Edmund F Wehrle. Vietnam War Era: People and Perspectives. Editor: Mitchell K Hall. ABC-CLIO, 2009.
We never had it so good,” American Federation of Labor (AFL) president George Meany boastfully proclaimed to American workers as he prepared to assume the presidency of a new, united labor movement with the merger of the AFL and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1955. A decade later, as the nation entered the Vietnam War era, American workers, especially union members, arguably had it even better. By the mid-1960s jobs were plentiful, wages were rising, pro-labor Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress, and organized labor considered itself a vital component of a liberal coalition, supporting prosperity at home and defending freedom abroad. From the start, however, disquieting signs of trouble accompanied the good times—signs that quickly evolved into a maelstrom of setbacks. By 1975, the American labor movement found itself increasingly without allies and struggling for relevancy. A changing economy and race-related issues clearly contributed to the striking decline of organized labor, but at the causal center sat the divisive and politically costly Vietnam War.
Without question Meany, a gruff cigar-chomping former plumber turned union chieftain who presided over the AFL-CIO until 1979, was correct to tout gains made by American workers in the post–World War II era. The bitter, often violent struggles of the 1930s were distant memories by the 1960s. Blue-collar workers in ever larger numbers entered the ranks of the middle class, enjoying rising wages, pensions, and health and disability insurance. Trade unions, once decidedly outside the corridors of power, now enjoyed inside access. Presidents, members of Congress, and other leading figures routinely consulted with labor leaders, and the labor movement could flex powerful political muscle. Meany, himself—while often appearing a caricature of a stodgy labor boss—was actually a leader of this new generation of activist, politically astute union leaders. “[Y]ou must be political, you must be engaged in political activities,” he urged, “because you won’t get anywhere in the legislative activity unless you are able to influence to some degree the composition of the State Legislature and the national congress” (Robinson 1981, 91).
Even in the arena of foreign policy, labor made its influence felt. Mainstream American labor leaders believed strong, independent trade unions were essential to protecting human progress—especially from the threat of communism. Driven by this intense anticommunism, after World War II both the CIO and the AFL became deeply involved in international affairs. In the late 1940s, as the Cold War heated up, both the AFL and the CIO sent agents to Western Europe to support anticommunist trade unions and work alongside U.S. government officials administering such programs as the Marshall Plan. The activist anticommunism of the AFL-CIO fit well the times, during which few dissented from conventional Cold War wisdom.
As the immediate situation in Europe stabilized, U.S. labor set its sights on building up anticommunist labor unions in the Third World. As its influence grew, the AFL-CIO operated increasingly in partnership with key government agencies, such as the State Department, the Agency for International Development—and even the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). To some, the federation risked sacrificing its independence by working so closely with the government, but Meany dismissed such concerns in the face of the communist threat.
As early as 1950, U.S. labor leaders made contact with a group of trade unionists in Vietnam trying to create a middle way between colonialism and communism, a group that would later take the name of the Vietnamese Confederation of Labor (CVT). Many of its members—including its leader, Tran Quoc Buu, an ardent nationalist who served a lengthy jail term for anticolonial activity—were formerly allied with Vietnamese communists in their battle against the French. Communists, these budding labor organizers came to believe, were too violent and reliant on outside forces. Instead, the CVT sought to create an independent movement representing the nationalist ambitions of the Vietnamese people. Ironically, however, they needed outside help—especially American—to pursue these goals.
Relations between the budding CVT and the AFL-CIO quickly grew stronger, and American labor pressed the U.S. government to aid the struggling organization, which, after the creation of South Vietnam in 1954, found itself caught between the insurgent communists and an authoritarian Saigon government. As one CVT official complained, the organization was “pinched between a river and a mountain” (Trinh Quang Quy 1970, 118). AFL-CIO aid to the CVT kept the fragile labor federation afloat during these difficult times and convinced many American labor officials that a path to democracy might be found for struggling South Vietnam.
