Whether or not Captain Herrick knew about the South Vietnamese commando raids, the administration knew very well that the North Vietnamese attack on the Maddox was provoked by these raids. At a National Security Council meeting in which the events of August 2 were reviewed, CIA director John McCone explained that the North Vietnamese “are reacting defensively to our attacks on the off-shore islands. They are responding out of pride and on the basis of defense considerations.” That understanding was never shared with the public. The U.S. had thrown the first punch and North Vietnam had punched back, without effect; but the public was led to believe that North Vietnam had attacked the strongest nation on earth without provocation.
The strength of the movement lay in its grassroots authenticity, creativity, and overall tenacity. People joined local peace organizations, committees, and study groups, exchanged information and opinions, wrote to legislators and newspaper editors, arranged educational programs, placed ads in newspapers, set up draft counseling centers, worked in election campaigns, lobbied legislators, boycotted products of Dow Chemical (maker of napalm), organized vigils, protests, guerrilla theater, and prayer services, engaged in civil disobedience actions, and boarded buses for national demonstrations. What could not be done at the local level was to create a sense of movement identity and momentum. In lieu of national leadership, coordinated national demonstrations served this function. Organized by a succession of coalitions, mass demonstrations of 100,000 or more people were held semi-annually from the spring of 1967 through the spring of 1971.
Stathis N. Kalyves and Matthew Adam Kocher, “How ‘Free’ is Free Riding in Civil Wars? Violence, Insurgency, and the Collective Action Problem,” World Politics, 59, 2 (January 2007), 201; and Ralph W. McGehee, Deadly Deceits: My 25 Years in the CIA (New York: Sheridan Square Publications, 1983), 156.
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Beginning as a tiny cloud on the horizon in 1965, the antiwar movement had grown impressively to a point at which its arguments had been adopted by many people who would never have participated in a demonstration or signed a petition. In a complicated symbiotic relationship, antiwar activists affected and were affected by prominent figures in Congress, the media, and the intellectual world who confronted the president with an articulate, sizable, and increasingly influential group of citizens whose proposals for withdrawal from Vietnam began to appear more credible than those of the president who could only promise more of the same.
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The general consensus among American historians is that the American War in Vietnam was a “mistake,” although interpretations differ as to what exactly this means. This essay takes the view that the ‘mistake” was a product of U.S. global ambitions and misperceptions that developed in the aftermath of World War II and were compounded over time. It probes deeply into the origins and nature of the war, making it a long article for a website (about 70,000 words), with about one-third devoted to the antiwar movement at home (Part IV). A half-century of excellent scholarship on the Vietnam War is drawn together and frequently cited in this essay.
Taking stock at the end of 1969, activists might have been encouraged by the successes of the antiwar movement. The Moratorium and New Mobilization were the largest antiwar protests in American history up to that time. Participation in antiwar activities had become “normalized” on college campuses. More Vietnam veterans and active duty GIs were connecting with the antiwar movement. The media on the whole was less hostile to the movement and more critical of the administration. Nixon’s secret war plans had been aborted (some suspected this); and U.S. troops were at least being withdrawn rather than added (troop levels declined from 537,000 at the beginning of 1969 to 474,000 at the end of it). Although beset with problems, the antiwar movement was making progress. According to Melvin Small:
James P. Sterba, “The Controversial Operation Phoenix: How It Roots Out Vietcong Suspects,” New York Times, February 18, 1970; and Mark Moyar, Phoenix and the Birds of Prey: Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism in Vietnam (Lincoln: University of Nebraska press, 1997), p. 236. In spite of the Phoenix Program’s notoriety, it has several defenders, including Mark Moyar and Dale Andrade. Both of these historians argue that critics have misrepresented the program and that Phoenix seriously impacted the VCI in the countryside.