Howard Bruce Franklin's path, from his birth in Brooklyn in 1934 to his standing today as prolific author and professor emeritus of English and American studies at Rutgers University, is not a straight one. From 1953 to 1954, Franklin worked in a sweatshop in Red Hook and then, in 1955, as a mate on a tugboat in New York Harbor. From 1956 to 1959, he served as a navigator and intelligence officer in the Air Force; after being discharged, he studied English and American Literature at Stanford University for the next three years. From 1966 to 1967, he taught in France, where he met representatives of the Viet Cong. It was that trip that transformed Franklin into, in his own words, "a Marxist and a revolutionary." Back in the United States, Franklin would go on to co-found Revolutionary Union, the precursor to today's Revolutionary Communist Party, and become a member of Venceremos, a militant left-wing organization that advocated urban guerrilla warfare.
But Franklin's forthcoming memoir, Crash Course, is concerned less with his own history than that of his country, and how he fits into that ever-evolving narrative. Crash Course is bookended by the Vietnam War—the pivotal event that catalyzed Franklin's political evolution. Blending his personal journey with U.S. military and cultural history, Franklin's book reveals how a conservative patriot could grow up to join the communist vanguard, and how a nation celebrating the defeat of Nazism could go on to conduct a genocidal war in Southeast Asia.
Pacific Standard spoke with Franklin about Crash Course, how the Vietnam War still informs the U.S., and what activists today can learn from his generation's anti-war politics.
In Crash Course, you argue that the Vietnam War is at the root of the perpetual, global wars that the U.S. propagates today. How?
On September 1st, 1945, Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, which began with our own Declaration of Independence, to half a million jubilant Vietnamese gathered in Hanoi. Suddenly, two warplanes appeared overhead. When the huge throng recognized the planes as American, they united in a thunderous cheer, because they believed that we would be a stalwart defender of their independence and freedom.
Two months later, a dozen U.S. troopships arrived in Saigon. They had been diverted from bringing GIs home from France to carry a U.S.-equipped and U.S.-financed invasion army, including whole units of Nazi Waffen-S.S., to destroy the Vietnamese republic and restore colonial rule. The ships were met at the docks by uniformed Japanese soldiers, re-armed by the British with the connivance of Washington. Overlooking the troopships was a tower, where uniformed Japanese soldiers manned machine guns. From now on, the United States would be, as Martin Luther King put it in 1967, "on the wrong side of a world revolution." The Americans manning those ships were outraged. Every single enlisted crewman on those dozen U.S. troopships signed a petition to Congress and the president denouncing our government for participating in "imperialist policies" designed "to subjugate the native population of Vietnam." Thus began the American people's great movement against the Vietnam War.
How did America get from there to today's general acquiescence of the global, seemingly never-ending War on Terror?
I don't believe that the American people are in a state of acquiescence to the "Forever War." Acquiescing means giving tacit consent or agreement. The hawks, in fact, are complaining that Americans are "war weary." Where is any manifestation of support for these wars? In fact, any candidate running for president on a pro-war platform would go down in flames. [Barack] Obama ran as a peace candidate, which is of course why he got his unearned Nobel Peace Prize. In their debates, [Donald] Trump and Hillary Clinton each accused the other of favoring the war in Iraq. Clinton lost millions of voters, many of whom stayed home or voted for the Green Party, because of her hawkish views and actions concerning Libya, Honduras, Syria, and Russia. With both major political parties openly or tacitly supporting these wars and continually voting funds to keep conducting them, most folks just feel that there is nothing they can do stop them. One of the purposes of Crash Course is to show people that resistance to Washington's wars can succeed.
The Vietnam War played a huge role in your political journey from conservative to communist. How exactly did this transformation happen?
Like most Americans opposed to the war, I first thought it was just a mistake—something like the atrocious view still presented in that recent [Ken] Burns-[Lynn] Novick pseudo-history. We were so naïve and ignorant that we believed that perhaps our leaders were not familiar with the history of Vietnam and the Geneva Accords, and that teach-ins and letters-to-editors and publishing the Geneva Accords and demonstrations would show them the errors of their ways. It's embarrassing to confess my own naiveté and ignorance in that period.
