The Vietnam War made May ’68 possible. The war prompted young radicals to experiment with new forms of struggle, reinvent radical internationalism, and ultimately embrace revolution. Transnational exchanges and a changing political conjuncture pushed some radicals to argue that the best way to aid their Vietnamese comrades abroad was to bring the war home to France. Their efforts to translate the exemplary struggles in Vietnam into a domestic idiom helped trigger the events of May ’68. Seen in this transnational context, May ’68 was one front among many in a broader, worldwide anti-imperialist struggle, led primarily by the Vietnamese. In France, Vietnam became a universal symbol of revolt, supercharging other struggles, while radicals elsewhere were inspired to translate the French May into their own national contexts. This article shows just how profoundly Vietnam shaped the radical imaginary of the “68 years.”
La guerre du Vietnam a rendu Mai 68 possible. La guerre a permis à de jeunes radicaux d'expérimenter de nouvelles formes de lutte, de reconstruire un internationalisme fort et de se lancer dans la révolution. Les échanges transnationaux ainsi qu'une nouvelle conjoncture politique entraînèrent certains radicaux à affirmer que la meilleure façon d'aider leurs camarades vietnamiens était d'importer la guerre en métropole. Leurs efforts pour traduire les luttes exemplaires des Vietnamiens dans le contexte français participèrent au déclenchement des événements de Mai 68. Pris dans une perspective transnationale, Mai 68 était un front parmi d'autres dans une lutte anti-impérialiste globale, conduite principalement par les Vietnamiens. En France, le Vietnam devint un symbole universel de révolte, s'articulant avec d'autres luttes, tandis que les événements poussèrent les radicaux d'autres pays à traduire le Mai français dans leurs propres contextes nationaux. Cet article montre que le Vietnam a façonné profondément l'imaginaire radical des « années 68 ».
In the 1967 omnibus film Far from Vietnam, Jean-Luc Godard muses aloud about what it means to support a struggle when one is so far, in every sense of the word, from the scene.1 He admits, with brutal honesty, that he wanted to travel to Vietnam, but the Democratic Republic of Vietnam declined his offer. This refusal, he confesses, was for the best. Driven by altruism, yet knowing nothing of their revolutionary struggle, he might have ended up “doing them more harm than good.” Vietnam was not his struggle; how could he possibly film it? You cannot “talk about bombs when they are not falling on your head,” he sagaciously pointed out.2
Godard posed one of the most important political questions of the period: how could one most effectively demonstrate solidarity with a struggle that is not one's own? Antiwar radicals in France experimented with many forms of international solidarity in the 1960s: they formed grassroots committees in support of the National Liberation Front for South Vietnam (NLF); hosted teach-ins; held mass marches; agitated in neighborhoods, schools, and factories; assisted deserting GIs; and put the United States on trial for genocide. Some even attempted to organize international brigades to combat US imperialism directly in Southeast Asia. But by the end of the decade, an escalating war, an increasingly militant global political landscape, and a new conception of anti-imperialist struggle pushed thousands of radicals to embrace one form of solidarity above all others.
“Instead of invading Vietnam with generosity,” Godard explained, we must “let Vietnam invade us.”3 In other words, the best way to support the Vietnamese revolution would be to “create a Vietnam” in France. For Godard in 1967, this meant looking to the struggles already unfolding in France, such as the Rhodiaceta factory strike in Besançon, which prefigured the explosive events of May 1968. While Far from Vietnam became enormously important for the young radicals later involved in the May events, the directors debuted the film not in a Parisian theater but inside the Rhodiaceta plant itself. The connection was not lost on the audience. Georges Maurivard, a Rhodiaceta worker, introduced the film by affirming: “It will be about us.”4
Neither Godard nor any of the thousands of radicals who pursued this strategy invented the idea in the 1960s, but they did, through a dense transnational network, reanimate it for their own historical conjuncture. Some French radicals, especially youths, formed a new antiwar international to coordinate their efforts. Through these exchanges, many came to believe that the best way to assist their Vietnamese comrades would be to open a second front within the imperialist countries of North America and Western Europe. The best form of solidarity, therefore, was one that could reproduce the distant struggle they sought to support. To do so, they translated that struggle into their own particular contexts.5 In France, young radicals' efforts to bring home the anti-imperialist revolution in Vietnam triggered a series of events that would set off May ’68. Internationally, just as Vietnamese revolutionaries inspired the French, the events of May ’68 inspired radicals elsewhere, who in turn tried to translate May ’68 into their own domestic vernaculars.
The importance of antiwar struggle for May ’68 has not been lost on historians. Scholars have shown how Vietnam radicalized activists, provided radicals with an opportunity to bypass the French Communist Party (PCF), and allowed them to experiment with new tactics, strategies, and organizations that would take center stage during May.6 I build on this literature to show that Vietnam also served as the precondition for a new internationalism, inspired radicals to embrace revolution, and shaped their very political horizon. In the minds of many radicals, Vietnam soon became a universal symbol of revolt, supercharging other struggles across the political terrain. For that reason, even though it seemed to fade as a particular issue after May ’68, Vietnam continued to shape radical politics throughout the “’68 years.” Even when totally engrossed in domestic struggles, radicals never forgot the reality of Vietnam.
This focus on young radicals may at first appear at odds with recent interpretations of May ’68, which have rightly moved away from a narrow focus on student activists in the French capital. Historians have expanded the timeline, looked outside Paris, and unearthed the stories of forgotten actors. They have shown that May ’68 cannot be reduced to the actions of a handful of revolutionary youth groups, even if they played an undeniable role in sparking the May events.7 My renewed focus seeks not to challenge those insights but to underscore them. By situating May within a wider, transnational field, I show that those radical French youths long placed at the center of the May events actually stood on the periphery of a vast wave of global contestation. Radicals saw themselves as junior partners in a worldwide anti-imperialist struggle and regarded May as nothing more than another front in the revolutionary wave led by Vietnam. In other words, political developments in Western countries like France in the 1960s cannot be understood in isolation; they were contingent upon a vast transnational struggle, centered on what was then called the “Third World” and, above all, in Vietnam.8 Thus, although May ’68 was no doubt overdetermined, the Vietnam War served as one of its essential conditions of possibility.
Internationalizing the Antiwar Struggle
French antiwar struggles emerged from a vast, though sometimes invisible, political ecosystem shaped by the accumulation of prior struggles, the most important of which was undoubtedly the movement against the Algerian War. The war changed the entire landscape of French politics, making possible future struggles against the Vietnam War. The Algerian War politicized a generation of young people, who gained invaluable organizing experiences. It also galvanized intellectuals to unify as an engaged political force. To protest the war, they made use of the radical press, formed antiwar committees, and collectively authored declarations that endorsed Algerian independence, encouraged resistance and desertion, and supported those radicals directly assisting the National Liberation Front (FLN).9 Indeed, many radicals became deeply involved in the struggle for Algerian independence, collaborating with the FLN, laundering money, forging documents, distributing illegal literature, and assisting deserters, to list only a few examples. This organized opposition to the Algerian War taught radicals important skills, created durable activist networks, helped turn public opinion in favor of national liberation, and strengthened radical currents that began to challenge the PCF, which had adopted a wait-and-see attitude to the war.10
Thus, when the Vietnam War began to make headlines, a core of activists in France were already radicalized, networked, and battle-tested. Vietnam in turn transformed that core, facilitating the formation of a coherent, organized, and alternative radical force within French politics. Crucially, as historians have shown, the Vietnam War consummated the split between radicals and the PCF, allowing the former to effectively outflank the latter.11 Whereas the PCF broadcasted an ambiguous call for “Peace in Vietnam,” radicals countered with the intransigent “NLF will win!” Whereas the Communist Party sponsored only the most moderate actions, radicals called for militant, confrontational struggle. And whereas the PCF leadership saw Vietnam as only another tragic issue in need of resolution, the radicals regarded the war as the focal point of a worldwide struggle. For the radicals, the objective was not simply to end the war in Vietnam but to rapidly transform the global system that made such wars possible in the first place. Indeed, this is the primary reason why these activists can be categorized as radicals: true to the word's etymology, they all sought to grasp the fundamental “roots” of the issue, despite their internal disagreements.
