Born in 1956, Merle Ratner became an activist at the age of 13 and has continued to engage in activism throughout her adult life. Her family had a history of progressive activity, and she believed that as an American she had a responsibility to protest the government’s waging the war. Merle was arrested at age 13 for her participation in a protest of the Vietnam War. She has worked with many activist organizations, including not only those against the Vietnam War, but also various social justice movements. Currently, Merle and her husband, Ngô Thanh Nhàn, are part of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign to fight for aid for those affected by Agent Orange.
Merle Ratner interview by Douglas Pong, Sanjana Ramaswamy,Marissa Rivera, Alanna Ross. July 25, 2017, The Vietnam War Oral History Project, New-York Historical Society, New York, New York.
In this clip of the interview, Merle discusses how she was involved in anti-war protests and why she believed it was her duty as an American to protest against the government’s treatment of the Vietnamese, as well as how she involved herself in protests. She explains that you should speak out for your beliefs and should try to be as active as possible, despite any complications or hurdles that you may face.
Merle Ratner: I became an activist around 13 years old. At that point there was no cable, and there was no computers, so it was all broadcast TV. There was more and more coverage of the war, I think initially because people were getting drafted. People’s brothers, and sons, and husbands, and grandsons were being drafted, and they were coming back either with stories, or they had been killed, and come back in coffins. Then as time went on there was more reportage about the Vietnamese people and what the war was doing to them. We began to see stories of battles, stories of a lot of people being killed, stories of use of chemical warfare like napalm. I don’t know if you remember that little girl running down the road like this on fire from napalm. I don’t remember what year that was, but that was somewhere in that period, maybe a little after.
Before I learned to take the subway, I got my parents to take me to Times Square. There was an [army] recruiting station that’s actually still there. We would march around the recruiting station in larger and larger numbers. Then I remember there was a big demonstration in Washington, and I got my father to take me. He was a dentist, and there was a Dentists for Peace bus, which was mainly social workers, not a lot of dentists. But I forced him to take me on that, and then we marched around. I don’t remember where it was, it was downtown Washington, probably around the White House. So I started with that, and then I worked for an antiwar candidate named Paul O’Dwyer, who was running for the Senate on an antiwar line. I worked in that campaign. He lost, but then he became a city official later. He was a guy from Ireland who’d been involved in the Irish Republican movement and also was involved in the antiwar movement. So I worked in that. Then from there I continued in different parts of the antiwar movement.
Basically I was moved because I saw that a lot of people were getting killed, both Americans and Vietnamese. And then I saw the atrocities that the Americans were forced to commit through the government policy. So that made me very conscious of the need for us, as Americans, to stop the war, both from what I heard on TV, and then as the veterans started to come back, I worked with Vietnam Veterans Against the War who were the folks that had been involved, and they actually talked about what they had done, what they had seen, and the horrors that were being committed against the Vietnamese people.
Initially I didn’t set out to be an activist. I set out to deal with the war, because it was something that was morally wrong initially. I didn’t feel like I could sit here and watch people being burned on TV, or being killed on TV and tortured, and all of that. But then, you know, as I got involved it became something that — you know, everyone has goals in life. Some people want to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a scientist, or a construction worker, or a fisherman, or whatever it is. I think I had actually wanted to be a singer, but my teacher, my voice teacher said, “If you’re going to be a singer you can’t go to these demonstrations and yell anymore, because it ruins your vocal chords.” So at that point I said, “A, I’m not that great a singer. I’m a decent singer, but the demonstrations are more important for me. So I should just sing for fun.”
