Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Tom Engelhardt on the anti-Vietnam War movement

Tom Engelhardt this week in Americans in the Opinion Polls, Not in the Streets TomDispatch.com 03/25/07 addressed a question that Marigolds2 raised here at The Blue Voice earlier this month. That question being, with the Iraq War so unpopular, why aren't we seeing more obvious public protests? As Engelhardt phrases it:

And yet the translation of all this sentiment [today], of these conclusions, into visible action, despite inspirational moments, has generally been less than overwhelming. Yes, in the years since the invasion, there have been a few enormous marches; and yes, there are groups that protest regularly, even heroically; and yes, in cities and towns across the country, protesters have gone out weekly with their signs, sometimes to freezing mid-winter street corners, simply to make a point. Nonetheless, given the extremity of the Bush administration and its acts, it's hard not to wonder why, most of the time, the levels of mobilization have been so relatively weak.
He has some interesting thoughts on this issue, including the notion that people are judging that supporting antiwar organizations like MoveOn.org by contributions is an effective way of making their position known. I think that may be partially true.

But I especially want to call attention to a historical observation he makes that goes so far away from the conventional wisdom that even people reading or hearing it may just disregard it because it contradicts a familiar image:
In the Vietnam era, though few realize this, antiwar sentiment was strongest at the bottom, in the blue-collar world. As Vietnam scholar Chris Appy has pointed out, for instance, a Gallup poll in January 1971 "showed that the less formal education you had, the more likely you were to want the military out of [Vietnam]: 80% of Americans with grade school educations were in favor of a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam; 75% of high school graduates agreed; only among college graduates did the figure drop to 60%." (my emphasis)
Yes, that's what it says. Working-class people, the proverbial "hard hats" in the media abbreviation of the Nixon days, were more opposed to the Vietnam War than were the kind of people who sent their kids to Ivy League schools. Actually, that fact was reflected on college campuses in that the state colleges and universities, who drew a much higher proportion of their students from less affluent families, generally had more active antiwar movements.

Today's Republican "culture warriors" can't afford to recognize this, of course, because they have such a fond image of privileged rich kids becoming dirty hippies and rudely protesting in their spoiled comfortable existence. It's a bizarre kind of "populism" when the OxyContin bloviators of the world can ridicule their opponents as being rich and lazy, all the while pushing policies that will disproportionately (and often exclusively) benefit the idle rich more than anyone else.

But then Engelhardt makes an argument that I've also seen Eric Alterman make, that the fewer the antiwar protests, the better:

Those of us who can use the tumultuous mobilizations of the Vietnam era as a point of comparison - there was even a group called The Mobe then - are certainly aware that this time around nothing comparable has happened. It's crossed my mind that there might even be a silver lining in the disappearance of those large, boisterous prewar crowds, in the fact that, generally speaking, the country seems, in protest terms, strangely demobilized. ...

What largely neutralized the full development of antiwar sentiment among the majority of Americans in [the Vietnam War] era was, I believe, the strength of anti-antiwar-movement sentiment, the visceral reaction of many working-class Americans against the crowds of protestors, against the look of that far wilder moment (and a media that invariably focused its cameras and attention on the wildest-looking of the demonstrators, especially those carrying the flags of the enemy and chanting, "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is going to win"). That visceral dislike for antiwar sentiment, as expressed in the streets, was strongest at the bottom. In other words, in those years, angry feelings about the disastrous war in Vietnam were offset by angry feelings about the most visible of those demonstrating against it.
I think this is both a misreading of historical events and also a misunderstanding of how protests movements work. To start with, the whole idea of a protest is to bring pressure on someone (bosses, war-loving members of Congress, etc.)to do something different than what they are doing. People opposing a war in progress are going to start out as a minority among the public in any country. So part of the purpose of protests, especially early in the process, is to make people aware of the issue by making people aware of the issue and challenge their way of thinking about it.

But the argument that the antiwar protests on the whole were counter-productive seems really far-fetched to me. Yes, active protests polarize and to some extent energize people on the other side. But more and more people came to oppose the Vietnam War. When Congress got restrictions on the war enacted into law in 1973 with Democrats leading that effort, the Democrats increased their numbers in Congress substantially in the next elections in 1974, though obviously the Watergate scandal was a factor. After they passed further restrictions in 1975, the Democrats won the Presidency in 1976. In other words, public opinion moved in the direction of the protesters' view of the war.

Other factors also were present in the "culture war" reaction that focused in part on antiwar demonstrators. like years of civil rights demonstrations and urban riots, the latter of which occurred nationwide after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Rightwing politicians like Ronald Reagan encouraged their followers to see antiwar protesters in the same light as they saw black people whom they feared. All those things have to be taken into account in looking at how the general public viewed antiwar protesters.

