Sunday, May 11, 2008

Remembering 1968: Opposing wars, then and now

Protesting the Vietnam War in Oakland, 1967

The Dissent magazine symposium on 1968: Lessons Learned in the Spring 2008 issue includes a number of contributions. I discussed Michael Kazin's in an earlier post.

Another essay in the group brings up an interesting comparison between public opposition to the Vietnam War in the 1960s and opposition to the Iraq War today.

Dissent editor Michael Kazin Walzer is still worrying about all those scruffy hippies and the left-sectarians who carried Viet Cong flags in antiwar marches. Some people apparently will never get over the faction-fights of those days. I did think this was an interesting fact in his essay, though:

It was opposition to the Vietnam War that filled my time and occupied my mind in 1967 and ’68. I was one of the organizers of Vietnam Summer in ’67 and then of the Cambridge Neighborhood Committee on the War in the fall of that year. The CNC circulated petitions to put a question about the war on the November ballot and, after a number of legal challenges, succeeded in doing that. So the citizens of Cambridge were invited to vote for or against the war, and about 40 percent of them voted against. That was roughly the same percentage that similar campaigns achieved in Flint, Michigan, and San Francisco. Not good enough, obviously, especially since we had chosen the most favorable sites. Look at the results more closely, however, and you will see a far more serious problem with what seemed to us the most obvious kind of left politics.

... In the CNC, we didn't spell America with a "k" and we didn’t wave Viet Cong flags, but some of our allies did, and we never figured out how to distance ourselves from them. Too many leftists in those years believed in the maxim of "No enemies to the left!" And the result was that we made enemies to our right that we didn't need to make, men and women whom we needed to have as friends. (my emphasis)
(For German readers, anti-Vietnam War protesters sometimes used the German spelling "Amerika" on signs or banners.) A couple of fact-checks. For what it's worth, although "Viet Cong flag" was a common phrase and still is (obviously), that was actually a "Viet Cong flag". The flag people like Walzer are presumably talking about would have been the flag of North Vietnam, formally known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV).

On a perhaps less picky point, his comment, "Too many leftists in those years believed in the maxim of 'No enemies to the left!'", is subjective, I suppose, in that he may mean that three or four people taking such a position were too many. But otherwise that statement doesn't make much sense. In a context like that, "left" and "right" get to be pretty darn fuzzy, especially since those who described themselves as "left" in those days tended to distinguish themselves with some passion from "liberals", and vice versa.

I don't know the exact wording of the ballot measures to which he refers. But if we can take those votes as fairly representative of actual public opinion on the war in those locations, in the fall of 2007 in what the organizers apparently considered the three the most favorable venues for such a vote in the country, only about 40% in the fall of 1967 was willing to vote against the war.

If we take spring of 1965, when Lyndon Johnson sent American troops to assume the lead combat role in the Vietnam War, to be the starting point of the war, fall of 2007 was 2 1/2 years into the war. And even the most antiwar cities were showing only around 40% against. At, we can see some comparable nationwide figures from the comparable period in the Iraq War, which would be late 2005.

In a USA Today/Gallup Poll of Oct 21-23, 2005, 29% thought the Iraq War was going "moderately badly" and 28% "very badly". Only 7% said it was going "very well" (the White House/Pentagon position) and 35% "moderately well". Given the barrage of happy-talk from official sources and the wretched coverage of the war by the Establishment press, it really is striking that fully 57% thought the war was going badly.

The ABC News/Washington Post Poll of Oct 30-Nov 2 found 52% agreeing that the US should "should keep its military forces in Iraq until civil order is restored there, even if that means continued U.S. military casualties" with no time period specified on the length of the commitment. While 44% favored withdrawing from Iraq " even if that means civil order is not restored there".

A Newsweek poll of Nov 10-11 found 30% approving of Bush's handling of the war, 65% disapproving. And a Newsweek poll of Sept 8-9 found 46% saying that "the United States did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq" and 49% disagreeing.

While those are perfect comparisons to the 1967 votes Walzer cites, the contrast is striking between the percentage of people in (presumably) the most antiwar cities in late 1967 who opposed the war and the number expressing some kind of rejection of the Iraq War at the comparable period in that war. And that's dating the start of the Vietnam War from early 1965. In fact, a significant number of US troops were present in Vietnam before that, and Vietnam was one of the two main issues in the 1964 Presidential campaign, along with Southern desegregation.

And, in case you're wondering, Walzer basically concludes that the experiences of the "left" (not really defined) in the 1960s was basically ruined by those dang hippies and Vietcong flags.

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"It is the logic of our times
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