Protest Speech by Paul Potter Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This document is a speech given at a 1965 march on Washington, DC, at the dawn of the antiwar movement. The speech protests not only the Vietnam War, but also the entire governmental and social system that allowed or fostered such a military conflict. With an audience made up largely of students and members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Paul Potter, president of the SDS, spoke with passion and enthusiasm, calling for broader changes than just an end to the war. He and his followers wanted to change society and the world to realize peace, justice, and equality. The SDS was just one of the many groups working against the war, but it became one of the most influential, hosting several marches and spreading its message to many and varied groups of people.

Summary Overview

This document is a speech given at a 1965 march on Washington, DC, at the dawn of the antiwar movement. The speech protests not only the Vietnam War, but also the entire governmental and social system that allowed or fostered such a military conflict. With an audience made up largely of students and members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Paul Potter, president of the SDS, spoke with passion and enthusiasm, calling for broader changes than just an end to the war. He and his followers wanted to change society and the world to realize peace, justice, and equality. The SDS was just one of the many groups working against the war, but it became one of the most influential, hosting several marches and spreading its message to many and varied groups of people.

Defining Moment

Paul Potter's speech was given at a crucial moment in terms of American participation in the Vietnam War. The United States had been involved in Vietnam for nearly a decade—though only recently had it taken to the battlefield—and the antiwar movement was beginning to gear up. Students for a Democratic Society, led at this time by Potter, was gaining a following and speaking out against the war and the government and its leaders. The SDS and many other Americans believed that the United States had no place to intervene so decisively in another country's affairs. Beyond simply protesting the war, the SDS demanded that the United States turn its attention inward and focus on the major problems in American society, including poverty and racial discrimination.

Delivered at the Washington Monument, following hours of protests outside the White House, the speech inflamed the passions of its listeners and affirmed the reasons why they had gathered there together. The audience of the speech was primarily SDS members and like-minded protesters, but, as Potter himself states, they crossed race, religion, and socioeconomic boundaries in a rare show of mutual interest and support. Collectively, the audience was not simply an antiwar group but one intent on making sweeping changes to government, politics, social organization, and economic realities in the United States and the rest of the world. Although the SDS eventually splintered into smaller factions at the end of the 1960s, their goals were held up by many as ideals throughout the Vietnam era.

Author Biography

Paul Potter was born in 1939 in Illinois and attended Oberlin College. Besides being president of SDS, he was also a founding member and spent many years working within SDS and with other political groups seeking an end to the Vietnam War. In 1971, he wrote a book, A Name for Ourselves, about his experiences and his ideas during the SDS years and after. He was married in 1972 and had two children. He continued his work in politics, albeit through more conventional political campaigns and ballot initiatives. Potter died in 1984 at his home in New Mexico. He is still honored for his work and activism today.

Historical Document

Most of us grew up thinking that the United States was a strong but humble nation, that involved itself in world affairs only reluctantly, that respected the integrity of other nations and other systems, and that engaged in wars only as a last resort. This was a nation with no large standing army, with no design for external conquest, that sought primarily the opportunity to develop its own resources and its own mode of living. If at some point we began to hear vague and disturbing things about what this country had done in Latin America, China, Spain and other places, we somehow remained confident about the basic integrity of this nation's foreign policy. The Cold War with all of its neat categories and black and white descriptions did much to assure us that what we had been taught to believe was true.

But in recent years, the withdrawal from the hysteria of the Cold War era and the development of a more aggressive, activist foreign policy have done much to force many of us to rethink attitudes that were deep and basic sentiments about our country. The incredible war in Vietnam has provided the razor, the terrifying sharp cutting edge that has finally severed the last vestige of illusion that morality and democracy are the guiding principles of American foreign policy. The saccharine self righteous moralism that promises the Vietnamese a billion dollars of economic aid at the very moment we are delivering billions for economic and social destruction and political repression is rapidly losing what power it might ever have had to reassure us about the decency of our foreign policy. The further we explore the reality of what this country is doing and planning in Vietnam the more we are driven toward the conclusion of Senator Morse that the United States may well be the greatest threat to peace in the world today. That is a terrible and bitter insight for people who grew up as we did—and our revulsion at that insight, our refusal to accept it as inevitable or necessary, is one of the reasons that so many people have come here today.

The President says that we are defending freedom in Vietnam. Whose freedom? Not the freedom of the Vietnamese. The first act of the first dictator, Diem, the United States installed in Vietnam, was to systematically begin the persecution of all political opposition, non Communist as well as Communist. The first American military supplies were not used to fight Communist insurgents; they were used to control, imprison or kill any who sought something better for Vietnam than the personal aggrandizement, political corruption and the profiteering of the Diem regime. The elite of the forces that we have trained and equipped are still used to control political unrest in Saigon and defend the latest dictator from the people.

