Excerpted from From Ike to Mao and Beyond: My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist
Malcolm X, Vietnam, and “Getting in Deeper”
Revolution #023, November 20, 2005, posted at revcom.us
The Assassination of Malcolm X
Shortly after this, in February of 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated. This hit me as a devastating loss for Black people, and also for people generally fighting against injustice, not just in the U.S., but throughout the world. I knew Malcolm X was seeking to link up with people in other parts of the world who were fighting against injustices and oppression. And I never believed that it was just Elijah Muhammed and the Nation of Islam who were involved in Malcolm’s assassination. Whether or not they were involved in some way, I knew that the U.S. government was somehow behind this. I knew enough to know that.
So this was another thing further radicalizing me. First, I saw Kennedy blatantly lying, before the whole world with the fate of the world literally hanging in the balance around the Cuban Missile Crisis, then you see something like this, the assassination of Malcolm X, and you know that somehow the U.S. government was involved in this. I hadn’t studied the issue, and a lot of the exposure of how they were involved hadn’t come out yet, obviously. But I just sensed this--I knew they hated Malcolm X and saw him as very dangerous to them--and it made me really sad but very angry too.
I had been aware of the transformations Malcolm was going through. A lot of my friends and I were following this very closely. People were debating about the split between Elijah Muhammed and Malcolm X, and most everybody I knew sided with Malcolm X. We saw him as more radical, more willing to take on the powers that be, more willing to stand up in the face of any threat against Black people and against their oppression. So I was following that very closely, and all that was an important part of what was causing me to undergo a lot of changes in how I was seeing things and what I felt needed to be done.
I don’t remember exactly where I was when I heard the news about Malcolm’s assassination, but I do know how I felt immediately upon hearing this. My friends and I were just devastated by it. There’s that Phil Ochs song that I mentioned before, "Love Me, I’m a Liberal." It is done in the persona of a liberal -- it is a biting exposure of the contradictoriness and hypocrisy in liberals -- it starts out with how sad this liberal was when Kennedy got killed, and even what a tragedy it was when the civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered, but then this liberal says that Malcolm X got what he had coming. That was a fairly widespread view among a lot of liberals, and Phil Ochs captured that with rather brilliant and biting irony. So there were a lot of very sharp arguments with some people that I knew, because I vehemently disagreed with that view.
Deciding About Vietnam
All these things were influencing me in making up my mind about Vietnam. Obviously Malcolm X was not only against what the U.S. was doing in Vietnam, but was giving these speeches like "The Ballot or the Bullet," where he sided with the Vietnamese people and talked about how great it was that these poor people who didn’t have a lot of technology were standing up and giving battle and delivering blows to this mighty, powerful, white power in the world, as he saw it -- "the great hypocrite America." So this was having a big influence on me.
Then there were a lot of debates that were sharpening up on the campus and in activist circles. One thing I remember in particular was a lot of argument about who was responsible for violating the Geneva Agreements that had been made in 1954 about Vietnam, which were to provide for the reunification of Vietnam and elections in 1956.1 France was getting out of Vietnam -- they’d been forced out by the struggle of the Vietnamese people, having suffered this devastating defeat at Dien Bien Phu. In fact, Malcolm X talked about that -- about how the Vietnamese sent the French running. As I looked into these arguments, and when I went to the university library and read the initial Agreement and most of the reports of the commission it set up, I found that their reports overwhelmingly demonstrated that the U.S. was systematically sabotaging this Agreement. I learned that Eisenhower, who was then President of the U.S., recognized that Ho Chi Minh would have been overwhelmingly elected to head any government of a reunified Vietnam. So the U.S. set up a puppet government in the southern part of Vietnam, the Republic of South Vietnam, as a separate state and refused to allow the elections for reunification in 1956. I was reading all the pamphlets and articles about this and listening to the debates, trying to figure out the real truth in all this, just like I’d done at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And I discovered that it was unmistakably true that the U.S. had sabotaged this Geneva Agreement and prevented the reunification of Vietnam, because they knew that things wouldn’t go their way if this Agreement were implemented.
All this was percolating within me, and I still remember very clearly when I got up one morning in early 1965 and got the newspaper, and there were big banner headlines about the brutal attack in Selma, Alabama on civil rights marchers. I said to myself: "How in the world could the U.S. government be over there in Vietnam fighting for the freedom of the Vietnamese people, as they claim to be, when this is happening to Black people right here in the U.S. and the U.S. government is doing nothing about the freedom of Black people right in this country, and in fact it is allowing freedom fighters here in this country to be savagely attacked by these KKK and the racist sheriffs and the authorities in the south?" So that was the final straw for me. I knew they could not be fighting for freedom in Vietnam. That was the thing that led me to be firmly convinced that I had to become actively involved in opposing the Vietnam War too.
