Columbia University in New York was the site of early US campus protests over Gaza. Photo: © David Grossman/Alamy

There are echoes of  Vietnam in the protests over Gaza

As in the 1960s and 1970s, young people are standing up for human rights and against imperialism. They offer us a glimmer of hope
June 5, 2024

History repeats itself. Never exactly the same, but its echoes rarely disappear. As a new generation grows conscious of Israel and Palestine, those echoes have got ever louder. But the times are different.

The period from 1965 to 1975 was marked by an explosion of cultural, political and anti-imperialist upheavals across the globe, a revolt against capital, against the sexual norms of the time, for the liberation of workers and women. The anti-Vietnam War movement played a significant part in helping end what some people (myself included) believe was a genocidal conflict—a war which left two million Vietnamese dead and millions more injured. Nearly 60,000 US soldiers perished and almost three times as many were maimed or disabled. GIs came out in huge numbers and marched outside the Pentagon, chanting “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win”—a reference to the Vietnamese communist enemies. They knew. They had fought there.

In 1968, the ghettos in every major US city were set on fire as angry black people (many of them ex-GIs) fought against the state that oppressed them. The depth of hatred shook white America and forced reforms on the White House. US campus occupations were larger in those days, and the police on most campuses were vicious. At Kent State University, the National Guard shot four students dead in May 1970, re-igniting the anti-war movement. “Revolution in the air”, sang Bob Dylan. 

The Vietnamese resistance triggered pre-revolutionary unrest in France, Italy and Portugal. Students in Pakistan toppled a military dictatorship. Fearing a spread of communism in South America, the US backed military takeovers in Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. In the middle of the Cold War, not a single European country sent troops to Vietnam. Even the British Labour prime minister resisted Washington’s pressure.

That was then. The occupation of Palestine continued, through wars and raids and settlement, but never has the plight of the Palestinians been as globally prominent as it is now. Western media networks have failed to report crimes of the worst magnitude, presenting Israeli propaganda as unvarnished facts, and encouraging hysteria about perfectly legitimate opposition to politicians and their funders. Mass protests in solidarity with the Palestinians suggest that, across the world, many don’t believe them. 

I cannot recall any targeting of the print media or the CBS and BBC during the Vietnam War. Not because they opposed the war, but because they made space for dissident voices and mainstream critics. Morley Safer’s nightly dispatches for CBS were electrifying. As cameras revealed US Marines burning a village, and women and children on fire, Safer’s cold anger came through: “This is what the war in Vietnam is all about.”

Today, the mainstream coverage of Gaza is a travesty. Some of these news sources, which once proudly published the Wikileaks revelations, will never be trusted again. The student demonstrators chanting “New York Times supports genocide” are a case in point. The Los Angeles Times coverage of the thuggish attack on UCLA encampments by masked pro-Israelis was a complete disgrace. Victims were shamelessly presented as attackers. 

It reminds me of words my late friend, the US historian Howard Zinn, spoke at an anti-Vietnam War rally in 1971: “And they’ll say that we are disturbing the peace. There is no peace. What bothers them is that we are disturbing the war.” When, before one of the huge pro-Palestinian demos in London, a veteran radio journalist asked me “What do you think of the home secretary’s [Suella Braverman’s] charge that these are ‘hate marches’?”, I couldn’t refrain from replying: “Yes, they are hate marches. We all hate her.”

With tens of thousands of Gazans being killed in what many people globally, including venerable human rights organisations and some governments, regard as a genocidal bloodbath (enacted by Israel and backed by the US and its allies Germany, the UK and France) it would have been a democratic tragedy if US campuses had remained quiet. 

The social and ethnic composition of the student body has been transformed since 1968. Today there are many Palestinian, Arab and African students. And the most heartening fact is that a sizeable number of young Jews have discarded Zionism. On their own they occupied Grand Central Station. In Britain the Jewish bloc marching for the Palestinians gets ever larger. Politicians and hedge-fund blackmailers can threaten as much as they like, but the war on Palestine has created a generational shift. This is the only good news around.