Tom Engelhardt is certainly no conservative. But this particular argument that the anti-Vietnam War protesters created more support for the war (or at least made people not oppose it as fast, or as much, or something) reminds me for all the world like the "friendly" advice reformers of any kind always get: "I'm sympathetic to what you want. But if you workers/black folks/women/suffragettes/antislavery/and-so-one advocates go out protesting and stuff and actually stating your opinions in public, you'll alienate people. There'll be a backlash. You'll hurt your own cause."

If all reformers and would-be activists had taken this advice, we would have no labor unions and lots of child labor, no Social Security and lots more poor old people, no anti-discrimination laws protecting minorities but lots of female employees getting fired for becoming pregnant, very few African-Americans in the South voting but lots of whites-only toilets and water fountains.

In fact, if somebody isn't telling protesters they're causing a backlash, then they're probably not protesting about anything of much importance.

Engelhardt adds:

Interesting enough, according to John Mueller of Ohio State University, an expert on the subject, the loss of support the Bush administration has experienced for its Iraqi adventure has followed the same arc as in the Vietnam era (and the Korean War era as well); but, in the Iraqi case, support has eroded far more "precipitously," based on far fewer American casualties and, Mueller wrote back in late 2005, "there is little the Bush administration can do to reverse this decline."

On this he proved correct. If anything, the decline in support seems only to have intensified in recent months, leaping well ahead of equivalent figures for the Vietnam era. Only four years into the Iraqi catastrophe, polling figures match or exceed those for 1970 (perhaps seven years into the Vietnam conflict, depending on how you count) on questions like whether you favor the complete withdrawal of American forces. In 1970, for instance, 56% of Americans thought going into Vietnam had been a mistake, already way below figures for Iraq. In the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, for example, a record 64% of Americans say the war was "not worth fighting."
He links to John Mueller's much-discussed article, The Iraq Syndrome Foreign Affairs Nov/Dec 2005. He opens that article with this observation:

American troops have been sent into harm's way many times since 1945, but in only three cases - Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq - have they been drawn into sustained ground combat and suffered more than 300 deaths in action. American public opinion became a key factor in all three wars, and in each one there has been a simple association: as casualties mount, support decreases. Broad enthusiasm at the outset invariably erodes.

The only thing remarkable about the current war in Iraq is how precipitously American public support has dropped off. Casualty for casualty, support has declined far more quickly than it did during either the Korean War or the Vietnam War. And if history is any indication, there is little the Bush administration can do to reverse this decline.
And he also argues:

This lower tolerance for casualties is largely due to the fact that the American public places far less value on the stakes in Iraq than it did on those in Korea and Vietnam. The main threats Iraq was thought to present to the United States when troops went in - weapons of mass destruction and support for international terrorism - have been, to say the least, discounted. With those justifications gone, the Iraq war is left as something of a humanitarian venture, and, as Francis Fukuyama has put it, a request to spend "several hundred billion dollars and several thousand American lives in order to bring democracy to ... Iraq" would "have been laughed out of court." Given the evaporation of the main reasons for going to war and the unexpectedly high level of American casualties, support for the war in Iraq is, if anything, higher than one might expect - a reflection of the fact that many people still connect the effort there to the "war" on terrorism, an enterprise that continues to enjoy huge support. In addition, the toppling of Saddam Hussein remains a singular accomplishment - something the American people had wanted since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Mueller has a particular need to explain how the Iraq War is supposedly different in how many casualties the US public is willing to support compared to the wars in Korea and Vietnam, because his argument is that opposition to those two earlier wars was driven by the number of casualties.

The notion that the American public is especially "casualty averse" is one that's widely accepted by the officer corps and the foreign policy specialists. But it's a highly questionable one. Because at one level of course normal people, i.e., not neocons or other varieties of Republican warmongers, don't like to see American soldiers getting killed and injured.

But when you start thinking about what made public support for the Second World War different from that in the Vietnam War or the Iraq War, increasing number of casualties could be a false correlation. For one thing, number of casualties is a mathematical quantity. The fact that the President lied like sin to get the war started isn't so easily quantifiable. But the easily quantifiable set of numbers fits into computer models much better.

This whole discussion reminds me of an argument I once had with an economist who was defending the brilliance of an econometic model that predicted the outcome of Presidential elections from economic conditions. I had two main arguments with the model. One was that it simply ignored the enormous amount of polling data with sound methodology in which people state how they voted and why they voted that way. The other was that in its retroactive predictions, it showed that the Vietnam War had absolutely nothing to do with the voting in Presidential election of 1968. Even the most superficial knowledge about that election should be enough to tell the problem with that.

Like I said, it was an economist I was arguing with. I had no chance of convincing him.

This is a topic that intrigues me, so I'm likely to revisit it.

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