Potter, “The Incredible War,” Speech Text

PAUL POTTER, “THE INCREDIBLE WAR” (17 April 1965)

[1] Most of us grew up thinking that the United States was a strong but humble nation, that involved itself in world affairs only reluctantly, that respected the integrity of other nations and other systems, and that engaged in wars only as a last resort. This was a nation with no large standing army, with no design for external conquest, that sought primarily the opportunity to develop its own resources and its own mode of living. If at some point we began to hear vague and disturbing things about what this country had done in Latin America, or China, or Spain and other places, we remained somehow confident about the basic integrity of this nation’s foreign policy. The Cold War with all of its neat categories and black and white descriptions did much to assure us that what we had been taught to believe was true.

[2] But in recent years, the withdrawal from the hysteria of the Cold War and the development of a more aggressive, activist foreign policy have done much to force many of us to rethink attitudes that were deep and basic sentiments about our country. And now the incredible war in Vietnam has provided the razor, the terrifying sharp cutting edge that has finally severed the last vestiges of our illusion that morality and democracy are the guiding principles of American foreign policy. The saccharine self-righteous moralism that promises the Vietnamese a billion dollars while taking billions of dollars for economic and social destruction and political repression is rapidly losing what power it might ever have had to reassure us about the decency of our foreign policy. The further we explore the reality of what this country is doing and planning in Vietnam the more we are driven toward the conclusion of Senator Morse that the United States is rapidly becoming the greatest threat to world peace in the world today. This, this is a terrible and bitter insight for people who grew up as we did–and our revulsion at that insight, our refusal to accept it as inevitable or necessary, is one of the reasons that so many people have come today.

[3] The President says that we are defending freedom in Vietnam. Whose freedom? Not the freedom of the Vietnamese. The first act of the first dictator, Diem, the United States installed in Vietnam, was to systematically begin the persecution of all political opposition, non-Communist as well as Communist. The first American military supplies were not used to fight Communist insurgents; they were used to control, imprison or kill any who sought something better for Vietnam than the personal aggrandizement and political corruption of the Diem regime. The elite forces that we have trained and equipped are still used to control political unrest in Saigon and defend the latest dictator against the people.

[4] And yet in a world where dictatorships are so commonplace and popular control of government so rare, people become callous to the misery that is implied by dictatorial power. The rationalizations that are used to defend political despotism have been drummed into us so long that we have somehow become numb to the possibility that something better might exist. And it is only the kind of terror we see now in Vietnam that awakens conscience and reminds us that there is something deep in us that cries out against dictatorial suppression.

[5] The pattern of repression and destruction that we have developed and justified in this war is so thorough that it can only be called cultural genocide. I am not simply talking about napalm or gas or crop destruction or torture hurled indiscriminately upon women and children, upon the first suspicion of rebel activity. That in itself is horrendous and incredible beyond belief. But it is only part of a larger pattern of destruction, a pattern of destruction to the very fabric of the country. We have uprooted the people from the land and imprisoned them in concentration camps called “sunrise villages.” Through conscription and direct political intervention and control, we have broken and destroyed local customs and traditions, trampled upon those things of value which give dignity and purpose to life.

[6] What is left to the people of Vietnam after 20 years of war? What part of themselves and their own lives will those who survive be able to salvage from the wreckage of their country or build on the “peace” and “security” our Great Society offers them in reward for their allegiance? How can anyone be surprised that people who have had total war waged on themselves and their culture rise up and attempt to throw off that tyranny? What other course is available? And still our only response to rebellion is more vigorous repression, more merciless opposition to the social and cultural institutions which sustain dignity and the will to resist.

[7] Not even the President can say that we are defending freedom in Vietnam. Perhaps what the President wants to say is that we are attempting to defend the freedom of the American people.

[8] But what in fact has the war done for the freedom of Americans? It has led to even more vigorous governmental efforts to control information, to manipulate the press and pressure and persuade the public through distorted or downright false documents such as the White Paper on Vietnam. It has led to the confiscation of films and other anti-war material and the vigorous harassment by the FBI of some people who have been most outspokenly active in their criticism of the war. As the war escalates and the administration seeks more actively to gain support for any initiative it may choose to take, there has been the beginnings of a war psychology unlike anything that has burdened this country since the 1950s. How much more of Mr. Johnson’s freedom can this country stand? By what weird logic can it be said that the freedom of one people can only be maintained by crushing another?

