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An SW roundtable
How can we stop their wars?

March 14, 2003 | Pages 6 and 7

WHAT WILL it take to stop this war? That's the question on the minds of millions of people--whether they participated in the massive international antiwar demonstrations on February 15, or whether they cheered them on from home.

Afterward, George W. Bush dismissed this outpouring of opposition as a "focus group"--and charged ahead with his war plans. But history shows that even a power as mighty as the U.S. can be stopped. The slaughter of the First World War, for example, ended in a wave of revolutionary upheavals that shook governments from one end of Europe to the other.

Likewise, U.S. imperialism was dealt its most severe blow with its defeat in Vietnam--the result of a combination of factors, including a powerful international antiwar movement, opposition to the war among U.S. soldiers and the determination of the Vietnamese liberation struggle.

Here, Socialist Worker talks to veterans of past antiwar struggles--both from the Vietnam era and after--about the challenges that our movement must face today.

BILL AYERS was a leading activist against the Vietnam War and helped form the Weather Underground. He recently authored a book on his experiences, titled Fugitive Days.

BILL ROBERTS is a former member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and founding member of the International Socialist Organization.

BILL DAVIS was a co-founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and is currently an activist in U.S. Labor Against the War.

SHARON SMITH is a leading member of the ISO and a columnist for Socialist Worker.

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IN SEPTEMBER 1965, a Marine recruiter came to my campus at the University of Michigan, and a student put up a banner with a long quote from the Nuremberg trials about war crimes, with a red arrow pointing at the recruiter. That electrified the campus and stimulated debates for a week. For a young student who knew very little, but had an instinct to be against the war, it was a crash course in history, politics and activism all rolled into one.

That week ended with a teach-in, which was another stroke of genius. The radical students and faculty wanted to strike, but most of the faculty couldn't imagine striking. They were willing to devote a day to talk about Vietnam in their classrooms. And that was the beginning of the teach-in movement [that spread across the country].

That whole period culminated with a big rally and a sit-in at the draft board. Several hundred students were there. We marched to the draft office, and 39 of us were arrested.

This is the autumn of 1965, early in the war. We were surrounded by thousands of students who thought we should be expelled. We were a tiny minority in Ann Arbor--and nationally. Compare that to today. Even though the Bush administration does everything to fuel its efforts with fear and lies, large numbers of Americans are opposed to this war.

We had a quarter of a million people in Washington when Nixon was in his second year in the White House. Nixon sent out word that he was watching the Super Bowl and he didn't notice we were there. That parallels with what Bush said last week: "I don't make decisions by focus groups." First of all, if he was really ignoring you, why did he feel it was necessary to comment on the fact that he was ignoring you? It's also because the role of cynicism, despair and passivity in the American political calculus is huge.

We have to say it still matters that we speak up--that we talk to our neighbors. You can't be neutral on a moving train.

By 1968, two other things had been going on that were decisive. Vietnam vets began returning home and telling what they'd seen and done. They joined the antiwar movement. They threw their medals back at the U.S. government in a dramatic and militant demonstration in Washington and said, "We don't want these medals. They're shameful because of what the U.S. is doing." That was a watershed moment.

The African American movement for civil rights and Black liberation also played a decisive role in the character of the antiwar movement. When the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) urged its members not to fight in Vietnam, that was a huge gesture. When SNCC said no Black man should go 10,000 miles away to fight for freedom that he doesn't enjoy in Mississippi, that was huge.

When Muhammad Ali said, "I won't fight in the white man's army, because no Viet Cong ever called me 'nigger,'" that shook the country up. And when Martin Luther King gave his antiwar speech at Riverside Church, the powers that be just trembled. The fact that the Black movement turned against the war was of enormous importance.

In the early days, we were onto something. Organizing is always educating, and educating is always a two-way street. The teacher is learning as he is teaching. There was diversity of core beliefs, of goals--a massive diversity. But there was unity around a couple principles--that we were going to reach out and build a movement against the war and the fight for civil rights, and that we would let practice resolve our differences.


THE WAR against Vietnam took many by surprise. The presidential campaign of 1964 was fought almost entirely on the issue of war and peace. Lyndon Johnson campaigned as the peace candidate, arguing that the Republican challenger, Barry Goldwater was eager to use nuclear weapons in South East Asia and precipitate World War Three.

Three months after winning a landslide election, Johnson launched Operation Rolling Thunder--a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam. The peace candidate was now the war president.

This made a lot of people angry--especially those who had supported him like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), of which I was a member. SDS called for a national demonstration in April to protest the war. Every group who opposed the war was invited, including the Communist Party. This non-exclusionary call for opposition to the war was controversial because of the Cold War, so many traditional peace organizations officially boycotted the event.

Nevertheless, nearly 15,000 showed up in Washington, DC to initiate what would become a 10-year antiwar movement.

There were many smaller demonstrations the spring of 1965 right across the country. Many of the early organizers of protest had been involved in the civil rights movement, so there was a core of activists already trained in social movement activity. Still, these early protests were small compared to today's demonstrations. I remember the first protest on my campus--Washington State University in Pullman, Wash.--was less than a dozen. We picketed the ROTC weekly assembly. Multiply these small gatherings across the country, and they added up to the beginnings of a wider movement. By the fall of 1965, we were able to join with others in Seattle for a demonstration of 1,000.