With Vietnam, French radicals truly came into their own.12 To be sure, radicals were far from unified, and a number of competing currents rushed to seize the space forced open to the left of the PCF. The future leaders of the Parti Communiste Marxiste-Léninistes de France, a pro-Chinese splinter from the PCF, organized the Centre Information Vietnam in early 1967.13 A far more significant initiative came from the Union des Jeunesses Communistes Marxistes-Léninistes (UJCml), a Maoist youth group that originated within the PCF.14 After their expulsion from the Union des Etudiants Communistes (UEC), the PCF's youth organization, these students formed an independent group on December 10, 1966, making antiwar activity one of their highest priorities.15 Their efforts soon resulted in the Comités Vietnam de Base (CVBs), flexible, grassroots, antiwar organizations embedded in neighborhoods, schools, and factories.16
But the most successful of these autonomous radical antiwar initiatives was the Comité Vietnam National (CVN). Like the CVBs, the CVN sponsored militant actions, adopted a radical attitude toward the war, and encouraged grassroots committees across France—its principal organizer, Laurent Schwartz, even called for teach-ins at Renault.17 Yet the two formations differed in crucial respects. First, the CVBs offered unconditional allegiance to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), whereas the CVN, though still supporting North Vietnam against American aggression, remained more cautious. Second, unlike the CVBs, the much larger CVN could rely on the star power of intellectual celebrities such as Jean-Paul Sartre, a founding member. Most important, whereas the CVBs were wary of other groups, the CVN was profoundly inclusive, uniting a number of distinct currents, including dissident Communists, Christian socialists, militants from the Parti Socialiste Unifié (PSU), and above all, Trotskyists representing different tendencies.18
One of the most dynamic groups working within the CVN was the Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire (JCR). Like that of the UJCml, the core of the JCR consisted of young activists expelled from the UEC. On April 2, 1966, the expelled students, now joined by other radicals, founded their own organization, which soon claimed a number of sections outside Paris.19 Declaring in their inaugural paper that “the war in Vietnam will be, in the months to come, one of the essential axes of our fight,” JCR radicals served as the foot soldiers of the CVN.20 They organized the grass roots, developed the CVN in the provinces, and extended the radical antiwar struggle to high school students, encouraging the formation of the Comité Vietnam Lycéens.21 One of its leaders, Alain Krivine, even served on the National Bureau of the CVN. As one of the most radical currents, the JCR helped push the CVN toward a more revolutionary position. But this relationship proved transformative for JCR radicals as well, who benefited from the historical memory and international connections of older militants. Through the CVN's efforts, JCR radicals gained indispensable organizing experiences that would come to the fore during the tempest of May ’68.
JCR politics, like its composition, were heterogeneous. The nucleus of the group was affiliated with the French section of the Trotskyist Fourth International. Others hailed from the youth branch of the PSU.22 One early member of the group, queer activist Guy Hocquenghem, would later lead the libertarian Maoist group Vive La Révolution!23 The JCR's Trotskyism was thus tempered by a potent infusion of other political trends, most importantly Guevarism. Like most radical youth, JCR radicals were profoundly inspired by anti-imperialist revolutions abroad.24 But they also looked firmly to political movements in the United States. For example, in 1965 the young Sorbonne radicals who later formed the nucleus of the JCR wrote a detailed article about struggles in Berkeley, reporting on the history of the civil rights movement, the free speech movement, and the formation of the Vietnam Day Committee. For the JCR, the rise of a radical antiwar movement targeting the “system” carried enormous international consequences.25 “Criticism of the Vietnam War,” the JCR optimistically forecasted, “is rapidly transforming into a radical movement of opposition to the Democratic Party and the antidemocratic system that rules the U.S.A.”26 This movement, the JCR hoped, could produce a “real mass political force” in the very heart of the United States, which would in turn completely transform the international balance of power.
Sharing this optimism about developments in the United States, the CVN took solidarity with American struggles a step further by forging durable links with American activists. The CVN's founding event, the “Six Heures du Monde pour le Viet Nam,” a colossal teach-in modeled after those of the American movement, brought US radicals such as Courtland Cox of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and David Dellinger to speak about the antiwar struggle in the United States.27 After the “Six Heures,” the CVN worked with the Paris American Committee to Stopwar, a group of antiwar American expatriates led by Maria Jolas, to formalize these relationships with their American comrades. “Maria was linked to the American anti-war movement,” the CVN's Schwartz recalls, “and was our link with it.”28 Through Jolas's efforts the Paris American Committee to Stopwar served not only as a major information center for Americans abroad but also as a vital relay for French radicals.29
From the beginning, the CVN aimed to internationalize the antiwar struggle led by American radicals. As early as May 1965 Schwartz wrote to Stephen Smale, one of the leaders of the American Vietnam Day Committee, wondering if there might be a way to ensure continued international support for American efforts. “Perhaps,” he suggested, “we could think of an international Committee against war in Vietnam.” And if not that, at the very least, “an international day of protest, say in October.”30 As it happened, the Americans took Schwartz's advice and organized a massive international day of protest in October 1965.31 Soon after, Smale himself spoke about international solidarity at the first “Six Heures” in Paris. “People in France have asked me if there is any point in Frenchmen getting involved in the Vietnam protest,” Smale said. “I tell them definitely yes.”32 Because the Vietnam War was an international war, he explained, the antiwar struggle likewise had to be international.
Schwartz, for his part, consistently argued that the CVN's actions had to be understood within an international framework. In his editorial in the first issue of the CVN's paper, he explained: it is “false” that “only the American Left and the Vietnamese can do anything” about the war. “Our American friends feel very alone and often discouraged. They need broad international support.”33 He then listed the ways in which the CVN served as the nexus of a number of intersecting international antiwar networks. Some CVN activists tried to organize an international boycott of American products. Others worked with American expats in Paris, veterans of the French Resistance, activists from the old Jeanson network, SNCC, the American Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Dutch Provos, and the German SDS not only to help deserting GIs find safety but to assist subversive soldiers in building antiwar networks within the US military itself.34 The CVN was also heavily involved in the Russell Tribunal, an international effort to put the United States on trial for war crimes. And some activists even tried to organize international brigades for Vietnam.35
Lastly, primarily through the efforts of the JCR, the CVN found itself at the center of an emerging radical youth international against the war. As early as 1965 the JCR called for a “coordinated” international antiwar force.36 Hoping to move beyond simply forging personal contacts, sharing information, or synchronizing occasional demonstrations, some French radicals aimed to build not only a feeling of internationalism but also what they now called an “international front.”37 Influenced by their American connections, some antiwar radicals set out to organize this internationalism into an international, a formal international organization capable of uniting radicals from different countries.
Building a Radical International
While they certainly intended to include everyone “from Vietnam to America” in this new international, some French radicals also began to insist on the special value of a radical antiwar international specifically within the advanced capitalist countries of North America and Western Europe, or what they called the “heart of imperialism.”38 For while revolutionaries in the Global South quickly took the lead by forming their own radical internationalisms, culminating in the Tricontinental Conference in January 1966, many young radicals felt that the leadership of the traditional Left in North America and Western Europe had “definitively thrown overboard the principles of proletarian internationalism” precisely when they were needed most.39 For them, the social democratic parties that comprised the Socialist International had almost all become accomplices of imperialism. Was it not Léon Blum who made the decision to declare war on Vietnam in 1946? Had the French Section of the Workers' International not overseen the Algerian War? As for the Communists, while they still enjoyed an international network after Joseph Stalin disbanded the Comintern in 1943, radicals felt that this, too, had become hopelessly accommodationist, reflecting the USSR's prioritization of peaceful coexistence with imperialism over solidarity with revolutionary movements.
Unsurprisingly, this turn provoked a rupture in the international communist movement. The People's Republic of China blasted the USSR for elevating its national interests over global revolution. As their disputes escalated into a split in the early 1960s, China struggled to become the leader of global anti-imperialism.40 At this time, a number of Maoist or pro-Chinese groups emerged in North America and Western Europe. While there were some attempts to unite these scattered groups and parties into a new pro-Chinese international, they ended in failure, and the People's Republic of China proved unable to fill the space left by Soviet communism.41
One internationalist tendency, however, seized the opportunity to forge an antiwar international. In December 1965 the newly reunified Trotskyist Fourth International (FI), which included figures like Ernest Mandel, reconfirmed its commitment to anti-imperialist struggle and in particular the Vietnamese revolution.42 In June 1966 the FI leadership declared that “the most urgent immediate task facing revolutionary Marxists on a world-wide scale is to strengthen the struggle against the imperialist aggression in Vietnam and for the Vietnamese Revolution.” That meant “tirelessly stressing the need for an anti-imperialist united front on an international scale.”43 To stop the Vietnam War, radicals had to build a new antiwar international.
But with its organizational capacities severely limited, the FI could never play that role itself. Ernest Tate, an FI international organizer, recalls that in the early 1960s the French section claimed perhaps a hundred members, the Belgians only fifty or sixty, and the FI did not even have an organized presence in Great Britain.44 As a result, the FI resumed the strategy of “entering” existing political organizations, especially with the aim of winning over youth.45 As they put it in 1965, the FI “attaches particular importance to the working and student youth, who stand in the vanguard today in a number of countries.”46 As it turned out, the FI's efforts proved quite fruitful. In Belgium, entryism in the Socialist Party helped radicalize its youth section, the Jeunes Gardes Socialistes, which grew so militant that its parent organization expelled the group in 1964.47 In France, the FI's efforts pulled some students in the Sorbonne Letters section of the UEC toward Trotskyism, ultimately giving birth to the JCR.
