In Salon today, Gary Kamiya writes that
A real, broad-based antiwar movement would immediately put an end to the war — and put the Bush presidency out of its misery.
But there is no significant antiwar movement. And there isn’t going to be one unless Bush completely loses it and decides to attack Iran. (Insane as this idea is, Bush might see it as the only way to simultaneously destroy what he regards as a Nazi-like threat and save his shattered presidency.) This isn’t Vietnam, where hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest. This is the new, post-draft America, where a subclass of poorly paid professional warriors does the bidding of a power elite. With some notable exceptions, Cindy Sheehan being the most famous, the warriors and their families, those who pay the price, do not protest. And the rest of the country, not facing death or the death of immediate family members, doesn’t care enough to.
I agree with the first sentence in the quote, but Kamiya loses me when he declares he wants an antiwar movement just like the good ol’ days of Vietnam, when “hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest.”
The Vietnam era antiwar movement was wonderfully effective — at re-electing Richard Nixon in 1972. But at stopping the war, not so much.
Every time I write that I get slammed by people who say I’m wrong. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Eric Alterman —
The first serious historical research I ever did was when I was researching my honors thesis as an undergraduate. I wanted to study the origins of neoconservatism, the Six Day War, and Vietnamâ€”this was back in 1981â€”and my adviser, Walter LaFeberâ€”insisted that I learn a little context first by examining the attitudes of the entire country to the war and the antiwar movement. I poured over the polling data and found to my surprise, that in many ways, the antiwar movement was counterproductive. Many Americans didnâ€™t like the war but they really hated the counterculture. If supporting Nixon was a way to get back at the hippies and protesters and rioters, they were willing to do it, even if it meant extending a war they thought to be already lost.
I’m sure people who were completely immersed in the movement and had little substantive contact with outsiders saw things differently. But if, like me, you did spend time with people outside the movement, the impact of protests on public opinion was a painful thing to watch. To grab attention the protests became increasingly outrageous and flamboyant, and the more outrageous and flamboyant they became, the more the “straights” turned to Richard Nixon to protect them from the “dirty hippies.”
To a large extent, Nixon successfully made his ’72 campaign a referendum on the antiwar movement, not the war. As I saw it, the protesters handed Nixon a red herring issue that helped him avoid having to answer for bombing Cambodia.
Yes, Americans turned against the Vietnam war, and the war ended eventually. But who can say it was the antiwar protests that turned them? The bigger factor, I think, was watching the carnage and insanity on television every evening. There were real journalists in them days, children, and they told it like it was.
I’m wildly ambivalent about public protests. In the past four years I’ve participated in a few of the big protests and marches in New York and Washington. Some of these were positive and uplifting, and some made me cringe. None received the media coverage they deserved, and none had any measurable impact on Iraq War policy.
That said, I admit that if we could muster large numbers of Americans to march in the streets in an orderly manner this might have a real impact. Public protesting, done well, really does make a difference. Unfortunately, when it’s done badly it makes another kind of difference.
Yesterday was Martin Luther King day. Whenever I write these cautionary notes about public protests, someone brings up the big civil rights marches led by Martin Luther King in the 1960s. These protests had a spectacular effect on public opinion and helped bring about much positive change. But those marches were disciplined. As I wrote here, the marchers wore suits and dresses (I learned recently that MLK directed the marchers to dress this way; it didn’t just happen). They marched in a solemn and orderly manner. They waved many American flags. Their chants and signs didn’t contain language you couldn’t repeat to your grandmother.
The anti-Iraq War marches I’ve attended often were more like street carnivals than Martin Luther King’s civil rights marches. The glitter and goofiness are fun, but exactly why should marching against war be fun? Is war some kind of joke?
Some people think protesting is about “expressing themselves,” which seems to mean showing off and/or acting out whatever adolescent angst they haven’t yet resolved. But if you look at the really successful public protest movements — those led by Gandhi and MLK come to mind — you don’t see a collection of people “expressing themselves.” You see people complying with exacting discipline for the sake of a cause. You see people who understand that the cause is more important than their egos.
When a large number of people come together for a public demonstration, they do so to create one great big body that speaks with one great big voice. When a large number of people come together to engage in individual self-expression, however, the result can be one great big mess.
And may I add that goofy costumes and giant puppets are for circus parades, not for a solemn and serious cause. (OK, I’m an old grouch. I admit it.)
One of the more famous figures of the Vietnam era antiwar movement, Tom Hayden, had some interesting observations last November in the San Francisco Chronicle. I disagree with some of Hayden’s conclusions, but he’s worth quoting nonetheless.
…according to Gallup surveys, a majority of Americans came to view Iraq as a mistake more rapidly than they came to oppose the Vietnam War more than three decades ago. So how could there be a peace majority without a peace movement?
Foreign Affairs, the journal of the foreign policy establishment, wondered about this riddle in a 2005 essay by John Mueller reporting a precipitous decline in public support for the war even though “there has not been much” of a peace movement.
In January, when congressional opinion was shifting against the war, a Washington Post analysis made eight references to “public opinion,” as if it were a magical floating balloon, without any mention of organized lobbying, petitioning, protests or marches. That was consistent with a pattern beginning before the invasion, when both the New York Times and National Public Radio reported that few people attended an October 2002 rally in Washington, only to admit a week later that 100,000 had been in the streets.
Hayden thinks the marches and protests are having an impact after all. But then he says,
It is true there have been periodic lapses in street protests since 2003, but these can be explained by the surge of activists into anti-war presidential campaigns like that of Howard Dean. Not only were thousands involved, but MoveOn.org’s voter fund raised $17 million in 2004, most of it from 160,000 contributors averaging $69 donations.
In this year’s election, MoveOn activists made 1 million calls to their elected officials, and poured thousands of dollars and volunteers into campaigns. New Hampshire elected to Congress Carol Shea-Porter, a woman previously known for pulling up her outer garment to display an anti-war slogan.
To disregard forces such as these in the definition of the anti-war movement is a sleight-of-hand, something like eliminating Eugene McCarthy’s New Hampshire campaign in March 1968 from the history of the anti-Vietnam movement.
Exactly. There is an antiwar movement. But today’s antiwar movement is a lot less reliant on public protests and street theater than the old one was. And that’s a good thing. Why would anyone think we should return to the tactics of 1971 if, as Hayden says, the current movement is more effective?