Hardhats and Hippies: An Interview with Penny Lewis

In the popular imagination, opposition to the Vietnam War was driven largely by the privileged, while supposedly reactionary blue-collar workers supported the war effort. That memory is wrong.

Penny Lewis is a professor of sociology in the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies of the City University of New York. Her new book, Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: The Vietnam Anti-War Movement as Myth and Memory, upends the widely-held image of of  a society polarized between an “effete corps of impudent snobs” (as Spiro Agnew so memorably put it) and the silent majority of staunchly patriotic and pro-war working class folks living in “middle America.” As the countermemory that Lewis offers makes clear, anti-war sentiment and activity was extremely common within the working class — much more common, in fact, than within the middle and upper classes — even though working class people did not always express themselves in the language of class politics. While challenging and correcting our conceptions of the period, Lewis also offers numerous insights into what makes for successful anti-war and community organizing, the interplay of class cultures within social movements, and the possibilities for a new class politics in our own time.

Lewis was gracious enough to sit down with Jacobin contributing editor Chris Maisano for a interview about the book and its implications for left politics today. This is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.

Chris Maisano: My dad fought in Vietnam. He did a tour of duty in the late 1960s as an artilleryman in the Army. I haven’t spoken to him much about it. He’s never really brought it up, and I never really wanted to pry because I know for a lot of veterans of the war it’s a sore subject. But the couple of times that I’ve spoken to him about the war and the whole period, he’s never really had anything bad to say about anti-war protesters, freely admits that the war never should have happened and that he never should have been there. I feel like that’s a fairly normal position for someone that fought in the war to take.

In a lot of ways, you might expect someone like him to be a prototypical backlasher: working class Italian-American from Brooklyn, an immigrant actually, living in a neighborhood that later became a symbol of white flight/backlash politics, but doesn’t seem to have the sorts of resentments that one may want to assign to people like him. So how do we go from what many veterans feel about the time looking back to the image that you talk about in the book of the staunch, patriotic, pro-war, working-class person who hated the students, hated the protesters, wanted to wave the flag, and cheered when the hardhats beat up the kids on Wall Street?

Penny Lewis: A lot of that gets to the core of two different parts of the book. One of the reasons why I got interested in the topic of the book, and I didn’t realize this until after the fact, but my parents had a community garden in Manhattan on 23rd Street, which is very close to the VA hospital. Both of my parents were in the military — my dad was in the Army and my mom was in the Air Force — and I had tons of family who were in the military, but most of my childhood was spent in the garden next to the hospital and the Epiphany branch of the New York Public Library, and the people who came and volunteered were vets because they were between appointments at the VA and had a lot of time to kill. A lot of them couldn’t keep jobs. A lot of them were Vietnam vets, and these were the first people I saw wearing peace signs, wearing beads, the first people who talked to me about the war, my parents had discussions with them about the military and they’d get into polite and friendly arguments, so that was all part of my growing up.

So my experience was really similar to yours in that the vets I knew were anti-war, not necessarily strongly, but anti-war or just fine about it but certainly supported the hippies who were hanging out in the garden, so there wasn’t this incredible tension. We got from this less polarized and in other ways more complicated reality of people having many different kinds of reactions to the war, both as veterans and in the communities that veterans returned to, to this sharp image of polarization.

CM: The concepts of “collective memory” and “countermemory” are very important concepts in the book. What do you mean by those concepts, and what kind of roles did each of them play in creating that image of extreme polarization that seems to be so dominant in the culture today? In the movie Joe, for example, which you talk about in the book, the most violent backlash fantasies are really played out, and you have hippies and hardhats literally at war with each other.

PL: I use the framework of memory in part because it’s literally a memory for people who are still alive and lived through the war and the whole period. I didn’t want to resign it to history because there is an active element to memory that is constantly being reproduced and returned to by the participants of the moment, and I wanted to capture the fluid way in which that past is still being worked out by the people who participated in the period. So some of the movies that I look at and some of the histories I examine are produced and written by the participants themselves and they’re hashing out their own experiences.

I’m also trying to think about it in terms of memory because of the visceral nature of the ramifications of how we made sense of that moment at the time and how it’s related to how we’re still thinking about class today. So the countermemory, which is different from the concept of collective memory, captures I think the lived experience of the people who lived through the period and felt, from my conversations with them, from the memoirs that I read, to the different histories that I picked up in archives or in books and stories that don’t necessarily make it into the canon of how the Vietnam anti-war movement is talked about, there is this active countermemory that is there that hasn’t really been represented in the writings about the anti-war movement all in one place. Which is this more complicated story of working class people being opposed to the war, participating in the anti-war movement in a whole bunch of different directions.

