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Does it matter if we protest?

September 21, 2007 | Page 5

ERIC RUDER looks at the role of protests in a movement to stop a U.S. war.

BEFORE THE U.S. war on Iraq began, George W. Bush compared the immense global protests on February 15, 2003--with some 10 million people taking to the streets on five continents--to a public opinion "focus group."

Bush ridiculed the idea that the demonstrations should have any effect on his war policy, and he launched the invasion a few weeks later.

But since 2003, the idea that antiwar protests don't matter has spread far beyond the Bush White House. Today, it is even echoed by people in, or sympathetic to, the antiwar movement.

In 2004, for example, liberal journalist Matt Taibbi wrote that "marching, as we have seen in the last few years, has been rendered basically useless. Before the war, Washington and New York saw the largest protests this country has seen since the '60s--and this not only did not stop the war, it didn't even motivate the opposition political party to nominate an antiwar candidate."

What else to read

Gerald Nicosia's Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans' Movement is a history based on hundreds of interviews with men who fought in Vietnam and then came home to be active in the antiwar movement. The War Within: America's Battle Over Vietnam by Tom Wells is a comprehensive history of the antiwar movement, from its earliest days to the end of the war in 1975.

For an excellent history that focuses specifically on the GI rebellion during the war, read David Cortright's Soldiers in Revolt, republished by Haymarket Books.

SW columnist Paul D'Amato's article "The Making of the Movement" analyzes the earliest roots of the struggle to stop the Vietnam War.

Joe Allen's three-part series on Vietnam in the International Socialist Review provides a clear and accessible outline of the course of the war. The articles have been collected in a new book, Vietnam: The (Last) War the United States Lost, due to be released later this year.


Bush's re-election in 2004--combined with the fact that the war only seems to drag on--has served to reinforce the view in some antiwar circles that the movement must find tactics that will work and abandon ineffective national mobilizations. Such demonstrations may make participants "feel good," goes the argument, but they don't have much to do with ending the war.

The conclusion that "protests don't work" is, however, mistaken.

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FOR ONE thing, the idea that today's antiwar movement has really tried protest on a mass scale is wrong. Measured against the movement to stop the U.S. war on Vietnam, the antiwar movement today is still in its infancy, in terms of both size and militancy.

Take the Vietnam Moratorium Days in 1969. On October 15, some 10 million people took part in local actions from coast to coast. In large cities, there were rallies of tens of thousands; on campuses, students wore peace armbands; and in a number of smaller towns, people read names of the war dead.

A month later on November 15, Washington, D.C., was the site of the largest demonstration in U.S. history to that point--with somewhere between 500,000 and 750,000 antiwar protesters jammed around the Washington Monument for speeches that lasted throughout the day.

The media reported that Richard Nixon paid the protesters no attention whatsoever, and spent the afternoon watching college football. But the true story was different. As history books later revealed, Nixon was frantic about the size of the 1969 mobilizations.

"The demonstrators had been more successful than they realized, pushing Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger away from plans to greatly escalate the war, possibly even to the point of using nuclear weapons, and back toward their 'Vietnamization' strategy of propping up the Saigon regime," author Gerald Nicosia wrote in Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans' Movement.

Nicosia adds that another accomplishment of the 1969 demonstrations, "though no one knew it at the time, was the revival of the Vietnam veterans' movement."

The Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) had been founded two years earlier, but by 1969 had become inactive. The task of mobilizing for the Moratorium Days changed that.

"Within a few months, VVAW had several hundred new members," writes Nicosia. "Many of them came directly out of VA hospitals, bringing with them word of the terrible conditions that Vietnam veterans were experiencing in those places."

By early 1970, the level of protest climbed even higher in response to the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, which sparked a student strike. Police and the National Guard were called out to confront student protesters, leading to the killing of students at Kent State in Ohio and Jackson State in Mississippi in May 1970--which in turn fed the fires of antiwar outrage.

In all, some 8 million students participated in the strikes; just in May, some 1,350 colleges were affected. "Faculty and administrators joined students in active dissent, and 536 campuses were shut down completely, 51 for the rest of the academic year," Tom Wells wrote in The War Within: America's Battle Over Vietnam.

