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Vietnam War Demonstrations

John Simkin

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John Simkin, aged 18, apprentice bookbinder in a printing company in Barking, Essex.

I first began to get interested in politics at the age of eighteen. Bill Parrish, the FOC (father of the chapel of our union) had been going on about politics during every lunch-time since I started at the factory three years earlier. It was the arrival of Bob Clark that changed my views on politics. Not that he was particularly political. He voted for the Labour Party but was not a member. What he did was to ask me what I thought about political issues. It was the first time in my life that anyone had asked me questions like that. It took me by surprise. It also made me realise that I virtually had no political knowledge. Although this did not stop me expressing my thoughts on a wide-range of different political subjects. One of the main issues at the time was the growing escalation of the war in Vietnam. Bob took the view that American action in Vietnam was an unpleasant necessity. Like on most issues, Bob seemed to talk a lot of sense and it became my point of view as well.

Bob suggested I joined the local Labour Party Young Socialists. My mother always voted Labour (although she never talked about politics). She also said my father had been a Labour supporter before his death in 1956. My new girlfriend’s mother was also a party member. I therefore asked her to find out where the local YS met. This she did (she later claimed it was one of the worse mistakes of her life).

I was deeply shocked by my first YS meeting. It was dominated by a discussion on the Vietnam War. Their views were very different from those of Bob Clark and my girlfriend’s mother. They saw the Vietnam War as a crime against humanity. However, their anger was not really directed against America but against Harold Wilson, the Labour prime minister, who was refusing to condemn the actions of the US military in Vietnam.

For the first few weeks I tried to defend Wilson. Despite being well briefed by Bob Clark I had great difficulty arguing my case. The main problem was that they were so well-informed. They were also very aggressive towards me (they probably thought that a was a spy sent by central office). One member, Jim Smith, was more sympathetic to my plight and suggested that I start reading the Guardian newspaper. He explained it was part of the capitalist press but was liberal enough to allow opponents of the war to write articles for the newspaper. I took his advice but found the newspaper difficult to read. The main problem was the paper assumed that the reader had acquired a certain amount of background knowledge about the events it was reporting. I told Jim about this problem and he suggested that I joined the local library. This was my introduction to history books. It was no long before I was also a strong opponent of the Vietnam War. Not that I shared all the views of my YS comrades. For example, I never developed their love for Leon Trotsky.

Later that year I attended my first anti-war demonstration. This in itself reinforced my views on the subject. The fact that the police charged at us on horseback only helped convince us we were right.

The most important aspect of my first demonstration was the journey home. During the police charges I got separated from the others. On the train I sat opposite an elderly couple. He asked me if I had been on the demonstration. When I said yes he replied that his wife and himself had also been on the march. I was shocked as he looked too old to be taking part in such activities (he admitted later he was nearing his 90th birthday). The couple had been Christian missionaries in China and were committed pacifists. Until this meeting I always associated radicalism with youth. I had already heard the quotation that if you are 18 and are not a socialist you have not got a heart, but if you are a socialist at 30, you have not got a brain. Yet here was a couple approaching their nineties who still felt strongly enough about their political principles they were willing to risk their lives on the streets of London. I went to bed knowing that this was not the last demonstration I would be attending.

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One of my first experinces of the protests against the Vietnam War was when I in the beginning of 1970's participated in a demonstration against the US involvement in Indo-China. This demonstration in Gothenburg led to a big confrontation with the police with several trials afterwards. Around the same time we tried to block the entrance to a cinema that showed the "Green Berets" - a John Wayne movie that supported the view of US heroism in Vietnam... (around the same time as Lt Calley was charged and sentenced...). This is a photo taken around that time;



Edited by Anders
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Yes I guess I am reaching my "anecdotage." I really enjoyed reading Anders and John writing about the Vietnam protests. It was vividly brought to mind when my sons and daughter took part in anti war protests last year.

In 1968 I left school, got a job in the civil service and found myself in the middle of a difference of opinion with mounted police outside the American Embassy.

You can say what you like about Wilson (and as John recalls - we did!) he resisted the requests from American Imperialism to send in British troops to die in their colonial venture.....which puts him head and shoulders above Blair.

Incidentally I never developed a love of Leon Trotsky any more than I developed a love for Darwin or of Einstein....Just a belief in Relativity, evolution ....and revolution ;)

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Guest DangerousDan

Thank God that the people of this once great nation have had the freedom to protest the war or anything else they felt led by their hearts to protest. When I returned from my time in Vietnam with the Buddhist Hoa Hao people of An Phu District, Chau Doc Province where I commanded an independent operation and I was confronted by a group of protesters inSeattle Washington, I jusr reached out, shook their hands and told them their freedom to protest was a big reason for us being in Vietnam. I only would that our leaders had been honest with us and had not aided and abetted the enemy and had fought an honorable war for the people of South Vietnam. I believe in my heart that any person who would read my book (Expendable Elite - One Soldier's Journey Into Covert Warfare) he or she would understand why we did wrong to abandon and betray the South Vietnamese people, how we could have won the war with a small percentage of the casualties and why - if it had been done as we did it (with the people) in An Phu - there would yet be a South Vietnam. I too joined the Vietnam Veterans against the war after understanding what we were doing wrong and tht our leaders were not allowing us to win the war and that our sacrifices (my four closest friends were killed in Vietnam) were to no avail. Please take the time to read my book and then let this forum know your own conculsion.

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Interestingly all of the supporters of the colonial war in Iraq use the same argument. "You are allowed to demonstrate against the war because we are a democracy...we want to bring democracy to Iraq." (Tony Blair...more or less verbatim!)

And when people demonstrate in Iraq? Well they tend to get shot by the American soldiers or arrested and tortured.

And democracy? Well providing it is a government the American government likes who will invite the Americans to stay and who are incidentally not actually elected....

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The following is an excerpt from an essay I wrote in response to a speech by the Alabama State Auditor, Beth Chapman. The whole thing is on my website - click "Standing up for America".

"I'm on a list of people students can email to interview about the Vietnam war (the website is based in Britain - http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/). I often get questions asking how I feel about the people who protested the war - and here's what I tell the students who ask me this: The people who protested the Vietnam War were right - we had no business in Vietnam. Furthermore, this country is based on the freedom to dissent. Thus, even if the protestors had been wrong, they had every right to make themselves heard - or our freedoms mean nothing.

I'm often asked how I regarded the anti-war protests when I was in Vietnam. I don't remember much about anti-war protests. For one thing, the news I received was sporadic at best - letters from home, the occasional Stars and Stripes, rarely a broadcast on Armed Forces Radio. The last two of those tended to avoid much coverage of anti-war protests. In any case, I had little inclination to think about that kind of thing; the demands of the moment were more than enough to occupy my time. When the likelihood of living or dying, remaining whole or suffering crippling injury, depends on the decision of where you put your foot next, things like "news" fade into the distant background. For another, I saw quite enough to become a convinced opponent of war in general, and the Vietnam War in particular. It is trite to say that soldiers are the strongest opponents of war - and it may not even be true. However, soldiers who have experienced combat are almost always "anti-war"."

Edited by miketol
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