At the time, one of the things I argue in the book is that the collective memory that we end up reflecting on now was being created at the very moment all these things were happening. In particular I look at the hardhat rally that was the iconic moment in May 1970 and the few weeks that followed that. The first term of the Nixon administration is when the very diverse movement that at that point had finally taken hold and begun to express itself in many different places, including the military, veterans, civil rights and Black Power, nationalist movements, the labor movement, had begun to engage in anti-war protest at exactly the moment that the movement was taking this much more diverse turn.

The discussion around class in this country shifted to capture this image, and this is what I challenge at the end of the book, of these “middle Americans” who are not being represented by any of the social movements of the day and are not being represented by the political parties and by the media, and there’s an overcorrection on the part of the media and an opening that’s created for Nixon to label these people the “silent majority” and make sense of what appeared to be a large group of people who were left out of the social movements of the day. The real outlines of the memory that we carry with us were created by pretty powerful forces at the time and there weren’t any kind of sufficient forces on the ground then or today to challenge that central image.

CM: It seems that your analysis moves on two tracks. One is the cultural aspect and the other is the issue of institutional representation. In the book you make the remarkable claim that in spite of the huge number of books written about the anti-war movement and the whole period, and all of the representations of the movement in the media, you couldn’t find a single sociological study of the anti-war movement in the entire literature — I don’t doubt you, but how is that possible?

PL: I’m not sure if a sociological study would be related to the cultural aspect of the question, because of the incredible array of representations of the movement that are historical and there are books that are written obliquely about the anti-war movement. I would say that Todd Gitlin’s The Whole World is Watching has to do with the anti-war movement although that’s not his focus, and other books that look at the whole 1960s dynamic have the anti-war movement as something hovering in the background. But as an object of study I think that the anti-war movement was so incredibly large and divergent, and to many people synonymous with “The Movement” of the period — everybody was of course opposed to the war but also involved in a million other things — that it’s pretty resistant to sociological study in the way that the discipline of sociology is structured. I tend to look at the shortcomings in the ways in which sociology frames its objects of study rather than it necessarily being about the movement itself, or the shortcomings of cultural representations of the movement.

CM: What are the main outlines of those cultural representations of the anti-war movement? What are the main cultural artifacts that have crystallized and transmitted the image of the movement you critique in the book down to today?

PL: Well, there are many different memories and it depends on who you talk to. It’s a highly contentious field of representation. For some, it was idealistic, young, highly intellectual and political with lots of analysis.

CM: As in the teach-ins on university campuses.

PL: Yeah, the teach-in is the paradigm of that. That veers pretty quickly into the “out of touch” perceptions surrounding the anti-war movement. According to the revisionist memory that I think is dominant, the movement was out of touch with the experiences of the soldiers and soldiers’ families and veterans, that they were anti-veteran, anti-soldier and anti-military in a kind of knee-jerk way, and that they were divided from “normal” people. They were anti-American and overly radical and entitled, not sufficiently grateful of the great things this country has to offer. More neutral visions look at the movement organizations of the time and the massive demonstrations that were so iconic of the time, huge demonstrations put together by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, and the element of spectacle that came with things such as the musical Hair or the be-ins that came to symbolize the counterculture. Those are the dominant images of the movement.

CM: Your discussion of those cultural expressions of the period like Hair reminded me of Jefferson Cowie’s book Stayin’ Alive, which talks about many of the cultural representations of the white working class during the 1970s. In your book you mention a number of cultural artifacts that have come to shape our collective memory of the anti-war movement, but what struck me in particular is the key role that film, perhaps more than any other medium, played in this process.

PL: It’s hard to assess as an academic, and this is where I trip myself up as a sociologist, I do a lot of second-guessing — “how can you prove that these films were the ones that created the popular memory?” for example. Which is why I try to limit my attention to the big blockbusters like Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Hamburger Hill, or Forrest Gump. War movies are a central genre of filmmaking, so we should expect that films are going to be made about warriors. We can look at the cultural producers that enter Hollywood and became the storytellers, that both the society and these filmmakers had reached this moment where they could tell their own stories. That happened earlier for some, like Francis Ford Coppola, but some of that has to do with the life trajectories of the people producing them and the kinds of politics of the cultural producers, which are for the most part anti-war. There have been very few films like The Green Berets that haven’t been anti-war in one way or another.

