Revisiting the Antiwar Campaigns of the 1970s and Beyond

Saturday, April 1, 2023, 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: International Relations; Labor and Working-Class; Politics

Abstract

Popular depictions of the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era rely on the iconic demonstrations of the late-1960s, often contributing to a declension narrative. A reexamination of the different forms of post-sixties antiwar campaigns offers a better understanding of the movement’s impact. This panel will highlight how the antiwar organizers sought to infiltrate labor, celebrity culture, and mainstream politics during the seventies and beyond. Shannan Clark will examine antiwar activism within New York’s unions following the infamous Hart Hat Riot of 1970. These peace initiatives complicate assumptions about working-class politics because they also reveal the recomposition of a diversifying working class. Many of the unions whose leaders opposed the war were at the forefront of efforts to expand the social frontiers of the labor movement, organizing extensively among service workers, public-sector workers, and white-collar workers. These unions increasingly organized women workers, African American and Latinx workers, and younger workers, all of whom were very different from the middle-aged white tradesmen typically portrayed as representative of the working class. Austin McCoy will look at the founding of the Indochina Peace Campaign (IPC) in 1972 and the movement to end U.S. military support for South Vietnam. In doing so, he will examine the IPC’s “focal point theory,”—which was a theory of political organizing articulated by Tom Hayden. The IPC’s “Watergate opportunity” was a strategy hinged on an indictment of the criminal state—a corrupt executive branch and corporations benefitting from U.S. imperialism. In addition to devising and articulating a theory of social movements, the campaign to end the war during the 1970s represented a left-wing attempt to stop the imperial presidency. Sarah King will explore Jane Fonda’s activism as an antiwar celebrity and her subsequent efforts to advance a progressive agenda on- and off-screen. As opposition to the Vietnam War soared within the U.S. military, Fonda assembled an antiwar troupe that performed for and met with antiwar G.I.s. The publicized blunders that characterized her activism informed her subsequent turn as an actor-producer of commercially and critically successful films with explicit left-wing commentary. The Jane Fonda Workout, marked the full extent of using popular culture to advance progressive politics, with sales of the tapes financing the Campaign for Economic Democracy in California. Fonda’s career exemplified developments in post-Vietnam left-wing celebrity activism– an expansive progressive agenda paired with an embrace of commercialism. Michael Koncewicz’s paper covers how Tom Hayden’s antiwar activism shaped his shift to electoral politics. From his insurgent bid for the Senate in 1976 to his time as a member of the California State Assembly, Hayden refused to disavow his antiwar past amid his more mainstream electoral campaigns. Staring down an emboldened conservative movement that tried to remove him from the state legislature, Hayden consistently linked the Vietnam era to his opposition to U.S. intervention in Central America and Apartheid in South Africa. As a politician, the former SDS leader softened his rhetoric but also remained a persistent critic of American militarism during the 1980s.

Papers Presented

Labor for Peace: Anti-Vietnam War Activism, New York’s Progressive Unions, and the Remaking of the US Working Class

The assault by hard-hatted construction workers on anti-Vietnam War demonstrators in Lower Manhattan on May 8, 1970, quickly became a foundational event in an emerging narrative of working-class conservativism in the United States. Yet American workers and their unions espoused a broad range of views regarding the war in Southeast Asia. This presentation will examine antiwar activism within New York’s unions during the late 1960s and early 1970s. These peace initiatives are important not only because they complicate staid assumptions about working-class politics during this period, but because they reveal the ongoing recomposition of a diversifying working class. Many of the unions whose leaders publicly opposed the war, or which contained significant anti-war caucuses, were at the forefront of efforts to expand the social frontiers of the labor movement, organizing extensively among service workers, public-sector workers, and white-collar workers. As they pushed into these sectors, these unions increasingly organized women workers, African American and Latinx workers, and younger workers, all of whom were very different from the middle-aged white tradesmen typically portrayed by pundits and politicians as representative of the working class. In addition, this presentation will contend that at the same time that antiwar impulses in the labor movement indicated the contours of a new, more diverse, working-class that was taking shape, they also linked back to an earlier era of leftist activism within the labor unions of the Popular Front that had been stifled by the onset of the Cold War.

Presented By
Shannan Wayne Clark, Department of History, Montclair State University

The Indochina Peace Campaign’s Movement to End the War in Southeast Asia

In this paper, I will discuss the founding of the Indochina Peace Campaign (IPC) in 1972 and the movement to end U.S. military support for Nguyễn Văn Thiệu regime in South Vietnam. In doing so, I will examine the IPC’s organizing theory and strategy— “focal point theory”—which was a theory of social movements and political organizing articulated by Tom Hayden. I will also discuss what IPC called the “Watergate opportunity.” This strategy hinged on an indictment of the criminal state—a corrupt executive branch and corporations benefitting from U.S. imperialism. IPC activists used President Nixon’s Watergate scandal to argue that continued U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia was the product of criminal behavior by institutions and individuals. In addition to devising and articulating a theory of social movement, the campaign to end the war during the 1970s represented a left-wing attempt to stop what liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger deemed in 1973 as the “imperial presidency.”

