Hardhats for Peace, College Kids for War

The surprising shape of public opinion in the Vietnam era.

Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory, by Penny Lewis, Cornell University Press, 355 pages, $22.95.

The Hard Hat Riot of May 1970 has managed somehow to be both widely forgotten and universally remembered. The incident itself, in which rampaging New York construction workers beat up hippies and demanded that City Hall raise the American flag, is a piece of historical trivia; most Americans born after it have little inkling that it occurred, and even the people who were around at the time are likely to be hazy on the details. But the image of a pro-war worker in a hardhat punching a privileged protester is enshrined in our cultural memory. It's what the late '60s and early '70s were supposed to look like: college kids who hated the Vietnam War and blue-collar patriots who loved the flag.

In Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks, her new study of social class and public opinion during the war, the CUNY sociologist Penny Lewis doesn't destroy that image so much as she adds all the missing images that complicate it. Yes, she says, the antiwar movement began as a mostly middle-class affair. Yes, those middle-class activists could be patronizing or otherwise act in ways that put off working-class Americans. Yes, unions overwhelmingly endorsed the war. Yes, the Hard Hat Riot happened. But there was a lot more going on than that—so much more, in fact, that the stereotype obscures more than it illuminates.

For one thing, the picture changes radically if you stop focusing on public movements and instead look at public sentiments. Throughout the Vietnam era, Lewis demonstrates, studies of public opinion showed that "working-class people were never more likely than their middle-class counterparts to support the war, and in many instances, they were more likely to oppose it." Americans with just a grade school education were more likely to favor withdrawal than Americans who had gone to college; only at the very high end of the education ladder, among people with advanced degrees, did dovishness begin to creep up in popularity again.

The movement also changed over time. Antiwar activists broadened their base. The "prairie power" wing of the New Left brought more working- and lower-middle-class students to the marches and teach-ins. Black and Mexican protest groups, which tended not to be as middle-class as their white counterparts, called for withdrawal. Some unions turned against the war, though the majority stood by the Pentagon. Antiwar action even took hold in parts of the military itself, sometimes in the form of traditional activism and sometimes just in the form of skin-saving disobedience. (That last item may seem unimportant, but it arguably did much more to influence the actual conduct of the war than any marches on the homefront.)

That gradual broadening of the antiwar movement often gets lost in histories of the era. Partly that's because opposition by blacks or Mexican-Americans or soldiers doesn't tend to get processed in class terms: GIs were more likely to be working-class than, say, protesters at Columbia were, but they were organized as soldiers, not as members of a particular income group, and they included patrician figures like John Kerry along with less privileged people. Lewis also notes a tendency for historians to focus on Students for a Democratic Society, probably the most notable New Left group of the '60s, and thus to stop the story when SDS fell apart in 1969. But there's nearly four years from the collapse of SDS to the Paris peace accords, plus another two before the fall of Saigon. If you ignore that part of the period, you miss a lot.

And then there's the effect of popular culture. Lewis looks at the ways Hollywood solidified the stereotype, noting that even explicitly antiwar stories, such as the movies Platoon and Hamburger Hill and the TV show M*A*S*H, managed to reinforce the idea that protest was a middle-class endeavor. (Yes, M*A*S*H. The book's best line is a dry comment that the program "technically took place in Korea.") A few of Lewis' statements here are off-base—I can't imagine why she would claim that the TV version of M*A*S*H is less antiwar than the movie that inspired it—but her core argument is compelling, particularly when she cites the sorts of facts that these stories leave out. Hamburger Hill, to give a particularly extreme example, "does not reveal one of the more striking facts about the outcome of the battle at Hamburger Hill"—that "surviving soldiers put a $10,000 price on the head of the officers who ordered the attack." (On the other hand, she neglects the chance to examine the flipside of those apparently antiwar Vietnam movies that sometimes reinforce conservative themes: apparently conservative Vietnam movies that sometimes reinforce antiwar themes.)

The very figure of the hardhat is itself a stereotype. Lewis doesn't mention it, but by the 1970s several hardhats were hippies—not in the sense of living in country communes or trying to drop out of mainstream society, but in the sense of growing their hair longer, listening to rock music, maybe smoking a little pot, and otherwise behaving in ways that might have gotten them beaten up at the Hard Hat Riot. While Lewis neglects that cultural convergence, she does delve into the complicated, contradictory strands of working-class politics in this period, crediting the historian Jefferson Cowie with the observation that white workers in the '70s were "vigorously left, right, and center." (She misattributes the line—Cowie was quoting Michael Harrington.) This is a favorite topic for scholars of recent American history, who are frequently fascinated by the fact that rank-and-file labor militance was on the rise at the same time that figures like George Wallace were able to find a blue-collar audience.