Film is a pretty powerful medium. We’re not a culture that reads a lot of books, and we learn our history through these kinds of media and this is how stories get transmitted. There’s something very attractive about the war story, and Vietnam was such a scar. It was such a major cultural event, and the attraction of telling that story through these almost personal narratives, which is what almost all of these films do — Hamburger Hill being one exception.

CM: I loved that movie when I was eight, mostly because it’s very violent.

PL: I can’t believe you saw that movie when you were eight. You really liked violent films when you were eight?

CM: Yes. Blame my parents.

PL: My intention is to not let my eight year old see any violent films, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to do that. But the vast majority of these Vietnam movies are these coming of age or one man on a quest stories, crazy stories to tell when you think about an actual war.

CM: Here I think this gets back to the institutional aspect of the analysis that we began to talking about earlier.Like you said, the stories about the Vietnam anti-war movement that we receive from the culture industry are very individualized, where the broader social or institutional milieu drops out to tell a story about the main character and his buddies fighting for each other and against the world. So there’s a space for institutional and political actors to step in to help shape the collective memory as well. You talked earlier about the Nixon administration and the Republican Party creating this image of the hardhat or the silent majority as part of a political strategy to build the new Republican majority, while the Democrats and the labor movement failed to advance an alternative, progressive articulation of working class culture and identity.

PL: The labor movement, one the question of the war in particular, was appropriately viewed as being reactionary and hysterical and intemperate and all the things that Walter Reuther called George Meany.

CM: I remember reading that Meany said hippies and protesters “looked like Jacks, acted like Jills, and had the odors of Johns.”

PL: Right, he said that during the 1972 Democratic National Convention. That’s George Meany! So the leadership of the AFL-CIO, and this wasn’t news at the time, wasn’t representing its members’ views. As early as 1968, polling showed that union members were divided on the question of the war, but the Cold War anti-Communist position of the AFL-CIO remained far to the right, slavishly supporting Johnson’s policy. So you had the public representatives of the working class and the anemic, quasi-working class party of the Democrats that waged the war. So on the most basic and fundamental level there’s no space in those institutions pre-1968 that gives any ground to the fact that the people they purport to represent are either opposed to or have deep questions about the policies they’re supporting. That in some ways gets both worse and better over the next few years after 1968. There was always anti-war organizing within the sectors of the labor movement where you would expect this to be the case — the unions that were kicked out during the Red Scare and were purged by the CIO, and some of the new service sector unions that were influenced by the new social movements.

CM: Wasn’t there a breakaway faction that bolted the AFL-CIO during this time?

PL: Yes, that was the Teamsters and the UAW — the Alliance for Labor Action — and one of the reasons why they broke away was over the war. In the middle of all this is the social democratic, CIO, liberal tradition of the labor movement exemplified by the UAW. But they were also loath to break with Johnson. Reuther doesn’t publicly oppose the war until Johnson steps down, even though he and the UAW leadership had privately raised questions about it. After 1968, when things really began to fracture, you do have some unions beginning to step up to the plate and by 1972 you have a third of all the labor unions in the country, both through the pronouncements of their leaders and through local and rank-and-file activism coming out strongly against the war.

On that level there’s positive movement, and there’s a different kind of political sentiment and action being represented by the unions. The Democrats, however, go through an opposite transmutation during that period. The Democrats split — Jefferson Cowie does a really good job of explaining all this in Stayin’ Alive —  and you have the New Politics group that’s highly suspicious of the AFL-CIO and a moderate right wing that is constantly breaking in Nixon’s direction and trying to capture the “middle Americans” too.

Now the New Politics group contained lots of working class people but many of them happened to be black and brown working class people as opposed to white working class people, and to the extent that they were white working class they were affiliated with the New Politics not necessarily through any kind of class-based identity. That wing of the Democratic Party is anti-war, but it’s usually not representing its anti-war politics in a way that’s connecting with the kinds of working class opposition to the war in general that had been created from the ground up. They’re not coming out against the war for the same reasons that the unions and other organizations that I identify as working class organizations such as the Black Power and nationalist and civil rights groups. So there’s not a space for representation on the question of the war, and what I say in the book is that there’s not a whole lot of space for representation of the divergent forms of working class politics in general in the Democratic Party. It’s just not holding its tent together. The Democratic Party wasn’t (and still doesn’t) function as a “party” in, say, the European sense. It’s just a broad set of interest groups adopting the label “Democratic Party.”

