Fascinating study of the anti-war movement

October 21, 1990|By JOHN A. TALBOTT | JOHN A. TALBOTT,Dr. Talbott is professor and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

An American Ordeal:

the Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era.

Charles DeBeneditti

with Charles Chatfield.

Syracuse University.

544 pages. $49.50; $16.95 paperback.

It is difficult to know where to start a review of a book on a subject that touched everyone who lived through it so profoundly: with the huge sweep of its scope, with its account of the people and organizations who shaped it, with the broader implications it draws for American society, with its impact on the reader so dependent on his or her experience during this unique era, or with the details of the historical events themselves.

Because Vietnam has become such a metaphor: for America's lost power, for the naivete or shackling of the military depending on your views, for the rift between generations, and for a crusade that so drained our society and body politic that it was able to deal with little else.

Everyone will approach this book from a different point of view, remembering different pieces of the picture, and will draw very different political conclusions. My own background: I became convinced the war was a mistake following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, served in Vietnam as a psychiatrist from 1967-1968, was the spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, co-organized the Vietnam Memorial Reading in New York City in 1969 and subsequently was part of a research team investigating the psychiatric sequels of the war.

My most vivid and enduring memory of Vietnam is not the breaking through the boundaries of the hospital where I worked by North Vietnamese troops during the Tet Offensive, but the cheers of average soldiers that went up in the hospital courtyard when Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election. Upon my return to life in the United States, it was all I could do to keep from slugging Robert McNamara, who sat next to me one day on the Eastern shuttle. So I am hardly unbiased or uninformed.

But the scope and breadth, as well as the seemingly unbiased approach to the anti-war movement, of Charles DeBeneditti's book still is amazing. He starts by putting the movement in its historical context as a partial outgrowth of the antinuclear and liberal/radical political movements of the 1950s. He then moves through a historical account of the movement until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Whether this was truly the end, or Kent State or Watergate, is left up to the reader.

In this progression of history he covers:

*The people: Norman Cousins, Benjamin Spock, Joan Baez, I. F. Stone, Noam Chomsky, the Berrigans, Eugene McCarthy, Pete Seeger and Jane Fonda.

*The organizations: SANE, the Mobe, CORE, BEM, SDS and VVAW.

*The events: marches, sit-ins, teach-ins, draft-card burnings; Buddhist monk immolations, bombings, troop buildups, Kent State and Watergate.

*The politics: John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, the FBI and John Edgar Hoover, and Martin Luther King Jr.

*The media: The Saturday Review, The New Republic, I.F. Stone's Weekly, David Halberstam of the New York Times and the Pentagon Papers.

One of the most striking things that reading Mr. DeBeneditti's retrospective account provides is a sense of the diversity and differing agendas of the persons and organizations that coalesced into what usually appeared to be a cohesive national effort. There were Communists and businessmen, old radicals and new lefties, antinuclear "nuts" and anti-war "peaceniks," silly Yippies and intense Marxist-Leninists, aging Lincoln Brigaders from the Spanish Civil War and young Vietnam vets, and compatriots from all the other movements of the time: civil rights, women's and free speech.

There also were the people (and organizations) that moved on and off stage unpredictably, and others who were the movement's bureaucrats and stayed on between main events, keeping the telephone trees, mailing lists and card files up to date. Not everyone is mentioned -- there were those like my brother-in-law, who kept a weekly vigil in front of a post office in his hometown in upstate New York for over a decade. And too little attention is paid to the interaction between events in Vietnam and the United States, between the protesters and the Army grunts, and between returning soldiers and their neighbors.

This book probably will tell you more about the movement than you want or need to know; after all, it is a historical work. But it puts into broader context the little things, and places the little things into a comprehensive whole. It is not entertaining, but it is fascinating. Since every reader will see the book differently, in this respect it makes for even more interesting reading.

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