As its power and influence grew, however, American organized labor did have critics, although they remained decidedly in the minority. Some disparaged the AFL-CIO’s reflexive anticommunism, which seemed to leave little room for thoughtful distinctions between communists and nationalists (such as in the case of Vietnam) and often signaled a tolerance for less than democratic anticommunist regimes (such as the Republic of Vietnam). At home, detractors complained that organized labor had grown soft, becoming a junior partner in a system dominated by government and business. Labor leaders, one prominent critic charged, had become “new men of power,” bureaucratic sellouts, no longer representing the true interests of workers (Mills 1948). Critics pointed to the falling percentage of workers belonging to labor unions—down to just over 25 percent of American workers by the mid-1960s from a postwar high of 35 percent in 1954. Yet others condemned unions as bastions of whiteness, more concerned with excluding outsiders, especially African Americans, than pursuing justice in the workplace. In 1965, Herbert Hill, labor director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), launched a scathing attack on American unions, especially the International Ladies’ Garment Workers, for practicing discrimination (Jonas 2005).
Meany and other key labor leaders remained steadfast supporters of the civil rights movement and insisted that trade unions slowly but surely were addressing discrimination in their ranks. They pointed to growth in public sector unions and labor’s continuing political clout to offset charges they lacked the drive of previous generations of labor militants. Their foreign policy initiatives, they insisted, operated independently of the American government. This was the case even when the AFL-CIO accepted public money for federation programs, such as the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), which trained anticommunist Latin American trade unionists. Such work aimed at creating strong, independent unions worldwide, free of undue influence from government (as was the threat in communist countries) or employers (the threat in capitalist countries).
Deeply committed to both its international and domestic agenda, AFL-CIO leaders placed great hope in the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson, who was deeply aware of his humble East Texas roots, often felt out of place among the sophisticated, Ivy League educated, inside circle surrounding President Kennedy. When he assumed the presidency, he actively cultivated labor leaders, with whom he believed he shared common values and common sense. He also dedicated his administration to an activism not seen since the New Deal. In his first meeting as president with the AFL-CIO Executive Council, LBJ impressed the gathering by vowing to create 75 million new jobs (U.S. Dept. of Labor 1963). He aggressively pushed forward many of the programs long on labor’s wish list, including Medicare, Medicaid, civil rights provisions, and a series of programs designed to address persistent poverty. Johnson also proved a stalwart supporter of the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy agenda. The new president arranged generous government subsidies for AIFLD and the AFL-CIO’s African Labor College, which was launched in 1964. Johnson also appeared eager to support a similar initiative in Southeast Asia—which became the Asian American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI) in 1968.
As the president moved toward full-scale intervention in Vietnam, the AFL-CIO urged Johnson to consider the CVT’s potential contribution to nation building in South Vietnam. Federation leaders even arranged a one-on-one Oval Office meeting between Johnson and CVT president Tran Quoc Buu. Seizing the opportunity, the diminutive Buu told the president towering above him that the “missing link in the present Vietnamese chain of events” was a free labor movement capable of addressing the “daily hardships” suffered by Vietnamese workers “and creating an almost para-military type of civilian organization to … transform the indifferent and neutral mass of people into an active barrier against the communists.” Impressed, Johnson assured his guest that he saw the war as much in social terms as he did militarily (Memorandum for President 1964).
Given the growing bond between president and labor movement, Johnson could count union leaders among his strongest supporters on both domestic and foreign issues. When the president committed U.S. troops to Vietnam in 1965, the AFL-CIO immediately extended its “unstinting support” (Proceedings 1965, 562). Meany and other anticommunist labor leaders hoped that combining the American military presence with the growing democratic influence of a free labor movement might establish a model for successfully challenging communist incursions in the Third World. Meanwhile, labor union leaders also anticipated that Johnson’s aggressive social programs, combined with full-employment spending at home, would build an ever stronger economy protected by safety nets for those unable to compete.
Challenges to Labor Solidarity
Feeling a strong allegiance to the president, Meany decided to turn the AFL-CIO’s biannual convention scheduled for December 1965 in San Francisco into a virtual rally for LBJ’s Vietnam policies, which already were controversial in some sectors. Meany lined up an impressive array of speakers, including the president, vice president, and secretary of state. He also invited a large delegation of South Vietnamese trade unionists to the convention and an array of other international visitors. A special breakfast session for all foreign visitors focused entirely on the Southeast Asian crisis. Johnson, insisting the American mission in Southeast Asia was “the pursuit of freedom,” spoke to the convention via telephone. Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Office of Economic Opportunity chief Sargent Shriver both personally addressed the crowd and vigorously defended the war.
