The year was 1965. America was fighting in Vietnam. Most Americans accepted the commitment. The antiwar movement was in its infancy. It had begun to pick up steam in 1964, when the draft was instituted, and the emerging New Left was able to use this as the linchpin for waging demonstrations in support of the Vietnamese Communists. On March 17, 1965, the first march on Washington protesting the war took place. It was sponsored by the young Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), still a broad left-liberal coalition, although one whose leaders declined to exclude Communist totalitarians. The SDS leaders invited all groups opposed to the war to attend their march, including not only established pacifist and liberal peace groups, but Communist groups including the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and groups affiliated with the American Communist Party.
Many liberal elders took notice and urged their followers not to participate in the SDS event. In an open letter to the protesters, Irving Howe, Bayard Rustin, and the old-time principled social-democrats, knowledgeable about the pitfalls of alliances with totalitarians, urged that the march be boycotted, despite their own doubts about the Vietnam intervention. No march should be endorsed, they said, nuless it made clear its opposition to “Communist totalitarianism.” The march took place with a scant 25,000 in attendance, and the media generally ignored it. When I. F. Stone, dean of the left-wing reporters, spoke, he gently criticized the many calls by the marchers in opposition to liberals and liberalism. Stone was booed, and followed on stage by the singer Phil Ochs, who proceeded with his biting song, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” which condemned anyone but radicals as part of the problem. It was an auspicious start of a generational radicalism that would soon be called the New Left.
Jump to the present. Our country is not yet at war with Iraq, although the menace posed by Saddam Hussein is becoming increasingly clear. Already, before any troops have been engaged in battle, some tens of thousands of protesters came to our capital last weekend, symbolically gathering near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Without a draft to spur a movement on, a new and virulent anti-Americanism has managed to take hold and produce thousands opposed to the necessary War on Terrorism. And as if they have sought to recreate the sectarian origins of the old anti-Vietnam war movement, the march was organized and led by organizations far more extreme than the 1960s version of SDS. Speakers at the march demanded freedom of Jamil Al-Amin, aka H. Rap Brown, the former head of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in its black nationalist period and the murderer of black cops in Atlanta. They also demanded freedom for Mumia, another self-proclaimed revolutionary and a cop killer. Further, they called for the defeat of Zionism, and naturally, the end of American “imperialism.” It was, the liberal journalist David Corn acknowledged, “a pander fest for the hard left.”
Indeed, the event was organized by the Workers World Party, a Leninist sect with origins in the splinter groups of American Trotskyism that now offers support to Kim Jong-Il and the socialist paradise of North Korea as well as the indicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. Other co-sponsors include the ever more kooky Ramsey Clark, who views the International War Crimes Tribunal as a tool of the West to stop those who oppose the American Empire. At the meeting, Mr. Clark told the crowd that the Bush administration sought nothing less than to “end the idea of individual freedom.” As for Saddam, he was but an innocent victim of American aggression.
Should Americans be concerned that the would-be opposition to war is being led by far-left extremists? They ought to be, since moderates in the movement, though they have no love for the politics of the march’s organizers, see the protest as something positive. Robert Borosage, a mainstream liberal activist, praised what it revealed for “the potential for a larger movement down the road.” In his eyes, the protests will be started by “radical fringe parties” and then get “taken over by more centrist voices.”
Mr. Borosage is wrong. From its small beginnings with the SDS march in 1965, the anti-Vietnam war movement came to be led by a left-wing coalition of radical pacifists, American Trotskyists, and other assorted Communists, who led the many giant rallies under the auspices of an umbrella front group controlled by the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. It was not by accident that those marches became identified with the waving of Viet-Cong flags and cries of “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is Gonna Win.” Not everyone marching favored a Communist victory. But the extremists who ran the marches had as the official slogan: “Bring The Troops Home Now!” This meant, in effect, unilateral withdrawal as distinct from negotiations. The North Vietnamese would have to win.
Unfortunately, the antiwar moderates don’t get it. Their only criticism of the antiwar movement is that is that it will not be able to stop the drift toward war with Iraq. Writing on the website of Mother Jones magazine, Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism at New York University, asserts that this movement “is far too weak and provincial to stop the coming war.” What he seeks to build is a “more substantial antiwar movement,” and he is saddened that the pro-Saddam orientation of the present movement can only stand in the way of that task. Mr. Gitlin is aghast that the present movement is indicative of “the Old Left at its worst,” and he is correct to oppose it.
But what upsets him is that with leadership by the likes of Mr. Clark and the Maoist C. Clark Kissinger, “the antiwar movement is doomed.” What Mr. Gitlin, a centrist radical, implies is that the goals of the movement to stop any planned invasion of Iraq is worthy; the only wrong thing is the movement’s current leadership. If only they stopped comparing President Bush to Adolf Hitler, something Mr. Clark did at the march, then perhaps involvement would be worthwhile.
And that is the great error of the new antiwar movement. They may not agree with Mr. Clark when he says any invasion of Iraq “will be genocide again,” but they, like him, are also opposed to an invasion. Since Mr. Gitlin presents no alternative to invasion for removing Saddam from power, and no suggestion how he can be forced to disarm, in effect his argument leaves Saddam firmly entrenched just as calls for unilateral American withdrawal in Vietnam assured victory for the Viet-Cong.
The moderates, like the extremists, seem to prefer to vent their anger at the danger supposedly posed by the Bush administration, while ignoring the very real danger posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.
This article first appeared in the New York Sun on November 4, 2002, and is reprinted with permission.