And yet in a world where dictatorships are so commonplace and popular control of government so rare, people become callous to the misery that is implied by dictatorial power. The rationalizations that are used to defend political despotism have been drummed into us so long that we have somehow become numb to the possibility that some¬thing else might exist. And it is only the kind of terror we see now in Vietnam that awakens conscience and reminds us that there is something deep in us that cries out against dictatorial suppression.

The pattern of repression and destruction that we have developed and justified in the war is so thorough that it can only be called cultural genocide. I am not simply talking about napalm or gas or crop destruction or torture, hurled indiscriminately on women and children, insurgent and neutral, upon the first suspicion of rebel activity. That in itself is horrendous and incredible beyond belief. But it is only part of a larger pattern of destruction to the very fabric of the country. We have uprooted the people from the land and imprisoned them in concentration camps called “sunrise villages.” Through conscription and direct political intervention and control, we have destroyed local customs and traditions, trampled upon those things of value which give dignity and purpose to life.

What is left to the people of Vietnam after 20 years of war? What part of themselves and their own lives will those who survive be able to salvage from the wreckage of their country or build on the “peace” and “security” our Great Society offers them in reward for their allegiance? How can anyone be surprised that people who have had total war waged on themselves and their culture rebel in increasing numbers against that tyranny? What other course is available? And still our only response to rebellion is more vigorous repression, more merciless opposition to the social and cultural institutions which sustain dignity and the will to resist.

Not even the President can say that this is a war to defend the freedom of the Vietnamese people. Perhaps what the President means when he speaks of freedom is the freedom of the American people.

What in fact has the war done for freedom in America? It has led to even more vigorous governmental efforts to control information, manipulate the press and pressure and persuade the public through distorted or downright dishonest documents such as the White Paper on Vietnam. It has led to the confiscation of films and other anti war material and the vigorous harassment by the FBI of some of the people who have been most outspokenly active in their criticism of the war. As the war escalates and the administration seeks more actively to gain support for any initiative it may choose to take, there has been the beginnings of a war psychology unlike anything that has burdened this country since the 1950s. How much more of Mr. Johnson's freedom can we stand? How much freedom will be left in this country if there is a major war in Asia? By what weird logic can it be said that the freedom of one people can only be maintained by crushing another?

In many ways this is an unusual march because the large majority of people here are not involved in a peace movement as their primary basis of concern. What is exciting about the participants in this march is that so many of us view ourselves consciously as participants as well in a movement to build a more decent society. There are students here who have been involved in protests over the quality and kind of education they are receiving in growingly bureaucratized, depersonalized institutions called universities; there are Negroes from Mississippi and Alabama who are struggling against the tyranny and repression of those states; there are poor people here—Negro and white—from Northern urban areas who are attempting to build movements that abolish poverty and secure democracy; there are faculty who are beginning to question the relevance of their institutions to the critical problems facing the society. Where will these people and the movements they are a part of be if the President is allowed to expand the war in Asia? What happens to the hopeful beginnings of expressed discontent that are trying to shift American attention to long neglected internal priorities of shared abundance, democracy and decency at home when those priorities have to compete with the all consuming priorities and psychology of a war against an enemy thousands of miles away?

The President mocks freedom if he insists that the war in Vietnam is a defense of American freedom. Perhaps the only freedom that this war protects is the freedom of the war-hawks in the Pentagon and the State Department to experiment with counter insurgency and guerrilla warfare in Vietnam.

Vietnam, we may say, is a laboratory ran by a new breed of gamesmen who approach war as a kind of rational exercise in international power politics. It is the testing ground and staging area for a new American response to the social revolution that is sweeping through the impoverished downtrodden areas of the world. It is the beginning of the American counter revolution, and so far no one—none of us—not the NY Times, nor 17 Neutral Nations, nor dozens of worried allies, nor the United States Congress have been able to interfere with the freedom of the President and the Pentagon to carry out that experiment.

Thus the war in Vietnam has only dramatized the demand of ordinary people to have some opportunity to make their own lives, and of their unwillingness, even under incredible odds, to give up the struggle against external domination. We are told, however, that the struggle can be legitimately suppressed since it might lead to the development of a Communist system, and before that ultimate menace all criticism is supposed to melt.

