Saturday, August 05, 2006

Book Review, Edmund F. Wehrle, Between a River and a Mountain: The AFL-CIO and the Vietnam War

Among the most important historical trends in late twentieth-century America were the decline of labor and the long-term consequences of the Vietnam War. Progressives have long excoriated the AFL-CIO for its work with the CIA in promoting anticommunist labor unions in southeast Asia and around the world. Edmund F. Wehrle's Between a River and a Mountain: The AFL-CIO and the Vietnam War explores these connections and effectively shows both the historical antecedents of organized labor's postwar anticommunism and the long-term effects of that stance.

It's unlikely that anyone here is going to read a long discussion of the details of Wehrle's argument. So I will just say that he makes a convincing argument that Vietnam undermined the AFL-CIO and has continued to hamper it. George Meany was a unrepentent anticommunist. This in itself did not need to be such a problem for labor, but it became a problem because of Meany's gruff and often uncompromising personality. He personified one of labor's greatest long-term historical problem: ossification of leadership. Meany headed the organization from 1952 until 1979, when he was well into his 80s. Meany came to power during the McCarthy era and in fact, he played no small role in making sure that nothing smacking of socialism stayed in postwar labor. By the time of the anti-war protests, Meany had made a long and successful career of steering American labor far from the shores of alliances with communists and he could not relate at all to the grassroots movement against the war, especially when this movement began to take over the Democratic party. A change in leadership at this point might have prevented some of labor's recent misfortunes. The AFL-CIO found itself stuck between a Republican party that it agreed with on foreign policy but which had no time for it on economic issues and a Democratic party that had common economic interests but serious divides over cultural and foreign policy issues.

Meany's tenure was marked by his willingness to work with the CIA to promote anticommunist unions. When the CIA became anathema for progressives, labor was soiled. Throughout the 1980s and even to some extent until today, labor has never repudiated its actions. Some of this is cultural--working-class support of the war in Iraq still remains stronger than the national average and repudiation of its foreign policy action could be seen as betrayal by some of the unions, particularly the crafts. But despite its efforts since John Sweeney took over in 1995, many progressives still remain suspicious of organized labor. There are many reasons for this, many of which are not labor's fault, but the legacy of Vietnam has to be considered among the most important.

As for the book itself, Wehrle provides a well-written account of this important subject. His discussion of the CVT, the South Vietnamese labor union supported by Meany and the CIA, shows the effects of labor's actions on the ground in South Vietnam. Wehrle argues that Meany was deaf to the increasing antiwar movement within locals. I'm not sure how important this is--I wonder just how many locals really opposed the war, particularly when compared to the blue collar support for the war that Richard Nixon courted. But like any good book, Wehrle raises questions to be answered with further research.

This is an important book for anyone interested in not only labor and Vietnam but in the ways progressives think about foreign policy. I have long bemoaned the fact that so many left-of-center people have chosen to not think realistically about US foreign policy in the post-Vietnam world. For all of Meany's flaws, and they were many, he did have a stand and he used his influence to push a vision of the world he thought was right. So did the anti-Vietnam movement. Unfortunately, progressives never moved beyond condemnation of the war to a real position on what role the United States should play in the world. Many left-liberals have a knee-jerk negative reaction to whatever foreign policy positions the US government takes. We need to do better. Reading Wehrle might help us think harder about these issues.