The FI not only radicalized youth but also provided them with a rudimentary network that made future multilateral conversations possible. On October 15, 1966, about three thousand young radicals representing twenty groups—some Trotskyist; others, like the German SDS, not—made use of those connections to hold an antiwar convergence in Liège.48 According to Mary-Alice Waters, a representative from the United States, these groups set aside their differences to unite around “support to the Vietnamese Revolution, the demand for immediate withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, and the demand for European countries to get out of NATO.”49 The following day many of the groups stayed to finalize a tentative program for future international antiwar coordination.50
The JCR left the gathering determined to maintain the momentum. “For the first time,” JCR activists enthused, “an independent organization of the youth, attacked by the bureaucratic leadership of the workers' parties, took the initiative of an international gathering against imperialism and capitalist military pacts.”51 Soon after Liège, the JCR collaborated closely with the Jeunes Gardes Socialistes to organize an even larger international conference on March 11, 1967, in Brussels.52 There radicals produced a statement that not only discussed the purpose of a permanent international formation but also clearly explained why international coordination among antiwar activists in North America and Western Europe was essential. Whereas most Americans had largely subordinated international coordination with radicals in Western Europe to building relations with movements in the Global South, Western European radicals made the case that a radical international within the advanced capitalist world could be just as important for the antiwar struggle.
Their statement argued that US aggression did not operate independently but actually depended on an “international capitalist alliance.”53 This alliance was codified in certain formal organizations, like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). As the radicals explained, NATO “is the military expression of the solidarity of the capitalist countries of Europe and North America,” with the United States serving as its “pivot.”54 In a certain sense, then, the capitalist countries had their own “international” led by the United States. Since the US war effort depended so much on the support of the major Western European countries, radicals had to form their own anti-imperialist international to pressure those allied governments.55
This argument posed a potential problem for French radicals. In addition to criticizing the war, President Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from NATO's military command structure in 1966. Yet French radicals remained undeterred. Despite de Gaulle's rhetoric, they argued, France was still a part of the North Atlantic Alliance and objectively remained an important pillar of US aggression. A pamphlet from the CVN in Rennes developed the argument even further. Reminding readers that US aggression in Vietnam was made possible by “an imperialist front” led by the United States, the pamphlet argued that even if de Gaulle occasionally dissented, “the Gaullist positions differ from the American theses only over the means of containing the peoples' liberation movement: that which johnson attempts to achieve by force, de gaulle tries to obtain through the diplomatic route.”56 French policy still legitimized the broader logic behind American aggression, which meant that the struggle in France was still crucial to breaking the hegemonic power that sustained the Vietnam War. Indeed, far from dissuading radicals, de Gaulle's role further galvanized them. His stance, the Brussels statement explained, should be welcomed because it “objectively weakens” NATO.57 It showed that contradictions had appeared within the enemy internationalism and that US actions were straining the alliance on which its foreign policy depended. In this context, a radical international in North America and Western Europe could be especially effective.
The NLF and the DRV welcomed these initiatives. As several scholars have shown, Vietnamese revolutionaries expanded their struggle to include the “diplomatic front,” arguing that the war would have to be fought not only in the jungles of Southeast Asia but also on the ideological terrain. They therefore aimed to mobilize international opinion against the war, encourage activists in countries like those in Europe to pressure their governments, and ultimately isolate the United States. To that end, the Vietnamese made a concerted effort to foster global antiwar sentiment.58
While the NLF and the DRV strived for maximum inclusivity, carefully supporting all antiwar forces, they encouraged the efforts of the radicals. In 1966 the DRV applauded the formation of the CVN in the pages of the Courrier du Vietnam, North Vietnam's primary foreign language newspaper, and Ho Chi Minh wrote a personal message to Schwartz, which CVN activists interpreted as “official recognition of the role of the CVN in the struggle against the war.”59 To the dismay of the PCF, French radicals regularly communicated with the DRV embassy in Paris, NLF and DRV representatives spoke at CVN events, and the two sides worked together in organizing antiwar actions.60 As DRV prime minister Pham Van Dong explained in a 1967 letter to the CVN, “Our struggle is also yours, dear friends—let's move forward to victory!”61
Vietnamese revolutionaries also supported deeper international coordination among radicals. During the Brussels conference in March 1967, for example, Mai Van Bo of the North Vietnamese delegation in Paris sent radicals a letter of appreciation for their initiative. In this way the Vietnamese struggle acted as a binding element. The Vietnam War brought together otherwise isolated individuals, and Vietnamese communists encouraged radical antiwar activism. With the blessing of the Vietnamese, this radical international solidified into a viable political force. Radicals moved to establish a permanent secretariat in Brussels; formed an executive bureau composed of six organizations, including the JCR; and began reaching out to other antiwar forces.62
While radical antiwar youth pursued a variety of forms of coordinated struggle, developments during 1967 pushed many to embrace one idea in particular. First, a wave of domestic struggles expanded the political horizon in the dominant imperialist countries. In France, for example, workers struck at a nylon and polyester factory in Besançon on February 25, 1967, with demonstrations rapidly spreading to neighboring plants.63 The strike, which prefigured the militant mass actions of May ’68, suggested to radicals of all tendencies that a new cycle of struggle was taking hold of France.64
Second, the continued escalation of the Vietnam War, in spite of coordinated worldwide condemnation, radicalized antiwar forces. In December 1967 the number of US military personnel on the ground reached 485,600. By the end of the year the United States had dropped over 1.5 million tons of bombs on the North and the South—compared with 635,000 tons during the Korean War and 503,000 tons in the entire Pacific theater during the Second World War.65 Faced with such carnage, radicals in countries like France began to look for other forms of solidarity.
Lastly, frustrated radicals in the Americas took the lead by pursuing a new strategy, inspiring others around the world. The most effective act of solidarity, they proposed, would be to seriously disrupt affairs in their own countries. The earliest, most forceful proponents of this idea were black radicals in the United States. Drawing on robust political traditions, black radicals in the 1960s argued that African Americans constituted an “internal colony” whose struggle for national liberation formed an integral part of the worldwide struggle against colonialism and imperialism.66 This self-identification as a colonized people allowed a specific form of transnational solidarity to emerge.67 Indeed, for black radicals, such as the Revolutionary Action Movement, the basis of their solidarity with the Vietnamese lay in their analogous experiences of colonial oppression.68 As the radical journal Soulbook explained in 1967, African Americans constituted America's “internal Vietnam.”69 African Americans were colonized in a similar way, faced a common enemy, and fought for the same goal of liberation as the Vietnamese. Given this profound connection, the best way to aid their Vietnamese comrades was to open another front inside the imperialist world.
Initially confined to small, radical formations, these ideas soon inspired larger black groups such as the Black Panther Party and even SNCC. During a meeting between a delegation of American antiwar activists and representatives of the NLF in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, in September 1967, John Wilson of SNCC told his Vietnamese counterparts that “we feel very close to your struggle and understand it to its fullest since we are a colonized people also.”70 “Therefore,” he concluded, “it is our job to disrupt American society by any means necessary. The duty of a revolutionary who finds himself captured in the heart of imperialism is to destroy that imperialism by any means necessary so that it cannot carry its aggression to other people of color around the world.”71
For their part, some Vietnamese revolutionaries applauded African Americans for fomenting revolution inside the United States. An August 1966 article in the Courrier du Vietnam explained: “The first front against American imperialism is in Vietnam. The second is in the United States itself. In this country there are 20 million blacks oppressed, exploited, and despised like slaves.” They realize, the article continued, that “they share a common enemy with the Vietnamese people, American imperialism, and that to win freedom and equality, they must, like the Vietnamese people, oppose antirevolutionary violence with revolutionary violence.”72
Surprisingly, although this article acknowledged the special bond between the Vietnamese and African Americans, it simultaneously expanded the idea of the second front to include the white antiwar movement. These “two movements,” the white and the black, “merging into an imposing force,” the article read, “constitute the Second Front against American imperialism.” Placed behind enemy lines, African Americans and white radicals could offer tremendous assistance to the Vietnamese. “Attacked on both fronts,” the article concluded, “American imperialism will be defeated by the American and Vietnamese people.”73 At first, most white radicals did not take up the offer, although that would change after May ’68.
But if white Americans were not ready to join the second front, radicals elsewhere were. In April 1967 Che Guevara issued an appeal not just for a second front but for multiple fronts, articulating what Daniel Bensaïd of the JCR later called “the internationalist manifesto of our generation.”74 While Fidel Castro as early as 1966 offered to dispatch thousands of Cuban volunteers to Vietnam, Che suggested that the best way to assist the Vietnamese revolution would be to intensify struggles wherever else American imperialism was engaged.75 Vietnam, he said, is “isolated.” To break that isolation, revolutionaries had to “create, two, three, many Vietnams.”76 In other words, instead of fortifying one front, they had to build new ones. While in certain respects Che merely updated an already familiar idea of solidarity, his contribution proved decisive. He articulated a complex strategy into an elegant slogan, found a way to justify the move from the two to the many, and put that idea into practice.
