Today we welcome a guest post by Jessica M. Frazier, author of Women’s Antiwar Diplomacy during the Vietnam War Era. In 1965, fed up with President Lyndon Johnson’s refusal to make serious diplomatic efforts to end the Viet Nam War, a group of female American peace activists decided to take matters into their own hands by meeting with Vietnamese women to discuss how to end U.S. intervention. While other attempts at women’s international cooperation and transnational feminism have led to cultural imperialism or imposition of American ways on others, Frazier reveals an instance when American women crossed geopolitical boundaries to criticize American Cold War culture, not promote it. The American women Frazier studies not only solicited Vietnamese women’s opinions and advice on how to end the war but also viewed them as paragons of a new womanhood by which American women could rework their ideas of gender, revolution, and social justice during an era of reinvigorated feminist agitation.
In this post Frazier discusses the parallels between the world of social media sharing today with activism tactics during the Viet Nam War.
Since the creation of social networking sites, maintaining contact with people around the world has never been easier, and it has never seemed easier to learn various perspectives on a given topic. But with the tendency to surround oneself with like-minded people, even (or perhaps especially) in the virtual world, comes the creation of echo chambers. With the accessibility of such sites to anyone who wants to sell a story regardless of its accuracy comes the corresponding problem of fake news. Both issues came to light following the recent American presidential race.
The desire to connect as well as to find alternative sources of information is not new. In the 1960s, many members of the underground press and anti–Viet Nam War movement similarly created their own networks of communication by traveling the world. Visiting Paris, Hanoi, Bratislava, Budapest, and elsewhere, activists took matters into their own hands by finding out for themselves what was happening halfway around the world, in Viet Nam.
Two such activists, Mary Clarke and Lorraine Gordon, members of an anti–nuclear proliferation group called , traveled to Hanoi just two months after U.S. bombing began over North Viet Nam. They refused to take American politicians at their word and wanted to ascertain what the Vietnamese wanted and how they could help end U.S. involvement in Viet Nam. It would have taken Clarke and Gordon about a week to reach Hanoi by flying through Europe, Russia, and then on to Southeast Asia. While in Hanoi, they met with members of the North Vietnamese government, the National Liberation Front, and the . The Vietnamese encouraged such contact, and eventually formed a committee to host similar delegations in Hanoi. All told, over two hundred Americans visited North Viet Nam during the war years, and many more met with Vietnamese diplomats elsewhere.
Because the Vietnamese believed women would be particularly effective antiwar speakers, the Vietnamese Women’s Union made a point of reaching out to American women. Apart from hosting delegations in Hanoi, the Vietnamese Women’s Union worked with Women Strike for Peace and other American women’s groups to organize conferences in Djakarta, Paris, Toronto, and Vancouver. American women from a number of social movement backgrounds participated in these events. Many wanted to do more than end the war in Viet Nam—they wanted to change U.S. society, and they looked to North Viet Nam for a solution. Chicana activist , Yippie , Black Panther , and writer all visited North Viet Nam to learn about life under socialism. Their experiences confirmed the need to refashion American gender roles, society, and foreign policy.
Many American women also found friendship, understanding, and compassion in their Vietnamese counterparts. Following face-to-face interactions, American and Vietnamese women maintained contact with one another through the exchange of letters, telegrams, and newsletters. Indeed, Vietnamese and American women formed part of a people’s diplomatic network that provided alternative interpretations of the war.
Some may be lucky enough to find this kind of camaraderie through social media sites today. While these platforms have the potential to provide the space for productive discussion, future historians will no doubt debate just how much such sites affected activist networks and information sharing.
Jessica M. Frazier, author of Women’s Antiwar Diplomacy during the Vietnam War Era, is assistant professor of history at the University of Rhode Island.