WHICH WAY FOR THE PEACE MOVEMENT?
jacdon at earthlink.net
jacdon at earthlink.net
Sat Nov 2 16:06:49 MST 2002
The following article will appear in the Nov. 4 email issue of the
Mid-Hudson Activist Newsletter/Calendar, published in New Paltz, NY, by
the Mid-Hudson National People's Campaign/IAC, via jacdon at earthlink.net
WHICH WAY FOR THE PEACE MOVEMENT?
By Jack A. Smith
A new and broad sector of the peace movement, with a strong
anti-imperialist component, burst into the streets days after the Sept.
11 attacks last year, correctly anticipating that the Bush
administration would exploit the tragedy to justify launching wars of
Two weeks later, on Sept. 29, this sector -- led by the ANSWER coalition
-- organized a rally and march in Washington that attracted 20,000
protesters and a simultaneous demonstration in San Francisco that drew
many thousands. This happened a full week before President Bush began a
war against Afghanistan, at a time when many peace groups were
cautioning that public protests were "inappropriate" during the
temporarily prevailing climate of White House and mass media induced
The pace of antiwar protests and demonstrations continued to accelerate
considerably this year. On April 20, a multi-coalition demonstration of
up to 100,000 people was held in Washington. Now, on Oct. 26, ANSWER
mobilized hundreds of thousands in Washington, San Francisco and well
over 100 other cities in the U.S. and abroad against the Bush regime's
intention to invade Iraq, a country not connected to the terror
attacks. This happened before Bush even set a date for his new war.
The phenomenal growth of this peace force may conceivably impact the
administration's war plans.
It is obvious to veteran observers of the antiwar struggles in the U.S.
that today's movement is growing considerably faster, and with more
savvy about Washington's real intentions, than the early years of the
mass antiwar/anti-imperialist movements of the 1960s-'70s that
ultimately helped stop one of the most shameful wars in American
The first demonstration against the Vietnam war took place in 1963 when
a group called Youth Against War and Fascism organized a small protest
in New York City. It took over two years before the first demonstration
of 25,000 people was held in Washington in the spring of 1965, organized
by Students for a Democratic Society.
To accomplish this breakthrough, SDS had to overcome obstacles thrown in
its path by the leaders of the largest traditional antiwar organizations
of the time who publicly demanded that the nationwide student group
renounce its intention to allow communist and left socialist groups to
take part in the projected protest. They even threatened to boycott the
rally unless their wishes were heeded. To their enormous credit the
students refused, and the subsequent rally excluded no one and included
anti-imperialist as well as pacifist demands.
The huge success of the SDS protest helped pave the way for the historic
antiwar movements that soon followed, movements based on uniting all who
could be united against the war -- from pacifists and anti-imperialists,
to liberals and Democrats, to socialists and communists, to libertarians
and anarchists, to war veterans and GIs on active duty. It took quite a
while, however, before numbers of 100,000 or 200,000 or up to a
million were registered -- numbers that, as they were compounded, helped
to convince those who rule America that there was no alternative to
extrication from Vietnam.
There were many struggles in the anti-Vietnam war movement, between and
within the liberal and left camps, for the leadership and political
direction of various coalitions. There were struggles over the
political demands of rallies, over whether it was appropriate to carry
the flag of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam, over whether to
focus on winning over the politicians or the people, over the extent of
anti-imperialist influence, and continual efforts by some to keep the
reds away. But despite and because of these struggles, a mass movement
for peace and against imperial conquest ultimately prevailed over the
The question before the antiwar forces now is whether they can maintain
and accelerate the incredible momentum of the last year over the next
months and years. Will today's movement be able to delay, deflect or
even halt the right-wing Bush administration's enthusiasm for a "war on
terrorism" composed of a succession of aggressive attacks on various
The movement has succeeded before, but can it do so again under the
quite different circumstances of the Bush-era wars?
For example, the left was large during the Vietnam era, and today it is
relatively small. Similarly the socialist camp that served to restrain
some of the more adventurous aspects of U.S. foreign policy no longer
Also, while the Vietnam War was thousands of miles away, Bush
administration scare stories and propaganda have convinced a large
sector of the American people that their "homeland" is under attack, and
that there is an imminent danger to themselves and their local
communities from a ruthless "Axis of Evil." These may be lies intended
to justify aggression to secure world political, economic and military
hegemony for the U.S., but they are fervently believed by many millions
of Americans. Further, despite a certain recent opposition to aspects
of the "war on terrorism" manifested by a small minority of politicians,
both the Republican and Democratic parties are committed backing
President Bush's war plans.
A major difference in the last quarter-century is the way Washington now
conducts its wars, a product of the Vietnam Syndrome -- i.e., the
disinclination of the American people to support a foreign war of long
duration, with many U.S. casualties and fought by conscripts. Since
Vietnam, the U.S. government only starts wars against small weak
countries lasting weeks or months without significant Pentagon
casualties and fought by a professional army bringing overwhelming
military and technological force to the battlefield.
