Radicals on the Road: Internationalism, Orientalism, and Feminism during the Vietnam Era.
In Radicals on the Road, Judy Tzu-Chun Wu examines the American anti-Vietnam War movement through the lens of gender analysis and with a focus on activists' efforts at international cooperation. Through three case studies of American activists' interactions with socialists from Southeast and East Asia, Wu demonstrates the constructive effects of their cooperation across national, racial, ethnic, and gender lines. In doing so, she challenges a number of assumptions about the anti-war movement itself and the New Left in general.
First, Wu showcases the diversity within the anti-war movement, counter to its historiography, in which white male activism predominates. Wu also details a radical orientalist sensibility among American activists, who "inverted and subverted" the East-West hierarchy of classical orientalism described by Edward Said (p. 5). Rejecting U.S. foreign policy and mainstream culture, activists looked to socialist Asia for political heroes and alternative models of modernity. Such was the rationale for the U.S. People's Anti-Imperialist Delegation, which visited North Korea, the People's Republic of China, and North Vietnam in the summer of 1970. Wu acknowledges that American activist travelers generally romanticized their counterparts in socialist Asia, but she argues that Asian hosts helped mold radical orientalism for their own purposes. Finally, Wu examines how gender shaped the experiences of activists and how activists themselves made gendered arguments against the war. This final theme most effectively unifies the three case studies, which are organized as separate parts in the book. The tripartite organization ultimately succeeds because of Wu's incisive gender analysis and the wealth of engaging stories that she has gleaned from archival research and oral histories.
Chapters One through Three focus on Robert S. Browne, a State Department economist stationed in Cambodia and South Vietnam from 1955 to 1961, well before escalation of the conflict under President Lyndon Johnson. Browne observed that U.S. aid exacerbated wealth disparity in South Vietnam and fueled popular animosity against the corrupt government of Ngo Dinh Diem. When his superiors suppressed a report detailing the ineffectiveness of U.S. initiatives in the region, Browne became an early public critic of American policy in the former Indochina. Wu uses Browne's story to demonstrate African American involvement in the early anti-war movement, since he opposed U.S. policy in Vietnam years before higher profile figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. Especially interesting is Wu's discussion of Browne's strategic use of familial relationships to gain credibility as a war critic. Married to an ethnically Chinese and Vietnamese woman from Cambodia, Browne "always publicly identified himself as marrying into a Vietnamese family" (p. 82).
Parts II and III move forward chronologically to the radical anti-war activism of the late 1960s and 1970s. Wu argues that activism of this period was not entirely fractious, despite separatism, intense personal rivalries between leaders, disagreements over ideology and strategy, and the destructive interference of COINTELPRO, the FBI program to infiltrate and disrupt radical organizations. Activists from the Chicano, women's liberation, black power, and Asian American movements, among others, found common ground in their opposition to the Vietnam War. But Wu also devotes considerable time to documenting tensions within the anti-war movement. After discussing the goals and accomplishments of the People's Anti-Imperialist Delegation, she analyzes the contentious relationships between delegation members, especially sexual and racial conflicts centering on the trip's often domineering leader, exiled Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. Women constituted a majority of delegates, but "[n]o female delegates could speak or make decisions on behalf of the group" (p. 166). Cleaver also treated dismissively Alex Hing and Pat Sumi, delegates prominent in the Asian American movement.
Despite behind-the-scenes conflicts during the delegation's Asian tour, the trip succeeded in inspiring American activists and building international activist relationships. Wu argues that "pan-Asian analysis of U.S. imperialism was significant both for the delegation's Asian hosts and for the development of an Asian American political consciousness," as demonstrated by Hing's and Sumi's recollections of the trip (p. 144).
In Part III, Wu presents her third case study of internationalism within the antiwar movement, namely the Indochinese Women's Conferences held in Vancouver and Toronto in spring 1971. Co-sponsored by American and Canadian feminist groups, the conference allowed hundreds of North American activists to hear Southeast Asian women's stories of resistance. As in her discussion of the People's Anti-Imperialist Delegation, Wu acknowledges the limits of activists' efforts to bridge ethnic, racial, sexual, and national divides. For example, conference organizers intended to hold a third meeting in Montreal. But American activists first contacted English-speaking women in Montreal, unwittingly alienating Quebec separatists and helping to doom the meeting. At the Vancouver and Toronto conferences, disagreements emerged over the antiwar movement's priorities, revealing fault lines between predominantly white matemalist pacifists and women's liberation feminists, Third World feminists (American women of colour), and First Nations feminists.
But as Wu argues, divisions among North American attendees heightened the role of their featured guests in bringing cohesion to the conferences. Speakers from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam "encouraged their audience to view everyone as equally capable of political struggle and achievement" (p. 259). Admired as revolutionary role models, these Southeast Asian women called on North American anti-war activists to broaden the movement's support base. Wu convincingly argues that "global sisterhood," at least in this particular case, "was not just an ideology imposed by the West but was promoted by women from the East as well" (p. 194). Radicals on the Road is an ambitious book that demonstrates the transformative, ultimately unifying impact of international activist networks within a diverse anti-war movement.
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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