[9] In many ways this is an unusual march because the large majority of the people here are not involved in a peace movement as their primary basis of concern. What is exciting about the participants in this march is that so many of us view ourselves consciously as participants as well in a movement to make America a more decent society. There are students here who have been involved in protests over the quality and kind of education they are receiving in the growingly bureaucratized and depersonalized institutions called universities; there are Negroes from Mississippi and Alabama who are struggling against the tyranny and repression of those states; there are poor people here–Negro and white–from Northern urban areas who are attempting to build movements that abolish poverty and secure democracy; there are faculty here who are beginning to question the relevance of their institutions to the critical problems facing this society. Where will these people and these movements be if there is a major war in Asia? What happens to the hopeful beginnings of expressed discontent that are trying to shift American attention to long-neglected internal priorities if this country is engaged in fighting a major war 8,000 miles away?

[10] The President mocks freedom if he insists that the war in Vietnam is a defense of American freedom. Perhaps the only freedom that this war protects is the freedom of the warhawks in the Pentagon and the State Department to experiment in counter-insurgency and guerilla warfare.

[11] Vietnam, it has been said, is a laboratory run by a new breed of gamesmen who approach war as a kind of rational exercise in international power politics. It is the testing ground and the staging area for a new American response to the social revolution that is sweeping through the impoverished and downtrodden areas of the world. It is the beginning of the American counter-revolution, and so far no one–none of us–not the New York Times, not the 17 Neutral Nations, nor dozens of worried allies, or the United States Congress have been able to interfere with the freedom of the President and the Pentagon to carry out that experiment.

[12] Thus far the war in Vietnam has only dramatized the more the demand of ordinary people to have some opportunity to make their own lives, and their unwillingness even under incredible odds, to give up the struggle against external domination. We are told, however, that that struggle can be legitimately suppressed since it might lead to the development of a Communist system. And before that ultimate menace all criticism is supposed to wither.

[13] This is a critical point and there are several things that must be said here–not by way of celebration, but because I think they are the truth. First, if this country were serious about giving the people of Vietnam some alternative to a Communist social revolution, that opportunity was sacrificed in 1954 when we helped to install Diem and his repression of non-Communist movements. There is no indication that we were serious about that goal–that we were ever willing to contemplate the risks of allowing the Vietnamese to choose their own destinies. Second, those people who insist now that Vietnam can be neutralized are for the most part looking for a sugar coating to cover the bitter pill. We must accept the consequences that calling for end of the war in Vietnam is in all likelihood accepting the possibility that Vietnam will be Communist. Third, this country must come to understand that the creation of a Communist country in the world today is not an ultimate defeat. If people are given–If people are given the opportunity to choose their own lives it is likely that some of them will choose what we have called “Communist systems.” We are not powerless in that situation. Recent years have finally and indisputably broken the myth that the Communist world is a monolithic one and have conclusively shown that American power can be used to give small nations some greater latitude from the dominations of large nations. And yet the war that we are creating and escalating in Southeast Asia is rapidly eroding the base of independence of North Vietnam as it is forced to turn to China and the Soviet Union, involving them in the war and itself in the compromises that that implies. Fourth, I must say to you that I would rather see Vietnam Communist than see it continue to be subjugated under the ruin that American domination has brought.

[14] But the war goes on. The freedom to conduct that war depends on the dehumanization not only of Vietnamese people but of Americans as well; it depends on the construction of a system of premises and thinking that insulates the President and his advisors thoroughly and completely from the human consequences of their decisions. I do not believe that the President or Mr. McNamara or Mr. Rusk or even McGeorge Bundy are particularly evil men. If asked to throw napalm on the back of a ten-year-old child they would shrink in horror–but their decisions have led to mutilation and death of thousands and thousands of people.

[15] What kind of a system is it that allows good men to make those kinds of decisions? What kind of a system is it that justifies the United States or any country in seizing the destinies of the Vietnamese people and using them callously for our own purpose? What kind of a system is it that disenfranchises people in the South, leaves millions upon millions of people throughout this country impoverished and excluded from the mainstream and promise of American society, that creates faceless and terrible bureaucracies and makes those places where people spend their lives and their work, that consistently puts material values above human values, and still persists in calling itself free? What place is there for ordinary men in that system and how are they to control it, and bend it to their will rather than them to it’s?

