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.
On 30 April 1970, President Nixon announced that the US had invaded Cambodia, seeking to disrupt the supply lines and strongholds of national liberation forces. After a year of promising to wind the war down, Nixon’s expansion of the front was met with immediate outrage. When four college students were killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio on May 4, protests erupted nationwide, and hundreds of college campuses were shut down, many for the remainder of the term.
In New York City on 8 May 1970, a group of around one thousand antiwar protesters gathered at Wall Street across from the stock exchange, as part of a “day of reflection” called by Mayor John Lindsay “to reflect solemnly on the numbing events at Kent State University and their implications for the future and fate of America.” At lunchtime, an even smaller group of around two hundred construction workers arrived at the antiwar rally and angrily confronted the protesters. In the next few hours, backed by more construction workers from the World Trade Center site as well as Wall Street office employees, these counter-demonstrators raged through downtown Manhattan, assaulting antiwar protesters as well as people who looked like protesters (“longhairs” got special treatment), storming City Hall and Pace University, and injuring dozens. Over the following weeks, downtown was the site of daily lunchtime marches of workers, culminating in a rally called by the Building Trades Council named “Honor America, Honor the Flag” that drew as many as one hundred thousand people to Lower Manhattan.
A college student from Michigan watching the crowd at the final rally told the New York Times, “I’m scared. If this is what the class struggle is all about, there’s something wrong somewhere.”
“Hardhats” facing off against entitled “hippie” youth became a dominant image from the era, a shorthand for what became the ruling narrative about the class dynamics of antiwar sentiment. According to this memory, protest was the province of the privileged until the “Silent Majority” finally roared onto the scene, yelling “Love it or leave it” on downtown streets, and denouncing the “commie crapola” of movement activists from Archie Bunker’s armchair in Queens.
But the Michigan student’s observation was right: this wasn’t the class struggle; there was something wrong somewhere. Antipathy between workers and protesters existed during the era. Yet such a neat image of class polarization distorts a more complex historical reality. Workers were less supportive of the war than their more privileged compatriots, skeptical of its aims and souring on its pursuit of them.
There should be little surprising in this. The war had deep costs, in lost lives and, over its course, in the worsening economic conditions to which it contributed. The conflict in Vietnam found its greatest support from the college-educated, especially college-educated young people (contrary to our memory of the “generation gap” as well). And by the war’s conclusion, the overwhelming consensus in the US was not just that the war had been a mistake, but that it was “fundamentally wrong and immoral.”
We should remember a different, more diverse antiwar movement than the one recounted in countless films, history textbooks, and mainstream commentaries. Unlike images of the well-off “liberated generation,” student antiwar protesters differed not at all from all typical college students at the time: social class background played no determining role in whether or not one actively opposed the war as a student. The antiwar movement initially grew in middle-class milieus, but it expanded beyond them over time. Groups such as the Boston Draft Resistance Group, the Chicano Moratorium, and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War explicitly framed their opposition to the war in class-based experiences of the draft and the fighting itself, recruited within working-class communities, and connected their demands to end the war and dismantle its “machinery of death” with visions of social redress — towards problems of unemployment, affordable housing, just policing, quality schools, and healthcare.
Thousands of workers came to participate in antiwar activities through their unions, a significant minority of which broke with the Cold War consensus that straitjacketed the rest of the labor movement. These antiwar unions helped to recreate a space for political action and debate in a labor movement that was also undergoing rank-and-file challenges from below and a sharp rise in wildcat strikes and other unauthorized work actions. Many more thousands of workers came to oppose the war through their direct experience fighting in Southeast Asia; the GI and Veteran movements are among the most important, and least talked about, vectors of antiwar action during the era. Civil rights, Black Power, and nationalist movements for self-determination joined the antiwar cause early on, the war a central plank of their own struggles against oppression and US imperialism.
Even the events at Wall Street in May 1970 were themselves more ambiguous than the story allows. No one held a gun to their heads: these workers were clearly excited to go bash the protesters. But they were also not spontaneous. The hardhats were encouraged by their shop stewards to leave their job sites on May 8, told that they would still get paid if they went and confronted the protesters — some were reportedly promised a cash bonus for doing so. The other chant of the workers that day was “Impeach Lindsay,” referring to the aristocratic and socially liberal Republican mayor. In fact, all of the hardhat actions of May 1970 should be read in the context of specific fights with New York’s mayor. For one, he had called for flags in the city to be held at half-staff that day. During the final weeks of his campaign for re-election the previous fall, Lindsay had also called for flags to be lowered during the National Moratorium against the war, and in doing so had caused uproar across the city — the President was in charge of such actions, and for a mayor to interject such symbolism on the side of war protesters rather than the soldiers themselves was galling to thousands of New Yorkers. Six months later, the construction workers on Wall Street hoisted their own flags, and reset those at City Hall to full-staff.
