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.

NEXT: Lou Reed, RIP

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  1. Isn’t this just the result of the college students going on to become journalists and overestimating their own influence? Of course all of the stupid working class people loved Vietnam. Had it not been for their betters, that war would never stopped.

    1. You mean the guys getting drafted because they couldn’t get deferments for being students?

      1. If you go back and look at news articles from the 1960s/70s, the reporters wrote in a different manner than they do today. Now the “reporters” frequently write like the New Left organizers during the Cold War.

  2. 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.

    Yup, I was born after then and have never even heard of it. We pretty much glossed over Vietnam in school.

    1. Same. This is the first I’ve heard of it.

  3. I call shenanigans! I seem to remember a review of this book posted on Hit ‘n Run before.

    1. Apparently so

      1. The old version has more helpful links.

  4. Oh, and White people, who was Lou Reed? Based on a 3 second reading of his obituary, I gather he was part of the Digital Underground, but I don’t ever remember any White guys in the Humpty Dance video. Help a brother out here.

    1. At the risk of walking into the joke, that’s “Velvet,” not “Digital.” Let me add that that video adds to my general hatred of live tracks.

      1. If you’re gonna walk in, at least shut the door behind you. 🙂

    2. White person here. The first I heard of Lou Reed was in Gillespie’s and Welch’s book (did you know they wrote a book?)

      1. What was the name of that book again?

    3. Here ya go HM. Everyone has heard this one.

      1. The best use of any of his music on film:

  5. I’ve never thought of “Hamburger Hill” as an anti-war movie. Unlike “Platoon” the events in “Hamburger Hill” actually happened. Is “The Longest Day” an anti-war film?

  6. The internet is failing me for a cite but Johnny Ramone claimed he beat up hippies in the hard hat riot.

    1. That sounds familiar, but the Hardhats were not the only ones who opposed whiny college students in 1970.

      1. No, but the future Johnny Ramone was a 21 y/o NY construction worker in May, 1970 so he was a hippie-hater in exactly the right place and time to be there.

        1. One of the features of Punk was hippie hating.

  7. On the Hardhat phenomena, something ironic I found in some recent research was in 1968 Abbie Hoffman’s close friend/bodyguard/chauffeur for the Yippie gathering at the Chicago Democrat Convention, was always seen in a hardhat, neatly cut hair, t-shirt and jeans. His idea was to “reach out” to the “workers”. Around the same time, Christopher Hitchens’ Trotskyite cohort in England was doing much the same thing, without the hardhat.

    In 1969 the SDS did not “fall apart” all by itself. It was taken over by the Revolutionary Youth Movement, which itself was fractured into RYM I and RYM II. Progressive Labor was in there somewhere too. ALL of the RYM leadership was trained in Cuba during their February 1968 visit, and on later “Venceremos Brigade” visits. Mark Rudd talks a good bit about this in his memoir “Underground.” Young people fled the new leadership in droves. Rudd quotes from his FBI file that he and the Weathermen were doing a better job of taking down SDS than anything the FBI could come up with.

    RYM I became the Weathermen, an ostensibly Castro/Guevara-ist group, i.e., Stalinist, and RYM II was run by red diaper baby Mark Kurlansky, which turned to Maoism.

    1. Incidentally, the Hitchens group went to Cuba about 1968 with the Venceremos Brigades to see if Castro indeed was the cutting edge of Communism and not centrally directed from Moscow. They determined that no, this was the same old Stalinism that they rejected.

      The Weathermen were a different story. They bought all the BS from their Vietnamese and Cuban intelligence officer handlers that Cuba was showing Moscow the way to the future and they were the “cutting edge” of Socialism. I suspect the reason behind all that false flag BS was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which spurred 1/2 hour of protest from The Diggers to the Youth International Party.

  8. A good story on this weekend when libertarians and liberals found enough common ground to protest government mass surveillance of its own citizens, since a similar alliance between the left and libertarians helped undercut the loathsome draft during the Vietnam War.

    1. The Left is not against conscription, they are just against being conscripted. You should hear the old fart SDS/Diggers/etc. now whine that the end of the draft is some sort of “Capitalist” plot to keep students from “organizing.”

      1. Yeah, I was just thinking of that fuckwit in the white house advocating for 2 years mandatory national service for young people. God, how creepy.

        He would have us all in black pajamas if he had his way.

        1. -that fuckwit in the white house advocating for 2 years mandatory national service for young people

          Is that documented? I recall him calling for a national service option (a program where, in return for non-military service, a volunteer would get pay and later something like GI Bill benefits), but not mandatory service.

          1. BO you’re the worst OFA troll ever.

              1. -Obama calls for military draft.

                Is not that Rahm Emanuel, not Barak Obama, calling for universal national service? I hope they do not ‘all look alike for you VG 🙂

            1. Did you have a site documenting that? Or is it ‘OFA troll[ing]’ to ask for something like that to be verified to be correct?

      2. -You should hear the old fart SDS/Diggers/etc. now whine that the end of the draft is some sort of “Capitalist” plot to keep students from “organizing.”

        Do you have any cites of that, I would be interested in seeing such a bizarre argument.

        1. Charlie Rangel calls for draft.


          1. Was Charlie Rangel involved with SDS? I do not think so. And Rangel’s bill was offered on the rationale that it would decrease interventionism, something quite different than what Austrian Anarchy posited.