Vietnamese representatives had the opportunity to officially endorse Che's strategic proposal at the first meeting of the Organization for Latin American Solidarity (OLAS) in Havana the following July. “As comrade Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara put it, once ‘2, 3, or many Vietnams' emerge, once the struggle of the American people, and in particular, the black sector, develops in the heart of the USA with the force of a storm,” Vietnamese officials explained, then “it is certain that North American imperialism will no longer stay standing.”77 Solidifying this emerging alliance between the Vietnamese, Latin Americans, and African Americans, SNCC's Stokely Carmichael spoke at the meeting as well.78 “The struggle we are engaged in is international,” he argued. “We know very well that what happens in Vietnam affects our struggle here and what we do affects the struggle of the Vietnamese people.”79 OLAS's General Declaration echoed the sentiment: “The heroic struggle of the people of Viet Nam aids all revolutionary peoples fighting against imperialism to an inestimable degree and constitutes an inspiring example for the peoples of Latin America.”80
Against the backdrop of this emerging worldwide front against US imperialism, the NLF updated its program soon after the conference. Radicalizing its 1960 platform, the new program assumed an aggressive internationalist stance. In part 4, section 3, the NLF vowed to “actively support the national liberation movement of the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America against imperialism and old and new colonialism,” as well as “the just struggle of Black people in the United States for their fundamental national rights,” and “the struggle of the American people against the US imperialists' war of aggression in Viet Nam.” In a passage read by radicals the world over, the NLF called on radicals to consolidate their movements into a “world peoples' front in support of Viet Nam against the U.S. imperialist aggressors.”81
French radicals followed these developments with great interest. The CVN invited Carmichael to speak in December 1967, and his fiery call to move from protest to revolution met with widespread enthusiasm from the youth.82 At the same time, young radicals swiftly adopted Che's slogan as what Bensaïd later called the “categorical imperative of solidarity.”83 Some radicals, such as those in the JCR, began to argue that given this changing political climate it might be time to think seriously about bringing the war home to France. Of course, while African Americans, Vietnamese, and Latin Americans could all claim to struggle against the same enemy, US imperialism, it was far more difficult for the French to make the same case. French radicals solved the problem by arguing, along the lines of the Brussels statement, that imperialism was not reducible to the foreign policy of the United States alone. While the United States formed imperialism's “head,” it needed the support of other capitalist countries in Europe, which meant that European radicals had an equally revolutionary part to play in the struggle.
These ideas were codified in the antiwar youth international's official announcement for their next conference, scheduled to take place in Berlin in February 1968. The statement, released by the executive bureau of the Brussels Conference in December 1967, claimed that imperialism's “goal is to terminate the development of the global revolution,” wherever it may be. While Vietnam was certainly the flashpoint of the struggle, “a decisive confrontation between the international revolution and counterrevolution,” the struggle extended globally. “Europe,” the statement continued, also “constitutes a decisive battlefield in the anticapitalist and anti-imperialist struggle.” Thus the duty of revolutionaries in Europe was to open another front against “the international counterrevolution.” “This strategy,” the statement concluded, “finds its expression in Guevara's words: ‘create two, three, many Vietnams!,’ a conception that revives proletarian internationalism.”84 With this, the antiwar international had transformed into a revolutionary, anti-imperialist international.
Gathering of the Clans
On February 17, 1968, over five thousand radicals from fifteen Western European and North American countries gathered in West Berlin for the largest radical antiwar conference of the decade.85 From France came activists from the JCR; the CVN; the Etudiants Socialistes Unifiés, the youth section of the French PSU; the Union Nationale des Etudiants de France, the French student union; and figures like Daniel Cohn-Bendit. “It was the first real gathering of the clans,” recalled Tariq Ali, who represented the British Vietnam Solidarity Campaign.86 What brought them together, despite their many differences, was Vietnam. For two days, radicals exchanged tactics, briefed one another on the political situations in their countries, and discussed how to contribute to the Vietnamese revolution, with many arguing that the time had come to intensify the revolutionary struggle within the imperialist countries themselves. Castro's words, inscribed into the enormous NLF flag blanketing the main auditorium, set the tone for the conference: “The Duty of Every Revolutionary Is to Make Revolution.”
Their objective soon became clear: to build the worldwide anti-imperialist front in the heart of the advanced capitalist world. Ray Robinson and Dale Smith of SNCC spoke of the need to wage revolution in the United States. “As long as parents in Vietnam are crying about their children,” Smith exclaimed in Berlin, “parents in the USA should cry about their children, too.”87 Peter Weiss, the German revolutionary artist, declared: “The NLF—the sole and victorious representative of the revolutionary people—has given us the task of organizing the resistance in the metropoles.”88 SDS leader Rudi Dutschke dramatized the need to internationalize the revolution: “If to the Viet-Cong there will not be added an American, a European, and an Asiatic Cong, the Vietnamese revolution will fail as others before.”89
At the same time that these radicals were contemplating revolution, Vietnamese communists were unleashing a devastating surprise attack throughout South Vietnam. Beginning on January 30, 1968, the Vietnamese lunar New Year Tet, nearly eighty thousand Vietnamese insurgents launched what was at that point the largest offensive of the war, overrunning a hundred cities, towns, and provincial capitals throughout the country, and even storming the US embassy in Saigon, in a coordinated strike that shocked the entire world.90 Millions of people, told for years that the war was almost over, now gaped at images of slain GIs sprawled on the embassy floor. Tet exposed the US military's vulnerabilities and proved that the Vietnamese could win.
Its effect on young radicals was immeasurable. To radicals, the worldwide anti-imperialist front was no longer just rhetoric; revolution had become a reality. News of the ongoing offensive poured in as thousands of these radicals gathered in Berlin. Ali later recalled how
the Tet offensive had begun even while we were preparing to open the Congress. Every fresh victory was reported to the Congress amidst louder and louder applause. The Vietnamese were demonstrating in the most concrete fashion imaginable that it was possible to fight and win. This was critical in shaping the consciousness of our generation. We believed that change was not only necessary, but possible.91
Following the offensive as it unfolded, radicals felt that they were fighting alongside the NLF. “This was a time,” Ali continued, “when it really seemed as if our actions in the West were co-ordinated with what was happening on the actual battlefields in Vietnam.”92 Vietnamese revolutionaries were beating imperialism in Southeast Asia; it was time for radicals to do their part in the heart of imperialism. Tet accelerated political time. Victory was around the corner; worldwide revolution felt imminent. When radicals left Berlin, they took with them new tactics, contacts, and slogans, as well as a sense of unity and a feeling of incredible urgency. The task at hand, the CVN explained, was to ensure that this “European Front” could become “more than words” and grow into a real force in “the war against imperialism in the metropoles.”93
The Second Front Opens in Europe
Many French radicals returned from Berlin committed to revolution. Losing no time, they prepared to “inaugurate a new type of political demonstration” on February 21, 1968, to “break decidedly with the routine of nonchalant processions.”94 From Berlin, they brought not only a German SDS banner and a variety of confrontational street tactics but also the fast-march chant “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh,” which now spread throughout Western Europe.95 The most important export, however, was a more fully developed conviction to wage the revolution at home. That day, radicals from the CVN, the JCR, and the Union Nationale des Etudiants de France would not simply protest the war but “make the Latin Quarter into the Heroic Vietnam Quarter.”96
On February 21 six CVN activists planted the NLF and DRV flags on the Sorbonne as hundreds of others changed street signs, renamed buildings, and covered the walls of the Latin Quarter with posters celebrating the recent victories of the NLF. Boulevard Saint-Michel became Boulevard du Vietnam Héroïque; the Lycée Saint-Louis became the Lycée Nguyen Van Troi, after the guerrilla executed in 1964 for attempting to assassinate US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and future ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge; an effigy of Lyndon B. Johnson was hung in the Fontaine St. Michel, just over the subdued devil, and set ablaze; and the words “FNL Vaincra” appeared in burning letters above the gates of the Jardin du Luxembourg.97 In arguably their most militant antiwar action yet, a coalition of radicals took Che's idea of “creating two, three, many Vietnams” literally, bringing Vietnam to Paris by mutating its very physiognomy.
