Sunday, September 18, 2005

The movement against the Vietnam War

In a recent post, I referred to the surprisingly common view that the antiwar movement against American participation in the Vietnam War was more-or-less completely counterproductive.

It seems to me in looking at the historical issue, several factors need to be kept in mind.

First, protest is protest.  A protest, whether its a letter to a member of Congress or a public demonstration, is meant to create pressure on elected officials, mobilize support for a cause, build an organization and raise the profile of the particular issue, or some combination of those.

A demonstration in particular is not primarily about making the audience feel good.  If the cause is unpopular, its purpose is to get people to be uncomfortable about their complacency or wrong position on the issue.

It's well known in product marketing that an advertisement that upsets people can still be very effective advertising.  If the ad makes people remember the product, remember the ad or even talk to people about what an annoying ad it is, then its most likely very effective.  The point is to sell the product, not to make people like the ad.  Protest politics to a large extent works the same way.

Sen. William Fulbright expressed a similar thought in his 1967 book The Arrogance of Power:

To criticize one’s country is to do it a service and pay it a compliment. . . . In a democracy dissent is an act of faith. Like medicine, the test of its value is not its taste but its effect. . . . Criticism may embarrass the country’s leaders in the short run. . .it may even destroy a consensus on policy while expressing a consensus of values.

Second, the anti-Vietnam War movement was about a lot more than protest marches.  In fact, media images of the 1960s that give the impression that the movement was mostly manifested in large, dramatic marches is grossly misleading.  Even the most successful organizers spent much of their time on slow, frustrating thoroughly undramatic tasks, much of the time feeling discouraged and wondering whether they were really achieving anything.

And the movement took many forms, from "teach-ins" to small-scale actions to publishing "underground" newspapers (the blogs of the day, we mightsay) to resisting the draft to soldiers rebelling against the war in various ways.  Some of the actions were individual acts of conscience or desperation.  Others were aimed and developing systematic opposition to the war.

Third, there's a major contradiction in the Republican narrative about the antiwar movement.  I don't think anyone has ever caught me accusing the Republicans of being consistent in their ideology.  And that's true in views of the antiwar movement of that time, as well.  Some people want to claim it was useless or worse than useless.  On the other hand, the favorite rightwing excuse for the American loss in the Vietnam War is a stab-in-the-back theory, or something very like it.

Claims by some military officers and the Republican Party that the Vietnam War could have been won except for a "loss of will" on the homefront don't stand up to scrutiny.  This notion fits well with Christian Right idolatry toward the military and with the authoritarianism of today's Republican Party.

But that whole excuse depends on the notion that the antiwar movement, in some way or another, was extremely effective in mobilizing public opinion against the war.

Fourth, the accusation that the media undermined public support for the war - also a favorite in the officer corps - does not hold up to scrutiny, either.  This includes the notion, widely shared by those sympathetic to the antiwar movement, that having the war covered by TV made a decisive difference in public support.  I suppose this would be a way that you could reconcile the contradictory ideas that the antiwar movement was counterproductive and that the military was denied victory by the public rejection of the war.  It was The Media that did it.

Only it wasn't.  Somehow the war went from being supported by a substantial majority - as all wars are for at least the first few weeks - to being questioned and/or rejected by a majority.  The widespread activities of the antiwar movement had a big effect on that process.

As much as I respect Harold Meyerson's political analysis - I've quoted him here more than once - I think he's just off-base in what he wrote this summer:  No One to Demonize Washington Post 06/22/05.

In the absence of an antiwar movement, the American people have turned against the war in Iraq. Those two facts, I suspect, are connected.

There was a very real antiwar movement early on. In the months before, during and immediately after our invasion, hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the streets to oppose the intervention. Then chaos, followed by insurgency, enveloped Iraq, and the need for a constable to restore some order became indisputable.

Here he makes a very basic error in effectively defining "movement" to mean demonstrations.  I sure political scientists have spilled barrels of ink trying to define "movement" as a concept.  But however you define it, restricting it to demonstrations is way too narrow.

These figures already match the polling in the middle and late years of the war in Vietnam -- even though that war was fought with vastly higher casualties and a conscript army. In a series of polls taken in November and December of 1969, the Gallup Organization found that 49 percent of Americans favored a withdrawal of U.S. forces and 78 percent believed that the Nixon administration's rate of withdrawal was "too slow." But there was one other crucial finding: 77 percent disapproved of the antiwar demonstrations, which were then at their height.

That disapproval was key to Nixon's political strategy. He didn't so much defend the war as attack its critics, making common cause with what he termed the "silent majority" against a mainstream movement with a large, raucous and sometimes senseless fringe. When Nixon won reelection in a landslide, it was clear that the strategy had worked -- and it has been fundamental Republican strategy ever since. Though the public sides with the Democrats on more key issues than it does with Republicans, it's Republicans who have won more elections, in good measure because the GOP has raised its ad hominem attacks on Democrats' character and patriotism to a science.

Steve Gilliard once suggested that there's something like a battered-Democrat syndrome.  Yes, the Republicans have attacked the patriotism of Democrats more and more.  But was that the fault of the antiwar movement?  Or even of its "large, raucous and sometimes senseless fringe"?  I wish we had such problems today!  Instead, we have a loud, raucous Republican Party and echo chamber, and a war in Iraq that is becoming more senseless by the day.

One of the refreshing things about the reaction to the loss of New Orleans is that we got to hear and see in the mainstream media a lot of real people talking about what a crock the lying Republicans were feeding us about what was happening in the disaster areas and why.  I'm glad to see it myself.  It's long, long overdue.

Again, as much as I respect Meyerson's work and as often as I agree with him, this column reminds me of an old German joke about Germans' puntiliousness in obeying petty rules and customs.  It said, "You could never have a revolution in Germany, because that would require people to walk on the grass."

I think the joke pretty much faded out after the (peaceful) East German revolution of 1989-90.  But its seems that some otherwise sensible war critics here and now are fretting about walking on the grasss.

What, we're supposed to avoid being rude about the administrations lies and, yes, crimes in the Iraq War because... what, some Republican war lover might be put off by it?  People should demonstrate in public - you know, practicing those quaint old rights of freedom of association and freedom to petition the government (the Patriot Act didn't abolish those, did it?) - because it might alienate some of the pro-torture Republicans?  Please.

Finally, John Kerry's 2004 campaign didn't seem at all raucous, senseless or fringy to me.  And yet look at what Rove and the Swift Boat Liars for Bush dumped on him.  Did Cindy Sheehan earn respectful treatment from the Republican war lovers and torture fans for her dignified protest?

Just because the Democrats have been slapped around by the Republicans for 35 years about the Vietnam War doesn't mean that we have to buy their bogus view of history.  So its worth while thinking more carefully about this pseudo-history of the Vietnam War years.  As in the Meyerson article, he cities 77% dispproval of the antiwar demonstrations in 1969.  That figure alone doesn't speak for itself.  And its a leap of faith - or Republican-induced delusion - to go from that to saying, as Todd Gitlin did in the piece I quoted in the earlier post, that the antiwar movement "was hated, in fact—by the end of the decade [the 60s], the most hated entity in America."

Get a grip, people.  The Republicans don't make up alternative versions of history any better than they handle counterinsurgency wars or natural disasters.  I'm old-fashioned enough to think that we can analyze historical events without being bound by present-day propaganda considerations.  If we don't, we turn into Victor Davis Hanson.

But, come on!  Democrats and war critics don't need to help the Republicans out by passing on their propaganda version of the anti-Vietnam War movement.  The Reps have well-funded foundations and various media outlets to do that.  They don't need our help.

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