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Campaigns Against the Vietnam War and Global Warming
September 29, 2022
by William P. Meyers

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Close SeaTac Now: lessons from Vietnam for activists

I was born on a Marine Corps base, in the United States, in 1955. My father was an officer by then, my mother had been a Woman Marine during World War II. In 1955 the French had been defeated in Vietnam, but the U.S. installed a puppet government in what came to be known as South Vietnam. The Vietnamese nationalists controlled what came to be called North Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh and the communist party. Ho and his allies had fought against the Japanese during World War II, and had asked the U.S. to prevent the French from re-establishing colonial rule. Used and then discarded by the U.S., they allied with the Chinese communists.

A woman lay gasping as blood poured from a wound in her side. Around her were clustered terrified children, staring in fear at the Marines. "Kill them, I don't want anyone moving," a Marine said.
—New York Herald Tribune, August 3, 1965

I lived in at least four different places before my father retired from the Marine Corp in 1961 and we moved to my home town, Jacksonville, Florida. I was raised to be a Marine. Being in the Meyers household was like being in perpetual boot camp. I don't think I became aware of the Vietnam War until 1965, which was probably true of most Americans. I have read histories of the period 1955 to 1965 since then, and am currently reading The Experts in Vietnam by Clyde Edwin Pettit. The kind of thinking that led the U.S. military into a quagmire in Vietnam is now very well understood, at least by historians and those who lived through it. I believe the struggle to get society to stop producing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, and to stop the many other forms of destruction of the environment, is very similar in nature to the struggle to stop the Vietnam War.

There was an anti-war movement in the U.S. before 1965. Anti-war groups tend to shrink to a minimum between wars, and that had happened after the Korean War ended. By 1966 anti-war organizing and participation was growing rapidly as reports leaked out about the U.S. and allies murdering civilians in South Vietnam, and as U.S. troop levels there climbed. A few politicians spoke out against the war, there was a bit of civil disobedience, but mainly activities centered on education work to inform the public, especially on college campuses. Given the Civil Rights Movement, women's rights campaigns, and the cultural changes in that era, the anti-war movement fit in with general trends among young people.

There are remarkable parallels between the thinking and actions of the American ruling class regarding Vietnam, from 1945 until the final Vietnamese victory in April 1975, and the thinking of that ruling class, and even environmentalists, in the response to the news that fossil fuel emissions were driving global warming that could threaten the existence of Homo sapiens. An understanding that the earth is kept warmer by the greenhouse gas effect goes back over a century. That burning fossil fuels could increase the CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels in the atmosphere was brought up from time to time, then forgotten. In 1955 Gilbert Plass revived the idea, and the science became clearer during the 1960s and 1970s. When scientists announced they were sure that the atmosphere had warmed significantly already, in 1988, it was clearly time to rapidly bring CO2 emissions to a halt. Here we are in 2022, with millions of people dying each year, and thousands of species going extinct, without a policy, in the U.S. or for earth as a whole, to quickly (within 2 years) bring CO2 emissions to near zero.

All of Vietnam is one big goddam booby trap.
—GI at Bien Hoa to Clyde Edwin Pettit, December 1965

The first step on the road to disaster in the Vietnam War was accepting a falsified view of the situation. The equivalent of that for global warming was assuming that if action was necessary, it could take place slowly. In neither case was this fact-free thinking. The rebellion against French imperialism was led by communists, and the ruling class of the U.S. was threatened by communism. Increased use of fossil fuels by humans accelerated with the industrial revolution, say around 1800. So it took CO2 emissions from 1800 to 1988, or 188 years, so create certainty that the globe was warming.

In both cases there was a constant flip-flopping between denial of reality and optimism that anything bad could be fixed by a plan acceptable to the American elite. In the Vietnam case, American officials and politicians denied the popularity of Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong, while exaggerating the (in reality nearly non-existent) support for the Roman Catholic regime installed in South Vietnam. When ever the Viet Cong won a victory, the same officials said the government forces, with the help of the U.S, were making headway, and in a year or so every Viet Cong fighter would be dead. In the global warming case the ruling classes of America and the world broke into two camps: those who just plain denied global warming and its cause, and those who thought some innovation, like LED lightbulbs, would result in a significant enough reduction in CO2 to stop the trend in global warming.