The more I got involved in the movement, I felt like where else can you actually change the world with other people? Where else can you meet people who believe in something so deeply that they’re willing to go out and fight for it? So, I feel very deeply about the issues, and also I’ve [been able to] travel around the world [for international solidarity activities]. I’ve met the president of Vietnam, I’ve met leaders of Cuba. I’ve met grassroots activists from South Africa, although I haven’t been to South Africa yet, people from the African National Congress. I’ve met Hugo Chavez from Venezuela when he was here. You know, you meet amazing people, and those are just the famous ones. I have to say that some of the grassroots leaders are really fabulous. You may not have heard their names, but they’re people that have done incredible things. They’ve lived in tunnels in Vietnam during the war. They survived apartheid, fighting apartheid. They’ve done incredible, incredible things. So it’s really a very rich life. There’s a lot of cultural stuff, there’s a lot of singing and sort of — there’s popular theater that you get involved in. So it’s a rewarding, it’s a hard life, and you don’t make a lot of money, I’ll tell you that. We are definitely struggling financially. But you also don’t have to do things, or you make a decision not to do things that you don’t feel comfortable with, that violate your principles, and I’m proud of that. I feel like I can say that I’ve lived my life, and hopefully will continue to live my life, because I’m not that old yet, in a way that is something that carries out what I believe, and that works with other people that are doing what they believe, and will try to make a better society from this society with all these problems. I never regretted it. I still don’t regret it, and I intend to spend the rest of my life doing it.
In this clip, Merle describes a feeling of solidarity among the activists, a mutual respect and caring for one another. It became more than just a political movement; a culture developed around it, and it represented a time of social change and radicalism.
Merle Ratner: There was a progressive radio station that still exists called WBAI Pacifica, which was kind of an antiwar radio station, and they combined sort of rock music, so Bob Dylan was on there, and Janis Joplin,[ Jimi Hendrix], and all kinds of other musical folks were on there talking about the war. So you had, like, a combination of culture, and antiwar, and activist stuff. So, it came from a number of different places.
But there was a — also, there was a culture of it. I mean, I was hanging out with people my age, but also a lot older, in the antiwar movement, so we got to know all kinds of people. So I didn’t have a typical childhood, like I didn’t date much, but frankly that was OK with me. I was fine dating in college, because I went early. Yeah, you’d get arrested sometimes. It wasn’t that much of a sacrifice, because you’d get out that day or the next day. It was sort of nice being part of a group. You had a whole group of people that believed in something, and so you would work hard, but you’d also hang out, listen to music. I don’t know if I should say this, but at that point you could drink early. I probably shouldn’t say this, but anyway. We’d all go to bars together. Now you can’t do that, but when I was young, if you were tall enough to put your money on the bar, they’d serve you, I don’t recommend that to young people, but that’s what would happen then. So there was a whole social scene. We listened to Motown. Does anyone know what Motown is? OK. It was kind of the music of the time. We danced, although I was an awful dancer. So it was, like, while it was hard and challenging, and sometimes when you would knock on people’s doors [to ask them to sign an anti-war petition] they’d send their dogs after you, and you’d kind of run away. But you know, you felt like you were part of something important.
I was 13, and there was a protest in front of the United Nations that was patterned after a protest in the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘50s I believe. It was called “We Charge Genocide.” The first one in the ‘50s was about genocide against the black community in the US, because there were lynchings and segregation, and Jim Crow, and systemic [racism and white supremacy and] discrimination, some of which actually continues today. But the people that, some of the people who had been involved in that original one in the ‘50s came back and said, “The US is committing genocide against the Vietnamese people, so we should do another protest, sort of in the tradition of that [previous protest], this time focused on the war in Vietnam.” So, the first time had been a petition, again, to the United Nations saying that this is a human rights issue, and the second time was also to the United Nations. Of course, they didn’t want us to go in there with this petition, so they set up a police line. And there were, I don’t how many of us, maybe 30, 20, something like that. So we crossed the police line and got arrested trying to deliver the petition. I remember being put into the back of the police van. At that time, they didn’t handcuff you with those ties; they just always shoved you in there. It was a good group of people, young and old, from all over, different communities. I remember, like, saying, I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to cry.” People could see this was my first time, and I was the youngest, so people were really supportive. Then they took us to a precinct I think in Lower Manhattan, down in Tribeca I believe, and we were there all day. They said to me, “Well, if you could tell us [your age], if you’re too young, we’ll let you go.” I said, “No, I’m not telling you my age, because I’m not going to go until — I don’t want to be let go until the others are let go.”