The scale of the protests prodded McGeorge Bundy, one of the war's principal architects, to declare that "not only must there be no new incursion of Americans across the Cambodian border, but nothing that feels like that to the American public must happen again, on the President's say so alone."

In 2007, public opinion against the war on Iraq may run even higher than sentiment against the Vietnam War did in 1970--certainly George Bush's approval rating is lower than Richard Nixon's that year. This is encouraging considering the absence of high-profile protests like those of 1970.

But the tide of antiwar public opinion is having less direct impact on government policy today, and that's a result of the fact that the sentiment isn't backed up by any organized expression.

The problem isn't that mass protests don't work, but that today's antiwar movement hasn't risen to the challenge of mobilizing antiwar sentiment into mass protests.

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THE ISSUE of protest shouldn't be looked at narrowly. If the question is whether mass protests on their own change government policy and end wars, then the answer is no.

Large marches and demonstrations--even militant ones that include civil disobedience--aren't sufficient, in and of themselves, to force the U.S. to abandon its foreign policy aims. This is certainly the case today with the occupation of Iraq, since there is more at stake for the U.S. in Iraq--with its huge oil supplies and location at the strategic heart of the Middle East--than there was in Vietnam.

But instead of measuring the power of mass marches in isolation, what's needed is to understand what role mass protests play in building a movement capable of ending a U.S. war.

Three necessary elements came together--with each one bolstering and reinforcing the others--to end the U.S. war on Vietnam.

The Vietnamese resistance kept the U.S. from imposing its will, but couldn't expel the U.S. on its own. The rise of resistance among U.S. soldiers undermined the effectiveness of the U.S. military as a fighting force, but GI organizing didn't happen in a vacuum. The antiwar movement in the U.S. shook up American society, but it didn't have the power to stop the war machine.

Together, however, these three forces combined to compel the U.S. ruling establishment to conclude that only further ruin of its military and turmoil within U.S. society would result from continuing the war on Vietnam.

So national antiwar mobilizations are a necessary part of a movement that can end the war, even if they don't have a direct impact on war policy themselves.

A large national protest that attracts new as well as experienced activists helps people in the antiwar movement overcome feelings of isolation they may experience in their own cities and towns. It also strengthens local organizations that mobilize for the protest--and these groups in turn benefit from the politicization of individuals who return home invigorated to continue the struggle. And of course, the larger such mobilizations, the greater the impact they can have on shaping mass public opinion.

This last point is one of the most important ways that a strong civilian antiwar movement can assist in the development of GI resistance--another crucial ingredient in the antiwar struggle.

For one, well-publicized and -orchestrated mobilizations can serve as the first point of contact between recent veterans and the antiwar movement. At the January 27 mobilization in Washington this year, Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) recruited a dozen new members. And recent veterans provide the best direct links to finding active-duty military personnel who are willing and ready to organize.

What's more, it's impossible to imagine a GI revolt without broad rejection of the war among the public. Soldiers aren't likely to oppose a war that their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and neighbors support.

During the Vietnam era, the peak of the GI revolt followed years of domestic protest, the growing radicalization of the student antiwar movement and the obvious futility of the war effort itself in the face of the Vietnamese resistance.

Many opponents of the Iraq war feel an understandable frustration as Bush's surge grinds on with such limited opposition. Unfortunately, though, this has boiled down in some cases into exhortations to "put your body on the line"--in order to carry out a civil disobedience action the politicians can't ignore.

But civil disobedience, even when it involves hundreds of people, can be ignored in the absence of a confident, growing and sustained mass movement.

This is what distinguishes the Vietnam era from today. "Every year from 1967 to 1971, a major march occurred in the District, including four of the biggest antiwar demonstrations in American history [to that point]," according to a Washington Post retrospective on the period.

Mass demonstrations don't end wars on their own, but they are an essential part of a larger struggle that can.

Thus, the challenge facing the antiwar movement, given the weakness of the forces involved at the moment, is to combine large national mobilizations with a focus on strengthening the local, grassroots base of the movement.

This means careful attention to building local chapters of Iraq Veterans Against the War, campus antiwar coalitions and citywide antiwar networks.

These forces need to collaborate on reaching out to military bases, GIs and vets at VA hospitals, unions, civil rights organizations of all sorts--in short, all the potential allies who together can raise the cost to the U.S. establishment of prosecuting its immoral and brutal war on the Iraqi people.

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