In 1968 I remember our talking about Viet Nam in history class. The son of two Marines, I still was uncritical of my own nation and saw the Vietnamese like any other enemy, only worse because of the global threat of communism. In a discussion I advocated nuking Vietnam. But by 1968 I had already left the Roman Catholic Church (my parents forced me to go still, but my mind was clear). I realized racism was wrong and there was something seriously wrong with my mother and her racist views. And TV shows that seem ridiculous now, like Star Trek, The Monkees, The Smothers Brothers, and Laugh In, penetrated my brain, as well as books. Of course as a teen I was bound to rebel against my parents and the Establishment. So by 1972 I was against the war and really worried about how to end it and get peace and justice in the world.

Larger and larger numbers of people in the U.S. were flipping, turning against the war during this period. The largest driver was the military draft. Most young men are not naturally inclined to killing other people, and few want to die young. I suspect in Lyndon Johnson had not instituted a large-scale miliary draft the war might have dragged on for decades. Just before I graduated from college, Vietnam was reunited.

Global warming looks set to win the war against humanity. The issue is not yet fully decided, but I remember that in 1990 the scientists said 2000 would be a tipping point, and in 2000 they said 2010, and in 2010 they said 2020. We are tipped, to say otherwise is denial of reality. I understand that most of the environmental movement does not want to say we have already tipped, because that enables even worse behavior by much of the Homo sapiens population: let us party until we die. I believe the true danger lies in refusing to be accurate about what has happened and what will happen.

We need to shut down CO2 emission now, and I don't mean over 30 years. True, there will continue to be severe consequences of global warming even if we do that. But it greatly shortens the period to recovery. While this article has focussed on CO2 emissions, the same applies to all other forms of ecological destruction.

Easy to say, but how to do that? I think we can learn from the campaign against the Vietnam War, and the limited success of the campaign against global warming to date. Education about global warming has been pretty good; most Americans know about it, even the deniers. The problem is getting people to act today on what has not yet become a personal disaster for them and might not for years or possibly decades. Also, not getting people who are for action to accept phony partial solutions to the problem.

Simple, specific slogans can help. Stop Global Warming is fine but vague, given the size and timeline of the disaster and the many contributing components. Now is the keyword. Stop Global Warming Now is a bit longer, but much stronger.

One of the big contributors to global warming is travel by air. This is also almost completely unnecessary travel. No one needs a vacation in Bali or Rome. Business usually does not need to be conducted in person. I'll admit to some gray areas, but it won't hurt to shut down the jet set. Environmentalists have talked about this for years, but I see a lot of people who should know better jetting around themselves. The slogan is strongest if a local airport is used. In Seattle the slogan I will use is Close SeaTac Now.

Critics who picket the White House with signs calling the President of the United States a murderer . . . are really helping the enemy.
—George Meany, Meet the Press, August 28, 1966

In mobilizing people organizers should keep in mind that some people will want to do more, or do different types of actions, than others. I believe in fighting global warming everything is fair game. Again, to use Seattle as an example, we will ask elected officials to close SeaTac down. When they don't, we can divide into two camps: those who seek to replace them in elections, and those who will demonstrate and do civil disobedience to make actually flying difficult. Nor do I have problems with Ministry of the Future approaches. Stopping global warming is our priority. If we can Close SeaTac Down, it will be like the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. The politicians and business people will see we are serious and they had better get out of our way. We can proceed to national and international bans of flights producing CO2.

We might even set up a group offering a reasonable compromise. Like capping the number of passenger miles in and out of SeaTac at, say year 2000 levels. Each Seattle resident would get a voucher for their fair share of air miles. If they want, they can sell their voucher to some rich ass who does want to fly to Paris for the weekend. And then we can reduce the voucher mileage at, say 5% per year, until such time as only truly essential flights go in and out of SeaTac. Or the nation. Or our Earth.

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