In this culminating moment of self-confidence, very few in the United States could have predicted that its project to defend democracy against communism in Southeast Asia would encounter such formidable resistance. The vulnerability of US power and purpose in the face of Vietnamese nationalism, among which communists were the most influential, was a surprise to many. For some, the difficult and vexing situation of the war in Vietnam gave rise to reflection on the premises upon which the nation’s self-definition as a democratic nation was based, leading to an understanding that the United States, in its relations with the nations and peoples of the world, was an imperialist power and not a defender of democracy, as its leaders and its Cold War ideology proclaimed. For many of those who could discern it, this was a shocking insight: Vietnamese nationalists were the ones who defended democracy, and not the United States, and this fact explained the tenacity and the determination of the Vietnamese nationalists. They possessed the most powerful weapon of all: commitment to democracy and social justice. Such understanding of the imperialist character of U.S. foreign policy, an understanding made possible as a result of questions provoked by the unexpected force of Vietnamese nationalism, is the most important lesson to be learned from the Vietnam War.
African-Americans were the first to get it. Since 1917, the African-American movement had exposed the contradictions between US claims to democracy and its actual practices, principally with respect to the structures of segregation and disenfranchisement in the Jim Crow South, but also in regard to US foreign policy concerning Africa. So for African-Americans, the US negation of democracy in Vietnam was consistent with their own experiences. By 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had arrived to understand the imperialist character of U.S. foreign policy. In 1967, King made three public addresses in opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam. His analysis of the war in these addresses, and his writings during the year, show that his understanding had evolved to an anti-colonial global perspective (McKelvey 1994:182-202). “We are left standing before the world,” he asserted, “glutted by our barbarity. We are engaged in a war that seeks to turn the clock of history back and perpetuate white colonialism” (King 1967b:6). King understood the significance of national liberation movements in the Third World, and he lamented that the United States was continually suppressing these global democratic movements. He maintained that the United States ought to support the world revolution of the poor. “These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. We in the West must support these revolutions” (King 1967a:15).
But African-Americans were not alone. White middle class students of the 1960s also were socially positioned to grasp the imperialist character of US policy. Because of the ascent of the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many white middle class students came from upwardly-mobile families that had experienced the “American Dream,” and as a result, they had fully internalized US ideological pretensions to democracy. Increasingly aware of the war in Vietnam, they asked, “Who are these people who are challenging our virtue and our power?” Housed together in universities, they had the possibility to read about the history of Vietnam, or to talk to others who had, through which they learned of the nationalist anti-colonial struggle of the Vietminh and Ho Chi Minh. To white middle class students, the realization that US policy in Vietnam was anti-democratic and pro-colonial was a shocking discovery, an obscene violation of what they believed the nation to be. This anti-imperialist tendency in the white student anti-war movement was most clearly expressed by the Weatherman faction of the Students for a Democratic Society, which advocated the taking of power by a vanguard party that would be allied with the anti-colonial and anti-neocolonial governments and movements of the Third World (Sale 1974:364, 560; Jacobs 1997:30-31, 69, 160, 163; Varon 2004: 6-7, 50-51, 123).
But the key lesson of Vietnam concerning the imperialist character of US foreign policy was soon forgotten. The African-American movement, at the height of its black power stage, was brought to an end in a wave of repression by federal, state, and local governments (McKelvey 1994:147-51). And the white student movement disintegrated as a result of its confusions and contradictions. The Students for a Democratic Society was not able to sustain itself as an organization. We as a nation still remember Dr. King, but we focus on his “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963, with its emphasis on the inclusion of all regardless of race, rather than his anti-imperialist speeches and writings of 1967.
Although forgotten in the midst of our present confusions, the imperialist lesson of Vietnam can be recalled. It is a part of our national cultural heritage of popular struggle, and it can be found in the texts of our charismatic leaders, studied as sacred texts that reveal the dignity of our people and its thirst for social justice. The anti-imperialist lesson of Vietnam can be retaken by us the people of the United States.
If we understand the imperialist character of our foreign policy, and if we the people of the United States are committed to democracy, then we have the obligation to form a popular movement and a political party that are anti-imperialist and that seek solidarity with the neocolonized peoples of the world, in search of a more just, democratic, and sustainable world-system.
The imperialist lesson of Vietnam for the people of the United States has more relevance today than ever. The peoples of the world are rising up against neocolonialism, in Latin America and in the Islamic World. Popular governments are seeking a reorientation of structures of international relations: Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba, Argentina, and Iran, for example. China and Russia are developing cooperative relations with popular and progressive governments. We can try to use our power to destroy progressive and socialist governments and eclipse the potential for the emergence of a more just and democratic world. This is current US policy, and it is increasing the possibility that humanity will not be able to survive. But we have a choice: let us listen to what the renewed Third World movements are saying; and let us seek to understand their understandings, instead of interpreting their social and political movements from a vantage point rooted merely in our own experiences. Increasing our understanding in this way, we can become morally and intellectually prepared to work with the colonized, the oppressed, and the poor in the construction of a more just, democratic, and sustainable world-system.
A US foreign policy of North-South cooperation, proposed in the 1980s by Jesse Jackson, appears at first glance to be inconsistent with the interests of the people of the United States, inasmuch as its standard of living is sustained through the super-exploitation of the Third World. But the interests of the people of the United States will not be served, in the long run, by alliance with a global elite that resorts to war, military intervention, torture, economic aggression, financial speculation, and ideological manipulation in a desperate effort to preserve its privileges and to sustain an unsustainable neocolonial world-system. Our interests are best served by alliance with the peoples of the Third World, so that we can gradually come to live in a more just and sustainable world-system, less characterized by violence, conflict, confusion, insecurity, and fear. During the course of the twentieth century, and especially since 1980, the global elite have exhibited the worst forms of human behavior. On the other hand, during the course of the twentieth century, and especially since 1995, the peoples of the Third World have formed movements that define, uphold and defend universal human values, and in doing so, they have revealed the essential dignity of our species. It is with the peoples and movements of the Third World that we the people of the United States can and must cast our lot.
Jacobs, Ron. 1997. The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. London and New York: Verso.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1967a. “Beyond Vietnam,” Speech to Clergy and Laity Concerned About the War in Vietnam,” Riverside Church, April 4. Available in the Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Center for Non-Violent Social Change, Atlanta, Georgia.
__________. 1967b. “The Casualties of the War in Vietnam.” Address at the Nation Institute, Los Angeles, California, February 25. Available in the Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Center for Non-Violent Social Change, Atlanta, Georgia.
McKelvey, Charles. 1994. The African-American Movement: From Pan-Africanism to the Rainbow Coalition. Bayside, New York: General Hall.
Sale, Kirkpatrick. 1974. SDS. New York: Vintage Books, Random House.
Varon, Jeremy. 2004. Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, Vietnam, African-American movements, Martin Luther King, SDS, Weatherman, Weather Underground