[Marxism] Hard Hats, Hippies, and the Real Antiwar Movement - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education
andrensath at gmail.com
Thu May 16 19:26:42 MDT 2013
It wasn't for me, but here's the text just in case:
Decades after its conclusion, the U.S. war in Vietnam remains an unsettled
part of our collective memory. Members of the military, veterans, scholars,
journalists, and artists continue to revisit and reinterpret the war,
assessing its historical significance while seeking meaning for wars fought
today. Despite the efforts of our political elites to put the ghosts of
Vietnam to rest, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have prolonged these
discussions. Books and articles with titles like "Is Afghanistan Another
Vietnam?" abound. The economic and political imperatives that drive U.S.
foreign policy, the appropriate use of force, the domestic costs of war,
the treatment and trauma of veterans, whether today's wars are "winnable"
or "worth it"—appropriate or not, those are some of the many points of
comparison and concern.
Yet to some observers, the antiwar movement that quickly emerged (and
faded) after 9/11 was a different beast from that of the Vietnam era. "The
first thing you notice about the antiwar movement is that it isn't your
father's," quipped *New York *magazine in 2005. "It's no longer the good
workers of America against the crazy liberal elitists."
To the extent that our memory of Vietnam remains ambiguous, it underscores
the nagging uncertainty that the United States was left with after that
war. But amid this incomplete accounting, some dominant myths emerged that
continue to hold sway. An important one is a narrative about the antiwar
movement, which informs our contemporary understandings of class politics
as well as of the social sources of support for protest against war in the
The story we tell ourselves about social division over the war in Vietnam
follows a particular, class-specific outline: The war "split the country"
between "doves" and "hawks." The "doves," most often conflated with "the
movement," were upper-middle-class in their composition and politics. The
movement was the New Left, and a big part of what made the New Left "new"
was its break from the working-class politics and roots of the Old Left.
Think of Dr. Benjamin Spock, Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, Eugene McCarthy,
George McGovern, Students for a Democratic Society, Weathermen: students,
intellectuals, professionals, celebrities; liberal or radical privileged
And what of the "hawks"? Beyond the military brass, war supporters are
often imagined as "ordinary" Americans: white people from Middle America (a
term coined in the 1960s), who supported God, country, and "our boys in the
'Nam." They were working-class patriots who insisted that criticism of the
war meant criticism of the soldier. "If you can't be with them, be for
them," as the sign read. Many of these Middle Americans epitomized moderate
middle-class solidity and stolidity, while the workers among them, or
members of the lower middle class, are remembered for having supported
George Wallace and Richard Nixon, and their status as Reagan Democrats was
imminent, even immanent, as early as 1968.
Most accounts of the working class depict them as largely supportive of the
war and hostile to the numerous movements for social change. We need look
no further than the most enduring image of the working class from that
period, a certain cranky worker from Queens, N.Y. The TV character Archie
Bunker, who brought the working class to prime time as white, bigoted,
sexist, homophobic, and yearning for the good old days before the welfare
state, when everybody pulled his weight, when girls were girls and men were
"Hardhats," a stereotype based primarily on construction workers in New
York City who assaulted antiwar protesters at a Manhattan rally in May
1970, were the iconic hawks. The most important working-class institution
in the postwar era, the AFL-CIO, is remembered for being virulently
anticommunist and vociferously pro-war; big labor's embrace of the Vietnam
cause confirmed the image of the working-class patriot who shouts "Love it
or leave it!" at young, entitled hippies.
Working-class opposition to the war in Vietnam was far more widespread than
But this memory of the Vietnam era contains only half-truths, and overall
it is a falsehood. The notion that liberal elites dominated the antiwar
movement has served to obfuscate a more complex story. Working-class
opposition to the war was significantly more widespread than is remembered,
and parts of the movement found roots in working-class communities and
In fact, by and large, the greatest support for the war came from the
privileged elite, despite the visible dissension of a minority of its
leaders and youth. The country was divided over the war, alongside many
other pressing social issues—but the class dynamics of those divisions were
complex, contradictory, and indeterminate.
