Hardhats for Peace, Students 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 City University of New York sociologist Penny Lewis doesn't destroy that image so much as layer on all of the missing images that supplement and 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 such as John Kerry along with less privileged people. Lewis also notes a tendency for historians to focus on Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), probably the most notable New Left group of the '60s, and thus to stop the story when SDS fell apart in 1969.

But there were 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.

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," a particularly bloody 1969 battle where soldiers were ordered to take territory with little strategic value and then quickly abandoned it—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 ostensibly antiwar Vietnam movies that sometimes reinforce conservative themes—ostensibly conservative Vietnam movies sometimes reinforced antiwar themes.)

The very figure of the hardhat is itself a stereotype. Lewis doesn't mention it, but by the 1970s more than a few 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 labor 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 militancy 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.