In the book I use Pierre Bordieu’s discussion of cultural capital as one way of explaining the ways in which working class people get to be represented in the public sphere. Middle class or upper class people learn a lot of the mores of the powerful and how to interact and present themselves in ways that connect with and impress those with power and influence, and they themselves become the people who are the leaders, representatives, cultural producers, and what have you. So middle and upper class people carry that with them in a more individualistic way than workers who do not have the same kind of access to cultural capital and enter the public sphere through collective means. On this level of cultural representation, there aren’t the same vehicles for workers to represent themselves and without those, you’re left with the labor movement has to say about what the working class thinks and believes and to a lesser extent what the Democratic Party has to say.

CM: In your book you talk a lot about anti-war organizations that tried to bridge the gap between the more middle- to upper-class elements that dominated the organized anti-war movement in its earlier days on college campuses, and the often working-class communities in which the campuses were located. They tried to cross the “town-and-gown” divide in their anti-war work, particularly in the Boston area, where you had and continue to have a number of elite institutions existing side-by-side with large working class communities. What worked for them and what didn’t?

PL: I talk a lot about the Boston Draft Resistance Group (BDRG), which was started as part of the Vietnam Summer Project in 1967. Most of that organization’s initiatives focused on the “low-hanging fruit” like middle-class students, but a few were geared toward working with working class communities. The BDRG was one of them, and they had a critique of the ways in which the Resistance, which was the main draft resistance organization affiliated with the student movement in the Boston area and the Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority that came out of it. In their conversations with working class people around the city, they found that lots of them did not connect with this notion of the Call to Resist. It was very abstract and didn’t connect with their experience of being from families who served and had a basic expectation of military service. They knew that burning draft cards was symbolic, but it seemed like none of the reasons for why working class people might resist the draft were being captured by the things the Resistance was saying and doing. Plus the people in the Resistance were college students or people who had just graduated from college and had an exemption from the Selective Service, so they were fairly alienated from what a lot of working class people were facing.

So the BDRG challenged the Resistance first from within, saying that if you’re going to do this for real, you need to be organizing inside working class communities and you need to address family and community pressures to serve when you’re doing your organizing against the war. They worked with community organizers in a few neighborhoods and set up draft counseling clinics and they had tactics that I don’t think were necessarily the most effective.

CM: Like what?

PL: The “early morning show,” for example, where they would get on buses with people being brought over to the draft examination boards and agitate and do more or less rambunctious anti-draft agitation. They would occasionally get some people to join, but over time it became a deeper community organizing effort because those types of tactics were not as successful, and the reflection in general was that as much as they were trying to build a base in working class communities, most of the people who came were middle class, often with a sense of escape, and didn’t need to be convinced of the injustice of the draft and brought through that process.

There were lots of obstacles to spanning the “town-and-gown” gap, and that’s one thing to look into and it’s something that people involved in movements today need to think about, which is the question of class cultures inside a movement and the extent to which people know how to talk to each other, connect with each other, and respect the different kinds of backgrounds people come from in order to create a common goal for the movement and a kind of language to represent that goal. Those organizational and emotional and personal questions were ones over which many of these kinds of efforts faltered. There seemed to be the best intentions, but not necessarily the best understanding of the ways in which people’s lived experience of class created barriers to cooperation.

CM: When I read the book I was struck by the ways in which these issues and problems presaged in a lot of ways the more recent concerns with intersectionality and how to bring people together across various identities and cultures. In the book you talked about how opposition to the war was much more prevalent in the working class than in the middle or upper classes, but that anti-war sentiment didn’t always get articulated as a form of class politics, but rather as part of an emergent racial or ethnic identity politics or a feminist politics. In particular, you focus on Chicano organizations that were heavily involved in anti-war work but were speaking a different language than the anti-war segments of labor movement or the student movement.