And I remember a bunch of us, in the White House Rose Garden, read an antiwar prayer and poem, and then they dragged us away. And then I remember that was the time, they put me in the Women’s House of Detention in Washington, and I had to stay overnight. And I was a little nervous, because I’d never been, I think I’d always been in holding cells, but this was the first time they actually took me to the prison. The women could not have been more supportive. They were so wonderful. They were, like, “Yeah, we don’t like the war. And we’ll take care of you. Do you need anything?” And I actually made a friend in there, the first time that I was friends with — she was another prisoner. She later went to prison in New York. And I eventually lost touch with her, but we were friends for a long time. So we were, like, yeah, we’re going to change this thing. We have the power to do it, we’re going to do it together. We’re going to make a new world.
In this clip, Merle Ratner reflects on the violence and government targeting that antiwar activists faced.
Merle Ratner: Being arrested, there was some fear, although — we got roughed up a couple of times by the police, but we didn’t get, like, seriously beaten. However, one of my friends who was a leader in Vietnam Veterans Against the War nearly got killed by the police on the steps of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. The police came and beat the hell out of him. I remember sitting next to him in the hospital. He nearly died, and that was scary. Of course, just like now, the police treated people of color much worse than they treated young white women. And certainly, if we were active with the Catholic left, when the priests and nuns would wear their habits, if you were with them they didn’t. You were treated much better. But when you were in other groups they tended to be much rougher. But what was worse was later on, when I actually had left college, I was living in the Lower East Side, and I started getting threatening phone calls saying, “We know where you are. We know what demonstration you’re going to, we know what rally, what conference. We’re watching you.” That was really scary, because the sense was it was some kind of government thing. Then I lost some jobs, you know. I got called in and said, “Your work is fine, but you got to go,” that kind of stuff. So there was a level of surveillance. Also at that point, I was living with people who were active in supporting the Panther Party, the Black Panther Party, and the black liberation movement, and so our house was sort of under suspicion. The neighbors said, “Oh, these guys kept coming around asking about you guys.” So, again, I mean, the repression that I suffered was very little compared to people who were killed. As I said, my friend from Vietnam Veterans Against the War, friends from the Black Panther Party who were killed, people who were targeted. Do people know what COINTELPRO is? The Counterintelligence Program? It was a government program that was aimed at disrupting and sabotaging the antiwar and particularly the Black Power Movements, and the Civil Rights Movements. So they spied on Dr. King. They killed members of the Black Panther Party, like Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. They jailed Angela Davis. There was a whole program that we were sort of, because I lived in that house, and I was active, I got some of it, but I didn’t get the worst of it by any means. We had to do a lot of support work for people that had been jailed, like the Panther 21, and antiwar activists like Reverend Phil, and Dan Berrigan, and Sister Liz McAlister, who were targeted unjustly in that Harrisburg case. So we did a lot of sort of support for people who had been caught up and targeted by the COINTELPRO program.
In this clip, Merle Ratner discusses how her style of activism evolved and changed throughout her life and how her family, friends, and classmates were affected by the Vietnam War.
Merle Ratner: My analysis deepened, for one. You start with a visceral reaction that this is wrong, that you want to end the violence, you want to end the killing, that the US has no right to be invading another country. But then you sort of learn a little bit more about why that happens. What are the issues? What are the underlying economic and geopolitical issues? You learn that the Vietnamese people are not just some people over there, they have their own history and culture and political systems. You learn about the antecedents of the French colonialist role in Vietnam, that the US took that over and continued the invasion of the country. You learn about what the Vietnamese people are wanting, particularly the liberation movement that was fighting against the US. You learn about their leaders and their issues. So that sort of deepens the understanding.