Everything was going according to plan until Secretary of State Dean Rusk took the podium. Student protesters, having quietly infiltrated the convention gallery, suddenly exploded with boos and catcalls as the secretary rose to speak. Provoked, delegates on the floor responded with “a thunderous reception” for Rusk. After the speech, demonstrators and delegates turned on each other. Verbal volleys of “labor fakers” and “get out of Vietnam” cascaded from the gallery. From below flew rejoinders of “get a haircut” and “go back to Russia.” United Auto Workers’ (UAW) president Walter Reuther’s voice joined the chorus. “You are demonstrating in the wrong place. Why don’t you tell Hanoi and Peking,” he shouted. A burly protester assaulted Rusk as the secretary of state tried to exit the arena. Incensed as he watched chaos threaten his carefully scripted affair, Meany seized the podium and bellowed, “Will the sergeant-at-arms clear those kookies out of the gallery” (New York Times 1965). With that the protesters were removed.
Although Meany and his circle might dismiss the protesters as naive, youthful hooligans, soon they could not deny the peace movement’s growing presence in their ranks. Although no major unions took overtly antiwar positions during the first several years of the war, signs of dissension could not be ignored. In February 1966, the Executive Council of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) officially questioned the “burden of expense,” complaining “the sons of workers … are being drafted first for military duty” (Statement on Vietnam 1966). A few smaller unions followed the ACWA’s lead. In New York City, Hospital Workers Local 1199, led by radical Leon Davis, quickly joined the peace movement and helped establish the Labor Committee for Peace in Vietnam, along with members of the leather and machine workers, the meatcutters’ union, and the Actors Equity and Screen Actors Guild.
Even among the rank and file there was discernable anxiety. Although the leadership of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) supported the hawkish AFL-CIO position, an internal poll commissioned by the union in the summer of 1966 showed 56 percent of respondents favoring withdrawal or negotiations in Vietnam, while only 40 percent supported the status quo or escalation. The pollsters concluded, “an excellent Administration record in domestic affairs is completely overridden by what is happening in Southeast Asia” (Wehrle 2005, 118). At roughly the same time, Johnson’s secretary of labor Willard Wirtz attended the annual conventions of four other major unions. “It is clear in a dozen ways,” Wirtz reported back to LBJ, “that the one thing on everybody’s mind is Vietnam, and that the general reaction of these unions and their leaders is pretty critical” (Lichtenstein 1995, 404).
Meany and his circle found themselves ill-equipped to understand the nascent antiwar movement in their ranks. A key AFL-CIO staffer believed the growing protests to be part of a plot: “[t]he drive in the unions against the AFL-CIO position is being stepped up by the Commies throughout the country. They are putting plenty of money into this drive,” he warned Meany (Wehrle 2005, 112).
Likewise, not all was going well in Vietnam, where the AFL-CIO aspired to mold the CVT into a vehicle for reform in a country whose government more resembled a military dictatorship than a vigorous democracy. Federation officials hoped to parlay their strong relationship with Johnson into greater aid for the CVT and funding for an AFL-CIO-run organization to promote free trade unions in Asia. As American trade unionists moved to formalize a relationship between South Vietnam and American labor, however, the CVT drew back, making it abundantly clear that it preferred indirect aid to a formal mentoring relationship. South Vietnamese labor leaders feared being too closely tied to—and appearing beholden to—Americans, a lethal impression in a country struggling with a painful colonial past. The fact that some American trade union advisers sent to Vietnam appeared dictatorial and dismissive of Asian customs reinforced these worries. CVT leaders, although dependent on Americans, wished to convey a public face of autonomy and independent activism. “In Vietnam, one who takes another’s money is considered a kept man,” a CVT official warned an American trade unionist urging closer relations between the two movements (Wehrle 2005, 112).
Still, the CVT obviously needed help. When a new military government came to power in 1965 and attempted to revive old codes prohibiting large meetings, including union meetings, an AFL-CIO representative successfully intervened directly with Saigon officials on behalf of the CVT. Yet the anxieties of South Vietnamese trade unionists could not be fully overcome, and in some ways mirrored the often tense relationship between Americans and their South Vietnam allies, who both needed and resented each other.
