Jon Wiener: From Grant Park to Afghanistan: Obama's Defining Moment

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jon Wiener started writing for The Nation in 1984. Since then he's written more than 100 stories and reviews for the magazine, many about American history, university politics, and California life. He's also professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and a Los Angeles radio host.]

When Barack Obama gave his victory speech on election night last November, he picked Chicago's Grant Park – the legendary site of the battle between anti-war demonstrators and Chicago cops during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. According to campaign manager David Axelrod, Obama chose Grant Park to "symbolically overcome the damage done to American idealism forty years before."

In 1968, Grant Park had dramatized the fratricidal split between Democrats over Vietnam. On the night of Nov. 4, 2008, Obama was suggesting all that had come to an end. The party was united and victorious.

But Obama's speech tonight at West Point, announcing the escalation of the American war in Afghanistan, raised anew the specter of Grant Park in 1968. Once again a Democratic president is making a deeper commitment to an unwinnable war.

Tonight's speech announcing the escalation of the American war in Afghanstan is "the defining moment of the Obama presidency," Bob Schieffer declared afterwards on CBS.

We all remember how LBJ came to be defined by the Vietnam War, and how Democrats' opposition to that war forced him out of his own reelection campaign in 1968, and how the two sides coverged in Chicago in 1968, and how that led to the election of Richard Nixon.

Of course the question now is whether Afghanistan will be Obama's Vietnam.

Obama is a smart guy, and knows we are asking that question. He addressed it explicitly at West Point, declaring that the comparison with Vietnam "depends upon a false reading of history." He said that unlike Vietnam, the U.S. has been joined by a coalition of 43 nations in Afghanistan; that in Afghanistan the US is not facing a broad-based popular insurgency; and – most important, he said -- "the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target" for al-Qaida extremists.

Those who remember Grant Park in 1968 might reply that we had "allies" fighting with us in Vietnam--Australians, Koreans, Filipinos--while our "coalition" in Afghanistan is at best reluctant. They might reply that the Viet Cong were indeed stronger in their country than the Taliban are today in theirs--but that the Karzai government is more corrupt and weaker than the Saigon governments ever were.

And they might reply that Obama's own experts have told him that only 100 al-Qaida fighters remain in Afghanistan – the rest have relocated to Somalia, Yemen and other destinations.

His arguments tonight failed. Obama is pushing us back toward Grant Park – not the Grant Park of November 2008, but the Grant Park of August 1968.
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