There was still a lot of division, even in the city of Berkeley itself, on these issues, however. As I’ve described several times, I grew up in a pretty well-off middle class family. And among people coming from that part of society, there were very strong generational divisions developing. And there were also political divisions in line with larger economic and social divisions in society as a whole. Many Black people I knew in Berkeley and Oakland were much more inclined to oppose the Vietnam War because of the basic understanding that I’d come to by reading about Selma -- they kind of knew, "Look these people are not up to any good, I don’t care what they say, whether it’s Vietnam or here." I don’t mean to say that they necessarily had a developed understanding of all the "ins and outs" of the issue, or had read all the Geneva Convention reports, and things like that, but they had a basic understanding of the truth: "these people are up to no good in Vietnam." They had a lot of experience to draw on that told them that. So there were those kinds of divisions as well.
The ’60s were a time when the universities were opened up to broader sections of society. Previously, they were much more restricted to the elite strata. But it was still largely the middle class whose kids went to college, and largely white students who came to a university like Cal at that time. Among the students, there was tremendous conflict developing with their parents over a whole host of issues, including Vietnam. That was a big phenomenon of the time. For example, my parents were troubled by the Vietnam War, but they were still supporting it.
I used to argue all the time with my parents about this, and one time in particular I had this pamphlet written by Bob Scheer, who now works for the L.A. Times and is more or less a liberal, but at that time was more radical. He’d written this pamphlet making very strong and cogent, very well-documented arguments about the Vietnam War and what the U.S. had done and why it was wrong, and I was using this pamphlet to argue with my parents. And my dad started making what I regarded as nitpicking arguments. Some people might refer to this kind of nitpicking as being "lawyerly," but I had a lot of respect for the way my dad used logic in his legal arguments -- and I’d learned a lot from the dinner table training that he’d given our whole family when he’d sit down and say, "Okay gang, here’s a case, here’s what happened, what do you think?" I respected that and enjoyed it. But I didn’t appreciate this sort of nitpicking way in which he was approaching the question of Vietnam -- a way in which things would be argued to actually get away from the truth. I got very frustrated with this, and I took this Bob Scheer pamphlet and threw it across the hall and stomped out of my parents’ house.
There was that kind of very sharp conflict, and I remember at one point my parents said, "Okay, look, if you feel this strongly, write our congressman" -- our congressman was Jeffrey Cohalen, my parents were friends of his and worked on his campaigns -- "and give him your arguments." So I wrote a several-page letter laying out my arguments about what the U.S. was doing in Vietnam and why it was wrong. He sent me back what was pretty much a form letter -- and I probably only got that because he knew my parents and didn’t want to insult them. He just ran out the standard government propaganda about what the U.S. is doing and why it’s good for the Vietnamese people, and he quoted something from this professor, Robert Scalapino, at Berkeley, whom I, and many others, simply regarded as a State Department professor. That just infuriated me more and convinced me even more deeply that (a) what the U.S. government was doing in Vietnam was wrong; and (b) they weren’t going to listen to people who had real arguments about why it was wrong.
Getting In Deeper
At the time there were students who were aggressively supporting the war, like the Young Republicans. But other students, even kind of liberal students, were still not really sure or maybe wanted to cling to the belief that the U.S. was doing something good in Vietnam, perhaps because it was Democratic administrations -- first under Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson -- which were carrying out the war at that time. So there would be debates with these liberal students as well. And then there were people who would come from off campus and seek us out to debate. The anti-war organization on the Berkeley campus was called the Vietnam Day Committee, because they’d organized a big teach-in called "Vietnam Day" in the spring of 1965. People from off-campus would seek out the Vietnam Day Committee table -- and this included many soldiers who would do a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam and, if they didn’t volunteer to be sent back again, would then come back and do the rest of their time in the military somewhere in the U.S. Or they’d come on leave, on their way back from Vietnam before going to somewhere like Germany. They would often seek us out to argue -- sometimes they’d be in their uniforms, sometimes in "civilian clothes," but they would identify themselves as soldiers and talk about how they’d been in Vietnam and how we didn’t know what we were talking about.
Many of these soldiers would try to hold sway by acting as if they knew all about Vietnam, because they’d gone there to conquer it and occupy the country and oppress the people. They would give us the standard military line. This was before massive rebellion hit in the military. A few years later, there would be many, many soldiers and veterans of the Vietnam War with a very different viewpoint, but this was earlier, in 1965 and ’66, and the soldiers were still mainly defending what they were doing. A lot of times it would go from the level of all this bullshit about fighting for freedom to talking about their buddies. That was the last line with which the government and the military brass could keep the grunts fighting: "Look what happened to your buddy, your buddy got killed by these ‘gooks’" -- as they would call them, along with other racist terms -- "so therefore, you have to hate them and fight against them all the harder." A lot of times the arguments would break down pretty quickly to that -- what happened to "my buddies." But first they would try to give us more lofty-sounding arguments about freedom, in terms of what was happening in Vietnam -- the same kind of bullshit the U.S. uses about Iraq now. At that time, it was "we’re there to liberate the people from the communist tyrants."