Alongside Vietnam, other nagging concerns ate away at both union leaders and members during this era. As the economy heated up, driven largely by government spending, prices began to rise. “It is now an established fact that inflation is spreading across the U.S. economy at the fastest rate in years” reported Time magazine in the fall of 1966 (Time 1966, 69). Even in the pro-labor Johnson White House, economic advisers urged that labor limit demands for wage increases to keep inflation under control. Race also increasingly emerged as a thorny problem. For instance, in 1967, the construction of a new Macy’s department store and accompanying mall in downtown New Rochelle, New York, should have been the occasion for much celebration. Roughly $25 million, mostly subsidized by the government, would be pumped into the project, promising high-paying jobs for workers and urban renewal for the city. As the building began, however, protesters appeared along the chain link fence setting off the work site. Demonstrators threw themselves against trucks entering and leaving the project, determined to shut work down. The protesters, who included clergy and leaders from the local African American community, demanded that white-only construction trade unions open their ranks to African Americans.
Troubling as they were, before 1968, racial tensions, economic problems, and growing opposition to the Vietnam War could all be dismissed as temporary bumps in the road. Employment everywhere was rising to record levels. It was “one of those rare periods when individual workers held the upper hand as employers competed for a limited pool of skilled labor,” recalled a Boston construction worker (Linder 1999, 17). Meanwhile, Lyndon Johnson, with his deep sympathies for the American labor movement, remained in the White House. Labor leaders such as Meany, despite all nagging problems, thought they could look forward to a brighter future—both at home and abroad.
Such hopes did not survive the tumultuous upheavals of 1968—one of the most traumatic years in American history. For the AFL-CIO, signs of the storm on the horizon were obvious by late 1967. On Veterans Day, November 11, 1967, several hundred antiwar trade unionists gathered in Chicago for a one-day conference to voice their protests and plan joint action. Speakers included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Eugene McCarthy. Victor Reuther, the brother of UAW president Walter Reuther, used the occasion to rail against the AFL-CIO’s cooperation with the CIA and blast what he termed “fascist corporate unions” sponsored worldwide by the federation (Gannon 1967).
Although relatively few trade unionists attended the gathering, it angered Meany. The following month, at the AFL-CIO convention, he assailed the meeting as “planned in Hanoi by a special assembly that went there.” Meany’s outburst actually came on the heels of a motion by antiwar trade unionists calling upon the AFL-CIO to drop its support for the war in favor of neutrality. Boos and catcalls immediately greeted the motion, which quickly went down in defeat, but it provided ample evidence of growing chasms within organized labor (Proceeding 1967).
Meanwhile, trouble was brewing in Vietnam, where the CVT found itself engaged in a labor struggle against the Saigon government. The confrontation began with the announcement that the French owners of the major electricity-producing plant in Saigon would sell their operations to the South Vietnamese government, a sale underwritten by the Agency for International Development. Unionized workers at the plant demanded a 12 percent pay increase. When Saigon authorities demurred, workers walked off their jobs in December 1967. The strike was a dicey proposition in a country at war, headed by military leaders with strong authoritarian bents. Government officials loudly complained that the work stoppage, which risked plunging the country’s major city into darkness, represented a threat to national security. When sympathy strikes broke out the government decided to act. General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the head of the national police, ordered his forces to arrest key union leaders, round up striking workers at gunpoint, and force them back to work. CVT president Tran Quoc Buu could only watch helplessly. As angry workers returned to their jobs, the best the confederation could do was drape a banner across its headquarters reading: “Release Our Jailed Leaders Immediately” (Wehrle 2005, 129).
Also feeling hopeless was the AFL-CIO, which watched as the peace movement in America pointed to the crushed strike as yet more evidence of the undemocratic, corrupt nature of the U.S. ally in Vietnam. Understanding by this time that the CVT would resent any public intervention by its U.S. allies, especially at a time when it appeared to be acting independently, the AFL-CIO remained silent. Instead, it pressed State Department officials to mediate behind the scenes to release the jailed leaders and settle the strike. U.S. ambassador Ellsworth Bunker met personally with South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu to urge resolution of the strike. The AFL-CIO, the ambassador reminded Thieu, had been a consistent supporter and “it was important to keep it that way.” With Tet, the Vietnamese New Year holiday, fast approaching, all parties agreed to compromise, bringing an end to the immediate crisis. Hopeful that order had been restored, Bunker optimistically cabled home: “(t)here is time for healing to occur before, during and after the festive days that mark Tet” (Wehrle 2005, 130).
The holiday at the end of January proved anything but “festive.” Vietcong soldiers used the Tet cease-fire and chaos surrounding the labor strikes as cover to infiltrate South Vietnamese cities. On the night of January 30, 1968, insurgents launched attacks on every major city in the country, often targeting CVT officials and members in the process. By the end, the homes of more than 1,000 trade unionists lay in ruins. In the midst of the battle, the entire world glimpsed the brutality of police chief Loan when he summarily executed a suspected terrorist in front of cameramen.