[16] We must name that system. We must name it, describe it, analyze it, understand it, and then change it. For it is only when that system is brought under control that there can be any hope for stopping the forces that create a war in Vietnam today or a murder in the South tomorrow or all the incalculable, innumerable more subtle atrocities that are worked on people all over, all of the time.

[17] How do you stop a war then? If the war has its roots deep in the institutions of American society, how do you stop it? Do you march to Washington? Is that enough? Who will hear us here? How can you make the decision makers hear us, insulated as they are, if they cannot hear the screams of a girl burnt by napalm?

[18] I believe that the administration is serious about expanding the war in Asia. The question, the question is whether the people who are here are as serious about ending that war. I wonder what it means for each of us to say we want to end the war in Vietnam–whether, if we accept the full meaning of that statement and the gravity of the situation, we can simply leave the march and go back to the routines of a society that acts as if it were not in crisis. Maybe we, like the President, have become insulated from the consequences of our own decisions. Maybe we have yet to really listen to the screams of a burning child and decide that we cannot go back to whatever it was we did before today until that war has ended.

[19] There is no simple plan, there is no scheme or gimmick that can be proposed here. There is no simple way to attack something that is deeply rooted in the society. If the people of this country are to end the war in Vietnam, and to change the institutions which create it, then the people of this country must create a massive social movement, and if that can be built around the issue of Vietnam then that is what we must do.

[20] By a social movement I mean more than petitions or letters of protest, or tacit support of dissident Congressmen; I mean people who are willing to change their lives, who are willing to challenge the system, to take the problem of change seriously. By a social movement I mean an effort that is powerful enough to make this country understand that our problems are not in Vietnam, or China, or Brazil, or outer space, or at the bottom of the ocean, but are here in the United States now. What we must begin to do is build a democratic and humane society in which Vietnams are unthinkable, in which human life and initiative is precious. The reason there are twenty thousand people here today and not a hundred or none at all is because five years ago in the South students began to build a social movement to change the system. The reason there are poor people here, Negroes and whites, housewives, faculty members, and many, many others is because the movement has grown and spread and changed and reached out as an expression of the broad concerns of people throughout this society. The reason the war and the system it represents will be stopped, if it is stopped, before it destroys all of us, will be because the movement has grown strong enough to exact change from the system. Twenty thousand people, the people here, if they were serious, if they were willing to break out of their isolation and to accept the consequences of their decision to end the war and commit themselves to building a movement wherever they are and whatever that calls for would be enough to end the war.

[21] To build a movement rather than a protest or some series of protests, to break out of our insulations and accept the consequences of our decisions, in effect to change our lives, means that we open ourselves to the reactions of a society that believes that it is moral and just, and that we open ourselves to labeling and to persecution, and that we dare to be really seen as wrong in a society that doesn’t tolerate fundamental challenges.

[22] It means that we desert the security of our riches and reach out to people who are tied to the mythology of American power and make them part of our movement. It means that we reach out to people all over this country, whether they are workers or whether they are in churches–wherever they are and make them part of a movement to change the system.

[23] It means that we will build a movement that works not simply in Washington but in communities and with the problems that face people throughout the society. That means that we build a movement that understands Vietnam in all of its horror as but a symptom of a deeper malaise, that we build a movement that makes possible the implementation of values that would have prevented the Vietnam, a movement based on the integrity of man and on a belief in man’s capacity to determine his own life; a movement that does not exclude people because they are poor or have been held down; a movement that has the capacity to tolerate all the formulations of society that men may choose to strive for; a movement, a movement that is willing to take the forms of protest, such as the teach-in, which have begun to break out in this country and intensify them and expand them throughout the land; a movement that will support the increasing numbers of young men in this country who are unwilling and are now beginning to be ready to reduce the fight in the war in Vietnam; a movement, a movement that will not tolerate the escalation or prolongation of this war but will, if necessary, respond to the administration’s war effort with massive civil disobedience all over the country, that will wrench this country into a confrontation with the issue of Vietnam; a movement that must of necessity reach out to all those people in Vietnam or elsewhere who are struggling to find decency and control of their lives.

[24] It is a strange way and in a very unusual way that the people of Vietnam and the people on this demonstration are united in much more than a common concern that the war be ended. In both countries there are people struggling to build a movement that has the power to change their condition. The system that frustrates these movements is the same. All of our lives, our destinies, our very hopes to live, depend on our ability to overcome that system.

This text used with permission of Dr. Leni Wildflower. All Rights Reserved.

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