Unfortunately, Lewis tends to frame this in terms of a war between left and right for workers' allegiance; she doesn't really address the possibility that there are coherent points of view that draw on both sides of the spectrum. Worse still, she occasionally seems unable to understand the perspectives of people outside her left-wing tribe. At one point she reduces some Republican workers' views to "I can at least get mine," as though it were impossible for a blue-collar voter to believe that a social program simply hasn't worked. Social democratic policies that she supports, meanwhile, are described as "working-class demands on the state," as though those non-left workers have suddenly ceased to exist. The bulk of the book is careful and nuanced, but at moments like these those subtle shadings go out the window.

Fortunately, there is more to Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks than its lapses. Lewis' study succeeds both in upsetting the conventional wisdom about public opinion during the war and in explaining why those old stereotypes have had such staying power. Those are valuable tasks, even if the author sometimes stumbles as she completes them.

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  • ||

    The Hard Hat Riot of May 1970 has managed somehow to be both widely forgotten and universally remembered.

    It's like an enigma wrapped in a mystery inside a lunchpail.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    ...the lunchpail with which you're whomped upside the head.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

  • sloopyinca||

    The labor unions have had a strangely cyclical run in America. From virulently communist (1900's-early 40's) to largely nationalist (late 40's-60's), cycling back to communist (60's-90's) and now nationalist (2000-present) in the sense that they are resigned to largely being in the PubSec and waving the banner in an attempt to swell their rolls and peddle influence to the highest bidder, which is mostly Team Blue.

  • creech||

    Jesse, does Ms.Lewis mention at all the growing schism in the young conservative movement that led, in 1969, to the libertarian wing walkout from Y.A.F.? One could argue that this led to the rebirth of libertarianism as a separate movement from conservatism whose anti-war
    proclivities still reign today as something distinct from Team
    Red-Team Blue foreign policy "differences."

  • Jesse Walker||

    Jesse, does Ms.Lewis mention at all the growing schism in the young conservative movement that led, in 1969, to the libertarian wing walkout from Y.A.F.?

    She doesn't mention it.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    "Meanwhile, the Right was dividing into two factions, the Fascists and the Capitalist Dupes..."

  • VG Zaytsev||

    The "prairie power" wing of the New Left brought more working- and lower-middle-class students to the marches and teach-ins.

    Right, the vanguard used anti-war sentiment to sell socialism to skeptical working class people.

    A very old tactic.

  • Inigo M.||

    Right. Lenin used it when he promised peasants weary of fighting WWI that his system would bring them, "Land, peace, and bread."

  • Matthew Brown||

    Revolution is an easier sell when the status quo sucks, that's for sure.

    Protracted warfare is a great way of pushing the status quo over the edge into intolerable, too, something even the US better be careful of.

  • Raven Nation||

    "I can't imagine why she would claim that the TV version of M*A*S*H is less antiwar than the movie that inspired it"

    That is a pretty interesting claim. I've always thought the first "half" of the MASH run (with Henry Blake & Trapper), was primarily a comedy with the occasional anti-war theme worked in (granted, though, that the whole concept of focusing on a hospital was anti-war) while the second "half" (with BJ Hunicut & Sherman Potter) was an anti-war movie with an occasional comedy piece thrown in. For me, there is no comparison in the humor of the two "halves."

  • AlgerHiss||

    I can't stomach MASH now, and I used to love that show: Until I gained wisdom.

    Alan Alda and that freak'n piece of Marxist trash Mike Farrell make me ill.

  • Raven Nation||

    Agree. But Wayne Rogers was great as was McLean Stevenson.

  • What's that smell?||

    It's always fun and patriotic to beat hippies...or at least whip nickels at 'em.

  • BigT||

    Penny Lewis is a professor of sociology in the CUNY Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies

    A child during Vietnam. Ignore her.

    Nixon was elected in 1968 with a secret plan to end the war. McGovern lost a landslide in 1972 as the 'out now' candidate. An ignoramus like Lewis might take that as people favoring war more in 72 than 68.

    Not many people liked the Vietnam war, but many thought it was the lesser of two evils - Commie domination of SE Asia being the worse. The caricature that is preserved is hardhats beating hippies because that was the most clear and common image, not because it was perfectly accurate.

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