In many ways, we were a bit naïve. We actually thought President Johnson had stumbled into a big mistake, and that if we could only get his attention, he would see his error. I remember the teach-ins the spring of 1965 often included debates with U.S. State Department representatives. We attempted to make clear that an international accord obligated the U.S. to allow the Vietnamese to decide their own fate through a plebiscite. In many ways, we felt that by educating people and the government we could bring peace.

As the war escalated and our lobbying for peace seemed to fall on deaf ears, we learned that we were up against something bigger, something we eventually learned were imperial priorities with much deeper roots than a single policy decision by one president.

The teach-ins were where many of us learned the arguments necessary to build a wider movement. These were the boot camps of the movement. They trained the first layer of activists in how to argue, what the key issues were, who was on your side and who wasn't.

The teach-ins also helped spawn a culture of protest. We already had the songs from the civil rights movement to use and now we began to produce antiwar songs, poetry, painting, etc. This was important, because it helped grow an identity and spirit that is necessary in any movement.

As the war continued to escalate over the next three years, so did the antiwar movement. Not only were there the huge national demonstrations in Washington, D.C., every spring and fall, but local groups began to organize their own actions. Draft resistance was one whole section of the movement. Draft boards were occupied. Troop trains were blockaded. Pro-war politicians could not appear publicly without meeting protesters.

We had the example of civil disobedience in the civil rights movement to guide us. But it was the war itself that fueled the movement. Just like the pictures of Bull Connor loosing the dogs on civil rights protesters in Alabama galvanized the civil rights movement, pictures of napalmed children in Vietnam pulled more and more people into antiwar activity.


VIETNAM WAS the first time in U.S. history that GIs returning from a war that was still going on went public in opposition to that war--and in a very big way, by returning their medals to Congress.

Also important was that we had so many people involved who were active-duty military. We were part of a larger network of GI antiwar organizations on board ships and in just about every military installation in the world, including Vietnam itself. There were hundreds of GI underground newspapers.

I arrived in Vietnam just as [the Vietnamese rebels' Tet Offensive] went off in 1968. That was a shock to my system as well as the world. Before that, we were told that we were winning the war, and to an extent, that's what we believed.

The more things we saw, the more we came to realize that we'd experience one thing during the day--and at night on Armed Forces Radio, we would hear a total fabrication. We came to realize that nobody wanted us there. When you saw the kinds of things we were doing--what we did to the country and the women--it was a powerful case.

After Vietnam, I was shipped to Thailand. There, guys became increasingly bitter about the fact that we were attacking Laos and Cambodia, and nobody knew about it. We formed a GI antiwar organization. We were multinational--Latino, Black white.

When they send me back to the U.S., I was stationed at Lockhorn, close to Ohio State in Columbus. After [the National Guard killed four student protesters at] Kent State, I went AWOL and traveled around the state, speaking at colleges and participating in demonstrations. Opposite of the urban legend about being spit on in airports, I was always treated well. No one ever called me a "baby killer" or anything like that.

My grandfather was a union organizer in the first sit-down strike in the rubber industry in Akron following from being in the First World War. I'd always been instilled with the importance of unions, and I still carry that with me today. Being veterans made us able to bridge the antiwar movement and the fledgling workers' movement. I was always really proud of these accomplishments.


ROUGHLY 200,000 U.S. troops are now waiting in the Gulf, ready to attack Iraq--with or without a United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution supporting a war. Having raised the stakes this high, the Bush administration can't reverse course without humiliation--unless, that is, a U.S.-friendly coup were to oust Saddam Hussein. Only then could the U.S. declare the operation a "victory" short of war.

The U.S. aims to gain control over Iraq, whether the means are war and occupation, or coup and the installation of a puppet regime.

But the current standoff within the UN Security Council--with the U.S. and Britain on one side, and Germany, France, Russia and now China on the other--isn't simply about the war on Iraq. The world's superpowers are fighting over who is going to control the post-Cold War world, and by what means. Other superpowers are demanding their share of control, but the U.S. has no intention of complying.

After the 1991 Gulf War, Bush Sr. announced to the world, "What we say goes." The September 11 attacks provided Bush Jr. with an excuse to launch a "war without end"--with the stated goal of fighting terrorism, but the actual goal of expanding the U.S. empire. The war on Iraq is just the second phase of the war on terrorism. Afghanistan was the first--and there will be other targets after Iraq.

Afghanistan was an easy victory for the U.S., and Iraq will probably be, too--in the short run. But the long run is a different story. The U.S. war on terrorism is likely to lead to more and bigger wars. From Bush's viewpoint, the credibility of the American empire is at stake. The rest of the world--including the growing opposition inside the U.S.--have concluded that the U.S. is a rogue superpower that is completely out of control.

Thus, U.S. imperialism's very success now may well plant the seeds for its future defeat.

Eventually, the U.S. can be stopped--in one of two ways. It can either be defeated by other imperialist powers--a war leading to the victory of other superpowers and the continuation of imperialism. Or it can be stopped by the development of a massive opposition from below--the rise of mass revolutionary parties that can challenge imperialism on a global scale, and finally break the never-ending cycle of barbarous war.

The millions of people around the world who now oppose the war on Iraq can plant the seeds for such a movement--based on international solidarity.

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