For understanding how grassroots movements can be organised, The War at Home remains a vital resource, writes Gabriel Polley
When veteran documentary maker and activist Michael Moore tweeted last year that the 1979 Vietnam War documentary The War at Home was “one of the best documentaries ever made”, he wasn’t exaggerating. Four decades on, in a political atmosphere defined by Trump’s and Johnson’s racism and misogyny, rising struggles against the far-right around the globe, and the threat of climate change and catastrophic wars, The War at Home remains essential viewing if we are to understand how grassroots movements can be organised and create real change.
Last year the documentary, directed by American filmmakers Glenn Silber and Barry Alexander Brown, was restored after a crowdfunding campaign. It is freely available for university students and members of some public libraries to watch on the website Kanopy. This is an excellent opportunity for activists to review a treasuretrove of historical experiences of campus and community organising against war, imperialism and capitalism.
Unlike most documentaries on the Vietnam War, there is relatively little footage from Vietnam itself, although what is included certainly sticks in the viewer’s mind. American bombers drone above countryside devastated by napalm and Agent Orange. Bombs explode with 25-foot craters, further scarring the landscape. Soldiers unload cartloads of bodies of Vietnamese civilians, innocent lives lost to a vicious and pointless war.
Yet most of the “action” unfolds in the United States itself. The visceral footage collected by Silber and Brown shows that what was occurring while the American military was bogged down in an unwinnable war in southeast Asia, was indeed a “war at home”. A civil war fought between the American government and state forces and the progressive sections of American society, students, working class communities and people of colour simultaneously embroiled in the struggle for civil rights and racial equality. It was a war less horrifying, yet not without its victims, such as the four student protestors killed at Kent State University in Ohio on May 4th, 1970, a few days after America’s invasion of Cambodia sparked a nationwide uprising in the US. Two more students were killed at Jackson State University in Mississippi on May 15th, though as interviewees in The War at Home recount, their deaths were less reported in the media because they were black.
The War at Home mostly follows the anti-war campaigning which took place in one city in the Midwest, Madison, Wisconsin, and particularly in the university. Protests against the US attacks on Vietnam grew from demonstrations of 150-200 people in 1963, to a mass meeting of 15,000 during the October 1969 Moratorium, when students shut the university down to protest against its administration’s support of the war and the research taking place at the US Army Mathematics Research Center on the campus which aided the American military industrial complex and imperial war in Vietnam.
During the campaign, the students’ tactics included an attempt at a citizens’ arrest on the commander of a nearby airbase; occupying the university administration building when tests were held on campus to determine which students would be subject to the military draft (students who failed the test were sent to Vietnam); disrupting a talk given by Ted Kennedy; again occupying a building to prevent recruiters for Dow (the manufacturer of napalm), which led to police using teargas and 65 students hospitalised; a student strike; the Mifflin Street Block Party, a protest-party which was again broken up by the use of teargas; and the bombing of the campus office of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, which tried to recruit students into the military.
The apex of the campaign was the bombing of the Mathematics Research Center on August 24th, 1970, which threw the American ruling class into a panic; Wisconsin’s State Attorney General warned at a press conference, “we’ve got what appears to be the beginnings of an outright revolution.” Whilst the attack was a success in that the US Department of Defense ceased funding for the Center, which had been totally destroyed by the bombing, it also resulted in tragedy, with the death of Robert Fassnacht, a researcher unconnected with the Center. Karleton Armstrong, the mastermind behind the attack, went on the run until his imprisonment in 1972; he was released after seven years, and interviewed by the directors of The War at Home.
What stands out today in the film is the extent to which the anti-Vietnam War protests were intersectional, combining with the civil rights struggle, the Black Panthers, early efforts to decolonise university curricula and establish black studies programmes, and other struggles for a better world than American capitalism and imperialism could provide. The US political system, with its mainstream parties offering little difference, was exposed; as Charlene Mitchell, veteran civil rights campaigner and the first African-American woman to run for US President in 1968 (for the Communist Party), explains in the film,
“there is no liberal alternative anymore.”
Eventually, after a huge cost to the Vietnamese people and tens of thousands of wasted American lives, the protestors in America and the Vietnamese resistance forced the defeat and withdrawal of the US. Today, The War at Home is a timely reminder that every struggle can be won by progressive forces, and no target is too big to be taken on. Activists in all struggles, from Palestine solidarity to combatting climate change, would be well-advised to spend a couple of hours watching The War at Home, and learning from the dizzying successes as well as tragic mistakes of the anti-Vietnam War movement of Madison, Wisconsin.
Gabriel Polley is an activist and a doctoral candidate at the University of Exeter at the European Centre for Palestine Studies