I think one thing that was particularly amazing to me is that they had back then, during the heart of the war, a Vietnam Committee in Solidarity with the American People. So the US is bombing Vietnam, and they’re talking about, well, we want people-to-people friendship, because they always said there was a difference between the US government and the people, and that they understood that a lot of the US soldiers there didn’t want to be there, and that they were forced to be there. So they had a lot of understanding about that and about the US people in general, and they followed things like our Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement, our movements for freedom, and other movements for freedom, which they always were very supportive of.
My parents were against the war. They were, aside from taking me to those first few demonstrations, they weren’t particularly involved. They were sort of sympathetic. They didn’t punish me too badly when I got arrested the first time doing civil disobedience, although they were pissed off and not happy. But I think my friends — when I was in junior high school, when I started, most of the other kids were not involved in antiwar stuff, because they were young. Then when I got to high school there was a combination of sort of antiwar and civil rights activism. I went to Music & Art High School, which is right, at that point, was right in the middle of the City University campus of CUNY. There were a lot of us. The students at CUNY were very active, so we would join together in demonstrations around the war. But we would also — there were issues of, essentially civil rights issues around the way culture was dealt with at Music & Art High School, so that the cultures of Harlem where we were and the multicultures of the different communities, were not always respected. So we had a lot of demonstrations and sit-ins in the lobby about that. They sort of combined — they weren’t always the same. There were sort of stuff on antiwar issues, and stuff on civil rights issues, and there was sort of an activist group that I was a part of in high school.
Then when I went to college, I went to the New School for a year. There wasn’t much activity. Then I went to Antioch for, like, six months. There there was an active movement mainly around labor issues, because the United Farm Workers were having their strike and their grape boycotts, so there was work with the farm workers union to support the boycott at local stores in Ohio. Also, I did some work with prisoners in the women’s prison. We did a radio show together. So there were various kinds of activism that sort of merged in and out with the antiwar activism.
In this clip, Merle Ratner shares how she continues in her activism today, specifically through the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign to fight for justice for those affected by the chemical poisoning of Agent Orange.
Merle Ratner: I think though that I’ve been sort of still involved throughout my life, both in the antiwar movement, and supporting international struggles, and also in the anti-racist movement. Agent Orange victims, both in the US and in Vietnam, because the US dropped chemical weapons on Vietnam, as you all know. The one that’s had the longest impact is Agent Orange, which is made from dioxin, which is the most toxic chemical known to science. And it gets in the body, and the people that get it first get cancers, and then their kids, and grandkids, and great-grandkids get birth defects and sometimes cancers. So the kids in Vietnam and the kids here are still having those impacts, and the government has done almost nothing for the people in Vietnam. And for the kids here, the kids of veterans, they’ve also done nothing, except for the kids of the few female veterans. The majority of the troops were male, and the kids and grandkids of those male veterans are getting birth defects just like the kids in Vietnam, and the government says it’s — they’re not going to deal with it. They say there’s no proof, even though the kids are suffering for it. So we’ve helped the group of the young people whose parents were veterans [to get started with their group]. So we have a campaign — you can see in the brochure — that actually raises some money, but more presses the US government to give assistance to the victims in Vietnam and here. Barbara Lee, who’s a congresswoman from California, has co-sponsored a bill, which we’re working on. We have these postcards to send to her [and our congressional representatives].
On other issues, I work with groups of activists who are basically trying to change the system we have here from one that’s based on profit to one that’s based on human need. So it encompasses a lot of things, so make the right to a job at a living wage, the right to housing, the right to decent education. I’m a supporter of single-payer health care, which Bernie Sanders has called for, which means that you just, you don’t have to pay for healthcare, it’s just taken out of the taxes, and you just go to the doctor for free, something that’s very important to me, because healthcare is really expensive. Ending the US wars abroad. Dealing with police brutality and racism. So I’m a big supporter of Black Lives Matter and work with people in Black Lives Matter as a supporter.