The campaign continued into the following months. On March 18, 1968, antiwar radicals bombed the offices of three American businesses. Two days later several hundred demonstrators smashed the windows of the American Express offices on the Rue Scribe. The police arrested six activists, including Nicolas Boulte, one of the leaders of the CVN, and Xavier Langlade of the JCR. Radicals immediately viewed the arrests as part of a state campaign to repress antiwar demonstrations, and the CVN issued a communiqué calling on all activists to mobilize.98 Significantly, the defense of antiwar activists brought rival factions closer together.99 On March 22, 1968, students from different political tendencies occupied an administrative building on the Nanterre campus, forming the Mouvement du 22 Mars, a coalition that included activists from groups like the JCR.100 The actions of the March 22 Movement soon snowballed, prompting the closure of Nanterre and the Sorbonne and ultimately eliciting the police repression that kicked off the events of May ’68.101 That month, mass student unrest combined with a general strike of over nine million workers, paralyzing the country.
All this later led Sartre to suggest that “the origins of May lie in the Vietnamese Revolution.”102 Vietnam, as radicals themselves recognized, “played a determinant role in radicalizing youth.”103 It allowed radicals to become an independent force, gain important organizational experiences, and invent new political forms that prefigured May. Indeed, in some cases, especially at the high school level, the Vietnam committees simply transformed into the action committees of May.104 In this way, Laurent Jalabert argues, antiwar activism provided radicals with a “veritable political formation.”105
But Sartre had something more profound in mind: the Vietnamese revolution lay at the origins of May ’68 because it expanded “the field of the possible.”106 If Vietnamese peasants could defeat the most powerful military machine in human history, then anything was possible. Vietnam played what became known as an “exemplary” role, inspiring French activists.107 In this way Vietnam set in motion the defining characteristic of this entire period, what might be called a chain of exemplarity. “As the Vietnamese success inspired the students,” Ali reflected on May ’68, “so now the triumph of the students inspired the workers.”108 To this sequence of resonating examples—which was by no means unidirectional, as militant worker struggles worked back on the students—one could easily add how the workers' rebellion in France in turn inspired radicals across Europe and North America.
Vietnam expanded the field of the possible by putting the idea of revolution squarely on the agenda. “All militants,” the Maoist Gauche Prolétarienne, one of the UJCml's successors, explained the following year, “know that the ideas they had in their heads during the May struggles came for the most part from the practice of the Vietnamese people.”109 Not only did Vietnamese communists revive the practice of revolution, their struggles redefined revolution itself as the worldwide struggle against imperialism, as the coordinated opening of fronts all over the world. On May 7, 1968, Action, the platform of the action committees, explained in its first issue that the fight in France, which “has only begun,” was connected to the “crisis of imperialism oppressing people in Vietnam, in Latin America, everywhere in the ‘Third World.’”110 Two days later, on the eve of the famous “Night of the Barricades,” radicals at an international meeting in Paris discussed how they could contribute to this global anti-imperialist struggle by detonating a revolution “in the advanced capitalist countries.”111 For many, May ’68 was not a singular, French event; it was merely one front in the worldwide revolution, with the Vietnamese at the head. As the JCR argued in June, although the “French revolution,” by which they meant the events of May ’68, was temporarily defeated, it “could have constituted one of the ‘many’ Vietnams that Che advocated.” All the struggles acted “reciprocally,” they explained: struggles in France could help the world revolution, while “the victory of the Vietnamese revolutionaries reinforces our own fight.”112 Of course, not everyone who participated in the May events saw things in this way, but many of those radicals who helped prepare, trigger, and then sustain those events did.
The JCR, March 22 Movement, and others were able to help open this revolutionary front precisely because they tried to translate the ideas and struggles of the Vietnamese into the French context, making Vietnam their own. In contrast, the UJCml argued that this vision of solidarity only instrumentalized the struggles of the Vietnamese, doing violence to the particularity of the Vietnamese revolution. Instead, they adopted a very literal form of solidarity. Their primary activity consisted of convincing everyone to read the Courrier du Vietnam, for them the first and last word on anything that had to do with Vietnam. Echoing every position of the DRV, the UJCml served as a mouthpiece. While it made for effective propaganda, this stance ultimately rendered the group's antiwar work rigid, preventing it from taking the creative leaps that other radicals in the JCR, March 22 Movement, or the CVN did.
The UJCml, not coincidentally, was caught completely off guard when events rapidly escalated in France.113 Content to simply present what it assumed to be the authentic voice of the revolution abroad, unwilling to interpret Vietnamese struggles for their own conditions, and unable to see how deeply Vietnam resonated with other seemingly distinct issues at home, the UJCml missed the events of May ’68.114 Instead of joining thousands of youth on the barricades, the UJCml leadership tried to convince its members that gathering around the Vietnamese embassy was the best way to show their “support and complete solidarity” for the DRV, at that moment engaged in negotiations with the United States in Paris.115 After the May events, the JCR admonished the UJCml, explaining that remaining loyal to the Vietnamese did not mean following their every wish but, rather, activating the essence of their example. “It was stupid,” wrote JCR members, scolding the UJCml, “to put oneself at the service of the Vietnamese because the Vietnamese cannot judge for us the possibilities of our actions.”116 Their too literal vision of solidarity, which prevented them from playing a part in a potential revolutionary opening, was one major reason that the UJCml dissolved.
Some UJCml members learned from this mistake. In June they conceded that “the Vietnamese example is universal.”117 These radicals—many of whom later formed the Gauche Prolétarienne, the most dynamic of the Maoist groups in France after 1968—developed the new direction in their paper La cause du peuple. “The mass movement of May–June in France,” a lengthy article announcing their adhesion to the worldwide anti-imperialist front explained, “is a link in a long chain that encircles imperialism before strangling it. The revolutionary flames spread from one end of the world to the other.”118
May prompted radicals to confront the challenges of “creating many Vietnams.” On the one hand, as the UJCml pointed out, this vision of solidarity risked speaking for the oppressed, with an orientalizing, even imperialist perspective—privileging Western radicals' own idealist projections over Vietnamese voices. If they ignored difference, radicals not only decontextualized struggles but also risked substituting themselves for the Vietnamese, turning solidarity into its opposite. Others like the JCR, however, recognized that bending the stick too far the other way—insisting on absolute difference—risked foreclosing all creative resonance with the Vietnamese struggle, reducing solidarity to either hero worship or an imperative to police others. Radicals struggled to find the best way to approach this field of differences to make repetition possible, for without difference there could be no repetition, only imitation. Yet too much difference would occlude all reproduction, and with it solidarity itself. Both ignoring difference and fetishizing it threatened to undermine radical struggle.
The exhilarating events of May 1968 convinced radicals across Western Europe and North America that the strategy of building multiple fronts against imperialism could succeed. In retrospect, it seems unsurprising that the breakthrough would come in France, a country known for its vibrant revolutionary past. At the time, however, nothing seemed more unlikely. Norberto Bobbio, who would found Lotta Continua, one of the largest of the extraparliamentary groups in Italy, spoke for many when he recalled how most radicals initially saw the American and German movements, and not the French, as vanguards.119 As Krivine explained in an interview with Waters: “We worked here month after month to organize demonstration after demonstration in support of the students' struggle in Germany and Italy. We never thought that our turn would come so soon.”120
May ’68 transformed the political horizon. If Tet showed that the Vietnamese could defeat the Americans, for young activists across the globe May ’68 seemed to show that revolution was possible in the advanced capitalist world. Radicals from neighboring countries flooded into the French capital. In September 1968 Krivine explained, “They want to discuss with us, they want to learn from our experience, they want to aid us financially.”121 Radicals across North America and Western Europe looked to France for inspiration. The Italian theorist and militant Sergio Bologna recalled, “The French May changed everything”; it was “a watershed in the collective imagination.”122
Radicals interpreted May in light of their own national contexts. The Italians in particular had reason to pay attention, since similar conditions in France and Italy—a militant working class, a long history of revolutionary struggle, a rich Marxist culture, and an obstructionist Communist Party leadership—suggested Italy could be next. And in fact, Italy would see its own decades-long wave of revolutionary struggles, the “Creeping May.”123 May also had a considerable effect on activists in the United States, especially those in SDS. The events in France prompted many SDSers to turn their attention to Western Europe, effectively reversing the polarities of the international network. “On the whole,” the SDS National Interim Committee decided, “the consensus was that European travel is to be stressed at this time. Everybody shouldn't go to Hanoi as we have been doing; the struggle in the advanced capitalist countries has been ignored by SDS.”124 In addition, the French general strike not only forced US radicals to reconsider the New Left's earlier dismissal of the working class as conservative or bought off but pushed some white US radicals in a more revolutionary direction.125
The impact of May was powerful, too, in countries like Great Britain, where revolution seemed unlikely. As Ali put it, “None of us ever believed that anything remotely resembling France could happen in Britain that year.”126 Of course, British radicals still thought that the May events could be translated into the British context, although this could not be done by simply mimicking the sequence that played out in France. In the words of the International Socialists: “What is required is not the heroic gesture or the symbolic confrontation (any more than the perfect revolution); nor is it vicarious participation in the self-activity of others (whether they be in Hanoi or Paris).”127 Revolution in Britain would necessarily assume a different form, one that involved a much longer, less glamorous struggle. But even while recognizing those differences, the International Socialists could still declare: “France today, Britain tomorrow!”128
May ’68 gave substance to the idea of “creating two, three, many Vietnams” in Europe. As the new slogan went, “create two, three, many Parises.”129 In this way, May ’68 and Vietnam fused together in the minds of many radicals in North America and Western Europe. “The world had to be changed and France and Vietnam proved that it is possible to move forward,” recalled Ali.130 This strategy was regarded not as an unchangeable doctrine, however, but as a flexible guide to action, to be translated according to distinct conditions.
