The New Anti-War Movement Is a Lot Like the Old

Culture Watch

Mr. Radosh is author of Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left, (Encounter Books,2001,) and is a columnist for FrontPageMagazine.com.

The year was 1965. America was fighting in Vietnam. Most Americans accepted the commitment. The anti-war movement was in its infancy. It had begun to pick up steam in 1964, when the draft was instituted, and the emerging New Left was able to use this as the linchpin for waging demonstrations in support of the Vietnamese Communists. On March 17, 1965, the first march on Washington protesting the war took place. It was sponsored by the young Students for a Democratic Society, still a broad left-liberal coalition, although one whose leaders declined to exclude Communist totalitarians. The SDS leaders invited all groups opposed to the war to attend their march, including not only established pacifist and liberal peace groups, but Communist groups including the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and groups affiliated with the American Communist Party.

Many liberal elders took notice and urged their followers not to participate in the SDS event. In an open letter to the protesters, Irving Howe, Bayard Rustin, and other old time principled social-democrats, knowledgeable about the pitfalls of alliances with totalitarians, urged that the march be boycotted, despite their own doubts about the Vietnam intervention. No march should be endorsed, they said, unless it made clear its opposition to"Communist totalitarianism." The march took place with a scant 25,000 in attendance, and the media generally ignored it. When I.F. Stone, dean of the left-wing reporters, spoke, he gently criticized the many calls by the marchers in opposition to liberals and liberalism. Stone was booed, and followed on stage by the singer Phil Ochs, who proceeded with his biting song,"Love Me, I'm a Liberal," which condemned anyone but radicals as part of the problem. It was an auspicious start of a generational radicalism that would soon be called the New Left.

Jump to the present. Our country is not yet at war with Iraq, although the menace posed by Saddam Hussein is becoming increasingly clear. Already, before any troops have been engaged in battle, some tens of thousands of protesters came to our capital a few weeks ago, symbolically gathering near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Without a draft to spur a movement on, a new and virulent anti-Americanism has managed to take hold and produce thousands opposed to the necessary war on terrorism. And as if they have sought to recreate the sectarian origins of the old anti-Vietnam war movement, the march was organized and led by organizations far more extreme than the 1960s version of SDS. Speakers at the march demanded freedom of Jamil Al-Amin, aka H. Rap Brown, the former head of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in its black nationalist period and the murderer of black cops in Atlanta. They also demanded freedom for Mumia, another self-proclaimed revolutionary and a cop killer. Further, they called for the defeat of Zionism, and naturally, the end of American"imperialism." It was, the liberal journalist David Corn acknowledged,"a pander fest for the hard left."

Indeed, the event was organized by the Workers World Party, a Leninist sect with origins in the splinter groups of American Trotskyism that now offers support to Kim Jong-Il and the socialist paradise of North Korea as well as the indicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. Other co-sponsors include the ever more kooky Ramsey Clark, who views the International War-Crimes Tribunal as a tool of the West to stop those who oppose the American Empire. At the meeting, Mr. Clark told the crowd that the Bush administration sought nothing less than to"end the idea of individual freedom." As for Saddam, he was but an innocent victim of American aggression.

Should Americans be concerned that the would-be opposition to war is being led by far-left extremists? They ought to be, since moderates in the movement, though they have no love for the politics of the march's organizers, see the protest as something positive. Robert Borosage, a mainstream liberal activist, praised what it revealed for"the potential for a larger movement down the road." In his eyes, the protests will be started by"radical fringe parties" and then get"taken over by more centrist voices."

Mr. Borosage is wrong. From its small beginnings with the SDS march in 1965, the anti-Vietnam war movement came to be led by a left-wing coalition of radical pacifists, American Trotskyists, and other assorted Communists, who led the many giant rallies under the auspices of an umbrella front group controlled by the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. It was not by accident that those marches became identified with the waving of Viet-Cong flags and cries of"Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is Gonna Win." Not everyone marching favored a Communist victory. But the extremists who ran the marches had as the official slogan:"Bring The Troops Home Now!" This meant, in effect, unilateral withdrawal as distinct from negotiations. The North Vietnamese would have to win.