And so we’d get in these big arguments and, after a while, when people would challenge them and show that what they were saying about the history of things and so on wasn’t true, they’d fall back on, "Well, I was there and I know." They’d demand: "Have you ever been to Vietnam?" I’d say, "No," and they thought that was the end of the argument. But then I would ask them, "Well, look, you’ve been saying all this stuff about communism and the Soviet Union and China and all that, have you ever been to the Soviet Union or China?" "Well, no." "Then what do you have to say about all that,if you’re gonna put the argument on that level? According to your logic, you can’t say anything about the Soviet Union, or China, or communism, because you’ve never been to those places, you’ve never been to a ‘communist country.’" Then they’d sort of hem and haw and we’d get back to the substance of the issues, once we got rid of that ridiculous line of argument. Besides being actively involved in demonstrations, what I loved most was being in all these vibrant discussions and arguments. Knots of people would form around the table and then they’d break up and another knot would form, and more people would come to the table and new discussions and debates would break out, over these tremendously important issues.
Sometimes the arguments got pretty heated, even with people that you would expect would be on your side. The hippie thing was generally cool, as far as I was concerned, even though that wasn’t really what I was "into," as we used to say. But I didn’t have any patience for some of the "hippie/dippy" stuff about "everybody do your own thing," without regard to what "your thing" was. One time I was at the office of the Berkeley Barb newspaper, which was kind of an alternative newspaper that was pretty radical at the time. And there was this kind of hippie-biker type in there. I was talking to some other people in the Barb office about the Vietnam War, denouncing it and exposing different things that were going on. And I was really ripping into Lyndon Johnson, what a mass murderer he was -- everybody hated Lyndon Johnson, because he was both the symbol of continuing and escalating the war and the president who was actually doing it. This hippie-biker type was listening for a while, and finally he pipes up and says, "Hey man, you know, like, maybe the Vietnam War is just like Johnson’s thing, maybe he’s just doing his thing." I got really angry and turned to him and said: "Well, what if my thing is just punching you in the mouth right now?" And he went, "Oh, okay, man, okay -- I get it man."
During this period, Liz and I had continued to become closer, and then to become lovers. In 1965 we got married. For some reason I had decided that I wanted to become a doctor. I’d switched my major from English to pre-med. I was an activist and wanted to remain an activist, but I was thinking about what I wanted to do as my life’s work, so to speak. I didn’t want to become a doctor so I could go to the golf course. I wanted to become a doctor so I could give people medical care who didn’t have medical care. But my pre-med studies lasted less than a semester. I remember having to go to chemistry lab several afternoons a week, and every time about two o’clock or so I’d think: why am I not at the Vietnam Day Committee table, or why am I not helping to organize a demonstration? So that didn’t last very long. I went to the university administration and asked if I could withdraw from school that semester. Because I had a good standing as a student, they allowed me to withdraw that semester "without prejudice," and I became much more of a full-time activist.
Liz’s parents had an interesting reaction to that. Remember, they had a whole history of being political activists and communists perhaps, or at least radical people who were communist sympathizers. They weren’t so upset when we became active in the Free Speech Movement or even opposing the Vietnam War. But when I took this step of withdrawing from school to become involved full-time in anti-war activity, as well as civil rights and things like that, they got very upset. They lived back in New York, and I remember one time her father was talking to me on the phone, and he said, "Look, this is very serious what you’re doing. I know what you’re doing -- you’re becoming a full-time revolutionist, and pretty soon you’ll be meeting together with other people who are revolutionists and making plans for a revolution." I argued vigorously with him that this wasn’t true, because at the time I didn’t think that was where I was headed. But ironically he, who had had some experience with things like this, could see it more clearly than I could -- and of course, in retrospect, he was right. I mean, it wasn’t bound to turn out that way, but he recognized the trajectory that I was heading off on.
1. The 1954 Geneva Agreements came out of a conference that included China and the Soviet Union, which were then both socialist, as well as the U.S., France, Britain and other lesser powers. This conference occurred in a situation where liberation forces in Vietnam, headed by Ho Chi Minh, had delivered a devastating defeat at Dien Bien Phu to the French colonialists who were attempting to maintain their domination of Vietnam -- and in doing so were receiving major backing and aid from the U.S. The Agreements set up a commission to oversee the reunification of Vietnam, which was temporarily divided into north and south along the 17th parallel; the Agreements called for elections in 1956 throughout Vietnam to establish a single government for the country as a whole.