A Vietnam War Memoir by an Antiwar Activist

A Book Review By Carole Seligman

Shades of Justice, A Memoir
By Paul Krehbiel
Autumn Leaf Press, 2008

Shades of Justice, a Memoir, by Paul Krehbiel, is an excellent account of the Vietnam antiwar movement by an active participant. Krehbiel came of age during the U.S. war on Vietnam and came to see his work to end that war as the most important thing he has done in his life. We can take that statement as good coin because Krehbiel remains today an active opponent of the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan.

The book blends Krehbiel’s personal story of a happy middle-class childhood, his education, his art, and jobs, with a detailed, accurate history of the antiwar movement in Buffalo, New York—an important industrial city, where Krehbiel worked in the auto parts industry and other industrial jobs in the 1960s and ’70s.

Krehbiel was an active participant in antiwar organizing efforts including educational leafleting about why the war was wrong, writing, public speaking, and organizing mass demonstrations. His main work was in draft resistance. The draft (compulsory military service) was how the U.S. government was able to build up such a massive military invasion of Vietnam. Krehbiel took an active role in educating young men in high school and college and at the draft board in Buffalo on why they should oppose the war and how to resist the draft. His experience as a worker who helped resist the employers’ plans to implement a big speedup at his auto parts workplace, Standard Mirror, was very important in his own development as an antiwar organizer and as a person who understood the importance of building opposition to the war in the working class. Even as a student activist who joined Students for a Democratic Society he was always aware of the need to join students with workers in antiwar organizing.

This book is very much a political memoir in that Krehbiel reconstructs many of the conversations and arguments he had in which he expresses the development of his thoughts about the war. Krehbiel’s politics started as an amorphous repulsion to bullying of all kinds, including powerful countries like the United States bullying small countries like Vietnam, and white racist bullying of Blacks. This repulsion grew into a thorough analysis of and opposition to imperialism (he calls it empire) and its wars of conquest. The thought developed not in a vacuum, but in tandem with action. Krehbiel recounts the impressive story of the movement growing from a small minority to a massive majority of the population, and the many obstacles along the way such as tremendous police repression, the National Guard murders of student protestors at Kent State, Ohio and Jackson State, in Mississippi, and frame-ups and repression for antiwar organizers.

The proof of Krehbiel’s commitment to the cause of peace is his continuing opposition to the wars waged by the United States since the Vietnam War. He is active today in the Iraq Moratorium. (The book has a chapter about the Vietnam Moratorium and the role it played in mobilizing gigantic opposition to the war), United for Peace and Justice, U.S. Labor Against the War, and a range of antiwar activities including the National Assembly to End the Wars and Occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is one weak area of the book in an otherwise excellent recounting of a very important period in world history from a local perspective (Buffalo, New York.) It is the author’s backsliding into a position of support for Democrats claiming antiwar credentials. He appeared very independent throughout the antiwar organizing and that was a key strength of the movement—staying in the streets and staying independent of both the Democratic and Republican war parties. Just like today, both of the big business political parties were taking turns leading the country into the escalating Vietnam war. But Krehbiel, right near the end of the book, with the Nixon v. McGovern presidential election campaign, joined thousands of antiwar activists in campaigning against Nixon and for McGovern. This support was jarring at the end of the book because it appears to contradict the independent working class perspective Krehbiel was developing throughout the 1960s and 70s.

“The most important lesson I learned,” writes the author, “was that a mass movement, democratic in nature and organized from the bottom up, is what makes positive social and political change.” This is a powerful lesson for people who want to change the world. The author also recommends social activism—working for peace and justice—as healthy, life-affirming work for individuals. This is a message that young people raised in a society focused on consumerism need to learn a lot about.

Personally, I often think of my participation in the Vietnam antiwar movement as among the most important things I have done in my life. Many members of the older generation feel this way. If you read this book I think you’ll understand why. And you may realize also that you can have a part in ending the wars the U.S. government is waging right now. That would be a very good thing!