As a series of counterattacks pushed the Vietcong out of the cities, it slowly became apparent that the insurgents, although having inflicted heavy damage, had themselves suffered heavy losses and fallen well short of their goals. Still, nerves remained raw. In the aftermath of the immediate attacks, seeking to stifle any instability, General Loan detained one of the recently released CVT leaders and a CVT vice president. Articles about the arrests appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and elsewhere. Again the antiwar movement harnessed the stories to discredit the Saigon government, and again the AFL-CIO moved behind the scenes to quell the crisis. Eventually, the federation dispatched its most experienced overseas agent, Irving Brown, to Vietnam to lobby for the release of the labor leaders. Brown met personally with President Thieu, whom he pressured “hard but politely” (Wehrle 2005, 133). Finally, more than six weeks after the initial Tet attacks, the labor leaders were released.
Through the jolt of the Tet Offensive and the president’s near-defeat in the New Hampshire primary, mainstream trade unionists nevertheless stuck loyally beside the president—even as liberals jumped ship in droves. Then suddenly, at the end of March 1968, Johnson withdrew from the race, sending shock waves through the labor movement. “I don’t know how long it will take me to recover from the atomic bomb which President Johnson hurled,” wrote one AFL-CIO staffer to Meany (Wehrle 2005, 136).
Bridling at the antiwar candidacies of Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, Meany scrambled for an alternative. He urged Vice President Hubert Humphrey to enter the race—even personally walking the two blocks between AFL-CIO headquarters and Humphrey’s office to urge the vice president to run. Humphrey agreed to enter the race, but chaos ensued with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and Robert Kennedy in June. Then came the violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In many ways the highly publicized clashes between Chicago’s police and peace protesters revealed as much about culture and class divides as about politics. Urban working-class white police had little sympathy with college-educated, middle-class demonstrators, who in turn saw the police as shock troops for an authoritarian state. The Chicago convention portended many such subsequent violent, culturally laden clashes.
Many within the AFL-CIO found at least some solace that Humphrey, even as he limped out of the Chicago convention, would be the Democratic Party’s nominee. But the vice president, who loyally supported Johnson’s Vietnam policy despite some personal misgivings, had few enthusiastic followers other than those in organized labor. As Humphrey struggled to gain his footing, the AFL-CIO faced another problem in the renegade independent candidacy of Alabama governor George Wallace. The governor’s brazen attacks on the civil rights movement resonated with many blue-collar workers, angry as exclusively white trade unions became the focus of protests. Wallace, although a southerner from a right-to-work state, knew well how to the play to the cultural resentments of urban white workers. He lambasted the emerging counterculture and decried the crime and chaos that seemed to accompany cultural and social changes, especially in cities. Wallace’s selection of an ultra-hawk, Gen. Curtis LeMay, as his running mate also played to those, including many trade unionists, who thought the United States needed to take a stronger—not weaker—stance in Vietnam. Late in the campaign, surveys showed Wallace significantly eating into support for the Democratic nominee, taking 25 percent of the labor vote in Pennsylvania, 32 percent in Connecticut, and close to 50 percent in Maryland.
To counter Wallace’s appeal to union members, Meany and the AFL-CIO unleashed a massive public relations drive. The Steelworkers’ Union sent anti-Wallace letters to 1.2 million steelworkers, and the AFL-CIO distributed thousands of pamphlets detailing Wallace’s antilabor record in Alabama. Meanwhile, the federation poured an unprecedented $60 million into Humphrey’s campaign (White 1969). Although Humphrey mounted an impressive last-minute comeback, in the end it was not enough. He lost by under a percentage point of the popular vote.
Labor’s annus horribilis, however, was hardly over. The Vietnam War continued to put internal pressures on the AFL-CIO. Since the merger that created the federation in 1955, UAW president Walter Reuther, although also an AFL-CIO vice president, had complained loudly that federation leaders were too tepid in their support of civil rights and other progressive issues and too reluctant to devote resources to aggressive organizing campaigns. Although an anticommunist himself, Reuther also complained that Meany and his circle were too uncompromising in their anticommunism. The UAW chief pressed the AFL-CIO to meet with trade unionists from communist bloc countries, something Meany, who saw such unions as pawns of communist states, adamantly rejected. Although an early supporter of the war, by 1968 Reuther had grown wary. “I am not sure it isn’t as important to win the war at home than it is to win the war in Vietnam,” he told journalists at one point (New York Times 1968).