PL: As opposed to the “town-and-gown” model, the Chicano Moratorium and Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) were the two organizations that did the best job as organizations representing working class people and communities in their anti-war work, framing it around the lived experiences of working class communities. For veterans it was obviously their personal experiences of the war and the treatment they received at the other end of it, the betrayal they felt by the government at all levels. The work that they did was radical and disruptive, but they also did rap sessions and support around post-traumatic stress issues, somewhat similar to what was happening in the feminist consciousness-raising groups of the time. VVAW was learning a lot from the other currents of the time, and similarly the Chicano Moratorium responded directly to the Chicano community’s pride in service that was fairly typical and also the negative experience of young men being pushed into enlisting when they get in trouble with the law. Many times they were offered the choice of serving sixty days in jail or joining the military. So the ways in which there was an economic enlistment process, which we would talk about today as the economic draft, was a focus of their work. The Chicano Moratorium was able to tap into Chicano nationalism and had these slogans like “fight for Aztlan, not Uncle Sam,” that they used to appeal to people in their communities. So those were smart, grounded, modes of anti-war expression.

The expressions of identity politics that we’re so familiar with today were being created at the time. This was the moment in which these identities came out into the public sphere. And because the working class identity in this country had one the one hand come under such erasure in the postwar era because of the long boom, and on the other had been wholly racialized and gendered and build around white, male, goods-producing workers, the class aspect of those identity politics movements largely disappeared — much to their own detriment. And it’s something that all those movements have struggled with since. I actually feel that there’s much less of a break today between identity-oriented parts of the Left and class-oriented parts of the Left than there has ever been in my life. Maybe in 1973, 1974 there were some great leftists working on combining those two things and then they got slammed by the nightmare that became our current reality.

So I see in the movements that are coming up today a lot of lessons learned about the relationship of identity and class politics. I see a deeper appreciation of the ways in which class intersects with race and gender within feminist movements, within anti-police brutality and anti-prison movements. Race and class are deep in those movements and are understood as being connected. And in the women’s movement, such as it is, there’s a lot of attention paid to work-family issues, attention to questions of child care, and the like. I do think that Occupy and the dislocation that so many people have experienced over the past four years has meant that class is I would say a given framework for social movement organizing in a way that it hasn’t been in decades. One of the best things about the slogan of the 99% is that the working class and its interests got named again. Maybe that means that the collective identities that are hammered out in this new movement are always going to be captured inside of a class framework, and it’s one that we need to be defining now and defining through the prism of identity. A lot of the negative associations around what it meant to be “working class” have been erased and hopefully a new way of representing the working class is something we can forge as a result.

CM: I think that brings us back to the question of institutional representation that you identified as such a crucial problem in your book. Occupy and all the various movements that have been percolating in recent years tend to be resolutely anti-institutional and anti-representational. So while the language of class and inequality may be part of the common currency of these nascent movements, there doesn’t yet seem to be any way for these emerging identities and struggles to find any kind of adequate institutional or organizational representation.

PL: On that level, we’re in exactly the same position we were in forty years ago. The only thing I would say that is positive about that is that the benefit of the doubt extended to the Democratic Party has been receding tremendously. I was shocked by how little active left support for Obama there was on the ground in 2012 compared to previous election cycles. I think that’s good. On the other hand, there’s not enough attention paid to the problem of organization and institution building among the larger left. Hopefully, I think there’s a growing awareness of this problem and that more and more people are talking about addressing it.

Getting back to Vietnam and that whole period, forty years ago there was so much hope that wound up succumbing to false promises about the labor movement and Democratic Party politics, as well as a kind of expectation reinforced through cultural representations of the period that people couldn’t work together across various class and cultural divides and that their interests weren’t really aligned. I would say that the movement development we see happening in the years after that reflected those lessons in really negative ways, and there were not the kinds of efforts made to work together or to discover the common core demands and issues — and there’s a question as to whether there were those sorts of commonalities. I don’t want to sound Pollyana-ish and say that in 1972 everyone really did have the same interests and they just didn’t see them. There were competing interests and real reasons for the kinds of fractures that existed, but the images of those fractures and their emotional resonance were bigger than what they really were. Looking at today I think we have come out the other side of that, and this is in part a reflection of the fact that all the elements of the liberal New Deal institutional framework that allowed some people to have certain expectations for a decent quality of life have either collapsed or are on the verge of collapsing.

Where we are right now is not so much of a break from the conditions that prevailed forty years ago. If we can see the connections across class and identity that seemed more tenuous and were not recognized back then, that might help us to see the extent to which our struggles can find common ground today.