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Between a River and a Mountain

The AFL-CIO and the Vietnam War

Edmund F. Wehrle

Publication Year: 2005

Between a River and a Mountain details American labor's surprisingly complex relationship to the American war in Vietnam. Breaking from the simplistic story of "hard hat patriotism," Wehrle uses newly released archival material to demonstrate the AFL-CIO's continuing dedication to social, political, and economic reform in Vietnam. The complex, sometimes turbulent, relationship between American union leaders and their counterparts in the Vietnamese Confederation of Labor (known as the CVT) led to dangerous political compromises: the AFL-CIO eventually accepted much-needed support for their Vietnamese activities from the CIA, while the CVT's need to sustain their relationship with the Americans lured them into entanglements with a succession of corrupt Saigon governments. Although the story's endpoint--the painfully divided and weakened labor movement of the 1970s--may be familiar, Wehrle offers an entirely new understanding of the historical forces leading up to that decline, unraveling his story with considerable sophistication and narrative skill. "Stunning in its research and sophisticated in its analysis, Between a River and a Mountain is one of the best studies we have of labor and the Vietnam War." --Robert K. Brigham, Shirley Ecker Boskey Professor of History and International Relations, Vassar College "Skillfully blending diplomatic and labor history, Wehrle's book is a valuable contribution to the ever-widening literature on the Vietnam War." --George Herring, University of Kentucky "Wehrle has written a compelling and original study of the AFL-CIO, the South Vietnamese labor movement and the Vietnam War." --Judith Stein, Professor of History, City College and Graduate School of the City University of New York "With this important book, Edmund Wehrle gives us the first full-fledged scholarly examination of organized labor's relationship to the Vietnam War. Based on deep research in U.S. and foreign archives, and presented in clear and graceful prose, Between a River and a Mountain adds a great deal to our understanding of how the AFL-CIO approached the war and in turn was fundamentally altered by its staunch support for Americanization. Nor is it merely an American story that Wehrle tells, for he also presents fascinating information on the Vietnamese Confederation of Labor and its sometimes-strained relations with U.S. labor." --Fredrik Logevall, Cornell University Edmund F. Wehrle is Assistant Professor of History, Eastern Illinois University.

Published by: University of Michigan Press


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p. v

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pp. vii-viii

I have incurred a great many debts in the preparation and writing of this book. The faculty and staff at the University of Maryland at College Park provided significant encouragement and support as I began my initial investigations. Stuart Kaufman, the sage editor of the Samuel Gompers Papers, provided invaluable early guidance. That this project survived his sudden death is a testament to his powers to inspire. I am indebted to a number of ...

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pp. 1-8

Two dramatic incidents of violent working-class protest stand at either end of this study. The first occurred in April 1950, at the port of the French city of Nice. A mob—organized by communist trade unionists—gathered to protest the French war in Indochina. As the rabble grew unruly, it forcibly boarded a ship loaded with war supplies destined for Southeast Asia. Rampaging through the vessel, the mob destroyed everything in its wake, eventually ...

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1. Free Trade Unionism

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pp. 18-28

Why did a labor movement devoted to domestic, economic concerns become so intensely consumed by affairs overseas—so much so that its involvement in the Vietnam War wrought wounds still painful even today? Historians have approached this question from a variety of vantage points, alternatively constructing explanations around the obsessive anticommunism of organized labor’s leadership, the prestige and status foreign affairs ...

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2. “No More Pressing Task Than Organizing in Southeast Asia”

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pp. 29-50

For two years following World War II, the AFL internationalists fought a lonely, largely solitary cold war against communist infiltration of Western European unions. In 1947, however, the fortunes of free trade unionism turned markedly for the better. With the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, the federal government emerged as a new, generous partner in the anticommunist cause. While a partnership between labor and the U.S. government ...

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3. “It’s a Vast Jungle and We’re Working on the Periphery”

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pp. 51-74

By 1952, proponents of free trade unionism appeared poised to realize their ambitious national and international objectives. That year the pugnacious free trade unionist George Meany was elected president of the American Federation of Labor. Henceforth, anticommunism, internationalism, full-employment economics, and a fierce commitment to trade union autonomy would be the virtually unchallenged tenets governing the AFL. Parallel ...

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4. New Frontiers

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pp. 75-100

For free trade unionists, the early 1960s came like a brief Indian summer: overnight long-held hopes and ideals appeared tantalizingly within grasp. Slogging out of the discouraging Eisenhower years, organized labor embraced new frontiers thrown open by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Senator John F. Kennedy’s 1960 “we can do better” campaign mantra, paralleling neatly labor’s call for activist government at home and ...

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5. Into the Quagmire

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pp. 101-134

That year, eight hundred union leaders polled by U.S. News and World Report “almost unanimously praised LBJ.”1 Union leaders had reason to savor the hour, for the years between 1965 and 1968 in many ways marked the apex of postwar American labor. The economy soared to near full-employment levels, and a sympathetic, activist president sat in the White House. Internationally, the United States matched its military offensive ...

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6. Free Fall, 1968–69

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pp. 135-152

If the mid-1960s, despite unprecedented prosperity and political power, proved unfulfilling and anxiety ridden for organized labor, a downward spiral following the Tet Offensive quickly confirmed that all was not well with the free trade union agenda, neither in Vietnam nor at home. Indeed, over the course of roughly a year, the fortunes of free trade unionism went into free fall. In quick succession, the Democrats lost the White House, Walter ...

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7. Entangling Alliances and Mounting Costs, 1970–71

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pp. 153-172

The parade of reversals afflicting the AFL-CIO in the late 1960s continued into the 1970s. Critics gleefully exposed the questionable arrangements made by the supposedly independent U.S. trade unionists to the glare of daylight, and growing numbers of trade unionists, especially at the rank and file level, defied Meany and joined the peace movement. In Saigon, the CVT also faced mounting challenges, including an expanded campaign of terrorism ...

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8. “The Last of the Cold War Mohicans,” 1972–75

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pp. 173-200

In 1956, Pravda mockingly dismissed George Meany as the “last of the cold war Mohicans.”1 A meaningless slur at the time, by the 1970s the epithet carried more than a ring of truth. In the wake of the painful war in Vietnam, even the old cold warrior Richard Nixon embraced détente and accommodation with the East. Large segments of a hopelessly splintered liberal coalition, meanwhile, jettisoned anticommunism, foreign policy activism, and ...


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pp. 201-278


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pp. 279-298


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pp. 297-304

E-ISBN-13: 9780472025794
E-ISBN-10: 0472025791
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472069002
Print-ISBN-10: 0472069004

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2005

OCLC Number: 651719432
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Between a River and a Mountain

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Subject Headings

  • AFL-CIO -- History.
  • Labor movement -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975.
  • Labor movement -- Vietnam -- History -- 20th century.
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