Dismayed over the AFL-CIO’s hawkish position on Vietnam and increasingly convinced that Meany would never adopt the new strategies necessary to revive the labor movement, Reuther pulled his union, representing more than a million workers, out of the AFL-CIO. He quickly found himself alone and bitterly disappointed as other unions failed to follow his lead. Instead, Reuther turned to the Teamsters, a renegade union representing independent truckers and other workers. In the late 1950s, Meany had engineered the ouster of the Teamsters from the AFL-CIO on charges of rampant corruption. Despite the Teamsters’ reputation for vice and conservativism, Reuther needed an ally, and the Teamsters were available; hence he proposed an alliance between the progressive UAW and the notorious Teamsters.
In the summer of 1968, Reuther and Teamster president Frank Fitzsimmons announced plans to form the American Labor Alliance (ALA). From the beginning it proved a troubled affair, although the ALA did manage to rally support for progressive initiatives that included an organizing drive in the South and an antidrug abuse campaign. Nevertheless, the Teamster-UAW marriage remained strained—especially when the issue of the war in Vietnam came up. In 1969, when representatives from both organizations gathered to plan activities for “Vietnam Moratorium Day,” a national day of protest against the war, UAW staffers wore peace buttons while Teamsters sported American flag pins. Deep divisions quickly surfaced as they attempted to craft an antiwar resolution, assuaged only when UAW representatives appeased Teamster hawks by adding a denunciation of violence by antiwar demonstrators.
Frantic to halt the ALA, Meany threatened any AFL-CIO union joining the new organization with immediate disaffiliation. When the small Chemical Workers Union joined Reuther’s alliance, the AFL-CIO quickly expelled the group. Reuther’s sudden death in 1970 in an airplane crash essentially put an end to the ALA, but its formation in 1968, with the attendant threat of a return to the labor wars of the 1930s, reflected the extreme stresses on the labor movement by the late 1960s.
Beyond Reuther, an even greater threat loomed—that of Richard Nixon, the new president in 1969. Throughout his career Nixon had been no friend of labor, and the unprecedented amounts of money the AFL-CIO pumped into his opponent’s coffers in the recent election could not have pleased the president-elect, known to be deeply resentful of his political opponents. Meany was particularly concerned with the fate of his overseas initiatives, including the recently created Asian American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI), which he hoped would help formalize the mentoring relationship between the CVT and U.S. labor. The federation’s semiprivate international organizations received much of their funding from the U.S. government. Meany’s top priority in his first meeting with the new president, on March 13, 1969, was shielding AAFLI and his other government-financed foreign aid programs.
Both Nixon’s political ambitions and his odd psychology played into the AFL-CIO’s hands. The president had studied George Wallace’s success appealing to disgruntled blue-collar workers and well understood the growing tensions between labor and liberals. To help him win reelection, he hoped to cultivate urban workers as part of his planned “new majority,” a political coalition that would include southern conservatives and political moderates (Cowie 2002). Also, somewhat like his predecessor, Nixon hailed from a working-class background, and he bitterly resented those he saw as the intellectual and cultural elite—the media, academia, and liberal power-brokers. Instead, he naturally gravitated toward labor leaders, whom he saw as patriotic, tough, blunt, and gutsy. He particularly admired Meany. “[D]espite his da’s, dem’s, and do’s,” Nixon told a political adviser, Meany “would come in, would see a problem, would be willing to have the guts and courage to do what had to be done.” By contrast, added the president, “there is not a college professor in the U.S. today whom I could rely upon to have the same perception” (Memorandum for the President’s Files 1970).
Playing to Meany’s interests, Nixon devoted two-thirds of his first meeting with the AFL-CIO president to a wide-ranging discussion of the state of the world. Meany “talked at length about the AFL-CIO program of training union leaders.” Apparently impressed, Nixon “expressed interest and support for continuation of the [labor] program” (Schultz 1969). Predictably, the president’s endorsement came with strings attached, but it was gratifying to the AFL-CIO.
