April 20, 2000
Professor Eugene Leach, History Department, Trinity College
To what extent were you involved in
I had a job at a community college in
downtown Philadelphia. That year I was in
Philadelphia, 1969, there were two major mobilizations in
Washington, both of which I attended, in addition to several events in Philadelphia. I drove down from Philadelphia with some of my
students from the community college. Twice in
the fall of 1969 there were huge events. The
first was of about 100,000 people and the second, about a quarter of a million people,
both on the Mall in Washington. They were standard anti-war protests. There were certain groups of militants. I remember one evening, the night before the
scheduled protests, my students and I went downtown, and we were on 16th
street, walking down the street. There were
groups of demonstrators, milling around, preparing for the next day. All of the sudden, the crowds in front of started
coming at us, along with tear gas behind them. That
was probably the only moment of violence I ever saw during those two events. In contrast to the way the D.C. Police apparently
behaved, which was very aggressively, just a couple of days ago when there were protests
against behavior of the International monetary fund and the World Bank. In contrast to the year 2000, in 1969 the police
were complimented for being tolerant and sort of un-provocative. The Washington scene - a whole lot people, a whole
lot of passion, not a lot of order, kind of hard to figure out what was going on. But I think what everyone felt they were doing was
simply just registering their presence.
How were foreign leaders such as Ho Chi Minh viewed by the
majority of protesters?
I think that by 69, which
is when I entered the equation, certainly among the people I associated with there was
gathering sympathy for the North Vietnamese. The
anti-war center of gravity had moved from we have no business in this war, its not
pertinent to our national security, had begun to move from that, as the result of Tet, as
the result of My Lai, from a whole series of events.
I think there was motion in the direction of positive sympathy from the other side;
I dont think that was the average position that was pretty much a militant position. I do think things were moving in that direction,
among the academic circle I was a part of.
How did the majority of protestors view
U.S. leaders such as President Johnson and President Nixon?
think there was at best exasperation and at worst contempt among the people who were in
the streets. There was a real sense of
disconnect and a real sense of the whole war being fought for political purposes and
public relations purposes that really didnt have pertinence to the welfare of the
United States or Vietnam.
In your opinion how significant was the
role of the media in portraying the first
general I think it was extremely important. Im
persuaded that in fact anti-war protest would not have been anywhere near as vehement as
it was had there not been so much contact with the war by virtue of the media which were
themselves getting more and more skeptical and were broadcasting more and more that was
not out of the Pentagon press release, which was sort of investigative reporting instead
of official reporting.
You mentioned that many of the
protesters felt Vietnam did not
threaten the security of the United States. Which
spheres of the American population do you believe took the Communist threat seriously?
the qualities of this war, that still somewhat saddens me, is that Im not convinced
that anyone ever really thought the domino theory would ever literally land the last
domino in San Francisco, or for that matter in New York, that there was a direct or even
long term indirect threat to the welfare of the United States or the security of the
United States. Certainly there were very
calculated reasons for going to war in 64 that had to do with standing up to the
Communist menace and that whole McCarthyite atmosphere...but I think protesters like me
felt that this war had become a matter of inertia and of no one being willing to face the
danger of being thought to have lost it. It
was more a matter of pride and honor and not wanting to be the last person in a game of
musical chairs. It was hard to imagine who
was really for this...and I dont think we thought anybody was really for it or
passionately believed this war was essential for the welfare of the United States.
How did the My
Lai Massacre and the Tet
Offensive, often referred to as the turning point of the war affect
Americas perceptions and attitudes towards the Vietnam War?
certainly think it was very important. I
missed it myself because My Lai is early 68. All
that I sensed after I came back from Peace Corp, suggested to me that was really the
breaking point. There had been so much said
about there being light at the end of the tunnel, that we were making progress, that it
had been hard but we were finally over the hump; all that seemed silly after Tet, which
has also been described as essentially a Vietcong defeat.
They suffered tremendous losses and werent really able to recover from those
losses for about a year. Nonetheless, they
were able to pull of a coordinated offensive allover Vietnam. This indicated that this was going to be a much
longer war than everyone was telling us. I
think that was really a crucial hinge in public opinion although my understanding is you
dont really get a majority in public opinion polls speaking skeptically about the
war until maybe 1970 or 1971, which is about two years after Tet. There was always as much anger about us student
protesters as there was about the war. I
think the protests certainly were essential to slowing down the war effort and forcing the
government to begin to taper it off toward the final withdrawal of 73. It is striking that the heart of the antiwar
protest was from 67 to 69 and we still have troops in Vietnam until 73,
which suggests that there was no sudden retreat by the government, especially with Nixon. The war went on for four years after the event I
was talking about in 69.