Then, in 1966 and 1967, I had the inspiring and life-changing experience of working with the Vietnamese freedom fighters in France, while at the same time engaging in my own crash course in American and world history, as well as in literature and theory written by people of color. Although I was already a doctor of English and American literature, I had never in my many years of high school, college, and graduate school been asked to read a single work by any non-white author, much less by any Marxist. By the time I returned from France in the fall of 1967, I considered myself a Marxist and a revolutionary.
How did becoming a Marxist and a revolutionary change your perspective on the war in Vietnam?
Both my formal education and the views promulgated by the corporate media taught me not to think about class and imperialism, for good reason. Once you start examining something like America's long war against Vietnam—which otherwise might seem to be just a "mistake" motivated by "good intentions"—you can begin to understand why Washington started the war and continued it through six presidents, and why the next seven presidents and the corporate media desperately seek to make us believe that it was either a mistake or a "noble cause," as Ronald Reagan branded it.
Your book explores the connection between foreign wars and domestic repression. Is this purely a function of unpopular wars breeding discontent or are the brutal tactics developed overseas inevitably imported back home?
Briefly stated, they are all part of the same war: a class war waged by the rich and powerful against poor and working people. It was only after my crash course in France that I was able to comprehend what I had experienced working in factories and on the New York waterfront, where class war was waged with ferocious violence. For example, in [one] chapter I describe my radically changing understanding of my experience as a Pennsylvania Railroad tugboat mate retrieving the rotting body of a murdered longshoreman at the height of waterfront battles along the East Coast. Only after discovering that the U.S. government during World War II officially granted control of the New York waterfront to mob bosses and that the Waterfront Commission glorified by the movie On the Waterfront was actually run by the companies that exploited the longshoremen did I comprehend the war raging all around me.
Crash Course is written in a unique fashion, braiding together your political evolution with U.S. military and cultural history. Does this say something about the role of the individual in making history?
It's more like history molds each individual person and then groups of people change history. What we call "history" is not just one narrative, but a many-sided conflict of competing narratives. As a child during World War II, my consciousness was largely shaped by the narrative of what many have called the "Good War," a war fought against fascism and militarism and for democracy and peace—or at least so I believed, along with most Americans. As a young adult, I was molded by the virulent anti-communism of the late 1940s and 1950s, and participated in the public support of Douglas MacArthur and Joseph McCarthy and the Korean War. As an Air Force navigator and intelligence officer, I participated more directly in the insanity of the Cold War, but that experience also forced me to re-examine the history of our nation since the end of World War II and the propaganda we were being fed. As a decades-long activist for peace and social justice, I have performed my small role in a mass movement that has been changing history.
Is there one lesson from the Vietnam War or resistance to the war that you believe is most valuable for people to keep in mind today?
Our movement of tens of millions of Americans forced Washington to surrender and to accept, word for word, the terms offered in 1969 by the Vietnamese, who were fighting for the reunification and independence of their nation. This was a historic victory for Vietnam, for the anti-colonial global revolution, and for Americans yearning to live in peace. Although it kept our government more or less out of war for a few years, it obviously did not put a stop to America's militarization and war-making for long.
We find ourselves today in a Forever War, with America's forces in armed conflict in too many nations to confidently count. Hence many folks succumb to gloom and doom and defeatism about anti-war activism. This is a huge mistake. People need to recognize that the stupendous movement against the Vietnam War has never gone away. Demonstrations against the Iraq War were actually significantly larger than the largest demonstrations against the Vietnam War. More important, support for Washington's wars is now so low that it cannot wage the wars it wants to wage using all that hardware we have paid trillions of dollars to build and deploy.
So Washington fights stalemated and losing wars, while our struggle is also stalemated between the mighty military-industrial complex on one side and the mighty power of the people's desire for peace on the other. We are now locked in a gigantic tug-of-war, and we need to recognize that, sometimes, in a tug-of-war, you have to pull as hard as you can just to hold your ground.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.