War Protests: An Echo of the 1960s?
Mr. Markowitz, an associate professor of history at the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers University, is a member of the editorial board of Political Affairs, the theoretical journal of the CPUSA.
In response to the Bush administration's preparations for a second gulf war against Iraq major demonstrations were held in Washington and other major American cities last weekend. I participated in the Washington demonstration and was very impressed by the energy of the demonstrators as they marched in the cold through diverse neighborhoods to the Washington Navy Yard. Their spirit, their youth and their slogans reminded me the protestors of the 1960s.
In the late 1960s, peace activists sponsored university-based teach-ins and
community-based forums on the war. They circulated petitions on the streets
and went door to door in campaigns which brought an anti-war critique to tens
of millions of people. Today's demonstrators were trying to do the same thing-educate
as they agitate-only under dramatically different circumstances.
The Johnson administration's escalation of the war in 1965 ushered in years of anti-war protests. Those demonstrations mobilized hundreds of thousands of Americans and produced national coalitions that created a culture of protest, modeled after the Civil Rights movement of the time, uniting anti-war liberals and new left radicals.
Today there is no successful and morally compelling Civil Rights movement for
peace activists to emulate. Nor is there anything like the war on poverty and
the reforms of the Great Society to offer hope, as there was in the 1960s. However,
demonstrators were not pessimistic in Washington as they shouted "Money
for Jobs, not for War, money for Housing, not for War, money for Education,
not for War." These slogans, which echo the 1960s, may be more compelling
today when budget cuts for social services and budget increases for the military
go hand in hand.
The demonstrations of the 1960s influenced the elimination of the draft, the lowering of the voting age to eighteen, the passage of the War Powers Act, the expose of CIA plots to overthrow governments abroad and FBI violations of civil liberties at home. They also helped to create widespread postwar opposition to U.S. military interventionism that conservative politicians and pundits later disparaged as the "Vietnam syndrome."
To repeat the achievements of the peace movement of the past, activists are beginning the difficult process of developing a serious critique of the Bush foreign policy and the war danger in the universities, communities, and legislative sessions of local, state, and federal governments. At the demonstration, speakers focused on the possibilities of a war against Iraq escalating into a large regional war and one poster, in the satirical spirit of the 1960s, had a picture of Osama Bin Laden and the caption, "Osama Bin Laden wants you to Invade Iraq." Also, January 21 was scheduled for a day in which local delegations would meet with congresspersons across the country to register their opposition to the Bush policies and support for United Nations arms inspections and diplomacy to prevent war. For the demonstrators, if not for the Bush administration, the United Nations is more important as an instrument for peace than it was for the anti-war movement in the 1960s.
Comparing events today to the 1960s, there are reasons to be optimistic about
the peace movement winning over large numbers of people. While it was difficult
for peace advocates after a generation of cold war conflict to argue in the
1960s that the conflict in Vietnam was a civil war in which Communist forces
were indigenous, not the creatures of the Soviet Union and China, it is much
easier for activists today to show that the Muslim fundamentalist perpetrators
of the September 11 attacks have nothing to do with Saddam Hussein's brutal
but secular dictatorship
When a small group of administration supporters jeered from the sidewalks that the protests were helping Al Quada, demonstrators turned as a group and shouted "Osama Bin Laden, CIA", evidence that they understood that both Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden had the support of the Reagan and Bush administration's in the 1980s in Iraq's war against Iran and the war in Afghanistan, where Muslim guerillas fighting Soviet and Communist forces were hailed as "freedom fighters." With such modern tools as the internet, such information can be brought rapidly to large numbers of people. Also, the Internet enables activists to more effectively inform people of demonstrations and other peace actions, circulate petitions, and coordinate activities in many areas.
The anti-war movement of the 1960s divided civil rights, labor, and women's rights activists, many of whom feared the domestic consequences of opposing Lyndon Johnson's Great Society administration, that is bringing Richard Nixon and the Republicans to power. At the Saturday demonstrations, African-American Congressmen John Conyers and Charles Rangel were prominent among the speakers and representatives of trade union and women's rights groups were also present. Both speakers and marchers repeated the contention that the Bush administration was using war threats in the Middle East as a "weapon of mass distraction" to cover up growing budget deficits, unemployment and continued tax cuts for the wealthy.
None of this is of course sufficient to insure the success of today's antiwar movement. But peace activists have a serious chance to build a liberal coalition based on what was called in the 1960s "new politics and new priorities" to defeat the Bush administration in 2004, by campaigning for a peace centered foreign policy and a shift of budgets away from military spending and toward domestic reform. At the Washington protests, those possibilities were raised by many speakers and by two signs the first reading "make Bush lose the election in 2004 like he did in 2000" and the second, "keep the trees and get rid of the Bushes."