Vietnam Is Everywhere
By 1968 tens of thousands of radicals came to see international solidarity as a process of translating the exemplary struggle in Vietnam into their own domestic contexts. Of course this idea left considerable room for interpretation. For some, especially in the United States and West Germany, translating Vietnam into a Western European or North American context meant embracing guerrilla warfare.131 But for others, translation involved creative experimentation that took account of historical differences, not mimicry. For these radicals, then, emulating the struggles of the Vietnamese communists meant not protracted peasant insurgency but organizing in the factories, for example. In the late 1960s Italian workers simplified this idea into the slogan “Vietnam is in our factories,” which also became popular in France.132 Indeed, radicals deliberately invented expressions like “The university is our Vietnam,” or “The struggle at Fiat must become the Vietnam of the bosses of Italy,” or even portmanteaus such as “Fiat-Nam,” to capture this articulation of the Vietnamese struggle with the specificity of domestic conditions.133
But Vietnam was such a rich laboratory of struggle that it could serve as a model for many different movements at home, making possible a whole field of translations. Feminists, for example, took direct inspiration from the Vietnamese revolution. In fact, in France an important battle for women's liberation played out over Vietnam. During the war the PCF tried to bolster its antiwar message of charity and goodwill by inviting women to express their antiwar politics through their “natural” maternal instincts. “Today we address ourselves particularly,” one flier read, “to all the women, to you mothers, also to you whose profession it is to care for, heal, and teach children.”134
In contrast to this victim-centered approach to solidarity that forced women back into traditional roles, revolutionary feminists pointed to Vietnam, insisting that Vietnamese women were obliterating these very roles in the act of revolutionary struggle. As a Mouvement de Libération des Femmes flyer explained:
In Vietnam, women do not stay confined to their maternal and domestic role. . . . They take on, in their own right, constant reconstruction, the defense of villages, or they enlist in the liberation army. They therefore wholeheartedly take part in the fight, whether that means picking up the rifle or taking on responsibilities.
In actively struggling, in the same way as the men, for the liberation of the Vietnamese people, they move toward their own liberation, breaking with the image and the role that until now has been assigned to them: passivity, domestic tasks, the exclusive functions of mother and spouse.
“There is ruin, death, suffering in Vietnam,” the flier concluded, but also the seeds of something new: “the laying of the foundations of a new world, liberating women and men.”135
To be sure, women's liberation was a cornerstone of the Vietnamese revolution. In the 1950s traditional gender relations in the North were challenged as women found work outside the home, participated in political life, and won legal equality with men. North Vietnam notably promised women equal pay, paid maternity leave, access to free childcare, the right to divorce, and equal rights of use, ownership, and disposal of property acquired before and during marriage. During the war revolutionary women in both the North and the South continued to push gender boundaries. They played an indispensable role in the war, carrying supplies, building infrastructure, managing the village economy, organizing political opposition, taking up arms, and at times even assuming leadership positions in the revolution.136 Of course, important barriers to full gender equity continued to exist, but North American and Western European feminists upheld the Vietnamese struggle as a crucial model for women's liberation in their own countries.137 “Our Vietnamese sisters hold out their hand,” the first issue of Le torchon brûle explained. “They show us the example.”138
Vietnamese revolutionaries were well aware of the exemplary role they played, and both the NLF and the DRV invited Western radicals to translate the Vietnamese revolution in ways that enlivened their own struggles at home. The Vietnamese Women's Union, for example, not only argued that in some ways women's liberation was more advanced in Vietnam, encouraging the idea that Western women could learn from their example, but also calibrated their message to appeal to different kinds of women abroad, from older, maternalist, peace activists to younger, more militant, radical feminists.139 Vietnamese revolutionaries, in other words, strove to make their example translatable for different contexts.
But it was not uncommon for this process of translation to assume a life of its own. In some cases, translations gave way to projections as some radicals tried to make Vietnam a model for what they wished to see, ignoring the concrete realities of the struggle. To be sure, these projections also traveled in both directions, as Vietnamese revolutionaries at times seemed to project their own desires onto struggles abroad, exclaiming, for instance, that the United States was on the brink of revolution.140 In other cases, radicals detached Vietnam from its particular context, a divided country in Southeast Asia, and turned it into a universal symbol. In the words of the workers who self-managed the Lip watch factory in Besançon for several months in 1973: “vietnam: is not the endowment of the Vietnamese. In Franc-Comtoise, you say ‘Lip.’”141 In these cases, “Vietnam” ceased to belong to the Vietnamese; it became a global tendency that assumed different forms. Just as some radicals redefined the relationship between imperialism and the United States as one of synecdoche, they did the same with “Vietnam” and the country of Vietnam, positioning them as opposite poles in a Manichaean struggle. Imperialism represented reaction, repression, counterrevolution; Vietnam connoted revolution, autonomy, and heroism. Vietnam became everything as everything became Vietnam.
As Vietnam appeared everywhere, however, it seemed to vanish as a particular issue. In France, as radicals liberated Vietnam from the news cycle and translated that struggle into their own everyday reality, they also tended to slowly withdraw from specifically antiwar activity. After 1968 they turned their attention to factory struggles or new social movements at home.142 Historians have since argued that radicals “returned to the hexagon” because domestic events overtook international ones. Others have argued that radicals had no use for Vietnam once they secured autonomy from the PCF.143 Still others have suggested that with negotiations in 1968 radicals saw their antiwar demands fulfilled. But radicals knew that the war was far from over. If anti–Vietnam War activity declined, it was because radicals felt the best way to aid Vietnam was not simply to rally around Vietnam as such but to translate Vietnam into a domestic idiom.144 They always regarded their own domestic struggles as an integral part of an international movement, and they continued to see the Vietnamese struggle as the vanguard in the global fight against imperialism. Radicals never abandoned Vietnam; they assimilated Vietnam so thoroughly it seemed to disappear as an issue. As Fredy Perlman, an American radical present during the May events, reported on French radicals in 1968, “The war in Vietnam ceased to be an ‘issue’ and became a part of their own daily lives.”145
Although many French radicals spread the idea of “Vietnam” across the political terrain, they never forgot its specific reality, which is why Vietnam soon returned to its status as a particular issue. Despite a lull after 1968, a new round of antiwar contestation took shape in the early 1970s, led by a constellation of new organizations, such as the Mouvement National de Soutien aux Peuples d'Indochine and the Centre d'Information sur la Lutte Anti-impérialiste. Of these new groups, the Front Solidarité Indochine, led by former CVN activists like Schwartz, emerged as the most dynamic.146 The Front Solidarité Indochine, along with the Ligue Communiste, the successor of the JCR, even helped organize another international antiwar convergence, this time in Milan, Italy, in May 1973. “For the first time since the Berlin demonstration in February 1968,” the Ligue Communiste explained, “anti-imperialist Europe will meet again in one same city, en masse in the streets.”147 In this way, French radicals continued the antiwar struggle even after the American movement declined.148
Thus, while radicals certainly appropriated “Vietnam” for their own ends, suffusing it with meanings that may have surprised Vietnamese revolutionaries, they never treated Vietnam as a blank canvas. Vietnam remained a crucial reality, which is why concrete developments in the Vietnamese liberation struggle often produced major effects on radicals.149 This is precisely what happened in the late 1970s. After formal unification in 1976, reports arrived of human rights abuses. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees took to the seas in dilapidated rafts, where many starved, drowned, or were murdered by pirates. Then, in December 1978, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam invaded Cambodia, its socialist ally.150 The invasion, followed by occupation, only compounded years of social dislocation at the hands of Khmer Rouge, precipitating a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic proportions. Radicals in France found it impossible to reconcile these horrific events with the foundational ideas of internationalism, anti-imperialism, and socialist revolution—in short, with the image of Vietnam that had guided them earlier in the decade. Obviously these events did not single-handedly destroy the French radical Left, which was already in decline by the late 1970s, but because its identity was so powerfully shaped by the Vietnamese struggle, these events exacerbated an ongoing crisis within the radical Left. It is no accident that these disasters in Southeast Asia more or less coincided with the collapse of the radical Left as an organized force and with the end of the long cycle of struggle surrounding the May events. For if the Vietnam War helped make May ’68 possible, genocide, internecine war, and refugee crises in Southeast Asia in the late 1970s helped sound its death knell.151 Vietnam not only stood at the origins of May but also was a part of its end.