During the first year of the Nixon administration, however, the White House enjoyed little success appealing to blue-collar workers. Meany remained standoffish, and Nixon’s strategists seemed lost fashioning an appeal to union voters. In the spring of 1970, the Vietnam War suddenly delivered an unexpected shot in the arm to the blue-collar strategy. Hoping to destroy North Vietnamese and Vietcong bases in neutral Cambodia, Nixon ordered U.S. forces across the South Vietnamese/Cambodian border in April 1970. The president announced the invasion in forceful—almost belligerent—language that delighted Meany and other AFL-CIO leaders—and some construction workers, who launched a series of prowar rallies in New York City and elsewhere. Nixon’s actions and words, however, provoked anger among peace activists. Demonstrations against the Cambodian incursion flared across the country, especially on college campuses. At Kent State University in Ohio, clashes between antiwar protesters and national guardsmen resulted in the tragic killings of four students.
Even as some trade unionists and union leaders openly embraced Nixon’s war, others actively sought common cause with the peace movement. In a speech at his union’s annual convention titled “A Time to Speak Out,” AFL-CIO vice president and Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America president Jacob Potofsky blasted the Vietnam War as underlying “practically all our troubles” (Wehrle 2005, 158). Scheduled to speak later in the convention, Meany abruptly cancelled his appearance when he heard of Potofsky’s address. Elsewhere, especially among the grassroots rank-and-file, antiwar sentiment swelled. The San Francisco Bay Area Labor Assembly for Peace smoothly integrated its activities with those of the mainstream and student peace movements. Michigan AFL-CIO federation president Gus Scholle passionately attacked the war and built an effective coalition of local antiwar unionists.
Increasingly, Meany’s uncompromising hawkishness became a target for both antiwar trade unionists and peace-minded liberals. Referring to government funds allocated to support AFL-CIO overseas initiatives, Sen. William Fulbright of Arkansas, a prime critic of the war, wondered aloud with reporters present, “if this represented the price we paid for Mr. Meany’s support in Vietnam.” Infuriated, Meany demanded and received a hearing before the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee to refute the charges (Newsweek 1969, 29).
The situation was not progressing much better for the AFL-CIO in Vietnam. Just as some critics complained that the AFL-CIO had compromised itself by working with the Nixon administration, others grumbled that the CVT tainted itself by working with the often undemocratic rulers of South Vietnam. Hoping to rally the citizenry against the ever-growing threat of the North Vietnamese, Buu and other CVT leaders established an uneasy alliance with the mercurial President Nguyen Van Thieu, feeling they had little choice. In the face of North Vietnamese attacks in the spring of 1972, CVT officials acquiesced to a government ban on strikes, something the organization had always resolutely resisted in the past. “Now the situation—the danger—is different,” explained CVT president Buu (Wehrle 2005, 181). Still, many, including some in the CVT, saw the no-strike pledge as a sorry capitulation.
The AFL-CIO had hoped the formation of AAFLI, a permanent AFL-CIO presence in Saigon, would be a valuable mediation tool between South Vietnamese authorities and the CVT, but such hopes never materialized. When AAFLI representatives arrived in Saigon, cultural divides again surfaced. Americans, CVT officials complained, were too dictatorial and ignorant of the unique features of Asian culture and habits. Buu’s interpreter urged Americans dealing with the CVT president for the first time to just listen and say nothing. Sadly, the interpreter recalled, Americans rarely took his advice. At one point, relations between the CVT and AAFLI broke down entirely, and the AFL-CIO reluctantly scrambled to find acceptable replacement personnel.
By the early 1970s, even Meany often appeared eager to disengage from Vietnam. “Frankly, we don’t think there is any disagreement about getting out—getting our people out of Southeast Asia,” he told reporters in 1970, but he was “completely opposed to the idea of bugging out” before South Vietnam appeared securely able to defend itself (AFL-CIO News 1970). This adamant position put Meany and the AFL-CIO in an awkward position as the 1972 elections approached. Increasingly, U.S. organized labor, sparked by the AFL-CIO, took the lead in opposing Nixon’s economic policies. This was especially true after the president’s declaration of price and wage controls in 1971, which Meany saw as a threat to labor’s prerogatives. Likewise, despite the White House’s determined campaign to cultivate union voters, Nixonian labor policies often proved counterproductive. In 1969, the Nixon administration launched the so-called Philadelphia Plan, requiring some construction trade unions to set “goals and timetables” for incorporating African Americans into their membership. Such policies, even when full of loopholes and weakly enforced, enraged many of the hardhats defending the Vietnam War.