Unfortunately, the anti-war moderates don¹t get it. Their only criticism of the anti-war movement is that is that it will not be able to stop the drift toward war with Iraq. Writing on the Web site of Mother Jones magazine, Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism at New York University, asserts that this movement"is far too weak and provincial to stop the coming war." What he seeks to build is a"more substantial antiwar movement," and he is saddened that the pro-Saddam orientation of the present movement can only stand in the way of that task. Mr. Gitlin is aghast that the present movement is indicative of"the Old Left at its worst," and he is correct to oppose it. But what upsets him is that with leadership by the likes of Mr. Clark and the Maoist C. Clark Kissinger,"the antiwar movement is doomed."

What Mr. Gitlin, a centrist radical, implies is that the goals of the movement to stop any planned invasion of Iraq is worthy; the only wrong thing is the movement¹s current leadership. If only they stopped comparing President Bush to Adolf Hitler, something Mr. Clark did at the March, then perhaps involvement would be worthwhile.

And that is the great error of the new antiwar movement. They may not agree with Mr. Clark when he says any invasion of Iraq"will be genocide again," but they, like him, are also opposed to an invasion. Since Mr. Gitlin presents no alternative to invasion for removing Saddam from power, and no suggestion how he can be forced to disarm, in effect his argument leaves Saddam firmly entrenched just as calls for unilateral American withdrawal in Vietnam assured victory for the Viet-Cong.

The moderates, like the extremists, seem to prefer to vent their anger at the danger supposedly posed by the Bush administration, while ignoring the very real danger posed by Saddam Hussein¹s regime in Iraq.

This article first appeared in the New York Sun and is reprinted with permission.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Basil Duke - 11/25/2002

I, for one, would never wish to take Mr. Radosh's arguments series.

Gus Moner - 11/24/2002

Well it’s always great fun to read the propaganda from FrontPage commentators. Their jaded portrayals of reality always clash with truth and are therefore invigorating to the mind.

I might remind Mr. Radosh that the so-called ‘emerging New left’ turned out to be vanguards who were eventually proved correct when a majority of citizens first, and eventually the conservative US government, finally accepted the wisdom of departing Vietnam. This harking back to an era over 30 years ago to recreate leftist enemies sounds much like the grinding of old axes, yet it has little relevance to today’s politics in the USA, or I might venture, the planet. The schism today is rich-poor, poverty, resources and ecology, not 18th century philosophy.

So, yes, let’s ‘Jump to the present’.

Why is it ‘a new and virulent anti-Americanism’ to oppose a war? That simplistic argument did not work in the 60’s when families saw their children opposing the war and knew very well they children were not anti-American. It won’t do now either. Cannot other people have different opinions to the administration’s policies you support?

Neither politics nor the nation are separated by a left-right ideology. People whose opinions differ add èrspective and diversity of thought to public discourse and debate. If your position is right, it will likely prevail, as the 60’s demonstrators did, notwithstanding their leftist fellow travellers. If not, so it goes.

You ask: Should Americans be concerned that the would-be opposition to war is being led by far-left extremists? I say they ought not be, since the discourse will, at a minimum, engender more representative, better-debated policies. Why worry if the "the antiwar movement is doomed" and centrists will anyway take over? By the way, your ‘centrist radical’ description is an oxymoron.

I agree that the comparisons to Hitler are extreme and distasteful. However, expanding any nation’s sphere of influence or invading other nations are, unfortunately, activities which do bear some semblance to what Hitler and Stalin did last century.

No one wants to dust Saddam’s potential dangers under the carpet. It’s just that people feel there are other ways for civilised nations to behave. Bush is already well overboard pointing up the dangers from Iraq. It’s alright that some other people point up his follies as well. The world is a complex place. What works in Texas may not work in Qatar.

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 11/23/2002

Barry Minot writes of a "theater of the absurd," and he is at least using an appropriate phrase. British newspapers are reporting today (11/23) that Richard Perle has openly told British MPs that Bush will order an attack on Iraq even if UN inspections find no nasty things in Saddam's closets (I hesitate to write "WMDs" because the acronymization connotes a sort of pop-official Ding-ansichlikeit character to the imaginary).

This more than suggests what only a fool of the right would've taken seriously: The transformation of a privileged mediocrity from a corrupt political family, in thrall to ideologues, into a Wilsonian idealist. Indeed, this is very different from the run-up to Vietnam.

