, and we did condemn war crimes. But it was those who ran the war who were the enemy, and they were the ones victimizing the GI’s.

Nonetheless, I’ve now met a number of Vietnam vets who were pelted with fruit or cursed or spat upon when they returned, and that is wrong. My guess is that this came from sectors of the population that became disgusted with the war but, unlike the active anti-war movement, didn’t have a clear analysis of who was responsible for the war.

Q: Were you surprised that the U.S. establishment was willing to slaughter so many Iraqis to accomplish its political objectives?

DG: No. After studying its international and domestic actions over the years, I wasn’t at all surprised. I was surprised and chagrined, however, to see the U.S. public so readily manipulated into colossal callousness about Iraqi lives.

(end of part 3)

To view part 2 of a video of a 1998 interview with David Gilbert, you can click on the following link:

Next: The Anti-War Movements, Now and Then: A 1991 Interview With U.S. Political Prisoner David Gilbert—Part 4