The AFL-CIO thus hoped an acceptable candidate for president might emerge on the Democratic side. Instead, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, unapologetically demanding immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, overwhelmed more moderate voices among Democrats in the 1972 primaries, easily winning his party’s nomination. At the Democratic Party’s nominating convention, trade unionists felt like unwelcome outsiders as young activists ran the show. Surveying the Miami Beach convention, Meany lamented its seizure by “people who looked like Jacks, acted like Jills, and had the odor of Johns about them” (Economist 1972).
Fearful that a sudden withdrawal from Vietnam would greatly advance international communism and spell the end of the CVT, the AFL-CIO balked at supporting McGovern. Voting 27 to 3, the AFL-CIO Executive Council abstained from issuing any endorsement in the 1972 election. President Nixon greeted the news enthusiastically as carrying the “potential of becoming one of the most important developments of the 1972 campaign” (Nixon 1978, 626). Officially, Meany maintained his neutrality, but behind the scenes, on at least one occasion, he met with White House officials and advised them on how to appeal to union voters. On Election Day, Nixon won the bulk of the blue-collar vote. Although Meany might take some comfort in McGovern’s defeat, the deep divide between labor and the Democratic Party was now fully manifest.
The Paris Peace Accords of January 1973 ended direct American involvement in the Vietnam War and generated some hopes of healing the grand rifts caused by the war. As Vietnam receded somewhat from the forefront of the AFL-CIO’s agenda, however, a severe economic crisis quickly took its place. By the fourth quarter of 1973, driven by OPEC’s (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil embargo, inflation soared to nearly 10 percent and unemployment rose steadily. The impact of full-fledged stagflation rippled through the economy. Automobile sales fell precipitously and General Motors laid off or furloughed more than 100,000 workers that year. At the end of 1973, Meany could only lament, “these are hard times for Americans.” Looking ahead to 1974, he forecast, “[w]e will most likely find prices going up, and unemployment going up. Going down will be the standard of living of American workers” (AFL-CIO News 1974). Meany proved prescient: in 1974, the economy slumped further as unemployment shot to over 7 percent and inflation rose above 12 percent. Having spent the previous decade heavily focused on international issues, especially the war in Vietnam, the AFL-CIO found itself ill prepared to face the challenges of hard times. Meanwhile, the unfolding Watergate scandal entangled President Nixon, forcing his eventual resignation in 1974.
By 1975, the Vietnam War moved rapidly toward its final act. Early that year the North Vietnamese, as they had in 1972, launched a full-scale conventional invasion of the South. This time no American firepower intervened to halt the advance. Reports quickly reached the AFL-CIO of invading forces taking particular vengeance on CVT officials and their families. Meany urged congressional support for President Gerald Ford’s last-ditch initiatives to save South Vietnam. The AFL-CIO even flew Tran Quoc Buu from Saigon to lobby members of Congress for extended support. “Give us sufficient aid to survive. Do not let us die slowly, agonizingly,” Buu pleaded (Free Trade Union News 1975). Meany added his voice, warning that “while the fighting might stop, the killing would not,” implying that victorious North Vietnamese would seek revenge against any who aided the South Vietnamese cause (Wehrle 2005, 188).
Most Americans, however, had had enough of the painful war, and no substantial aid was forthcoming. As Saigon tottered in late April 1975, AAFLI officials scrambled to evacuate CVT leaders and their families, many of whom boarded a barge and floated into the South China Sea. Over a crackling radio they listened to the announcement of the fall of Saigon and later heard many of their own names read as those wanted by authorities.
Unlike its South Vietnamese ally, the AFL-CIO would live to see another day. Still, the war in Vietnam had been costly, exhausting federation resources, dividing the labor movement, and driving a wedge between labor and liberals. With the fall of South Vietnam imminent, George Meany appeared on the Dick Cavett television show. Referring to his support for Johnson and Nixon on Vietnam, Meany confessed, “If I’d known then what I know now I don’t think we would have backed them.” Later, Meany qualified his comments somewhat. While maintaining that “the American people were not told the truth as to the actual conduct of the war, the prospects for Vietnamization, etc.,” he nevertheless added, “my fundamental belief in the role of the United States as the chief defender of freedom has not changed one bit” (Wehrle 2005, 192). Meany and many of his fellow trade union leaders were indeed sincere in their commitments to halting what they saw as a pernicious threat to freedom, but they and the movement they helped build paid a high price for their extraordinary vigilance and activism.