Many books briefly discuss the discrepancy between our historical
impression of class-based sentiment and its reality. Yet no account
systematically explains why such a misperception exists, its extent, or its
I became aware of this buried history a decade ago, while working to
organize against the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq. In the weeks
following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, trade unionists in
New York City began what seemed to many observers an anachronistic, and
counterintuitive, project: They organized for peace. New York City Labor
Against War was one of the first coalitions nationwide to anticipate the
probability of an armed response from the United States, and it was quick
to reach out to other unions around the country as the war efforts shifted
from Afghanistan to Iraq. The resulting organization, United States Labor
Against War, was formed in January 2003, two months before the United
States began its war in Iraq. Its affiliates drew heavily from
public-sector and service-sector unions but also included diverse other
groups, indicating widespread opposition to imminent war. Pressure from the
organization resulted in early criticism of the war from the AFL-CIO and in
the union's unprecedented passage of a 2005 antiwar resolution, which
called for a rapid return of U.S. troops from Iraq.
I was involved in these efforts and participated in the founding convention
of Uslaw. Over the months that stretched to years—staffing tables, working
on resolutions, and organizing protests, petition campaigns, and other
events—I spoke with fellow labor activists about their experiences within
the Vietnam antiwar movement. They remembered the college students, the
educated and religious pacifists, Eugene McCarthy, and the Weather
But these colleagues, whose days in labor and/or peace politics spanned the
three decades between the wars, remembered more: the high-school kids from
Brooklyn and the Bronx, for whom college was a remote dream, who left
school by the thousands to protest the war; their working-class
communities, which loved their soldier-sons but abhorred the war; the
unions that took out advertisements condemning the war, sponsored
labor-education programs about Indochina, co-sponsored rallies, and started
petition drives; the draft resisters, who were often as concerned with the
class inequities of the Selective Service System as they were with the
immorality of the war itself; the veterans, most of whom had never
protested before, joining and helping to lead the movement when they
returned stateside; the working-class GIs who refused to fight; and the
deserters who walked away.
In many instances, personal experience trumped class experience. Veterans
protested as veterans, Chicanos as Chicanos, soldiers as soldiers. Class
was part of their movement identities, but typically not their defining
Why this was the case can be understood both theoretically and
historically. Broad relative experiences—of power, ownership and labor,
material scarcity and affluence, control and freedom—shape class
categories, along the lines of the classic Marxian concept of class "in
itself," wherein workers are structurally situated as "a class against
capital." Solidarity, in the form of workers' parties and the labor
movement, is built when workers come to common understandings of shared
Yet history provides countless examples in which such a conscious class,
organized, as Marx put it, "for itself," either has not been realized or
has been directly challenged. Workers brought together in similar
conditions of oppression and exploitation also compete against one another
for jobs. Further, cultural, political, and ideological fields codetermine
class formation. Classes are groups that, as a result of their economic
lives and livelihoods, occupy similar structural positions, may* *share
common understandings, and may take similar actions—but they also may not.
Among antiwar protesters who were working-class people in the structural
sense, other collective and movement identities frequently superseded that
of class. That was due in part to the fact that the very category of class
was itself being erased during this period, and particularly during the
post-World War II period directly preceding Vietnam.
It was also because when the media and other powerful institutions conjured
an image of the working class, it was always of white, male,
goods-producing workers. Well before the widespread and more self-conscious
public assertions of white ethnic Americans in the early 1970s, a long
history of segregation encouraged racialized identities among white
workers, even among those who were not necessarily racist. Pervasive
segregation in neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, churches, teams, clubs,
and other places cemented racial cohesion. Appeals to this white identity
characterized much of the politics of the 1960s—certainly, although not
entirely, from the right.