Finally, my hunch is that any significant antiwar movement will emerge from economic discontent that will be exacerbated by Bush's will-to-power adventure in Iraq. If reports of what's happening in Afghanistan give us any clue, we can expect chaos in Mesopotamia, too, with all the costs that will incur. Minot's right about the impact of the Vietnam-era antiwar movement--but this time, things are very different at home, and the media-generated nationalist sentimentality after 9/11 won't sustain the kind of nostalgia for WW2- and Cold War-style citizen mobilization that seems to be a goal of the fools on the right.

Derek Catsamn - 11/22/2002

Radosh's response is itself typical of his approach. Professor Gitlin posed a whole series of errors of facts, not merely the one to which Radosh feebly responded (acknowledging that he was wrong). How can one take arguments series when their factual basis is erroneous from the getgo? This sort of sloppiness undermines any argument from the left or right.

Ron Radosh - 11/21/2002

Tod Gitlin's reply to my piece is typical of the kind of approach used by those who don't want to address the real questions I raised, and instead, hit upon minor errors of fact.
Gitlin knows that I was at the 1965 March- his date is correct and mine was wrong-but what I described is what I saw at the March. He was there too, obviously. And that's why he does not comment upon the thrust of my argument: that those who marched and did not distinguish themselves from the pro-Vietcong revolutionaries let them set the agenda then and in the future. He does not comment on the wise counsel of Irving Howe and Bayard Rustin, who urged that people not participate.
In fact, Gitlin's remarks confirm my argument: he argues that he presents his alternative. The facts, as laid out in Ken Pollack's thorough and convincing book, "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq," is that these so-called alternatives are in fact not real alternatives at all. Perhaps Gitlin will take this up in the forthcoming issue of Dissent. I look forward to reading his comments.
Ron Radosh

Todd Gitlin - 11/21/2002

Since Ron Radosh thinks that the draft was instituted in 1964, when it actually began years earlier; and that first anti-Vietnam war march took place on March 17, 1965, when it actually took place on April 17 of that year; and that the media ignored it, when in fact the New York Times featured it on its front page; and that the New Left began after that march, when SDS was using the term as early as 1962; since he thinks I'm still at NYU when the motherjones.com blurb clearly states that I'm now professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia--since Ron Radosh errs in all these respects, it is not surprising that he is uninterested in my actual views on how to contain Saddam Hussein. Some of my thoughts on this are in the article he cites, at motherjones.com, and a phone call or an e-mail would easily have elicited the rest of my response, which will appear in the Winter 2003 issue of Dissent, and which I have presented in a number of venues, including a talk at an antiwar rally at the UN building September 12. I am for continuing the no-fly zones, for inspections with teeth (so-called coercive inspections, and for smart sanctions.

Historian, back to the archives.

Todd Gitlin

Barry Minot - 11/18/2002

Any reader of a daily newspaper with a modicum of knowledge of 1960s and '70s knows the differences between Vietnam then and Iraq today. Why is HNN so enamoured of fairy tales such as this ?

Concealed within Ronald Radosh's ridiculous Rambo-Fantasy, is a slender sliver of truth: Some within today's "antiwar" movement WISH that another war against Saddam's Iraq WERE like the war with Vietnam. Radosh leaps to embrace this naive parallel in order to advance the pretense that the key error of America's war in Vietnam was that only 50,000 American lives were wasted. From this fictional premise, the script-writing possibilities are legion: If only we had poured in more troops (draining them from Europe, perhaps) and dropped more bombs (on the defoliated jungle) we could have defeated the Viet Cong, for sure. We would all be singing the Green Beret song today, Wally and Beaver would never have to lock the door at night, and Osama would never have dared to cross us.

As we leave this theater of the absurd, we can recall that Nixon and Kissinger withdrew from Vietnam not because of the American antiwar movement, still less because of its communistic fringe, but because the country as whole was unwilling to indefinitely continue sacrificing for a war that did not involve the vital interests of the United States. With oil reserves at stake, weapons of mass destruction a tangible risk, the Cold War over, and the World Trade Center gone, only a nostalgic fool "left", "right" or "center" clings to the Vietnam analogy as a real life comparison to current American foreign policy issues in the Mideast.