The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam Summary

Tom Wells


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

It would be an impossibility to write a complete history of the Vietnam antiwar movement, but freelance writer Tom Wells gives it a pretty good try. A sociologist who received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, he studied under New Left “heavy” Todd Gitlin, who has written a lucid “Foreword” that underscores how the war left a still-unhealed gash in the heart of the United States. Taking an encyclopedic rather than an analytic approach, and interweaving information about the activities of policy-makers as well as their critics, the author aims to demonstrate the considerable effects each had upon the other. Wells contends that the antiwarriors wielded more power than they realized in imposing limits on the warriors. Thus the book’s structural anchor is an irony: that in their frustration over their seeming inability to halt the senseless carnage, the antiwarriors squandered opportunities to have even more impact on events. Even if they could not stop the carnage, their protests narrowed the parameters of the conflict, gave two presidents fits, and helped drive them from office.

Although at times absorbing, the book is not without flaws. While Wells recognizes that the antiwar movement was amorphous and decentralized, his emphasis is on national organizations and large-scale activities. Thus, his recapitulation of the internecine feuds within such groups as the Students for a Democratic Society and the National Mobilization Committee covers familiar ground, with fewer interpretive insights than found in Kirkpatrick Sale’s SDS (1973), Todd Gitlin’sThe Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left (1980), Jim Miller’s Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (1987), or Kenneth J. Heineman’s Campus Wars: The Peace Movement at American State Universities in the Vietnam Era (1993).

Part of a burgeoning literature on antiwar protest during the 1960’s, The War Within lacks the drama of W. J. Rorabaugh’s Berkeley at War (1989), the scope of Charles DeBenedetti and Charles Chatfield’s An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era (1990), the structural precision of Melvin Small and William D. Hoover’s Give Peace a Chance: Exploring the Vietnam Antiwar Movement (1992), or the sweep of Charles Chatfield’s The American Peace Movement: Ideals and Activism (1992). It does not discuss in adequate detail the relationship between the antiwar movement and civil rights protests, feminism, or the counterculture. Many leaders and foot soldiers brought into the movement a radical agenda, which Wells does not fully explain. He provides little historical background into pacifism, the “Old Left,” or specific sectarian groups such as PL (Progressive Labor) and SWP (Socialist Workers Party), which he tends to blame unfairly for the fragmentation of the movement. Without knowing the details or extent of governmental infiltration (that book has yet to be written), it is impossible to understand the intricacies or assess blame for the splintering of the antiwar movement.

What makes The War Within especially unwieldy is its rather pedestrian account of the prosecution of the war by the Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon adminis-trations, something done comprehensively and with a journalist’s flair in Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History (1983), and from a diplomatic history perspective in George C. Herring’s America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (1979; 2d ed., 1986), to mention only two of many such efforts. Having interviewed a surprising number of officials who served in the Johnson and Nixon administrations, the author uses this material in order to buttress his central but impossible-to-prove thesis that the antiwar movement was a constraining force in limiting, de-escalating, and, finally, ending the war.

Commencing with an account of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, followed by winter meetings of the Young Socialist Alliance and SDS, at which Vietnam was relegated to secondary importance, Wells emphasizes the conspiratorial nature of the quiet escalation of the war. It was as if U.S. foreign policy were an iceberg, the most important features hidden from the populace. With SDS committing the “colossal blunder” of opting for ghetto organizing instead of antiwar protest, it fell to mostly middle-class, middle-aged pacifists and professors to hold vigils, teach-ins, and letter-writing campaigns. Women Strike for Peace, the Committee for Nonviolent Action, SANE, and the like generally shied away from acts of civil disobedience for fear of alienating...

(The entire section is 1928 words.)