Presented By
Austin McCoy, West Virginia University

“Jane Fonda, Antiwar Celebrity Activism, and Progressive Politics After the War”

This paper explores Jane Fonda’s activism as an antiwar celebrity in the early 1970s and her subsequent efforts to advance a progressive agenda on- and off-screen. In the early 1970s Fonda attempted to use her celebrity to publicize other activists. In 1971, as opposition to the Vietnam War soared within the US military, Fonda assembled an antiwar troupe that performed for and met with antiwar GIs. A documentary of the show (Fonda’s first foray into producing) was released the same month that she infamously journeyed to Hanoi. While Fonda understood that infusing entertainment with politics could be effective beyond the music and television industries, where antiwar commentary frequently appeared by the late 1960s, her missteps as a celebrity activist drowned out her message. The blunders that characterized Fonda’s activism in the early 1970s informed her subsequent turn as an actor-producer of commercially and critically successful films with explicit left-wing commentary. Fonda produced, starred in, and promoted Coming Home (1978), which told the story of an antiwar Vietnam veteran, followed by The China Syndrome (1979) and 9 to 5 (1980) – all films that highlighted causes Fonda and her husband Tom Hayden campaigned for off-screen. The Jane Fonda Workout, beginning in 1982, marked the full extent of Fonda’s commitment to using popular culture to advance progressive politics, with sales of the Workout VHS tapes financing Hayden’s political organization. Fonda’s film- (and video-) making exemplified developments in left-wing celebrity activism after the Vietnam War – an expansive progressive agenda paired with an embrace of commercialism.

Presented By
Sarah King, University of South Carolina Aiken

The Radical Inside the System: Tom Hayden’s Antiwar Politics and His Turn to Mainstream Politics

This paper will cover how Tom Hayden’s antiwar activism colored his shift to electoral politics in the late-1970s and 1980s and affected his political career. From his insurgent bid for the Senate to his time as a member of the California State Assembly, Hayden never disavowed his antiwar past during his political career. Instead, Hayden consistently linked his opposition to the Vietnam War to his condemnations of U.S. intervention in Central America and Apartheid in South Africa. Building off of the Indochina Peace Campaign’s lobbying effort to cut funding to South Vietnam, Hayden and his then-wife Jane Fonda channeled their resources into California politics. The two established the political action committee Campaign for Economic Democracy in 1976 to help pass progressive initiatives that focused on rent control and the environment while electing dozens to elected office across the state. The organization prioritized domestic issues but still provided vital progressive critiques of U.S. foreign policy. Amid his more mainstream electoral campaigns, including his successful campaign for a State Assembly seat in 1982, the left accused him of opportunism when he softened his rhetoric and visited Israeli-occupied Lebanon in 1982. Still, his past made him a controversial figure in California politics. Staring down an emboldened conservative movement that tried to remove him from the state legislature, Hayden remained a persistent critic of American militarism during the Reagan era. When the left was in retreat, Hayden tried to keep the antiwar movement alive within the mainstream.

Presented By
Michael P. Koncewicz, New York University- Tamiment Library

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: David Parsons, Nostalgia Trap
David Parsons, Ph.D., received his Doctorate in History from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). He is a professor and writer whose work focuses on the political, social, and cultural history of 20th century America. He has taught courses in U.S. history at CUNY and New York University, and hosts a long-running weekly podcast on history and politics called Nostalgia Trap. His book, "Dangerous Grounds: Antiwar Coffeehouses and Military Dissent in the Vietnam Era," explores links between the civilian peace movement and the American military.

Presenter: Shannan Wayne Clark, Department of History, Montclair State University
Shannan Clark is an Associate Professor at Montclair State University, where he teaches a range of courses examining the social, political, and cultural history of the modern United States in addition to courses on historical methods. He is the author of The Making of the American Creative Class: New York’s Culture Workers and Twentieth-Century Consumer Capitalism, published by Oxford University Press.

Presenter: Sarah King, University of South Carolina Aiken
Sarah King is an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina Aiken. Her work explores the intersection of popular culture and political activism. She is currently revising her dissertation, "Celebrity Activism in the Vietnam War Era," into a book manuscript. Her article, “The FTA Show: Jane Fonda, the GI Movement, and Celebrity Activism in the Late Vietnam War,” was published in Peace & Change. Sarah earned a PhD in history from Binghamton University in 2019.

Presenter: Michael P. Koncewicz, New York University- Tamiment Library
Michael Koncewicz is the Michael Nash Research Scholar and Ewen Center Coordinator at the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University. He previously worked at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum where he contributed to the museum’s nonpartisan Watergate exhibit. He is the author of They Said ‘No’ to Nixon: Republicans Who Stood Up to the President’s Abuses of Power, published by University of California Press. He received his PhD in History from the University of California Irvine, and teaches at New York University and Hunter College. He is currently working on a biography of Tom Hayden and a history of the Vietnam Moratorium.

Presenter: Austin McCoy, West Virginia University
Austin McCoy is an Assistant Professor at West Virginia University. His research and teaching interests include African American History, the U.S. Left, labor, and social movements. McCoy is working on a book project tentatively entitled, The Quest for Democracy: Black Power, New Left, and Progressive Politics in the Post-Industrial Midwest, which analyzes campaigns for participatory democracy in economics, foreign policy, and criminal justice after 1967.