            1. The Rangel logic you mention is exactly what the ex SDS guys say now too, along with ex Diggers.

              Over here in RightWingLibertarian land, we mostly find conscription to be slavery.

              In a book section about conscription, I did note both Mark Rudd’s exasperation and Rangel’s hand-in-hand. I saw Peter Coyote express the same thing in a book promotion video, but can’t find it so had to leave it out.

            2. Was Charlie Rangel involved with SDS? I do not think so.

              He is unarguably a member of the Left, so was the SDS. Kinda their trademark.


    “Policies designed to reduce the number of household firearms, especially handguns, might more effectively reduce the number of gunshot injuries in children,” Madenci said.

    Children are being killed and wounded.

    Nice leadingly phrased descriptions of study numbers. No specifics on the definition of “child”, no breakdown of intentional vs unintentional, or anything else.

    Everybody knows guns kill babies.

    1. “The findings were presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference and Exhibition in Orlando, Fla.”

      No surprise. I am guessing if you attend the National Conference of Eye Docs you will hear much lamenting on the evils off BB guns.

      Keep in mind, they never ever argue in good faith. EVER. Gun grabbers and enviros are the worst.

      1. I can think of one eye doctor who wouldnt want to ban bb guns.

    2. Other discussions of these stats routinely point out that “child” means under 18 or some such rot.

      1. Almost all of these studies have been found to show that they count “children” as being those under the age of 24.

    3. On the CDC website I’ve sometimes seen child defined as “19 and under,” or “21 and under.”

  10. I fail to see how this has to do with conspiracy theories

    1. That’s just the way they want you to see it, or not.

  11. The views of the working class have always been ignored in American politics. Be the issue taxation, trade, immigration, affirmative action, ect, the input of the working class, specifically the White working class, is never valued. The approved groups to analyze and fret over are Hispanics, Blacks, “Women,” gays, Muslims, Asians, and “youth.” Jews and the Working class are usually ignored when looking at public opinion.

  12. Study asserts that the Arctic is at warmest temp in 44,000 years

    New research shows that average summer temperatures in the Canadian Arctic over the last century are the highest in the last 44,000 years, and perhaps the highest in 120,000 years.

    “The key piece here is just how unprecedented the warming of Arctic Canada is,” Gifford Miller, a researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said in a joint statement from the school and the publisher of the journal Geophysical Researcher Letters, in which the study by Miller and his colleagues was published online this week. “This study really says the warming we are seeing is outside any kind of known natural variability, and it has to be due to increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

    The study is the first to show that current Arctic warmth exceeds peak heat there in the early Holocene, the name for the current geological period, which began about 11,700 years ago. During this “peak” Arctic warmth, solar radiation was about 9 percent greater than today, according to the study.

    1. So it was warmer 50,000 years ago, huh?

    2. Why do they say “unprecedented” in a sentence right after telling us it happened before?

    3. “This study really says the warming we are seeing is outside any kind of known natural variability, and it has to be due to increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

      So no proof?

      1. Since dragons don’t exist it must be humans. Unassailable logic.

  13. Robert Reich’s sour grapes are are very satisfying

    Now that the essential Republican plan for healthcare is being implemented nationally, health insurance companies are jubilant.

    Last week, after the giant insurer Wellpoint raised its earnings estimates, CEO Joseph Swedish pointed to “the long-term membership growth opportunity through exchanges.” Other major health plans are equally bullish. “The emergence of public exchanges, private exchanges, Medicaid expansions … have the potential to create new opportunities for us to grow and serve in new ways,” UnitedHealth Group CEO Stephen J. Hemsley effused.

    So why are today’s Republicans so upset with an Act they designed and their patrons adore? Because it’s the signature achievement of the Obama administration.

    There’s a deep irony to all this. Had Democrats stuck to the original Democratic vision and built comprehensive health insurance on Social Security and Medicare, it would have been cheaper, simpler, and more widely accepted by the public. And Republicans would be hollering anyway.

    This piece of shit is really the Republicans fault! Not the government’s fault, which can do magical things if given enough central power.

    1. -the essential Republican plan for healthcare

      The plan that absolutely no Republican Congressperson voted for and for which every single one has voted numerous times to repeal it now the ‘Republican Plan?’ The disingenuousness is stunning.

      1. something something Heritage

      2. But one time Heritage said they should do it sorta like this. So it’s totally the Republican plan.

        1. It is one of the sillier arguments I hear from ACA supporters: ‘it is just an old plan from the conservative Heritage Foundation, so what is the problem?’ As if everything Heritage has ever put out has suddenly become part of the GOP national platform, or as if Heritage is not an organization comprised of many thinkers and officials who release numerous policy papers, so there is rarely a single ‘Heritage Foundation plan or policy’ at all.

          The horrible law that is the ACA was introduced and rammed through with only Democratic votes. Every GOP congressperson has voted against it numerous times. The Democrats own it like no other law.

    2. Damn I hate them repubs!

    3. Success has 1000 fathers, failure is an orphan.

  14. Needs more death metal

    1. I concur, maybe something along the lines of “Hammer Smashed Face”

  15. somehow to be both widely forgotten and universally remembered

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