This is a critical point and there are several things that must be said here—not by way of celebration, but because I think they are the truth. First, if this country were serious about giving the people of Vietnam some alternative to a Communist social revolution, that opportunity was sacrificed in 1954 when we helped to install Diem and his repression of non Communist movements. There is no indication that we were serious about that goal—that we were ever willing to contemplate the risks of allowing the Vietnamese to choose their own destinies. Second, those people who insist now that Vietnam can be neutralized are for the most part looking for a sugar coating to cover the bitter bill. We must accept the consequences that calling for an end of the war in Vietnam is in fact allowing for the likelihood that a Vietnam without war will be a self styled Communist Vietnam. Third, this country must come to understand that creation of a Communist country in the world today is not an ultimate defeat. If people are given the opportunity to choose their own lives it is likely that some of them will choose what we have called “Communist systems.” We are not powerless in that situation. Recent years have finally and indisputably broken the myth that the Communist world is monolithic and have conclusively shown that American power can be significant in aiding countries dominated by greater powers to become more independent and self determined. And yet the war that we are creating and escalating in Southeast Asia is rapidly eroding the base of independence of North Vietnam as it is forced to turn to China and the Soviet Union, involving them in the war and involving itself in the compromises that that implies. Fourth, I must say to you that I would rather see Vietnam Communist than see it under continuous subjugation of the ruin that American domination has brought.

But the war goes on; the freedom to conduct that war depends on the dehumanization not only of Vietnamese people but of Americans as well; it depends on the construction of a system of premises and thinking that insulates the President and his advisers thoroughly and completely from the human consequences of the decisions they make. I do not believe that the President or Mr. Rusk or Mr. McNamara or even McGeorge Bundy are particularly evil men. If asked to throw napalm on the back of a ten year old child they would shrink in horror—but their decisions have led to mutilation and death of thousands and thousands of people.

What kind of system is it that allows good men to make those kinds of decisions? What kind of system is it that justifies the United States or any country seizing the destinies of the Vietnamese people and using them callously for its own purpose? What kind of system is it that disenfranchises people in the South, leaves millions upon millions of people throughout the country impoverished and excluded from the mainstream and promise of American society, that creates faceless and terrible bureaucracies and makes those the place where people spend their lives and do their work, that consistently puts material values before human values—and still persists in calling itself free and still persists in finding itself fit to police the world? What place is there for ordinary men in that system and how are they to control it, make it bend itself to their wills rather than bending them to its?

We must name that system. We must name it, describe it, analyze it, understand it and change it. For it is only when that system is changed and brought under control that there can be any hope for stopping the forces that create a war in Vietnam today or a murder in the South tomorrow or all the incalculable, innumerable more subtle atrocities that are worked on people all over—all the time.

How do you stop a war then? If the war has its roots deep in the institutions of American society, how do you stop it? Do you march to Washington? Is that enough? Who will hear us? How can you make the decision makers hear us, insulated as they are, if they cannot hear the screams of a little girl burnt by napalm?

I believe that the administration is serious about expanding the war in Asia. The question is whether the people here are as serious about ending it. I wonder what it means for each of us to say we want to end the war in Vietnam—whether, if we accept the full meaning of that statement and the gravity of the situation, we can simply leave the march and go back to the routines of a society that acts as if it were not in the midst of a grave crisis. Maybe we, like the President, are insulated from the consequences of our own decision to end the war. Maybe we have yet really to listen to the screams of a burning child and decide that we cannot go back to whatever it is we did before today until that war has ended.

There is no simple plan, no scheme or gimmick that can be proposed here. There is no simple way to attack something that is deeply rooted in the society. If the people of this country are to end the war in Vietnam, and to change the institutions which create it, then the people of this country must create a massive social movement—and if that can be built around the issue of Vietnam then that is what we must do.

By a social movement I mean more than petitions or letters of protest, or tacit support of dissident Congressmen; I mean people who are willing to change their lives, who are willing to challenge the system, to take the problem of change seriously. By a social movement I mean an effort that is powerful enough to make the country understand that our problems are not in Vietnam, or China or Brazil or outer space or at the bottom of the ocean, but are here in the United States. What we must do is begin to build a democratic and humane society in which Vietnams are unthinkable, in which human life and initiative are precious. The reason there are twenty thousand people here today and not a hundred or none at all is because five years ago in the South students began to build a social movement to change the system. The reason there are poor people, Negro and white, housewives, faculty members, and many others here in Washington is because that movement has grown and spread and changed and reached out as an expression of the broad concerns of people throughout the society. The reason the war and the system it represents will be stopped, if it is stopped before it destroys all of us, will be because the movement has become strong enough to exact change in the society. Twenty thousand people, the people here, if they were serious, if they were willing to break out of their isolation and to accept the consequences of a decision to end the war and commit themselves to building a movement wherever they are and in whatever way they effectively can, would be, I'm convinced, enough.

To build a movement rather than a protest or some series of protests, to break out of our insulations and accept the consequences of our decisions, in effect to change our lives, means that we can open ourselves to the reactions of a society that believes that it is moral and just, that we open ourselves to libeling and persecution, that we dare to be really seen as wrong in a society that doesn't tolerate fundamental challenges.

It means that we desert the security of our riches and reach out to people who are tied to the mythology of American power and make them part of our movement. We must reach out to every organization and individual in the country and make them part of our movement.