The overheated class-war rhetoric of the Vietnam era helped create an
impression of a chasm between the movement and the working class that
constrained possible alliances and solidarity. Emphasizing the actual class
diversity of the movement and the varied political actions and attitudes of
workers—black, brown, and white—should create an analytical bridge between
what might otherwise appear to be the contradictory expressions of hard-hat
workers raging against antiwar protesters on Wall Street in 1970 and
hard-hat workers actively supporting the Occupy Wall Street protesters in
the current period. They are not now, and have not been, as far apart as we
It is lunchtime on Wall Street. Long-haired, slightly grungy youth are
chanting within yards of the New York Stock Exchange, carrying protest
signs, and shouting for passers-by to join them. A group of slightly older
white men wearing work clothes approaches from the west.
How does this story end?
Until recently, most people would most certainly answer, "Those kids get a
serious beating." But when the Occupy Wall Street protests began, in the
fall of 2011, it played out differently. "God bless you," said a white
track worker standing among an interracial group of his fellow Transport
Workers Union members who were taking a break by the Wall Street subway
station as I passed out fliers critical of the banking giant JPMorgan Chase
& Co. a few weeks after the protests began. "Where is Zuccotti Park?" asked
a group of white, middle-age men and women—from Dayton, Ohio, I was to
discover, autoworkers and at least one nurse.
Over the first months, polling indicated that the Occupy movement had
struck a nerve among nonaffluent Americans, with support outpacing
opposition. The largest and most influential U.S. labor unions endorsed the
protests. On the ground in New York, union delegations from health care,
transit, laborers, city workers and teachers, building services, and others
enthusiastically marched to Occupy Wall Street. And Occupy Wall Street
enthusiastically marched to join postal workers, communication workers, and
even Teamsters, whose flirtation with protesters dressed as turtles during
the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle told a similar tale.
It is easy to say that "things are different" today. The 1960s and 1970s
were far from the 2010s, with protest movements, the labor movement, and
the overall political and economic climate in very different places today
than they were 40 years ago. Most important, the recent protests have
economic grievances at their center. But it would be wrong to see the
present as entirely dissimilar from our past.
What does that mean for antiwar sentiment today? In February 2003, during
the buildup to the war in Iraq, a mass antiwar demonstration—by some
accounts the largest single-day demonstration in history—took place in
cities around the world, including millions of people in the United States.
The antiwar movement was quickly supported by the U.S. labor movement and
organizations of military families, constituencies whose antiwar
participation had taken years to develop during Vietnam. For almost the
entire duration of the war in Iraq, a majority of Americans opposed it and,
for most of that time, supported calls for either an immediate or a
specified end to the occupation. The case could be made that the war in
Iraq was more widely discredited and unsupported in its first two years
than the Vietnam War was in its first 10.
Yet the antiwar movement that emerged at the start of the war was almost
nowhere to be seen a year later. When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, in
April 2004, not a single major protest was called. Similar silences
followed repeated revelations of corruption among U.S. contractors and the
large-scale protests around the world against the Iraqi occupation in 2005.
One striking motif was an early reluctance on the part of some antiwar
groups, such as MoveOn.org, to take positions—like "immediate
withdrawal"—that might alienate "ordinary Americans."
The counternarrative about working-class support for the anti-Vietnam War
movement does not suggest that Middle America would have embraced immediate
withdrawal in 2004, any more than it did during the Vietnam War in 1968.
But "ordinary people" did come to oppose that war, and they did so in a
climate created by an independent and politically diverse antiwar movement.
Class and cultural divides did exist in the antiwar movement of the Vietnam
era, but the specter of that divide was always larger than its reality. The
movements of today appear poised to build on these currents of solidarity
and, perhaps, shake off the legacy of the real and imagined polarization
that has characterized our politics since Vietnam.
On 17 May 2013 13:21, Gulf Mann <gulfmann at gmail.com> wrote:
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