Race played a central role as well. Responding to federal affirmative action stipulations, the New York building trades were angling to create a “hometown solution” to the mandatory integration of the trades that wouldn’t do much integrating at all. The New York plan, proposed in March 1970 by Peter Brennan, the head of the Building Trades Council, called for an apprenticeship training program for blacks aspiring to trade union membership — in which the training would take place in its own separate center, and offered neither union membership nor jobs to those who completed it. Lindsay was already identified with community control of the public schools (and against the bruising and racist UFT strikes in Ocean Hill and Brownsville the year before), and could be expected to oppose the plan. Brennan and the building trades sought to pressure Lindsay from every corner they could. Brennan directly orchestrated the May rallies that followed May 8, and anti-Lindsay slogans were dominant among protesters at all of them. (Six months later, the mayor signed the New York plan into law, over the objections of civil rights and black labor groups.)
Feelings about the issue purportedly at the center of this episode — the Vietnam War — were equally fraught. While they found many self-identified patriots who supported the President, the newspaper reporters who covered the final rally didn’t find many people who supported the war, and in fact found many who opposed it. The majority of union workers, in opposition to the leadership of the AFL-CIO (“intemperate, jingoistic, [and] hysterical,” as Walter Reuther called George Meany), thought the war was a mistake and wanted out. A national poll found that 53 percent of unionists surveyed right after the May 8 attacks condemned the hardhats. The first antiwar demonstration called by New York unions who opposed the war was called as a response in those same weeks. Only a few thousand showed up, but it marked the beginning of an even broader labor antiwar response.
Why does it matter, today, that we misremember this? During Vietnam, attention to the class-based “war at home” served to distract attention from the antiwar consensus that had developed. Worse, the image of polarization stymied solidarity between groups whose criticisms of the war had taken different paths, but had led them to similar conclusions. The sociologist Robert Alford wrote about the role of this kind of historical inquiry as in part teasing out “alternative scenarios made plausible.” The counter-memory of a diverse, multifaceted antiwar movement points us toward other possibilities embedded in our past and the possibilities that may be open in the future.
In the decades that followed, our memory of the Vietnam era has continued to inform our expectations of working-class political attitudes, and whether we can reasonably expect any successful “coalitions across the class divide.” When we lose sight of the complex circumstances that encouraged the standoff between hippies and hardhats, we risk essentializing the divisions of the era, hardening into opposing camps groups who did frequently find common cause.
Among the factors that contributed to the power that this polarized image holds in our memory were narratives of working-class conservatism that had developed in the preceding decades, including theories of workers’ “embourgeoisement” and their incipient “authoritarianism.” The way in which class was conceived in the era had at its heart contradictory elements that helped efface the more nuanced political beliefs of, and actions taken by, workers reacting to Vietnam.
On the one hand, during the postwar years the distinct existence of an American working class was challenged by the pop-cultural and sociological insistence that a new era of affluence dominated by a vast middle class was upon us. This middle class owned their own homes, used new home appliances, vacationed, watched TV, saved for their kids’ college. Some worked in offices, others in factories, but the rising tide of postwar boom was lifting all boats.
Of course, this image was always largely that, a product of creative yearning: working-class living standards varied, with only a small fraction achieving anything close to the stability thus promised. Workers continued to experience cyclical unemployment and other kinds of job insecurities, and continued to struggle for greater control and power over the conditions of their work, which remained dangerous and dirty. But it was also true that many white, male, skilled, unionized goods-producing workers in manufacturing and the construction trades were getting a larger share of the economic growth they created than ever before, and inequality was significantly less than it had ever been in the industrial age. For these workers, things were better than they had been during the Depression, and by a long shot. Hence the irony in unions, the most important working-class institutions in the United States, taking credit for creating, and being the greatest defenders of, the nation’s “middle class.” Strong unions helped drive up the price of labor, and set standards in all industries in which they had significant footholds, like steel and auto.