But that means that we build a movement that works not simply in Washington but in communities and with the problems that face people throughout the society. That means that we build a movement that understands Vietnam in all its horror as but a symptom of a deeper malaise, that we build a movement that makes possible the implementation of the values that would have prevented Vietnam, a movement based on the integrity of man and a belief in man's capacity to tolerate all the weird formulations of society that men may choose to strive for; a movement that will build on the new and creative forms of protest that are beginning to emerge, such as the teach in, and extend their efforts and intensify them; that we will build a movement that will find ways to support the increasing numbers of young men who are unwilling to and will not fight in Vietnam; a movement that will not tolerate the escalation or prolongation of this war but will, if necessary, respond to the administration war effort with massive civil disobedience¬ all over the country, that will wrench the country into a confrontation with the issues of the war; a movement that must of necessity reach out to all these people in Vietnam or elsewhere who are struggling to find decency and control for their lives.

For in a strange way the people of Vietnam and the people on this demonstration are united in much more than a common concern that the war be ended. In both countries there are people struggling to build a movement that has the power to change their condition. The system that frustrates these movements is the same. All our lives, our destinies, our very hopes to live, depend on our ability to overcome that system.

Glossary

disenfranchise: to deprive someone of their right to citizenship, the right to vote, or other privileges

malaise: a condition of general weakness or discomfort; a vague or unfocused feeling; lethargy

monolithic: consisting of one piece; solid; unbroken; characterized by massiveness, total uniformity, rigidity, etc.

napalm: a jellylike substance which is highly flammable and explosive, used in bombs

saccharine: similar to sugar; cloyingly agreeable or ingratiating

war-hawk: one who favors war and pushes for its beginning or continuation

Document Analysis

This address, officially titled “Naming the System,” was an inspiring speech to its audience, designed to specify the ways in which the US government had let down its citizens. No longer was America an isolationist, or non-interventionist country; rather, now it was one that readily got involved in foreign affairs. The idea of “Naming the System” was intended to show how the American system of government and its involvement in international affairs had changed in recent decades and what effect those changes had had in terms of the ideal of freedom, both in the United States and throughout the world.

As Potter notes, “the development of a more aggressive, activist foreign policy” is something that came about after World War II. Prior to that, the United States maintained a largely non-interventionist stance with respect to other countries, except in a few cases, such as the Spanish-American War, when the United States sought to gain control of the Philippines. But after World War II, America became more interested in attempting to improve or alter foreign governments for the benefit of the United States. It is the building of this interventionist ideology that Potter criticizes. He and his audience believed that the United States had no right to involve itself militarily in foreign conflicts, such as the one raging in Vietnam, or to act as a kind of police officer for the world. Interventionism was especially galling since there were so many issues at home that needed attention, including poverty and racially-motivated violence and discrimination.

Additionally, Potter provides a critique of the state of freedom, both inside and outside of America. What does freedom mean in the context of the 1960s? Potter denies flatly that the Vietnam War was “a war to defend the freedom of the Vietnamese people,” nor does he see the war as expanding freedom in the United States. America, in its attempt to promote freedom in another country, had damaged both that country and its own citizens. The Vietnamese had been terribly brutalized by both their enemies and their allies in the guise of fostering freedom. It is true that a fear of communism prevailed in the United States at the time period, but that did not mean, in Potter's view and in the eyes of many others, that the United States could install an anticommunist dictator, hated by his own people.

Essential Themes

In the short term, the speaker's outcry against the Vietnam War and American participation in it served to rally the other antiwar activists. Potter and others like him were not content to allow the US government to do whatever it wanted, especially when its actions flew in the face of American ideals. Peacefully, with marches and rallies, as well as violently, with fires and explosions, antiwar and social reform activists in the 1960s made themselves heard.

In the longer term, many of the questions that Potter raised still go unanswered. What does freedom mean in the modern world? How has it changed in recent decades? Can American citizens maintain their freedoms when the government is engaged in violent activities abroad? In a world where laws have to be passed to keep governmental agencies from collecting data on the nation's citizens, free of the constraints of a warrant, what does freedom mean? Paul Potter was not protesting just the Vietnam War; he was protesting a change in worldview that he found dangerous and immoral.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Anderson, Terry H. The Movement and the Sixties. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.
  • Dancis, Bruce. Resister: A Story of Protest and Prison during the Vietnam War. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2014. Print.
  • “Paul Potter.” 50th Anniversary Conference—A New Insurgency: The Port Huron Statement in Its Time and Ours. University of Michigan, n.d. Web. <https://www.lsa.umich.edu/phs>.
  • Potter, Paul. A Name for Ourselves; Feelings about Authentic Identity, Love, Intuitive Politics, Us. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971. Print.
  • Rudd, Mark. Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen. New York: William Morrow, 2009. Print.
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