Against the Vietnam War

Review: Zirakzadeh on Robbins

Mary Susannah Robbins, ed. Against the Vietnam War: Writings by Activists. Revised edition. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2007. 287 pp. Notes, index. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7425-5914-1.

Reviewed for H-1960s by Cyrus Ernesto Zirakzadeh, Department of Political Science, University of Connecticut
Published by [mailto][/mailto] (March, 2008)

Respecting Our Past
Mary Susannah Robbins has edited a wonderfully broad anthology of poems, reports, memoirs, and essays by activists who opposed the Vietnam War. She divides the literature into five groupings, each with anywhere from three to eleven chapters. Robbins avoids presenting illustrations of a single, generic "activist perspective." Instead, she has selected writings that describe antiwar activism from diverse personal and ideological perspectives. For the most part, the authors are openly sympathetic toward the movement, but a couple contributors are critical.Robbins has elected to be a passive editor. She does not begin each section with a discussion of how the chapters complement each other (and how they sometimes diverge from each other). Instead, she leaves the interpretive task of comparison to the reader. As much as possible, she intends for the "these documents of the past and the present, [to] speak for themselves" (p. xxiii).

The first set of entries provide historical context for the entire volume. David Harris, reminiscing on how opposition to the war redefined his life, urges fellow activists to employ lessons of the past to improve the United States in the early twentieth century, because "we as a people seem to be rapidly losing our capacity to engage in consideration of anything" (p. 3). Howard Zinn's historical overview of the Vietnam War highlights the hubris of successive presidential administrations that refused to take seriously the desires of third world liberation movements. Zinn also traces the multiple contributions of the civil rights movement and religious organizations to the antiwar movement, and reminds readers that opposition to the war often occurred off campus. In fact, surveys at the time revealed positive correlation between levels of formal education and support for the war. According to Zinn, "throughout the Vietnam War, Americans with only grade school education were much stronger for withdrawal from the war than Americans with a college education" (p. 27). In Zinn's opinion, the removal of troops from Vietnam testifies to the importance of everyday citizens and public opinion in shaping U.S. foreign policy. "Traditional history portrays the end of wars as coming from the initiatives of leaders,"Zinn says. But, he then adds that the Vietnam War "gave clear evidence that at least for that war (making one wonder about the others) the political leaders were the last to take steps to end the war--'the people' were far ahead" (p. 34).