But unions were not established in all industries. Labor laws did not cover the public sector, the agricultural sector, or domestic work; unions had barely begun to penetrate the diverse service sector and had no meaningful presence in any kind of office or “pink collar” work. Not incidentally, these sectors were also those dominated by African Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, women. And again, not incidentally, when the working class was imagined as a distinct social group, differentiated from the vast middle mass, it was as a narrowly conceived slice of the broader class: the very same white, male, goods-producing workers who had formed the core of the unions in the 1930s and 1940s and who, by and large, were better off than the working class as a whole.
Collective identities are created through social action. The fight to unionize the US workplace forged a strong collective class identity that unions helped institutionalize (and the state ultimately helped legitimate). And this class identity was also usually a racial one as well. Segregation on the job, in the community, in the law, in the unions: white workers and workers of color most frequently lived in culturally and spatially separate worlds, with solidarity further undercut by structural discrimination, economic competition, and white racism. So it makes sense that at the time, the working class and the white working class were largely synonymous identities, from within and without.
Throughout the 1960s, other collective identities were being created through new social action. Workers who participated in the antiwar movement frequently did so through collective action whose primary identity roots did not necessarily foreground class. The civil rights, Black Power, and nationalist movements gave rise to strong racial and ethnic identities; feminism forged a sense of sisterhood; in the context of antiwar action, veterans and soldiers organized as according to their military roles. Even many of the unionized groups who lent their names and numbers to antiwar efforts reflected the “new working class” that was organizing in government, in health care, or as farmworkers. All of these identities were shot through with class experiences, and at times their class valences were dominant. But veterans protested the war as veterans, Chicanos as Chicanos, and no single “working-class” identity or frame held together these streams.
The class exploitation workers continued to experience, and the divergent political actions that workers as a whole were taking in the era continued to be erased or obscured by these ways of thinking about class. The labor movement might have been able to challenge these dominant ideas about who was the working class, and what it was doing. It might have thereby connected the dots and generalized these experiences in such a way that greater unity might have been achieved across these disparate groups, or so that the public might better recognize the heterogeneity of working-class politics at the time. But — for reasons impossible to detail in a short essay — it was both unwilling and unable to do so.
Forty years later, the labor movement continues to speak for the middle class, but both the movement and the relative stability it helped create have substantially eroded and remain mortally threatened. Today’s labor movement, as small as it is, is significantly more reflective of the broad, diverse working class of the United States and now includes many of the government and service workers who were excluded in the 1960s. Black workers are more likely to be unionized than whites, Latinos, or Asians. Unions are at the forefront in the current struggle for immigrant rights, a stunning turnaround. Just as remarkably, most are on record as critical of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The AFL-CIO meets for its convention this summer, and rather than screaming to throw the “kookies” out, as George Meany did to antiwar protesters decades ago, President Richard Trumka and AFL staff have been conducting a listening campaign among left, community, and movement activists, looking beyond the federation’s boundaries for ideas for labor’s future.
And what kind of a protest have we seen at Wall Street more recently? Another image of protest is now available to us: that of a middle-aged man who is sitting cross-legged, arms linked with other protesters whose faces are obscured by bandanas. He is wearing a yellow hardhat topped with protective goggles, and has a small placard on his lap: “Union Worker Reclaiming the Future For My Children.” For the first time in generations, a class-based collective identity was forged in the streets of New York and other cities around the country — that of the 99%.
I was finishing Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory when Occupy began, and it felt to me like many of the problems I raised about the previous era were both being solved and, in other respects, reproduced in the new upsurge. As Jodi Dean and others have observed, Occupy marked a political rupture in which a “we” could once again be established. The eroded, low-wage world in which college guarantees you debt and not much more; the crisis in governance created by our politicians’ slavish commitment to a neoliberal agenda: such conditions indicate the substantial basis we have for common cause.
Images of class polarization from the Vietnam period are being successfully, if tenuously, replaced with stories and experiences of greater unity. Unions lent institutional support to the new movement, in line with the feeling of support for Occupy expressed by workers, organized and not — and as a result the media has had a harder time dismissing Occupy as a rich kid’s fad (though not for lack of trying). But realizing the 99% remains a challenge. Negotiating class cultures — taking into account the deeply divergent experiences and identities that bring people to the fight — needs to be a self-conscious part of our organizing. Perhaps this time we’ll get the story right.
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