The author would like to thank the participants of the February 2017 colloquium “May ’68: New Approaches, New Perspectives,” the two anonymous reviewers, and especially the editors of this special issue, Donald Reid and Daniel Sherman, for their helpful comments and suggestions.
1. For the film, see Véray, 1967, loin du Vietnam.
2. Godard et al., Loin du Vietnam.
3. Godard et al., Loin du Vietnam.
4. Cinéma, “Loin du Vietnam”; Ross, May ’68 and Its Afterlives, 87–89. For Chris Marker's film projects at Besançon, see Stark, “‘Cinema in the Hands of the People’”; and Reid, “Well-Behaved Workers Seldom Make History,” 69–74.
5. My use of the concept of translation derives from Antonio Gramsci, who set out in the Prison Notebooks to translate the revolutionary struggles in Russia for the very different historical conditions of Western Europe. Translation, in this sense, refers to the act of rendering an exemplary struggle from one social formation into another. For more on Gramsci's understanding of translation, see Thomas, Gramscian Moment, 238–39.
6. Jalabert, “Aux origines de la génération 68”; Pas, “Sortir de l'ombre du Parti communiste français”; Pas, “Six heures pour le Vietnam”; Dreyfus-Armand and Portes, “Les interactions internationales”; Rousseau, La Colombe et le napalm; Rousset, “Vietnam, Indochine”; Keenan, “‘Vietnam Is Fighting for Us.’”
7. For a good review of the recent literature, see Jackson, “Mystery of May 1968.”
8. Ross, May ’68 and Its Afterlives, was one of the first scholarly works to emphasize this dimension of the ’68 years. See also Kalter, Discovery of the Third World.
9. For a comparison of intellectual opposition to the Algerian War and the Vietnam War, see Schalk, War and the Ivory Tower.
10. Joly, French Communist Party.
11. Pas, “Sortir de l'ombre du Parti communiste français.”
12. Zancarini-Fournel, “1962–1968,” 38–43.
13. “Manifeste pour un soutien politique au peuple vietnamien,” Feb. 1967, F Delta Res 701, Bibliothèque de Documentation Internationale Contemporaine, Nanterre, France (hereafter BDIC).
14. The literature on the UJCml is massive. For some historical works, see Bourseiller, Les Maoïstes, 54–63, 77–88; and Bourg, “Red Guards of Paris.”
15. Johnson, French Communist Party versus the Students, 54–57.
16. Keenan, “‘Vietnam Is Fighting for Us,’” 73–87.
17. Schwartz, “Il faut crever l'écran.”
18. For an example of the CVBs’ critical attitude toward other antiwar initiatives, see Victoire pour le Vietnam, “L'ancien et le nouveau comité,” 2. For an overview of the composition of the CVN, see Pas, “Sortir de l'ombre du Parti communiste français,” 90–101.
19. French Trotskyism has received less attention than French Maoism. For some accounts of the JCR, see Fields, Trotskyism and Maoism, 49–50; Bensaïd, Impatient Life, 35–41; and Krivine, Ça te passera avec l'âge, 91–93.
20. Avant-garde jeunesse, “Editorial,” May–June 1966.
21. Pas, “Sortir de l'ombre du Parti communiste français,” 116, 161–62.
22. Bensaïd, Impatient Life, 52.
23. Haas, “Death of the Angel,” 117, 119.
24. Krivine, Ça te passera avec l'âge, 93–94.
25. Avant-garde Sorbonne, “Le Vietnam à Berkeley.”
26. Avant-garde Sorbonne, “Le Vietnam à Berkeley.”
27. Keenan, “‘Vietnam Is Fighting for Us,’” 87–89; Coates, “Mass Rally in Paris Backs War Crimes Tribunal,” 13–14.
28. Schwartz, Mathematician, 413.
29. Keenan, “‘At the Crossroads of World Attitudes and Reaction,’” 66. Jolas worked with the NLF in Paris, tutoring Vietnamese representatives about the US antiwar movement, assisting with outreach, and organizing events, such as the 1968 Paris Women's Conference. Wu, Radicals on the Road, 210.
30. Laurent Schwartz to Stephen Smale, May 14, 1965, in Stephen Smale Papers, BANC MSS 99/373 c, carton 3, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
31. “News from the Vietnam Day Committee,” n.d., in Social Protest Collection, BANC MSS 86/157 c, Bancroft Library; The International Protest Movement against American Intervention in the War in Vietnam, report prepared by the International Secretariat of the National Committee to End the War in Vietnam and the Vietnam Day Committee, 1966, also in Social Protest Collection, Bancroft Library.
32. Stephen Smale, “Talk at Mutualité,” May 26, 1966, 1, in Stephen Smale Papers, carton 3, Bancroft Library.
33. Schwartz, “La victoire du Viet-Nam c'est . . . ”
34. Keenan, “‘At the Crossroads of World Attitudes and Reaction,’” 69–71; Klimke, Other Alliance, 84–86; Perrin, G.I. Resister; Greg Calvert, oral interview no. 1452, 222–26, in “Student Movements of the 1960s,” Oral History Research Office, Butler Library, Columbia University, New York; Vietnam, “Lettre de la S.D.S.”
35. Le monde, “Deux cents volontaires français”; Le volontaire, Sept. 1967, 1–8; Pas, “Sortir de l'ombre du Parti communiste français,” 118–25.
36. Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire, “Halte à l'agression impérialiste au Viêt-Nam,” supplément à Avant-garde Sorbonne, Nov. 1965, 4, in F Delta Res 2089, BDIC.
37. Comité Vietnam National, “Communiqué à la presse,” Jan. 19, 1967, 1, in F Delta 151, BDIC.
38. Comité Vietnam National, “Communiqué à la presse”; Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire, “Halte à l'agression impérialiste au Viêt-Nam,” 4.
39. Krivine, “Editorial.” For internationalism in the Third World, see Young, Postcolonialism, chaps. 12–14, 16.
40. Lüthi, Sino-Soviet Split; Friedman, Shadow Cold War.
41. Abramowicz, “Le Parti prochinois en Belgique,” 93–94.
42. Alexander, International Trotskyism, 304–39.
43. World Congress of the Fourth International, “International Situation and the Tasks of Revolutionary Marxists,” 48.
44. Tate, Britain 1965–1969, 25–26. For Trotskyism in France, see, among others, Fields, Trotskyism and Maoism, 41–86.
45. International Socialist Review, “Dynamics of the World Revolution.”
46. World Congress of the Fourth International, “International Situation and the Tasks of Revolutionary Marxists,” 48.
47. Desolre, “Contribution à l'histoire du trotskysme,” 66–67.
48. Jeunes Gardes Socialistes, “Organisations participantes,” Oct. 16, 1966, 1, box 47, folder 4, Socialist Workers Party Records, Hoover Institution, Palo Alto, CA (hereafter SWP Records).
49. Mary-Alice Waters, “Report on European Trip,” Nov. 4, 1966, 1, box 46, folder 13, SWP Records.
50. Jeunes Gardes Socialistes, “LIEGE, 16.10.1966,” Oct. 16, 1966, box 47, folder 4, SWP Records.
51. Avant-garde jeunesse, “LIEGE, 15 octobre 1966,” 2.
52. Avant-garde jeunesse, “Première conférence internationale de la jeunesse.” Tate recalls that in preparation the Jeunes Gardes Socialistes and the JCR “issued a call to the International's few youth organizations to send people to Europe to help with its organization,” and the Young Socialists in Canada responded by sending an organizer. Tate, Britain 1965–1969, 184. See also Avant-garde jeunesse, “La conférence de Bruxelles.”
53. “Basic Political Resolution Adopted by the Conference of the Vanguard Youth Organizations of Europe for the Coordination of Aid to the Vietnamese Revolution and the Struggle against NATO,” Mar. 12, 1967, 1, box 22, folder 3, SWP Records.
54. “Basic Political Resolution,” 3.
55. For US efforts to win European support, see Logevall, “American Effort.”
56. “Comité Universitaire pour le Vietnam,” 1967, 1, in F Delta 151, BDIC.
57. “Basic Political Resolution,” 3.
58. For Vietnamese “People's Diplomacy,” see Brigham, Guerrilla Diplomacy; Mehta, “‘People's Diplomacy’”; and Wu, Radicals on the Road, 113.