Another difference is that reporters enjoyed more freedom during the
Vietnam war. They could get to the front lines, interview soldiers,
write about civilian casualties, and assess the situation for
themselves. Today, all war news is funneled to reporters through the
Pentagon/White House propaganda apparatus -- and the huge corporations
that control today's profitable mass media are the last ones to complain
that the government, in effect, is providing their war coverage.
Despite these important differences, however, today's peace movement is
displaying remarkable growth and political sophistication. In part,
this too stems from Vietnam. Millions of Americans were active in
opposing that war. Over the years, many have dropped out or have
decided to support the deeds they once opposed. But many have remained
active in various causes or are returning to peace activism in droves
because they hate militarism and they know an unjust war when it is
shoved in their face. Many also remember the need to fight imperialism
as a key element of the peace struggle and understand that unity and the
efforts of the political left were important ingredients for success.
There are other positive factors, as well. First of all, the left may
be smaller today, but it is experienced and some groups are superlative
at organizing. The movement against corporate globalization and the
neo-liberal free-trade sham perpetrated by Washington has educated
millions of people in recent years, including workers and students. As a
result -- along with the transportation of a large part of industrial
America to low-wage countries and the corporate scandals at home -- that
holy of holies, the free enterprise system, is no longer treated with
quite the veneration of yesteryear. A number of union locals have joined
the antiwar struggle in the last several months, another development
taking place faster than it did in the '60s -- and the national AFL-CIO
is hardly beating the war drums as it did in the past.
A further factor involved in today's movement is that the American
people not only learned from Vietnam but they have not forgotten the
revelations and scandals from the 1970s to today, from Watergate and
Contragate to this year's Corporategate. Today, many people know that
the government lies. They know about CIA dirty tricks. They know about
FBI killings of activists, invasions of privacy and political
prosecutions. They know some of the truth about the U.S. role in
overturning democratically elected governments, about the Pentagon's
"secret wars" and support of death squads in Latin America, about the
deadly effects of economic sanctions, and about how a right-wing
Supreme Court gave the presidency of the most powerful country in the
world to one George W. Bush -- a man they recognize as a liar, as told
in the old joke, because his lips are moving. And "W's" lips are going
rapid-fire these days, selling another war of aggression to the
These conditions appear to be favorable for the continued
growth-to-relevance of the antiwar movement, but that's not all it is
going to take to throw the decisive wooden shoe into Bush's war machine.
The movement being built today must be more open to unity-in-action
between the diverse political and ideological components that compose
the whole. This writer is a supporter of the ANSWER coalition and
wishes it continuing success, but of course there may be two, three,
many large coalitions from the left to the center that are required to
prevent or stop a war. To be effective, they must dispense with
sectarianism and work more closely together. The recent willingness of
ANSWER and the Not In Our Name coalition to support each other's actions
is a step forward.
It is well known that there are wide differences in the long-range goals
of many groups in the antiwar movement -- from electing liberals to
office, to making minor repairs in the present system, to working toward
green democracy, social-democracy, pacifism, nonviolence, spiritualism,
socialism, communism, and anarchism. The issue, however, isn't unity
on the level of ideology but on the common objective of stopping wars
and imperial aggression. The quest to attain final goals is an entirely
different struggle, although it continues from time to time to interfere
with unity among the peace forces.
In this connection, there has been a revival of red-baiting from some
liberal and progressive quarters, an endeavor as counterproductive today
as it was when the House un-American Activities Committee established
itself as the arbiter of political correctness in the United States.
This practice -- and some of it rivals the worst pronouncements of Joe
McCarthy -- is most evident just after ANSWER organizes a successful
antiwar rally. It's been very intense in the last week in one or two
publications and on the internet -- a tribute in an odd way to the
organizers of the largest peace protests in nearly 30 years.
In another area, considering Washington's unilateralist, empire-building
ambitions, any effective movement must contain a prominent
anti-imperialist thrust and an internationalist outlook. This
strengthens traditional peace concerns by clearly identifying the source
of much of the violence and military aggression in the world today.
Finally, we cannot expect immediate results or give way to pessimism
because the struggle is long and progress may be slow. A demonstration
of 200,000 or a million won't end wars right away, but that doesn't mean
activism has failed. It means the process is cumulative, and that
numbers (as well as the appropriate political thrust) really do count.
As such, it must be recognized that street action, rallies, marches,
educational meetings, discussions at the workplace and in school,
speaking up at community meetings and sending letters to the newspapers
are the most effective tactics we have to bring our case to the American
people and our opposition to those who rule the state. Our movement has
hardly any support in the political system and none in the mass media --
so we have to reach to people in our own way. Arguments intended to
debase the importance of demonstrations by suggesting they accomplish
nothing but "preaching to the converted" are not situated on reality.
Every demonstration brings out people new to the struggle and reaches
many more people through and word of mouth, leaflets or media coverage,
scant as it often is.
Given the antiwar movement's great advances in the last 13 months, it
seems entirely possible for it to win some victories in the coming
years, assuming the various groups unify in action, avoid sectarianism,
focus on the real targets, reach out to ever wider constituencies
including the unions, and work ceaselessly to organize for a world free
of war, violence and their blood brother, modern imperialism.
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