59. Schwartz, Mathematician, 396.
60. Vietnam, “Un message du F.N.L. au C.V.N.”
61. Vietnam, “Une lettre du Premier Ministre Pham Van Dong.”
62. Avant-garde jeunesse, “La conférence de Bruxelles.”
63. Hatzfeld and Lomba, “La grève de Rhodiaceta.”
64. Garde rouge, “Le combat des travailleurs contre Rhodiaceta.” For the cycle of “worker insubordination,” see Vigna, L'insubordination ouvrière.
65. Karnow, Vietnam, 525.
66. See, e.g., Carmichael and Hamilton, Black Power. See also Kelley, Freedom Dreams, 36–109; Singh, Black Is a Country, 174–211; and Young, Soul Power.
67. Mohandesi, “Black Americans, French Quebeckers.”
68. Stanford, “Revolutionary Action Movement,” 72–91.
69. Editors, “On Vietnam.”
70. John Wilson, “Statement by John Wilson, Conference—Talks between Vietnamese and Americans,” Sept. 1967, 1, in SNCC Archives, box 59, folder 298, King Center, Atlanta, GA; Miller, “Democracy Is in the Streets,” 278–80; DeBenedetti, American Ordeal, 192–93.
71. Wilson, “Statement,” 1–2.
72. Sy, “Le deuxième front.”
73. Sy, “Le deuxième front.”
74. Bensaïd, Impatient Life, 54; Anderson, Che Guevara, 718–20.
75. Castro, “At the Closing Session of the Tricontinental.”
76. Guevara, “Message to the Tricontinental,” 361.
77. Vietnam, “‘Créer 1, 2, 3.”
78. Joseph, Waiting ’til the Midnight Hour, 191–94; Seidman, “Tricontinental Routes of Solidarity.”
79. Carmichael, “Solidarity with Latin America,” 104.
80. International Socialist Review OLAS General Declaration, 55.
81. Vietnam Courier, “Political Programme,” 7.
82. Schwartz, Mathematician, 399; Joseph, Stokely, 225–29.
83. Bensaïd, Impatient Life, 54.
84. Avant-garde jeunesse, “Appel de la conférence de Bruxelles.”
85. For the Berlin conference, see Klimke, Other Alliance, 91–96; and Gilcher-Hotley, Die 68er Bewegung, 7–10. For a transcript of the speeches, see SDS Westberlin and Internationales Nachrichten- und Forschungsinstitut, Der Kampf des vietnamesischen Volkes.
86. Ali, Street Fighting Years, 242.
87. SDS Westberlin and Internationales Nachrichten- und Forschungsinstitut, Der Kampf des vietnamesischen Volkes, 93.
88. SDS Westberlin and Internationales Nachrichten- und Forschungsinstitut, Der Kampf des vietnamesischen Volkes, 90.
89. Quoted in Düffler, “Anti–Vietnam War Movement,” 299.
90. For the Tet Offensive, see Turley, Second Indochina War, chap. 6.
91. Ali, Street Fighting Years, 242.
92. Ali, Street Fighting Years, 247.
93. Vietnam, “Berlin,” 7.
94. Avant-garde jeunesse, “21 février, journée du Vietnam héroïque,” 14. See also Bensaïd, Impatient Life, 56; and Comité Vietnam National, “Le 21 février sera la journée du Vietnam héroïque,” Feb. 1968, and Comité Vietnam National, “Tout pour la victoire,” Feb. 1968, F Delta Res 2089, BDIC.
95. Krivine, Ça te passera avec l'âge, 96; Dreyfus-Armand and Gervereau, Mai 68, 140.
96. Avant-garde jeunesse, “21 février, journée du Vietnam héroïque,” 14.
97. Vietnam, “21 février,” 8; Grimaud, En mai, 71–73; Jalabert, “Aux origines de la génération 68,” 73–74.
98. Comité Vietnam National, “Après les attentats anti-américains de Paris.”
99. Seidman, Imaginary Revolution, 72.
100. For the March 22 Movement, see Duteuil, Nanterre 1965–66–67–68; and Seidman, Imaginary Revolution, 74–84.
101. For more on the sequence of events, see Seidman, Imaginary Revolution, 17–160.
102. Sartre, “Itinerary of a Thought,” 62.
103. Ligue Communiste, “Washington, Tokyo, Berlin, Londres, Amsterdam . . . Paris, F.N.L. Vaincra!,” Nov. 1969, 2, F Delta Res 151, BDIC.
104. Pas, “‘Six heures pour le Vietnam,’” 181; Gobille, Mai 68, 14.
105. Jalabert, “Aux origines de la génération 68,” 78.
106. Sartre, “Itinerary of a Thought,” 63.
107. Perlman and Gregoire, Worker-Student Action Committees, 37.
108. Ali, Street Fighting Years, 273.
109. Cahiers de la Gauche prolétarienne, no. 1 (Apr. 1969), quoted in Ross, May ’68 and Its Afterlives.
110. Action, “Pourquoi nous nous battons.”
111. Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire, “Berlin-Louvain-Rome-Londres-Paris: Meeting International,” May 9, 1968, F Delta 1061 (4) part 1, BDIC.
112. H. R., “Viet Nam.”
113. Bourseiller, Les Maoïstes, 89–104.
114. It was this same behavior that led the group to condemn the events as a trap, forbidding its own militants from participating. Instead, it called for students to “go to the factories and popular neighborhoods to unite with the workers,” the only class who could make the revolution. UJCml, “Et maintenant, aux usines!” May 7, 1968, F Delta 1061 (4) part 1, BDIC.
115. “Le peuple vietnamien vaincra!,” May 9, 1968, tract 4602, Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The UJCml was forced to postpone the demonstration because of the police presence, but they claimed the original plan was nevertheless “entirely correct.” “La manifestation du dimanche 12 mai est reporté,” n.d., tract 4603, Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
116. Avant-garde jeunesse, “Luttes étudiantes, luttes ouvrières,” 6.
117. La cause du peuple, “L'exemple du peuple vietnamien.”
118. La cause du peuple, “Soulèvement géneral,” 10.
119. McGorgan, “Vive La Révolution and the Example of Lotta Continua,” 319.
120. Reprinted as “Interview with Alain Krivine,” in France: The Struggle Continues (New York, Sept. 1968), 22, in New Left Collection, box 19, folder 2, Hoover Institution.
121. “Interview with Alain Krivine.”
122. Bologna, “Memoirs of a Workerist.”
123. Lumley, States of Emergency.
124. New Left Notes, “Minutes of the New NIC.”
125. Sale, SDS, 456–57. For the New Left's dismissal of the working class, see Levy, New Left and Labor, 111. For the turn to working-class struggle, see Mohandesi, “‘Becoming one with the people.’”
126. Ali, Street Fighting Years, 296.
127. International Socialism, “1968—the Ice Cracks.”
128. Cliff and Birchall, “France.”
129. “Interview with Alain Krivine,” 22.
130. Ali, Street Fighting Years, 305.
131. Varon, Bringing the War Home.
132. For example, Tout! Ce que nous voulons, “ITALIE, Fiat.”
133. See, e.g., Silj, Malpaese, criminalità, corruzione e politica, 92.
134. PCF, “Femmes de la région parisienne,” May, 23, 1972, F Delta Res 151, BDIC. On the PCF's antiwar activity, see Lazar, “Le Parti communiste français,” 241–51.
135. Des groupes du M.L.F., “20 janvier: Journée internationale pour le Vietnam: Des groupes de femmes y participent, voilà pourquoi,” (possibly 1972), F Delta Res 151, BDIC.
136. Eisen, Women and Revolution; Barry, Vietnam's Women; Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War; Drummond and Rydstrom, Gender Practices.
137. Wu, Radicals on the Road, pt. 3.
138. Le torchon brûle, “Sisterhood Is Powerful!”
139. Wu, Radicals on the Road, esp. 205.
140. Sy, “Le deuxième front.”
141. Liberation, “L'imagination au pouvoir,” Aug. 10, 1973, quoted in Keenan, “‘Vietnam Is Fighting for Us,’” 290.
142. Keenan, “‘Vietnam Is Fighting for Us,’” 277–78, 288–96.
143. For example, Pas, “‘Six heures pour le Vietnam,’” 182–83.
144. Keenan gestures at this argument in “‘Vietnam Is Fighting for Us,’” 290–91.
145. Perlman and Gregoire, Worker-Student Action Committees, 94.
146. “Appel,” 1971, F Delta 761/12/4, BDIC; Keenan, “‘Vietnam Is Fighting for Us,’” 296–303; Jalabert, “Un mouvement contre la guerre du Vietnam,” 221–38.
147. Rouge, “L'heure du soutien.”
148. Rousseau, “Du Vietnam héroïque à la défense des droits de l'homme,” 483–84.
149. Rousset, “Vietnam, Indochine,” 810–12.
150. Evans and Rowley, Red Brotherhood at War.
151. Mohandesi, “From Anti-Imperialism to Human Rights,” chaps. 7–8.